Column: Writing the Mythos: The Trail of Lovecraft, Part Two: Recycling the Mythos


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n my last column, I talked about how J. Sheridan Le Fanu influenced H.P. Lovecraft, even though he never read the Irish master’s many great collections or novels. This week, I want to flip that on its ear and talk about how HPL inspires so many of us to take up the squidgiferous (new adjective) and squamous pen of Mythos. Neil Gaiman, in The Eldritch Influence: The Life, Vision, and Phenomenon of H.P. Lovecraft, said, “Lovecraft is a resonating wave….”

I have to admit I worry about this one, sometimes. On Facebook, one of my friends asked, “What is your greatest fear?” Several people nodded to HPL and said, THE UNKNOWN, but one joker replied, “Being typecast as a Mythos writer.” Ha ha, but behind the joke is a very serious issue. To state it boldly: Can a Mythos writer be anything more than a coattail rider, a pasticher, a hack? Many of us want to be HPL, but how many aspire to be August Derleth or Lin Carter? Writers like Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell gladly acknowledge Lovecraft, but clearly have broken from him and established their own vision of horror (which is a good thing).

So, is it a juvenile phase, to be endured like acne before moving on? I used to think maybe a little bit yes. Until I was reading a book on Gothic publishing and was introduced to the literary idea of “recycling” versus hackwork. The subject of the chapter was named Sarah Wilkinson, and how she used and re-used the props of the Gothic from writers like Ann Radcliffe and M. G. Lewis. In fact, she wrote many more of these later “trade” Gothics than both authors combined. Wilkinson, due to her unoriginality, is even more forgotten than Walpole, Radcliffe and Maturin, who at least get lip service, even if nobody reads them, anymore (Well, I do).

At about the same time, Edgar Allan Poe was writing his tales, each as Gothic but by no means the staid re-writes of Wilkinson. Poe took what the Gothic writers had used and found new ways to explore horror with those pieces. Take “The Fall of the House of Usher,” for instance. Gothic castle, lord and lady, weird secret, etc. Gothic props but by no means a Walpolian do-over. Within the old, Poe was innovating. That’s recycling! Taking the parts and creating something new. Robert E. Howard did it with Adventure and Fantasy and created Sword & Sorcery. Nobody writes in a vacuum, as I pointed out last time. We all must make peace with what came before, either by rejecting it, as Fritz Leiber, Ted Sturgeon and Richard Matheson did, by taking the spirit of Lovecraft but not the mechanics and writing in a fresh new, modern way to create chills. Or by recycling, taking the Mythos or Lovecraftianism (wow, another new word!) and finding some new way to create cosmic terror within the Mythos.

Writers like Karl Edward Wagner, Basil Copper, Fred Chappel, and Wilum Pugmire have been doing this since the 1980s. It’s not new, but it has gone largely unnoticed by some mainstream horror fans. Though new anthologies like The Book of Cthulhu 1 and 2 (edited by Ross E. Lockhart), Hardboiled Cthulhu (edited by James Ambuehl), Future Lovecraft and Historical Lovecraft (edited by Silvia Morena-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles) are doing much to bring this to the fore. Older sub-genres have been making a comeback lately, such as Occult Detectives, Sword & Sorcery, Space Opera, Steampunk (a kind of Victorian SF) and yes, openly labeled Cthulhu Mythos fiction.

I attribute this to two factors: ebooks and the post-Baby Boomer generation. Ebooks have opened up smaller niche markets that big business has ignored and that has allowed recyclers (and hacks, too, I suppose) commercially satisfying opportunities. The second part of that is guys my age (I prefer the term Bronze Agers, to use a comic book term, too young to be real Baby Boomers) are looking back to our childhoods in the 1970s and saying, “Why can’t I write a Kolchakian Mythos tale?” Ultimately, the choice is yours. Break away and create something else, or stay within the arena of Mythos and innovate.

Now I don’t feel so bad about being a Mythos writer, after all. I’m just recycling. I’m just going green (like some guy infected with shoggothian mold) .

The Trail of Lovecraft continues with “Clark Ashton Smith: The Next Great Thing….”