Sunday, December 18, 2011

"The Drifting Snow" short-story review

Even sitting next to a warm fireplace, it’s as cold as a frozen-over hell in here. My plants are dead, my cats appear to have the flu, and there’s frost all over the ground. That’s what you get during wintertime, however. I can’t think of a better story to review now than “The Drifting Snow”. This review of Drifting Snow is taken from the reprint from Alan Ryan’s anthology Vampires (which is a superb collection, by the way). My copy has a (surprisingly not very good) Edward Gorey cover.
 Synopsis: It’s wintertime in (what I assume is) rural Wisconsin and newlywed Clodetta is disturbed by her husband Ernest’s Aunt Mary. Mary insists at all times that the windows be closed, but never specifies why. Ernest chalks this up to the fact that his grandfather died out there many years ago. Clodetta gets a brief glimpse of two people out there, and Ernest and nephew Henry go to investigate but find no one. Slowly the truth is revealed why Aunt Mary is so frightened: Years ago, grandfather had caught a servant girl with one of the brothers, and he booted her out during the freezing cold, not knowing that she had actually been raped. She froze to death, but has returned, as a vampire, during every hard snowstorm since, with grandfather eventually joining her. Henry refuses to believe any of it, and is dead-set on rescuing whoever is out there. He goes out, and then comes back dazed and moaning, obsessed with the woman from outside and determined to go back to her. Will this generation break the cycle, or will there be another snow vampire?
 My thoughts: Re-read that plot synopsis again. Sounds pretty corny and cliché doesn’t it? Although it does employ an atmospheric setting and takes quite a while to reveal what’s going on, no sane person could call this a subtle or atmospheric story. It’s as spelled out and blatant as vintage horror stories get. Hugh B. Cave was more subtle than this! Aunt Mary just comes out and says “She had become a vampire. We all saw her.” (Actual line). Except for not ending in italics, this story commits every sin that Derleth’s detractors throw at him.
 But do you want to know what the funny thing is?
 This story is considered (by people who hate Derleth’s writing) to be his best story! Whaaa!!?? It’s considered a minor classic of vampire fiction, and every article you can find online about the Japanese legend of the Yuki Onna (snow woman) goes out of the way to mention this story as a “subtle variation” on the myth. Pretty funny, as there really isn’t any hint of that, in fact, other than the fact that she adds to her own kind, there really isn’t any indication in this story that the undead servant girl is a vampire at all; she is more like a ghost than anything. Political correctness really has gone too far.
 With a story like this held up as an example of Derleth at his best, no wonder the poor guy’s reputation has suffered! Thankfully, the other Derleth story which is held up even by Derleth’s detractors as a masterpiece (The Lonesome Place) actually is.
Final word: An overrated, predictable, and totally flat tale whose novel setting for a vampire story has been used better since (notably in The Fearless Vampire Killers and 30 Days of Night). Not complete garbage, but you can bet that if there was some random insertion of Lovecraftian elements in this story, then Derleth’s detractors would throw a fit over it like they do all his other works. 2.5/5.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"The Survivor" short-story review:

Here’s my first review of an individual story, and this one is quite a gem. It’s been reprinted quite a few times, even headlining two anthologies; The Watchers out of Time and (obviously) The Survivor and Others. Since this was one of the stories Derleth passed off as a “collaboration” with Lovecraft, which really rises the ire of Lovecraft’s detractors being that these are the most frequently seen of Derleth’s mythos tales, I’m surprised this story isn’t more well-known, especially given its aforementioned frequent reprinting.
 Synopsis: It’s 1930, and while en route to New Orleans, vacationing antiques expert Alijah Atwood decides to spend some time in New England (quite a trip buddy). He soon becomes intrigued by the abandoned house of the three years-dead Dr. Charriere, which has already acquired a negative reputation, and not necessarily because the locals think that it’s haunted.
 Atwood rents the place and soon tries to inquire about the late doctor, only to be met with indifference and scorn by most of the locals, but after inquiring abroad, he learns that there is no way Dr. Charriere could have been living there unless it was some undocumented descendant, you see, he was born in the mid-1600s! Atwood also learns that Charriere was an extremely reclusive man who was rarely seen by anyone, only communicating through mail and by bribing people with huge sums of money. One man who saw him describes him by saying “Take a newt, grow him a little, teach him to walk on his hind legs, and dress him in elegant clothes” (yeah, you know where this was going). Atwood finds a painting of Charriere showing that he was a hunchback with a goatee.
 Atwood also discovers that Charriere was fascinated by the lifespans of reptiles and amphibians, and sought out people who seemed to have reptilian qualities (do I even need to say that some of the people he sought out were from Innsmouth?). It becomes apparent that Charriere wanted to make himself immortal by extracting glands from reptiles and applying them to himself, thing is, it seemed to have worked a lot better than expected. There is a musty smell permeating the house, break-ins late at night, wet, reptilian footprints, and glimpses of a bent over figure with shiny skin and a goatee…
My thoughts: Well, if Lovecraft had written this, it certainly wouldn’t be up there with The Color out of Space or The Call of Cthulhu, but it would definitely rank with The Shunned House and Cool Air as an impressive, unpretentious little spooker. By Derleth’s standards, this is close to a masterpiece. Although his attempts to imitate HPL’s trademark purple prose fall flat a little (there are a few too many run-on sentences and misused words), this is one of the few of the “collaborations” I could see actually being written by Lovecraft without detecting Derleth’s hand in it.
 As a story it’s fairly predictable, there are a few cheesy moments (Atwood hears a “distinct sound, as of someone bathing in the garden”, yeah, that’s a sound we’ve all heard, I’m sure) and Derleth makes no real attempts at mood, but it’s a fun little monster yarn regardless, with a few moments that would translate excellently to film, like when Atwood closes his pocket watch container only to see Charriere’s face reflected in it as he sneaks up behind him. In fact, speaking of film, the Cool Air segment of that Necronomicon anthology movie seems to have taken a few hints from this story. There’s also a 1950’s film called The Alligator People which seems to have drawn on this story as well in it’s concept of a mad scientist splicing people with reptile genes. That film, in turn, inspired a Spiderman villain called The Lizard, who is set to make his film debut in 2012. Some Wold-Newton fanboy could have fun tying this story into all of that.
 Not bad Derleth, not bad. Too bad the rest of The Survivor and others isn’t this good.
 Final word: A perfectly enjoyable monster story which actually could be passed off as something Lovecraft wrote. 5/5.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mask of Cthulhu review

Mask of Cthulhu was the first collection Derleth released of his own contributions to the Mythos in 1958. It is also the first book ever published to feature “Cthulhu” in the title. It consists of six stories: “The Return of Hastur”, “The Whippoorwills in the hills”, “Something in Wood”, “The Sandwin Compact”, “The House in the Valley”and “The Seal of R’Lyeh”. My copy is the 1976 Ballantine re-issue. It features a rather bizarre image on the back of the front cover (and on the “inside” of the back cover as well) of Lovecraft as a Deep-One/oracle overlooking a graveyard. This is appropriate, because this one is pretty much all Deep-Ones/Cthulhu/Innsmouth stories.
 The Return of Hastur:
 Synopsis: Arkham resident Amos Tuttle passes away and urges that his collection of books on the occult be destroyed or returned. His doctor, lawyer (the narrator) and son Paul all are perplexed by this, and even more so when Tuttle’s corpse begins to take on a vaguely fish-like appearance.  A further thread is woven when the lawyer discovers that Tuttle’s copy of The Necronomicon was stolen. The lawyer and Paul also begin to hear strange sounds coming from underneath the house. Gradually, Paul continues his father’s research and also begins to take on a vaguely frog-like appearance…
 My thoughts: This is the kind of story Derleth’s detractors love to dig into, and for the record, it really isn’t much more than a glorified fan-fiction. It’s pretty obvious where the story is headed if you’ve read Lovecraft, but baffling and nonsensical if you haven’t. It is ultimately little more than an exercise in name-dropping. There are some effective descriptions of the noises in the house, and some suspense as Paul starts to transform into a Deep One (although Derleth doesn’t quite seem to know how that works), but it’s ultimately disappointing since what the story is building up to, the return of Hastur and the battle with the thing under the house, lasts only a few sentences before everything goes up in flames.
  It should be noted that this story laid the groundwork for Derleth’s vision of the mythos, with the good elder gods and evil great old ones, but it’s actually kind of downplayed.
 Not offensively bad, but as I said, little more than an exercise in name-dropping. 2/5
 The Whippoorwills in the hills:
 Synopsis: A man takes possession of his estranged cousin Abel Harrop’s farm house after Abel mysteriously vanishes. He is met with distrust and even outright hatred from the locals. It seems Abel was interested in the occult, and this somehow led both to his disappearance and the deaths of various locals. Meanwhile, our narrator is tormented every night by strange dreams, as well as the incessant calling of whippoorwills. It’s not long before the mysterious disappearances start up again, and our narrator is blamed, with one man even trying to set his house on fire. The whippoorwills continue to call…
 My thoughts: This is an example of a good idea ruined by a shoddy ending. For the first half this is a fairly suspenseful and eerie story. Sadly, the simultaneously predictable and simultaneously out of nowhere ending kills this one. The whippoorwills never really come to play any part except to build mood. I’m grateful that this didn’t turn into a Dunwich Horror-retread (there are Whateleys about in this story), but maybe that would have saved it. A huge disappointment. 2.5/5.
 Something in Wood:
 Synopsis: Eccentric Renaissance man and music critic Jason Wecter receives a carving of Cthulhu as a present from his clueless friend Pinckney, and slowly begins writing bizarre, nonsensical reviews which contradict his earlier ones and make references to various eldritch deities. Soon, he begins to feel he is being followed. Pinckney investigates and slowly finds out the awful truth, you see, the image of Cthulhu in the carving is slowly changing…
 My thoughts: Oooh! This is a good one. Not so much for its plot (which owes a debt to Dorian Gray, Lovecraft’s own “The Picture in The House” and an M.R. James story whose name I can’t recall in its depiction of a picture which changes to reflect what is happening), but for its satirical look at the life of a music and art critic. Could this be the first humorous mythos story? Robert Bloch often injected humor into his stories but I can’t recall much humor in his Mysteries of the Worm stories except for Black Bargain.
 Anyway, there is a decent amount of suspense, the ending actually works and you can’t help but wonder if Armond White has a carving of Cthulhu somewhere. It would explain a lot, that dude’s even more nonsensical than what Wecter must have sounded like. Creepy and fun. 4/5.
The Sandwin Compact:
 Synopsis: Dave Sandwin is called out by his cousin to their familial home (you sensing a pattern here?) by the sea. Something has been troubling their frog-like (you sensing a pattern here?) Uncle Asa, who is behaving more eccentrically than usual, and seems paranoid. Doors are mysteriously locked, foul, fish-like odors permeate the house, sea water is found dripping everywhere, strange visitors come and go, and the croaking of some sort of sea creatures are heard. Something is coming to get what it’s owed…
 My thoughts: Derleth does nothing new here, using elements of his previous stories. But you know what? He does a really good job making it a story. The characters are all likeable and believable, and Derleth generates some nice moments of pathos and nobility for Uncle Asa. There is some genuine tension built up as the Deep Ones close in, enough so that this story could hold up when read on its own by someone unfamiliar with Lovecraft and the mythology of the “Deep Ones”. It’s really just as much a deal with the devil story as a mythos story. Only problem I have with this story is the incessant chanting of familiar names like “ia ia Cthulhu Ftagn” all the time. Very good. 5/5.
 The House in the valley:
 Synopsis: A painter decides to rent an abandoned house in which the previous owner, a mentally challenged man named Seth, went mad. He is treated with outright hostility by all the neighbors except for the shopkeeper Obed Marsh, and even that doesn’t last. The painter also begins having strange dreams, hearing noises beneath the house, and discovers underground passages. He soon begins discovering that Seth was into the occult, and he too is drawn in. He soon begins having blackouts, during which the local farmer’s children and animals disappear…
 My thoughts: This is either one of the best written or worst written stories in the book, I can’t decide. It’s clearly a retread, no; forget that, it’s an outright remake of Derleth’s own “Whippoorwills in the hills”, with elements ripped off from Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear and Dreams in the Witch-House. Yet, it does manage make things fairly cryptic, and I really enjoy the Straw Dogs-style conflict between the protagonist and his rural neighbors. However, the Obed Marsh character is pointless and has no connections either to Innsmouth or even to the supernatural stuff going on. I guess, like the Whateley family members who pop up in Whippoorwills, he’s supposed to be a red-herring. There’s also this truly bizarre sequence where Derleth seems to forget who the narrator is. I thought it was to show his growing insanity, but apparently not. I’m also getting tired of Derleth thinking heavy footsteps are scary. To hell with this one. 2/5.
The Seal of R’Lyeh:
 Synopsis: All his life, Marius Phillips has been fascinated by, but forbidden to go near the sea. After his uncle Sylvan dies, he inherits his mansion in Innsmouth and begins trying to get a picture of what sort of man his uncle was. He meets a local woman named Ada Marsh who he hires to help clean the house, but it dawns on him that Ada has a personal reason for helping him. Ada wants to get her hands on a ring which allows the user to have visions of the sea, which will allow them to hear Cthulhu’s call and see the vast depths of the ocean and all beneath it. Marius discovers more and more, and soon finds he can breathe underwater. Has he truly made a foe in Ada Marsh? Or has he found his true love?
 My thoughts: Holy hell, I think I just read what was intended to be an Innsmouth love story. It doesn’t really work because of how abrasive Ada is, and you have to wonder why two Deep Ones would need guidance to R’Lyeh. There is also a long-winded and mind-numbingly boring rant about the foundations of the mythos that made me want to pull my hairs out. I tolerated it in the other stories because it was so underplayed, and never confirmed, but holy hell is this bad. We also find out that Lovecraft himself existed within the mythos universe. Ugh. Robert Bloch did it better in The Shambler from the Stars.
 That aside, this is easily the best story in the book. It’s more of an adventure/romance than a horror story, and Derleth doesn’t pretend that it’s supposed to be scary for a moment. In turning out as what he intended it to be, it’s also easily his most successful mythos story. We really get inside Marius’s head and feel his wonder as he discovers the secrets of the Deep Ones. The part where he discovers he doesn’t need a diving suit to function underwater, and in fact, has better chances of surviving without it, is a great moment. As far from Lovecraft as you can get in tone, but good. 5/5.
 The volume as a whole: Oh man, do not attempt to read this thing in one sitting. As you can see from the plot summaries, these are all pretty much “guy goes to/inherits old house, finds out some eldritch horror is approaching.” Having Deep Ones as the culprits in most of the stories also makes it predictable. Derleth also loves to use the same tricks over and over again, underground passageways, noisy footsteps from upwards or below, monsters calling out, bad dreams, main characters turning out to be the villains and name-dropping. He also leaves a lot of things for readers to assume that we never see (apparently Marius and Ada get married sometime in Seal, and we never do get to fully read Jason Wecter’s weird reviews from Wood).
 Putting aside whatever quibbles you may have with his “good and evil” cosmology, Derleth does manage to make his depictions of the various Lovecraft monsters fairly interesting, however. Cthulhu is a purely supernatural entity, no cosmic horror here, he and his kin like Hastur, Lloigor, etc can all be summoned, possess totems, be bargained with, repelled with symbols, and they come for your souls eventually, or change you into a monster. They are more like demons or ghosts than anything. They literally are elementals, so it’s good to see Derleth keep his own takes consistent, something that can’t be said for some of his other mythos stories. They still are scary, in theory, just not as unique.
His take on the Deep Ones is also interesting. They aren’t hybrids who inevitably morph into fish-people, but are people who, by making pacts with the Great Old Ones, begin to transform into Deep Ones if they don’t pay their debts, or when it has come time to pay their debts. It may lose the existentialism of Lovecraft’s original Deep Ones (who are all destined to become evil and to care for nothing but raping people and serving Cthulhu), but since the ones affected are treated as people, tormented by their transformations, and who, in the case of Uncle Asa in Sandwin Compact, heroically try and make sure it won’t affect future generations, he succeeds in not making them one-dimensional villains. In Seal of R’Lyeh, the protagonist is thrilled to become a Deep One, and not because he has been cosmically changed or that his Deep One side has taken over his human side (as happens to the narrator of Lovecraft’s Shadow over Innsmouth), but because he genuinely enjoys being what he is, escaping the mundane surface world for a fantastic new world. Didn’t Lovecraft himself always insist that evil was a purely human concept and that all of his monsters were indifferent? In its own weird way, Seal of R’Lyeh is consistent with Lovecraft’s. Let’s just not get carried away and romanticize the Deep Ones the same way vampires are.
 Final Word: Three shitty stories versus three entertaining ones. No, it does not have Lovecraft’s mood, talent, or unique worldview, and even the best stories aren’t likely to ever rank up there with some of Lovecraft’s triumphs, it also isn’t scary if that’s what you’re looking for, but it’s fun (at least, the three good stories are). Pure popcorn horror. Don’t go out of your way to get it, but if you find it at a garage sale for like, four bucks, you could do worse as far as anthologies go. 3/5.

Mission Statement

 Hello, and welcome to Leth is more. This blog will be dedicated to reviewing (for better or worse) the writings of August William Derleth. Of all of the Weird Tales authors who became a member of the famous “Lovecraft circle”, Derleth is easily the most controversial. Most consider him a hack and a fan-boy whose only talents lay as an editor. He also supposedly besmirched Lovecraft’s name for all time, bowdlerized Lovecraft’s concept of “Yog-Sothothery” into the “Mythos”, and whose iron-handed business practices set back the horror genre for decades.
 Others genuinely do appreciate him for his writing; his Sac Prairie novels are well-regarded, his Solar Pons stories are considered the finest Arthur Conan Doyle pastiches ever written, and a few of his short stories such as The Lonesome Place are considered both minor and genuine classics of the horror genre.
 My goal is neither to re-evaluate his output nor to give his detractors more ammunition (although in either case I’m willing to be surprised). It will simply be to review his writings. I know there is a lot of garbage, and I also know there are a lot of gems too. I am neither a fan (despite the name of this blog) nor a hater. Anyway, with no major sites about Derleth, I felt I’d start one, even though I’d be more interested in doing one about Hugh B. Cave or Robert Bloch (and I just might). The primary focus will be on his weird fiction, although I might take a look at his Solar Pons stories. I might review each story individually, or as part of a whole (if it was in an anthology), and in no chronological order. It depends upon whatever strikes my fancy.
 Also, since many of Derleth’s stories are pastiches and sequels to Lovecraft’s, it would not hurt to be familiar with his work before reading this blog. Also, for the reviews themselves, spoilers abound.
 Comments are welcome, but please, no continuity-obsessed Lovecraft fan boys.  S.T. Joshi, number one Derleth detractor in the world, says he wants Lovecraft’s work to be appreciated in a scholarly, non fannish light, and it’s he who the Derleth’s critics always turn to in order to back up their arguments. Don’t spite the hand that feeds you.