Monday, August 30, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Mound

I must admit that I have a fondness for H.P. Lovecraft's "revision" stories. These are tales that originally appeared under someone else's name, but the bulk of whose text was in fact written and perhaps conceived by Lovecraft. Amateurs often approached HPL for assistance in getting a story (or stories) polished for submission. Lovecraft usually did this quite willingly, as he was both keen to lend a hand to aspiring writers and because he was regularly in need of funds to support himself, owing both the difficulty he had in selling his own work and how slowly he was paid for the work he did succeed in selling.

Of course, Lovecraft being Lovecraft, he frequently rewrote nearly the entirety of the story he was merely supposed to revise. The result is something that should, in most respects, be considered a Lovecraft story. However, because he took seriously the notion that he was revising someone else's work, HPL did he best to retain as much of his client's ideas as possible, even when, in the final analysis, only the barest skeleton of non-Lovecraftian material can be seen in the revision. Thus, there's generally enough non-Lovecraftian concepts in these revisions to set them apart from the "pure" Lovecraft corpus, which is why some fans turn their nose up at them and treat them as "lesser" works.

I don't feel that way, since, as in the case of "The Mound," the story in question is massive in length -- over 25,000 words -- and filled with terrific Lovecraftian ideas. Written for a client by the name of Zealia Bishop, who lived in Kansas City, "The Mound" was begun sometime in 1929 and completed by 1930, but it did not see print until 1940, several years after Lovecraft's death. Even when it did appear in Weird Tales, it was a much abridged version, which probably contributed to the ill fame in which the story was held for many years. The full, original version of "The Mound" did not see print until 1989, in an Arkham House publication edited by S.T. Joshi and my reading of it a few years afterward convinced me that it is, in fact, a remarkable piece of work, one that ought to stand in the higher ranks of Lovecraft's fiction.

Certainly "The Mound" is no "The Call of Cthulhu" or "At the Mountains of Madness," but it's nevertheless a superb piece of work. It tells of the story of a member of Coronado's 16th century exploration of what is now Oklahoma, named Panfilo de Zamacona y Nuñez. Zamacona had heard tales of an underground realm supposedly filled with great wealth and hires an Indian guide to take him to the entrance to this legendary place. The Indian guides the Spaniard to a huge mound but will go no further, speaking ill of its subterranean inhabitants. Undeterred, Zamacona enters the mound alone, eventually discovering an ancient civilization called K'n-yan.

K'n-yan is inhabited by human-appearing extraterrestrial beings who display amazing mental powers, such as telepathy and dematerialization. Despite these powers, Zamacona finds, to his disappointment, that these beings have fallen into decadence, being unable to operate many of their most impressive pieces of technology, having long since forgotten their principles. Likewise, their morals, once quite sophisticated and subtle, have descended into near-barbarism, with blood sports and other similar entertainments replacing their once-lofty cultural pursuits. Zamacona finds K'n-yan fascinating but, as a 16th century Spaniard, he has no desire to remain there forever. Unfortunately for him, its inhabitants have other ideas ...

"The Mound" is definitely not what one would call a "thrill a minute" story, but then probably no Lovecraft story could be called such with a straight face. It is, in many ways, largely an extensive travelog of an imaginary place, a subterranean world that is both awe-inspiring and horrifying. Lovecraft gives free rein when he describes K'n-yan, which he presents neither as a utopia nor as a nightmare realm. It's clear that some aspects of its society were derived from Lovecraft's own ideals -- its elevation of the rational and the esthetic, for example -- but other aspects were derived from his own fears, particularly his feeling that any civilization not properly guided by its ruling class would inevitably descend into demagoguery and decay.

Perhaps it's for that reason that I like "The Mound" so much: Lovecraft seems a little less prone to idealizing his own preferences here. There's a certain degree of subtlety and nuance in his picture of K'n-yan's decay that I find strangely compelling. Indeed, I prefer his portrayal of these subterranean aliens to his portrayal of the elder things of Antarctica or the Great Race, both of whom lived in more unqualified Lovecraftian utopias. Perhaps I overstate my case here, but I can only say that Lovecraft's writing in "The Mound" comes across as differently than it does in many of his more well-known pieces. That difference may be why many judge it a lesser work and maybe they're even right to do so. But, for me, it's a fascinating example of world building and a reminder that, first and foremost, Lovecraft was a fantasist, not a horror writer, and his ability to create unique and memorable fantasy worlds is a good part of why I still read him.

19 comments:

  1. I don't believe I've read The Mound. Must rectify that.

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  2. (New commenter here.)

    Not too long ago I found a collection of Lovecraft's "rewrites" at Half Price Books. A few were really bad, notably some sort of classical Greek dream with no plot or edge. Even his ghostwriting for Harry Houdini, which I liked as a kid, seemed a bit lightweight.

    "The Mound", though, was not only interesting in itself, but excellent food for thought. The story features not one underground realm, but another even more degenerate one below that, and a final one that scares even the people of K'n-Yan. (Take that, Underdark.) Even the beginning of the story, seemingly a prairie ghost tale, provides an excellent hook to lure players from mild weirdness to the truly bizarre.

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  3. (and another new commenter here...)

    If "The Walls of Eryx" by HPL/Kenneth Sterling counts as one of these re-writes I'm going to have to check out some more, that's a thickly atmospheric and creepy story that I think really stands out due to it's "pure" sci-i feel-and also, like you mentioned above, because it veers away a bit from, his own preferences.

    I'd never even heard of "The Mound", thanks for the write-up.

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  4. Both the Yithians and the Elder Things seemed to suffer from a lack of imagination concerning how aliens may develop emotions and social complexities around their own divergent biological (or, in the Yithian's case, psycho-technological) processes.

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  5. PS I'm writing a 'mega' dungeon based loosely on The Mound.

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  6. Wow. Thinking of doing a CoC campaign around that period.

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  7. In some ways, "The Mound" by HPL reminds me of a major theme often explored by REH. Howard was fascinated by the topic of decaying societies, and to great effect he explored this in "Red Nails".

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  8. "The Mound" and "In the Walls of Eryx" are my favorites of Lovecraft's collaborations/re-writes as well, and I feel they both stand up to anything he wrote under his own name. "The Mound" in particular; I only read the story a few years ago, and it was a thrill to discover such an obscure major work.

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  9. I also discovered "The Mound" for the first time, also from a collection at Half Price Books (no doubt the same edition). I have the same appreciation for it now, and in many ways prefer it to At the Mountains of Madness.

    Another thing I appreciated was that he left us wanting more. I really wanted to learn more about the deeper worlds beneath K'n-yan.

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  10. Zealia Bishop has freely admitted that The Mound is 100% by Lovecraft. She merely mentioned to him the idea of a story of a headless ghost haunting an Indian mound.

    The Mound is my 3rd favorite of all of Lovecraft's stories (with my 2nd being The Shadow out of Time and my 1st being At the Mountains of Madness).

    The Mound is so good that, for a time, I contemplated basing Supplement V: CARCOSA solely on The Mound, rather than being inspired by the wider Lovecraftian/Derlethian Mythos.

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  11. The Mound was quite good. The worst of HPL's 'rewrites', I think also for Bishop, was the one where the shocking horrific reveal at the end was not that the foreign wife was an ancient creature whose hair had a murderous life of its own, no, the shocking reveal was that she was actually black.

    That was f'ed up.

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  12. Jon, I agree entirely. That story is also in the book I found The Mound in, I think it's called "The Loved Dead" and the story is "Medusa's Coil". Ugh. Nothing subtle about the racism in that story.

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  13. I only recently read this, and (while I liked it) it read like HPL describing the plot and setting of an A. Merritt story. Merritt would probably have made Zamacona the protagonist/narrator, rather than the subject of a later investigation.

    To me, Merritt's writing is the best example of "proto Gygaxian" in terms of style and subject matter.

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  14. I read The Mound in nearly two decades and noticed it is a volume I recently purchased. Been on a Lovecraft reading kick. In that endeavor I must admit that Lovecraft does lost/decayed civilizations very well. As an adult I really liked the atmosphere of The Nameless City.

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  15. I really like The Mound out of Lovecraft's collaborations though I'll have to check out the full version that you mention James as I'd only seen the Weird Tales version. It is excellent for the evocation of an alien society and the ending does give me a frisson even now, though I know whats coming.

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  16. Glad to see that I'm not the only one who likes "The Mound," out of HPL's various uneven revisions. It would make for a spectacular megadungeon, just like Huth above is apparently hard at work upon.

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  17. "The Mound" was reprinted in The Horror In The Museum. The Loved Dead is a later volume of revisions.

    There's also a lot (most?) of HPL at http://www.hplovecraft.com/. "The Mound" is at
    http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/mo.asp

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  18. To semiprometheus

    And let's not forget the one on the top of all...mankind.

    Whose members don't dare enter K'n-yan,just as the people of K'n-yan don't dare enter the underground.

    The one to follow,according to Lovecraft's ideals?

    Hard to find a Lovecraft work not outlining his political/social/racial ideals,which admittedly verge towards elitism and authoritarianism.

    To the point that in my opinion his works can also be considered political commentaries.

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  19. I have an Arkham House collection with The Mound and it is one of HPL most unnerving stories. Those weird man-horses still freak me out!

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