The moons have aligned and given me the opportunity to slip two October articles in, which means you get (or are inflicted with) a third installment of the ongoing series Punching Cthulhu in the Face, a look at the many ways H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror has been corrupted and misunderstood by other writers. And this time, Cthulhu might literally get punched in the face, because we’re firing up our magic space-time clock, picking up the local girl-goddess in shimmering green bell-bottoms and heading out with Titus Crow and the operatives of the Wilmarth Foundation to foil the ludicrous schemes of slumbering but remarkably active Cthulhu and the agents of the CCD!
The problem with writing tales within the very loose framework of what became known as the “Cthulhu mythos” created by H.P. Lovecraft – and this has been true since the days of Lovecraft himself – is that Lovecraft casts such a long shadow over the entire concept that anything having to do with it is instantly dubbed “Lovecraftian” and compared for tone and content to the stories written by H.P. But Lovecraft never intended for the mythos to even be a mythos, let alone one that was codified and possessed of some sort of canon or set of defining characteristics. The entities of the Cthulhu mythos and their associated eldritch tomes so cursed no one ever should read them and yet still they seem to be on the shelves of every public library in the world (in At the Mountains of Madness even a damn geologist has read The Necronomicon), captured the imaginations of several of Lovecraft’s contemporaries, and the circle of writers that came up revolving around Weird Tales magazine would borrow the infernal horrors for their own stories, sometimes adapting them to match their own style (as did Robert E. Howard) or adapting their own style to conform a little more closely with what Lovecraft had done. But it was never meant to be a set of rules. You got the basics in, and probably at least one reference to the “screaming mad abyss” and “unknown eons,” and you had pretty much fulfilled the requirements for including Cthulhu in your story.
Other authors added creatures and characters to the mythos, or redefined existing ones (or just forgot what the point of them had been and made up new stuff). The idea of there being any sort of continuity was absurd. These were people writing pulp stories, often under strict deadlines, word count demands, and all the other tedious technical detail that shapes the tone and nature of a story more than an artist might want to admit. But still, Lovecraft started it all, and so they were his creatures, and what you did with them was measured against what he did with them. Which is why Lovecraft fans lost their minds when August Derleth started ascribing entirely different motivations and personalities to the many deities of the mythos; the Cthulhus and the Hasturs, the Nyalarthoteps and the Shub-Nigguraths. Derleth, whose Arkham Press was largely responsible for seeing that Lovecraft’s writing didn’t disappear from the world, was also one of the world’s most dedicated Lovecraft fanfic writers, though because he owned his own book company, Derleth was able to move his fanfic off LiveJournal and into anthologies alongside stories by Lovecraft and other luminaries of the golden era of weird fiction. One of the things for which he is most infamous is ascribing very comprehensible, human emotions and motivations to the creatures of the mythos, who before had been characterized as being so alien, so unlike humans, that we had no hope of ever deciphering their thinking. But under Derleth’s stewardship, Cthulhu and his ilk became increasingly generic evil monsters bent on destroying humanity.
People who were offended by that (when they should have really just been offended by how bad a writer Derleth was) must have gone stark raving insane once British author Brian Lumley got ahold of the Cthulhu mythos in the 1970s. Derleth infused these beings with a Christian concept of evil, but Lumley gave them the temperament and moral code of James Bond’s arch-nemesis SPECTRE, with Cthulhu practically sitting in an egg-shaped chair in his villain lair, R’lyeh, petting a cat while calling his henchman Ithaqua a fool. He still haunts the dreams of man, but mostly, it’s the equivalent of Cthulhu using his oval-shaped TV screen to dial up Miskatonic University and taunt its academic, threatening to blow up the world unless they give him a million dollars.
Standing firm against what Lumley refers to as the “Cthulhu Cycle Deities” or CCD are the secret agents of the Wilmarth Foundation, a globe-trotting group of psychics and academics dedicated to foiling the many plots hatched by Cthulhu and his demons and based out of, of course, Miskatonic University. Into this circle of secret agents comes a man named Titus Crow, already famous as an adventurous academic even though he seems, well, pretty dumb and careless. But he has a tremendous psychic prowess, or so we’re told (it never seems to stop him from stupidly falling into one obvious trap after another), and has proven a thorn in Cthulhu’s side long enough that the sleeping beast who always seems pretty awake decides to do away with Crow and his sidekick, Henri de Marigny, son of a character who appeared in the Lovecraft story “The Silver Key.” Thus begins Lumley’s first Cthulhu novel The Burrowers Beneath, in which Titus Crow, Henri, and the agents of the Wilmarth Foundation (when they’re not busy rescuing Titus Crow) battle a squirming CCD henchmen known as Shudde M’ell and his legion of burrowing, squid-like Cthonians. Most of the book is Titus and Henri sitting around reading other books. Then they will get in a car and drive into a trap set for them by the Cthonians, many of which have the air of something Wile E. Coyote would set up along the highway to capture Roadrunner.
Remembering that we are well past the point of stories about Lovecraft creatures needing to be Lovecraftian, Lumley’s The Burrowers Beneath is straight up spy pulp, only with monsters. It’s fast-paced, kind of dumb, and plenty of fun, with a main character who we are constantly told is awesome despite all evidence on the page being to the contrary. It was successful enough that Lumley wrote a follow-up. In fact, he wrote five follow-ups, some of them more ridiculous than others though all of them are exceedingly ridiculous. The end of The Burrowers Beneath finds Crow and de Marigny fleeing (they were tricked into another trap) into a magic clock owned by Titus and gifted to him by de Marigny’s father. It turns out the clock is basically a Doctor Who TARDIS, a portal to other realms of time and space but also a thing you can really just sort of tool around in. The second book, The Transition of Titus Crow, picks up immediately after this cliffhanger ending, with de Marigny being unceremoniously deposited in London and discovering that, though he was only gone a few minutes, ten years have passed on Earth. And Titus is nowhere to be found.
But, as we learn, that’s because Titus is too busy cruising around outer space in his sweet magic clock, shooting laser beams at Cthulhu’s minions as they dog him across the spaceways. Titus, proving yet again that the one consistent string running through all the novels is his profound incompetence, even manages to kill himself, accidentally flying his magic clock into a planet at near light speed. Only the luck of being blown to atoms in the vicinity of a profoundly bored super-robot keeps Titus’ story from ending right there. The robot spends untold eons reconstructing Titus Crow, atom by atom, sometimes substituting synthetic parts for real ones. Eventually, Titus emerges younger, stronger, and faster in a new synthetic body grown from his own atoms. He uses this new body to go out and, basically, immediately start falling into traps laid for him by Cthulhu. Eventually, he bumbles his way to a planet called Elysia, where live the Elder Gods, the great beings who warred with Cthulhu and did a piss-poor job of imprisoning him and his legions, since none of them seem particularly incapable of going wherever they want and causing whatever trouble they can think of (which is usually knocking down a building).
Transition reads like Lumley’s had a few dozen sticky notes with high concepts for stories written on them and, upon realizing not a one of them would result in a full novel, just sort of crammed that all together into one episodic, disjointed book and called it a day. The third novel in the series, The Clock of Dreams, is Lumley’s attempt to rewrite one of Lovecraft’s least effective but curiously most influential stories, the rambling collection of made up words that is The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Lumley transports Henri to the fabled dream world so he can rescue the surprisingly incompetent superhero Titus Crow and his girl-goddess girlfriend, who seem to fall into every trap the CCD sets for them. Seriously, Cthulhu himself could just slap on a plastic Groucho Marx glasses, nose, and mustache disguise and fool Titus Crow. As was the case with Lovecraft’s source material, Clock of Dreams is a rambling affair made up in large part of a guy listing a lot of names and places. Eventually, a story kick in about Cthulhu yet again sending out minions, this time to blacken the dreams of man. It’s not a bad adventure once you get over the fact that Titus falls into a trap every few pages. Whatever menace Cthulhu once possessed is gone entirely by the end of this novel, when Nyarlathotep, Hastur, and the whole CCD gang show up in a paragraph that basically turns them into Rat Fink characters tearing around Dream World in a suped up hot rod.
And therein lies one of the biggest problems with Lumley’s Titus Crow books: divorced of the nameless dread, the cosmic horror, the incomprehensibilty, Cthulhu and the whole Mythos are nothing more than moderately incompetent Kaiju monster villains. In fact, if the original Lovecraft stories are the original Gojira, then Brian Lumley’s books are Godzilla vs. Megalon, full of stupid, colorful action and goofball monsters. By the time Cthulhu and his crew are slapped around by his noble Elder God cousin or something (who can keep this family line straight? I mean, in Lumley’s stories, Cthulhu even has a sassy daughter), Cthulhu is basically reduced to twirling his mustache and shaking his fist at Titus and the gang while proclaiming, “I’ll get you next time, Titus Crow!” The rest of the monsters are like that over enthusiastic little dog that hangs around Spike the big dog in Looney Toons.
There are three more books in the series, which take the story into increasingly science fiction action territory and seem to be channeling Robert E. Howard, but without any of the stuff that made Howard so good…but those we will have to discuss another time. If you are interested in these books just because you like H.P. Lovecraft, forget it. This is pure pulp adventure, with nothing of the brooding horror one would expect. Lumley has more in common with Richard Blade or, really, another egotistical British academic who fights supernatural foxes while constantly falling into traps: Dennis Wheatley’s Duc de Richleau. Hell, de Richlau even has his own Henri, in the form of Simon (poor pitiful Simon, with his subtle mind and shallow chest, so slight of form that he can hardly muster the energy to save de Richleau’s ass more than five times a day). A man really has to prep himself for the back half of the saga of Titus and Henri and the collection of useless sidekicks they collect as they zip around space sitting in their clock, shooting lasers at Cthulhu.
I can totally see Ithaqua high-fiving Gigan.