Review: The Disciples of Cthulhu (1976)

Time to haul out the Necronomicon!

So let me describe to you the typical Cthulhu Mythos story formula. Adult male comes across hints of evil. He does research, uncovering various writings that point to an alien evil that could destroy Mankind. Finally, he confronts the alien evil. The outcome is rarely good.

To make it clear this is a Cthulhu Mythos story, the writer includes many references to classic Mythos stories, certainly Lovecraft’s, often those of his contemporaries. And since repeating old stuff is boring, the writer tosses in some new deity/book/band of followers. By now, the Mythos has so many forbidden tomes that they could stock an entire college library . . . which incidentally is where many of them are kept.

H. P. Lovecraft did a lot of this sort of writing himself. But he had a fertile imagination, and rang many changes on this one theme, as, say, “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” demonstrate. His successors were not always so talented.

Back in the 1970s, Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos were enjoying a revival. Edward P. Berglund put together what has been described as the first all-pro collection of new stories in the Mythos, The Disciples of Cthulhu(DAW Books, 1976). After reading a blog post about rock music and horror at Duke De Richleau’s Nocturnal Revelries, I dug this volume out of the dusty shelves of my library to see how it has stood up after over 40 years. The answer? Meh.

There are some illustrious and not-so-illustrious names here. Sadly, the most illustrious in the eyes of Lovecraft fans, Robert Bloch, is here only to provide an introduction. It’s a pity, because elsewhere Bloch has expressed regret that he wrote most of his own Mythos stories when he was still learning his craft. What he might have done in the mid-1970s!

The main difficulty is that most of the writers were straightjacketed into the formulaic Cthulhu Mythos story plot described above. Considering there has been some arguments, then and since, about what qualifies as Cthulhu Mythos, this at least ensured that all of the stories definitely belonged (with one odd exception, noted below). But it severely restricted the writers’ ability to display their talents. Whether a story succeeded or failed depended on how much they could innovate on the formula. Let’s take a look and see.

[N.B. This collection was reprinted in 1996 with the Brennan and Carter stories swapped out for ones by Robert M. Price and A. A. Attanasio. If that’s the edition you found, you’re on your own for two stories.]

“The Fairground Horror” by Brian Lumley. Set in a freak show in England. Give Lumley credit: he went to great effort to build up his background. He’s a decent writer. But there’s no pizzazz here. 2/5

“The Silence of Erika Zann” by James Wade. You can’t get more derivative than this reworking of a Lovecraft story not usually associated with the Mythos. And yet it’s the one story from this collection I distinctly remembered after 40 years, because it’s well and briefly told. 5/5

“All-Eye” by Bob Van Laerhoven. In his last two pages, the author opened up a plotline that was a complete departure from the formula. If only he’d kept going! 3/5

“The Tugging” by Ramsey Campbell. Like his fellow British writer, Campbell relocated the Mythos to an imaginary English locale. Otherwise the two authors were quite different. Campbell’s horror was reinforced by the psychological problems of his protagonist, something “All-Eye” tried to do but not so thoroughly. 3/5

“Where Yidhra Walks” by Walter C. DeBrill, Jr. A Texan “Shadow Over Innsmouth” story. DeBrill’s innovation was that the relationship between the alien entity and its human followers doesn’t follow the usual “half-breed” formula. 2/5

“The Feaster From Afar” by Joseph Payne Brennan. August Derleth meets Frank Belknap Long’s “The Space Eaters.” And that’s all you have to know. 1/5

I bought this and de Camp’s Lovecraft biography at about the same time. I deep-six’ed this one some years later.

“Zoth-Ommog” by Lin Carter. Carter once wrote a book trying to define exactly what was and wasn’t Cthulhu Mythos. He needn’t have bothered: he tried to cram it all into this story, which suffered as a result. That’s one danger of the formula: too many Cthulhu Mythos references, and you’re not telling a story, you’re trying to prove how clever you are at incorporating the Mythos into your story. 1/5

“Darkness, My Name Is” by Eddy C. Bertin. You are either going to love this story or hate it. Either it’s an intriguing attempt to explain the utterly alien, or a lot of pretentious babble. A decently atmospheric build-up either adds to the story or keeps it from being total rubbish. 4/5

“The Terror From the Depths” by Fritz Leiber. I like Fritz Leiber. I don’t particularly like this story. And yet I admit it has a peculiar charm. Apparently Leiber took a story he’d initially written in the 1930s and rewrote it for this anthology. So it has a few quaint touches. 3/5

So there you have it. Average story rating is only 2.67, hence the “meh.”

Why so poor? Cthulhu Mythos stories can go in two directions if they are to succeed. They can try to evoke an alien horror, in which case atmosphere is 9/10ths of the story, as Lovecraft so well knew. Or they can tell a story about human beings who happen to run into these alien beings. In that case, plot and character development become much more important. (Think “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”) As a rule, if you’re going long, you can’t rely just on atmosphere; you must engage in character development.

In this anthology, instead of either direction, the emphasis seems to have been on tying the story into the Cthulhu Mythos. As an early anthology of new material, this may have seemed an essential strategy. So a cookie-cutter story such as Brennan’s made it in. And Carter was not the only writer to weigh down his story with a survey of Mythos apparatus. Leiber was another, to the detriment of his story.

The emphasis on the Mythos didn’t have to be a death sentence. Wade’s story showed that a derivative tale could still sparkle. It had spirit, it had twists. And it spent less than one page laying out its Lovecraftian background. It didn’t need to do more, because the Lovecraftian elements were an integral part of the story. Fritz Leiber’s story came closer to success than many of the others here, because sometimes his namechecked Mythos characters actually help drive the plot.

Again, so there you have it: Cthulhu Mythos circa 1976, with both the Mythos and several writers trying to take wing. This isn’t the Mythos’s Dangerous Visions. But neither is it a complete failure.

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About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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9 Responses to Review: The Disciples of Cthulhu (1976)

  1. crimsonprose says:

    When you say ‘alien horror’ do you mean something arriving from outer space, or just something none human/known beast?
    I never encountered Lovecraft in my younger years. It may be his books didn’t get the lift to cross the Atlantic, or maybe I was too involved with reading the sci-fi side of fantasy that I just didn’t see them. Either way, I enjoyed your review and analysis. 🙂

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Lovecraft’s alien horrors do generally come from somewhere else, but that may be from another dimension as well as from outer space.

      His stories probably hadn’t much crossed the pond to Britain in your youth. In truth, they barely survived here in the decades following his death in 1937. Lumley and Campbell were the first British writers of any note to write in a Lovecraftian vein; Colin Wilson, after first loathing Lovecraft’s stories, ultimately wrote at least two novels with a Lovecraftian apparatus.

  2. Lilyn G says:

    Ah – this is unfortunate. But I’m glad you reviewed it because its exactly the type of book I would have snapped up at the used bookstore.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Wish I had better news. I should have realized where this would go when I picked up after so many years and said to myself, “I don’t remember much of anything about what was in this.”

  3. lly1205 says:

    I just bought my brother a copy of some of the best of H. P. Lovecraft, waiting to see how he likes it!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Coincidentally, I just got another blogger I know interested in reading HPL’s “Fungi from Yuggoth.” Helps that it is online, for my friend has a limited budget.

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