The New Lovecraft Circle
Editor: Robert M. Price
Publication: Del Rey (2004), Edition: Reprint, Paperback
Buy it at Amazon.com
H. P. Lovecraft’s name is virtually synonymous with American style horror fiction; his writing, particularly his so-called “Cthulhu Mythos”, has influenced fiction authors worldwide, and Lovecraftian elements can be seen in novels, movies, comic books, even cartoons. Batman’s nemesis “The Joker”, for example, is said to be incarcerated at Arkham Asylum; and Arkham was an invention of Lovecraft’s. Many modern horror writers — such as Stephen King, Bentley Little, Joe R. Lansdale, to name just a few — have cited Lovecraft as one of their primary influences.
Lovecraft himself, though, was relatively unknown during his own time. While his stories might have made it into the pages of prominent magazines such as Weird Tales (often eliciting letters of outrage from regular readers of the magazines), not many people knew his name. He was never famous during his own time. He was a prolific letter writer, though, and corresponded regularly with other contemporary writers such as Clark Asthon Smith and August Derleth, people who became good friends of his, even if they never met in person. This group of correspondents became known as the “Lovecraft Circle”, since they all freely borrowed elements of Lovecraft’s stories — the mysterious books with disturbing names, the pantheon of ancient alien gods such as Cthulhu and Azathoth, and eldritch places such as Miskatonic and Arkham — for use in their own (with Lovecraft’s blessing and encouragement). It’s been suggested that it was the efforts of the Lovecraft Circle — particularly August Derleth — that prevented Lovecraft’s name and fiction from disappearing completely into obscurity.
After Lovecraft’s death, the Lovecraft Circle carried on. August Derleth was probably the most prolific of these writers, and added to and expanded on Lovecraft’s vision. Derleth’s contributions have been controversial, to say the least; while Lovecraft never considered his pantheon of alien gods more than a mere plot device, Derleth created an entire cosmology, complete with a war between the “Elder Gods” (such as Cthulhu and his ilk) and the “Outer Gods”, and went on to associate different gods with the traditional four elements. Not every fan of Lovecraft and Lovecraftian horror has approved of these additions, since they seem to contradict Lovecraft’s own vision of a universe without order or plan, with beings that weren’t so much malevolent as they were just uninterested in the goings on of humanity. Would Lovecraft have approved of Derleth’s expansions? Well, it’s been said that Lovecraft was a good sport about this sort of thing, so he probably would have welcomed Derleth’s own take, but he certainly wouldn’t have taken it on himself. If there can be said to be a “Lovecraft canon”, then Derleth’s version would be an interesting take on the canon, but not part of the canon itself.
The New Lovecraft Circle can’t be said to really be a reincarnation of the original Lovecraft Circle, or even a continuation of it. The stories are not all contemporary, ranging from the 1950’s to 1996 (when the collection was published), and are stylistically very different. There are some names in here that are often associated with Lovecraftian fiction: Lin Carter, Ramsey Campbell, and Brian Lumley, for example. However, most of the authors here are unknown or are not typically associated with Lovecraft. The title of the collection is not quite appropriate, but not a major strike against the book.
Lovecraft’s style and worldview were so unique in horror fiction that attempts to emulate them run a high risk of coming off as pastiche at best, or self parody at worst. Generally, it’s the latter. Authors who write in this vein often seem to take themselves too seriously. And good Lovecraftian style fiction is hard to find, I imagine; not many writers are capable of doing it justice. This explains the wide variation in quality in the stories collected in this book. Most of them failed to live up to the standards of Lovecraft and the original circle; some were downright embarrassing; and some were actually quite good.
“The Plain of Sound”, by Ramsey Campbell, is the first in this collection. Here, a group of university students find themselves wandering through a wilderness and come across a field which generates a mysterious noise. When they investigate, they found a house full of mysterious equipment and notes relating a horrific experiment. Being characters in a Lovecraftian style story, of course, they choose to replicate the experiment; and hilarity ensues when portals to other dimensions are opened and terrible things happen. This is one of the more engaging stories in this collection.
The two contributions by John Glasby, however, I felt were less impressive, primarily because they were so self consciously influenced by Derleth. They did not feel “Lovecraftian” to me; they were competently written stories, but Glasby didn’t quite score with the mood.
“The Slitherer in the Slime”, ostensibly by “H. P. Lowcraft” (a pseudonym for Lin Carter and Dave Foley) is a wonderfully hilarious parody of the entire genre. This story expertly incorporates Lovecraft’s fondness for purple prose and almost over-the-top imagery and applies it to unexpected subject matter. I would recommend this collection for this story alone.
On the other hand, the story “Lights! Camera! Shub-Nuggurath!”, by Richard Lupoff, is almost pathetic in its obvious attempts at humor. It involves a movie studio desperately trying to figure out a way to create an illusion of the Lovecraftian deity Yog-Sothoth for a film of “The Dunwich Horror”. The story is already seriously outdated in this age of heavy CGI; but it was written in 1996, when films incorporating CGI effects were already quite common (The Last Starfighter, which used CGI heavily for special effects, was released in 1984; and Tron, of course, was released in 1982). This makes the story feel even more dated and makes me wonder where the author had been living between the years 1980 and 1996.
This is not the best or the most interesting collection of Lovecraftian horror that I’ve read. Hard core fans might want to pick it up just to complete their libraries, but are probably better off picking up classic titles from Arkham House (though some of those, as I’ve reported elsewhere, are best avoided as well).