Mythos: Old Bugs and Juan Romero

It’s another double feature! A lot of Lovecraft’s short stories are seriously only like eight pages long, so unless they require a lot of commentary, they can frequently be crammed two to a single blog post. Really, 15-20 pages of story per 2,000 words of commentary is a pretty bad ratio, but the problem with short story collections is that the constant gear shifting to new characters, concepts, and situations tends to thwart summary.

Old Bugs

This is Lovecraft’s second (published) comedy. That sounds like the setup for a joke, but the dude did have a bit of range.

Sheehan’s Pool Room, which adorns one of the lesser alleys in the heart of Chicago’s stockyard district, is not a nice place. Its air, freighted with a thousand odours such as Coleridge may have found at Cologne, too seldom knows the purifying rays of the sun; but fights for space with the acrid fumes of unnumbered cheap cigars and cigarettes which dangle from the coarse lips of unnumbered human animals that haunt the place day and night.

I said a bit.

Probably the most interesting part of this story gets dropped on us at the end of the first paragraph:

Over and above the fumes and sickening closeness rises an aroma once familiar throughout the land, but now happily banished to the back streets of life by the edict of a benevolent government—the aroma of strong, wicked whiskey—a precious kind of forbidden fruit indeed in this year of grace 1950.

Funny enough, this story was written in 1919 (probably, it wasn’t published until 1959, when Lovecraft was sufficiently well-regarded that you could dig through his back-catalogue and pick stories written on a lark for publication), which is very nearly the same year as when the King in Yellow takes place. Written in 1895, the stories (or at least some of them – I haven’t read them in a while) take place in 1920, although it’s not clear how much of the changes are real and how many are the fevered delusions of an insane protagonist.

In this story, Lovecraft imagines a future after thirty years of prohibition, not yet signed into law from when he was writing in 1919 (or perhaps very recently made law, if we’re wrong about the date and he actually wrote it sometime in or after 1920). Or at least, I think prohibition is supposed to be in effect? The eponymous Old Bugs is an alcoholic employee (paid mainly in booze) at a drug den where the chief items sold appear to be liquor and hashish, with emphasis on the liquor. On the other hand, a young patron of the establishment is said to have been part of a mock fraternity in college called “Tappa Tappa Keg,” which strongly suggests that some kind of alcohol consumption is legal? Back on the first hand, Tappa Tappa Keg is an unofficial fraternity and may be engaged in illegal but widely known and quietly tolerated alcohol use, like marijuana use is rampant on college campuses today and basically no one cares even though it’s still illegal in like 47 states.

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Mythos: Beyond the Wall of Sleep

After a paragraph of preamble about how dreams may actually be a transport to some other life, no less real than the one we live in the material world, our protagonist gets around to the actual plot:

It was from a youthful reverie filled with speculations of this sort that I arose one afternoon in the winter of 1900–1901, when to the state psychopathic institution in which I served as an interne was brought the man whose case has ever since haunted me so unceasingly. His name, as given on the records, was Joe Slater, or Slaader, and his appearance was that of the typical denizen of the Catskill Mountain region; one of those strange, repellent scions of a primitive colonial peasant stock whose isolation for nearly three centuries in the hilly fastnesses of a little-travelled countryside has caused them to sink to a kind of barbaric degeneracy, rather than advance with their more fortunately placed brethren of the thickly settled districts. Among these odd folk, who correspond exactly to the decadent element of “white trash” in the South, law and morals are non-existent; and their general mental status is probably below that of any other section of the native American people.

Just in case you were worried that Lovecraft was only racist against black people. Have no fear: Lovecraft’s racism contains multitudes. Seriously, though, Lovecraft really wants you to know how sub-humanly incompetent he thinks Appalachian people are:

Though well above the middle stature, and of somewhat brawny frame, he was given an absurd appearance of harmless stupidity by the pale, sleepy blueness of his small watery eyes, the scantiness of his neglected and never-shaven growth of yellow beard, and the listless drooping of his heavy nether lip. His age was unknown, since among his kind neither family records nor permanent family ties exist; but from the baldness of his head in front, and from the decayed condition of his teeth, the head surgeon wrote him down as a man of about forty.

Lovecraft then moves on to describe the manner in which this Slaader fellow (I find the misspelling offered more compelling than the more common Slater, so Slaader it is) sometimes tells of “the unknown” in a way that frightens those who listen, and always soon after waking (presumably because of a venture into some terrifying dream world). But even now he’s not done insisting upon the stupidity of Appalachians:

He himself was generally as terrified and baffled as his auditors, and within an hour after awakening would forget all that he had said, or at least all that had caused him to say what he did; relapsing into a bovine, half-amiable normality like that of the other hill-dwellers.

Show me on the doll where the redneck hurt you, Lovecraft.

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Mythos: Double Feature

A Reminisce of Dr. Samuel Johnson

According to the intro given by the eldritch entity that is Barnes and Noble, this story is Lovecraft writing a send-up of 18th century literature. As part of that tradition, Lovecraft attempts to pass the fiction bit off as being a truthful report, in the way of eighteenth century literature where everything is allegedly true despite it being very obvious that in fact it is total fabrication.

Tho’ many of my readers have at times observ’d and remark’d a Sort of antique Flow in my Stile of Writing, it hath pleased me to pass amongst the Members of this Generation as a young Man, giving out the Fiction that I was born in 1890, in America.

Oh, also, Words are capitalized at Random and all proper nouns are italicized, though I should imagine that the fictional 200-year old Lovecraft in this story would regardless put emphasis on how scandalous it would be to actually have been born in America. In the style of the eighteenth century, the entire piece is a meander through random vignettes, some of which have practically nothing to do with the nominal subject of Dr. Samuel Johnson, and some of which are just a list of people who attended a certain club that Johnson was a member of, punctuated by a random vignette concerning one of the club members dropped into the middle of the list apparently just because the author recalled it at exactly that moment and wanted to write it down before finishing the list. And it’s not clear why the list was even included.

Lovecraft knows exactly what he’s doing, though:

It wou’d afford me Gratification to tell more of my Experiences with Dr. Johnson and his circle of Wits; but I am an old Man, and easily fatigued. I seem to ramble along without much Logick or Continuity when I endeavour to recall the Past; and fear I light upon but few Incidents which others have not before discuss’d.

The whole piece is humorously self-aware of how flawed the 18th century style was, in a way that seems accurate to me (Barnes and Noble agrees), though I read very little of that time precisely because it’s so unrefined as to be almost painful to read.

This story is only like five pages long (and thank God, because it was starting to drag even then – which is the point and all, but still), so we’re doing a double feature by also covering the next story in the book, which is Polaris. Funny enough, it’s even shorter.

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Mythos: Dagon

This is the first of Lovecraft’s stories that can really be called a mythos story. Our hero opens by informing us that he plans to commit suicide as soon as he’s done writing, because the horror is too great. He begins his tale of horror by explaining how he was captured at sea by the Germans in the opening stages of the Great War:

The great war was then at its very beginning, and the ocean forces of the Hun had not completely sunk to their later degradation; so that our vessel was made a legitimate prize, whilst we of her crew were treated with all the fairness and consideration due us as naval prisoners. So liberal, indeed, was the discipline of our captors, that five days after we were taken I managed to escape alone in a small boat with water and provisions for a good length of time.

See, buddy, this kind of thing is why the Germans wound up being jerks about the whole “sea warfare” thing by the end of the war. Anyway, he’s adrift at sea in a boat.

The change happened whilst I slept. Its details I shall never know; for my slumber, though troubled and dream-infested, was continuous. When at last I awaked, it was to discover myself half sucked into a slimy expanse of hellish black mire which extended about me in monotonous undulations as far as I could see, and in which my boat lay grounded some distance away.

Really, I’m not sure why anyone in the Mythos comes within five miles of the ocean.

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Mythos: The Tomb

After nearly a decade truant, a twenty-seven year old Lovecraft has returned to us with another (according to Barnes and Noble’s unknown preface-writer) Poe-inspired tale. I doubt Lovecraft’s age will be a noticeable factor in his writing going forward, and it’s possible that some things which I had attributed to his youth will turn out to be just a thing that Lovecraft does and that I’d overlooked when I read him several years back.

By its opening lines, this story does appear to inaugurate one of Lovecraft’s most misunderstood tropes, the totally sane narrator who has been mistaken for mad due to their totally accurate recounting of a paranormal experience:

In relating the circumstances which have led to my confinement within this refuge for the demented, I am aware that my present position will create a natural doubt of the authenticity of my narrative. It is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of humanity is too limited in its mental vision to weigh with patience and intelligence those isolated phenomena, seen and felt only by a psychologically sensitive few, which lie outside its common experience.

Having not yet read the full story, there could be a thing here where, like in The Repairer of Reputations, a King in Yellow story that Lovecraft had (I’m pretty sure) at this point read, where the narrator early on mentions having been confused for insane, and then is revealed over the course of the story to, in fact, be insane, calling into question how much of the paranormal activity and even perfectly mundane setting building was real (does the narrator of the Repairer of Reputations actually live in a near-future authoritarian America, or are these just related to his delusions of being a long lost heir to an American throne that never was?).

Plus, maybe this kind of thing comes up in Poe a lot? I know it cropped up in the Telltale Heart, but I’ve only read a few occasional scraps of Poe, and most of that as required reading for high school.

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Mythos: The Alchemist

I’ve never read these very early stories before, my reading of Lovecraft having previously been limited to very famous stories like Call of Cthulhu and Shadow Over Innsmouth. As such, I can’t say for sure when Lovecraft is going to really arrive in proper Lovecraftian style, but I’m pretty confident that he’s going to need a few more years to cook from this 1908 story, written when he was 18 (Lovecraft had the decency to be born in the nice round numbered 1890, making it easy to determine his age as of the writing based on a story’s publication date).

According to Barnes and Nobles’ intro (no specific writer is named as near as I can tell), this story is Lovecraft trying his absolute hardest to be Edgar Allen Poe.

High up, crowning the grassy summit of a swelling mound whose sides are wooded near the base with the gnarled trees of the primeval forest, stands the old chateau of my ancestors.

You Remember Our House, Opulent And Imperial

I don’t even know how much I’m joking here. Red Hook Studio’s name is a slightly obscure Lovecraft reference, which means the parallel between the house described here and the one in Darkest Dungeon may be a fully intentional homage.

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Mythos: The Beast in the Cave

I really liked the note the previous post ended on, so I’m splitting this off into a second post for later in the same day. This is our examination of what Barnes and Noble considers to be Lovecraft’s first “real” story. There’s a few creative ideas with atrocious execution in the appendix at the back, like a story with grammar so poor it impairs readability but which contains a decent joke about some sailors finding a message in a bottle claiming to lead to buried treasure, which then turns out to be a prank. Neat and all, but not exactly a Lovecraft story, despite having been literally written by HP Lovecraft.

Fifteen-year old HP Lovecraft brings us the first “real” Lovecraft story, the Beast in the Cave, in which Lovecraft writes about being lost in a cave despite having never been in a cave in his life, having done considerable research on the subject in the library instead. I think this definitely qualifies the story as Lovecraftian.

The horrible conclusion which had been gradually obtruding itself upon my confused and reluctant mind was now an awful certainty.

Yup, definitely a Lovecraft story. This is the opening line, establishing that our protagonist was taking a tour in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, when he decided it would be fun to wander off from the group and go exploring alone. He is now completely lost and facing inevitable death, because of course he is.

Fifteen-year old Lovecraft, far from having not yet grown into his style, is so very Lovecraftian as to come across as parodic. He would evidently tone down the sesquepedelian loquaciousness later in life, and would become less enraptured with how horrifying his own stories were. He’s got that teenage affectation that using lots of really weird words must be how good writing works. Lines like this:

As I stood in the waning, unsteady light, I idly wondered over the exact circumstances of my coming end. I remembered the accounts which I had heard of the colony of consumptives, who, taking their residence in this gigantic grotto to find health from the apparently salubrious air of the underground world, with its steady, uniform temperature, pure air, and peaceful quiet, had found, instead, death in strange and ghastly form.

Would be out of place in a fan fiction only because there’s some actual interesting ideas underneath all the purple prose.

Our narrator is early on quite at peace with his imminent demise:

Hope had departed. Yet, indoctrinated as I was by a life of philosophical study, I derived no small measure of satisfaction from my unimpassioned demeanour; for although I had frequently read of the wild frenzies into which were thrown the victims of similar situations, I experienced none of these, but stood quiet as soon as I clearly realised the loss of my bearings.

However, after his torch dies and he is in total darkness, he has an encounter with some strange beast that, from its footfalls, seems to switch freely between quadrupedal and bipedal locomotion. Hearing it make a beeline for him, he gropes about for a weapon, finds some stray rocks, and tosses them at the approaching footfalls until one of them connects and the unknown creature falls. He then flees in a panic and finds the guide of the sightseeing group, who had come looking for him.

I ran to meet the flare, and before I could completely understand what had occurred, was lying upon the ground at the feet of the guide, embracing his boots, and gibbering, despite my boasted reserve, in a most meaningless and idiotic manner, pouring out my terrible story, and at the same time overwhelming my auditor with protestations of gratitude. At length I awoke to something like my normal consciousness.

This feels like the Lovecraft concept of horror in prototype: A certain and well-understood death at the hands of starvation doesn’t faze our protagonist, but one encounter with an unknown horror and he is reduced to literal gibbering. He recovers his senses pretty quickly, but still, he falls to his knees in gratitude upon rescue despite apparently having no fear of death in general.

With better access to light, the protagonist returns to the site of the confrontation to examine the creature he felled, and we get our twist ending.

Then fear left, and wonder, awe, compassion, and reverence succeeded in its place, for the sounds uttered by the stricken figure that lay stretched out on the limestone had told us the awesome truth. The creature I had killed, the strange beast of the unfathomed cave was, or had at one time been, a MAN!!!

That very fifteen-year old emphasis on the reveal is from the original.

I’m using the “Mythos” tag as a means of getting not only Lovecraft, but also August Derleth’s work in the immediate aftermath, sources of inspiration like Robert W. Chambers’ King in Yellow which were written before the Mythos, and much later modern addendums like FFG’s Arkham Files games (especially the Arkham Horror LCG, which is writing new stories in the same setting rather than being a vague remix of existing Lovecraft stories as most Arkham Files games have been) and the Lovecraftian Stephen King novels. By that categorization, the Beast in the Cave arguably doesn’t count. It’s definitely got Lovecraft’s style, but it’s not any kind of Mythos story. Someone just got lost in Mammoth Cave, survived off of rats and cave fish for however many years until their body was grotesquely adapted to their new environs, and then got killed by a panicked spelunker. No eldritch horror involved.

It’s in the Barnes and Noble collection, though, so I read it and now I’m writing a blog post about it.

Mythos: Let’s Get The Conversation About Madness Out Of The Way

I still intend to review Leaves of the World Tree, probably intermingling stories from that collection with stories from this one. But I really need to concentrate on reviewing whatever will get me posting again, and that means some kind of proper investigation where even if an individual work is bad, it’s part of an overall picture which is important even if I don’t particularly enjoy and do not recommend many or any of its component parts, and that means we’re going to start chipping away at the complete works of HP Lovecraft. I got one of those Barnes and Noble classics that contained, so far as I can tell, everything Lovecraft ever published and some things he didn’t, and I’m going to be going through that, hopefully alternating with Leaves.

I inaugurated a discussion about Conan with a post about how, although racist, the Conan stories were considerably less racist than Nazis would lead you to believe, because Nazis try to reframe practically everything that isn’t explicitly progressive as being secretly pro-Nazi. The most stand-out example of this is Nazi reinterpretations of the mildly anti-racist Lord of the Rings as secretly being pro-eugenics, despite Tolkien having explicitly gone on record to tell the actual Nazi Party to get bent.

In context of HP Lovecraft, though, although certain specific stories aren’t about race even though people think they are (Lovecraft had a lot of phobias), Lovecraft personally was barely less racist than actual Nazis. Now, he was less racist than actual Nazis, and it is still important to maintain perspective that, for example, Lovecraft was the kind of fellow who would marry a Jew because “she’s one of the good ones” rather than calling for total extermination. But for the most part, even if specific accusations of racism turn out to be sensationalism, Lovecraft is pretty much exactly as racist as you’ve been led to believe. Like, he once wrote a story where the real horror was that someone who is like one-sixteenth black was successfully passing as white. Not that there was some kind of fish-monster whose lineage was a metaphor for race-mixing, but that the big reveal is literally that the villain had a black great-grandparent.

That said, many of the tropes assigned to Lovecraft as core to the experience by his modern fandom are drastically exaggerated, in some cases to the point of being almost completely baseless. I’ve actually talked about this before, but only as a quick post articulating a pet peeve, so for purposes of proper analysis, I want to draw attention to three things commonly believed about the Mythos that are pretty much completely wrong:

-As the linked article suggests, Mythos monsters are not generally all that durable. Although Lovecraft’s protagonists frequently find themselves physically outmatched, this is because they are aging antiquarians, amateur home renovators, and underpaid clerks. Most Mythos creatures succumb just fine to a blast of dynamite or a shotgun scatter, Lovecraft’s protagonists just don’t have dynamite and shotguns. FFG’s Arkham Files games have a radically different tone from Lovecraft’s because they tend to star investigators who are actively confronting the Mythos and have made some effort to prepare themselves for that confrontation, but they’re not inaccurate to the general level of threat posed by the Mythos. People complain about how players in the Call of Cthulhu RPG rarely act in accordance with Mythos lore as though it were a fault in the adventures that GMs are running, and while I’m certain there are some GMs out there running dungeon crawls with a Mythos coat of paint on, Old Man Henderson is actually a perfectly reasonable protagonist for a story that’s about confronting the Mythos rather than being ambushed by it.

-People generally don’t go insane from contact with the Mythos. This has happened to  couple of Lovecraft’s protagonists, but nowhere near the majority, and that’s counting people who were institutionalized as insane for reporting the perfectly real Mythos encounters they’d had. When they do, it’s usually because they share a certain neurosis with their author, and we shouldn’t expect people with ordinary mental resilience to be so horrified. It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that all Lovecraft stories are about the same sheltered white guy going for a walk and being horrified to realize that a black person has moved into his neighborhood, but the basic sentiment is accurate: Many of the things that Lovecraft felt were so terrible that the human mind was better off not knowing they were real are things that many readers of this blog already believe are true and haven’t taken any particular SAN damage from. There’s nothing special about humanity, and our existence is actually quite small and insignificant next to the vastness of the universe, and it’s not currently clear whether we’ll ever expand past the tiny speck we’re currently locked on. Comforting? No. Madness-inducing? Also no. Some people do get really worked up about this kind of thing and are only able to function by ignoring it, but other people feel a brief moment of disappointment and then get on with their lives.

-The Mythos doesn’t always win. This is actually a common problem in any form of media: People are so used to seeing incessant victory that they treat any context in which the good guys even occasionally lose as one in which things are completely hopeless. A 50/50 win:loss ratio is treated as an inevitable death spiral rather than a closely matched battle, and 70/30 tends to be treated like a single slip could spell doom for our team, despite the fact that 70/30 win:loss ratio actually suggests that we’re winning handily and would have to bungle multiple encounters to lose the initiative. Lovecraft’s protagonists don’t have a 100% victory rate, and to a certain kind of grimderpy fan, that automatically means they must have a 0% victory rate. In the actual works by Lovecraft, you win some and you lose some.

With almost everything weird and different, the things which set a piece of media apart get exaggerated to the point of self-parody by fans, and sometimes, in the modern era, by creators who can react to fan communities in real time. So when we’re reading HP Lovecraft, we’re going to take a step back from the hype and bear in mind that, although Cthulhu lies dreaming beneath the ocean, the deep ones lurk in the waters of Innsmouth, and an invisible abomination the size of a barn lives in Dunwich, all three of those things were shot in the face until they died.

Scourge of the Betrayer: What Is Probably The Plot Has Begun

The first three pages of this chapter (not that it’s formally split up by the book, but you know what I mean) are about Captain Braylar banging the barmaid he saved from the boorish soldiers earlier, while the scribe viewpoint character is sleeping in the other bed in the same room. This puts me in a difficult position: We’re getting to the point where I should probably put a moratorium on criticizing this book for its over-enthusiasm with how cool Captain Braylar is, but if I do that there is nothing left to comment on.

It is worth noting that the way in which Captain Braylar is built up isn’t as juvenile as you’d expect from a book that just can’t stop talking about how cool this character is. Like, at some point the barmaid gets nervous about potentially waking the viewpoint scribe up and asks to stop, and Captain Braylar stops and gets agitated with her and throws her out. This is not how the scene would go in a typical Mary Sue wankfest (no pun intended), which would not have tolerated anything stopping its protagonist from conquering a woman, and indeed would have gone on for ages about how satisfied she is. But while the squeeing over Braylar’s awesomeness is much more competent – it attributes the woman’s shyness to circumstance, thus keeping Braylar’s sexual prowess unblemished, it has Braylar respect her wish and thus firmly establishes that he’s not a sexual predator, but it also has him react with agitation so as to firmly establish his dominance – the fact that the narrative is doing nothing else but go on and on and on about this guy makes it just as Sue-y as a more straightforward gushing. Jeff Salyards – our author – is clearly demonstrating that he could write a good story, but that he just doesn’t want to.

Then, on page 36, the plot finally arrives:

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Scourge of the Betrayer: A Book About Nothing

At least one of the books in the Humble Bundle of books I recently snagged is not a short story anthology. At least three of them, actually, because they’re a trilogy. Or the first three books of an “arc,” at least. Whether they’re also the last three books of that arc, I don’t know. What I do know is that Scourge of the Betrayer is the first of them, and I’m going to be giving that book a poke. Here is our opening paragraph:

My new patron clambered down the wagon, dark hair slicked back like wet otter fur, eyes roaming the stable yard in a measured sweep. He fixed on me briefly before continuing his survey, and it occurred to me, just as it had a hundred times since accepting the commission, that this would be unlike any other job I’d done.

I had to copy/paste that into a word processor in order to get the first two lines to be visible. Smart Publishing should consider getting a better formatting guy. Like, minor formatting errors are one thing. Still kind of unprofessional, but things slip through, no one’s perfect, so long as everything else is firing on all cylinders, I don’t even notice. This is the very first paragraph of the very first page.

The next two pages are a storm of proper nouns unmoored from any meaning. New characters are introduced on a nearly per-paragraph basis, making keeping up with who’s who basically impossible, and a handful of place names are introduced as well. I know there’s some kind of caravan, a military captain is in charge of it, a stable boy and a nomad who seems vaguely Mongol are part of it, and that our viewpoint character is a scribe. Some number of soldiers are involved, but I’ve lost track of which ones are repeat characters and which ones are newly introduced.

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