No Mythos, Thank You

9 Jan

The Cthulhu Mythos. Even if you aren’t a fan of speculative fiction, you probably know what that is. If not, look it up; you may have a pleasant surprise. It’s a popular shared universe of stories. But, not with everyone.
Recently, I’ve noticed a number of guidelines for anthologies and magazines specifically barring either the Cthulhu Mythos itself or shared universe stories or stories based on out-of-copyright franchises more generally. In one sense, I can understand their reasoning – Mythos fiction has become incredibly popular in recent years and almost seems ubiquitous at times and I can see someone feeling that such stories must be unoriginal or that most of them are poorly written. Which, of course, like any large collection of fiction is likely to be true.

But, when considered logically, it is clear that such a ban is likely to have been born more from a literary snobbishness than rational consideration. Just because a lot of Mythos fiction is likely to be of poor quality or unoriginal is no argument against Mythos fiction in general; most SF, fantasy and thriller fiction will be equally unoriginal and badly written and unlikely to be accepted. Of course, there have been similar bans on things such as zombie stories and vampire stories due to saturation, but, again, that meant excellent stories were being denied an outlet due to the ‘sins’ of the majority. A more honest restriction would be on stereotypical stories than a blanket ban.

When justification is sought in terms of a ban on shared universes and out-of-copyright franchises, perhaps on the grounds that unforeseen legal entanglements might exist, one has to wonder how far back one must go before such become acceptable, or are semi-historical, folkloric and mythological elements also banned? If King Arthur is allowed, how about Robin Hood? If Robin, what about Don Quixote? If he, why not characters from 18th-century literature? If 18th, why not 19th? And, if we allow the 19th, proto-Mythos elements such as the King In Yellow are suddenly legitimate.

But, if we ban such things, is it just the specific names that are out? In that case, entities and books of forbidden lore identical in purpose to Mythos entities and tomes would be allowable, which rather makes a mockery of the ban. “Sorry, you cannot submit your story featuring Cthulhu, but rename him Roggoth and it’s fine.” Indeed, one might even ask what actually constitutes the Mythos and just how many references make something a Mythos story. A story about Cthulhu clearly is part of the Cthulhu Mythos, but does a single obscure reference to Hali qualify? Confusing!

Okay, so we ban anything that sounds or feels as if it belongs in the Mythos. But, wait a minute – on that basis we should ban all vampire or superhero fiction, too, given that there will be inevitable similarities to others of their ilk. Fantasy monarchs reminiscent of King Arthur and wise sages and mages who bring to mind Merlin or the Doctor. Any character, being or item that is at all similar to any other in fiction should be disbarred. And, why stop there? Most time travel stories are more similar than most Mythos tales. Alien invasions have been done to death. Just where do we end?

So, we’ve banned anything that isn’t incredibly original, but have we actually ensured that the tiny number of submissions we’ll receive will actually be any good? They may have novelty, but the quality of their plotting, their characterisation, their general writing, all depend upon the writer not the genre. Duff writers will still submit duff, albeit originally duff, stories. Meanwhile, those brilliant Mythos stories are going unappreciated.

In reality, the Cthulhu Mythos covers an enormous variety of stories and a blanket ban is foolish. Just because a story might mention the Necronomicon or feature a Byakhee doesn’t define the brilliance of its invention or the quality of its writing. Indeed, drawing upon the example of Lovecraft’s own stories, many ostensibly Mythos stories contain only the lightest of dustings for an aura of verisimilitude, the remainder being quite new and inventive.

The Cthulhu Mythos is not a second-rate field of fiction – anything but! – and denying an outlet for Mythos stories is, in my opinion, a foolish thing to do. Give Cthulhu a chance!

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