New Short Story: "Cthulhu, P.I."
Exactly! I’ve come to tickle your funnybone.
Oh, and also to eat your soul…
The Cackle of Cthulhu
ed. Alex Shvartsman
Baen Books, January 2, 2018
So last year at Christmas dinner, my dad (science fiction writer Mike Resnick) says to me, “I’m going to have a story in this Cthulhu anthology that Alex Shvartsman is editing for Baen Books. I hear that you’re going to be in it, too. Since when are you a Lovecraft fan?”
As the old man knew, I’m not.
Alex Shvartsman did not invite me into the book on the basis of my non-existent Lovecraft expertise, but rather because I’ve written some humor stories for him in anthologies published by his own company, UFO Publishing.
As it happens, when I said, “Sure, I’d love to be in the anthology!” I had never read a word of Lovecraft’s fiction—a fact I refrained from sharing with Alex.
So I did my research. That is, I got some Lovecraft fiction from my local library, particularly stories that are considered Lovecraft classics and/or central to the “Cthulhu mythos.” I typically turn down a short story commission that involves more research time than I can spare (ex. a short story for an anthology based on a series of novels I’ve never read), but Lovecraft didn’t write novels, and you can get a good handle on his tone, the subjects or themes he often used, and the Cthulhu mythos by reading just a handful of his short fiction.
Also, the assignment seemed like a good opportunity to open some of the best-known works by an influential author whose writing I’d never read.
H.P. Lovecraft, who died in 1937, wrote fantastical horror fiction in the early 20th century. An American writer, he was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, his own nightmares, and various writers of his own era. In turn, writers influenced by Lovecraft include Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, and Jorge Luis Borges, to name a few. Filmmakers, anime scriptwriters, and manga authors have also cited Lovecraft as an influence. He is often named as one of the most important or influential writers of his genre in the 20th century. Yet despite all that, and despite being a prolific writer, he experienced very little success in his lifetime, and he died in poverty at the age of 46.
Cthulhu, the Unspeakable Eater of Souls, is a dread dark god, a cosmic entity approximately 100 meters tall. Lovecraft describes him in “The Call of Cthulhu” as: “A monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.” A figure or force in various other Lovecraft stories, Cthulhu dwells deep beneath the sea in the sunken “nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh…[which] was built in measureless eons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars.”
I enjoyed exploring a little Lovecraft, though the work isn’t to my taste. Lovecraft’s stories are creative, but he tends to portray everything as so menacing, evil, and horrifying that I kept involuntarily blurting, “Okey dokey.” The author’s prose is often imaginative (ex. “great Cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths”), but the text dwells so frequently on unimagined, lurking, nameless, unthinkable horrors from the deepest, darkest denizens of the nightmarish corners of the most tormented, unnamed terrors… that his prose often reads to me more like parody than horror.
The story I liked best, “Imprisoned With the Pharaohs,” was unrelated to the Cthulhu mythos I was researching, though it’s typical of Lovecraft’s tone and style, and it gives the reader a good feel for his work. Lovecraft wrote it on commission for Weird Tales in 1924. Interestingly, the first-person narrator in this story is the real-life magician and escape artist Harry Houdini—who encounters an ancient Egyptian deity and sinister rites older-than-time, etc., after being abducted while traveling in Egypt. Houdini (the real one) liked the story and wound up commissioning Lovecraft to write several works after that.
“The Call of Cthulhu,” certainly one of Lovecraft’s best-known works, seemed like essential reading for me, given that I was committed to writing a story for The Cackle of Cthulhu. I also read “At the Mountains of Madness,” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” I picked up various shiny bits from these works and rolled them into my story, “Cthulhu, P.I.” in which my love of old-fashioned hard-boiled detective movies is revealed, as well as my slight addiction to Airplane-style cheesy jokes.
So I hope you like the story and enjoy the anthology, whether you are unfamiliar with Lovecraft, a devoted fan of his work, or someone prone to muttering “okey dokey” while reading his stories. Other authors in the anthology include my dad, Neil Gaiman, Esther Friesner, Ken Liu, Jody Lynn Nye, and more!