Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Mask of Cthulhu (1958) by August Derleth

The Mask of Cthulhu (1958) by August Derleth, containing the following stories: "The Return of Hastur" (1939);  "The Whippoorwills in the Hills" (1948); "Something in Wood" (1948);  "The Sandwin Compact" (1940); "The House in the Valley" (1953); and "The Seal of R'lyeh" (1957).

August Derleth's Lovecraftian stories can send some people into a rage. The rage seems to stem from Derleth's attempt to recast the Cthulhu Mythos (a term which he coined, not Lovecraft) as a conflict between Good and Evil. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos stories generally suggested that the ancient aliens/gods that threatened humanity were amoral, not immoral: basically, they just wanted their universe back, and humans were the ants that were getting in the way.

So it goes. A lot of writers have continued in the Derlethian vein of Cthulhu Mythos, though -- among them, Brian Lumley, Lin Carter, and Colin Wilson. It's a subset of Lovecraftian horror, and one that's no more or less legitimate than the far larger school of Lovecraftian horror that ends every story in absolute despair and defeat for humanity. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos stories ended with humanity still hanging in there, somehow, though his protagonists often took it in the chin. Both schools diverge from Lovecraft's vision, then.

But as to this collection of some of Derleth's wanderings in Lovecraft-land. Well, Derleth was superior to Lovecraft in at least one aspect: his depiction of rural life. His small towns and the countryside around them generally seem fairly believable, and his rural dialects aren't absolutely bananas the way that Lovecraft's forays into self-invented rural dialect in stories that include "The Colour out of Space" and "The Dunwich Horror" tend to be.

Beyond that, there's a sort of comforting nature to Derleth's Cthulhu Mythos stories. His monsters aren't particularly scary. Indeed, he goes to the well of the Deep Ones (from Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth") so many times in his stories that they lose all capacity to shock. 

So, too, one of Derleth's preferred narratives, in which a person moves into a house or a region and subsequently either gets possessed by ancient, resident evil or at least severely threatened by it. Five of the six stories in this volume follow that pattern; there are an awful lot of the same type of story throughout the rest of Derleth's work as well. It's an interesting psychological obsession: Derleth, working in someone else's milieu, again and again writes about people who end up... working in someone or something else's milieu. Lovecraft himself used this plot on several occasions, though not nearly as many times as Derleth did -- and in Lovecraft's case, the affected parties are related to the ancestors who plague them in the present.

The one story here that doesn't follow this pattern, "Something in Wood," instead has its doomed character gradually possessed by a statue of Cthulhu. I guess we're really six for six in this vein, aren't we? This subset divides into two categories: people who are related to previous occupants of the house and people who aren't. The subset that cuts across these are people who are overwhelmed by the evil in the house and people who defeat it. 

Another thing that happens several times in the collection is a scene in which it's discovered that someone has vanished somehow from inside their clothes, leaving an empty outfit on the floor or on a chair as if they'd been sucked right out of it. It's a nice image when used sparingly. I enjoyed these stories, though they're not frightening and some of the breathless, italicized concluding paragraphs seem almost intentionally self-parodic. Recommended.

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