New York Times Book Review on the Mythos

Now that I’ve finished the foreword, I found a relevant piece in the New York Times Review of Books (print only, it seems) in which Terrence Rafferty speaks about Laird Barron’s The Imago Sequence:

Barron’s a more ingenious Lovecraftian than most. He doesn’t merely recycle the master’s elaborate, harebrained “mythos” but adds (usually) his own strange spin to tales of ancient evil bubbling up in the modern world. He sometimes appears to have a hilariously literal take on Lovecraft’s concept of the Old Ones, which customarily refers to a monstrous prehuman race whose survivors live underground in Godforsaken places like Antarctica and New England… The problem with all these neo-Lovecraft jobs, though, is that even when they’re as impressively peculiar as Laird Barron’s, they feel secondhand, pointless, helplessly de trop. The mythology Lovecraft cooked up was, God help him, personal and passionate; it carries a whiff of madness. Lacking that authentic, unfakable, belief-compelling insanity, stories like those in “The Imago Sequence” can’t achieve anything better than nuttiness. And that’s not scary.

In the same article, he quotes the following lines from Joe Hill’s “America’s Best New Horror” in 20th Century Ghosts:

He tried to struggle through Lovecraft pastiches, but at the first painfully serious reference to the Elder Gods, he felt some important part of him going numb inside, the way a hand or a foot will go to sleep when the circulation is cut off. He feared the part of him being numbed was his soul.

First, I should note that Rafferty has broken the first rule of snark:  be right.  As, to my knowledge, there aren’t any prominent mentions of Old Ones buried underneath New England in Mythos fiction, he’s exchanged accuracy for a cheap shot.  That’s a slippery path, and one that those blessed with snark must always avoid.

But is Mythos fiction worth salvaging?  I certainly think there’s enough good work in the field to justify its existence, even if considerable amounts of it are cringe-worthy.  Over the years, however, I’ve come to empathize with both sides of the debate.  On one hand, you have the fans who buy every periodical that comes out, who relish finding those familiar names (and maybe some unfamiliar ones) in the text once again, and who read and write out of a sense of genuine fun and respect for Lovecraft.  On the other are the old guard, who wonder why anyone spends so much time with so much material of so little quality when so many stories of other genres are so much better than so much of Mythos fiction.  Most people shade between the two extremes, but my difficulty is that I can understand each one without finding a way to bring together these opposites into a whole.  This goal is overly ambitious, of course, but it does leave me in a strange position where I side with everyone, agree with no one, and can’t get anyone to agree with me.

Published in: on January 25, 2008 at 5:34 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Perhaps Mr. Rafferty gives himself away as a gamer, (and these are spoilers for several Call of Cthulhu books, so look away if you play rather than ‘Keep’) as Herber places Abhoth beneath Dunwich in “Return to Dunwich”, Ross puts Tulzscha beneath Kingsport in that book, etc? These are Great Old Ones rather than “Old Ones” but I wonder if that is a distinction he’d recognize…

  2. Never underestimate the appeal of the good-bad. Think trashy romances, for women, or Clancyesque thrillers, for the average guy. There is an emotional appeal that resonates, despite the technical awfulness. The Mythos clearly moves people; the questions are, IMHO, why, and what does that say about us as a culture, and what do we do with it?

    My ownself, am fascinated by stories like “Visitation,” which isn’t very good, but strongly appealing because, well, Lovecraft might show up after Poe! And the unspoken dread in that possibility is more interesting than all the creepy-crawlies clearly depicted elsewhere.

    Two cents, change back on request.

  3. I read this review this morning in the Times and felt annoyed at the reviewer. More and more Times reviews are about the reviewer showing off his imagined cleverness or ability to rip someone a new one instead of discussing the book in question. It makes me feel like slapping them out of their self-absorption. I certainly did not know anything more about this book after reading the review than I would have just by reading the book’s title, so as a review, it was a failure. I didn’t find the reviewer’s distinction between madness and nuttiness to be very helpful, either. I’ve known plenty of nuts who are darned scary. All I can say is that after reading the review, I decided to seek this book out, because I have the feeling that my sensibilities probably differ from the reviewer’s by about 180 degrees.

    I’ve read newer contributions to the Mythos that were terrific and plenty that sucked, but I think that’s pretty much in keeping with the run of stories in general and has nothing to do with the Mythos or the depth of any writer’s belief in it.

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