When I first began writing weird fiction, just under a decade ago, I never expected any of my stories would see print. I wrote tales that I, as a reader, would like to read but could rarely find.
—Stanley C. Sargent, “Author’s Preface” in Ancient Exhumations +2 (2004) x
“The Tale of Toad Loop” is one of Sargent’s most-reprinted tales. It was first published online in the webzine Nightscapes (January 1998), and later that year in the print magazine Dark Legacy (August 1988). It featured in his first collection of stories, Ancient Exhumations (1999), and its slightly expanded sequel Ancient Exhumations+2 (2004). The anthology Eldritch Blue: Love & Sex in the Cthulhu Mythos (2004) reprinted it, and the year after that it appeared in The Tsathoggua Cycle: Terror Tales of the Toad God (2005).
The relative success of the story in the early 2000s, and the reason why it’s been mostly forgotten by editors since is fairly straightforward: “The Tale of Toad Loop” might be the quintessential Mythos pastiche.
Which is not in any way a negative criticism. The story is not poorly written, it does not focus solely on the surface aspects of Mythos fiction, makes no effort to ape Lovecraft’s style, nor does it overload the reader with dozens of references to other stories. It is not bad pastiche. Yet it is also recognizable as a work in a distinct tradition, in a certain style, in imitation of what has come before.
“Toad Loop” owes its existence to “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Dunwich Horror” by H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth’s novel The Lurker at the Threshold (or at least, the fragment “The Round Tower” by Lovecraft which Derleth incorporated into the story), and through that snippet Clark Ashton Smith’s Tsathoggua. It has a style reminiscent of Derleth’s “The Shuttered Room” or “Witches’ Hollow,” the idea of carving out a new corner of the Mythos with connections to the old familiar stories. Familiar themes in unfamiliar places. Old wine in new bottles.
When read in the context of those stories, “The Tale of Toad Loop” stands out as perfectly competent and of a piece with those works. It fits into the Mythos neatly as a lost puzzle piece, lending a slightly new outline to the picture. Sargent is not an eager fanboy expounding some pet theory of the Mythos. The prose is slightly more explicit than Lovecraft or Derleth would have used in terms of language, gore, and sexuality, but otherwise it has the same feel of a piece that was written in those decades between the death of Lovecraft in 1937 and the first non-Arkham House Cthulhu Mythos anthology, The Disciples of Cthulhu, in 1976.
Like “The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff, Sargent’s story is essentially a rehash of a familiar Mythos narrative: a rural locale, a sorcerer that is a little too successful at summoning, a young woman who ends up conceiving the inconceivable. In this case, Pritchy Kwik stands in for Lavinia Whateley, and is given even less agency—not even a line of dialogue—and there are a few other criticisms that might be leveled against the plot:
The Injuns claimed the Circle was built for some kind of unearthly critter that come down from the sky on occasion. Toadaggwa, they called it, sayin’ it put the stones to questionable uses at certain times of the year. Truth is, they were scared shitless of the place without really knowing why. They gave the Loop the widest possible berth, swearin’ the stones were the works of demons here long before any of the tribes. None of the whites confessed to belief in such savage superstitions, yet we all steered clear of the Loop just like the redskins did.
—Stanley C. Sargent, “The Tale of Toad Loop” in Ancient Exhumations +2 (2004) 109-110
It is weird to think about writing “Injuns” and “redskins” in the 1990s. Rationally, Sargent was trying to keep within the vocabulary and viewpoint of a rustic yokel in Madland County (based on southern Ohio), at some unspecified date (references to “Captain Marsh” of Innsmouth suggests the 1850s). It is the kind of reference that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow for decades in the United States…but cultural syntax shifts. Would an editor let “Injuns” pass today?
In the broader context of the story, this is an incidental detail. Yet it is symptomatic of the issue for the story as a whole. “The Tale of Toad Loop” is a perfectly competent little tale, but it broaches no new ground, not in the characterization, or the storytelling style. It is a variation on a very familiar theme, but the theme is too familiar, and while there’s a twist in the end and the framing, it doesn’t stand out as particularly genius or original in the sense of Sargent’s “The Black Brat of Dunwich” (1997).
While “The Tale of Toad Loop” more or less fits in Eldritch Blue, it would feel old-fashioned and out of place in Cthulhurotica or Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath. There are any number of tales of cosmic miscegenation in the Mythos already; it is hard to see what Sargent adds to the subject that is new, novel, revolutionary, or thrilling in that particular. Neither the sex nor the gore rises to the level of notability in a market with extreme horror, erotic horror, and splatterpunk. It is hard to judge the shift in the tastes of consumers of Mythos fiction, but it is usually excellence of ideas as much as excellence of prose that makes tales stand out, and “The Tale of Toad Loop” may be doomed to future obscurity simply because it was too successful at being excellent pastiche of an older style of Mythos fiction which has largely fallen out of fashion.
It is worth pointing out that “The Tale of Toad Loop” is not exemplary of all of Sargent’s fiction. He was a creative and capable writer who experimented with style and subject, continuing to grow and develop throughout his literary career. “The Black Brat of Dunwich” (1997) and “The Insider” (1998) are both good stories that still deserve to be read.
Readers interested in determining for themselves whether Sargent’s style is out of step with the current vogue of Mythos fiction, the story may be read for free at Nightscapes.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).