Jacob M. Lambert has published with Flame Tree Publishing, Third Flatiron, and Midnight Echo Magazine. He lives in Montgomery, Alabama, where he teaches English composition and is an assistant editor for THAT Literary Review. When not writing, he enjoys time with his wife, Stephanie, and daughter, Annabelle.
The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Cthulhu Mythos: A Review
S.T. Joshi’s critical analysis of Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft offers a thorough examination of the 1930s fantasy/horror author’s work. Joshi seeks to prove that Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos”—unlike his contemporary’s later usage of his mythology—was something of unique design, invoking an idea of cosmic fear or, as some have proposed, a setting of dread, bereft of good and evil. All other incarnations, according to Joshi, are carbon copies unfit for public consumption, undeserving of the “Lovecraftian” title. The secondary purpose of Joshi’s criticism involves a discussion of those inspired by the mythos—those worthy. Most of this latter portion, Joshi states, had close correspondences with Lovecraft, and thus provided a “purer” form of imitation.
Joshi’s book contains three sections: the Lovecraftian, Cthulhu, and Derleth Mythos. As for the first, Joshi states that Lovecraft’s own work—his mythos concerning Cthulhu, the sleeping god beneath the sea—is the central piece, the template, for all other fiction like it. Here, Joshi provides a long discussion of Lovecraft’s work (dates, editors, etc.) and sources, oftentimes back-to-back. The second, the Cthulhu Mythos, is the attempt of other authors, ones that Joshi mostly condemns, to replicate the foreboding mood, bleak outlook of the characters, and overall sense of man’s nothingness in the universe. Joshi mentions authors Lovecraft corresponded with (like Robert Bloch) and the late author’s impact on their future writing. Finally, the Derleth Mythos, named after August Derleth—a contemporary and similar horror author—is, according to Joshi, the equivalent of blasphemy. Derleth, Joshi argues, uses the mythos in an uncharacteristic way: he implements the ideas of good and evil—whereupon he then writes about the monsters or gods. Lovecraft, again according to Joshi, never wrote directly about the gods, as much as he focused on their animosity toward man. In other words, Lovecraft’s stories focus on man’s inability to comprehend the gods—causing madness—whereas Derleth leans more toward the gods themselves: their descriptions and tendency for destruction. In the final chapters, Joshi finishes with a short discussion on recent works and their relevance, praising author Ramsey Campbell (“Chasing the Unknown” 1993), a modern horror writer, for his early works, which often used elements of the mythos. He closes, stating, “Either you feel the “cosmic quality” or you do not; and we have seen how a number of writers have attempted to duplicate Lovecraft’s cosmism but failed” (369). In essence, this previous quote sums up the rhetoric of Joshi’s criticism.
So, Joshi’s viewpoint is predominately pessimistic. He delves into lengthy descriptions of Lovecraft’s work—as in the beginning three chapters—but offers mostly equally overstated quotations, sources, and the more than occasional digression into nonessential history. Joshi spends the first half of the book alluding to his later attack of Derleth, but the majority of his claims reveal a biased attitude, offering circular reasoning as fact. The injection of opinion here (especially concerning Derleth) undermines his attempt at true scholarly objectivity and invalidates the notion of his expertise. There are, however, some redemptive qualities to Joshi’s work: his fluid writing, coherency, and deep knowledge of Lovecraft’s mythos. The book as a whole feels complete—having a detailed map of Lovecraft’s progress as a writer, in addition to his many correspondences with other, well known authors, such as Robert Blotch (Mysteries of the Worm 1993) and Henry Kuttner, another contributor to the magazine, Weird Tales (the publication where Lovecraft got his start). Finally, in the later chapters, Joshi names several writers who—much later—wrote tales inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos, such as Neil Gaiman (American Gods 2001), Stephen King (IT 1990). Joshi speaks highly of Gaiman and King, commending their work as successful—good representations of Lovecraft’s mythos. Overall, while Joshi’s work certainly encompasses the nature, metaphor, and importance of Lovecraft’s mythos, as it pertains to Cthulhu Mythos, he fails to provide an objective direction, and therefore discounts the work of many successful, well-established authors who, in their own right, deserve recognition for their labors. However, if one needs a detailed history of the mythos, Joshi’s tome provides the best insight, but his biased attitude toward writers of the mythos (the undeserving) could deter readers from accepting his overall criticism.