Wednesday, 1 March 2017
A Review of the Azathoth Cycle from Chaosium
This is a collection of non-Lovecraft stories brought together by Chaosium related to, or mentioning, Azathoth;
"That last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubble at the centre of all infinity -- the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes."
So that guy.
One thing we learn is that, like Superman, Azothoth is quite difficult to write a story about. As the primal chaos at the heart of all existence, there is very little that he actually does. His stats in Dieties and Demigods illustrate that;
Most Azathoth stories are about how terrible it is to find out about Azathoth.
Derby is the doomed protagonist of Lovecrafts 'The Thing On The Doorstep' and this poem purports to be by that imaginary man. It's not that bad and has a certain energy, especially when we come into the presence of the Idiot God himself. I have no idea who the real writer of this was but perhaps it was Robert M. Price the Editor?
These are essentially posh fan-fic of 'The Thing On The Doorstep'. That story had a mind-swap in it which left open the question of what happened to its potentially-immortal villain. These two stories follow the adventures of the immortal mind itself and of the people it displaces and bodyswaps on its way. They are ironic.
This is another 'Thing On The Doorstep' deriviative about a man fleeing a failed marriage holing up in one of the houses from the story decades later, being cut off by a snowstorm and finding both a Shoggoth-summoning thingy in the wall but also the spirit of the original brainswapper. This is not especially terrible.
Written in 1939 this one has astral-travelling students sending urgent telegrams back and forth while dicking about with an uncovered ritual which is actually a trap for a headhunting cosmic horror. The story doesn't end where the head is cut off. This is bad but fun.
A fake translation from the Necronomicon with some adventures of the mad arab Abdul Alhalzred. It is here that we attain true, unquestionable, unforced badness for the first time in this collection. This is a ripoff of the Hounds of Tindalos in bad pseudo 16th century language as imagined by a 20th century American with a blunt grasp of euphony.
Another writer protagonist. (To what extent are stories about Azothoth and the compulsion that draws people towards him really about the writing of horror?) Our man finds some bad bugs in the forest and gets brainraped into witnessing their Azothoth-worshipping, planet-hopping dickery. If you imagine jews bad enough to actually deserve everything that happened to the Jews, that’s the Insects from Shaggai. Out hero slits his wrists on the final page. this story has life, imagination and invention, it is not scary. None of them are so far.
THIS does it. In terms of plotting and worldbuilding this Ligotti story is probably the slightest and lightest of them all. In prosidy and craft it is the best by quite a way. This tells the primal Azathoth story of a man drawn through shadowy mundanity towards contact with actual cosmic horror. In terms of sheer event, nothing happens. A guy finds some scary chairs and gets mutated. This is the only one so far to give me anything like a sense of disquiet.
Standard Sword and Sorcery prose but a really interesting and unique cosmology. Tierney links Azathoth to the Zorastonian Demiurge, creator of material reality. Instead of an introverted hero he has an ex gladiator-plus-sorcerer empowered by a fragment of the Divine Spark, making him better than just about all of humanity (in a slightly creepy semi-fascist way). The hero decides to penetrate the spheres of space in order to track down the soul of his (also super-special) dead girlfriend.
This stories depiction of our solar system as being comprised of spheres of energy, each sphere being rules by a monstrous Archon, with each Archon feeding off the pain and suffering felt by those being trapped in the material existence of its sphere, before sending on the excess pain to feed the greater Archon in the sphere beyond, with the Archon of this system in turn exporting its pain to the centre of the cosmos, is really specifically and brilliantly horrible. It's depiction of all of material reality as a hideous pyramid scheme of spiritual agony would probably please both Lovecraft and Ligotti.
Ultimately our hero penetrates beyond reality and re-unites with his God-Self outside time but, being infinite, forgets his physical existence until the actions of his super-girlfriend suck him back into reality and into contact with 'Achamoth' the Demiurge in charge of all material reality, who is also his shadow-self. The conflict between them making up what we recognise of the cosmos.
A short, sweet story about a Sorcerer in a tower who sees Azathoth rising slowly over the horizon instead of the sun and, as more of the Idiot God's being is revealed, wracks his books to work out what he is seeing. He finds out. The end.
A likeable and well-made story. Another introverted, driven and sullen hero is prophesied to seek out Azathoth. He has no idea who or what Azathoth is and spends much of his life seeking knowledge of him. Eventually he finds a wizened wise man in a distant city who, like some kind of dark anti-sufi, reveals that;
"He who is all, He who sits enthroned at the centre of all chaos, is everywhere, for chaos has no centre. Every point in the universe of stars is the centre, thus there is no centre and the Daemon Sultan lurks nowhere, because He is everywhere. Look within yourself."
He eventually finds his way home, but is unable to forget the terrible knowledge he now posesses;
"For idle loungers about the village, though in time they did not remember L'wei-Kath, came to regard as familiar a ragged and enigmatic figure leaning windblown in the village square: a flute player piping idiotically, monotonously, weirdly upon a carven flute held clumsily in palsied hands, endlessly piping his cacophony of eerie notes, his ululand litany to his god, to the One whose face, inscrutable, was everywhere and everything and everyone, the final derangement lying behind all being, the gibbering madness of existence, pervasive, present in the very wind, tainting the very sunlight - the Daemon-Sultan Azathoth."
The slow but total and absolute spiritual collapse of the seeker into a fluting idiot works much better than the standard 'see elder god = go insane".
We're back with standard American prose and the story of a petty and low-ranking academic assigned to clean up and archive the office of a brilliant 'non-lateral' philosopher after a mysterious mass-death incident, who ignores a long list of horror-movie cliches in order to get himself sucked into the alterverse and turned into pulp.
This was written in 1995 and reads like it was written in 1955 and I genuinely can't work out if it was made this way for reasons of irony.
"With a grin Gary swung back around to the console to prepare a letter for Radiographication back to Mother Terra Firma."
"And how are you doing this segment, buddy?" Roans asked cheerfully
"Not bad at all, friend Roans," answered Simon with a smile, "except maybe for a touch of the space yawns."
This is an honest-to-goodness Science Fiction story with a space ship and everything. The people currently in charge of space find an area of 'absolute blackness'. They keep sending Astronauts into the area. The space men go insane. They have done this a few times and now they are doing it again. Nothing in this story mentions any particular plan or quality this group have space men have that has lead them to think that they will not go insane like every previous space man. It's possible this is a very subtle and genre-appropriate commentary on a horrifically materialistic and inhuman culture just tanking guys into Azathoth to see if any of them live. If it isn't satire its bad, if it is, it's dull.
Expedition to Iram, the City of Pillars. Native guides grow restless. Giant tower discovered. Non-human mummies found inside. Star-mad leader guy gets inside and gets slurped up by Azathoth through an interdimensional gate.
A sort of sequel to the previous story. The framing story is an academic telling the tale to a young scholar in the US but, for once, the people doing the adventure aren't a bunch of white guys. One of the good and interesting apects of the story are the invented careers of middle-eastern scholars from Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The fundamental content isn't that different but it is nice to occasionally hear about mad scholars at the University of Riyadh rather than at Arkham or whatever.
The result is the same. They find the lost city. There's statues of evil gods and a closed crypt with big fuck off signs saying "Do Not Open: Jar of Plague and Doom". Star-mad leader opens it. Plague and doom happen. The revelation of what is actually in the jar is neatly handled. Back in the framing story the young scholar gets slurped up into a photo of Azathoth because he looked at it too long.
This is a reasonably neat piece of psudo-scholarship that puports to link Azathoth to the Gnostic demiurge and mixes in real stuff, post-Lovecraft stories and the imagined history in Lovecraft in a reasonably interesting way.
By and large this collection of cosmic horror felt as comfortable and predictable as Sunday afternoon TV. It was like a warm glass of beer. There was some Ligotti swimming in the bottom but it didn't change the taste.
I'm not exactly angry that writing about Cosmic Horror Gods is essentially a kind of light dark fantasy writing rather than anything which might horrify and genuinely frighten, perhaps a lot of Lovecraft was like that. I do feel that Azathoth has genuine potential though. The basic idea is actually horrifying. He's hard to connect to a narrative structure but if you could, if you could do Azathoth properly, then this shit could actually be scary.
I almost want to stop people from writing about Lovecraftian deities for a few decades, at least until someone's had a really good idea. It shouldn't feel like sinking into a leather armchair. It's sad that it does.
The linking of Azathoth to the Gnostic Demiurge is an interesting idea. The concept of an idiot emanation of god, one either sent mad by being forced to create the material universe, or already mad and creating it from that madness, seems apt. Likewise the idea of a Demiurge that is in some sense a slave or prisoner and who hates their work. You can probably imagine any time you have been forced to work on something you despise and how, even if you are closely watched, your contempt for the subject seeps into what you do, that would be a rather apt and nasty explanation for the world.
Regarding the Eclipsed Kingdom, the idea that Azathoth is, himself a prisoner, in interesting. That makes the world the mad prison dream of an idiot god. Prisons inside prisons inside prisons.
The idea of Azathoth being a negative version of a Sufi or mystical quest, one where instead of transcendence, you find only awful purposeless materialism, makes a neat opposite to Arats Conference of the Birds, and explains why birds and the Eclipsed Kingdom hate each other so much.
More interesting is that the word Demogorgon probably originates from a mis-reading or mis-understanding of the greek word for Demiurge. That brings up the tantalising idea of the D&D Demogorgon being the Demiurge for the world. Presumably he had his hands removed once the real god was done with him and didn't want him to make any more of it. Now he is trapped in his creation and can only angrily wave his child-lock tentacles.
(Zoroastrian)/Judeo/Christian/(Islamic) -mythology- scripture is the first textual shared universe. Everyone is literally reading each others books and using each others characters.
A can't express how pleased I was to find that King Solomon was known to have bound the devil Asmodeus to his service for a while, as I remembered that picture of him in the original Monster Manual
and now it meant that this legendary king and the guy from the MM were linked. Part of the same universe.
Likewise the line from Paradise Lost
Thither he plies
Undaunted, to meet there whatever power
Or spirit of the nethermost Abyss
Might in that noise reside, of whom to ask
Which way the nearest coast of darkness lies
Bordering on light; when straight behold the throne
Of Chaos, and his dark pavilion spread
Wide on the wasteful deep! With him enthroned
Sat sable-vested Night, eldest of things,
The consort of his reign; and by them stood
Orcus and Ades, and the dreaded name
Of Demogorgon; Rumour next, and Chance,
And Tumult, and Confusion, all embroiled,
And Discord with a thousand various mouths.
- which suggests that Orcus, Demogorgon and Hades were all hanging around together in primal Chaos before Lucifer burst in on his way to the material plane.
Kaos Squad - Assemble!
Both Lucifer and Night, sadly, still lack stats in D&D.
I don't think I will make Azathoth the Demiurge. It robs him of his horror. The only true horror of Azathoth is the truth of what he means. All the tentacles and ebon blackness are just fucking about. The nightmare is that there is no fundamental meaning. You get to the top of the pyramid and there's no point.