There’s been a great deal of speculation regarding S. T. Joshi’s The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos. Joshi, the world’s premier Lovecraft scholar, is well known among Cthulhu Mythos fans for his dislike of much of the genre, leading to speculation as to why and how it would be treated.
I think many readers will be pleasantly surprised. Joshi’s presentation of the Cthulhu Mythos is fair and generally positive, largely because he largely ignores material he considers to lack literary merit. Some of the authors from the Sixties get a harsh treatment, especially Brian Lumley (I wish Joshi would have given greater consideration to his short fiction before dismissing him entirely). For the most part, though, Joshi is willing to point toward merit where he feels it’s due and to pass over the rest in silence.
The book is an excellent source on the history of the Cthulhu Mythos, tracing the development of the “Lovecraft Mythos” through his works to its adoption by his fellow authors, through the inaccurate reporting of August Derleth, and down to the present day. Joshi has done an admirable job of tracking down the textual history of various components of the Mythos and how they have been reinterpreted by Lovecraft and the authors who followed him.
I should comment on a few aspects of the book:
1) The book, for the most part, only covers printed texts, leaving the wide variety of movies, comics, visual arts, real-life Cthulhu cults, etc., aside. That isn’t to dismiss the primacy of text in the development of the Mythos, but those looking for more won’t find it here.
2) Joshi states that one aspect of his personal definition of the Mythos is “a sense of cosmicism.” I’m still mulling over how much this applies to HPL’s work in general, but much of Smith and Howard’s work doesn’t seem to fall under this heading. By the end of the book, Joshi seems to suggest that this cosmic perspective is the hallmark of Mythos fiction, which I think is stretching matters far beyond what most would consider the Mythos. Still, it’s Joshi’s book, and he can define it as he wishes therein.
3) A few curious omissions stand out. For example, Joshi confines his reading of the early Bloch’s work to Mysteries of the Worm, not counting many tales that have since been reprinted. Also interesting is the mention of Lin Carter for Dreams from R’lyeh and scarce anything else. This might have been due to the literary merit of the uncovered material, and I can scarcely argue with that.
4) If I were to identify a single misstep in the book, it is the lack of attention given to broader relevance. After all, the real question about the Mythos is why so many people – ranging from Bloch to Derleth to me to Joshi himself – have found it so compelling that they not only read Lovecraft, but seek to imitate him and build on the created mythology for which he and other authors are responsible. Many authors have imitators, but the Cthulhu Mythos “cult” is largely unprecedented in literary history. Joshi states that this is merely a stage that many new authors go through – but that doesn’t explain why so many people seek to read such works. There are broader answers that need to be sought here, and casual readers might finish this book and wonder why it merited a book-length treatment.
Nonetheless, this is an excellent work, and a must read for those interested in the history of the Cthulhu Mythos.