Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Hastur Cycle, ed. Robert M. Price

Chaosium (Call of Cthulhu Fiction #1), 1993
303 pp


"Close contact with the utterly bizarre is often more terrifying than inspiring..." --- HP Lovecraft in "The Whisperer in Darkness" (193) 

Some time ago, long before HBO's True Detective was even in the works, I read  S.T. Joshi's Chaosium collection of Robert W. Chambers'  The Yellow Sign and Other StoriesIt  was my  introduction to  King in Yellow, and I was so entranced that I had to have more.  Then I remembered that I had a copy of  The Hastur Cycle (and A Season in Carcosa, which I'll discuss after this book) somewhere among the jumble of books in my horror/weird fiction shelves. Score!

Robert M. Price notes about this collection that 
"The Hastur Cycle ... may be seen as a literary genealogy, a family tree in which Lovecraft's 'The Whisperer in Darkness' is a single branch, with other branches stemming from it and going in their own directions" 
and  that "the family tree begins with Ambrose Bierce."  With "The Whisperer in Darkness" at the center of this collection, the book focuses on the antecedents of this story (Bierce, Chambers, Wagner, Blish, Machen);  then, after Lovecraft's piece,   moves on to the works of writers inspired by HPL. But as I've discovered, Lovecraft only mentions Hastur as one among many terrible names, and moves his story into the realm of outer space and crustacean-like fungal creatures (Mi-Go), a theme which runs for a while before another author makes Hastur a participant in a battle of bad monsters, so  I don't think I quite got the connection.   If someone wants explain it to me, I would be grateful. I thought about this long and hard, believe me. 

 Just a note --I have the original version of The Hastur Cycle rather than the revised edition of 2006 so I'm missing "The Feaster from Afar," by Joseph Payne Brennan. Otherwise, it seems to be the same, although I don't know if Price's commentary has changed in the newer version. Another note: ignore the introductions to each story until the end -- I discovered after reading the intro to "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" that the editor needed to provide spoiler alerts, so I waited to read the introductions until after I'd read each story.

The table of contents is as follows:

Ambrose Bierce: 
---  "Haita the Shepherd," and "An Inhabitant of Carcosa," both stories that  have no mention of a King in Yellow, but do mention Hali, Hastur and Carcosa. The first story is about a shepherd who worships a god named Hastur;  the second tells of a man who has awakened from an illness and makes a surprising discovery.

Robert W. Chambers:
--- Now we get into the really good stuff, first with "The Repairer of Reputations," which is one of my absolute favorite King in Yellow stories ever and then "The Yellow Sign," also excellent.  

Karl Edward Wagner:
--- "The River of Night's Dreaming" absolutely blew me away. Perfectly placed after the 2 pieces by Chambers, this story follows a passenger on a prison bus who sees her chance for escape and takes it.  This one story is so well written and so good that out of all of the stories in this collection it's the one I will never, ever forget.

James Blish:
--- "More Light" wherein a version of the play "The King in Yellow" is found. The story is revealed in the first person by a narrator who is invited to the home of one William Atheling, a literary critic.   It strikes me as a rather tongue-in-cheek kind of story (except for the play), since as I discovered after having finished this book, William Atheling Jr. is also a pen name of James Blish.  Atheling has a copy of the actual play "The King in Yellow," purported to be written by Chambers himself, but has received it from HP Lovecraft after a bit of badgering. Now he wants the narrator of the story to read it.  The play, of course, was never written by Chambers, only alluded to in his stories. Also a very good story, "More Light" allows the reader to judge for him/herself just how terrifying it might be, perhaps proving the point that by skirting around the play itself in his work, Chambers makes the play much more frightening in his readers' heads than it seems to be on paper.

Arthur Machen:
--- Machen is one of my favorite "weird" writers, although now I think I want to read the Best Weird Tales 3-volume set published by Chaosium again just to reconnect.  His contribution to this volume is the most excellent "The Novel of the Black Seal," the story of  Professor Gregg, an antiquarian whose research leads him to the discovery of a strange black rock on which are inscribed characters at least four thousand years old.  His curiosity also leads to the revelation of  the thin line that exists between the world we know and the darker reality that lies beneath.  The Professor says it best when he looks at a bridge, seeing in it "a mystical allegory of the passage from one world to another."

H.P. Lovecraft
--- The only Lovecraft entry in this book is "The Whisperer in Darkness," which comes together as a kind of horror meets sci-fi sort of thing, as   Price suggests that this story was not only inspired by Machen's "The Novel of the Black Seal," but that in many ways, it is a  recasting of Machen's work moved from Wales to the "wild-domed hills of Vermont".  Professor Albert Wilmarth's story begins with something horrible he hasn't actually witnessed that causes him to experience a severe mental shock which causes him to flee.  A series of floods in 1927 leads to some pretty wild speculation about strange things floating in the rivers of Vermont as well as sightings of strange creatures. Wilmarth, who is an instructor of literature at Miskatonic University, relates the present sightings to old local myths and writes a series of letters to the local newspapers  supporting  his skepticism against the "romanticists who insisted on trying to transfer to real life the fantastic lore of lurking 'little people' made popular by the magnificent horror-fiction of Arthur Machen."   But Henry Akeley, also a scholar now living in a secluded farmhouse in these remote hills, begs to differ, and has firsthand evidence he would like Wilmarth to see that will ultimately lead to a challenge to Wilmarth's skepticism and will also challenge his rational mind as well.  Very enjoyable story.

Richard Lupoff
 --- picks up the Akeley story again in "Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley," moving it forward into 1979.  Henry Akeley's great-granddaugter Elizabeth is the leader of the Spiritual Light Brotherhood, where she is known as the Radiant Mother. She holds regular sessions where she communes with the dead on behalf of her congregants. One day she picks up a "spirit" transmission from a voice with "the twang of a rural New Englander," who asks about Wilmarth.  I enjoyed the satire in this story and I liked it right up until the very end, when I think it got kind of silly and left me just a wee bit disappointed.

Next up is Ramsey Campbell with his "The Mine on Yuggoth," the tale of a young man who was into very "less orthodox practices," who got it into his head to see for himself the source of the "obscure process" of immortality practiced on "Tond, Yoggoth, and occasionally on Earth." Using the Revelations of Glaaki and the Necronomicon as his guide, he gets much more than he bargains for. I liked it, but not as much as the other stories in this book.

James Wade  also uses Yoggoth as the locale for his very short story, "Planetfall on Yuggoth."  Technology has advanced to the point where it is feasible to make a very short trip to Pluto, and an expedition is organized to make "planetfall."  As it turns out, this might not have been such a good idea, and worse, scientists don't seem to learn from their mistakes. This one was short, and okay.

We leave the lobster fungi and get back to the aptly-named "The Return of Hastur" (since Price seems to have gone a little Mi-Go happy for a while) , written by  August Derleth.  I read the story first, thinking that the ending sort of reminded me of a Japanese B-movie monster flick of the 1960s mixed with a familiar horror trope. It seems that the nephew of the dead Amos Tuttle (of Innsmouth)  not only failed to heed his uncle's warning and last request that the uncle's home be destroyed, but accidentally opened the way for Hastur, "He Who is not to be Named," and also a being as bad as Cthulhu, by playing around with forbidden books.  Then I read the introduction, and had to laugh, because Clark Ashton-Smith had given Derleth some advice he really should have taken.   

My edition  of this book ends with Lin Carter's "Tatters of the King," in three parts. First, "Litany to Hastur," a poem that re-situates Hastur in Carcosa and causes the narrator to warn others not "to seek to learn nor ever ask What horror hides behind ... The Pallid Mask!".  Next is "Carcosa Story About Hali," which finds a priest of the Elder Gods seeking the necromancer Hali the Wise who knows what dwells in the depths of the Black Lake. Finally, there's Lin Carter's version ("after James Blish") of the King in Yellow Play.

All in all, I liked the majority of these stories, but I'm still a little puzzled about the connection between the Hastur mythology of the pre-Lovecraft sections of the book and the Mi-Go portions of this collection.  I tried to keep notes but honestly, it probably went over my head along the way.  Either that, or Price didn't bring it out in his commentary.  In the long run, though, if you consider the authors represented here and the stories they have to tell, it's a pretty darn good book for readers of weird fiction.  Definitely recommended.

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