A Placid Island of Ignorance in the midst of Black Seas of Infinity

For the last couple of months I have been re-reading my Cthulhu Mythos collection. After I finished the works penned by Lovecraft, I moved onto Brian Lumley’s Mythos Omnibuses. I found myself mildly disappointed by them.

In the manner of authors everywhere, instead of moving on I found myself wondering why.

I really like Lumley’s Necroscope series, I enjoyed a collection of his short stories I read earlier this year, and I am not having the same reaction to the earlier Titus Crow stories, so it wasn’t an issue of writing style.

From a technical perspective the book is free of clangers, so it wasn’t an unconscious judgement on the structure.

Then I read Lumley’s introduction to ‘Lord of the Worms’ in The Compleat Crow:

I think this novelette says a lot about the difference between H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘heroes’ and mine. Crow doesn’t faint and he doesn’t run away. In fact, I didn’t even allow him a single gibber in his unrelenting battle with the monstrous.

– Brian Lumley

Everything became clear. My issue with the Titus Crow cycle was it wasn’t actually a Mythos story.

As a tale of humanity fighting a growing multi-dimensional threat with the aid of other races it is a very enjoyable romp, reminiscent of a 1950’s serial or the later series of Star Gate.

However, where it differs from epic ‘plucky humans against the monsters from space’ tales is in setting: the Titus Crow cycle is set in the Mythos, a world where human experience exists as a thin veneer over powers so immense and incomprehensible that the darkest threats are evil only in the same way flies tell tales of the demonic squasher with it’s single giant square paw.

To drive away the minions—or even the passing glance of a distracted power—with little understood fragments of that preternatural reality behind our own is a great victory already. To defeat the deities of the Mythos with bombs and psychological warfare is to reduce the Mythos to another villain to fall before our manifest destiny.

I enjoy epic fantasy, where great evils are defeated by scrappy insurgents, as much as the next speculative fiction reader.

However, I go to the Mythos for tales of protagonists discovering threats that cannot be truly defeated and pressing on anyway. Protagonists defined not by fainting or by running away, but by getting up again or by coming back.

So, for me it is not the virtue of not allowing the ‘hero’ to gibber but the vice of not forcing them to gibber more that defines the omnibuses.

Do you think good authors are good whichever worlds they write? Do you think authors should put even more effort into not transgressing the expectations of established worlds?


4 thoughts on “A Placid Island of Ignorance in the midst of Black Seas of Infinity

  1. In reply to your first question, no, I don’t think that most writers can write equally well in all genres, and that’s why we tend to specialize.

    As far as your second question, I think that playing against the audience’s expectations of an established world can be a valid literary technique. (I sure hope so, anyway, because I do it.)

    Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the world of Sherlock Holmes as a serious place, but people have made all sorts of Holmes stories–“Without A Clue” and “Young Sherlock Holmes” being two of my favorites. The tone and mood of the 1968 “Casino Royale” is seriously at odds with Ian Flemming’s original novel, but I love the film for all its irreverence.

    Dan O’Bannon’s “Alien” was very much a horror film, James Cameron’s “Aliens” was solidly in the military science fiction genre, David Fincher’s “Alien 3” mixed survival horror with social science fiction, and Joss Wedon’s “Alien Resurrection” was an off-beat space opera adventure, and I love all four films. What’s more, I think all four stories fit in the “world” of the alien.

    In terms of Lovecraft, his cosmology is large enough, I feel, that many different types of stories can be set there. A surreal comedy like “John Dies At The End”, a secret service procedural like Charles Stross’ “Laundry” series, even splatterpunk like “From Beyond” all fit, I feel, within the Cthuhlu Mythos.


    1. Playing against expectation can work, but I wonder if it is subject to an uncanny valley.

      Your examples take something an established canon and make either large changes (for example, Stross’ occult secret service replacing the lone Lovecraftian academic) or leave things the same.

      So my issue with the Lumley-thos might not be that he has made changes, but that he hasn’t made them big enough. He has replaced the lone academic struggling against inconceivable horrors with a hero who reduces it all to science, but he hasn’t changed the Mythos to fit this new lack of incomprehensible endurance.

      Maybe if he had written it as more of a Cthulhu in Space romp I wouldn’t be waiting for the non-Euclidian terrors he posits to do something outside the realm of reason.


      1. That is a good point–if you are going to deviate from the tone of an established world you had probably make that clear very early. All of the examples that I gave above did that, they let the audience know what they were doing from the onset. It seems that Lumley did not.

        Liked by 1 person

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