Column: Writing the Mythos: Surface Mythos: Digging Deeper

By G.W. Thomas

I recently came across what I consider to be the first Mythos comic. This is the first installment of the “Dr. Styx” series in Treasure Comics. The second issue from August-September 1945 features the strip by the forgotten Bernie Krigstein. Dr. Styx is an occult detective who is actually a ghost. In this first tale, he warns the main character not to read the books of Ludwig Prinn and not to raise the Elder Ones. These turn out to be freezing ghosts, not the tentacular squidgies of Lovecraft. The main character (who resembles either a young Frank Belknap Long or Robert Bloch, I can’t quite decide) suffers the fate of all Mythos meddlers but not before Dr. Styx banishes the Elder Ones and everybody thinks the frigidity of their evil is a sudden cold snap in the weather. The final product, obviously inspired by some Arkham House collection, is trite but intriguing because of its unexpected appearance in an obscure comic. The rest of the six strips have nothing to do with Lovecraft.

What Dr. Styx does is something many poor examples of Mythos fiction do. They only use a thin coating of Lovecraftiana while missing his vision entirely. I call this “Surface Mythos” and it usually entails mentioning arcane books, a mad Arab, or some other references, but not much else. (The opposite is a story that is Lovecraftian in tone, but makes no references, such as Fritz Leiber’s “The Hound.” ) Surface Mythos can be a little joking reference, such as Stephen King used in The Eyes of the Dragon (1986):

Flagg had been reading from this book – which was bound in human skin – for a thousand years and had gotten through only a quarter of it. To read too long of this book, written on the high, distant Plains of Leng by a madman named Alhazred, was to risk madness.

King is not seriously trying to include his Fantasy novel within the Mythos, only having a little poke in the ribs to those in the know. A jest of this sort can send a Mythos researcher such as E.P. Berglund (Hi, Paul!) into a fit of hysterics (“Do I include it in the Mythos or not?”). For most of us, it is a blip and we move on.

The worst offenders of Surface Mythos are stories that are clearly meant to be considered Mythos, such as “The Stairs in the Crypt,” largely by Lin Carter but based on Clark Ashton Smith. These tales mention everything Mythos, but tell little story and certainly don’t create any frisson of horror unless you are terrified by bibliographic cataloguing. The OCD silliness of Brian Lumley’s early novels also smacks of this. When the mysterious references become predictable, multitudinous and just plain annoying, you’re doing something wrong.

The original game of arcane reference goes back to M.R. James, who had a vast antiquarian knowledge and could spin lists of real and imagined books. Lovecraft borrowed this idea, creating his own strange titles, and his friends and admirers added to it. And added. And added. We now have so many titles that you could fill a library with imagined books. I am as guilty as any, having created The Book of the Black Sun for my own series. That being said, I have (I think) wisely limited the other references in my Book Collector stories to keep some sense of mystery. At the same time that I have Telford who rents arcane tomes (which would suggest they aren’t that hard to find) so I could build something new from Lovecraft’s ideas.

And that is the real secret to avoiding Surface Mythos. Don’t just do what’s been done before, throwing in a few Elder Gods and arcane tomes. Build from Lovecraft’s cosmic ideas. Experiment, try stuff. Remember Lovecraft was certainly influenced by Science Fiction and was a quasi-SF writer at times, if Hugo Gernsback was any judge. Extrapolation is a Science Fiction tool borrowed from actual science. Take an idea and expand it and expand it and take it to its limit and then even beyond. The results might be something like Gene Wolfe’s An Evil Guest (2008). Part-Noir, part-ghostbreaker, part-Science Fiction, it challenges and explores new Lovecraftian corners. The book may not be to everybody’s taste, but it beats the hell out of more Derlethian retread.

Perhaps you’ve never written a Mythos story before. Most Mythos writer seem to pen a few imitation tales first. I know I certainly did. So, who am I to say don’t do it? Consider this, then, if you must try your hand at a “traditional” Mythos story (I am assuming a journal of a man returning to Arkham, who is going to find the old family stash of evil books before running down the slippery slope that ends with seeing Cthulhu and blubbering insanity …). If you are going to try one of these, try telling it without Mythos references first. (You can always put them in later, if you wish.) But when you’re done, read your story. If it can’t work without the references to the Necronomicon, Abdul Alhazred, etc., then find a way to make it better, make it a good, creepy story first, then insert the usual paraphernalia. All Lovecraftian sizzle without real story-telling steak will bore on two accounts. One, it will bore because it is a boring story and two, because the same old references have lost their thrill for most of us over the age of sixteen. (Some of us well over.) This final bit of advice from the Old Man himself, HPL: First and foremost, scare me (I’m paraphrasing. If you want the real deal, read the first section of “The Supernatural Horror in Literature”).