Sunday, May 13, 2018
The Lovecraftian Thing a Day (2018) No.133: New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos/Shaft Number 247
Picking up the thread of a couple of earlier posts, today’s entry returns us to another of my favourite modern Cthulhu mythos tales; this is, in some respects a double posting, as the story in question appears in Arkham House’s 1980 publication New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by Ramsey Campbell (and one of only 15 or so Arkham House volumes which I own). I believe I first encountered this in the 1988 UK Grafton paperback reprint; I managed to pick up a copy of the Arkham House hardback (shown above) a few years later (I managed to get ths signed by Ramsey Campbell at NecronomiCon 2015).
In any case, this was a game changer for me - at least half the stories in the volume caused me to radically reconsider what the Cthulhu mythos was capable of as a literary form, and indeed to rethink what constituted the mythos outside of the standard, pastiched tropes which informed so much of what had been written under the rubric of mythos fiction post-Lovecraft. In this respect, it is unsurprising that New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos was produced under the editorship of Ramsey Campbell, who had already effectively contemporised Lovecaft’s original vision via the urban alienation and grimy social realism of his own work. Indeed, New Tales showcased a number of stories which have since become modern Lovecraftian classics - such as Stephen King’s ‘Crouch End’, A.A. Attanasio’s ‘The Star Pools’, David Drake’s ‘Than Curse the Darkness’, Campbell’s own ‘The Faces at Pine Dunes’, and of course what is probably one of the best known of all modern Lovecaftian tales, T.E.D. Klein’s ‘Black Man with a Horn’. I’m still surprised that we haven’t seen a reprint of this volume since 1988.
My favourite entry in New Tales - and one of my top ten Cthulhu mythos tales of all time - remains an unacknowledged classic of Lvecaftian horror: ‘Shaft Number 247’, written by the woefully-underrated Basil Copper. Depicting life in a an Orwellian subterrenean dystopia, it is not really clear how or in what way ‘Shaft Number 247’ constitutes a tale of the Cthulhu mythos: there is certainly nothing to identify it as such by way of any named monstrous beings or blaphemous tomes of the mythos making their appearance. What does emerge, however, is a sense of growing Lovecraftian dread in relation to some unnamed and unnameable existential terror which has made the surface of the Earth its habitation - and from which humanity has been forced to flee underground. Campbell gives a hint in the book’s introduction as to what exactly is going on, suggesting that the tale concerns the ultimate event of the Cthulhu mythos (presumably the return of the Old Ones to Earth); if this is the case, Copper skillfully represents this (unrepresentable) occurrence as something which is, quite literally, unthinkable - such that to contemplate it’s possibility in the world of ‘Shaft Number 247’ is to engage in a kind of Orwellian thoughtcrime.
As with the best and greatest of Lovecaftian fiction, the horror of ‘Shaft Number 247’ is a horror which exists within those cognitive gaps the content of which ultimately eludes human conceptualisation. Like gravity, we can’t see it or measure it, but we infer its existence based upon the effect it has upon and around us. Whatever constitutes the actual horror of ‘Shaft Number 247’, its enormity can only be gauged indirectly by way of the monstrous social, cultural and psychological effects it has exerted upon what remains of humanity in the dystopian universe of the tale. And this is what makes for some of the best Lovecaftian fiction: the final, horrific revelation in At the Mountains of Madness is neither the appearance of a shoggoth nor the realisation that humanity is an accident or mistake; rather it lurks in those numinously-awestruck hints of an ultimate and yet more horrifying cosmic reality - one which is again inconceivable and unrepresentable - which William Dyer relays to us second-hand, via the Cthulhuvian word-salad which his companion Danforth spouts after glimpsing what really exists beyond those Mountains of Madness.