Joan Stanley is a long-time science-fiction and fantasy fan who fell in love with Lovecraft’s writing by reading At the Mountains of Madness while in the tenth grade. To a life-long resident of Boston, those shoggoths pouring out of the cave resembled nothing so much as a speeding MTA streetcar coming out of a Tremont Street tunnel, or a subway train screeching through the Park Street Under. She often wondered if Lovecraft had once been terrified by the city subway system. In real life, she is a criminal lawyer (that can mean whatever you wish) whose only previous forays into writing have been in the appellate courts.
—Ex Libris Miskatonici, back cover copy
During the lifetime of H. P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries, the Cthulhu Mythos was created and grew. Different writers came up with their own unique contributions—Lovecraft with the Necronomicon, Miskatonic University, Dunwich, Innsmouth, Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, etc.; Robert E. Howard with Nameless Cults, Justin Geoffrey, and Stregoicavar; Clark Ashton Smith with the Book of Eibon, Tsathoggua, and Averoigne; Robert Bloch with Cultes des Goules and De Vermis Mysteriis; and so on and so forth. What is more exceptional, and made a true shared setting, was how they would borrow and share each other’s creations in their stories: Howard’s mad poet Justin Geoffrey would be from Lovecraft’s Arkham, Smith would slip a reference to Shub-Niggurath into tales set in Averoigne, etc.—and those strange and terrible tomes with the evocative names would end up piled next to each other in macabre libraries. It is a process that continues even today, as in “The Land of the Reflected Ones” (1995) by Nancy A. Collins.
Perhaps not surprisingly, when writers who had very different styles were writing stories far apart from one another, without any centralized source for the mythology they were concocting, there were discrepancies. Details in one story were not always in agreement with other stories. This was not all to the bad, by Lovecraft’s estimation: the little disagreements sometimes echoed real mythology, increasing the verisimilitude of the whole. It also provided a kind of literary game for readers, if they wanted to track down those different references, to see how they connected, and to theorize about the bigger background hinted at. More than a few of those writers would go on to offer their own exegesis of the Cthulhu Mythos, its history and cosmology, as in “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys and “Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” (2012) by Gemma Files.
Joan C. Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonici: A Catalogue of Selected Items from the Special Collections in the Miskatonic University Library (1993), however, is something on an entirely different scale. Ostensibly, this is a (mostly) in-universe document (the copious footnotes providing real-life references for various titles and citations), a brief history and description of the Miskatonic University Library’s Special Collections related to the Cthulhu Mythos, written in the style of a catalog. A massive investment of time in effort to collect, collate, and synthesize the vast amount of eldritch pseudobiblia created by Lovecraft & his heirs over seventy years, distilled down into a 66-page staplebound pamphlet. While there have been previous efforts to collate Mythos tomes in essays like Lin Carter’s “H. P. Lovecraft: The Books” (1956), or to collect and synthesize data on works like the Necronomicon in Mark Owing’s The Necronomicon: A Study (1967) or the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonici represents one of the most substantial effort of bibliographic creativity in the Mythos until The Starry Wisdom Library: The Catalogue of the Greatest Occult Book Auction of All Time (2014).
It is a work of love, as well as scholarship and imagination.
It also represents a relatively unique opportunity to look at the occasionally problematic history of several of these Mythos tomes, and how Stanley did or did not choose to address them.
The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan were mentioned in passing by H. P. Lovecraft in “The Other Gods”, and became adopted as part of the Mythos by later writers. While Lovecraft only refers to this occult collection in “The Other Gods” and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, both set in the Dreamlands, later authors have them appearing in the waking world on Earth—and often with an affiliation for the Cthulhu Mythos in China and other parts of Asia, if not directly attributed to some Chinese scholar. The whole issue highlights the fact that most Cthulhu Mythos tomes, like most of its writers, are culturally tied to “the West” (Europe, North America, and Australia, more or less). It’s a largely implicit cultural bias which is slightly less apparent because a large number of Mythos tomes ultimately derive from some alien or pre-human source: the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic cult in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” for example, is rumored to be headquartered in China, but the closest thing there is to a central text for the cult is not a Chinese tome, but the Necronomicon.
The use of the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan as a Chinese cultural artifact of the Mythos is probably a solution to both the lack of such a specific text in the works of Lovecraft and his contemporaries, and a desire to avoid an over-reliance on familiar standbys like the Necronomicon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and Cultes des Goules. While European contacts with Asia goes back thousands of years, making it not impossible for copies of these texts to have traveled the physical distance, the appearance of European Mythos tomes to the exclusion of written works in the indigenous languages and cultural context would somewhat disenfranchise local Mythos-goings-on: after all, Asia has a very long history of literacy, religion, and occultism, there is no reason why they should not have generated Mythos tomes in local languages and writing-systems. While some writers have created new tomes set in Asian context, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan have become something of a default, the Chinese equivalent of the Necronomicon for many writers purposes; it serves this function in the Masks of Nyarlathotep (1989) campaign for the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, for example.
Stanley’s approach to the Seven Cryptical Books is synthesis, striving to bring together all the disparate references to the tome which had seen print to that time and grounding the text in actual Chinese language and history. The result is one of the best sections of Ex Libris Miskatonici, and leads into one of the most curious: the Book of Dzyan. Helena Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine (1888) had claimed the Book of Dzyan as a source for her Theosophical materials, and Lovecraft referenced the book in “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” (with William Lumley) and “The Haunter of the Dark.” Stanley, however, chose to gloss it as actually an ancient Chinese work, not the more familiar Theosophical text, and thus acts as a sort of rider to the entry for the Seven Cryptical Books and previous sections in this regard.
Another consequence of Lovecraft and his contemporaries’ lack of broader cultural familiarity and penchant for exoticism were errors that cropped up in naming: “hazred” is not a proper Arabic name, nor is Al Azif; the Greek for Necronomicon is erroneous; Unaussprechlichen Kulten is not the proper German translation of Nameless Cults, and so on. Stanley, to her credit, tries to make the best of the situation by pointing out the errors and inconsistencies and offering possible solutions rather, sometimes working off the work of others (she cites Sandy Petersen’s explanation for “Abdul Alhazred” from the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, for example, with her own flourishes). For later writers and their fictional works, like Brian Lumley’s Cthaat Aquadingen, she was forced to get more creative, working up a container title (Codex Dagonensis), and then presenting Lumley’s title as a British localism.
Taken as a whole, Joan C. Stanley’s book is an exceptional example of a small and somewhat obscure form of fiction, one that seeks to mimic creative non-fiction with all the care and attention to detail of a good hoax. This kind of effort to create an “in-universe” document (more or less) is more typically associated with the occult (such as the Simon Necronomicon (1977)) or roleplaying games (such as Le Culte des Goules (2012) by Antoine Téchenet), but it represents the fundamental desire that readers have to interact with the Mythos at a deeper level. Ex Libris Miskatonici is a high-level example of the interaction between fan-fiction and fan-scholarship, showcasing not just the mental gymnastics that some Mythos writers have to go through, but that something positive and worthwhile can result.
Necronomicon Press published Ex Libris Miskatonici in 1993, and a second edition in 1995. It has since been out of print.
Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)