Your imagination is too pedestrian.
—Cathy Smith, “The Descent of Reginald Pembroke Live” in Eldritch Dream Realms 156
H. P. Lovecraft set most of his stories in the 1920s and 30s. They were not, for the most part, stories of the long ago no matter how ancient the horrors might be, those horrors were intruding on the present. Readers would have recognized this; the suspension of disbelief was that such things could occur in the now.
Many of those who followed Lovecraft continued to focus on that Jazz Age period. It became a part of the atmosphere and mood of the setting. Rumrunners and gangsters, such as in “Moonshine” (2018) by G. D. Penman; confessionals like “I Wore The Brassiere Of Doom” (1986) by Sally Theobald; colonialism and Yellow Peril as in “Dreams of a Thousand Young” (2014) by Jennifer Brozek. Not everyone chose to confine themselves to that period, but enough did to strongly flavor Mythos fiction as a whole. It is no surprise that The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game‘s default setting is the 1920s and 30s.
Some writers have sought to drag the Mythos into the current now—and in so doing, face a continuously shifting target. August Derleth’s depiction of nuclear weapons versus the Mythos in his “Trail of Cthulhu” serial is only possible in a world where the atom bomb is a reality; Robert Bloch’s Mythos novel Strange Eons (1979) is first and foremost a contemporary novel, both in setting and perhaps more importantly in tone and content; the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game settings of Cthulhu Now (1987) and Delta Green (1997) both seek to bridge that gap between Lovecraft’s setting and how it might be adapted to the world we live in today—and these efforts always contain a certain amount of baked-in obsolescence. Today becomes yesterday, tomorrow becomes today.
This is the basic reason why CthulhuPunk fiction, rare enough in itself, tends to age out pretty quickly. Stories like “Star Bright, Star Byte” (1994) by Marella Sands become quaint when technology zigs instead of zags. We don’t have fully-immersive virtual reality settings which are structured according to old-school bulletin board systems. That just never happened; the internet blossomed into its own weird, terrible, awe-inspiring way. The zeitgeist, even if captured with tremendous decision, tends to fade very quickly.
Why do you think transhumanism is the way to immortality? Doesn’t our computer tech become obsolete every few years?
—Cathy Smith, “The Descent of Reginald Pembroke Live” in Eldritch Dream Realms 151
One of the great strengths of the Mythos as a discrete flavor or set of buildings blocks is that it does mix well with a great many things—different genres, tones, forms, and settings. You can have a lighthearted Mythos-inflected noir story, set it in outer space in the distant future, written in as an epic poem, and that is still very much recognizable as “Mythos.” In that sense, the Mythos is extremely versatile and adaptable, which may be why it has continued to attract new readers and writers. Individual stories may chase the zeitgeist, but Mythos fiction itself is both eternal (in that so much of it remains in print) and perennial (in that so much continues to be written).
Cathy Smith’s “The Descent of Reginald Pembroke Live” is a story that lives entirely in the contemporary zeitgeist. It could, possibly, have been written in 2015 or so, but the culture of the internet, video blogging, crowdfunding, “fake news,” and debunking is very much the finger on the pulse of the world with Donald Trump as president, even if Smith is careful to avoid any direct mention of the president or politics in general. Perhaps by 2020, the story might already be obsolete; Patreon might dissolve, YouTube might transform itself, “apps” and smartphones might evolve. We cannot foresee the future, some people cannot even see the present.
In many ways, this story is a good pairing with “The Nyarlathotep Experience™” (2019) by Miguel Fliguer. It too is a take-off from Lovecraft’s “Nyarlathotep,” a “what if?” that drags the old familiar horrors into the syntax of the now, and imagines how contemporary sensibilities would skew that reception. Yet there is something a little different at work here too; more than crass commercialization, the story is at heart a sickening pokes-fun at a world and culture and perspective of online rage and militant disbelief. Smith stops short of an abject moral: while the inability to allow the experience of wonder is portrayed as a toxic condition that harms those who cling to it, the same narrow world view proves an effective buffer and defense against those very forces that prey on the more easily awed and gullible.
If only because Nyarlathotep bemusedly decides to there is appeal in those who torture themselves in such internet drama, gaining courage only when safely and anonymously behind a screen. Who is to say that such a view is wrong? How would the Mythos be perceived today, if it was real and uploading Youtube videos? A very crass and earthbound thought—but that is the issue with the Mythos marrying the zeitgeist. If the story is set in the present, the view is almost always myopic; it doesn’t look at the present as seen from the 1920s, as Lovecraft might have seen it. “Now” stories are grounded in the life we can see and absorb around us, newspaper headlines and ways of life we are familiar with. Smith handles that very well.
Cathy Smith’s “The Descent of Reginald Pembroke Love” was published in Eldritch Dream Realms: Tales from Lovecraft’s Dream Realms (2020).
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).