By J. Keith Haney
Cuinn, Carrie, ed. Cthulhurotica, Dagan Books (2010). $16.99 USD (print), $3.99 USD (Kindle). 344 pp. ISBN 978-0-98313-730-6.
It took me a long time to understand the difference between erotica and porn. Blame it on being raised in the conservative Bible Belt, where porn flourishes in the shadows of the hypocrites’ crosses. My first inkling of what erotica is in contrast to porn came from an essay I read in college by (I think) Gloria Steinem. It argued that erotica was about equality and sharing, giving and taking in equal portions, whereas porn was about power imbalance that is ultimately degrading to one or more of the participants. After reading Cthulhurotica, I’ve come up with my own definition. Porn is for people who have some sort of deprivation when it comes to sex (access, satisfaction, etc.). Erotica is for people who both understand and absolutely enjoy sex.
In her intro, Ms. Cuinn makes absolutely no bones about how Lovecraft was most likely a snob who shared the typical ugly prejudices of early 20th Century New Englanders (the understated “I don’t think we’d be friends” speaks volumes to me), while acknowledging the absolute brilliance of his literary accomplishments that have inspired so many disciples, including her. She even uses two parts of his poem “Astrophobos” (Greek for “fear of stars”) as the collection’s bookend pieces and dedicates the book to him. Ms. Cuinn states that the purpose of this collection is to answer a question that Ramsey Campbell once asked when it came to going beyond Lovecraft: “What if the Arkham Cycle took place in a Universe where every human emotion was possible?” This approach naturally means you have to think beyond tentacle porn (which I’ve never gotten, anyway).
I will say that there is one story in this collection that could be called tentacle erotica (and fellatio), “Daddy’s Little Girl” by Madison Woods. It involves a family with some serious warps in its record from delving too deep into the occult, with the daughter showing a new servant the ropes on taking care of the family “pet”. While I believe I got Ms. Woods’ point about how the abuse of authority rolls downhill, this was the one of two stories in this collection where I could not wrap my head around its erotic content. The other is Leon J. West’s “Amid Disquieting Dreams”, which follows the downward spiral of a man named ‘Jim’ being degraded by a metaphysical sexual sadist called the ‘Fisheater’. The Fisheater’s favourite form of attack is through dreams (or are they?) that start off with Jim resisting and ultimately culminate in full-fledged murder. Sadomachism may appeal to some, but this one just made me scratch my head.
One other puzzling element that I could not comprehend was the reason behind the subdivision of the collection into parts. Outside of the essay section, there are no uniquely connective themes or structures in the stories of each part (outside of Lovecraft and the erotic elements, but that is the point of the collection, after all). The only rationale I can think of for the parts is that, at one time, they were published separately, like chapbooks or comic issues. But I am unsure.
Now, all that out of the way, I absolutely love this collection. As Jennifer Brozek notes in her essay in this collection, “The Sexual Attraction of the Lovecraftian Universe”, Lovecraft would likely be spinning in his grave over his source material being used like this. But the reverence that is displayed by the authors shows a deep love and appreciation for the man’s work, which matches Ms. Cuinn’s own. Another facet that sets this collection apart from many of its contemporaries (horror, fantasy, or erotic) is the lack of demonization of sex. These stories have their share of pain and terrors associated with the act, but never once is sex held up as unnatural or evil, in and of itself. In fact, there are actually instances in which sex is held up as a vital connection, whether it is an Innsmouth cougar with a younger lover who refuses to let her go in Don Pizarro’s “The C-Word”, a distant descendant of Randolph Carter finding the lovers he has been aching for all along in Travis King’s “The Dreamlands of Mars”, or an ancient figure of Greek myth engaging in a subtle seduction of a scholar chasing her legend in Mae Empson’s “Between a Rock and an Elder Goddess” (my personal favourite of the collection – hey, I’m a sucker for Greek Myth).
Interestingly, there are three stories that are written in the exact same style Lovecraft himself employed. Gabrielle Harbowy’s “Descent of the Wayward Sister” deals with an illiterate, 19th-Century female thief who finds a new lover in her occultist brother’s basement. Richard Barron’s “The Cry in the Darkness” has a newly married wife going to extreme measures to conceive a child in the aftermath of “The Dunwich Horror”. Steven J. Searce’s “The Assistant From Innsmouth” is another addendum to “The Dunwich Horror” that finds a lawyer settling the Whatley estate, only to wind up becoming a uniquely violated sacrifice to…something in the Miskatonic River (recalling a similar story in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood).
Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” also gets a beautiful follow-up in the form of Clint Collins’ “The Summoned”, where a female student witnesses the delirium of the artist Henry Wilcox. Moreover, she sees his work on the graven image of Cthulhu…which inspires her own life-size statue of the sleeping god. The use she puts it to (or is it the other way around?) leads both her and her jealous former lover straight into an unknown fate. A statue also plays a prominent part in Andrew Searce’s “The Lake at Roopkund”, which involves another woman trying to conceive (though, in her case, she’s from India), her lesbian American roommate from the good old days at Misk U, and the woman’s husband, who refuses to voice either his desires or his disgust. This one ends with a vicious right hook at the very last sentence.
Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention “Flash Frame” by our own dear publisher, Silvia Moreno-Garcia. This one has two things going for it: the best opening line in the collection (“The sound was yellow.”) and taking place in a time period that I actually grew up in, the 1980s. A tabloid reporter gets a line on a cult that meets in an ancient porno theatre in Mexico City. This leads to the reporter seeing an erotic film called ‘Nero’s Last Days‘, which has unpleasant side effects upon viewing that recall a similar anecdote of imprisonment that Vincent Price relays in Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death. Ms. Cuinn’s intro pegged this as a remix of Robert Chambers’ The King In Yellow, but its writing style is more reminiscent of the skeletal, no-nonsense works of Andrew Vachss, right down to the grim ending. “Sense” by Matthew Marovich has similar hard-boiled leanings. It takes several of the standard noir tropes – the down-on-his-luck detective, the femme fatale, a dangerous job that is more than it seems, and a final doublecross – with elements of “The Whisperer In Darkness”, including removed brains. The removed brains actually give the ending a poignancy which redefines the tortured phrase “a fate worse than death”. “The Whisperer in Darkness” also figures into Juan Miguel Marin’s “Riemannian Dreams”, which has the Mi-Go making erotic contact with a Nikola Tesla stand-in via a very special phonograph. It takes a pair of letters he initially disregards – one from Walter Gilman, one from Henry W. Akeley – for him to put the pieces together.
The severing of relationships can be seen in two stories. Nathan Crowder’s “The Fishwives of Sean Brolly” follows the slow estrangement of a man from his more successful wife, helped by ghostly visions that keep luring him to the sea. Constella Espj’s “Ipsa Scientia” features a girl with an unusual fetish – esoteric scientific knowledge – having what seems like a successful relationship with a mysterious man who has tons of it. The relationship founders when the man undergoes a change of mind – literally.
My favourite Mythos deity, Nyarlothotep, is the subject of another couple of stories. First there is “Turning On, Tuning In, and Dropping Out at the Mountains of Madness”, for which Ahimsa Kerp deserves tremendous credit in imagining the Crawling Chaos as a 60s guru making deals with gullible and stoned hippies. Then, we have a more light-hearted romp in “Optional On the Beach at the Festival of Shub-Niggurath” by Gary Mark Bernstein, which has Nyarlothotep being a bemused observer to a stand-off between a prudish housewife and a free-spirited hotel clerk on the subject of full nudity on a French beach.
Then there’s the truly and completely alien lovers that populate this collection. Cody Goodfellow uses “Infernal Attractors” to reimagine Crawford Tillinghast’s ultraviolet resonator as the ultimate drug/sex toy combo. A girl addicted to sex and danger uses it to perform what can only be described as a “sexorcism”. The Creature from the Black Lagoon gets a similar makeover in K.V. Taylor’s “Transfigured Night”, which is the journal of a gay man who finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the deserted island he is stranded on. “Song of the Catherine Clark” by Maria Mitchell has a reporter chasing down a legendary missing ship and coming face to face with an ocean goddess who reveals his true heritage (hint: he’s in Innsmouth). “Le Ciel Ouvert” by Kirsten Brown follows the sole survivor of a Lovecraftian apocalypse as she finally decides what it is she truly craves as a lover. As the final story of this collection, it strikes an appropriately grim tone that reflects Lovecraft at his best.
If the stories were all that this had, Cthulhurotica would be a collection worth picking up. But wait – there’s more! The song “Victim of Victims” from the H.P. Lovecraft Society’s “Shoggoth on the Roof” is reprinted at the end of Part One. My one regret was that there was no handy musical accompaniment to go with it. Kirsten Brown, Galen Dara, and Stephen Stanley provide plenty of illustrations that are inserted throughout the collection. Some relate back to the individual stories (“Your Fisheater” by Stephen Stanley for “Among Disquieting Dreams” and Galen Dara’s “Love From The Black Lagoon” for “Transfigured Night”) while others are standalone pieces (Kirsten Brown’s “Whatley Family Portrait”, Galen Dara’s “Deep Ones”). My favourite of these is Ms. Brown’s “Brides of Tindalos”. It is such a vision of aching loveliness that I truly wish that Ms. Brown one day will write a story around it. The last section is devoted to a trio of very insightful essays on the subject of Lovecraft and the erotic. Kenneth Hite’s “Cthulhu’s Polymorphous Perversity” tracks the infiltration by Cthulhu of 20th Century popular culture and the root causes for the Great Tentacled One’s continuing (and still-growing) appeal. The laundry list of all things relating to Cthulhu and/or the Mythos is truly astounding and I have to agree with Mr. Hite’s implied suggestion that the very best of Mythos-derived works may well be yet to come. Ms. Brozek’s aforementioned “The Sexual Attraction of the Lovecraft Universe” is a thoughtful dissection of Lovecraft’s original work and his heirs in literature, art and film. By pulling out the vital organs of these works, she is able to demonstrate exactly why an erotic story works perfectly in a Lovecraftian context. Justin Everett, PhD, closes the essays with “Cthulhurotica, Female Empowerment and the New Weird”, which is probably the most daring of the trio. His subject is the very collection he is writing the essay for and he uses several of its stories to illuminate the rise of women’s power and authority in Western society. While I disagree with his conclusions regarding “Infernal Attractors” and “The Lake at Roopkund”, the conclusions are well-thought-out and certainly valid interpretations.
Ever since I had the pleasure of reading this book’s excerpts on Dagan Books’ website, I have wanted to read it and had high hopes that it would give me an experience that was mindful of its roots while going into territory that is relatable to a contemporary readership. I am happy to report that Ms. Cuinn and Co. have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. In fact, I would like to go on record as to say Cthulhurotica may well be the first great original Mythos story collection of the 21st Century. Read it!
Cthulhurotica is available from Amazon.com.
Bio: J. Keith Haney was born in Misawa, Japan, but has lived most of his life in the state of Tennessee. His favourite all-time film is the original Clash of the Titans, mainly for the Ray Harryhausen monsters. Due to that film, he got a college-level book on World Mythology when he was nine, of which he memorized the Greek section by age 12. His first encounter with Lovecraft (though he didn’t know it at the time) was the original Ghostbusters, which he saw in its original theatrical release. In addition to all things Lovecraft, he is an old-school gamer, history buff and fierce advocate for the steampunk genre. He enjoyed his first professional sale and publication in 2010 with his steampunk short story, “Grand Guginol”, which can be found at Short Story Me!. His favourite all-time Lovecraft story is “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”, which he considers an important, forgotten forerunner to Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saga.