"Any investigator making a Cthulhu Mythos roll will realise that a powerful summoning spell is in progress...The worshippers begin another chant, while the prisoners are brought in, pushed towards the Lloigir, and knocked out...The Th'Yasku'hakula starts to drain magical energy from each victim each minute. (Most start on 6-10 points)."
The above is a part of a Roll Play Game mini adventure for the game Call of Cthulhu published in the sadly short-lived magazine "Skeleton Crew." For those who are interested the Th'Yasku'hakula is Lloigir loner with the following Stats:- STR 44, CON 30, SIZ 53, INT 19, POW 17, DEX 12 and HP 42. It has the following Spells:- Contact Deep Ones, Contact Lloigir, Contact Ghatanothoa, Dampen Light (does not require pipes) and Mindblast. See Call of Cthulhu (Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying)
Now I have to confess to a certain fondness for RPGs - I once ran a group - but it has to be said that the game of Call of Cthulhu with its clear and detailed classifications is the "reductio ad absurdum" of the Cthulhu Mythos. In Cold Print
, Ramsey Campbell's collection of his own Mythos tales, his favourite story is "The Voice of the Beach." This is a story that deliberately makes no specific references to any of the established Mythos props - it was initially rejected for this reason - but is Campbell's attempt to return to "Lovecraft's first principles...without the encumbrances of the mythos."
There is little terror in an overpopulated and over explained realm of Lovecraftian entities. Partly for this reason Lovecraft has the reputation for being juvenilia; the kind of story that is good at the right time, but which you are expected to grow out of. It has been suggested that Lovecraft was a hack writer. Even if he was however, - as Steven King points out in Danse Macabre
- he was a very important, very committed and honest one. When he wrote something, as King says, "..he meant it."
Well here he is in the heady realms of the Penguin Classics, with full critical apparatus provided by S. T. Joshi. This must be as good a place as any for anyone's reappraisal. In his Introduction Joshi makes two things clear. The first is that Lovecraft sold to the pulps because they were the only market for weird tales at the time. The second, as he clearly demonstrates, is that Lovecraft was an atheist, or at the very least, an agnostic. Now the last thing an atheist would be interested in is the painstaking classification of supernatural beings for its own sake. The point is not that there are discoverable supernatural beings and realms that may give some meaning to our existence, but rather that mankind is an anachronistic accident in a universe of total otherness.
In Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
there is a Total Perspective Vortex, which sends most people mad. The reason it does this is because most people see in the Vortex their true relationship to everything else. This in most cases is one of total and utter insignificance. This, I believe, rather than any obscure esoteric lore, is the "truth" that for Lovecraft he is seeking to convey in the oft derided final madness of many of his protagonists: "Even now I absolutely refuse to believe what he implied about the constitution of ultimate infinity...never was an organic brain nearer to utter annihilation..."
The best example of this is probably, "The Haunter of the Dark." Bill Read in his Introduction to the Haunted Library booklet, "Call of the Tentacle," holds this up as an example one of the stories, which are "...some of the finest works of comedy in the English language." Now while Bill's stories are some of the few that make me laugh out loud, I just cannot agree with him about Lovecraft. I find the descriptions of what Robert Blake sees within the Shining Trapezoid haunting and powerful: "He saw towers and walls in knighted depths under the sea, and vortices of space where wisps of black mist floated before shimmerings of cold purple haze."
One of the best Lovecraftian stories I have seen recently was a Babylon 5 TV movie called BABYLON 5 - THIRDSPACE (DVD)
. Despite an absence of any overt references the dark dream imagery was spot on. Thirdspace is just otherness. You do not ever go there and any doors must be closed. It is, "...some place whar things ain't as they is here..."
Which is not inappropriate because, "The Colour out of Space," was originally sold to Amazing Stories. As the notes imply, if Hugo Gernsback had not been such a cheapskate, he would have submitted more there. For Ramsey Campbell this, despite or because of an absence of the mysterious books and more obvious creatures, is the best Mythos story. The only consistent feature is the creature's clear extraterrestrial origin. Undoubtedly, this story about the effects of a meteorite crashing into a remote farmstead is a very Wellsian one. I cannot help but wonder, if Lovecraft might have been better served had he been perceived more generally as a Science Fiction author. Probably not.
What the notes also do is open a window into a world of extraordinary fecundity. When writers as brilliant as Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard could spark off each other, they created stories still avidly read today. The idea of a shared world of fiction was not as limiting then as it often is today, but rather created the impression of a vast mythological backdrop from which these stories could appear to arise. That many believe that backdrop capable of codification is a testament to the sincerity of their endeavours.
If there is one other lesson to be learnt from this book about writing successful horror, it is to write about places that you know and if you don't know them, follow Lovecraft's example and visit them. It is clear from Cold Print
that Ramsey Campbell has absorbed this lesson. His book THE NAMELESS.
contains some effective London scenes. It is clear from the acknowledgements that he visited London several times before writing these. The only stories of mine that have ever seen print arose from a genuine location, the feelings the place evoked, the ideas it generated and yes, the mythology the place inspired.
Nevertheless there is one respect in which Joshi's notes do not serve to demystify. This is in relation to Lovecraft's dreams, which Joshi sources frequently. No doubt a psychologist could give an interpretation of them all, but to me they remain frankly disturbing. For me they add to the sense that there must be some tangible reality, beyond imagination, to this haunting evocation of otherness.