The Cowboys of Cthulhu and Riders Where There Are No Roads – David Bain

Earlier this year, after finishing every scrap of fiction that H.P. Lovecraft wrote, I planned a series of posts that would look at Lovecraft’s peers and successors who extended his Cthulhu Mythos. I started with August Derleth, and I planned to continue with the other big names like Howard or Bloch. Then I found a free audiobook of a book named The Cowboys of Cthulhu

the cowboys of cthulhu david bainThe Cowboys of Cthulhu – 2011

I enjoy a good Western movie from time to time, but I don’t think I’ve read any Western books. (Blood Meridian doesn’t count, right?) I’m not against the idea of reading a Western, I’d just never felt the desire to do so until I heard the title The Cowboys of Cthulhu. I knew it was probably going to be awful, but for one second I imagined the relentless American masculinity of John Wayne facing off against the oblivious chaos of the Great Old Ones, and on the tiny possibility that that’s what this book might contain, I knew I’d have to give it a go.

It turns out that The Cowboys of Cthulhu is only a short story. It serves as a prequel to David Bain’s ‘Riders of the Weird West’ series. It’s basically the story of a shootout between a pair of outlaws and some octopus-headed freaks in a geometrically challenged canyon. It doesn’t really add anything to the Cthulhu Mythos, but it was decently entertaining. The audiobook narrator did some pretty dodgy accents. While it did not feature a burly old cowboy addressing the Sleeper of R’lyeh as “pilgrim”, The Cowboys of Cthulhu was still good fun.

riders where there are no roads david bainRiders Where There Are No Roads – 2014

When I started Riders Where There Are No Roads, I was looking forward to an explanation of what happened in The Cowboys of Cthulhu. I was expecting the protagonists to go off in search of Cthulhu’s acolytes. I was totally mistaken. This novel has nothing to do with the Cthulhu Mythos. It’s the story of a lad who enters another dimension with a bunch of ghost-cowboys to save his son from a demon. I was disappointed by this, but I guess that’s more my fault than David Bain’s.

I kept going with the story even after I realised that the High Priest of the Great Old Ones wasn’t going to make an appearance. It was a weird mix of cowboys, Easy Rider and Lord of the Rings, definitely more fantasy than horror. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it wasn’t too bad. It was imaginative, and the characters were fun.

The ‘Riders of the Weird West’ series is supposed to be a trilogy, but as of right now, only the first novel has been released, and that came out more than 6 years ago. I messaged David Bain on Twitter and asked if the other books were ever going to come out, but he hasn’t responded. If you like Westerns and fantasy, you might really like these books. I didn’t dislike what I read, but I probably won’t be reading the next entries in the series. This stuff is fine; it’s just not.really my thing.

 

August Derleth’s Cthulhu Mythos Fiction

After finishing up my recent series of posts on Lovecraft, I started to feel a giant shoggoth shaped hole in my life. I’ve read and then reread Lovecraft’s stories twice within the last few years, and as much I enjoy them, I reckon I should wait a while before going over them again. Fortunately, the Cthulhu Mythos did not die with Lovecraft, and there’s lots of Yog-Sothothery left to be read. Many, many horror writers have done their best to emulate Lovecraft’s style and expand the mythos he created. I’m planning to do a few posts on this stuff to see how it measures up to Lovecraft’s own writing.

From what I have read, August Derleth seems to have had more of an influence on Lovecraft’s mythos than anyone other than H.P. himself. After Lovecraft died in poverty and obscurity, two of his friends, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, became determined to get a collection of their pal’s tales published. When they failed to find a publisher, they made their own, Arkham House. If it wasn’t for Derleth, it’s possible that Lovecraft would be practically unheard of today.

On top of being a publisher, Derleth was also prolific writer. He wrote many stories that borrowed characters, places and books from the works of Lovecraft. Lovecraft did this himself. His tales often referenced monsters and books from his other stories, but there was never any real attempt to make these things fit together. (Nyarlathotep, for example, pops up everywhere but often in different roles/guises.) Derleth set about to work these different elements into a cohesive framework. He is credited with creating the term “Cthulhu Mythos”.

With this in mind, I decided that Derleth would be the first of Cthulhu’s Disciples to be featured in this series of posts. Here are 4 of his books of Lovecraftian fiction.

 

lovecraft derleth watchers timeThe Watchers out of Time
Carroll and Graf – 1996 (Originally published in 1974)

Wait, you said this post was about Derleth! That book looks like it’s by Lovecraft himself! Well, yeah, that cover is a disgrace. It’s common knowledge that Derleth wrote 99% of these stories, occasionally borrowing a phrase from the notes that Lovecraft left when he died. Other publishers were cheeky enough to list Lovecraft with Derleth on their covers of this collection, but this one brazenly lies. This contains the following tales:

  • The Ancestor
  • The Dark Brotherhood 
  • The Fisherman of Falcon Point 
  • The Gable Window 
  • The Horror from the Middle Span  
  • Innsmouth Clay
  • The Lamp of Alhazred
  • The Peabody Heritage
  • The Shadow in the Attic
  • The Shadow Out of Space
  • The Shuttered Room
  • The Survivor
  • The Watchers Out of Time
  • Wentworth’s Day
  • Witches’ Hollow

In truth, this isn’t great. Half of the stories in here are about descendants of the Whately family who inherit houses in Dunwich, only to find that their grandfathers were evil wizards. The houses all bear terrible secrets. Some of the other tales are very obvious Lovecraft rip offs. Every time I’d sit down and read one, I’d think, “Oh yeah, I remember this bit.” Some of it’s blatant too; ‘The Watchers out of Time’ is only a variation on Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow out of Time’.

These are Lovecraft knock-offs, and none of them reach the quality of Lovecraft’s best work. That being said, I personally enjoy Lovecraft’s middle tier stuff, and some of these tales aren’t far from that. ‘The Dark Brotherhood’, perhaps the most original tale in the collection, was pretty good. I liked ‘Witches Hollow’ and ‘The Horror from Middle Span’ too. This collection is not essential reading, but if you read it over a few weeks it’s not a horrible experience.

 

derleth lurker threshold

The Lurker on the Threshold
Arkham House – 1945

(The original Arkham House editions of The Watchers out of Time included this novel, but later publishers omitted it and printed it separately.)

See my complaint in the above review of The Watchers out of Time? The part where I said that a bunch of these stories were about lads inheriting houses in Dunwich and then moving in and discovering their grandfather was a wizard? I swear, I wrote that before starting this novel. This is basically the exact same as those stories except it’s far longer and more repetitive. There’s a part at the end where an anthropologist reels out a huge explanation of the relationships between the of the different Elder Gods and Great Old Ones that is kind of interesting, but otherwise this was horribly dull. There’s sections in here that were actually written by Lovecraft, but again, this is Derleth’s story. It’s dumb to have Lovecraft’s name above his on the cover. I was looking forward to finishing this pretty soon after getting started. It made me not want to read anything else by Derleth.

Also, the name of this tale and the entity in it are very similar to Lytton’s ‘Dweller of the Threshold’ from Zanoni. I wonder if that was intentional.

 

derleth mask of cthulhu
The Mask of Cthulhu

Arkham House 1958

At least half of the stories in this collection are about lads who inherit houses in Dunwich/Arkham/Innsmouth and then discover that the previous owner (usually one of their distant relatives) was a devotee of the Cthulhu cult.

  • The Return of Hastur
  • The Whippoorwills in the Hills
  • Something in the Wood
  • The Sandwin Compact
  • The House in the Valley
  • The Seal of R’lyeh

I honestly don’t know if this collection is any worse than The Watchers out of Time, but the stories in here are so similar to the ones in that already remarkably repetitive collection that I gained little to no enjoyment from reading this book. These tales are so dull that I actually started to wonder if I any longer had an interest in Lovecraftian horror.

In these stories Derleth pushes to organise different entities and elements of Lovecraft’s tales into his cohesive mythos. He distinguishes between the benevolent Elder Gods and the malevolent Great Old Ones like Cthulhu, Shub-Niggurath and Nyarlehotep. Derleth is reverting to pre-Lovecraftian good vs. evil horror. For me, a huge part of the appeal of Lovecraft’s monsters is their utter disinterest in morality, and the the binary structure of Derleth’s system makes his villains here a little too similar to Dennis Wheatleyesque black magicians, doers of evil for evil’s sake. There’s a time and a place for that kind of thing, but it isn’t in Lovecraftian horror.  Derleth also classifies the great Old Ones by their elemental force. (The three I mentioned above are linked with water, earth and air respectively.) This is dumb. I want crawling fucking chaos, not a god damned overgrown pokemon.

 

derleth trail of cthulhu
The Trail of Cthulhu

Arkham House – 1962

After finishing The Mask of Cthulhu, I was loath to begin another book by Derleth, especially one with a similar title to that piece of crap. Fortunately, The Trail of Cthulhu turned out to be a significantly more enjoyable book.

This is a collection of 5 short stories that combine to form a novel. They’re about a collection of men who come into contact with Laban Shrewsbury, an eyeless academic who needs their skills in hunting down the mighty Cthulhu. These stories were written over the course of 8 years, and they weren’t compiled until almost 20 years after the first one was published. In each tale, Derleth has to lay out the background information for his readers. All of these stories contain very similar passages explaining the conflict between the Elder gods and the Great Old Ones, the separate Lovecraftian deities, and the forbidden books. While I have already complained about repetition in Derleth’s other books, it was far easier to stomach here. Remember that these stories were originally published years apart. A bit of a reminder would have been necessary for the original readers, and I’m glad the stories weren’t edited or abridged for this collection. Also, these 5 tales have almost identical plot structures, but this isn’t as annoying as the similar plots in Derleth’s other books.  The tales in The Trail of Cthulhu form a cohesive whole. They are part of a series. A certain amount of repetition in a series makes sense. The repetition in the other books is annoying because it makes it seem like Derleth only had one idea.

These are the stories:

  • The House on Curwen Street 
  • The Watcher from the Sky
  • The Gorge Beyond Salapunco
  • The Keeper of the Key
  • The Black Island

This is not a great book. I wouldn’t even say it’s a good book. It’s horribly overwritten, and I had to force myself to get through it. All that being said, this is Derleth’s best book of Lovecraftian fiction.

 

Throughout this post, I tried to refer to Derleth’s work as Lovecraftian fiction rather than Lovecraftian horror because at no point during the 1000 or so pages I read by him was I afraid or even remotely creeped out. These stories have none of what made Lovecraft great. When I was slogging through these books, I kept wishing I was reading ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’ or ‘The Whisperer in the Darkness’ instead. Honestly, even the best of Derleth was pretty boring. Derleth wrote a lot, and he might have written other books of Lovecraftian fiction. If he did, I don’t want to read them, but I probably would if they weren’t too hard to track down.

 

August DerlethThe man himself

I have been very critical of Derleth’s writing, but I want to acknowledge that I have been comparing him to one of the most important horror authors of all time. (It’s hard not to do so when you’re looking at work that Derleth tried to pass off as having come from Lovecraft.) While his fiction may have been second rate, fans of modern horror owe a lot to this man for bringing Lovecraft’s work to a far bigger audience. August Derleth, I salute you.

I’m hoping that the other authors of Lovecraftian horror are going to be better than this crap. I’m considering looking at either Robert E. Howard or Robert Bloch next. I was going to do Clark Ashton Smith, but I realised as I was writing this post that I actually did a post on his Cthulhu mythos stories a few years back. I seemed to have a real bee in my bonnet about the poor quality of the physical book when I was writing that post though, so maybe I’ll do a more level headed post on Klarkash-ton’s Cthulhu mythos tales soon.

The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be – Lovecraft’s Legacy, Part 4

the book of old ones - scorpio.jpgThe Book of Old Ones – Scorpio
Finbarr – 2002

Truly, there are terrible primal arcana of earth which had better be left unknown and unevoked; dread secrets which have nothing to do with man, and which man may learn only in exchange for peace and sanity; cryptic truths which make the knower evermore an alien among his kind, and cause him to walk alone on earth. Likewise are there dread survivals of things older and more potent than man; things that have blasphemously straggled down through the aeons to ages never meant for them; monstrous entities that have lain sleeping endlessly in incredible crypts and remote caverns, outside the laws of reason and causation, and ready to be waked by such blasphemers as shall know their dark forbidden signs and furtive passwords. – from The Diary of Alonzo Typer

When I read a book on Lovecraftian magic, I want to learn about the aforementioned dark forbidden signs and furtive passwords. Unfortunately, this is never what these books contain. The one I’m reviewing today, Scorpio’s The Book of Old Ones, might well be the silliest of all the Lovecraftian grimoires I’ve read.

Imagine what a grimoire would read like if its author had absolutely zero understanding of magic. It’d probably contain powerful spells that are quick and easy to perform and unfailingly effective regardless of whether the person performing them believes in them or not – ‘say this magic word under your breath, and the girl beside you on the train will become your sex slave’ kinda crap. Take 20 pages of that garbage, add a few Lovecraft references and some stories about pathetic losers trying these rituals and then becoming rich, sexy and succesful, and you’ve got Scorpio’s Book of Old Ones.

Much like The Necronomian Workbook, this book shows little understanding of the total apathy of Lovecraftian entities towards human beings. The Old Ones are bigger and older than us. Their children made us for the sake of their amusement. Cthulhu is not concerned with the affairs of mere mortals. He’s plotting revenge on the elder things that imprisoned him. I doubt he’s interested in watching over you as you go on sea voyage, and I really struggle to imagine him helping you find a girlfriend.

cthulhu love spell.jpg
Seriously?

This book is stupid. The author understands neither magic nor Lovecraft’s mythos, but he has written a book combining them. This Scorpio guy seems like a real moron. Then again, this was published by Finbarr, so I’m not quite surprised.

I have made fun of the authors published by Finbarr Publications quite a few times at this stage, and I had initially planned this week’s post on two grimoires written by another of their authors. After doing a little bit of research though, I discovered that this guy actually has a learning disability and has suffered tremendously with his mental health. I’m not being facetious. I decided against reviewing his books, as he uses his real name, and I don’t want to cause any suffering for a person with serious mental problems. I mention it here only to highlight the remarkably low standard of stuff that this publisher puts out. I didn’t find out much about this Scorpio guy, but he’s clearly an imbecile too.

 

lovecraft horror in the museum.jpgH.P. Lovecraft – The Horror in the Museum
Wordsworth
This is the second entry in Wordsworth’s Lovecraft series, and it is comprised of works that Lovecraft worked on with other authors, only one of which I had read before. Most of the stories in the other 3 Wordsworth entries are included in the Penguin editions which I read and reviewed years ago, and after a year of rereading tales I had previously encountered, it was really cool to dive into a fresh batch of unread terror. The quality here is pretty high, and I enjoyed most of the stories in here more the fantasy stuff in Volume 3 and the odds and ends in Volume 4. Picking favourite stories from this collection is quite difficult. The tales in here are really good, and many of them flesh out the Cthulhu mythos – there’s references to Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu every few pages.

This volume contains the following stories:
The Green Meadow, Poetry and the Gods, The Crawling Chaos, The Horror at Martin’s Beach, Imprisoned with the Pharaohs, Two Black Bottles, The Thing in the Moonlight, The Last Test, The Curse of Yig, The Elecrtic Executioner, The Mound, Medusa’s Coil, The Trap, The Man of Stone, The Horror in the Museum, Winged Death, Out of the Aeons, The Horror in the Burying Ground, Till A’ the Seas, The Disinternment, The Diary of Alonzo Typer, Within the Walls of Eryx and The Night Ocean
(Imprisoned with the Pharaohs appears in the Penguin collections as Under the Pyramids.)

Some of these tales are fairly racist. The word ‘nigger’ is thrown around quite a bit. One of the stories, Medusa’s Coil, is particularly nasty. It’s about a very evil woman. I was quite confused when I finished reading it. In this edition, the last line reads; “It would be too hideous if they knew that the one-time heiress of Riverside… was faintly, subtly, yet to the eyes of genius unmistakenly the scion of Zimbabwe’s most primal grovellers.” I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this, so I looked up a summary, and it seems as though the editor at Wordsworth actually cut the final line of the story. The original text ends: “No wonder she owned a link with that old witch-woman—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress.” The final revelation of tale is that the anatagonist is a bit black. This is not made very clear in the Wordsworth edition. In 1944, August Derleth anthologised this story and altered the final line to say “though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a loathsome, bestial thing, and her forebears had come from Africa.” At least Derleth’s version kept the meaning. The redacted Wordsworth edition makes the ending confusing rather than ugly. This is obviously a horribly racist ending to a horribly racist tale, but I’m pretty disgusted that Wordsworth thought it acceptable to censor it. I absolutely hate when publishers do that. If you choose to publish a dead racist’s work, don’t pretend he wasn’t a racist.

So why do I devote so much of my time to reading and reviewing books by and about this horribly bigoted individual? Well, it has a lot do with passages of writing like this:

These scribbled words can never tell of the hideous loneliness (something I did not even wish assuaged, so deeply was it embedded in my heart) which had insinuated itself within me, mumbling of terrible and unknown things stealthily circling nearer. It was not a madness: rather it was a too clear and naked perception of the darkness beyond this frail existence, lit by a momentary sun no more secure than ourselves: a realization of futility that few can experience and ever again touch the life about them: a knowledge that turn as I might, battle as I might with all the remaining power of my spirit, I could neither win an inch of ground from the inimical universe, nor hold for even a moment the life entrusted to me. Fearing death as I did life, burdened with a nameless dread yet unwilling to leave the scenes evoking it, I awaited whatever consummating horror was shifting itself in the immense region beyond the walls of consciousness.

Come on. That is brilliant. This is from The Night Ocean, the last story in the collection. Of all the stories in here, this one is the least explicit in its horrors, but the sense of gloom and despair that pervades the narrative is perfectly effective. Lovecraft may have been a horrible racist, but damn, his work does a damn fine job of expressing the futility of life. Interestingly enough, the author of The Night Ocean (Lovecraft was mainly an editor for this one) was gay. He was also an anthropologist, and was actually one of William Burroughs’ professors at Mexico City University.

There’s another curious little tale in here called Till A’ the Seas that I really liked. It’s about the last human on an Earth that has overheated. It’s set in the distant future, but by now it could believably be set 60-70 years from today. You should definitely read the full story (link above), but if you’re too lazy, just read this:

And now at last the Earth was dead. The final, pitiful survivor had perished. All the teeming billions; the slow aeons; the empires and civilizations of mankind were summed up in this poor twisted form—and how titanically meaningless it all had been! Now indeed had come an end and climax to all the efforts of humanity—how monstrous and incredible a climax in the eyes of those poor complacent fools of the prosperous days! Not ever again would the planet know the thunderous tramping of human millions—or even the crawling of lizards and the buzz of insects, for they, too, had gone. Now was come the reign of sapless branches and endless fields of tough grasses. Earth, like its cold, imperturbable moon, was given over to silence and blackness forever.

God damn, that’s beautiful.

Originally, the second collection of Lovecraft’s work put out by Wordsworth was titled The Loved Dead, but this story was removed from this collection after the people at Wordsworth decided that Lovecraft’s influence on that tale was only minor. Also, Through the Gates of the Silver Key is curiously absent from this collection despite being a collaboration between Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price. Through the Gates… is the only story to appear in the Penguin editions of Lovecraft’s work that is missing from the Wordsworth collections. I’m planning a fifth and final post in this series on the few tales by Lovecraft that are missing from this series, so keep an eye out for that in the near future.

Edit: For convenience sake, I’m including the links to all of the posts in this series for anyone who’s interested. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5)