Review: Cthulhu’s Dark Cults

By Bryan Thao Worra

CthulhusDarkCultsConyers, David, ed. Cthulhu’s Dark Cults. Chaosium Inc.; 1st edition (May 6, 2010). ISBN-13: 978-1568822358.

H.P. Lovecraft’s beloved classic, “The Call of Cthulhu”, postulated a world wherein a global conspiracy of salty sailors, ancient scholars, tribal people, and workaday Joes secretly worship a monstrous, alien entity named Cthulhu until this monstrous proto-deity at last walks upon the earth, freed from its oceanic prison city of R’lyeh. It’s a captivating concept revisited regularly by authors within Mythos fiction, to varying degrees of success.

Cthulhu’s Dark Cults
is a new addition to an expanding series of Mythos fiction from Chaosium, well-known for popularizing the work of H.P. Lovecraft through its Call of Cthulhu games. Edited by Australian author, David Conyers, it’s a collection of ten stories tied directly to characters, cults and monsters who appeared previously in classic Chaosium products. The authors hail from Australia, America and places undisclosed, perhaps with good reason.

Many aspire to add meaningfully to the Mythos, but far more threaten to entomb Lovecraft’s vision beneath a stumbling mountain of mediocrity and pastiche bordering on parody. All of the authors have been published before, from novels to several short stories, with many award winners among them. This is not an anthology of amateurs from a fledgling fan press and a critical, responsible examination of this anthology must take this into account.

In Conyers’ introduction, he acknowledges that the collection is tied to the game, but assures first-time readers that a familiarity with the game isn’t essential and that the stories stand alone as dark fiction with Lovecraftian connections. In most cases, he’s right.

All of the stories of Cthulhu’s Dark Cults are set in the 1920s and 30s, and Conyers offers a caveat that the stories will contain hints of racism, colonialism and sexism apropos to the times. In this, it delivers regularly but without being exceptionally gratuitous.

Does this anthology break new ground? Does it at least reinforce the groundwork that’s been laid before as dark fiction, as Mythos fiction, or within the context of the Call of Cthulhu game? Or, more heinously, does it merely engender mortal, less-than-cosmic indifference?

The opening story is “The Eternal Chinaman” by John Sunseri. Here, fish-monsters and magic come fairly early and without much amazement. The story centers on an able, well-armed, world-weary anti-hero protagonist Lumley or Butcher might conceive. In “The Eternal Chinaman”, cultists are little more than recycled cardboard with blind motivations, hinting at darker schemes, but not wholly convincing rationales. Like many of the stories it wrestles with involving characters and objects from Chaosium supplements. The most popular among the authors appears to be the deservedly classic supplements The Fungi from Yuggoth and Masks of Nyarlathotep.

When organizing a collection on dark cults, we must ask: Does it deliver on the topic? This isn’t Cthulhu’s Disgruntled Gardeners or Nyarlathotep’s Corporate Shills. This is an anthology of dark cults, so there better be cults and they better be dark! In a collection like this, we should walk away with either fear, loathing or understanding of those who worship the things humanity was not meant to know and the cultists should be central to the story, not merely window-dressing.

To that end, David Witteveen’s “Perfect Skin” is one of the better stories – uncompromising, eerie and unsettling. Although the cult’s motives are cryptic, its malignance and methods build up satisfyingly to the story’s horrific conclusion, which, while not wholly surprising, is effective and stands well alone even without a familiarity with Lovecraft’s work.

In William Jones’ “Covenant of Darkness”, the action moves the quickest, capturing well the seemingly-contradictory claustrophobia and cosmic vastness of the Mythos. Jones delivers a satisfying crunch as his protagonists struggle to reconcile the abominable with the rational, demonstrating how people can be forced into perverse, morally-ambiguous arrangements with the Lovecraftian underworld. However, in this particular case, there are also moments where you can definitely hear the dice rolling: “I hurl a +1 typewriter at the dark cultist for 1d20 damage….”

Many stories left open-ended conditions easily adapted into scenarios for those playing Call of Cthulhu games, although there are few that would leave most readers with a sense of “Wow, I’ve absolutely GOT to play this out….” Top candidates would include the aftermath of Peter A. Worthy’s “Old Ghost”, Shane Jiraiya Cummings’ South American mining thriller “Requiem For the Burning God” and Jones’ “Covenant of Darkness”.

Penelope Love offers the most innovative tale of the anthology, “The Whisper of Ancient Secrets”. It’s striking as one of the only ones to really take the risk of telling the story fully from the perspective of a cultist. It’s the closest to bringing the reader sympathetically to the edge of madness in Australia, employing good technique and some of the more unsettling Lovecraftian tropes.

As might be expected, Conyers’ own story, “Sister of the Sands”, neatly encapsulates the cosmic, international grandeur of the subject and provides a fine glimpse of what he was reaching for as he tried to assemble this work. It anchors the anthology solidly.

The volume’s core weakness shows in several stories have the predictability of protagonists easily discovering or knowing about the secret cult and getting into a fight with it, often succeeding or thwarting the cult du jour‘s plans, with victory rarely in doubt. And one is all-too-rarely brought to a point to consider: “They don’t sound like such a bad lot to join,” and this effectively strips some of the menace away from the tales because a reader is never uncertain of who the menace is.

Several of the stories might have benefited from a knowledgeable, riskier grappling between mainstream theological thought and the cosmic implication of the indifferent Elder Gods and Great Old Ones. What would really happen if a priest tried to exorcise Abhoth the Unclean or a Buddhist monk tried to banish Nyarlathotep like a ghost? Or what would happen if a dark cult tried to go mainstream in the 1920s? This collection doesn’t quite explore the inner workings or deep implications in most cases. I’m rather surprised not to see a Robert Price story in this collection. Given his background, this topic seems absolutely suited for him.

Ultimately, none of the stories are absolute, essential classics in the vein of “The Dunwich Horror”, “At the Mountains of Madness”, or “The Call of Cthulhu”. It’s an intriguing glimpse at several writers of Australian Mythos fiction, but this is not the first book to give to someone to coax them into a love of either H.P. Lovecraft or the Call of Cthulhu game, and it’s hard to imagine a familiarity with the supplements’ characters are drawn from being a singular advantage.

This is not an anthology to use as a definitive gaming sourcebook to provide an understanding about the cults in the world of H.P. Lovecraft nor one other writers would likely link their own Mythos stories to, if they were not connected to a Chaosium venture. Cthulhu’s Dark Cults is best described as an enjoyable part of the journey. but neither a beginning nor the final destination.

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