Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Spawn of Cthulhu

Cliff and I were talking the other day about how widespread the popularity of H.P. Lovecraft's concepts has become across fandom. Movies, books, comics, video games, television series. All showing the influence of Lovecraft's sense of cosmic horror or just riffing on his tropes. Cliff, ever insightful, noted though that a good many of the younger fans out there might not even know where the tentacled creatures, elder gods, and ancient books of eldritch lore they keep seeing originally came from. They are looking at second, third, or even fourth generation Lovecraft knockoffs.
If you want a good crash course on the development of the so called Cthulhu Mythos (so named by Lovecraft disciple August Derleth) then one of the earliest studies of the mythos, the 1971 book The Spawn of Cthulhu, is an excellent place to start.
The Spawn of Cthulhu is a volume from the almost legendary Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, edited by the late Lin Carter and featuring some of the important horror tales that influenced Lovecraft's writing, one very important tale by Lovecraft himself, and then several stories written by other writers following Lovecraft's lead.
More importantly, the book contains an introduction and notes by Lin Carter, explaining why these stories matter in the history of the Cthulhu Mythos. While Carter's abilities as a fiction writer are often denigrated, most fantasy aficionados agree that he was an important figure as an editor and did yeoman work in getting many of the great classics of fantasy back in to print. When Lin was on, he knew his stuff and Spawn of Cthulhu is, I think, one of his finest moments.
He begins with a short introduction talking about Lovecraft's writing, (Pointing out that of all of Lovecraft's stories only 12 are actual mythos tales.), then presents Lovecraft's story The Whisperer in Darkness. After you've read Whisperer, Lin comes back to show you why this is probably the pivotal Cthulhu Mythos yarn. Within the space of one paragraph in Whisperer, Lovecraft not only mentions much of his own lore, (the Necronomicon, R'lyeh, Great Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, etc) but also his influences, (Hastur and Hali from Ambrose Bierce, The Yellow Sign from Robert W. Chambers, Bethmoora from Lord Dunsany) and then goes on to mention the mythos creations of his friends Robert E. Howard (Kathulos, the Bran Mak Morn cult) and Clark Ashton Smith (Tsathoggua).
But Lin doesn't just tell you. He shows you, following Whisperer with Bierce's An Inhabitant of Carcosa, Chamber's The Yellow Sign, (Complete with notes and quotes from Lovecraft's letters telling Clark Ashton Smith much of what Lovecraft borrowed from each and what Chambers took from Bierce) Robert E. Howard's Children of the Night, and Clark Ashton Smith's The Tale of Satampra Zeiros. He rounds out the collection with stories from 'Lovecraft Circle' members August Derleth and Frank Belknap Long and a latecomer to the game, one of my favorite horror writers, Ramsey Campbell.
Even without Lin Carter's editorial comment, this would be a great collection of Lovecraft Mythos stories, but with the notes it also functions as a textbook. A short history of the Mythos as it stood circa 1971. This isn't one of the super collectible volumes from the BAF series, and often shows up on Ebay and at Amazon at a reasonable price. Grab a copy and read some terrific tales of eldritch horror and maybe learn a few things while you're at it.

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