Editor Spotlight: Ellen Datlow

H. P. Lovecraft’s work, and fiction inspired by his entire mythos, continue to sell…and sell…and sell. […] Even though so many reprint and original anthologies continue to be published, the taste for new Lovecraftian fiction seems to be growing rather than fading.
—Ellen Datlow, Lovecraft Unbound (2009), 9

Ellen Datlow is one of the great editors of the late 20th and early 21st century, both in scope and scale of her publications and achievements. Among the over one hundred anthologies that Ellen Datlow has curated, three deal with Lovecraftian fiction: Lovecraft Unbound (2009, Dark Horse), Lovecraft’s Monsters (2014, Tachyon), and Children of Lovecraft (2016, Dark Horse). (She also acquired the Lovecraftian novella The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle for Tor.com, 2015) In assembling these works, Datlow brought her own philosophical approach and understanding regarding both what Lovecraftian fiction is, and what it could be.

Datlow, like many fans of horror and science fiction, came to Lovecraft at a relatively young age:

I read most of Lovecraft’s fiction in my early teens, and even then, although I enjoyed it immensely, I noticed the difference between the wonder and embrace of the unknown in science fiction and the dread of the unknown in Lovecraft’s work. Most of his fiction is characterized by this sense of dread. I’ve also read the multitudes of pastiches in anthologies of work “inspired” by Lovecraft, but most—for me, at least—are too obvious and bring little new to the table.
—Ellen Datlow, Lovecraft Unbound 9

Datlow was born in 1949; unless she lucked upon some Arkham House volumes or old issues of Weird Tale, this suggests her first exposure might have been through the Lancer paperback editions The Dunwich Horror and Others (1963) and The Colour Out of Space (1964), or possibly Derleth-edited anthologies like New Worlds for Old (1963) which occasionally featured Lovecraft & co. There were few other opportunities to get “read up” on Lovecraft as a young teen in the 1960s.

The first real anthology of Mythos fiction, Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, would not be published until 1969—the first of the Ballantine paperbacks a couple years later. Tales would set the stage for the bulk of Mythos anthologies to come: book after book of pastiche. The Spawn of Cthulhu (1971, Ballantine) and Disciples of Cthulhu (1976, DAW) paved the way for Lovecraft’s Legacy (1990, Tor), Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos (1992, Fedogan & Bremer), and Chaosium’s long-running Call of Cthulhu fiction anthology series, beginning with The Hastur Cycle (1993). Of this kind of fiction, Datlow observed:

Despite the fact that he’s been dead for over seventy years, and his prose considered purple and overwrought by many, H.P. Lovecraft’s work is still widely read, and has remained influential for generations.
A Cthulhu Christmas

Many of the resulting stories are boring pastiches, bringing nothing new to the original characters or worlds they inhabit. A few talented, ambitious writers build on the originals, creating fresh and interesting work. Which in turn may become playgrounds for other writers.
Ellen Datlow Discusses Women in Horror

One does not have to love the man to appreciate and give credit to his work. For me, it’s the sheer inventiveness of his mythos. The new generation of writers “playing” in his playground are doing very different things. The best have removed many of the trappings, bringing a freshness to the core elements of Mythos fiction. […] I’ve never enjoyed pastiches of his work because they take the worst of it (his use of language), rehashing his plots and characters without adding anything new.
Children of Lovecraft 7-8

One of the characteristics of a great deal of Lovecraftian pastiche is an effort to ape Lovecraft’s particular style of writing; an effort that often fails—not because Lovecraft is inimitable, but because the pasticheurs copy the surface features of the fiction rather than any of the underlying structure, mood, or philosophy. When Datlow finally set out to publish her own Lovecraftian anthology, she wanted to avoid producing yet another interchangeable book of riffs off the same old stories:

First, I took a few of the best under-reprinted subtley Lovecraftian stories I’ve read over the last several years. While I complain about the numerous Lovecraftian pastiches published, there is also a relatively small but solid body of Lovecraftian short fiction that is not pastiche—from those I chose four stories that have not been overexposed by appearing in a lot of other Lovecraftian anthologies (or elsewhere). Second, I commissioned the rest, eager to provide a showcase for writers whose Lovecraftian work I’ve enjoyed […] Third, some of the above suggested other writers with an interest in Lovecraft—a few of whom also submitted new stories that I bought for the anthology.
Lovecraft Unbound 9-10

More specifically, Datlow insisted:

I asked for stories inspired—thematically and possibly—by plot points in Lovecraft’s mythos. What I wanted was variety: in tone, setting, point of view, time. In fact, I’d prefer not to have any direct reference in the story to Lovecraft or his works. No use of the words “eldritch” or “ichor,” and no mentions of Cthulhu or his minions. And especially, no tentacles.
Lovecraft Unbound 10

This was, whether Datlow knew it or not, an almost identical tack to that taken by W. H. Pugmire in his fanzine Tales of Lovecraftian Horror (1986, Cryptic Publications):

I knew that I did not want trendy Cthulhu Mythos fiction. I am not anti-Mythos; but I hate the way it has usurped other forms of Lovecraftian horror. […] The Mythos has been overused, and most of the newer tales bore me, be they by fans or pros. I find very few of them truly “Lovecraftian,” seeming more like the kind of thing Derleth was wont to write. […] Lovecraftian horror conveys mood, atmosphere, and situation that were dear to H. P. Lovecraft and are evident in his own spectral and cosmic fiction. […] Instead of writing formula stories, we can use Lovecraftian themes as a foundation on which to try to build our own unique fiction.

Datlow may not have written that, but her editorial voice in assembling her Lovecraftian anthologies (at least Lovecraft Unbound and Children of Lovecraft) was within the same general ethos…with the occasional slip:

As with most original theme anthologies, sometime a story slips in with elements that go against the guidelines; so, yes, there are a few tentacles; and yes, there might even be some other overtly Lovecraftian trappings—and at least one story that uses them in a subversive celebration of H. P. Lovecraft’s amazingly resilient universe.
Lovecraft Unbound 10

This approach to Lovecraftian fiction is not without its detractors. One reviewer of Children of Lovecraft noted:

There are four types of stories in this book: (a) poor stories that have little or nothing to do with Lovecraft; (b) poor stories that are derived from Lovecraft’s ideas; (c) reasonably good stories that have little or nothing to do with Lovecraft; and (d) very good stories that are genuine adaptations or elaborations upon Lovecraftian motifs. I wish that that fourth category were larger, but it isn’t; instead, a distressing number of stories fall into the first category.
—S. T. Joshi, What Makes A Lovecraftian Story?

Leaving aside subjective evaluation of whether a story is good or poor, Joshi’s essential division here is between those stories that have something to do with Lovecraft and those that do not—something he has written extensively about in The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Cthulhu Mythos (2015). As Pugmire pointed out, you don’t need to write a Mythos story for a story to be Lovecraftian; Datlow’s stipulation against mentioning Cthulhu should not by itself mean that a story is not Lovecraftian, provided it is suitably Lovecraftian in other ways.

A case in point might be “Commencement” (2001) by Joyce Carol Oates, which appeared in Lovecraft Unbound, owes nothing directly to any of the settings or characters of Lovecraft’s stories, but is certainly a thematic descendant of Lovecraft’s tropes and themes. Joshi actually addresses this story briefly in a summary criticism of Lovecraft Unbound:

How this is in any way a Lovecraftian (or even a respectable) story is beyond my imagining, and Oates’s brief author’s note provides no elucidation.
—S. T. Joshi, The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Cthulhu Mythos 362

The difference of opinion between Joshi and Datlow on the definition of “Lovecraftian” is a gulf which may never be crossed, and readers with a preference for the kind of pastiche and Mythos fiction that Datlow largely eschews in her anthologies might face a similar divide: whether or not you like the stories individually, you may not find them all Lovecraftian. Quality aside, this appears to be the crux of the matter with Datlow’s editing as far as Joshi is concerned:

But on the whole, I am forced to conclude that Ellen Datlow does not have any real sense of what is truly “Lovecraftian” in contemporary writing. It is as if she is using Lovecraft’s name to assemble an anthology that would otherwise have no particular reason for existence. This volume might just as well have been called Children of Weird Fiction.
—S. T. Joshi, What Makes A Lovecraftian Story?

The criticism that Datlow misses the mark of what is “truly Lovecratian” has to be measured against how Datlow defines her approach as an editor:

I’m far more impressed and often surprised by writers who use the mythos in ways that its creator never dreamed of (and might indeed have him spinning in his grave). […] As readers familiar with my theme anthologies know, I always attempt to push thematic boundaries to the breaking point: that is, if I can’t justify to myself that a story I encounter (by commissioning originals, or by researching and listening to suggestion for reprints) fits within the theme of my book, and I love that story, I’ll acquire and publish it. […] I wanted to showcase Lovecraftian-influenced stories by at least some authors not known for that kind of story.
Lovecraft’s Monsters 13-14

Innovation is the key to Datlow’s approach to Lovecraft as an editor—having read Lovecraft and his many imitators, being familiar with the dozens of Mythos anthologies already produced, her approach with these anthologies was explicitly to do something different. In striving to push the boundaries of what is Lovecraftian, she engaged authors that pushed it beyond what Joshi recognized as being related to Lovecraft—but that still expands the conceptual space of stories you can tell and remain “Lovecraftian.”

Beyond reprinting relatively obscure stories or the individual publishing afterlife of a given anthologized tale, Datlow’s philosophic attitude that something new can be done with Lovecraft, and should be—that the future of Lovecraftian fiction relies in something else, beyond the Mythos and pastiche, or the same familiar names in anthology after anthology. Fresh voices, fresh takes. That may be Ellen Datlow’s most substantial impact on Lovecraftian fiction as an editor.

“Some Distant Baying Sound” (2009) by W. H. Pugmire

Now, as the baying of that dead, fleshless monstrosity grows louder and louder, and the stealthy whirring and flapping of those accursed web-wings circles closer and closer, I shall seek with my revolver the oblivion which is my only refuge from the unnamed and unnamable.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound”

St. John is dead, and Christina Sturhman takes the revolver out of her mouth, determined not to end her life in so cowardly a fashion. She travels instead to Sesqua Valley, the secret corner of the Pacific Northwest which W. H. Pugmire has built and claimed for his own, to ask for help from the strange beings there—the sorcerer Simon Gregory Williams, his assistant Marceline, and his brother the poet William Davis Manly. Ever following her is the hound…

Like “Houndwife” (2010) by Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Some Distant Baying Sound” is in ways a continuation and a tribute to H. P. Lovecraft’s seminal tale of two grave-robbing decadents who eventually unearth something profane and come to a grisly end because of it—and it is interesting and sometimes enlightening to see what two different authors will make of the same material, and the different directions they will take from the common beginning in Lovecraft’s story.

Both Pugmire and Kiernan take Lovecraft’s story essentially at face value: though they may add details, they subtract nothing, and by luck they happen to focus on different aspects of the story, so the three stories could almost form a little trinity—such is the way the Cthulhu Mythos grows. The major difference is that Pugmire makes the unnamed protagonist of “The Hound” a woman, where Kiernan implicitly suggests they were male. The latter is more likely Lovecraft’s intention, but the story is ambiguous enough to permit either reading.

The question of why Pugmire went with this interpretation is an open one. Both Lovecraft and Pugmire’s stories have Sturhman and St. John in an intimate friendship, but not explicitly a romantic or sexual one…and even if it were sexual, there is no reason why it could not be homosexual; Pugmire has depicted gay men in relationships in his fiction before. Having Sturhman as female perhaps side-steps any question of sexual attraction to two great beasts of Sesqua Valley, Simon Gregory Williams and Williams Davis Manly, allowing them to be platonic enemies and friends, respectively…although again, Pugmire has never shied away from the inhabitants of the valley having a fluid sexuality.

Upon arriving to meet Simon Gregory Williams and his assistant, Sturhman succumbs to Marceline’s seduction rather easily, though the subtle insinuation of Simon orchestrating the affair for his own purposes raises questions of consent. This gives an opportunity for Pugmire to indulge in the sensual, poetic prose that he is known for, and it is a curious coincidence that both Kiernan and Pugmire, following their own muses and devices, both feature lesbian sexuality so openly in their tributes…although there is a bit of play to be considered between sexuality and gender identity in the two stories.

What is the gender of the Hound/sphinx entity, which pursues in the three stories? In Lovecraft’s original, gender is unknown and irrelevant: it is the figure of pursuit. “Houndwife” suggests implicitly that the Hound is a male figure, but the gender (and even reality) of the Hound is again left ambiguous, and again is irrelevant for the Hound’s function in the story. Yet in “Some Distant Baying Sound,” there is a crucial binary presented by Williams Davis Manly, between the female and male sphinx, and this indeed turns out to be the case because in the story the distinction becomes a necessary one. In all the story, the actual gender of the Hound/sphinx is relevant only insofar as it relates to their relationship with the individual being “hounded,” and as this never includes sexual predation, gender largely doesn’t enter into the plot.

The denouement of “Some Distant Baying Sound” comes in a rush. The early parts of the story had a rather dream-logic pace that fits with Pugmire’s style and his characterization of the Valley itself. The pieces fit together well enough, but the expected confrontation turns into more of an acceptance of self—one more obvious in hindsight, and which yet leaves some unanswered questions…although it seems clear that Sesqua Valley has gained a new permanent resident.

Neither Pugmire or Kiernan’s stories offer a particularly deep exegesis of the Mythos, although fans might appreciate their attention to detail, and the subtle expansion of certain elements connected to the jade of Leng. These are not tributes meant necessarily to explicate a murky corner of Lovecraft’s world, but sensual explorations and extrapolations of the basic atmosphere and key elements of “The Hound.” Celebrations of the mood that Lovecraft evoked, with mysteries yet remaining mysterious and some graves left unspoilt for the next generation of necrophiles.

“Some Distant Baying Sound” was first published in Pugmire’s collection Weird Inhabitants of Sesqua Valley (2009), and republished in his collections The Tangled Muse (2010) and Uncommon Places: A Collection of Exquisites (2012). Unlike “Houndwife,” “Some Distant Baying Sound” stands less well on its own. Full appreciation requires at least a passing familiarity with either Lovecraft’s story or Pugmire’s Sesqua Valley tales, and preferably both. Given that the story is published primarily in Pugmire’s own collections, among his other Sesqua Valley tales, this works out fine. If at some future date it ends up in an anthology next to “Houndwife,” the editor might need to add a bit of clarification for readers unfamiliar with Pugmire’s corpus.