The Children of Cthulhu
Originally for Raw, New Things #5, 4/1/2002
Ballantine, which owns Del Rey, sees the potential for profit in Lovecraft. They have
published paperback editions of Lovecraft's work, as well as Fedogan & Bremer's Shadows
Over Innsmouth, Arkham House's Cthulhu 2000 and Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos.
Children of Cthulhu, published January 2002, is their first original anthology of
Lovecraft-influenced work, assembled by John Pelan and Benjamin Adams.
What is initially obvious about Children of Cthulhu is the company it wants to keep. The book is physically smaller than the average hardcover, a hair shorter than a Fedogan & Bremer book, and only slightly larger than Arkham House's distinctive 8½" by 5 5/8" (for the eighth printing of Dagon, as compared to the even smaller 8"x 5 5/8" for my 1974 Watchers out of Time and 1980 New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos). I havent bought enough Del Rey hardcovers to know if this is their standard size, but its certainly smaller than my Bantam Game of Thrones, which measures 9½"x 6 3/8". The smaller Children of Cthulhu will sit comfortably on the shelf with my Lovecraft and pastiche shelf. My Barnes and Noble edition of Derleths Mythos stories doesnt seem entirely at home there, since it towers a good half-inch over the Arkham House books.
Also worthy of note is the quality of the paper the book it printed on. I'm unsure if it's simply that I've been reading cheap paperbacks recently, but the paper has an unusually smooth quality which is quite noticeable. Lovecraft fans are noted bibliophiles, something encouraged by Derleth and Arkham House (and the subject of a future essay, I expect), so Del Rey may feel it necessary to keep the quality of the book high to satisfy us. From the reviews Ive seen, theyre onto something.
In addition to its physical attributes, The Children of Cthulhu is significant because it is not a "Cthulhu Mythos" anthology. The editors have moved away from Derleth's influence, concentrating on the direct influence of Lovecraft. I would have to say that they have succeeded; you will not find a single Derlethian house built on malice in the lot. While all anthologies are uneven, Children of Cthulhu is more consistent that most. Virtually all of the stories are a pleasure to read, free of the awkward prose or odd descriptions of inexperienced authors pushing out their first Lovecraft pastiche.
James Van Pelt's "The Invisible Empire" is a fine story, setting racism in an unusual perspective when compared to the awesome, cosmic terrors of Lovecrafts universe. A good sense of history, combined with careful, believable character work and a fine knowledge of the pettiness of men makes make this a surprisingly powerful story.
I was also pleased to find Alan Dean Foster returning to the genre that started his career, with the light but well fleshed-out "A Fatal Exception Has Occurred At . . .". What could have been an extremely silly idea, a man attempting to extort money from the government by threatening to upload sections of the Necronomicon to the Internet, is carried off with refreshing aplomb through Fosters solid prose and well developed characters. It is one of the few light stories in the anthology, but it in no way clashes with the mood of the other stories of the anthology.
Both "The Stuff of Stars, Leaking" and "Spectacle of Man" deal quite well with insanity, as told from the perspective of someone whose mind has been warped by external forces. Both these stories maintain the broken logic that the unwell mind creates for itself, hinting at unknown glimpses of cosmic truths that Lovecraft maintained would break the human mind if seen whole.
Matt Cardin's "Teeth" manages to affectively capture Lovecraft's sense of cosmic horror, working Lovecraftian themes and tropes in with Nietzschean philosophy. The bitter loneliness and nihilism of the story cast a pall over the rest of the day that I read it (and began this review). I don't come across stories that make a difference in my mood very often, so I consider this one fairly special.
A few of the stories are less than successful, and I sometimes find it instructive to go back and look at stories that do not fit generally well into an anthology. Poppy Z. Brite's "Are You Loathsome Tonight" attempts to make some sort of connection between Elvis and Lovecraft's cosmic horror. Robert Heinlein once said that the writer mustn't force an idea, or it will abort itself, and this seems to be what happened to Brite's story. It runs a total of six pages, in which there is much information about Elvis, but if Brite is insinuating something, I certainly missed it. Caitlin Kiernan's "Nor the Demons Down Under the Sea" suffers greatly from the author's repeated use of extended descriptive sentence fragments. Considering that the rest of the story is made up of properly constructed sentences, I can only conclude that these are intentional. What the effect on the reader was supposed to be I fail to understand, but the affectation annoyed the living Hell out of me. This, combined with a rather impressionistic approach to the story that described little but the sketch of a plot, and failed to communicate much in the way of internal logic made it one of the two real disappointments of the lot.
As is often the case for a Lovecraft-influenced anthology, the "Notes on the Contributors" are interesting reading. Every time I read more about Esoteric Order of Dagon Acolyte W.H. Pugmire's relationship with the Mormon church, I am further intrigued, and entertained. "At this time, he met Jessica Amanda Salmonson, and it was her attendance at the Sunday School class he taught that led to his being excommunicated from the Mormon Church." Wilum, if you're still reading the EOD, I'd love to hear this story.
Without a doubt, the stories are good enough to make the anthology worth reading. The editors have done a good job of selecting exciting stories that do not simply retread the same old ground in the same old way. Certainly some of the Lovecraftian tropes are there the Necronomicon makes a couple of appearances, as is the slow dissolution of self that Lovecraft used so often and effectively. The difference is that many of these authors have taken Lovecrafts ideas and used them in their own way, mingling the old ideas with their own new ones to come up with something stronger than merely repeating Lovecrafts more obvious trappings of New England and batrachian horrors from the sea.