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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Dead authors, live horrors: anthologies by Aickman and Matheson

Richard Matheson

Of the two men, an American is more likely to recognize the works, if not the name, of Richard Matheson (1926 – 2013), because so many have been adapted to the screen. For example, there is that classic Twilight Zone episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner . . . and 15 other episodes! And yet, in many ways, the stories of Robert Aickman (1914 -1981) are deeper in a literary Twilight Zone, even though he never wrote for the series. In this review, I’m going to talk primarily about two anthologies of their stories that I’ve read.

A Matheson novel that made it to the the big screen: Hell House

The Penguin Classic The Best of Richard Matheson (2017) demonstrates that Matheson was comfortable ranging all over science fiction as well as horror, and did good work in both. Often, of course, they overlap. For example, “Shipshape Home” spins a yarn about humans who become afraid that their apartment building is host to aliens. And there is humor, sometimes to be found in what otherwise would be dreadful places, as in “The Funeral.” But what drives a Matheson story is a normal person confronting the abnormal, or occasionally an abnormal person dealing with the normal world. A man confronts a killer truck in “Duel” (the basis for Steven Spielberg’s first TV movie) or suddenly find himself learning the knowledge in whatever he passes by in “One For the Books.” A boy wants to become a vampire in “Blood Son,” or a man realizes he’s a robot (or is he?) in “Deus Ex Machina.” “The Last Day” is just about how people react to the very last day.

What I found amazing is that all of these stories still seem fresh, even though many are foundational in sci-fi/horror pop culture. Critics used to joke that much early sci-fi was written in a very plain, simple style (think early Asimov, for example). But Matheson’s work shows that  a plain style can be versatile and memorable. Tell your story, tell it cleanly, make it memorable. That’s a Matheson story.

Robert Aickman

To judge from the anthology Compulsory Games (2018), Aickman was similar to Matheson in concentrating on how ordinary people confront the abnormal. But what distinguishes Aickman’s stories is how reality goes off the rails, as it always does. Aickman’s stories might be horror, they might be fantasy, but one cannot be sure. His characters live in surreal worlds, in which they may notice a river that wasn’t there before, or see humans manipulated as if they were mechanical contrivances. In Matheson stories, what is real is rarely in question; we know what elements are fantastic. But in Aickman stories, it is much harder to find the line between reality and unreality. It’s as if his stories don’t enter the Twilight Zone — they begin there.

The problem with such stories, to judge from this anthology, is that they can be very effective, but they can also simply be puzzling, and sometimes seem downright trivial. “The Coffin House” sets up a truly surrealistic situation, but resolves it in such a lame fashion that passes for mysterious that I was more annoyed than interested. And yet, hard though it may seem to believe, Aickman can make a perfectly gruesome and surreal story out of government indecision, as he does in “Residents Only.”

I’m happy to have read The Best of Richard Matheson and recommend it. Compulsory Games I’m less happy with. Maybe it’s the editor’s choice of stories. I’m interested enough to go look for some other collection of his stories. This one I’d recommend if surrealistic horror in a minor key is your cup of tea.

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The Coldest City for an Atomic Blonde

My partner is a cartoonist. So we take a particular interest in movies that are based on comics. For example, no sooner did we see The Death of Stalin, then she was on the phone to France, asking a friend to pick her up a copy of the French comic book it was based on.

But this post is about another comic book turned movie: The Coldest City (2012), which became the movie Atomic Blonde (2017). I saw the movie, unaware that it was based on a “graphic novel,” as we now call square-bound comics of some length. Since then, we’ve picked up said graphic novel and watched the movie together.

The premise of the graphic novel is that it’s 1989, the Berlin Wall is about to fall, and a crisis has hit British Intelligence (MI-6). There’s a list afoot which contains the names of every spy in Berlin. MI-6 dispatches agent Lorraine Broughton to get that list. Her contact in Berlin is the chief British agent there, Perceval, who’s thought to have “gone native.” Berlin turns out to be a snake pit of intelligence operatives, none of whom can be fully trusted . . . not even Broughton, as it turns out.

Broughton goes from brunette to blonde, because it’s Hollywood

Surprisingly, given the known proclivities of the director and the star’s role as a producer, the movie actually adheres fairly well to the novel in terms of atmosphere and general shape of the plot. Oh, there are twists: neither Broughton nor the list turn out to be quite what they were in the novel. And, given the track record of the director, it is no wonder there is much more physical action in the movie than in the novel. Still, one can trace the influence of the novel on the film very clearly.

The movie did only modestly well, although the are plans for a sequel. I suspect it’s because the plot in some respects is even more byzantine than in the novel. There’s a key plot point in the movie when the CIA agent passes a newspaper to Broughton. Understanding what Broughton learns from this is key to interpreting her motivation for her actions for the rest of the movie. But you don’t learn that until the very end of the movie. Even the graphic novel only hints at the issues, because this is one of the points at which the novel and movie diverge. In many ways, the movie is plotted more like an old Agatha Christie murder mystery, in which anything might be a clue, and your job as a viewer is to figure out which ones are significant. Fail, and the movie is in many ways unintelligible.

The acid test for understanding the movie is this question: can you figure out Broughton’s motivations in wanting to save Spyglass once Satchel’s cover is blown? If you can, the movie makes sense. Otherwise, you’ll wonder if the screenwriters were too clever by half.

Given all this, which is better? Once I could answer the question above, my answer is the movie. The movie’s plot is more unified than the novel’s. And the soundtrack, for someone who lived through the 1980s as I did, is gorgeous. On the other hand, I have to admit that the novel is more intelligible at first read, and can help in understanding the movie. And it does not pander to Hollywood conventions about glamorous women and happy endings, as the movie does.

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The arrival of summer

Who wouldn’t want Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania?

People argue about when summer begins. Is it when school lets out? Memorial Day? The summer solstice? The Fourth of July? No doubt in other parts of the world (especially in the southern hemisphere!), other dates are considered as well.

For me, the summer begins the evening of June 23: Midsummer Night’s Eve. For many years, I have sat down with a potable beverage and a copy of Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This year, I joined a group reading while drinking a bottle of hard cider. It was an appropriate choice: summer should be about nature and living things, and cider connects us to apples and orchards, one of the characteristic landscapes of New England, where I live.

Merlin had to have been beguiled in the summer!

Summer is the proper time for magic and fantasy. Hot, warm, lazy days, followed by nights when one can stroll about without needing a coat: it’s a time to be outdoors. The mind can drift where it might, mixing the trivial and the profound, the ordinary with the wondrous. The “Twilight Time” segment of the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed album captures the mood.

As a child, I spent summers watching lightning storms over a lake, wondering if I’d encounter Mary Stewart’s version of Merlin emerging out of some small thicket, sitting in a spruce tree far above everyone else while reading a book, or traveling on my bicycle to a state park with that great wonder, a waterfall!

The year I turned eighteen, the summer ended with a great transition: I went off to college, living away from home for the first time. There was magic at the end of that summer, the promise of adventures to come, a future opening up before me, and even a song about a “magic man” to listen to on the radio.

The landscape in the thermally active region is simply weird.
Credit: Wikipedia/Carl Lindberg)

As an adult, I once turned winter into summer. I went off on a vacation to New Zealand in February. I saw another country’s wonders. I hiked through a rain forest, visited thermal springs, and climbed a volcano, all the while reading of Maori legends and imagining other fantastic adventures. (There’s even a story on this blog that was an offshoot of that trip.) True, I never imagined someone filming Lord of the Rings there, but that has added yet another layer of magic in retrospect to the trip.

Most of us tend to lose much of our sense of wonder, of adventure, and of magic, as we grow older. I’ve been feeling it ebb myself for some years. Prosaic reality seems relentless. But this summer, I’ve decided it is time to recreate some of that old magic and fantasy. Exactly how, I’m not yet sure. But stick around the blog, and I’ll let you all know how it turns out!

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Still among the living

Well, I perpetrated short fiction again, this time with a horror theme. Presumed Dead is a short story I wrote in response to a challenge. It’s brought to you by the folks at Sci-Fi & Scary: Sci-Fi & Horror Reviews, News, and More, and yes, the blog is exactly what it says it is, sometimes serious, sometimes snarky, and where do they go those illustrations?

I’ve done surprisingly little straight horror on this blog, as my longer stories don’t usually quite fit that description even with horror elements in them, the vampires of Martha’s Children being one example. But some short stories qualify as horror. Dead Cellphone is a tasty little bit of supernatural and psychological horror. Death and Professor Appleton is a more traditional horror story, while On Huckman Causeway is in tone spiritual kin to Presumed Dead. And the shorter The Day After Halloween  and longer When the ghost came in from the cold are fair horror humor stories.

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I’ve not been writing fiction for the blog in recent months due to family and professional commitments. Not that I haven’t wanted to; this has been frustrating for me. So I’m happy to point you all to a very short story I wrote about alien life on another planet. It’s called “The Saturnian Rings of Life,” and you may find it here.

It’s brought to you by the blog Sci-Fi and Scary: Sci-Fi and Horror Reviews, News, and More. I’ve been watching this site grow into its name, with its emphasis on covering independent and small press authors and books, commenting on movies, and posting occasional simple silliness. So after you’ve read my story on their blog, mosey around a bit on it to see what else they have to offer, see if there is anything you like.

If you’re coming from that direction, because you want to check out my fiction, you might want to check out some of my shorter horror fiction, “The Day After Halloween” for humor, “Dead Cellphone” for horror with a bit more angst. If you’re feeling ambitious, there are several novel-length stories listed under the blog’s header. Summer of the Netherfield Witch is quite different from either of the short stories, and not a bad place to start.

Not those rings, though!
Photo courtesy of NASA, and isn’t it gorgeous!

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Walking the line between fantasy and reality: two films from the 1920s

The first seduction — Flesh and the Devil

I was recently teaching a course on the Roaring Twenties in the United States. To do this properly, I ended up watching a great many more silent films than I’d ever seen before. Along the way, I stumbled across two films from that era that had a great deal in common, including skirting the borderline between fantasy and reality. There two films are Flesh and the Devil (1926) and Pandora’s Box (1929).

Never heard of either of them? But I’ll bet you’ll recognize the name of the female lead in Flesh and the Devil: Greta Garbo. The female lead in Pandora’s Box is less well known today, but she does have a devoted fan following. Her name is Louise Brooks. Flesh and the Devil made the Swedish-born Garbo a star in Hollywood, while Brooks abandoned Hollywood for Germany to make Pandora’s Box (German title: Die Büchse der Pandora).

Must look like a sorrowful widow when I go on trial for killing a man — Pandora’s Box

The femme fatale was a much beloved character type of the 1920s, not just in the movies, but in literature as well. Ideally, she was mysterious, seductive, promiscuous, and destructive. Garbo’s Felicitas and Brooks’s Lulu fit the ideal. Felicitas begins by seducing a young man, only to be caught by her husband. Lulu is an older man’s mistress who thinks nothing of seducing the man’s son. Naturally, men die for these women, although the women will torment them first.

There’s a whiff of the supernatural about both women. Felicitas’s death leads the two men fighting over her (this time) acting as if they’ve just been released from a spell they’ve been under. We are left to wonder if Felicitas was supernatural, a witch or demon. While Pandora’s Box up front lets us know we are dealing with mythological themes, as well as being a double entendre for Lulu’s femininity. Yet another legendary figure enters the story after Lulu has unleashed a great many evils, just like Pandora, although Lulu’s evils specifically affect those who lust after her.

So are we going to kill each other over Garbo, like sensible men? — Flesh and the Devil

Most of the silent films I had seen before preparing this course had featured actors being overly dramatic in gestures and facial expressions to compensate for their inability to convey their feelings directly by speaking. So it was a revelation to see how subtle Garbo was as Felicitas, able to convey a wide range of emotions with just her face, and an even wider range when we could see her body. In contrast, in Pandora’s Box, it’s not the range of emotions Louise Brooks conveys, as her ability to portray a woman who is seemingly innocent, but in reality far, far from it. Both women are mysteries: Garbo’s Felicitas lures you with hints of hidden emotions, while Brooks’s Lulu presents men with a facade too easily mistaken for her real personality.

It’s heresy to think so, but I think Louse Brooks does a better job at acting in her other German 1929 film, Diary of a Lost Girl.

Are the women just normal, albeit mysterious, seductive, and destructive? Or are they somehow supernatural? One can watch the films and interpret them either way. It’s easy for me, as a man, to see these films as men trying to interpret how women affect them, and realizing they don’t fully understand female sexuality and its effects on them. But one could view these films from a more feminine perspective as the difficulties society throws in the way of women who want to unleash their sexuality. Considering the fates of both Felicitas and Lulu, the movies do not offer a comforting moral for women.

Garbo would go on to hit after hit, easily making the transition to talkies, and being nominated for three Academy Awards in the 1930s. Brooks would make two more well-regarded films in Europe before returning to the United States, where she was never again able to secure a starring role in a major picture. Despite their quite different careers in the 1930s, neither would act in films after 1941. Garbo would become a famous recluse, dying in 1990, age 84. Brooks would be all but forgotten for decades, but be rediscovered and actually become a film critic-historian in her later years, dying in 1985, age 78.

If either of these films sound at all interesting, I’d suggest tackling each paired with another film by the same actress. If you watch Flesh and the Devil, see Garbo in a talkie, maybe the more lighthearted Ninotchka (1939). For Brooks, I’d recommend pairing Pandora’s Box with her other German film, Diary of a Lost Girl. Critics seem to think it a weaker film, but it gives Brooks a wider range of character and feeling than Pandora’s Box, and is thus to me a bit more satisfying.


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