The late George Scithers once said that everyone has one Cthulhu Mythos story in them. Whether or not this is the case, there are certainly plenty of folks who believe it, and who won’t stop at one. The result has been a decades-long outpouring of all things tentacle and consonant-laden, to the point where the sheer number of invented Great Old Ones threatens to crowd humanity off earth. The Book of Cthulhu is an attempt to cull through that vast sea of post-Lovecraft circle writing, collecting the best of it in one place. To a certain extent, it succeeds.
Core to the book are three of the essential texts of post-Lovecraft Lovecraftiana: TED Klein’s “Black Man With A Horn”, Thomas Ligotti’s “Nethescurial” and Charles Stross’s “A Colder War”. If nothing else in the book were worth reading, gathering those three alone in one place would be enough rationale for a purchase. That being said, The Book of Cthulhu ultimately fails as an attempt to gather the best Lovecraftian writing. It’s tilted heavily toward the modern, to the point where two of the stories are original to the collection, and while there’s plenty of good work in there, there are also a few clunkers.
Indeed, it’s really more an exploration of the range of Lovecraftian fiction done since the days of the KaLeMs, and in that sense it’s more successful. The old guard are represented: Ramsey Campbell and David Drake and Brian Lumley, the first wave of inheritors of Lovecraft’s literary legacy. The Campbell story, “The Tugging”, is the most successful of the three. Drake’s “Than Curse the Darkness” embraces Lovecraft’s pulpy roots wholeheartedly, but the story’s a bit dated, and Lumley’s uneasy relationship with the source material is on full display in “The Fairground Horror”.
As things get more modern, they also get more stylistically diverse. W.H. Pugmire’s “Some Buried Memory” takes the implied decadence of “Pickman’s Model” and makes it fully manifest, while Edward Morris goes spy thriller in “Jihad Over Innsmouth”, Joseph S. Pulver takes a semi-successful stab at noir in “To Live And Die In Innsmouth”, and Kage Baker riffs on the California School in “Calimari Curls”. And Ann K. Schwader’s “Lost Stars” deserves special mention as one of the best pieces in the collection, one that takes takes the nearly woman-free Lovecraftian concept and builds a powerful story about female relationships upon that foundation.
What’s on display largely is the sheer adaptability of Lovecraft’s universe and premise, and how many directions diverse hands can take it in. Not every story, even the ones from big names, is a winner, and precious few hew to the classic “Seeker after strangeness finds more than he bargained for, with suitably offscreen violence” model. But the reader looking for the possibilities of what Lovecraft’s imagination offered will find much of interest, or at least a wide range of options to keep the pages turning.
(Night Shade Books, 2011)