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.

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