BLOT: (11 Oct 2011 - 01:50:40 PM)
From giving us tentacled headed Nyarlathotep to important spores that would help to grow the Call of Cthulhu RPG, let's hear it for Derleth's craptastic "Dweller in Darkness"...
The other day, Friday I think it was, my wife mentioned making a Nyarlathotep costume and said something along the lines of, "I forget what he looked like," which is, unintentially, a joke since the big-N has only a few direct quotes in the original Lovecraft variation and the most famous of which is, "And pray to all space that you may never meet me in my thousand other forms. Farewell, Randolph Carter, and beware; for I am Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos!"1 Sounds kind of boastful but it does highlight a particular facet of Nyarlathotep's character: he has many, many forms. Later that night, I thought I would do a quick Google Image Search to show my wife what I took to be N's main form—the dark pharaoh—but instead found something else. At least half, if not the majority, of the top results pictured a thing with tentacled arms and legs, and a tentacle head. Curious. Where did this come from, outside of a literal translation of the Crawling Chaos bit? Turns out, old Auggie Derleth was to blame for this.
Derleth sits upon a most unusual seat in Lovecraftania. His interpretation, and push, for the cosmic dread aspects of Lovecraft to be altered into a classic Good versus Evil, Manichean sort of mode lead to what is generally the worst sort of pastichery. On the other hand, Derleth's tireless campaigning of Lovecraft, including founding a company to publish Lovecraft's and others writings, is why you have a Cthulhu plushie. Quite frankly, barring some weird cosmic accident, Lovecraft might have went down unknown without Derleth's work. For all the "damage" done by Derleth, if there is any real damage, as there is no requirement to adopt the Derlethian mode, even though some writers—notably Brian Lumley and more recently, John Hornor Jacobs and Graham McNeill—have, the good surely outweighs.
But never take this fact as a claim that you have to read anything by him. There be dragons, so to speak. At best, his works can be taken as a sort of minor stroke Mythos tale, only mildly offensive in their scope and purpose. At worst, his works spit in the very eye of what Lovecraft was about, while being poorly constructed all the same. Despite its few highpoints and occasional bit of cleverness, "The Dweller in Darkness" falls much heavier into latter, rather than former, camp.
It begins innocently, and effectively, enough. There is a stretch of wood in north-central Wisconsin that has a strange presence. The forest surrounding Rick's Lake has had a long reputation as a place where something "half-human, half-animal" and "fearsome" stalks. A priest disappeared within it, leaving behind only a few items and a note describing something inhuman stalking him. A logger-baron sent men in after the old, untouched wood and later, of his men, several were missing, many dead, and some apparently even drowned in the lake. A pilot flying over the lake spotted something, large, stalking out of the water into the nearby wood. Then, as something like bookends, the body of that missing priest was found, again, after all this time, an event declared a hoax by called upon experts. Eventually Professor Gardner takes a stab at the mystery, staying at a lodge/cabin near the lake, but after a bit vanishes himself, as well. Which sets up the story's present: Professor Gardner's assistant instructor, Laird Dorgan, and another professor named Jack [not sure if a last name is given and I missed/forgot it, or not], head back to the cabin at Laird's insistence to find what really happened to Gardner.
To understand the first primary flaw of this story, one has to understand that it is about 40 pages long, give or take a page, and the above occupies less than three or so of the pages. It is treated as mere setting rather than plot. The secondary flaws show up shortly after. We get Old Peter, a "half-breed" who is cowardly and takes to drink. We get a name dropping list of dire tomes—Lovecraft's Necronomicon is no surprise, neither is Smith's Book of Eibon nor Bloch's De Vermis Mysteriis—which includes, as something of a highlight since it is product placement for Derleth's recent Arkham House founding and publishing, H.P. Lovecraft's actual real-world volume: The Outsider and Others. That last book was real-world published in 1939, placing this whole story into the early 40s (assume 1944, the date of publication, or the year previous), though very little talk seems to be had about European Wars and the like. However, well, I'll get to it.
Here the story becomes mostly the sort of story where you research what others have researched, which is a long standing horror tradition of rediscovering evil, shortcutted to get to the point. In this case, we see Derleth's Mythos growing like a virus and infecting all that had came before. The Elder Gods cast the Great Old Ones out, with GOO having practically ever named Mythos creation of Lovecraft in their ranks, including those like Azathoth—whose "Haunter of the Dark" description includes "Lord of All Things" and to whom Robert Blake later prays in a cry for mercy, and therefore it makes no sense that Azathoth is any sort of vaguely minor being. The GOO group into squads based roughly on elemental configuration: Hastur is air, Yog-Sothoth is earth, Cthulhu is water, and Cthugha (a Derlethian) is fire. Each have their servitor races, usually keyed into their elemental propensities. In the midst of this is, somehow, Nyarlathotep and Azathoth, with Nyarlathotep being identified with as earthen in this case, though possibly the form he takes is earthen and he exists in all four quadrants? I am not sure. Further Derleth, alas, might be required to be read.
You could, if you wish, debate a bit about why Derleth felt the need to assign a moral structure, even moral sub-structures, to a set of beings whose primary point was to show that there is no structure in the universe, at least not one friendly to man, and I think it really does come down to a couple of bits. As Ramsey Campbell mentions in the introduction to The Cthulhu Mythos, Derleth was a [maybe mild] Catholic. An atheistic universe in which Great Old Ones exist for no purpose besides to expose man's non-unique place in the universe is suddenly trumped by a Paradise Lost story, where even-Greater, even-Older Ones are really behind the scenes and they play by rules and structures and even seem to favor mankind just a little. What's more, it is easy in a post-Derleth world, to fly through a swath of Lovecraft and only be slightly annoyed at how disparate his creations could be. While Nyarlathotep's many forms and descriptions got folded back into the stories, most of the others got re-jiggered every time out. Lovecraft then folded in other writer's creations into the same basic wad, and rarely in a way that is wholly compatible with the original variations. If Derleth overstepped by turning it all into Aristotelean-level categories, he did so partially as any fan who sits down and figures out behind-the-scenes configurations of various star drives and inter planetary politics in their favorite science fiction television series. In many ways, you accept what Lovecraft wrote had unity because you have seen post-applied unity given to it.
Back to the story at hand. Our characters are assaulted by dread feelings and, while reading weird notes going on and on about elemental forces and Hastur being of this sphere and where does Cthugha fit and so forth, experience a weird sound that seems to be of a great wind, and later piping, though no wind ever blows and the piping is strange and, naturally [ironic pun!], inhuman. Jack and Laird eventually meet up with a Professor Partier2 whose delvings were deep enough to lose tenure. He does little but assures them that they are indeed neck deep in the kind of thing one should never be neck deep in, and so you have to wonder why Derleth wrote him towards the end instead of towards the beginning, since he is mostly the sort of character that warns hitchhikers off the moors. At any rate, Partier's best suggestion, if best is the right word, is to "frighten the half-breed".
Thus our "good guys", in a moment or two of imperialistic charm, trick Old Peter into coming with them, get him drunk, threaten him and cajole him, and end up finding a slab out in the woods with strange carvings, depicting a tentacled mass with two small, kind of cephalopic flutists around it. They graciously let their torture victim go, Derleth showing the innate nobility of the white race by having them feel slightly—but only slightly, let's not get maudlin—disturbed enough by it that they give him five dollars before ejecting him along some stretch of road. Then they return to the slab in the woods, at night, on their lonesome. Well, on their lonesome plus one humdinger of a clue. You see, they had set up a dictaphone to record the strange noises. And, well, you know and I know that dictaphones could record only a couple of minutes of noise on a wax cylinder but maybe Derleth did not know this? They end up getting plenty of interesting clues, largely from a voice which seems to be Professor Gardner himself, a disembodied "living dead" crying out. Not only does Gardner spoil the identity of the thing in the woods, the Howler in the Night is nothing more than Nyarlathtop, "who only fears Cthugha" [hah, well done Derleth, mystery and horror DASHED] but Gardner has apparently visited nearly every other-worldly place ever mentioned by Lovecraft, which seems industrous for a disembodied living dead thing. In the midst of this, Gardner gives an invocation to summon Cthugha, when Formalhaut is in the right place in the sky, to drive out The Howler.
In the woods that night, the slab glows bright and brighter and then, after a moment, the Dweller in Darkness [aka, the Howler in the Night, aka...etc] appears: a great tentacled amorphous thing with no face and only, as per one description, a great "cone" where the head should be. Sound familiar? Does it? BAM!
This is not to imply the story is all bad. Really. It is one of the early versions of the "Lovecraft was on to something and hid it in pulp fiction" style stories, a style of story that still occasionally gets trucked out, even now, by people who seem to think they have created the sub-genre. It gave us a non-pharaoh depiction of Nyarlathotep which, for better or worse, has become the RPG variation of the character. The form depicted in the Call of Cthulhu RPG is "The God of the Bloody Tongue", which is pretty much exactly Derleth's version with the additional detail the head appendage is long and red and that that variation was worshipped in Kenya. It has humans not merely taking advantage of some numinous "elder sign" but actually using a spell to actively call down one of the Great Old Ones to do battle with another by using not only a long incantation [verbal component] but by relying on a situational component, the presence of Formalhaut at a particular place in the sky.
Basically, this story is to "The Dunwich Horror" what "The Dunwich Horror" was to the rest of Lovecraft's stories, a story where a group of trained people can use their skills and otherworldly knowledge to uniquely overcome things that man was not meant to overcome. Anyone else get RPG vibes or is that just me? Even if it is a stretch to say that this story directly started the trend to make a role-playing game or board game out of the Mythos, the overly categorization is exactly the sort of meta-story attitude applied to a fandom that does precisely lead to games being formed.
As some interesting conclusions: "The Dweller in Darkness" made it much more of a definite victory instead of a mere hiatus, and leaves you with a sense that something could indefintely be done to prolong any of the Great Old Ones doing any truly terrible thing. Even if that victory was to have a cost. To go back to the war mention I made earlier, it does seem a bit prescient that the darkness that could not be overcome might be solved with an all-destroying ball of flame that could be summoned in extreme circumstances. This was a year before the bombs were dropped on Japan, but still. It's like something was in the collective unconscious.
There you have it, a shaky story that helped to set up motifs that would gel into, eventually, Lovecraft-inspired gaming and would help to gel the Mythos into a more solid, though generally less palatable, form. A flawed attempt, one that could be fixed in a number of ways, but part of the history of the genre. Not sure how easy it would be to track down, now, or even if you would find it worth it, but well, there you go. "The Dweller in Darkness".
UPDATE: Another dedicated Lovecraftian researcher has tracked down the evolution from the amorphous crawling chaos to the specific three-legged version which seems popular now, in "More Than A Thousand And One: The Many Faces Behind The Faceless Howler". It is worth a read, and goes above and beyond my analysis of this single story.
OTHER BLOTS THIS MONTH: October 2011