The Mask Of Cthulu (August Derleth)

One thing you can say about this August Derleth fellow is that he enjoys the frequent use of the word ‘conterminous’; and for that, I found his work rather endearing! ‘The Mask of Cthulhu’ is probably best enjoyed in small doses, since reading the whole collection in one voluminous bite reveals a distinct lack of variety in each fiendish tale of slumberous batrachian maleficence. These eldritch narratives, while stolid and well-written, do lack invention, and a modicum of dry wit would have added much to the murky proceedings.

The stories are as follows:

THE RETURN OF HASTUR – a man moves into the home of a deceased relative and uncovers a mysterious, water-filled subterranean tunnel and a library of ancient, evil texts. Business as usual then, but the story is heavy on atmosphere and Derleth adds his own spin by depicting a cosmic battle between Hastur and Cthulhu. 4/5

THE WHIPPOORWILLS IN THE HILLS – a man moves into the home of a deceased relative and finds himself kept awake at night by the constant calling of hundreds of birds. He soon finds out that these prefigure a greater cosmic menace… Derleth seems to have seized on the mention of whippoorwills in one of the Lovecraft stories and constructed his own tale around it, but this is a bit of a lacklustre effort. The oppressive atmosphere is okay, but the curiously ineffectual climax is a letdown. 3/5

SOMETHING IN WOOD – A mysterious wooden carving spells disaster for its owner. A very short and straightforward story, I found it too predictable to enjoy it too much. Not much in the way of atmosphere, just a storyline we’ve seen played out too many times. Cool name-checking of Clark Ashton Smith, though. 2/5

THE SANDWIN COMPACT – A man visits his uncle and cousin in their remote household and finds the building assailed by strong winds, strange footsteps and mysterious chanting. It all adds up to a horrifying pact between human and god. Again, this is merely a straightforward re-run of various Lovecraftian themes; Innsmouth is referenced here, alongside Derleth’s own addition to the Mythos, Lloigor the Wind-Walker. Not bad, but fairly forgettable. 3/5

THE HOUSE IN THE VALLEY – One of Derleth’s better entries into the Lovecraftian genre, this effort sees a man moving into a newly-rented home which has the inevitable dark history involving the Deep Ones and Cthulhu himself. The horror’s a little more explicit in this one, and there’s less reliance on the usual Miskatonic library stuff for effect. Some of the conceits, such as the frightened neighbours laying siege to the house, are also more original. 4/5

THE SEAL OF R’LYEH – A man moves into his ancestral home in Innsmouth and soon discovers that his uncle was conducting some very strange research there. At last, a full-blooded Cthulhu adventure that ably mixes both the ominous foreboding as well as all-out monster mayhem. Definitely one of the highlights of this slim anthology. 4/5

There appear to be many Derleth naysayers, but I am not one. Tearing through this fun, if narrow, exploration of Lovecraft’s immemorial Mythos is an enjoyable read. Derleth isn’t on par with his master but his enthusiasm for all things Dagon is wholly contagious: “…in point of fact I suddenly find that I cannot ignore the shrill, pipe-like ululations that currently abound in my beleaguered skull meat; a dreadful susurrous that draws me inexorably towards the chill, infernal depths of a primeval sea, wherein the great, octopoid dreamer lies terribly supine, boiling in eternal contemplation of darkling horrors unimaginable to the prosaic reasoning of man!” (Yes, Mr D also has a predilection for the overuse of ‘prosaic’)


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