Jonathan Mayberry observes in his introduction to The Madness of Cthulhu that H.P. Lovecraft has inspired a subgenre that “already has thousands of stories and hundreds of novels in it, not to mention movies, TV shows, toys, video and board games, and even live-action role playing.” Nowadays, it seems every other horror fiction outing can at least in part be described as “Lovecraftian,” an amorphous adjective that has come to mean so many things that one wonders if it retains any meaning at all. This, as Mayberry points out, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Lovecraft didn’t give us one world — he gave us “an infinity of worlds.”
Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness serves as the inspiration for many of the authors in The Madness of Cthulhu. HPL’s reputation among science fiction writers (as well as critics) has always been, as S.T. Joshi states in the anthology’s second introduction, “ambivalent.” At the Mountains of Madness itself is a fine example of both the first-rate and the rather questionable aspects of HPL’s work.
On one hand, it’s masterful in concept and at times in execution. A fusion of Antarctic adventure, science fiction, and early-modern horror, it not only offers chilling passages with an escalating sense of dread and isolation, but also constructs a world horrifying in its implications about mankind.
On the other hand, it includes phrases such as “a myriad of grotesque penguins.” The Antarctic landscape is compared, between two characters, four separate times to “the Asian paintings of Roerich.” HPL is simultaneously brilliant and absurd, at turns deeply unsettling and unintentionally comical. Rather than sweep this ambiguity aside, The Madness of Cthulhu wisely embraces the spectrum of tone and content HPL can inspire.
I was surprised to find the lighter side of Cthulhu to be so present in the anthology, starting with a bit of tomfoolery called “At the Mountains of Murkiness.” A recently unearthed Arthur C. Clarke story, it’s much more Mad magazine than Rendezvous with Rama and good for a couple belly laughs.
More effective is Harry Turtledove’s “The Fillmore Shoggoth.” Set in an alternate-history 1960s, in which the Age of Aquarius dawns after the events depicted in “The Mountains of Madness,” it follows an acid-rock band as they arrive in San Francisco and prepare for their gig at the Fillmore West. Meanwhile, a Cyclopean and possibly shoggoth-ridden iceberg floats toward the Californian coast. What could have been a silly exercise in Lovecraft references instead has a surprising amount of emotional impact in its tragic events, including the fate of — yes — a myriad of grotesque penguins.
Another not-very-horrific yet quite engaging tale is Darrell Schweitzer’s “The Warm,” a revisiting of Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” with a more, forgive me, ghoulish point of view.
Most of the anthology contains darker material fueled by Lovecraft’s cosmic terrors. While this sort of fiction is a well-trodden path, and not all of the stories hit their mark, there are some genuine treasures. Among them is John Shirley’s “The Witness in Darkness,” which explores the events of At the Mountains of Madness from the viewpoint of one of the extraterrestrial Old Ones, who finds it no less horrifying. (A similar humanity is afforded to the Old Ones in the striking conclusion of K.M. Tonso’s “Last Rites.”)
Joseph S. Pulver Sr.’s “White Fire,” dream-like and disorienting as it wends through time and memory, is an exceptional contribution as well.
The Madness of Cthulhu anthologizes a variety of interpretations of Lovecraft’s Mythos, taking readers beyond the dusty-tomes-and-unspeakable-things tropes and demonstrating the imaginative possibilities still present in HPL’s legacy. A bit more experimentation, though, would have been welcome among the somewhat traditional offerings. The referential nature of many of the stories makes them more appealing to Lovecraft fans than to neophytes, so readers looking to further explore his infinity of worlds are likely to enjoy the voyage.
The Madness of Cthulhu, published by Titan Books, is 304 pages, priced at $15.95 in trade paperback and $9.99 for digital. The cover is by John Jude Palencar.