Max's Reviews > The Trail of Cthulhu

The Trail of Cthulhu by August Derleth
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I've generally avoided August Derleth's Cthulhu work, since what little I'd heard about it indicates that it's not as good as Lovecraft's, and that Derleth is more notable for keeping Lovecraft's works alive than for what he added. When Ken Hite mentioned he liked this book, I figured I'd check it out, especially since the Gumshoe Cthulhu game was named after it. It does definitely have some fun points, and this volume, at least, was lacking much of Lovecraft's crazypants level of racism. However, there are flaws in both the story structure and in how Derleth interprets the source material that lead me to not fully enjoy this.

The Trail of Cthulhu is arguably a fix-up novel, though I think those usually involve adding some new connective tissue, whereas Derleth pretty much straight up reprints his set of five interlinked short stories without significant alteration. This has the weakness that there are bits of the stories that are redundant and they feel somewhat repetitive in general. I don't need to read five scenes in a row of each protagonist meeting the professor and being introduced to the realities of the Mythos. I'm reading this because I liked Lovecraft, and I only need one go around of Derleth explaining how his version of things differs. And each story is a bit too similar, with a young man meeting the strange professor and aiding him in some way in trying to seal away the pathways that Cthulhu can use to return to our world from his exile. All but the fifth even end essentially the same way, with the current protagonist using magic to summon bat-winged servitors of Hastur to travel to safety at Celeano.

The last story is probably the most interesting as it breaks from the formula somewhat. It's got a bit of an Avengers Assemble moment where the new hero joins the gang from the previous stories in one final effort to seek out Ryleh itself and stop Cthulhu once and for all. It's also made much more interesting by the revelation that this protagonist is of Innsmouth stock, and thus feels torn between the two sides of his being. Plus, there's the either stupid or awesome climax where the heroes and the US military (view spoiler) It actually feels like the last story is where things really get interesting, and I'd love seeing a story that continues this plot in an interesting way. For that matter, it could be a fun way to start a Call of Cthulhu game, having the PCs contacted by one of the heroes to finish what they started.

My biggest issue, more than the repetitive nature of the book, is Derleth's changes to the Mythos, which are twofold. The first is that he associates various of the Mythos gods and entities with different of the classical elements, positing Cthulhu as water based, Nyarlathotep as earth, etc. He then uses this to place them all in opposition to each other, which is on it's own not a bad idea, but the elemental thing doesn't really fit with the non-euclidian nature of the Mythos and it's sense of being impossible for mortal minds to categorize or comprehend.

The second issue is that Lovecraft built his stories from an atheist, materialist point of view, and Derleth writes his from a Catholic viewpoint that strongly colors his use of the source material. This story is more resembles a vampire tale than anything with Lovecraft's sense of existential despair, for the Elder Sign is used like the crucifix to ward off lesser Mythos beings (and a Shoggoth really shouldn't count as lesser) and the Elder Gods are seen as benevolent forces that were rebelled against by the Great Old Ones in parallel to the story of Satan warring against God. Much of the horror of an uncaring universe that Lovecraft uses is completely absent, and instead humanity is much more able to take control of our destiny. The idea of trying to seal off Cthulhu's paths back to Earth is a neat one, but it feels incongruous with what Lovecraft wrote and I thus found much of this story hard to enjoy or find frightening.

Overall, it was fun to see what Derleth's Mythos work is like, but I can see why it's somewhat unpopular now compared to Lovecraft and later writers that hewed closer to the original material. I did find the final story somewhat more enjoyable because it began to explore more interesting ideas and perspectives, and I am still curious to check out some of Derleth's other fiction. I think his horror that sticks closer to his home of Wisconsin could be enjoyable, and I'm curious as to how good his Solar Pons stuff is, since that avoids the issue I have with Sherlock Holmes stories by other authors by being written by one man and thus having a consistent canon like the originals. I don't think I can exactly recommend this book, but it's not completely without merit, so if you can get it from the library like I did, it could be a fun read.

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Reading Progress

April 14, 2019 – Started Reading
April 14, 2019 – Shelved
April 14, 2019 – Shelved as: horror
April 15, 2019 –
page 57
April 22, 2019 –
page 118
April 23, 2019 –
page 172
April 25, 2019 – Finished Reading

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