REVIEW: The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos by S.T. Joshi

As someone who has been writing quite a bit about Lovecraft of late, it occurred to me that I should probably try and familiarise myself with some of the scholarly discourse surrounding his work and its legacy.

Aside from Lovecraft’s racism, the most obvious point of entry seemed to be the question of whether Lovecraft’s stories merely overlap or whether the referencing, shared names, and recurring settings amount to anything akin to an extended literary universe or ‘mythos’.

As a Lovecraft reader, my assumption has always been that while Lovecraft had this list of Named Entities that he would return to in story after story, said Named Entities were never deployed in a particularly coherent or consistent fashion.

I assumed that whenever Lovecraft needed one of his characters to read from some mind-shredding book of forbidden lore, he’d drop a reference to the Necronomicon because having the Necronomicon feature in a load of different stories strengthened its symbolic power as a representation of ‘forbidden lore that will melt your shit’. I did not occur to me that Lovecraft might have had a clear idea as to what the Necronomicon actually contained.

Similarly, when Lovecraft made repeated references to Arkham or Kingsport, I assumed it was because he wanted to set the action in either a coastal town or a mid-sized city and rather than using real-world places that he could ‘get wrong’ he used made-up places which, though inspired by the real world, could be bent and twisted to suit the needs of a given story. It did not occur to me that Lovecraft might have had these fictional towns all planned out in his head like Tolkien drawing maps of the Shire. In other words, I assumed that, for Lovecraft, a commitment to coherent world-building was much less of a priority than producing stories that ‘worked’ and hit specific thematic and affective beats.

The first inkling that maybe people were not reading Lovecraft in the same way I was came when I started encountering Joshi’s repeated angry references to the so-called ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ and while I had always assumed that the term was just a means of referring to the content of Lovecraft’s stories, it is a term that has actually been subject to a surprising amount of discourse. This somewhat frustrating book purports to describe the rise and fall of one very specific vision of that mythos, but it does so using entirely the wrong set of critical tools.

Before I get into the arguments deployed in this book, I think it’s important to understand what it is Joshi means when he refers to the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ and in order to understand this, you first need to understand fandom brain.

Back in the day, someone on the Lois McMaster Bujold mailing list coined the terms ‘Doylist’ and ‘Watsonian’ to refer to different forms of reasoning regarding canonical bodies of text.

When trying to explain why certain creative decisions were made in the writing of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Doylists tend to gravitate towards accounts that emphasise the agency of the author Arthur Conan Doyle. The canonical example of Doylist reasoning is that Watson’s war wound appears to move locations from story to story because Doyle either got it wrong or needed the wound to move for the sake of narrative convenience and assumed that nobody would either notice or care. Watsonians, on the other hand, will start from the assumption that the world of the Sherlock Holmes stories is internally consistent and so will engage with any inconsistencies and oddities by looking to explain them in terms of established canonical facts, reasonable assumptions about the type of world the stories describe, or plausible speculation about what might going on off-stage during the events of the stories. The canonical example of Watsonian reasoning is the way that Moffat’s Sherlock accounts for the wandering war wound by suggesting that Watson’s suffering is partly psycho-somatic and so prone to flaring up, disappearing, and moving location depending upon the character’s stress levels.

While my approach to texts has varied over time, I have found myself coming to the works of H.P. Lovecraft as an extreme Doylist in that I don’t assume coherence of named-things from story to story and if something appears in a story, I treat it as an instrument used by Lovecraft to evoke a feeling, explore an idea, or give voice to some personal feeling or neurosis. In fact, looking back over the pieces I’ve written about Lovecraft’s fiction, I think I tend to read Lovecraft’s fiction specifically through what I know of his feelings, personality, and world-view.

This being said, while I am about as extreme a Doylist as you are likely to encounter, it is not possible to be a complete Doylist without completely succumbing to critic-brain and becoming so detached from the works in question that they lose all emotional resonance. To become an absolute Doylist one would have to view all language and narrative in purely instrumental terms and reduce all stories to a series of cognitive behavioural flow-charts where ‘Cthulhu’ refers only to an attempted invocation of particular mnemonic clusters or cultural signifiers. This is not to say that I find this or any other stance absurd, my point is merely to establish that Doylism and Watsonianism are not so much alternative approaches as points on a spectrum designating a range of preferred approaches to textual engagement.

While Joshi never uses the terms Doylism and Watsonianism, he does seem to acknowledge that there are a variety of different stances one can take with regards to the Named Entities that feature in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. One key distinction he makes quite early on is acknowledging that one can be more-or-less Watsonian with regards to a number of different classes of Named Entities. For example, believing that there is some kind of deliberate ordering to Lovecraft’s depictions of his gods and monsters in no way commits one to believing that Lovecraft is systematic in his depiction of either his fictional books or his geographic locations. Indeed, one can be a maximalist Watsonian with regards to elements of the setting and still accept that the depiction of books like the Necronomicon is inconsistent because the books are nothing but human attempts to understand stuff that is supposed to drive you insane and so it would be internally consistent for the world of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction to have a coherent cosmology and setting described in tomes of forbidden lore that seem to contradict both each other and themselves. As someone who has never assumed any coherence of setting, I found it quite intriguing that some people might take a Watsonian approach on some questions and a Doylist approach on others.

Another key distinction that Joshi brings to bear is to suggest that Lovecraft’s own ideas about internal consistency changed over time. In fact, Joshi suggests that while Lovecraft may have started out with no interest in internal consistency, work on The Call of Cthulhu in 1925 appears to have triggered a change of approach in that Lovecraft started making references in his journals to his “complete development scheme”. According to Joshi, Lovecraft’s approach would shift again in the early 1930s when he hit upon the idea of aiming his writing at a particular emotional vibe, one that could not be eclipsed by advances in scientific thought. In a letter to Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft refers to this emotional vibe as a “sense of outsideness”:

 “I refer to the aesthetic crystallisation of that burning & inextinguishable feeling of mixed wonder & oppression which the sensitive imagination experiences upon scaling itself & its restrictions against the vast & provocative abyss of the unknown.”

This third phase of Lovecraft’s artistic development coincides with the writing of At the Mountains of Madness and Joshi believes that it was part of a gradual movement away from the traditionally fantastical and towards the science fictional and the materialistic. According to Joshi, this final phase of Lovecraft’s development saw an increased desire for coherence and consistency although that desire was more a question of thematic unity than systematic world-building and so it seems reasonable to conclude that Lovecraft started out as an instrumental Doylist only for this position to soften albeit never to the point of assuming Watsonian-style coherence.

Though useful up to a point, these distinctions are about as fine-grained and nuanced as Joshi’s thinking gets as The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos isn’t so much a book about different styles of engagement with Lovecraft’s writing as it is an attack on one very specific Watsonian approach to the stories.

The roots of the problem lie in Lovecraft’s relationship with money. Lovecraft may have cut his teeth as an amateur journalist but when the family money dried up and his marriage collapsed, he knew that he needed to either sell his work or starve. Aside from taking menial gigs like ghost-writing and re-writing, Lovecraft spent years banging his head against a marketplace that struggled to understand him. Having received the message that his work had little commercial value, Lovecraft invited people to make merry sport with all of his ideas in the hope that having his Named Entities pop up again and again in published works would result in there being a demand for his own ideas. While this plan did kind of work, it took until the end of Lovecraft’s life for him to discover an audience and by then his own creative faculties were starting to fade. This created a real demand for stories that were not only written in the Lovecraftian style, but which also made use of Lovecraft’s Named Entities.

The theory appears to have involved inviting other writers to make used of these Named Entities in the hope that having named sinister tomes and inhuman monsters turn up in loads of different stories would make their appearance in his own work even more powerful as readers would not only be drawing on the dramatic and symbolic energies accumulated throughout Lovecraft’s works but also on the resonances added to those Names by their appearance in the work of others. Being quite a non-confrontational and collegial fellow by nature, Lovecraft never bothered to provide his friends with what contemporary TV writers would call a ‘series bible’ and so different writers tended to use the different names in their own ways. This never seemed to bother Lovecraft as he was more interested in having his Named Entities acquire dramatic charge through use than he was having the exact nature of these Named Entities nailed down.

The issue with this approach seems to have been that while Lovecraft may have been a Doylist about his own creations and intensely relaxed about how all of these Named Entities were used by other writers, not everyone was working from the same set of assumptions. This is where things start to get really complicated.

The crux of the problem is that Lovecraft’s IP only started gaining value after Lovecraft had gotten into the habit of encouraging people to use all of his ideas for free. Joshi’s book is full of stories of people writing respectful but utterly wrong-headed letters espousing some weird theory about Lovecraft’s Named Entities only for Lovecraft to respond with avuncular encouragement for them to write the story regardless of what it actually contained. Even the more commercially successful members of the Lovecraft circle would drop references to books and gods that were completely inconsistent with the core texts but this never seemed to bother Lovecraft all that much.

This posed a real problem for magazine editors and fans as without the kind of gate-keeping that copyright law was designed to enable, people struggled to know what was and was not a properly Lovecraftian story. Indeed, this book contains a number of stories of people having their stories turned down because editors assumed they were infringing on Lovecraft’s copyright only for Lovecraft to write a letter waving these concerns away.

Lovecraft’s attitude towards his own IP posed serious problems not only for fans but also for magazine editors. From a legal point of view, magazine editors were concerned about the possibility of people stealing Lovecraft’s characters and so they instinctively deferred to copyright law only for Lovecraft to grant anyone and everyone the permission to make use of his most memorable creations. From a conceptual point of view, it is worth remembering that the late-19th and early-20th Century saw a real sea-change in how Western culture dealt with the word ‘fiction’. Prior to this era, the term ‘fiction’ referred to an attempted deception because there wasn’t really a category for things that were false in so far as they were not real but true in so far as you could say things about them that could be either correct or incorrect. Many early works of what we now think of as fiction dealt with this philosophical problem by claiming to be something other than fiction. Hence the popularity of religious and mythological themes in early music as well as the fact that Shakespeare’s plays were presented as historical. Similar conceits were used by early novelists who were forever claiming to have found their stories in a variety of submerged trunks and hidden caches of letters. Indeed, when Robinson Crusoe was first published, people demanded that Daniel Defoe present this man in public. According to the book As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality by Michael T. Saler, these weird conceits would only start melting away when people learned how to use a form of ironic reasoning that allowed them to argue about the content of fictional worlds without committing themselves to the idea that Sherlock Holmes was literally a dude living on Baker Street in London.

Back around the time of Lovecraft’s death, this type of ironic rationality was still a relatively new technology and it’s interesting to note that while Lovecraft never completely embraced the technology with regards to his own works, the people who read his stories almost certainly did. Indeed, while August Derleth is arguably best known for his relationship with Lovecraft, he also admired Arthur Conan Doyle and published a series of stories and novels starring Solar Pons, a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes.

In other words, when Lovecraft failed to regiment and formalise either the legal or the canonical nature of his extended literary universe, magazine editors and fans stepped in to resolve the problem but in order for there to be a legal and canonical ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ there first needed to be ways in which stories could fail to qualify for inclusion and rather than using theme and vibe as a unifying structures, fandom used ironic reasoning to turn a lose series of thematic connections into a coherent literary universe and then projected backwards onto the work of the far more liberal and Doylist Lovecraft.

If I seem vague and make frequent use of words like “Appears” and Seems” it’s because Joshi is less interested in the big picture of how the Cthulhu Mythos came to be and more interested in analysing individual stories and deciding whether or not they embody ‘correct’ interpretations of the core works. This approach may have resulted in a great resource for anyone who is interested in going back and looking at the (now often long out of print) stories that were published under the aegis of the Mythos, but there is virtually nothing on the legal, cultural, or social aspects of how the Mythos emerged and how it came to dominate. While The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos is undoubtedly an impressive piece of work that showcases Joshi’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Lovecraft’s fiction, non-fiction, and correspondence, I don’t think that the book uses the right set of tools to tell the story promised in the title.

Based on the title, this book should have been about how one particular understanding of Lovecraft’s work not only rose to dominance but came to dominate so thoroughly that people started to do stuff like alter the original texts in an effort to make them a better fit for the dominant paradigm. The problem is that this book is about 80% close textual analysis and while textual analysis will certainly get you to the point of being able to say that this dominant paradigm was ‘wrong’, ‘erroneous’, ‘incomplete’, or based on a blinkered and tendentious reading of the core texts, it will not allow you to describe how or why that paradigm came to dominate in the first place. The result is a bit like someone writing a book about the ‘Rise and Fall of the Nicene Creed’ and having about 80% of the book be quotes from the Bible and a theologian angrily declaring that Catholic conceptions of the Trinity are wrong and aesthetically inferior to those of the Orthodox church. I mean sure… that kind of book might be fun and detailed textual scholarship will help you establish the textual basis for a particular reading and why other readings might be wrong but if you are interested in the history of Christian thought you do eventually have to look up from the Bible and start talking about intellectual fashions, real-world power dynamics, church politics and the historical actions of individual members of the church.

The problem with The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos is that Joshi rarely bothers to look up from the sacred texts; there’s little mention of opposition to the dominant paradigm, how that paradigm came to dominate, how the paradigm was enforced or how that power eventually ebbed away. In fact, a more accurate title for this book would have been What August Derleth and the Authors he hired got Wrong about the works of H.P. Lovecraft but, given that August Derleth died over fifty years ago and that most of his works are now long out of print, I can understand how a less accurate but more interesting title came to be chosen.

So what did Derleth actually get wrong? Well… according to Joshi, Derleth was a balls-to-the-wall Watsonian who assumed that all of the various parts of Lovecraft’s stories connected up behind the scenes. When faced with an inconsistency or a contradiction he would, like most people afflicted with fandom brain, come up with in-world explanations as to how mutually-exclusive and contradictory sets of ‘facts’ could all hold true.

Derleth’s second sin lay in the fact that, aside from asserting the existence of a coherent Cthulhu Mythos, Derleth’s version of the Mythos was at complete thematic loggerheads with the tone of the original stories and the outsider materialism that Lovecraft explicitly espoused towards the end of his life. It’s not just that Derleth downplayed the more existential elements of the original stories, he actively championed the idea that Lovecraft’s works described this weird pseudo-Christian battle between the forces of good and evil in which both humanity and the Earth were of vital importance. Aside from touching on a number of Christian themes, Derleth’s interpretation of Lovecraft also suggested the existence of rivalries between the gods based upon crude Magic: The Gathering-style elemental alignments. I won’t go on at length about the wrong-headedness of Derleth’s interpretation but the back of this particular set of interpretations was broken way back in 1972 when Richard L. Tierney produced a half-page article entitled “The Derleth Mythos”, forever driving a wedge between what Lovecraft wrote and what Derleth said he wrote.

As you would expect given Joshi’s expertise and choice of tools, his exploration of Derleth’s errors is both comprehensive and devastating, which only serves to raise the question of how this interpretation of Lovecraft ever came to dominate and what that ‘domination’ actually involved, questions that Joshi seems reluctant to address as they would involve moving away from close textual analysis and adopting a different set of critical tools.

According to my research, Derleth started out as a vocal fan of Lovecraft’s work, this allowed him to forge a close bond with Lovecraft. However, when Lovecraft died, he named a young man called Robert Hayward Barlow as his literary executor. Lovecraft served as Barlow’s mentor and encouraged him to work across a number of forms and disciplines and while Barlow would later go on to find some success as a sculptor and an anthropologist, he was barely in his 20s when Lovecraft died and he found himself having to run Lovecraft’s literary estate. Through methods I have not yet managed to work out, Barlow eventually found himself being usurped by August Derleth who assumed control first of the literary estate and then of Arkham House, a small press publisher set up to keep Lovecraft’s writings in print.

To this day, some would argue that Arkham House retain the rights to those Lovecraft stories that have not yet arrived in the public domain. Others –including Joshi — have argued that, seeing as August Derleth never had a legal right to the Lovecraft estate in the first place, Arkham House’s copyright claims have no real basis in law. Even if this were not the case, what claims Arkham House might once have had on Lovecraft’s stories have probably dissolved given their absolute failure to either release a single book or make a copyright claim since the death of Derleth’s widow in 2010.

So given that Derleth never had the right to make money from Lovecraft’s stories, how did he come to have so much control over the man’s legacy that he was allowed to make editorial changes to releases of both Lovecraft’s stories and correspondence? This too falls beyond the purvey of this book, but it seems to me that Derleth assumed de facto control over Lovecraft’s legacy by giving people what they wanted: They not only wanted someone who would enforce copyright, they also wanted someone to police the canon so that the literary universe could expand in a coherent fashion. As Lovecraft’s apparent literary executor, Derleth got to decide not only which stories got republished but also which bits of which stories got sneakily edited out. He could also selectively edit Lovecraft’s correspondence and non-fiction writings to lend himself legitimacy and the fact that he was in the business of producing collections of stories written in the ‘Lovecraftian style’ meant that he was free to decide what said ‘Lovecraftian style’ entailed.

Another frustrating omission from The Rise and Fall of The Cthulhu Mythos is the role played by the RPG publisher Chaosium in reinforcing the perceived legitimacy of the Cthulhu Mythos. Call of Cthulhu may only have been published in the early 1980s (well over a decade after the death of Derleth) but the text of the game is full of references to Derlethian tropes and the more pulpish and two-fisted elements of Call of Cthulhu undoubtedly owe more to the types of stories that Derleth published than the types of stories Lovecraft wrote. While most of the Derleth Mythos stories are now long out of print, many of their last known appearances were in short story collections produced by Chaosium in partnership with the then-ailing Arkham House.

While it may be romantic to suggest that a bunch of Lovecraft nerds scrutinised the holy texts and found the flaws in Derleth’s interpretation, it seems far more likely (and, dare I say, materialistic) to suggest that the Cthulhu Mythos rose because Derleth took the money he made from re-publishing Lovecraft and pumped it back into publishing stories and non-fiction pieces that were consistent with his weirdly specific interpretation of the core texts. Conversely, the Cthulhu Mythos fell because Arkham House always struggled to turn a profit and that when first Derleth and then his widow died, the market for stories based upon his interpretation dried up and completely blew away.

Obviously, this is quite a crude reconstruction of historical events based upon a few half-remembered essays and a spot of googling. The frustrating thing is that while I was able to piece together a basic narrative of how the Cthulhu Mythos rose and fell, this narrative is entirely absent from the body of this book. There’s no mention of Derleth usurping the guy Lovecraft designated as the executor of his literary estate, there’s no mention of what happened to Arkham House, there’s no real attempt to re-count how opinions of the Mythos might have changed over time and there’s absolutely no recognition of the broader scholarship about ironic reasoning and the invention of the extended literary universe. While Joshi may well have written about these things elsewhere, this book finds him utterly uninterested in anything other than pointing out how other people’s readings of Lovecraft have been factually wrong, and therein lays a serious problem.

When the Derleth Mythos fell, it hit the ground so hard that it was completely buried. It’s not just that Lovecraft nerds no longer believe in Derleth’s interpretation, it’s that the legal and textual basis for a lot of Arkham House’s output has been undermined to the point where pretty much all of its titles are now out of print and Derleth’s heirs have made it clear that they have no interest in doing anything with the company. In other words, even if someone wanted to put out a collection of Derlethian Mythos stories, I suspect they would struggle to either secure the rights or find a market. That may be ‘correct’ and ‘just’ but it’s also a little bit sad.

Literary criticism is an art not a science and the defining characteristic of bad criticism is not factual inaccuracy but dullness. Derleth’s interpretation of the Mythos may have had little to no textual basis, but it did (along with all of the money Arkham House made from their monopoly on Lovecraft re-prints) inspire a lot of very weird and interesting takes on Lovecraft’s original ideas. Joshi admits as much throughout the book as he accepts that authors like Ramsay Campbell and Colin Wilson did really interesting things with Lovecraft’s Named Entities despite the fact that their takes on Lovecraft were as ‘wrong’ as the weird Doctor Who fan mash-ups pumped out by people like Brian Lumley.

We live in an age where Lovecraft and his Named Entities inspire hundreds of writers producing a wide variety of story types, and hardly any of them are basing their works on ‘correct’ understandings of Lovecraft’s materialism. Lovecraft is a writer who belongs to us all and that collective ownership means that everyone is now free to produce their own appropriations of the mythos. The true story of the rise and fall of the Cthulhu Mythos is not that August Derleth was ‘wrong’ but that the Lovecraft circle now includes everyone who wishes to be a member. Given that Lovecraft’s approach to people working with his Named Entities was almost always to encourage them to write their own stories, I think that what people do with Lovecraft today is far closer to his original intentions than anything produced under the aegis of either Arkham House or the variety of Mythos anthologies edited by Joshi himself.

Admittedly, this book was written some time ago but there’s something very sad about the way that Joshi appears to have remained stuck in an age where readings of Lovecraft were true or false rather than fun or boring. The correct response to Derleth’s attempt to police the correct understanding of Lovecraft’s work is not to replace said understanding with a more correct but no less monolithic interpretation, it’s to kill the literary cop inside our heads and embrace the artistic pluralism of a universal Mythos. For the record, my reading of Lovecraft is very close to Joshi’s and what has drawn me to Lovecraft has always been that sense of existential claustrophobia and self-loathing that is present in his earliest stories and just keeps returning again and again in more ornate and sophisticated forms. I find self-hatred and existential dread in the words of Lovecraft because those emotions almost completely dominate my vision of the world but art is about individual expression and different people will always respond to different things in different ways and there’s something really exciting about the fact that new people are forever finding and re-inventing Lovecraft’s works.

It’s often said that there’s something profoundly unfair about criticising a book for something that it never attempted to be. I fully acknowledge that this piece does exactly that: Joshi wanted to write a book dunking on the long-dead Derleth, I wanted to read a book about how Derleth came to control the Mythos, and I roll my eyes at Joshi for failing to write that book. Having read Joshi’s The Rise and Fall of The Cthulhu Mythos, I really wish someone would write a proper treatment of that phenomenon; a book that would include some close textual analysis and an overview of what was good and bad about the Derleth era but which would also draw on understandings of the mid-20th Century horror short fiction market, the nature of mid-century fannish discourse, and how consent was manufactured for one particular narrow reading of Lovecraft’s stories. I would also love a book that dealt with the legal complexities of the Lovecraft estate and how Lovecraft’s Named Entities winding up as de facto public domain has changed the nature of Lovecraftian fiction and how those changes overlap with the intellectual currents shaping the nature of fan-fiction. This is a huge and impossibly rich area of research that is positively crying out for sustained, multi-disciplinary critical engagement and close textual analysis and encyclopaedic knowledge of Lovecraft’s writings simply will not cut it.

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