Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Yellow Mythos: Lovecraft, Chambers and Bierce

The Elder Sign, as originally conceived and hand-drawn by H.P. Lovecraft in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith

It being October, with Halloween right around the corner, it's only just that we turn our attentions to horror fiction--a sub-genre of the pulps that Amazing Adventures is perfectly suited (and partially designed) to cover. But horror covers so many subjects--unkillable stalkers, werewolves, vampires, zombies. In this blog, we'll look at a favorite of gamers: cosmic horror, the origins, inspirations and masters of this style of fiction: H.P. Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce and Robert W. Chambers. Specifically we'll look at cosmic horror before Lovecraft, and the role that Bierce and Chambers played in establishing this genre that even today inspires authors from Neil Gaiman to Stephen King.

Cosmic Horror before Lovecraft

Many people look to H.P. Lovecraft as the father of the Weird Tale, and there's no denying the effect that Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth and the cosmic horror that went hand in hand with these figures has had on weird fiction. In truth, however, Lovecraft was only the latest in a long line of writers of classic weird fiction. Of course, there were the tales of Stoker and Shelley and Poe, and Lovecraft himself cited Lord Dunsany as a strong influence, but there were also others who came before Lovecraft and whose fiction dealt with cosmic themes of sanity-blasting horror from beyond. In fact, Lovecraft drew specific inspiration from a few of these writers, and even incorporated their themes and mythology into his own stories. As the Cthulhu Mythos has become somewhat "cuddle-fied" and doesn't carry the dread among gamers that it once did, it can behoove us to look at these earlier sources of inspiration.

I am thinking, here, of the Yellow Mythos, or the Hastur Mythos. This mythology was absorbed into Lovecraft's myth-cycle, largely through the controversial efforts of August Derleth to "codify" the stories of the Lovecraft Circle (which were never really meant to be codified) into a coherent structure.

Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce
However, cosmic horror came before Lovecraft in the form of the aforementioned Yellow Mythos. Indeed, three of the major names in the Mythos (Hastur, Hali and Carcosa, to be specific) were first created by Ambrose Bierce, who was more famous for his story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Bierce was a prolific writer of fiction whose life (and mysterious disappearance) were as interesting as the stories he wrote. It is often forgotten or overlooked, but his story "Haita the Shepherd," was the first mention of Hastur, who in this story appears to be a benevolent deity.

His second mention of themes that would later be used by Chambers is in the story, "An Inhabitant of Carcosa," a vignette about a man looking upon the ruins of the ancient city of Carcosa. The city is first mentioned here, along with Hali, who in this story appears to have been a person, rather than a lake. It is also in this story that Carcosa is first associated with Aldebaron and the Hyades, both seminal associations that would forever stick with the Yellow Mythos as it would later be established in its more famous and best-known form.

Robert W. Chambers

Robert W. Chambers, of course, later incorporated these names into his infamous horror collection, The King in Yellow. It could very well be argued that this collection, which set the stage for the entire Hastur or Yellow Mythos that would follow, also paved the way directly for Lovecraft. It could indeed be argued that without Chambers, there would have been no Lovecraft.

If you're looking for ways to spice up your Halloween or horror-themed game, forget Cthulhu, Azathoth and Yog-Sothoth. Check out the various broad interpretations of The Yellow Mythos, and put your own spin on it. What if Hastur is a place rather than a deity? What if Hali is not a lake, but a figure of cosmic horror (or heroism)? What if it's both and the lake is named for the figure? What is Carcosa like? This mythology, divorced from Lovecraft and his Circle (and particularly Derleth's interference) is wide open to making it your own--forget the tentacles. Tentacles are passe. Use the sickly madness that comes from decay and entropy and tears society down from its roots.

Recommended Reading

For more information on the roots of the Yellow Mythos, check out these seminal texts:

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