Impressions of “Dissecting Cthulhu: Essays on the Cthulhu Mythos,” edited by S.T. Joshi

I purchased this volume to read one piece recommended to me by a friend: “Higher Criticism and the Necronomicon,” by Robert M. Price. We had been talking about the higher criticism of the Koran,” and the subject of Arab poets receiving visions naturally came up. But while “Higher Criticism” is the stand-out piece, the soul of the book is its editing, as several strands of Lovecraft criticism comment on each other, and a few are notable by their missingness.

Before reading this volume, I did not realize the deep gulf that existed in interpreting the Cthulhy Mythos. H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) was a pioneering horror writer whose writings have been an influence across the American horror spectrum, from Stephen King to Thomas Ligotti. In the same way that some Catholics and Protestants can loudly disagree after reading “The Letter to the Romans,” Lovecraft scholars (including the aforementioned Biblical scholar, Robert M. Price) disagree as to the heart of Lovecraft. Multiple pieces emphasize this passage as the hermetical key to his writings,

“Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large…. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.”
Selected Letters, Volume II: 1925-1929

while Lovecraft’s popularizer, August Derleth (1909-1971), often cited a qutoation based on the following line

Having formed a cosmos pantheon, it remains for the fantaiste to link this “outside” element to the earth in a suitably dramatic & convincing fashion. This, I have thought, is bets done through glancing allusions to immemorially ancient cults & idols & documents attesting the recognition fot he “outside” forces by men — or by those terrestrial entities which preceded man. The actual climaxes of tales based on such elements naturally have to do with sudden latter-day intrusions of forgotten elder fores on the placid surface of the known — either active intrusions, or revelations caused by the feverish & presumptuous probing of men into the unknown.
Selected Letters, Volume IV: 1932-1934

One paints a cosmos bleakness like that of Ligotti’s fictions, while the second is much closer to King’s fictional universes.

But beyond this axis, one can view the Lovecraft mythos as essentially romantic. This is the feeling that I was evoking in my now old post, A City of Lovecraftian Dreams. Two other lines, I think, might also be included, but they are beyond the debate of Dissecting Cthulhu. The passages that I remember most, that for me would form the basis of criticism, are

Remote in the desert of Araby lies the nameless city, crumbling and inarticulate, its low walls nearly hidden by the sands of uncounted ages. It must have been thus before the first stones of Memphis were laid, and while the bricks of Babylon were yet unbaked. There is no legend so old as to give it a name, or to recall that it was ever alive; but it is told of in whispers around campfires and muttered about by grandams in the tents of sheiks so that all the tribes shun it without wholly knowing why. It was of this place that Abdul Alhazred the mad poet dreamed of the night before he sang his unexplained couplet:

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.
The Nameless City (1921)

Lovecraft’s world to me extended from that cosmos perspective, that death itself will face the second death, to the world of love and adventure. I can’t be the only one to think that “Old Man Marsh” has the most interesting life of any of Lovecraft’s characters

That refinery, though, used to be a big thing, and Old Man Marsh, who owns it, must be richer’n Croesus. Queer old duck, though, and sticks mighty close in his home. He’s supposed to have developed some skin disease or deformity late in life that makes him keep out of sight. Grandson of Captain Obed Marsh, who founded the business. His mother seems to’ve ben some kind of foreigner—they say a South Sea islander—so everybody raised Cain when he married an Ipswich girl fifty years ago. They always do that about Innsmouth people, and folks here and hereabouts always try to cover up any Innsmouth blood they have in ’em. But Marsh’s children and grandchildren look just like anyone else so far’s I can see. I’ve had ’em pointed out to me here—though, come to think of it, the elder children don’t seem to be around lately. Never saw the old man.
The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1931)

Dissecting Cthulhu is tilted toward the reading the first of these four passage as the essential Lovecraft. You’ll notice that I’m not describing the individual pieces in this book much. That’s because Dissecting Cthulhu transcends its constituent parts. The pieces are primarily rhetoric or strident academic argument. But editor S.T. Joshi’s accomplishment here is to show the reader that such debate exists, adn force for the reader to ponder for himself the meaning of these books many of us first read long ago.

The second best piece in the collection, “Toward a Reader-Response Approach to the Lovecraft Mythos,” concludes with a comment from the audience and an old World Fantasy Convention discussion. I’ll conclude with it as well

“I think that’s the magic of Lovecraft. I can still remember reading the first story; I didn’t understand who the creatures were, and the names were strange to me, but that’s what made it exciting.”

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