LOVECRAFTIAN WAYS, WRONG AND RIGHT

by Jeffery Scott Sims

Introduction

I recently reread all of the Lovecraftian pastiches by August Derleth for the first time in… well, a very long time. Interestingly, despite the passage of years, the changing of my tastes, and the enhancement of my knowledge, they initially struck me much the same as they did once upon a time. In simple summation, few of them, whatever their individual merits as stories, captured for me the Lovecraftian aura. In that sense they just didn't feel right, as a rule. Derleth's take on the Master resulted in some redoubtable adventures, and a number of titillating scenes, but it usually didn't inflame that thrill of horror which Lovecraft, with impressive regularity, manages to do.

Then I did something clever: I read them yet again. Now I found my entrenched opinions altering somewhat. There is more to several of these stories than I had been willing to grant. I'm happy to admit this, although my general impression of them, treated as a group, remains the same.

Not that Lovecraft's chief popularizer is alone in this regard; most of those writers who have attempted such pastiche (several of them as august as Derleth himself) seem to compose themselves into the same box. In previous essays I have touched upon this conundrum, but now I wish to develop my ideas a bit more. There is something I look for in Lovecraft and often find; something I seek in others and seldom find; something with which I desire my own stories to be imbued on occasion, the success of which my readers may judge.

Having lately given so much attention to Derleth's tales, I'm going to use an analysis of them as a springboard to critiques of other authors, striving to identify what constitutes the correct Lovecraftian Way: what works, what doesn't; what is allowable, what misses the mark. I will finish by applying the discerned standards or parameters to selected examples of my own literary corpus.

Having completed the essay, I realize it becomes less the answer to a burning question than a map of my own intellectual wandering through thickets Lovecraftian. Go figure! I deal with matters every fan feels, but perhaps none convincingly articulate. At least I'm keeping the best of company.

The Lovecraftian Tales of August Derleth

In this section I shall review, in capsule form, the relevant stories of August Derleth. I employ the texts found in two books: the splendidly collectible tome In Lovecraft's Shadow, published by Mycroft and Moran, a beautiful work with illustrations by Stephen E. Fabian; and The Watchers Out of Time and Others, a sturdy collection from Arkham House.

"The Thing that Walked on the Wind." This tale of Mounties investigating horrors lurking in the backwoods of Canada is a pretty good story, making use of the concept of the "Wind-Walker," borrowed from Algernon Blackwood's "Wendigo." This "Lord of the Winds" is a terrible thing, a gigantic entity with eyes, seen from a distance, appearing in the sky as stars. To behold it is to court death. I rather like this piece, which does possess some Lovecraftian flavor.

"Ithaqua." A sequel to the previous story, it strikes me about the same way. It's a solid ripping yarn, providing more background about the horrid worship surviving in the wilds of Canada. In both cases, Derleth makes clear the difficulty in actually defeating the evil; it may be fought, but not entirely conquered, for we are dealing with elemental beings, arising out of the fabric of the universe, more or other than flesh and blood. There is some Lovecraft here.

"Beyond the Threshold." Combining Ithaqua with Lovecraft's Innsmouth in a Wisconsin setting, this outing utilizes a common theme of Derleth's, handled in a rather pedestrian manner, of young men getting together and involving themselves in the bizarre doings of their elders. It's very talky, with lots of propounded Lovecraftian lore, leading to a fairly conventional, formulaic conclusion. Too many of these follow.

"The Dweller in Darkness." Like this, for one, although a better example of its kind, with similar young men teaming to investigate the eerie disappearance of Professor Gardner in a creepy part of Wisconsin. The body of the story almost sinks beneath the weight of cumulative, "necessary" background material-- truly lore-soaked-- but an inspired climax raises the tale to quite a fine level. Derleth pulls off the Lovecraftian "non-resolution resolution" when he wants to do so.

"Lair of the Star-Spawn." This is a rousing Weird Tales style adventure set in exotic places, with the tidbits of Lovecraft thrown in not amounting to much. It's marred by the oft-mocked business of the Elder Gods and their cohorts riding in at the end to save the day. These efforts function adequately on their own terms-- do okay-- but I can't imagine Lovecraft concocting anything like this.

"Spawn of the Maelstrom." This oddity about a murderous creature dwelling on an island off the coast of Norway contains nothing related to Lovecraft, save for Derleth's spin on the magical "star-stones" that can defeat evil faster than a rabbit is yanked from a hat. Such being the grand conclusion doesn't fire my enthusiasm.

"The Horror from the Depths." This one simply won't do. Aquatic nasties terrorize Chicago, the Lovecraftian lore senselessly sprayed about, with Elder Gods and star-stones aplenty. This tale, plus the two preceding, were co-written with Mark Schorer. Their collaboration doesn't do Derleth justice.

"The House in the Oaks." The truth (sought by two young men) behind what drove mad the poet Justin Geoffrey, locked away with a forgotten skeleton in a creepy old house; now there's possibilities. Derleth's completion of an unfinished story by Robert E. Howard scans very well, with appropriate attention paid to generating atmosphere. Unfortunately not much happens in it, for otherwise I have no complaints about this one. It was finished many years after the other In Lovecraft's Shadow tales, toward the end of Derleth's life.

"Those Who Seek." Here are two more young men stumbling into weird mystery, this time in an ancient English abbey. A fairly standard monster narrative mates with a Lovecraftian air, despite a surprising lack of Lovecraftian references. I rate it higher for that reason.

"The God Box." This minor item concerning a cursed Druidic artifact works well by not trying to do too much. Quickly developing, it creates a burst of fright and stops. It offers, without tedious explanation, the morbid entity "Sho-Gath," a worthy addition to the Mythos pantheon.

"Something From Out There." This is bargain basement fare, about a monster on the loose among the caves and ruins of coastal England. Those tiresome star-stones solve everything, and the introduction of the questing young men (with their long-winded explanations) is particularly clumsy. I can do without this one.

"The Return of Hastur." The presentation of the titular horror, an entity right enough of the Lovecraft school, comes wrapped in a complex haunted house story relating the sad fate of the unoffending Paul Tuttle. Too bad that it also comes drenched in a sticky syrup of Mythos lore, to such an extent as to almost drown the tale. It reads better if one skips past the exposition, which seldom adds to the composition.

"The Passing of Eric Holm." This little nothing of a story about an evil spell gone wrong contains meaningless Lovecraft references and the dread book, Confessions of the Mad Monk Clithanus. This monk had already been mentioned, without merit, in previous pieces as an excuse for explanatory padding.

"The Sandwin Compact." Two young men snoop on their elder, who has Innsmouth connections, until weirdies eat him up. That's it, more of the same; it's "The Return of Hastur," among others, all over again. It's got some spooky stuff, and randomly sprinkled lore.

"Something in Wood." There's a hint of "Pickman's Model" here, a touch of "The Call of Cthulhu," a dose of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," and not much of fresh content. The juiciest bit comes at the conclusion, but I'm sorry to say that the ending is infuriatingly silly. I don't know what Derleth was thinking.

"The Whippoorwills in the Hills." This too derivative story unites setting and lesser aspects of "The Dunwich Horror" with a workable plot more suggestive of "The Rats in the Walls." Taken in isolation, it is an all right tale, but the massive lifting from Lovecraft irks this fan, especially the final line, which reads like an inside joke. I enjoy the quotes from the evil texts, disapprove of the wearying party line chatter. The whole thing feels haphazardly thrown together.

"The House in the Valley." At first blush a retread of the previous tale, it is so incredibly better written that I suspect Derleth, having fixated on a theme, continued to bang away at it until he got it right. Atmospheric, not overwritten-- the Dunwich and Innsmouth connections don't smother the plot-- and the conclusion, homage rather than steal from "The Rats in the Walls," forms a fitting end to a grimly satisfying story. I recommend this for a spooky thrill.

"The Seal of R'lyeh." This is a good, solid story, pulled down by an oddly murky ending which I'm not sure I entirely get. Derleth devises a thoughtful sequel to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," earning high marks for his molding of a romantic sub-plot which actually arises in intelligent fashion from the narrative. Needless to say, there aren't many cases of that in Lovecraftian fiction of the classic era. Derleth achieves it, makes it work. Yet what does the climax signify? I did not expect to finish scratching my head, befuddled.

The Trail of Cthulhu. The final five stories of In Lovecraft's Shadow-- "The House on Curwen Street," "The Watcher from the Sky," "The Gorge Beyond Salapunco," "The Keeper of the Key," and "The Black Island"-- were published as an episodic novel, and may be considered as a unit. It chronicles the endeavors of the mysterious Dr. Laban Shrewsbury to combat no less a terror than the awakening of Great Cthulhu. Although each episode is provided with its own disposable narrator, Shrewsbury is the intriguing star of the story: not just the conventional Lovecraftian scholar, he is to some extent a supernatural force himself, clearly more than human. The individual adventures are typical Derlethian stuff-- battling cultists, escaping monsters, etc.-- but the narrators are an interesting assortment, and the whole thing hangs together pretty well. Not everything works: the lore is troweled too thick, of course, and the introduction of no less a famous personality as Abdul Alhazred is, I say, mishandled; he's more pathetic than scary. Oh, but so much more could have been done with that character!

Rather to my surprise, the much hooted at climax of atom bomb vs. Cthulhu decently serves the tale. The most fearsome weapon man can devise barely checks the oncoming doom, but in proper Lovecraftian fashion Derleth makes clear that ultimate horror has been forestalled, not eliminated. The menace remains, and even the heroes of the novel aren't safe from retribution. It's a strong ending, far surpassing its reputation.

The Lurker at the Threshold. Here I begin to treat the stories collected in The Watchers Out of Time and Others, Derleth's so-called "posthumous collaborations" with Lovecraft. The first, a modest novel, is by far the most ambitious of the bunch, telling of a series of young men who investigate the spooky doings on a Dunwich farm. Unlike the previous novel, the multiple narrators may highlight a problem: the story is way too long for the amount of excitement it delivers, with the first of the three segments the best, the final one quite pedestrian. Several scenes are marvelously atmospheric, but in sum this novel is an over-blown version of shorter stories, such as "The House in the Valley," in which Derleth better deals with the concepts. It is worth a read.

"The Survivor." This flat tale of extended life gone wrong doesn't do anything for me, and the climax is so dully conventional. Despite the shoe-horned references, there's nothing Lovecraftian here.

"Wentworth's Day." Another standard scary yarn, this time of post-death vengeance, that lacks Lovecraft, despite the Dunwich setting. The ending is dopey. Forget this story, and instead look up and relish "The Extra Passenger."

"The Peabody Heritage." Here's another young man (equipped with revolver as so many of them are) investigating the eerie mystery underlying an old family estate. Considered in isolation it's okay, but to those in the know the crudely borrowed elements from "The Dreams in the Witch-House" tend to annoy. There's lots of nasty bits, but nothing new.

"The Gable Window." Young man, dead cousin, creepy house, piles of weird Lovecraftian books; oh dear, I fear getting stuck in a rut. I suppose I'm required to dismiss this one as formulaic, only the notion of the mystical window giving onto alien landscapes, and the back-story presented in the dead man's diary, are handled really well. It does have the aura of Lovecraft about it.

"The Ancestor." All right already: young man, weird cousin, lonely house; I'm afraid we can color in this one by numbers. The climax by dog is lame.

"The Shadow Out of Space." I expect a great deal from a bald-faced retread of "The Shadow Out of Time." Well, I don't get it, but were I unfamiliar with Lovecraft's classic I would appreciate this story a lot more. It has its moments, if one diligently avoids comparison.

"The Lamp of Alhazred." Neither a derivation of Lovecraft, nor even a horror story, this one is simply a gently fantastic tribute to the Master. It's perfectly good for what it sets out to be.

"The Shuttered Room." Another spin on Dunwich and Innsmouth, this tale slides down a well-worn groove to a predictable end. Lackluster best describes it.

"The Fisherman of Falcon Point." Another chapter in the Innsmouth saga, here Derleth transforms Lovecraft's horrors into a bittersweet personal odyssey. As is sometimes the case, the low key approach favors what is otherwise a minor story.

"Witches' Hollow." A school teacher intervenes on behalf of his weird student Andrew Potter, who lives in a weird area west of Arkham with his weird family. This tale of Lovecraftian wizardry and possession by "outer powers" boasts plenty of atmosphere and a dollop of genuine spookiness. This time around, Derleth even contrives to make the star-stones augment the story, a considerable feat. Lovecraft wouldn't have been ashamed by this "collaboration."

"The Shadow in the Attic." Uh oh, one ought to brace for a tedious tale of young man, old family estate, rote hauntings… except that it's quite a good story. All of a sudden Derleth slips the Lovecraft moorings by introducing the hero's intrepid fiancée and a tincture of juicy kinkiness, and in moving beyond the Master's limitations crafts a solid, engaging, and eerie yarn. More of Derleth in this "collaboration" greatly benefits the piece.

"The Dark Brotherhood." This is a crazy story. I've read other takes on it-- it's dumb, or it's meant as parody—but I think it's just supposed to be crazy. So, clones of Edgar Allan Poe prowl the night streets of Providence, heralding a conspiracy for world domination masterminded by the Great Race. The pistol-packing hero finds it all a bit much to handle (especially the oddball miniature weirdies), although he can surely count on his equally nocturnal-wandering girlfriend to back him. Other than a few trappings, don't waste time seeking Lovecraft in this one, but don't fret about it either. "The Dark Brotherhood" is mega-strange and loads of fun, with a killer ending. I loved it.

"The Horror from the Middle Span." As a coda to "The Dunwich Horror," it treads old ground of course, but Derleth manages to make something worthwhile out of this entry, another tale of warlocks and evil survival. He cunningly insinuates the tiny morsel derived from Lovecraft, and keeps the story romping to a strong climax, delivering excellent frights along the way.

"Innsmouth Clay." As with "The Shadow Out of Space," I might have appreciated this one more if I hadn't read the story from which it heavily derives, this time "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." Still, I enjoy the artistic angle: something about a statue that is more than? It's good weird.

The Watchers Out of Time. If intended as a novel, this unfinished tale doesn't get very far, so I can't report much. It has the feel of numerous earlier stories involving young men, old houses, etc., but doesn't come to the point. Derleth sporadically worked on this for years, and from his letters I glean that he may have tired of it. Who knows what he had in mind? It's got an alluring title.

Discussing Derleth

The purpose of this essay is to consider the ways and means of capturing the Lovecraftian spirit, and I will return to that full bore, but first I find it proper-- mandatory, given so much that has been written on the subject before-- to analyze the relevant works of August Derleth on their own terms.

Derleth is a good writer: he composes well, and knows how to tell a story. His style flows easily, making reading a pleasure. He generates interesting plots, and is perfectly competent in maintaining a narrative. I complain of the overuse of certain characterizations (especially those relentlessly nosy young men), but even that is mainly a problem engendered only by mass reading of the whole batch, which is surely the poorest way to read anybody.

Considered on their merits, a lot, perhaps the majority, of Derleth's Lovecraftian efforts are good stories, many of the same engaging caliber as his Solar Pons and traditional ghostly tales. As my summaries indicate, they seem an uneven mix, unlike the stories in those other two categories, of quality pieces and distressingly mediocre attempts. The latter tend to contain too much faux Lovecraft, or read like formulaic, tossed-off quickies, especially among the "collaborations." Yet the best are solid entries in the Mythos canon. The reader who accepts them for what they are-- weird, pulpish stuff-- should come away from perusal reasonably satisfied.

Despite ingrained skepticism, I found myself warming to the stories as I proceeded. Initial reading, after so many years of avoidance, engendered a flat feeling in several cases, but another re-reading (in preparation for this essay) revealed within me a developing fondness. No longer seeking to grind an ax, I simply read for fun, and had fun. Derleth, when in top form, provides sufficient thrills and chills to foster pleasure.

During the re-reading, several of my capsule critiques altered in a more favorable direction. That is not the norm with me. It causes me to wonder if I've been shedding an induced prejudice. Might subsequent scanning of this material offer still more heightened rewards? Certain of these comments I would not have written mere months ago. Some opinions changed during this writing. What would another reading produce in me a few months hence? Maybe I shall visit these stories again down the road, as follow-up. My current views might best be understood as work in progress.

Okay, there's that; but what of the Lovecraft connection? Here I admit, as have so many others before me-- with hostility or sorrow-- that we're on rockier ground. There's something, by and large, that I'm not getting from these stories: let's say the frisson, the intensity of the classic Lovecraft experience, that I want to surge out of them like the mad telepathic waves of Great Cthulhu's thoughts. I can tell immediately, in most cases, that the Master didn't write these.

I am also required, by a kind of literary law, to argue that Derleth's worst fault is his introduction of those infamous elements making up what is styled the Derleth Mythos-- the Elder Gods, the war between good and evil, and so forth-- except, to my enormous surprise, that supposedly anti-Lovecraftian material seldom degrades the stories. Putting aside the very few "ride to the rescue" climaxes, and those tiresome star-stones, nothing intrinsic to Derleth really removes his work from the Lovecraft orbit. His creations prove generally compatible with Lovecraft's narratives, if not with their underlying philosophy.

All right, now to the point: where does Derleth go wrong? Properly, the question should be: how does Derleth fail to capture the essence of Lovecraft? Despite much deep pondering, my answer is laughably unoriginal. I detect three critical deviations from the meta-Lovecraft approach: 1) overuse of background lore; 2) emphasis on narrative over atmosphere; 3) less intense style.

1. You've heard it before, and boy so have I, such that I recite it from cue cards: Derleth can pile on the explanatory lore to the point that it chokes the story. Especially in his earlier pieces (though The Trail of Cthulhu continues this unwelcome facet), Derleth too often submerges his readers in an oily pool of exposition that leaves little for the action of the story to reveal. This textbook approach isn't scary, which obviates the main purpose of the tales, if they are intended as Lovecraftian horror stories. This is a big deal. When Derleth restrains himself, more of the Master shines through. This recurrent problem reminds me of At the Mountains of Madness, the single case in which I feel Lovecraft himself goes too far. "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Shadow Out of Time," and "The Haunter of the Dark" are much better models in this regard.

2. From my reading of Derleth's genre fiction, I conclude that he is a story-teller first, a spinner of yarns, only second a fabricator of atmosphere, the heightening of which so vivifies the tale of horror. Derleth's stories tend to constitute a succession of events, Lovecraft's a succession of moods. To confess, even as I write the words they strike me as ridiculous; Derleth paints many atmospheric scenes, while of course Lovecraft tells tales. The Master, though, maintains his moods, while the disciple, in his Mythos works, often doesn't. Could this simply be another way of restating point #1? Derleth's atmospheric lapses in these stories may, oddly enough, chiefly derive from the imparting of Lovecraftian lore as if the mere recitation were inherently frightening. It isn't, whether piled on thick or just dotting the surface of the cake.

3. Following in the footsteps of Lovecraft is risky, inviting cruel comparison, a big reason being that no one can match the Master's style. To be fair, history suggests that they shouldn't try. Lovecraft's complex, ornate compositional methodology works for him-- via some sort of evil magic he makes it work-- but it doesn't for hardly anyone else. Practically every attempt to reproduce it fails. Derleth attempts it too often, and that counts against him. Those cases in which he virtually copies his mentor are particularly painful; the contrast glares like a spot light. The best examples of the Derleth Mythos avoid this pitfall. A confusing conclusion: that style matters, but pastiches are better without it.

Breeding in the Outer Spheres

Given the ferocious attention paid to Derleth's stabs at Lovecraftian writing, one might assume he constitutes a freak case, but examination of the works of other authors operating under the vast umbrella of the Cthulhu Mythos reveals similar patterns: a bunch of stories, many of them worthy, which nevertheless regularly betray the weaknesses discussed above. Derleth isn't alone; in fact, he is more the norm, for good or ill. To this day, there is only one Lovecraft.

For all the sneering of past decades, Derleth's tales in the Lovecraftian vein often surmount the efforts of his contemporaries. I will not launch into a gigantic disquisition into the arcana of the Mythos; there's too much of it, and I'm not as versed in it as some. Still, I've read plenty, and at my fingertips I have the works of three authors who I say contribute something valuable to literary Lovecraftian addenda. I'll try to explain how each of them has written something that stands out from the crowd.

Frank Belknap Long

Very early in the chronicles of the Cthulhu Mythos-- before there officially was such a thing-- this young colleague and pal of Lovecraft's whipped out a couple of short stories that still possess enduring worth. "The Space-Eaters" and "The Hounds of Tindalos," while they can be picked at for various reasons (especially the unintentionally hilarious diary entry in the latter tale), manage to achieve a level of creepy weirdness forming a fine tribute to Long's mentor. Placing the stories in temporal context, I think I see how Long derives his strength. At that stage Long avoids the copying snare, because there wasn't much yet to copy. His pieces aren't overburdened with lore, because most of that hadn't been written yet. As frequent conversationalist and correspondent with the big man, Long (at least fleetingly) dwells on eerie ideas and atmosphere rather than the literary accouterments. His stories benefit mightily from this, transcending fannish imitation. Indeed, "The Space-Eaters" actually reminds me, in parts, of Blackwood's "The Willows," Lovecraft's favorite tale of horror. If this be deliberate, here is more evidence of Long concentrating on Lovecraft's views instead of Mythos "requirements."

Robert Bloch

Bloch put out a number of stories with a Lovecraft connection. He famously bookends "The Haunter of the Dark" with two of his own, "The Shambler from the Stars" and "The Shadow from the Steeple." Unfortunately-- I hope this isn't heresy-- I don't care for either of these, but Bloch more than compensates with this next one. "Notebook Found in a Deserted House" is my favorite Mythos short story not written by Lovecraft; I like to call it the best Lovecraftian tale not written by the man himself. Blessed with more humanity, he could have composed this. Well written, atmospheric, enthralling from the first paragraph, with just enough background lore to inflame morbid curiosity, it strikes the right chords all the way, avoids the common faults, and rushes headlong to a devastating finish. Bloch accomplishes all this, while maintaining his own literary voice throughout, with never a weak moment. So hard to do, apparently, yet Bloch proves it can be done. Bloch wrote a great deal, much of which I haven't read. I wonder if I'm missing more jewels from him.

Fritz Leiber

Another correspondent of the Master, Leiber occasionally writes of Lovecraft and Lovecraftian themes. I'm familiar with his short piece, "The Terror from the Depths," which is okay, if in my book just "another one of those" (by the way, all the Mythos stories mentioned in this section are gathered in Arkham House's Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos); I most remember it for the squalidly vile death of the hero, too reminiscent of Walter Gilman's irrelevant end in "The Dreams in the Witch-House." It's good to know that Leiber can do much better. He is the author of that rarity, a satisfyingly Lovecraftian novel. I refer to Our Lady of Darkness, a fairly late work which attains thrilling heights of paranoiac fright despite being a bag of pluses and minuses.

The novel is a dangerous weapon in the hands of a Mythos author, often turning on its creator. At times Leiber's attempt reads like an overblown short story; it has too many characters, too much pointless chatter; but when running on all engines it scares splendidly. The notion of monstrous powers, of evil sorcery lurking within the very fabric of modern civilization is a grand idea, one which I imagine Lovecraft would approve. Despite the constant Lovecraftian references, Leiber devises his own background lore, which he weaves into the tale with a sure hand, structuring the horrid revelations like the clues in a proper detective story. I can see Solar Pons investigating this case. Also, I discern a resemblance to the successful revelatory format employed by Lovecraft in "The Call of Cthulhu." It may be wise to bear in mind that aspect of the best Mythos stories.

Side Note

Speaking of Lovecraftian novels, I ought to include further discussion of Basil Copper's i>, which ranks with the best of the foregoing, and almost accomplishes the impossible: delivering an other than ridiculous imitation of Lovecraft's style. I have analyzed that work at length, however, in previous essays, and I direct interested readers to those, and to Copper's novel, recently republished.

Lessons Learned

At the end of the day it all seems simple, basic, obvious: the Lovecraftian tale stands or falls on its ability to inspire "pleasing terror," and the keys to that are a weird, well-honed plot marinated in spooky atmosphere, at least spiced with dashes of an appropriate style. That's all folks; I derive nothing else from anything discussed to this point, nor do I have anything to add. That makes it sound easy, but we all know it isn't. August Derleth, and all the great names of post-Lovecraft horror fiction, have tried it, often repeatedly, yet seldom get it right. Take the best of Derleth's described above, throw in the handful from others I name, supplement these with a few more that in my ignorance I've surely left out, and we still have a paltry sum. It's infuriating. What is the problem?

Really, I've come to believe there isn't one, because all these apparent difficulties mainly stem from judging writers by the extent to which they "become" Lovecraft, rather than appreciating their works as being penned within the genre largely invented by Lovecraft. Mythos stories need not be retreads of the Master, any more than other varieties of horror tales must be "like" Poe or "like" M.R. James. Much critical ire dissipates if one allows that different authors have different ways of operating within a given tradition. On their own terms, most of them do pretty well, once and a while.

I will not ignore, however, the requirement for a horror story to horrify. On this issue, many writers (Derleth being the popular example) trip themselves up by their own desire to become Lovecraft, and in pursuing the fetish of getting the nuts and bolts correct fail to alarm the reader as they should. A scary tale that doesn't scare is a loser, regardless of anything else.

Having manufactured a number of Lovecraftian tales myself, I won't critique them here-- that's their readers' job-- but I will describe how I've produced them. Never have I devised a conventional Mythos story, with any traditional trappings; early on I figured that wasn't the way to go. For me, Lovecraft's inspiration stems from the concept of vast, cosmically supernatural entities or forces underlying existence, or beyond existence as commonly understood. Indifferent or malevolent, these powers surpass human ken to such degree that they can never be fully grasped. This being so, I haven't concocted much lore of my own. If one pieces together all the hints incorporated in the various Professor Vorchek tales, or those of Jacob Bleek, Sterk Fontaine, the dark fantasy annals of ancient Dyrezan, plus a few one-off bits, it may be possible to allude-- Heaven forfend!-- to a kind of Sims Mythos, but granting that, it is a remarkably unstructured mythos, without any serious sort of categorization, at times deliberately contradictory. Each tale is meant to receive just enough lore to provide some internal logic to the events recounted.

Lovecraft has his "props" supporting his master works, and to a lesser degree I have mine. I match his Necronomicon with my Black Book of Jacob Bleek. My Xenophor bears a murky resemblance to his Azathoth. He engineers a weird New England setting with its own secret history, while I've done something similar with Arizona.

Most of my stories of this kind, I note in retrospect, involve a type of key-- book, mysterious artifact, strange place-- that acts to open gates leading to the Lovecraftian weirdness beyond. Those few tales aside in which cosmic horrors pop from nowhere, it's always this way. In this I'd say I follow lines laid down by Mythos tradition, and frequent in Lovecraft's work.

Here, perhaps, a striking deviation from the Master: many of my tales, far more than I might once have predicted, star characters I may generically describe as "occult experts." Of course uniquely knowledgeable sorts crop up in Lovecraft's stories, but he isn't fond of recurring characters, whereas I obviously am, and my gang tend to know a thing or two. Vorchek the modern scientist, and the scoundrel Fontaine to a degree; Bleek the medieval wizard; Lords Morca and Nantrech, sorcerers of lost Dyrezan; to varying extents they bring arcane expertise to bear on the terrifying menaces they confront. I assert that this character-driven technique causes no intrinsic harm to the quality of the Lovecraftian tale. The danger lies in fashioning a protagonist so clever that he annoys, like many a scientist hero in a 50s Sci-Fi movie; you know, that one guy who has all the answers to every conceivable question on every possible topic, such that things go wrong only when the dopes ignore him. Recognize him? I have tried to keep my distance from that fellow.

Lovecraft unites science and magic in an at times uneasy, always delightfully unsettling amalgam, and I have charted the same course in several of my tales. Although he himself, in a couple of great stories, pushes the envelope toward pure science fiction, I think it's the wild mixture of that with hard-hitting horror that marks the classic Lovecraft gems. The combination suits me, even in the case of Professor Vorchek with his odd home-made machines.

In describing my own efforts, am I then finally uncovering the proper approach to Lovecraftian literacy? What folly to claim that! It is my way, nothing else, and in realizing that I come to understand those famous writers who have gone before. They had the same idea about themselves.

Conclusion

Again taking stock, now considering my own works with those of my gigantic peers, I am slightly mortified by the inability to devise a set of coherent rules that reliably separates wheat from chaff. If I thought in the beginning to discover amazing insights, I have failed.

The points made in the previous sections hardly condemn anybody (from me more condescension than scorn), certainly don't cast them from the ranks of the Lovecraftian. Should I put by the legions of fervently toiling Mythos writers, including the biggest names in the field? I do, but only when they forget to scare me. When they conquer that hurdle I grant their merits, despite styles or philosophies that differ from Lovecraft's (or mine). Ah, but surely I may safely shun August Derleth, that being the "politically correct" thing to do. Even there, however, I don't find an easy out. Strip away the "over-lored" pieces, and the hastiest of the "collaborations," and I discover that Derleth produces competent tales in this vein, on par with the works of his contemporaries. I really do enjoy some of them.

My own stories make use of elements routinely employed by Derleth and his ilk, and I like mine just fine! Therefore, I simply can't be too harsh about this stuff. Each writer has his techniques, and he performs the job his way, pleasing some but not others. Those who give me the creeps win my vote every time, regardless of imputed violations of canon.

To this day H.P. Lovecraft stands alone. His art can not be reproduced, any more than the art of Michelangelo. That much I have learned. The best attempts at Lovecraftian or Mythos writing will be good approximations, which had better be good enough, because we will never do better. He who beats Lovecraft at his own game will have created something unique in itself, precisely as the Master did.


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