Make Fiction Scare Again: beyond Lovecraft

Any horror list will probably have Lovecraft on it. Basically something along the lines of, “Hey, go read Shadow over Innsmouth” or “You know, Dreams in the Witch House really holds up!” We could do that. But we’re not going to.

After the jump, Dreams in the Witch House really does hold up, but…

Tom Chick: The Hastur Cycle, by Chaosium Press
I don’t think Lovecraft was a very good writer. He had quite an imagination, to be sure, but he didn’t exactly have a way with words. It can be a chore reading his stories. That said, we’re all indebted to him for the mythos he spun out. “Lovecraftian” is, to me, a far more evocative hook than “by H.P. Lovecraft”.

But Lovecraftian mythos is a sprawl. The ideas are similar, but the expressions can vary by whichever Lovecraftian god you’re talking about. Cthulhu out in the Pacific, Shub Niggurath back in the woods, Nyarlethetop in ancient Egypt, Azathoth in outer space, Hastur wherever the heck he’s supposed to be. When Lovecraft writes about them, they’re often a tangle, sometimes prominently featured, sometimes barely mentioned. And they live well beyond — and sometimes even before — Lovecraft himself. So this Halloween, consider taking up a single thread from that tangle to follow it.

A game company called Chaosium has done just this with a series of books, each a collection of stories about a specific Elder God. I ran into these when I wanted to find out more about Ithaqua, a dude who’s barely even mentioned in Lovecraft. He’s some sort of North American wendigo thing who can fly and he has red eyes. Thanks, Wikipedia. Not much by way of context there, much less flavor. So I started poking around, looking for how this guy became a thing if Lovecraft wasn’t really into him. How did Ithaqua become part of Lovecraftian mythos?

That’s how I found The Ithaqua Cycle, Chaosium’s collection of short stories that answers that question with a century of fiction and a dozen different authors. Very helpful. Although even after reading it, I’m still not that impressed with Ithaqua. He seems to fly people around and then drop them. Pfft. Nothing an airplane couldn’t do.

The one I really enjoyed was The Hastur Cycle. Hastur is one of the more vague Lovecraftian gods, relating somehow to the King in Yellow and some freaky winged aliens from Pluto that transplant your mind into a jar. But Hastur himself and the King in Yellow are not Lovecraft’s creations. They had been around for a couple decades by the time Lovecraft developed his pantheon. We recently saw the King in Yellow in True Detective (well, didn’t see him, to be precise). But going way back, his appearance in Robert Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations” from 1895 is a fiendishly funny take on a modern psychopath. The Hastur Cycle is a collection of the ways Chambers and 12 other authors have given him form over the years. Including one by Ramsey Campbell, which perfectly illustrates something Chris is about to point out.

You can get Chaosium’s cycle collections for Hastur, Ithaqua, Tsathoggua, and Nyarlathotep. There isn’t one for the big guy himself. The last thing Cthulhu needs is more exposure.

Chris Hornbostel: The Faces at Pine Dunes by Ramsey Campbell
Cold Print/Pine Dunes
The career of British horror author Ramsey Campbell is pretty fascinating, not least of which because it started so early and has lasted so long. Campbell was just 16 when Lovecraft’s own correspondent and champion, August Derleth, took the young writer under his wing, publishing Campbell’s first halting attempts at creating Lovecraftian fiction. If for no other reason than he gives us a straight line of descent back to the reclusive writer who created the world of Cthulhu and Great Old Ones, Ramsey Campbell is worthy of study.

Campbell’s 1960s work in the realm of Cthulhu is a rough read at best, however. I assumed the author’s own dismissals of his teenaged attempts at imitating a style were exercises in self-deprecation. They’re not; even readable early Campbell stories like “The Inhabitant at the Lake” feel stilted and derivative of better stuff from the original source. Like Tom, I have strong reservations about Lovecraft’s writing, but it is open lengths ahead of Campbell’s early imitations.

What’s great about Ramsey Campbell though, is his long career and prolific nature lets us see a progression of development across a career arc. At the end of the 1960s he published a story called “Cold Print” that became one of his biggest early successes. In the years before that story and with the encouragement of Derleth, he’d adapted the Lovecraftian mythos to his own needs. He moved them across the Atlantic, placing them in the fictional town of Brichester while also bumping them up out of the 1920s and into modern times. “Cold Print” is a culmination of that evolving style, a story finally as good as anything Lovecraft wrote. It offers a thrilling promise of so much more to come.

But then Campbell backed off. August Derleth, who’d coached and edited Campbell’s work, died suddenly in 1971. Perhaps as a direct result, Campbell himself spent the 1970s pulling back from Cthulhu. There was little, if any Lovecraft in his writing during this decade. He was in his 20s, and clearly (and understandably) wanted to establish some bona fides as a writer who was his own man, not beholden and shackled to that eldritch universe.

All of which brings us to Campbell’s return to all things Lovecraftian with 1980’s “The Faces at Pine Dunes.” The author must have been 30 or so when he began writing it, and it shows. “Pine Dunes” is all about post-adolescent ennui and rebellion as seen from the eyes of someone who’s recently emerged from that fog and entered adulthood. There’s a particular passage in which Michael, the story’s protagonist is bored. His actions–opening and closing a compact chess set and flipping through the pages of books he’d already read–are as evocative of twentysomething restlessness as any lyric any punk rock song of that era could muster. “Pine Dunes” ties in contempt for parents, the enticing lure of drug culture, and the pure power of libido into a tale that is both of its time and timeless all at once.

I promised you Lovecraft, though, and “The Faces at Pine Dunes” is very much that as well, a triumphant return of a newly confident and skilled author to his roots. I’ll not spoil things within the story, but there’s more to the trailer park community in Pine Dunes than originally meets the eye. Something is out there, and someone’s helping it manifest. The thrill of this story is seeing recognizable cultural touchstones (LSD, dance clubs) and elements of pure Lovecraftian construction (haunted dreams, puzzling old manuscripts, and a wilderness that has evil intent more than natural beauty). These pieces not only sit side by side, but work together perfectly. It’s as if Campbell had invented the Cthulhu mythos himself on the spot for just this story.

This story, and other modern Lovecraftian tales of Campbell’s are collected in his seminal 1980s anthology, Cold Print, which is a must-read for lovers of Lovecraftian fiction. Sadly, Cold Print is an apt title, as that book has been in and out of print for the past three decades but remains thankfully easy to find from resellers. “The Faces at Pine Dunes” is recycled fairly often though, most recently appearing in Cthulhu 2000, a various authors collections of modern mythos stories.

You can read The Faces at Pine Dunes on your Kindle in the Cthulhu 2000 anthology, available from Amazon. There are physical copies of Cold Print available also available from Amazon resellers.

Tomorrow: the smaller ones are more dangerous
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