Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The New Arrival: The Cthulhu Mythos

So, I finally broke down and ordered a book that I'd had parked in my amazon queue for three years or more: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE CTHULHU MYTHOS (publ.2008). I've long been fascinated by the phenomenon of the Mythos, finding it far and away the most interesting thing about Lovecraft's work, and was surprised to find Joshi writing about the Mythos, given his previous disparagement thereof.

From what I've read so far the book's main value for me is in Joshi's giving the date when Lovecraft wrote each story described; this is useful in getting a sense of the development of his career, and the point at which specific ideas entered (this latter point being the main reason I'm reading the book). Joshi's judgments of the stories' merit or otherwise are typically idiosyncratic. In essence Joshi divides said stories into "the Lovecraft Mythos", of which he approves, and "the Cthulhu Mythos", which he does not. Given his years of working on Lovecraft, it's disconcerting that at one point he summarizes the plot of THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH, and gets it wrong.*

For the sake of determining whether a story is or is not part of the Mythos, Joshi singles out several iconic features that tend to distinguish Mythos tales, noting that not all need be present in each story: "fictional New England topography" (Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth), forbidden tomes (the NECRONOMICON), extraterrestrial god-like entities, cosmicism, and (sometimes) a scholarly narrator (p.16–18). I'd drop 'cosmicism' from the list but otherwise think this is a sensible approach.

For Joshi's critique of said stories, by Lovecraft and others, he lays down several principles by which to judge each individual story (p.12):
"intrinsic literary merit"
"skillful and effective prose style"
"competence in the execution of the plot"
"non-stereotypical characters"
"a . . . distinctive message about human life and the cosmos"

This list is of particular interest because I find Lovecraft's work distinctly lacking in just those features. I enjoy reading Lovecraft's stories the same way I've come to enjoy Godzilla movies, but don't think either transcends the category of pulp fiction. Joshi, however, sees a literariness that doesn't register for me. So reading his book I do get to see HPL's work through his eyes, albeit somewhat skeptically.  We'll see if he wins me over as I continue to make my way through the book.

--John R.
--Little Rock Clinton international airport.

*Joshi writers "Randolph Carter seeks to confront Nyarlathotep and demand the return of the 'sunset city' of his dreams" (p.44).  In fact during his quest to find "the mild gods of earth" Carter takes great pains to avoid the Other Gods in general and Nyarlathotep in particular, correctly guessing that this would spell disaster.


Magister said...

Updated last year under the title The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Paul W said...

It is fascinating the way Lovecraft's work was pushed so heavily by Derleth, colored by Derleth's agenda, and now Joshi pushes it while pushing his own agenda, and the agendas are somewhat opposite of each other. Lovecraft is a sort of literary tabula rosa, reflecting to the reader what he or she most wants to find.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Magister
Thanks for the update.
A little online jiggery pokery suggests that for the new edition Joshi added a ten page section refuting someone who's disagreed with some of the original book and had come to Derleth's defense. There's also apparently an added final chapter that covers newer releases in the Mythos that had come out since the first book's completion. All in all, I think reading just this edition shd do it for me.
Oh, by the way, check out the new arrival (see my next post)


John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Paul
I take your point, but think that attempts to absorb and re-direct Lovecraft haven't been that successful because his work isn't in fact a tabula rosa but has a highly distinctive flavor all its own, much harder to emulate that it at first seems. The same is true of C. A. Smith and (a good way down the literary scale) Rbt Howard. I think Joshi's sincere and sustained efforts to have Lovecraft seen primarily as a great thinker hasn't taken any more than Derleth's Xianization did.

I wonder who the next person or group to seize upon, and attempt to claim to be the proper interpreter/spokesman for, HPL will be.

--John R.

Paul W said...

Very true, especially the Lovecraft is harder to imitate than many think. :) I find it interesting that you rate CA Smith higher then Howard. I only recently read his work in a serious way, prior to this I just read some of the Averoigne tales due to Castle Amber, and the Maal Dweb tales because of his old Giants in the Earth entry. But starting last fall I listened to the _Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith_ and I was pretty blown away by his tales. Some of them were very repetitive but overall I just loved them.

I'm not sure I rate him more highly than Howard, however. I think they were fairly even, though Howard has a more pulp, magazine style - CAS seems far more esoteric.

I wonder if Joshi sees Lovecraft as a sort of anti-CS Lewis?