Monday, July 20, 2015

2. Time: Not on Our Side

Of course, one way to fend off the ravages of time is to diligently study forbidden books like von Junzt’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten or The Pnakotic Manuscripts, and then through a series of self-administered surgeries, convert one’s physique to one more closely resembling that of a reptile.  This daunting process is the subject of The Survivor (1957), an earnest recycling of Lovecraftian motifs by a man credited with ensuring his dead mentor’s place in the pantheon of classic horror writers, as well as pilfering Lovecraft’s work to establish his own career.

Two decades after his death, Lovecraft apparently collaborated with August Derleth to produce The Survivor and several other stories in the late 1950s, though his contributions and revision work are not nearly as evident as in the joint efforts he completed while still alive.  (He seems to have slowed down some.)  The version discussed here, along with one other Derleth-Lovecraft collaboration, can be found in a horror anthology from the early seventies, Beyond the Curtain of Dark (1972), edited by Peter Haining. 

Haining considered the two collaborative pieces as coming “from the joint pens of H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth”, and profusely thanked the latter through whom “a cache of forgotten tales came to light.”  According to the editor, Derleth had managed to obtain notes and outlines—“some of which were almost complete plots”—from the estate of Lovecraft’s close friend R.H. Barlow.  Haining, in his introductory notes called The Survivor and one other Lovecraft-Derleth collaboration “the gems of the collection.”

Lovecraft enthusiasts can depend on his able hagiographer, S.T. Joshi, to set the record straight.  The complex relationship between Derleth and Lovecraft is deftly analyzed by Joshi in volume two of his excellent biography of Lovecraft, I Am Providence (2013).  According to Joshi, one of the reasons Farnsworth Wright rejected work by Derleth as early as 1931 was because, quoting Wright, “you have lifted whole phrases from Lovecraft’s works, as for instance: ‘the frightful Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred…’”—Wright goes on to list several more examples. 

To be fair, Joshi acknowledges that Lovecraft himself was unconcerned about this.  He even enjoyed the fact that he and his colleagues—Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard, among them—routinely shared “my Azathoths and Nyarlathoteps” as they created background material for their stories. 

But what Joshi cannot abide regarding Derleth’s contribution to Lovecraftian mythology is his imposition of an essentially Christian world view on Lovecraft’s other worldly beings, one that sees Cthulhu as a kind of fallen angel like Lucifer, and the Elder Gods and the Old Ones as avatars of good and evil.  The notion of the Cthulhu Mythos is believed to have originated with Derleth, after Lovecraft’s death.  Joshi feels that The Survivor is not a true collaboration but primarily Derleth’s work, fashioned out of “some very sketchy notes (mostly dates) written on a newspaper cartoon.” 

The Survivor begins rather tediously for several pages.  Derleth emulates Lovecraft’s habit of providing interminable backstory before a final climactic italicized ending.  However, The Survivor will still be interesting to dedicated Lovecraft fans.  It is crammed with references and phrases taken from several of Lovecraft’s stories, and these are entertaining to spot in the text. 

The smelly old house—“it was a musk I had encountered several times before—in zoos, swamps, along stagnant pools—almost a miasma which suggested most strongly the presence of reptiles”—recalls the odiferous residence in Lovecraft’s The Shunned House (1928).  The mysterious Dr. Charriere, who apparently has contrived to live for centuries, is probably a close colleague of the refrigerated Dr. Muñoz in Lovecraft’s Cool Air (1928).  (See also Lovecraft’s Haunted Houses and The Importance of Reliable Air Conditioning). 

Before descending into weird paleontology, Derleth’s pastiche surveys the “bibliography of doom” often consulted by Lovecraft’s characters, and substantiates the presence of a worldwide secretive cult associated with Cthulhu and Dagon, as depicted in Lovecraft’s well known The Call of Cthulhu (1928) and The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936).    

There is a cringe-worthy depiction of Lovecraft himself in the story, which may have originally been intended as a touching tribute to Derleth’s mentor.  The narrator consults his fellow antiquarian, the ailing and bedridden Gamwell—probably named after Lovecraft’s maternal aunt, Annie Gamwell—regarding the old house he is about to inhabit.  Periodically he returns to the older gentleman in hopes of ferreting out additional detail about the house and its mysterious occupant.

It may be that one of the ravages of time, at least one experienced posthumously, is to see an author’s creative product decomposed—deconstructed?and reincorporated into lesser works by the literary equivalent of saprophytes and detritivores.  The content of The Survivor, drawn heavily from works Lovecraft completed in the late 1920s, suggests that it was penned much earlier than when it was published.  Derleth may have ignored the admonition to “wait until the body is cold” before beginning to siphon off some of Lovecraft’s more noteworthy ideas. 

Yet Derleth stands in a long line of genre writers who seek nourishment from the remains of his predecessors—living or otherwise.  Because contemporary pop culture is so focused on recycling and re-using the work of the past 100 years or so—as opposed to creating much that is original—Lovecraft’s unique contribution to horror will continue to endure and shamble about, not unlike Dr. Muñoz and Dr. Charriere.

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