Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Review: 'The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Cthulhu Mythos' by S. T. Joshi

To understand The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Cthulhu Mythos, we must consider previous book-length treatises on the work and legacy of H. P. Lovecraft. In 1972, Lin Carter published Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos, which was a weak, but nevertheless charming, discussion of Lovecraft’s influence. However, Carter’s work was marred by his devotion to the specious theories of August Derleth, friend to and publisher of Lovecraft, which were ascendant at the time. Although Carter’s views on the Cthulhu Mythos went out of fashion along with Derleth’s, it would be decades before anyone sought to assess the genre in another book-length work.

Lost in the Cthulhu Mythos

Enter S. T. Joshi’s The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos (Mythos Books, 2008), which was the culmination of much wide-ranging reading and thought on the subject of the Cthulhu Mythos – a genre which grew (perhaps parasitically) out of Lovecraft’s work. An insightful tirade on what is wrong with a popular genre, Joshi’s The Rise and Fall was a critical attack on the common structures found within weird fiction since the 1920s. In brief, Joshi critiqued the manner in which authors of the Cthulhu Mythos deviated poorly from the principles espoused within what he termed “the Lovecraft Mythos”, and suggested that the genre that followed Lovecraft had largely come to an undignified end.

In 2012, John D. Haefele published A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos, which served as a follow-up to Carter’s and Joshi’s texts. The book, which was published in a revised and expanded form in 2014 by The Cimmerian Press, was one of the few times that anyone has put forward extensive support and analysis of August Derleth’s theories since the 1970s. Haefele took especial umbrage with Joshi’s arguments, most notably those levelled in The Rise and Fall, and challenged those arguments to greater and lesser success throughout. Although there was much of interest in Haefele’s work, it would be an understatement to say that it has not been well regarded within weird fiction criticism.

Recently, Joshi has published a revised and expanded text titled The Rise, Fall, And Rise of the Cthulhu Mythos (Hippocampus Press, 2015). Joshi’s purpose for writing this new version seems clear: he wants to address “the extraordinary burgeoning of Mythos writing that has occurred in the past decade” (8), and he wants to rebut Haefle’s criticisms. Unfortunately, the expanded sections of The Rise, Fall, and Rise do not amount to anything particularly weighty. To get Haefle out of the way, Joshi has added ten pages to his sixth chapter, which is specifically concerned with the additions and obfuscations August Derleth put upon Lovecraft’s work. Although Joshi addresses at least some of Haefle’s concerns, it must be said that Joshi seems unnecessarily pejorative throughout this section, which threatens the weight of his criticism. Somewhat oddly, the sources for The Rise lists only the 2012 edition of Haefle’s book; however, Joshi’s introduction is dated to 2014, suggesting that he simply was not aware of Haefle’s expanded text during composition.

In the tenth and final chapter of the book, “Resurgence” (which is unique to this edition), Joshi addresses new Mythos writing. However, some (albeit only a minority) of the chapter is made up of the same material found in the ninth chapter of his earlier edition. As elsewhere, Joshi claims to use “widely accepted literary principles” (12) to render judgment on the various works up for examination in this chapter, but I fear that he rarely does the actual legwork of showing how or why a work is or is not worthy of our attention – and this lack of a central aspect of literary criticism is, I think, the biggest flaw in Joshi’s otherwise impressive oeuvre. Too often, Joshi descends into hyperbolic expressiveness in order to convince us that a given work is not all it could be (as when he begins summarizing the plot of Basil Copper’s The Great White Space with “To make a long, tedious, boring story short” [282], without demonstrating why the novel is overly long, what makes the plotting tedious, or why the prose is boring), and this hampers his impact. Strangely, Joshi is just as hyperbolic about his own The Assaults of Chaos (Hippocampus Press, 2013), which, while not as excellent as his scholarly work, is nevertheless an entertaining novel.

I am ultimately uncertain as to why this book exists. The light revisions of both text and citations throughout (citations of Lovecraft’s revision stories strangely refer to an anthology that has not yet been released), and the addition of no more than perhaps fifty pages of new material, hardly seems worthy of issuing a second edition of what was a flawed, but still noteworthy, book. Joshi has not substantively changed his opinions, after all; he still dislikes pastiches of Lovecraft’s work, he still believes that there are some few worthy contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos being made, and he still believes that August Derleth should be written out of the history of Lovecraftian fiction. Both the 2008 and 2015 edition of Joshi’s text rests on these conclusions, and a few dozen new pages on new fiction and old criticism does not, it seems to me, justify a whole new issuing of the text.

If one is unable to locate a copy of the physically superior hardcover Mythos Books version of The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos, or if one is a scholar or collector of this sort of criticism, then by all means pick up the softcover Hippocampus Press The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Cthulhu Mythos. But if one already has a copy of the 2008 edition, I cannot in good conscience recommend paying $25 USD for what is little more than a reskin of an edition that is less than ten years old. Make no mistake: Joshi is, indeed, the pre-eminent Lovecraft scholar, and a keen critic of weird and horror fiction in general. But here he is in essence repeating what he has already said before.

Dr. Géza A. G. Reilly has been an avid reader and collector of all things Lovecraftian since he was too young to know better.  Géza received his doctorate in English literature in 2015 and is, to his knowledge, the only scholar of weird fiction ever produced by the University of Manitoba.  An expatriate Canadian, he currently lives in Tampa, Florida with his wife, Andrea, and their cat Mim.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the review. I was considering whether I needed to purchase the new edition [due to the possibility the new edition somehow transcended the old], but I can now rest easy and save some bucks...