What I’m Reading: Nameless Cults-The Cthulhu Mythos Fiction of Robert E Howard

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Famously, Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan, King Kull, and Solomon Kane) and H.P. Lovecraft (who created a whole genre of fiction which has been dubbed the Cthulhu Mythos) corresponded with each other, and referenced elements of each other’s works in their stories. For this reason, a collection of REH stories that incorporate elements of the Cthulhu Mythos is a particularly interesting idea, each introduced by a well-researched preface by Robert M. Price, who also edits the volume.

Being rather widely read in Robert E Howard’s fiction, and a huge fan of his fiction and student of his muscular prose, I was familiar with most of these tales—but they’d lost none of their power since their previous readings. There were a couple of tales I was unfamiliar with, and a quartet of stories which were completed posthumously from fragments of tales Robert E. Howard began but never completed.

In terms of quality these posthumous collaborations are where the collection is uneven. Writing like Robert E. Howard and bringing a fragment to a satisfying completion is a difficult thing and, indeed, REH himself may have doubted his own ability to bring some of these fragments to a successful conclusion and therefore abandoned them.

Some of these fragments are very brief and hardly offer much direction to the author following in Howard’s footsteps, and it is glaringly obvious when the story loses its impetus. The one posthumously completed story that I thought was brought to a satisfying end was The House in the Oaks with collaborator August Derleth, as I scarcely noticed the changeover.

The other potential problem with this collection is noted in the preface to the book: The stories herein are complete and unexpurgated. Some contain racist stereotypes and references. Readers can judge for themselves.

This is particularly noticeable in Skull-Face which is REH’s version of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. Rohmer’s tales are couched in terms of the ‘yellow’ nation of China rising up to destroy the entire ‘white’ race. Howard ups the ante by having the ‘black’ and the ‘yellow’ nations combining their forces under the ancient and abominable Skull-Face to destroy the ‘white’ race. These attitudes reflect some of the fears of the times and often, and unfortunately, opposing ideology was equated with skin color.

In the case of Skull-Face, the opposing ideology is not something like Communism or Imperialism, but rather a religion springing up around the aforementioned Skull-Face who is also known as Kathulos which, Price points out, Lovecraft later incorporated into his mythos. The idea of a cult which wants to exterminate all opposing ideologies is not so far-fetched as it may seem at first glance, considering a large population of Muslims cling to the extremist belief of doing just that.

Also, I’d like to call attention to the cool border and chapter header art by Dave Carson, which adds a macabre element to the great layout, and adds to the ambiance of this volume.

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