Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Book Review: 'The Mask of Cthulhu' by August Derleth


2/5 Stars

‘The Mask of Cthulhu’ was first published in 1958 by Arkham House; this paperback version from Ballantine Books was published in May 1976 (a second printing; the first was in 1971). This Ballantine book has an underwhelming cover illustration of Cthulhu by Murray Tinkleman and, somewhat unusually, futher portraits of our hero as halftone illustrations on the inside front and back covers as well. Interestingly, the front cover sports a stylish devil’s head colophon reading ‘Ballantine SF / Horror’; I’ve not seen this colophon on any other Ballantine books of this era so I suspect this was a one-time design effort.

‘Mask’ contains six short stories written by Derleth from a period spanning 1936 – 1953. All but the last story first appeared in ‘Weird Tales’.

‘The Return of Hastur’ involves a creepy old mansion (are there any other kind ?!) in Arkham; Amos Tuttle has passed away, with orders in his will that both his house, and his collection of forbidden books, be destroyed. When his nephew Paul Tuttle opposes these stipulations and moves into the mansion, he soon notices the sounds of something…. big…. walking around in the caverns underneath the house. Never a good sign in HPL country…

‘The Whippoorwills in the Hills’ takes place in the desolate rural areas outside Arkham. After his cousin Abel goes missing, Dan Harrop travels to his cousin’s abandoned house, seeking clues to the disappearance. It seems cousin Abel was dabbling in Forbidden Things; every night a massive flock of the eponymous birds congregates outside his house and chirps ‘til dawn. Dan Harrop is unable to learn much about his kin’s strange vanishing act, but before too long, corpses of men and cattle start to appear on the landscape….

‘Something in Wood’ deals with a music critic whose hobby of collecting primitive curios brings into his possession an eldritch figurine of an ‘octopoid’ deity of some kind. As HPL fans know, this never results in a happy ending…

In ‘The Sandwin Compact’, Eldon Sandwin and his eccentric father Asa find themselves victimized by an unholy agreement made between their ancestors and the Ancient Ones. When deities like Cthulhu and Lloigor come calling to collect their due, can Eldon and Asa hope to resist ?

‘The House in the Valley’ finds painter Jefferson Bates vacationing in a quaint rural farmhouse ouside Arkham. The former inhabitant, Seth Bishop, has mysteriously disappeared. Could his disappearance have something to do with passages below the earth littered with bones stripped clean of flesh ? Bishop’s collection of Unholy books ? The strange, late-night sounds of something moving about in the caverns below the house ?

In ‘The Seal of R’lyeh’ a younger member of the Phillips clan takes possession of Sylvan Phillips’s mansion near Innsmouth, near the coast of the Atlantic. The narrator befriends Ada Marsh, a young woman with a rather unusual appearance, and together they embark on a quest to learn why Sylvan Phillips was so interested in certain exotic, far-off places…and images of a monstrous creature called Cthulhu….

Derleth wasn’t the most accomplished of writers; many of his sentences go on too long, have what could politely be called an ‘awkward’ syntax, and often involve unseemly collisions of multiple verb tenses. Despite spanning nearly two decades of magazine publishing, the stories tend to recycle the same plot device and the same narrow collection of Lovecraftian motiffs. It’s clear from the stories in ‘The Mask of Cthulhu’ that Derleth was content to adhere to the same formula over his career as a writer, and he was reluctant to make anything more than modest alterations to either his prose style or the creativity of his narratives.

A glance at amazon.com shows that several second-hand editions of this book, produced by various publishers, are available for a variety of prices. While I can’t recommend ‘The Mask of Cthulhu’ to readers of horror literature in general, true-blue HPL fans may want to pick up a copy to complete their collection.

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