"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Monday, November 28, 2022

Six stories from The Hastur Cycle (2006, Second Revised Edition), edited by Robert M. Price

Readers unfamiliar with The Hastur Cycle may prefer to read these notes only after reading the anthology.

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The anthology The Hastur Cycle (2006, Second Revised Edition), edited by Robert M. Price, displays the strengths and weaknesses of books attempting retroactively to  create a new horror mythos by grave-robbing the old stuff and appending some inspired new stuff.  

It begins with two Bierce stories, "Haïta the Shepherd," and "An Inhabitant of Carcosa." These two tales must rank among Bierce's most abstract and distanced pieces.

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"The Repairer of Reputations" (1895) by Robert W. Chambers, however, strikes the reader as ever-new. Surprising turns and dramatic immediacy abound on every page, and there are always new levels of unreliability to be uncovered as we come to grips with the narrator. It is a richly imagined story, seemingly retconned from a megalomaniac's LARPing fantasies.

"The Yellow Sign" (1895), also by Chambers, is more modest than "The Repairer of Reputations" in its scope. An atelier horror story, it depicts an intensifying folie à deux between an artist and his model. Their conscious determination never to read Act Two of the play "The King in Yellow" is thwarted at every step; the story's atmosphere of thickening inevitability echoes Le Fanu's 1839 masterpiece "Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter" and Dorothy L. Sayers' 1928 story "The Man with Copper Fingers."

"The Yellow Sign" ends with its narrator halfway through a sentence, just before receiving the last rites. Between this ending and Karl Edward Wagner's phantasmagoria "The River of Night's Dreaming," no beat is skipped.

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My approach to James Blish has been through his two superb novels of apocalyptic black magic, Black Easter (1968) and The Day After Judgement (1971). His novella "More Light" (1970) is energized with the same elan. It is a finely articulated frame narrative: Blish and fellow writer Atheling discuss Atheling's possession of a play script of "The King in Yellow," which came to him in the 1930s via correspondent H. P. Lovecraft.

Blish seems here to be anticipating the opening gambits of Fritz Leiber's "The Terror from the Depths" (1976) and Bloch's Strange Eons (1978). But instead of the punchline being "it's all true" regarding the Cthulhu fleuve, here it's all true that the play script exists, Chambers having created it himself after The King in Yellow short story collection was published.

The Blish character, after a long night wrestling to get to the end of the manuscript, concludes mirthlessly: "It's not the most memorable thing I ever read, that's for sure."  A wonderfully deflationary comment -- which could apply to a galaxy of Lovecraft/Derleth pastiches. Happily, Blish rose to the occasion with this pendant to Chambers.

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One of editor Price's ambitions in The Hastur Cycle was shoe-horning Machen's "The Novel of the Black Seal" and Lovecraft's "The Whisperer in Darkness" into an ex-post-facto Hastur canon. This even though Machen makes no mention of Hastur that might justify such editorial dragooning. Lovecraft uses the name in "Whisperer" twice: once in a word-salad amalgamation with other alien names, and once as part of a bodyguard of lies the aliens use in their typewritten letter of Thursday, Sept. 6, 1928, as they try to overcome Wilmarth's suspicions.

In his introduction to The Hastur Cycle, Price explains his scope this way:

[....] the conception of the present Chaosium series was in large measure inspired by Lin's Ballantine Adult Fantasy volume The Spawn of Cthulhu, which even contained many of the same stories which appear between these covers. It was Lin's idea to take each major Lovecraft story and reprint it along with all the major stories to which HPL had made allusions, as well as some inspired by it.

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One benefit of having "The Whisperer in Darkness" in The Hastur Cycle is that it underscores the excellence of the novella "Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley" (1982) by Richard A. Lupoff.

Lupoff has written a handful of stories superior to pastiches by Derleth, Lin Carter, and Joseph Payne Brennan. His style is always alert for the mirthful ironies inherent in the material. As readers we sense Lupoff is having a great time, and that mood is contagious.

"Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley" is a found-paperwork narrative: a COINTELPRO file of secret recordings, undercover agent reports, and photos. They tell the story of California cult guru Elizabeth Akeley, recalled to the wilds of Vermont for a reunion with a long lost ancestor who has just returned from a long trip abroad.

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"The Mine on Yuggoth" (1964) by Ramsey Campbell is a carefully plotted novella about Edward Wingate Armitage, a young man too clever at the "piecing together of dissociated knowledge" for his own good. Unlike Charles Dexter Ward, his predicament elicits little sympathy. Even his school administrators spy on his doings:

     It is only believed by one or two of the watching professors that these invocations, in languages meant for no human tongue, elicited any response. Undoubtedly it was a disturbing sight, those seven students yelling sinister syllables at that slab of stone and moving further from it on each chorused reply from the encircling watchers. This being so, the impressions of the hidden tutors may be understood. Probably it was simply an atmospheric effect which made the vast slab appear to rise, slowly and painfully; and it must merely have been nervous tension which brought one savant to hint at a huge scaly claw which reached from beneath, and a pale bloated head which pushed up the slab. It must certainly have been the marks of something natural which were found by the next day's daylight party, for such marks would lead one to believe that the reaching claw had seven fingers. At a chorused shriek from all the participants, a cloud passed over the moon, and the clearing was plunged into abysmal darkness. When the place was again illuminated, it was totally empty; the slab again was in position; and the watchers stole away, disturbed and changed by this vague glimpse of nether spheres.

Armitage later discovers geological formations resembling "titan stair-treads" in the woods "toward Dunwich." This intensifies his paper-chase. 

But while "The Mine on Yuggoth" is a rare satisfying weird pastiche of Lovecraft, it contributes nothing to a schema to mythosize  Chambers' Yellow King.

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"Planetfall on Yuggoth"  (1972)  by James Wade is a short-short story in which space program complacency fifty years after Apollo 11 meets its nemesis.

     This is how the broadcast ended:   

     "Mists are clearing—something big towering up dead ahead—is it a mountain range? No, the shapes are too regular. My God! It can't be! It's a city! Great tiers of terraced towers built of black stone—rivers of pitch that flow under cyclopean bridges, a dark world of fungoid gardens and windowless cities—an unknown world of fungous life—forbidden Yuggoth! 

     "Is that something moving over the ice? How is it possible in this cold? But there are many of them, heading this way. The Outer Ones, the Outer Ones! Living fungi, like great clumsy crabs with membranous wings and squirming knots of tentacles for heads! "They're coming. They're getting close! I—"

I have not had the pleasure of reading James Wade before. But "Planetfall on Yuggoth" is a droll genre in-joke reminiscent of Fredric Brown. The final line will resonate with me for some time.

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In addition to his introduction, which clearly predates modern Lovecraft scholarship and indulges Derlethian god-building, Robert M. Price has peppered The Hastur Cycle with some prose and poetry by Lin Carter, about which I skip commenting.

"The Return of Hastur"  (1939) by August Derleth and "The Feaster from Afar" (1976) by Joseph Payne Brennan are of very poor quality. I see no reason to say more.

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Several stories in The Hastur Cycle are worth reading. Trying to follow Price's editorial lead to work out how each tale fits into an overall canonical jigsaw puzzle, however, is at best a waste of time. The brilliance of stories by Chambers, Campbell, Blish and Lupoff leave enough excitement and unspoken hints -- and by now surely we don't need everything spelled-out?


28 November 2022

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