It is interesting to note the W. H. Pugmire blurb on the back cover to S. T. Joshi’s The Assaults of Chaos: A Novel about Lovecraft. “With this fantastic novel,” Pugmire writes, “S. T. Joshi incorporates his thorough understanding of H. P. Lovecraft’s life and times, couples it with an evocative imagination and superb writing style, and gives us one of the most astonishing novels that I have ever read. Lovecraft lives within these pages. The book is a commanding celebration of a man—and a genre!”
What makes this especially interesting is that only a few days earlier I had read Joshi’s frothing-at-the-mouth, near-maniacal review of John D. Haefele’s A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos: Origins of the Cthulhu Mythos—a book I had sampled, and liked, back in February of this year—in which Joshi calls this noted Modern Cthulhu Mythos author the “genial W. H. Pugmire” and then says “but no one takes him seriously as a critic.”
Who to believe? Pugmire in re: Joshi’s Cthulhu Mythos novel? Or Joshi in re: Pugmire? Tough choice.
To be fair, it should be noted that I was no fan of a book very similar to Joshi’s novel, Shadows Bend: A Novel of the Fantastic and Unspeakable, by David Barbour and Richard Raleigh. Lovecraftian horrors abound in that novel, as the authors present us with Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith as fictional characters that ultimately team up and make war against dark forces.
I’ve posted here before that I dislike most works of fiction containing factual personalities—and Shadows Bend is a good example of this prejudice. I don’t see Howard, or Lovecraft, or Smith as the two authors present them to be, and that’s a big problem. When Howard starts acting like I don’t think Howard should act, the book starts to crawl and it just becomes silly and unrewarding reading and not worth finishing — although in my trademarked masochistic way, I did.
And that explains some of my bad feelings toward The Assaults of Chaos. Joshi brings in many of the great imaginative writers that he’s edited for publishers such as Chaosium, Penguin, or Library of America, as in his novel we meet, H. P. Lovecraft, of course, and Ambrose Bierce, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson and, at the very end, Edgar Allan Poe.
These authors, just like the fictionalized writers in Shadows Bend, have to team up and defeat a Lovecraftian creation; in this case it’s the Crawling Chaos, Nyarlathotep. One huge difference in Joshi’s work is that he doesn’t use his own imagination when he has his characters speak—he takes passages from their works and liberally sprinkles them throughout the text.
A good example of this occurs when the literary group first meet Machen and he starts to tell them about his early days in London, and part of his narration concerns how, lacking much space, he stacked his books upon the steps of a ladder—any fan of Machen’s beautiful Far Off Things will remember that particular scene, and Joshi recites it, almost word for word.
This happens continually throughout the book and Joshi in a Postscript explains it. “This novel,” he writes, “is a pastiche in the strictest sense of the term, deriving from the Italian pasticchio, a medley or patchwork stitched together from previous texts.” Joshi must particularly like this Machen quote—to my knowledge he’s used it three different times. First, in the Chaosium edition of The Three Imposters and Other Stories, next in the Penguin Classics volume The White People and Other Weird Stories, and lastly in his Lovecraft novel (and I’m betting elsewhere as well). He obviously admires fine writing and he certainly can’t be blamed for that; like quite a few of us he probably wishes he could write as well as Machen.
This is where, for all its faults, Shadows Bend is a more imaginative book. Barbour and Raleigh had to work at getting their character’s voices authentic, and even though they failed, they tried; Joshi’s pastiche made me wonder why I was taking the time out to read this book when I could just be reading the original stories or the autobiographical material.
Now any fan of Joshi’s would expect this book to be a solid addition to the Mythos because S. T. Joshi has, for years, been telling everybody how not to write a Mythos story — holding up Brian Lumley and August Derleth as prime examples of writers whose eldritch footsteps not to follow in. Only about a year ago Joshi gave an interview and once again singled out Robert E. Howard as an author “whose pulp fiction is woefully slovenly on the level of prose and is often uninspired and formulaic.”
Well, if you crave uninspired, The Assaults of Chaos is as uninspired as you can get. Not until page 182 of this 244-page novel are we introduced to Nyarlathotep, who has been masquerading as Lovecraft’s supposedly dead father while gathering together all these noted literary figures.
So the first three-fourths of this book is completely absent of action—it’s pretty much a Joshi ramble down literary lane as he repetitiously, and tediously, introduces us to these writers by quoting from their works, and so all the really good passages come from authors no longer living.
The one action scene that Joshi attempts to pull off on his own occurs when his H. P. Lovecraft loses his virginity to the neighbor’s daughter, Kathleen Banigan, and that’s a disaster. Joshi writes that HPL and Kathleen are at her house “and things were getting pretty hot” and I’ll let you imagine the rest.
Come on, “things were getting hot” is how Joshi describes a sex scene? Ridiculous. Another howler: “An untidy mountain of earth stood before them.” Seriously, how many tidy mountains of earth have you seen?
Needless to say, the protagonist of this book is not the Lovecraft I’ve come to admire and respect, and the sex scene, and others involving Kathleen, do nothing to speed the book along. Kathleen, like all the characters in this book, is one-dimensional. Joshi should really study writers such as Robert E. Howard more deeply — perhaps he could pick up a few pointers on how to depict action and handle characterization.
This novel finally drags to an end with our legendary writers using their imaginations to defeat Nyarlathotep. You read it right; their imaginations. It descends into silliness, and bogs down with Joshi merely quoting, once again, almost verbatim from their stories.
Simply put, the book becomes an unliterary chaos and is an assault on my reading time. “There is so much literature out there to read that it doesn’t seem productive to waste time in inferior products”—that’s a direct quote from Joshi and I’ll take him up on it. I certainly will never waste my time by giving this book a second look, or any other of his “inferior products.” (To stray just a bit from Mythos fiction, in the chapbook Suicide in Brooklyn, part of his Joe Scintilla series, Joshi, having Scintilla as the narrator of the tale, writes, “I was smart and I was tough. I had a gun and knew how to use it.” If you can keep from laughing after reading that either you have a stronger stomach than I do or you’re more used to reading bad fiction and can’t live without a sampling of clichés.)
You want something better to read in the Mythos arena? Pick up Derleth’s The Mask of Cthulhu or anything written by those pulp writers who knew or corresponded with H. P. L. and discover wordsmiths who definitely worked with a surer hand than Joshi; these fellows, even though Joshi always faults them because they wrote for money, knew how to craft a plot that was gripping.
Perhaps the most bizarre moment in this book occurs when Nyarlathotep ends a heated conversation with Lovecraft by saying “It is to laugh!” I don’t know where Joshi picked up this arresting quip, but I do know that it occurs in the 1958 Warner Brothers cartoon Robin Hood Daffy. Daffy, talking to Porky Pig, who’s in the Friar Tuck role, expresses dissatisfaction by saying, “Ho Ho! Very funny. Ha Ha! It is to laugh!” I’m willing to bet that most of Joshi’s readers will remember this quote from that classic cartoon and will be struck by the use of a Daffy Duck quote in an exchange between Nyarlathotep and H. P. Lovecraft. What the hell. What’s next? Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd go hunting for some Cthulhu monsters? “Bam! Cthulhu stew!” Th-th-th-that’s all folks!