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Book Review

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The Madness of Cthulhu


Authors: Harry Turtledove, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Silverberg, John Shirley, Caitlin R. Eiernan, et al.
Edited by: S. T. Joshi
Publisher: Titan Books
RRP: £u8.99, US $15.95, Cdn $17.95
ISBN: 978 1 78116 452 5
Publication Date: 17 October 2014

In the period between his death and now, the works of H. P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) have become both revered and influential, a very different position to that which was taken in his own lifetime with many of his ideas and themes now appearing in other writers works. So, it is little wonder that, as well as collections of his own writing being reprinted, anthologies influenced by his work should appear.

The Madness of Cthulhu (2014. 299 pages) is the latest to roll off the line, following a number of similar books that have been released this year. The anthology contains contributions from sixteen writers and depending on your own choice of reading there will be names here that you will recognise. The book has a forward from Jonathan Maberry detailing his first introduction to Lovecraft’s world, as well as an introduction from S. T. Joshi, the one person who probably knows the most about the writer than any other.

In many ways Lovecraft’s themes were both universal, that of horror and fear, but also contained specific elements such as Cthulhu. The idea that the universe is both more strange and terrifying than humans could comprehend has often revolved around his stories of aliens, vast in intelligence, which created animal live on the planet only to fall victim to one of their own slave races and now lay in the depths of the planet, deep in slumber, waiting for a passing fool to awaken them.

His most famous story, At the Mountains of Madness is reflected in many of the stories. Arthur C. Clarke’s At the Mountains of Murkiness recalls the expedition, but from a more comic perspective, which mimics Lovecraft’s original tale. There are tales of similar expeditions to the frozen wastes of the north and south, The Dog Handler’s Tale, by Donald Tyson posits a similar failed adventure. Again in the frozen wastes the Devils Bathtub, by Lois H. Gresh tells of the discovery of a strange new life form which arranges itself like a wall, a wall which will absorb and, in one way, preserve any intelligent creature it comes across.

Of course, there would be more than one way to approach the frozen continental shelves of either of the poles and Michael Shea’s Under the Shelf approaches the seat of the gods from under the water, with predictably dire consequences. It would seem that not even going to the poles yourself can lead you into danger as Heather Graham’s, Cthulhu Rising demonstrates that even in the open water, danger may still find you.

Where many of the short stories are happy to not only borrow heavily from Lovecraft, but also ape the structure, individual or expedition moves slowly towards something creepy, usually ending in death. Joseph S. Pulver SR’s White Fire, at least has tried to structure his story in a novel fashion, with his protagonist looking back at how he arrived at his fate, but also making the cold and snow in which he finds himself dying as big a monster as anything else which he might be found.

The Witness in the Dark, by John Shirley takes an altogether different view of Lovecraft’s mythos. The eon living, god like creatures are so different to humans that the sight of them is usually enough to send most men mad, that’s if they avoid being killed, but Shirley lets us peek behind the curtain with a tale which recounts mans first meeting with its maker strictly from the Elder Cultures point of view. On the one hand it is laudable that he should attempt something unique in this collection, with most of the stories involving either mans interaction with the Elder Culture or stories which veer mostly towards horror, but then it does rather remove most of the mystery. Personally I found it one of the better stories in the collection.

How the Gods Bargain, by William Browning Spencer moves tangentially away from those set in the frozen wastes and takes on another of Lovecraft’s themes, that of forbidden knowledge. The tale tells of three friends which find something peculiar in the woods. It’s more of a ‘things which go bump in the night’ type story with Lovecraftian elements intertwined. Likewise J. C. Koch’s Little Lady touches on both the themes of hidden knowledge and foul things lurking in the dark and A Quirk of the Mistral, by Jonathan Thomas is a warning tale that some things are just better left alone.

With A Mountain Walked by Caitlin R. Kiernan, we are back in the old west of America and thematically into a tale about forbidden knowledge. Oddly enough, Diana of the Hundred Breasts, by Robert Silverberg could almost be a companion piece as both feature strange female creatures which could be either alien or supernatural in original. Although they are placed in very different settings, thematically they are very similar.

Also along the theme of forbidden knowledge, K. M. Tonso’s Last Rites takes the expedition from The Mountains of Madness as actually having happened, although their findings were discredited. In later years, Marsh becomes fascinated by the tale and is given a peek into what really happened.

Some tales twist the original tale for their own stories. The Fillmore Shoggoth, by Harry Turtledove, is set in 1968 where the existence of the extraterrestrial creatures is an accepted fact, although not a problem until an iceberg containing shoggoth lands in an American city. This contains less in the way of horror and the acceptance of the unusual give the story more of the feel of The Walking Dead, with its acceptance of the unusual, as it looks at ordinary people surviving extraordinary circumstances.

Slightly standing alone Melanie Tem’s Cantata may well be inspired by Lovecraft, but I’d be blowed to see how this was not just a strange tale as I’m not sure that I could discern which of his tropes or themes were actually contained in the story, in fact the tale would not have been out of place in Ballard’s collection The Illustrated Man. Likewise, Darrell Schweitzer’s The Warm, seems more like a traditional horror story than one directly influenced by Lovecraft.

It’s quite an eclectic collection, but one in which you will find something to enjoy whether you’re looking to be creeped out or to stand in wonder at star faring creatures of unimaginable age and indifference.


Charles Packer

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