Sunday, July 8, 2018


So, here's a thought.

I was re-reading Lovecraft's THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS and came across one of those passages that effectively serve as info dumps of the Mythos.

In the story, Vermont farmer Henry Akeley, who has first-hand experience with the Mythos, tells what he knows in a letter to Miskatonic professor Albert Wilmarth, who knows a good deal about such things second hand, from reading the books there in his university's library. Here's how Lovecraft's Wilmarth describes the exchange:

. . . a terrible cosmic narrative derived from the application of profound and varied scholarship . . . I found myself faced by names and terms that I had heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connections—Yuggoth, Great Cthulhu, Tsthoggua, Yog-Sothoth, R'lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Hastur, Yian, Leng, the Lake of Hali, Bethmoora, the Yellow Sign, L'mur-Kathulos, Bran, and the Magnum Innominandum . . . worlds of elder, outer entity at which the crazed author of the Necronomicon had only guessed in the vaguest way


I'd always thought of THE NECRONOMICON more as a grimoire than anything else--that being the use Wilbur Whateley puts it to in THE DUNWICH HORROR. But Wilmarth's description makes me wonder: what if THE NECRONOMICON were more like a collection of stories (think Ovid)?  Most of the items in Wilmarth & Akeley's list have a story devoted to it, either by Lovecraft himself, or one of his friends and correspondents, or one of the writers of a previous generation from which HPL directly borrowed. What if we were to think of THE NECRONOMICON as a compilation of stories? Thus WHISPERER is the Yuggoth tale; CALL OF CTHULHU the story about Great Cthulhu and Rl'yeh; DUNWICH HORROR the tale where we learn about Yog-Sothoth; DREAM-QUEST the Nyarlathotep tale, and so forth. The middle part of the list allude to works by writers of the generation before Lovecraft, still alive and writing when Lovecraft was beginning his career: Bierce (Lake of Hali), Chambers (The Yellow Sign), and Dunsany (Bethmoora).

The analogy's not perfect  --so far as I know there's no story about Yian, or some of the other more obscure items towards the end of the list. And the chronology's all off. But it's still striking, and Lovecraft deliberately left some things vague so he cd add to or adjust elements in the Mythos as needed for later stories. The Mythos was open-ended, and to some degree self-contradictory, like a real mythology.

For instance, in what way might Bethmoora come up in Akeley and Wilmarth's pooling of their knowledge? The best way for them to have learned the legend of what happened to this city is to hear it from a deranged cultist (Akeley) or read it in an Arkham book (Wilmarth). And that legend would closely correspond to the actual tale written, and published, by Dunsany (in A DREAMER'S TALES, 1910).  For another example, if a fictional character reading about The Yellow Sign in the NECRONOMICON is learning pretty much the same story as a real-world reader reading Chamber's tale "The Yellow Sign", then the closest approach we can make to replicating the contents of THE NECRONOMICON is to compile an anthology of the relevant tales.

At any rate, that the idea I'm currently playing around with, musing over and seeing where it goes.

--John R.

UPDATE (Th.7/12-18)
My friend Charles N. (hi, Charles) points out in an email that Snorri's PROSE EDDA sounds a better match for Alhazred's NECRONOMICON: cryptic poems with explanatory background added. He further suggests that

many, if not most, of the 'authentic' quotations from the Necronomicon 
were in fact poetry in the original Arabic, but only survived as prose 
in the successive Greek and Latin translations.

We do know there's at least one "chant" in the book, referred to as such by Wizard Whateley (in THE DUNWICH HORROR) as lacking in his damaged copy.



Wurmbrand said...

I wonder how many "Cthulhu Mythos" stories "matter."

First, are there any stories by authors other than Lovecraft that give a well-realized literary experience well worth having, for the reader of weird fiction?

And, second, of Lovecraft's "Mythos" stories, which ones really matter? At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Out of Time, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Whisperer in Darkness, The Call of Cthulhu, perhaps one or two others. (Certainly "The Colour Out of Space" is an impressive tale -- I would say it's probably his best -- but I don't know that it's a "Mythos" story.)

But if you have read these stories, what is to be gained other than a pleasant use of similar materials if one reads some of the others? I'm not thinking simply of Mythos "lore" but of an imaginative experience. Aren't the others basically tryouts for what's done better in later stories, or recyclings of what was earlier done better? I don't mean that, say, "The haunter of the Dark" isn't an entertaining story; but I suppose many readers will agree that it doesn't seem to be a fresh and imaginatively engaging story of the caliber of Mountains. If one has read the ones I mentioned, isn't that enough? Isn't whatever the "Mythos" is good for, quite thoroughly realized in those?

I'm reminded of the old TV series The Prisoner. There were 17 teleplays. Really, only a third or maybe a half of them "matter." You would have a more impressive series if some of the others hadn't been made (though they may be entertaining in their own right).

Conversely, I don't find this situation to be true of, say, Tolkien's Middle-earth writings, or Lewis's science fiction. (Of the Narnian books, perhaps Prince Caspian and The Horse and His Boy are really good entertainments that, however, add nothing much to what we find in the other five.)

Dale Nelson

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear W.

Interesting thought, though I think we differ in what makes a story 'matter'. For example, I think THE HAUNTER OF THE DARK is a far better story than AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, which I find tediously overstuffed.* I do think the Mythos is greater than the sum of its parts, both within the body of Lovecraft's work and that of the wider 'Lovecraft circle'. But that's not to say I don't appreciate some of the individual stories; whether Lovecraft is worth reading at all, aside from as a curiosity, depends on the readability or otherwise of the tales. Your example of THE PRISONER is good in that its points up how we're diametrically opposed: I thought the non-story-arc episodes were the best, just like I thought BUFFY was at its best when it was in monster-of-the-week mode.

As for other writers contributing: Yes. Clark Ashton Smith cd write Lovecraftian stories better than anything Lovecraft himself cd.

--John R.

*it helps that I have an unabridged reading of HAUNTER by David MacCallum, who does a superb job, on an old Caedmon record

Wurmbrand said...

John, I understand how one may consider that "the Mythos is greater than the sum of its parts" and that the idea of the Cthulhu Mythos may be "greater" than any particular story. But I think too much commentary on Lovecraft is based on a related kind of thinking. When that happens, commentators might bypass the work of actually reading (in ways such as CSL commends in An Experiment in Criticism) what HPL wrote; and they have, without realizing it, been expressing their enthusiasm for something that "ought" to have been written, "should" exist, but doesn't; and Lovecraft gets credit for -it-.* Sometimes discussion of Lovecraft needs to be brought back to the stories that we actually have.**

You are doing that when you object to an element of of At the Mountains of Madness. Problems with other stories will also become evident when we focus on what HPL actually wrote. (Conversely, though, I suspect that, when we put aside considerations of "the Mythos," we might see better what a fine story "The Colour Out of Space" is.)

So I'm suggesting that sometimes a kind of special pleading gets into the mix when people talk about Lovecraft's achievement. On the other hand, this isn't the case with, say, The Lord of the Rings. We don't think about a "Middle-earth mythos" that's greater than The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, LotR, etc. -- do we?

These are some tentative thoughts.

*I don't know if this will make sense to anyone, but I think of the recording careers of the Beatles after the band broke up. I must not be the only one who bought their various albums, often as they were released, hoping, really, for a great record such as I felt the individual guy might have it in him to produce. And that record never did, in fact, appear; but I kept on buying, for the first ten years or so anyway.

**But I'd far rather read fan-type discussions of the Mythos than "readings" of individual stories using the "lenses" of standard-issue English departments, e.g. Lacanian psychoanalysis, postcolonial, feminist, etc.

Dale Nelson