A Revisionist Mythos: Frankenstein Versus Cthulhu
By Rob LathamNovember 6, 2021
Something More Than Night by Kim Newman
Mr. Cannyharme: A Novel of Lovecraftian Terror by Michael Shea
The second myth Ball analyzes in his book is Frankenstein, the full potency of which was cemented with James Whale’s 1931 film version. Indeed, “[w]hen we think of Frankenstein’s monster, it is flat-headed, bolt-necked [Boris] Karloff who looms into view.” Ball does not say as much, but it is possible to view the monster movies released by Universal Studios during the 1930s as a veritable pantheon of modern myths, including also Dracula and the Wolf Man (a version of the Jekyll and Hyde story to which Ball devotes a chapter). During the Depression era, these films certainly did their share of cultural work, expressing and managing social anxieties about science, race, and sexuality.
As his long-running Anno Dracula series shows, there are few contemporary authors more attuned to the resonances of modern mythology, especially as expressed in popular film, than British author Kim Newman. Having exhaustively mined the rich vein of vampire lore, the author now turns his attention, in his new novel, to the Frankenstein mythos, in particular its indelible incarnation in Karloff’s lumbering, brutal, sensitive monster. Newman had tackled the topic before, in “Frankenstein on Ice,” his contribution to a portmanteau horror play staged in London’s West End in 2016, but Something More Than Night is his first full-fledged narrative treatment. Though a stand-alone work, the novel has subtle links, via its characters and contexts, to other Newman series, such as his tales of Drearcliff Grange, a haunted Edwardian girls’ school, and is freewheeling and open-ended enough to leave room for sequels.
Something More Than Night fuses two mythic traditions that were crystallized in popular film and pulp fiction of the 1930s: mad science (à la Frankenstein) and private-eye noir. (Ball devotes a chapter to Sherlock Holmes, the Victorian progenitor of the modern P.I.) Newman displayed his fondness for noir — and his mastery of its generic megatext — in the very first novel published under his byline, The Night Mayor (1989), whose gameworld setting was a black-and-white metropolis populated by corrupt cops and cheap hoods, where it was “always two thirty in the morning and raining.” Something More Than Night splices that umbrous hard-boiled dreamscape with the campy lightning strikes that kindle the dead in Whale’s classic movie, and the result is a delicious homage to — and satire of — Hollywood in the studio era.
Newman even invents his own studio, Pyramid Pictures, a swank but second-rate outfit founded by a German émigré, Ward Home (née Heim), who struck it rich in the oil business and, flush with cash, put his son, Junior, in charge of a media empire. (Newman has chronicled the history of Pyramid Pictures in previous novels, including the 1994 gorefest The Quorum, which prefigures Something More Than Night in its hybridization of supernatural horror and gumshoe mystery, and whose monstrous movie mogul, Derek Leech, is a precursor to the tyrannical Junior Home.) The studio’s politics are decidedly right-wing, if not outright fascist:
Hitler invaded Poland just as Pyramid was putting the finishing touches on their first Technicolor super-production, Say It With Stukas. A musical about love, laughter and civilian casualties in which smiling bomber pilots gaily obliterate a fictional country called Angle-Land.
Junior rants about the Jewish lefties who control the other studios, while cynically ripping off their signature properties: his acting stable includes a family of screwball comics called the Sparx Brothers, and he mounts a competing horror line to Universal’s, often trying to filch their big-name stars. For example, he wanted Karloff for his creaky gaslight shocker The Fiend of Fog Lane, in which a “hypnotised gorilla in top hat and opera cape dismembered London bobbies at the bidding of an embittered fakir,” but he had to settle for a stand-in.
We learn all of this because Karloff (a.k.a. Billy Pratt) is one of the novel’s two main characters, the other being noir pulpster Raymond Chandler (a.k.a. “R.T.”), who narrates the tale. Newman’s conceit is that these two men, who never met in real life, were schoolboy friends in Britain before eventually settling in Los Angeles to pursue creative careers, mutually lured on by a shadowy sorceress named Ariadne. “[W]e were drawn in her wake,” R.T. writes. “After knocking about the world, Billy and I both ended up where dreams were made. The fountains of terror and wonder.” Newman first essayed a portrait of this ruthless femme fatale in his 1990 novel Bad Dreams, but here he gives her an epic backstory straight out of Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony (1933):
Whenever there’s terror, she’s present. Whenever art goes too far, it’s at her urging. She loves the riot as much as the premiere. When machine guns rake a field, she cultivates the poppies that spring from the bloody soil. When a poet chokes his last or an actress takes a header off the Hollywoodland sign, Ariadne dips the hem of her garment in the mess and walks away, unquestioned but culpable. Hers is the face pilots see as they crash in flames.
R.T. compares this predacious angel, who sits “beside the story tree, dripping beautiful poison,” to Keats’s lamia, to Rider Haggard’s Ayesha, to the Bride of Frankenstein, to his own Carmen Sternwood — making one wonder why Ball did not include, in his list of modern myths, some version of this enduring female archetype. In her delirious wake Ariadne trails a series of strange, spectacular crimes, which Billy and R.T. join forces to solve: for example, they halted a spree of murders inspired by the tales of Poe by walling up the culprit, a demented bibliophile, in a dungeon chamber, à la “The Cask of Amontillado.” Something More Than Night opens with another bizarre killing — of their mutual friend, a former cop turned shamus, whose sedan (in an eerie echo of a mysterious death in The Big Sleep) crashes off the end of a Malibu pier. When a young actress is rescued from the car’s trunk, only to promptly disappear, Billy and R.T. find themselves ensnared in another of Ariadne’s witchy intrigues. “It wasn’t a story Dime Detective would buy,” R.T. observes. “Maybe Unknown. Or Weird Tales.”
The plot, as per usual with Newman, is an artful farrago of outlandish events and freakish set-pieces, whose manifold pleasures I will not spoil by rehearsing them in detail. Suffice to say they include a basement laboratory in the kitchsy Home mansion, outfitted by Frankenstein’s set designer, where Junior pursues the dream of immortality; a macabre private clinic for the stars, run by a literal mad doctor and staffed by indestructible clones; a narrow escape from a “clan of killer hillbillies” in a prop plane that winds up crashing in the La Brea tar pits; a series of pratfall slayings, carried out by the Sparx Brothers and their zany understudies; and much more. Along the way, Karloff acquires all the magical powers wielded by his various film monsters, only to lose them again, while R.T. — in between flying the prop plane and dodging fists thrown by the killer clones — mourns his tenure as a potboiling pulpster, dreams avidly of drink, and vows never to pursue a career in the movies.
We know, of course, that he would break that vow, penning a handful of screenplays in the ’40s and ’50s, including (with Billy Wilder) a superb adaptation of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. While it tracks Karloff’s film career closely (and cleverly), Something More Than Night rather fudges Chandler’s writing history: though set during the mid-to-late ’30s, the story references four of the author’s novels, the first of which was only published in 1939. But this is a quibble since Newman’s stitching of the fictive history of Pyramid Pictures into the known reality of ’30s Hollywood is generally quite deft and often laugh-out-loud funny. Junior Home’s maniacal quest for eternal life, for example, comes across as a garish Hollywood spectacle (“a mad science pageant. Frankenstein, staged by Busby Berkeley”), with Junior just another power-mad mogul lording it over the little people. “You might be movie material after all,” he says contemptuously to Chandler.
We could toss you a rewrite on Tubas on Parade. Nathanael West is having third act issues. You could fix it by having two guys with guns barge into the bandstand. Or we could grab the Big Snore rights for five hundred bucks, ditch your no-name dick, and use what plot there is for one of our series stars. […] Throw Boris a bone. He can play the Stranglewood butler. Who’ll turn out to have dun it. We can’t use your miserable excuse for an ending. The slut sister goes to the nuthouse! Who wants to see that?
Junior’s gloating prattle is so convincingly silly, so richly evocative of every Hollywood satire from The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) to The Player (1992), that one half-expects him to boast that he can hire a hack off the street to give him “that Raymond Chandler feeling.” For his part, R.T. offers scathing takes on Pyramid’s filmic output, such as the opulent stinker Unfinished Symphony: “Young Schubert (middle-aged Fredric March) can’t complete his magnum opus because his composing arm gets skewered during a duel with Lord Byron (Franchot Tone). If the picture had been any bigger a bomb, the Luftwaffe would have dropped it on Guernica.”
The cinematic corpus referenced most pervasively in the novel is, of course, supernatural horror, especially the neo-Gothic version pioneered by Universal (and later taken up by Hammer Studios in the United Kingdom). Having written reams of review copy for various venues, including the long-running “Video Dungeon” column for Empire magazine, Newman knows this tradition intimately, as evidenced in his “Your Daily Dracula” postings on Twitter, which feature stills from a wide range of vampire movies. Newman’s attitude toward this material is complex, a fond nostalgia tinged with contempt, since he knows that the hallowed pantheon is fated to peter out in a welter of execrable sequels. Like me, he grew up reading Forry Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland, which celebrated this canon indiscriminately, from the original classics to clumsy knockoffs like Son of Dracula (1943) and The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), with a haggard Lon Chaney Jr. subbing for Karloff and Lugosi. One of Newman’s earliest stories, “Famous Monsters” (1988), follows the further (d)evolution of this horror line into the 1960s, with a dissipated Chaney getting paid in bottles to star in Z-grade turkeys with titles like Face of the Screaming Werewolf, Dr. Terror’s Gallery of Horrors, and Blood of the Cannibal Creature (only one of those movies is fictional). Even the original films had an atmosphere of camp, as R.T. in the new novel registers by mimicking Colin Clive’s hysterical frenzy when the monster moves on the table: “It’s al-i-eve!”
But Newman also recognizes this tradition’s mythic potency, as proven by his own stab at a laboratory scene, an extraordinary spectacle set in the clinic’s courtyard: “Lightning struck […], fusing gravel into black glass. […] The nightmare carousel was a giant knot of lightning-rods. Arcs crackled between ball-tipped steel bars. Fire thieved from the heavens was trapped in faraday cages.” The stakes here are the same as in Frankenstein — control over the basic processes of life and death — but the Promethean overreacher is now not the earnest doctor but petty little Junior Home, who turns the prodigious event into a kind of Nazi rally. “Here was Nietzsche’s Overman,” R.T. sneers, “come to California in a fanfare of tubas.” There was always, Newman suggests, a despotic undercurrent to ’30s horror, as evidenced by R.T.’s comparison of Karloff’s monster to the creepy child-killer in Fritz Lang’s M (1931): “A man might enjoy ripping apart small bodies. It didn’t take lightning and grave robbery and crackpot inventions to create Peter Lorre. This monster was just an ordinary man.” In his canny portrait of a prewar Hollywood flirting with fascism, Newman perceives something about popular mythmaking that Ball tends to downplay — the fact that (in the words of Roland Barthes) “[s]tatistically, myth is on the right. There, it is essential; well-fed, sleek, expansive, garrulous, it invents itself ceaselessly.” In R.T.’s words, the mythologists of American plutocracy “are right about one thing — real monsters don’t die. Not fire, not a wooden stake, not a squadron of planes … nothing kills money.”
Despite the persistent recourse to British sources, in both Ball’s book and Universal’s adaptations, America has nurtured its fair share of homegrown myths, many of them firmly “on the right.” Indeed, Ball devotes a chapter to one of them: the caped crusader, a grim vigilante who usurps lawful authority — “implacably violent, probably deranged, and, some feel, on the brink of fascism.” It is curious, though, that his book neglects the preeminent American mythmaker of the 20th century, whose views were decidedly authoritarian: H. P. Lovecraft. Of the two major mythic pantheons erected during the ’30s, Universal’s monsters and Lovecraft’s Elder Gods, the latter has arguably been more influential, especially in recent decades. Certainly, the Cthulhu Mythos displays one of Ball’s key criteria: the capacity to generate a seemingly endless array of sequels and spin-offs, from doting homages to savage parodies.
The Mythos was a collective enterprise even during Lovecraft’s lifetime, with a circle of fans and fellow writers churning out offshoots, some of them in collaboration with the original creator. In 1969, August Derleth curated a sampling of these stories, plus some efforts written after Lovecraft’s death, in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, a volume that was revised and expanded in 1990. This more or less “official” canon has been supplemented by a host of other anthologies, from Lin Carter’s The Spawn of Cthulhu (1971) to Ramsey Campbell’s New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1980) to John Pelan and Benjamin Adams’s The Children of Cthulhu (2002) and many, many more. There are theme anthologies designed to fit specific niches in the Mythos: She Walks in Shadows (2015), edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles, gathers female perspectives, while Cthulhu Unbound (2009), edited by John Sunseri and Thomas Brannon, features various genre crossbreedings (with noir, screwball comedy, space opera, etc.). There has even been a tentacular eruption of Cthulhu erotica.
Because Lovecraft’s early death left behind a messy estate, his fiction soon fell into the public domain or has long had a disputed copyright status, a situation that facilitated the proliferation of unauthorized sequels. Derleth, who co-founded Arkham House Press in order to reprint Lovecraft’s stories from the pulps, himself penned several volumes of homages, such as The Trail of Cthulhu (1962), and encouraged younger writers enamored of Lovecraft’s work, the most important being Ramsey Campbell, whose first collection, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants, was published by Arkham House in 1964. (Campbell is probably the finest British horror writer of the past half-century, and his career has ranged far and wide, but he recently returned to his Lovecraftian roots with the superb Brichester Mythos trilogy.) Writers and fans who had been part of Lovecraft’s circle in the ’30s continued to contribute to the cycle, with works like Frank Belknap Long’s The Horror from the Hills (1963) and Robert Bloch’s Strange Eons (1978), while other aspiring talents nurtured in Cthulhu fandom, such as Brian Lumley, went on to have long professional careers writing Mythos fiction. As with the literary (some might say quasi-literary) productions of any fan network, this material is an acquired taste that will leave most readers cold.
The first serious attempt to break free of the shackles of imitation was Fred Chappell’s 1968 novel Dagon, a delirious fusion of cosmic horror and Southern Gothic that is one of the strangest and most disturbing books I have ever read. T. E. D. Klein’s 1985 collection Dark Gods was similarly innovative, featuring four long stories that updated the Old Ones for a world of urban crime and economic precarity. In 1995, William Browning Spencer published Résumé with Monsters, a smirky Gen-X take on the Mythos in which an impecunious Lovecraft fan confronts nemeses both cosmic and personal (as his hippie therapist says of his literary idol: “Face it, the man wasn’t in the pink of mental health”). The pretensions of Lovecraft fandom were hilariously skewered in I Am Providence, a 2016 novel by Nick Mamatas, whose earlier effort, Move Under Ground (2004), was a clumsy but intermittently arresting attempt to link Cthulhu and Kerouac. This offbeat “tradition” of ironic homages gathered steam in 2015, with Austin Grossman’s Crooked, an alternative history of the postwar US in which Richard Nixon entered a Faustian pact with occult entities, and Jonathan L. Howard’s Carter & Lovecraft, wherein a homicide cop turned private eye investigates a rash of killings linked to the Elder Gods.
And then, in 2016–’17, there was a veritable explosion. On top of Mamatas’s satire of organized Cthuliana, two novels appeared that explored, with a striking seriousness, the implications of Lovecraft’s abiding racism. While Matt Ruff’s entertainingly episodic Lovecraft Country has gotten more attention, in large part because of the lurid confection HBO made of it, Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is much the better book: tighter, darker, angrier. Even finer works followed. Canadian author Jacqueline Baker’s The Broken Hours: A Novel of H.P. Lovecraft is a tricky metafictional engagement with Lovecraft’s biography, a sympathetic portrait of a sickly, alienated man grappling with a traumatic family history, while Paul LaFarge’s The Night Ocean extrapolates Lovecraft’s cryptic friendship with a closeted teenage fan into a potent meditation on identity and belonging. Baker’s and LaFarge’s novels are both beautifully written and emotionally rich — proof positive that there is life still left in this morose pulpster’s legacy.
And speaking of literary remains, the excellent small press Hippocampus, founded in 1999 to promote the work of Lovecraft and his disciples, released in August a new novel by the late Michael Shea, Mr. Cannyharme: A Novel of Lovecraftian Terror. Shea, who died in 2014, was perhaps the most significant of American devotees of the Mythos, in large part because his work extended well beyond Lovecraft pastiches. Shea was, in fact, an accomplished pasticheur, producing an authorized sequel set in Jack Vance’s lush “Dying Earth” venue, A Quest for Simbilis (1974), and an award-winning picaresque fantasy, Nifft the Lean (1982), that riffed on Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. His best novel was a contemporary retelling of the saga of Gilgamesh, In Yana, the Touch of Undying (Shea had a way with titles). A versatile talent, he also wrote tales of grisly horror, such as the bleak little masterpiece “The Autopsy” (1980), and dystopian science fiction, including an unfinished trilogy set in Los Angeles that satirized, with a cynicism that suggests deep personal knowledge, the corruption and venality of the movie business. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Shea spent most of his working career in the Bay Area, producing some of the most fascinating portraits of his native state — at once bewitched and disillusioned — in modern fantastic fiction.
Shea’s initial engagement with the Cthulhu Mythos was cast in an imitative mode, his 1984 novel The Color Out of Time offering a fast-paced, ultra-violent updating of Lovecraft’s obliquely nasty story “The Colour Out of Space” (1927). But with his novella Fat Face, published as a chapbook by the now-defunct Axolotl Press in 1987, Shea began to make the Mythos his own, penning a series of stories set in contemporary San Francisco that brought Lovecraft’s pantheon of Elder Gods into contact and conflict with an array of scruffy oddballs and footloose street people: a pillhead hooker, an elderly man barely subsisting on the dole, a freelance cartoonist, a pair of middle-aged lesbian bookstore owners, an aspiring writer working menial jobs. Most of these folks are tenants of an ancient residence hotel in the Mission District called the Hyperion, just a step up from a Tenderloin flophouse, and their various encounters with the eldritch and uncanny inspire both awe and a kind of exhausted resignation, though a few are inspired to fight. “Copping Squid” (2009) is a characteristic example: a thwarted hold-up embroils a liquor store clerk in a grotesque black-market economy of hardcore Cthulhu junkies hankering for a transcendent fix, a visionary glimpse of apocalypse that Shea captures in his most oneiric and breathless prose:
And now all hell, with relentless slow acceleration, broke loose. The City’s blazing architected crown began to discohere, brick fleeing brick in perfect pattern, in widening pattern, till they all became pointillist buildings snatched away in the whirlwind, and from the buildings all the people too like flung seed swirled up into the night, their evaporating arms raised as in horror, or salute, crying out their being from clouding faces that the black winds sucked to tatters.
In 2017, Dark Regions Press, another small publisher that specializes in horror and dark fantasy, gathered these stories into a volume edited by the godfather of Lovecraft studies, S. T. Joshi, entitled Demiurge: The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales of Michael Shea, and now Hippocampus has released Mr. Cannyharme, also edited by Joshi, with an assist from Shea’s widow, Linda. (This comes on the heels of And Death Shall Have No Dominion: A Tribute to Michael Shea, helmed once again by Joshi for Hippocampus in 2016.) As Joshi observes in his introduction to Demiurge, it was only when Shea began to “draw upon his own California roots” that he was able to convey the true rapture and dread of cosmic horror, its direful impact on the lives of “characters whose all-too-human flaws make them the reader’s eyes and ears as the awesome revelation slowly dawns.” As Linda Shea’s foreword to Mr. Cannyharme reveals, many of these tales were indeed deeply rooted in the author’s experiences: like the novel’s protagonist, he worked as a night clerk at a “funky, low-rent hotel” in the Mission, his imagination “bounc[ing] off and reinvent[ing] the people he met,” the down-at-heel denizens whose hopes and fears seldom extended beyond the next paycheck, the next drink, the next melancholy hookup. By putting a cosmic frame around their quiet desperation (and his own), Shea managed to produce a unique literary hybrid: the tale of a wannabe writer wrestling with literal demons, a sort of NorCal version of Ask the Dust, with Shoggoths.
This is not quite fair since there is nothing at all campy about Mr. Cannyharme; indeed, the seriousness with which it takes its outré subject is one of its main strengths. And there actually isn’t a Shoggoth in sight; if it weren’t for a brief epigraph and an editor’s note, even a fairly committed reader of Lovecraft might not have realized that the story was inspired by “The Hound” (1924), a minor Mythos tale (Lovecraft himself called it “a piece of junk”) about a Dutch necromancer who manifests as the eponymous creature. In Shea’s novel, this malign immortal has been transformed into Mr. Cunningham (a.k.a. Van Haarme, a.k.a Cannyharme), a decrepit tenant of the Hyperion who wanders the neighborhood handing out fliers filled with his demented poetry. (Like Lovecraft, Shea pens some of the most sublimely gruesome doggerel you will ever read: has any other bard ever rhymed “femur” and “lemur”?) As the insidious influence of his ghoulish verse grows, more of the Hyperion’s tenants are drawn into its tenebrous maw, as victims or co-conspirators, and the various plot strands — the protagonist’s involvement in a meth-dealing ring, his sometime girlfriend’s struggles with traumatic memories of childhood abuse, the hotel manager’s marital discord, the ambitious scheming of a natty pimp — eventually come together at a sanguinary banquet hosted by the baleful Mr. Cannyharme. Along the way, there are a number of vividly rendered — but rather dimly explained — supernatural set-pieces: bodies erupt out of graveyards, ectoplasmic tentacles gather up sleeping prey, a dying man is astrally projected across the city, a burned-out Chinese restaurant becomes a portal to another dimension.
The story, in short, doesn’t really hang together, which is hardly surprising given that the manuscript was abandoned by its author. According to Joshi’s prefatory note, it exists in two versions, this being the longer, with “more detailed characterization and more richly textured prose.” Shea’s wife says that the manuscript was written in 1981, earlier than any of his published Mythos tales, though references throughout to the AIDS crisis, rap music, and home computers suggest later revisions, and the manuscript was eventually cannibalized to produce some of the stories gathered in Demiurge.
But this isn’t a book one reads for the plot in any case; rather, its pleasures lie in the author’s shrewd observations of the bohemian scene and his insights into his abject characters. The pages are littered with exquisitely deft sketches reminiscent of Hubert Selby’s gallery of lowlifes — a seedy barfly is “a shrunken little man-monkey, half-erased by booze”; a homeless prostitute is “a bulky-coated nomad, an alley-spook in a permanent pill trance” — and the milieu they wander through is a tawdry neon wasteland, evoked with a feverish exhilaration: “Here in the Mission is where the real human mysteries live, the grotesques, the misfits, the monsters and archetypes. Here is myth! Here is vision!” The habitants of this seamy Eden are menaced as much by their own vices and delusions as by any metaphysical beastie; indeed, it is precisely their propensity for self-destruction, their secret urge for annihilation, on which Mr. Cannyharme feeds. “Time the Reaper towers like a giant over this glittery underworld, stands knee-deep in the crowds with his scythe.”
In her preface, Linda Shea reveals that her husband thought the story “too harsh […] too brutal” and the protagonist, despite being partly autobiographical, too much of “an asshole.” Certainly, he has his flaws: he is a selfish druggie and petty criminal, an exploiter of others, especially of women; but though the focal character, he is not the story’s hero: he is too reactive, too much at the mercy of events. The real heroes of the story are the small band of mostly female characters who, fed up with being victimized, join forces to combat Mr. Cannyharme. And in any event, even if the story is dark and disturbing, that is, as Ball observes, a prerogative of popular myth, “which dares to show us things we might desire but should not, and things that should repel us but do not.” That pithy dictum explains, as well as any can, the enduring popularity of Frankenstein and the Cthulhu Mythos, two hoary revenants of modern pop culture to whom Newman’s and Shea’s novels have given a fervid new life.
Rob Latham is a LARB senior editor.
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