Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we’re reading August Derleth’s “The Seal of R’lyeh,” first published in 1962 in The Mask of Cthulhu. (Transcription at the link has difficulty with divisions between words, but appears mostly accurate and readable.) Spoilers ahead.
“Here and there, woven into rugs—beginning with that great round rug in the central room—into hangings, or plaques—was a design which seemed to be of a singularly perplexing seal, a round, disc-like pattern bearing on it a crude likeness of the astronomical symbol of Aquarius, the water-carrier—a likeness that might have been drawn remote ages ago, when the shape of Aquarius was not as it is today—surmounting a hauntingly indefinite suggestion of a buried city, against which, in the precise center of the disc, was imposed an indescribable figure that was at once ichthyic and saurian, simultaneously octopoid and semihuman, which, though drawn in miniature, was clearly intended to represent a colossus in someone’s imagination.”
Marius Phillips has always been drawn to the sea—yet been kept from it by his parents. His grandfather, a man he’s never seen outside a darkened room, warned them to keep their son away from the water. Marius is attending a midwestern college when his uncle Sylvan Phillips dies, leaving him property back east. On the Massachusetts coast. Guess where?
The mansion in Innsmouth is a dreary place; Sylvan preferred the house north of town, perched on a rocky bluff boldly facing the Atlantic. Its principal room is a lofty study crammed with books, hung with outré art from around the world. A handmade rug commands the center of the floor. The strange octopoid design has symbolic significance, Marius decides, for around the house he finds other representations of the being rising like a colossus from a sunken city, surmounted by the astronomical sign for Aquarius. Around the edges appear the unintelligible words, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”
Marius moves into the bluff-top house. He ponders a portrait of his uncle as a young man with a strangely flat nose, wide mouth and “basilisk” eyes. From a clerk in Innsmouth he learns the Phillipses partnered with the Marshes in shipping, bringing back—many things. Their reputation means Marius won’t find it easy to hire servants. However, a Marsh might do, and the proprietor directs him to one.
Ada Marsh looks about twenty-five. Though she resembles Sylvan, Marius finds her oddly attractive. But she has an ulterior motive for working at the house—returning early one day, he catches her searching the study. Intrigued, he starts searching himself, and has his first “hallucination” that the house is breathing in unison with the sea below.
He confronts Ada. She says that as he’s a Phillips, he might also be interested in records of his uncle’s wide travels. But he’s not ready, so she’ll say no more.
Nettled, Marius keeps searching. Rummaging behind a shelf of occult books, he discovers a secret recess and, in it, a journal and other papers. From them he makes out that Sylvan was looking for a place called R’lyeh, where Cthulhu waits dreaming. Back in the late 1700s, Capt. Obadiah Marsh and his first mate Cyrus Phillips found the spot. There they acquired wives whose offspring “loosed upon Innsmouth a spawn of Hell.”
The occult books themselves explain much that Sylvan’s notes take for granted. Marius reads about the Ancient Ones—Cthulhu, Hastur, Yog-Sothoth, Cthugha, Azathoth—who were banished from Earth by the Elder Gods. As in all myth patterns, he conjectures, this rivalry represented a “struggle between the forces of good and forces of evil.” In their quest to return, the Ancient Ones had servitor races and cultists. Cthulhu, for example, was worshipped by an amphibious race called the Deep Ones.
Nonsense, but credible press accounts corroborate the myths. For example, there was that government raid on Innsmouth in the twenties…
Learning that Marius has found Sylvan’s notes, Ada challenges him to figure out the meaning of the design in the rug, the Great Seal of R’lyeh. Marius continues his studies. He finds a ring, too, Sylvan’s: massive silver inlaid with a milky stone and the Seal. Wearing it, he feels as if “new dimensions opened up to me—or as if the old horizons were pushed back limitlessly.” His senses sharpen, and he hears again the “susurrus” of house and sea. The ring draws him to a trapdoor under the study rug. It opens on spiral stairs leading far down to a cavern, and into the sea.
Marius ventures into the water wearing scuba gear. He walks along the sea bottom, pulled despite his fear of running out of oxygen. A great fish follows him, indistinct among the seagrass. Just as his air’s gone, it flashes out. Ada Marsh pulls off his diving helmet! He doesn’t drown—instead he begins to breathe water through his mouth, like Ada. She leads him to Devil Reef. Both of them swim with the ease of natural denizens of the deep.
Back on land they “make that compact which bound us each to each,” and agree to go seek R’lyeh. They meet other Deep Ones, search other submarine cities. At last they find a ruined city of monolithic buildings and a stone slab bearing the Seal of R’lyeh. They’ll attempt to break the seal and pass into the presence of Him Who Lies Dreaming. They have heard His call, along with many others, including one who’ll be born in his natural element. Together they’ll rule the sea and earth and beyond, “in power and glory forever.”
Epilogue, a report in the Singapore Times, 11/7/47: Mr. and Mrs. Marius Phillips have disappeared off an uninhabited island, according to the crew of their chartered boat. The manuscript found in Mr. Phillips’ hand is obviously fiction, as any will know who’ve read it above…
What’s Cyclopean: The ruined undersea cities that Ada and Marius explore are megalithic, and monolithic, but for some reason not actually cyclopean.
The Degenerate Dutch: Derleth manages to get through a rehash of “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” complete with shoutouts to a dozen cultures’ mythologies, without a single flail over the horror of those cultures’ existence, and only minor freakouts over interspecies dating.
Mythos Making: The entire laundry list gets checked off, from the Lake of Hali to the Deep Ones to the Abominable Snowmen a.k.a. Mi-Go—all conveniently sorted into Gryffindor and Slytherin. Excuse me, Elder Gods and Ancient Ones. It’s an easy mistake.
Libronomicon: Uncle Sylvan owned the Sussex Fragments, the Pnakotic Manuscripts, Cultes des Goules, the Book of Eibon, Unausprechlichen Kulten… and an unfortunate volume of Dumas, sacrificed to plumb the secret passageway in the study. There wasn’t maybe an ugly statue you could’ve used instead?
Madness Takes Its Toll: Marius and Ada don’t explain their quest to their chartered crew, lest that crew think them mad.
This is that rarest of beasts: a Derleth story that I actually, mostly, enjoy. Some of that may be my reading format—no e-book available this week, and there’s something about Derleth that benefits from yellowing paper and the warm scent of a half-century-old paperback. We all owe an ancient, unhallowed fealty to Ballantine.
‘Scuse me while I smell this book again.
“Seal” is about two thirds the pleasant tale of a young man coming of age and claiming his inheritance, not to mention falling in love with a young woman whose strength, snark, and ambition match his own. They get married! They have babies! They explore the world! They discover Cthulhu’s bedroom! Though there’s that thing with the geyser, which might indicate the prelude to eucatastrophe, or might indicate that it’s a really bad idea to disturb C’s beauty sleep—maybe there’s a reason why all the Deep Ones swimming around the area weren’t doing so themselves. I sure hope Marius and Ada Phillips are okay.
The other third of the story, alas, consists of a detailed infodump on the Derlethian heresy mixed with random Lovecraft references, broken only by the delightful speculation that Lovecraft’s early death was a result of him Knowing Too Much. (Delightful because it would doubtless have delighted Lovecraft. Friends kill you off in their stories. Real friends kill you off in their stories posthumously.)
I am not delighted by the circular argument that all myth cycles consist of familiar good-versus-evil tropes, that the Mythos offers just such a recognizable archetype, that this makes it believable because it meshes with all those other stories. First, no. Second, no. And third, no, what were you even thinking. Let’s take this fabulous thing that’s nothing like anything else, and make it exactly like everything else? Except not, because this comforting oversimplification isn’t even true of real human cosmologies. Zoroastrianism and Christianity are not actually the universal type, but Derleth could have used a few more classes in comparative religion.
The flip where Marius suddenly starts talking about Cthulhu in Christlike terms is kinda clever. Still not worth it.
One thing that always drives me nuts about these good-versus-evil templates is that you so rarely see a really strong case for good. This is not true for the original dualistic cosmologies: Mithras is the ultra-impressive Unconquered Sun, and Jesus flips tables and preaches radical socialism. But Derleth’s Elder Gods just protect the status quo of physics. I mean, I appreciate the forces that keep my molecules bound together. But breathing underwater, amphibious midnight trysts, and a really sweet book collection? You can’t blame Marius if he barely blinks before diving in.
…though it occurs to me suddenly (possibly because it’s very late at night) that the Derlethian heresy might count as a wildly imperfect first effort to redeem the Mythos, to separate it from Lovecraft’s prejudices. After all, if the vast and implacable forces beyond human comprehension aren’t everyone outside of well-heeled Anglo-Saxon culture… they must be something else, right? Maybe… the devil?
Except that there really are vast and implacable forces beyond human comprehension, and they really are terrifying if you think about them too hard. They just—by definition, if you don’t share Lovecraft’s narrow definition of “human”—aren’t in fact human. The Mythos works best when it builds on such existential truths. And it doesn’t work—or redeem the Mythos’s original sins—to scale it down until it fits in a volume of Joseph Campbell.
Holy Derlethian Heresy, Night-Gaunt Man! In this story, via Marius Phillips, we get a comprehensive precis of Derleth’s take on the Cthulhu Mythos. Uncle Sylvan’s notes and tomes tell Mythos-naive Marius this truth of the universes:
- In the beginning there were the Ancient Ones. Then, evidently a bit later despite their name, there were the Elder Gods. These two groups didn’t get along. Well, what could one expect when the Ancient Ones represented primal evil, while the Elder Gods represented primal good?
- The Ancient Ones also represented elemental forces. Cthulhu’s element was water, Cthugha’s fire, Ithaqua’s air, Hastur’s interplanetary space (elsewhere, Hastur’s just air), Yog-Sothoth’s the time-space continua, Shub-Niggurath’s fertility, Azathoth—well, It’s just the fountainhead of evil, that’s all, which isn’t an element, but then are interplanetary space, continua and fertility elements? Marius doesn’t mention Nyarlathotep (in fact, he calls Shub the Messenger of the Gods), but the Heresy deems Nyarlathotep an earth elemental, I believe.
- The Ancient Ones rebelled against something, maybe the tedious primal goodness of the Elder Gods. Whatever, the Elder Gods put Their pedal appendages down and exiled the Ancient Ones to “outer spaces.” The Ancient Ones were probably mighty pissed off, but They were also patient in their immortality, for one day They would return to vanquish mankind and challenge the Elder Gods!
- And that’s not all. The Ancient Ones have minions still on Earth, including the Deep Ones, the Dholes, the Abominable Snowmen, the Shantaks, and the Wendigo (Ithaqua’s cousin, on His Mother’s side, I think). The minions sometimes fight among themselves, but in the end they’re united in the quest to return the Ancient Ones to dominion. This is not even counting the human cultists.
- As Marius deduces, the pattern of this mythos is similar to all other myth cycles, including Christianity. The Elder Gods are the Trinity, the Ancient Ones are Satan and his fellow devils. GOOD versus EVIL, remember. The Elder Gods aren’t often named, Marius notices. I notice that, too. Who are these benevolent, people-loving deities, anyway? I guess They’re whoever’s behind the Elder Sign?
Like so many of our protagonists, Marius ends up torn between vehement dismissal of his uncle’s faith and mission and “a wild wish to believe, to know.” He ventures beyond Sylvan’s library, to maddeningly close-mouthed Innsmouth, to Arkham and Miskatonic University. For some reason, Sylvan was one of the few cultist-scholars not to have his own Necronomicon, which forces Marius to consult the MU Library’s copy. But since “Seal” is a short story, Derleth needs to hurry Marius’s belief along and does so by throwing in Sylvan’s senses-enhancing, horizons-enlarging magic ring. The ring not only leads him to Sylvan’s hidden stairway to the sea but into dreams of “all [the alien creatures] given to one cause, the service to those great ones whose minions we were.” He wakes up raring to espouse Sylvan’s death-interrupted quest.
Nor does it hurt that there’s a woman in the equation. Derleth is far less averse to romance than Lovecraft and so gives his Marius an Ada to admire. And Ada is admirable, no shrinking sea anemone, a Marsh worthy of her indomitable forebears. She matches Marius verbal parry for verbal parry, then delivers hits that sting, provoke and steer him toward the truth of his heritage. Then she saves his life, at the same time delivering him into a new one. Plus she rocks the Innsmouth look. Too bad we get so abbreviated an account of her and Marius’s deep-sea search for R’yleh.
Returning to the so-called Derlethian heresy. I haven’t ferreted out who came up with the damning phrase—does anyone know? I wouldn’t be surprised if it were S. T. Joshi, who points out with much vehemence that the universe Howard envisioned is the polar opposite of Derleth’s conception. No benign deities devoted to the salvation of mankind. Probably no deities at all, though we insignificant humans have ample cause to view Lovecraft’s incomprehensibly powerful aliens as gods. Nor, in an amoral cosmos, can those aliens really be malignant, evil. Those are just the labels humans impose on them, given the devastation they could bring down on our heads.
I sit, more or less comfortably, on the picket fence between full-blown Lovecraft bleakness and Derleth hopefulness. Benevolent Elder Gods? No, I don’t put any faith in Them. But I don’t think humanity is insignificant—nor any other species the universe(s) have engendered. Kind of a Yithian attitude, taking the most sanguine view of their archiving drive. As for whether there can be a heresy where Lovecraftian fiction is concerned, I like Chris R. Morgan’s take in his “Cosmic Errors: The Peculiar Legacy of H. P. Lovecraft”: “Derleth’s mythos speaks to a fan-driven impulse to contribute to a creator’s ideas rather than to understand them—not that Lovecraft was wholly averse to such enthusiasm.”
Only I might say that Derleth was understanding Lovecraft’s creation, in his own way. So must we all idiosyncratically understand any idea before we can create from it something—something in our own image, should I say?
Oh, why the hell not.
Next week, Molly Tanzer’s “The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad” offers a slightly different take on the Deep Ones. You can find it in She Walks in Shadows.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. She has several stories, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, available on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.