“May the merciful gods, if indeed there be such, guard those hours when no power of the will, or drug that the cunning of man devises, can keep me from the chasm of sleep…”
—H.P. Lovecraft, Hypnos
Interview by Jason Thompson:
The Cthulhu Mythos has been itemized, categorized, Wiki’ed and studied, but beneath its coldly logical science fiction surface crawls the stuff of dreams and nightmares. Before “dark fantasy” was a word, Gary Myers was writing unforgettable stories that mixed H.P. Lovecraft’s later Cthulhu Mythos phase with his earlier Dreamlands stories, mystic fantasy influenced by the fiction of Lord Dunsany and fairytales such as The Arabian Nights. When he was 17, Myers’ first story, “The House of the Worm”, appeared in The Arkham Collector, edited by Lovecraft’s friend and publisher August Derleth. In 1975, Derleth’s Arkham House issued Myers’ first book The House of the Worm, a collection of ten stories set in the Dreamlands.
In the ’80s and ’90s Myers’ work appeared in magazines like Crypt of Cthulhu and Lin Carter’s fantasy anthologies. When his stories became canon in the Call of Cthulhu RPG supplement “H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands,” it was the equivalent of an official endorsement: Gary Myers’ dreams are the real thing. If anything, Myers’ dream stories are even darker than Lovecraft’s: stories such as “Xiurhn,” in which a man ventures to the place where the Night goes during daytime; “The Keeper of the Flame,” a story of holy rapture, Mythos style; or “The Snout in the Alcove,” which shows what happens to the Dreamlands when the Old Ones return and the world ends. A combination of new and old work was later collected in The Country of the Worm, the definitive book of Myers’ Dreamlands stories. But to Myers, the barrier between dream and waking, fantasy and reality, is just another illusion. His second collection, Dark Wisdom, focuses on modern stories of the Great Old Ones set in the present day. His most recent book (and first full-length novel), Gray Magic, goes in another new direction: a swashbuckling fantasy adventure set in Clark Ashton Smith’s prehistoric Hyperborea and starring Smith’s sorcerer Eibon.
“Gary Myers’ stories are caviar,” raves Robert M. Price, Mythos scholar/editor and host of the Bible Geek podcast. “The stylistic skill that went into the sparkling and dreamlike prose…the poisonous trace of the Cthulhu Mythos…What Brian Lumley does with a broadsword, Gary Myers does with a stiletto, but the result in both cases combines horror with humor, deviltry with drollery.” With Myers a guest at the 2013 HP Lovecraft Film Festival and CthulhuCon from September 27-29 in Los Angeles, California, and all his books now available on Kindle, we sat down (at the computer) to ask him about his favorite nightmares.
MYERS: Ten or eleven. My output was about what you would expect at that age: Mad Scientist and Bug-Eyed Monster epics like so many of the movies that filled the airways of the time. My first stories that actually resembled stories came a couple of years later, Gothic horrors modeled after the ones I was reading in the black-and-white comic magazines Creepy and Eerie. None of this early stuff survives. So my writing really dates from The House of the Worm, which I wrote (the story, not the book) when I was sixteen.
THOMPSON: How did you first discover Lovecraft?
MYERS: In those days I was an avid follower of Robert E. Howard and the Conan series which Lancer Books was then putting out. But they were putting them out too slowly for me, so I tried to fill in the down time by hunting for other Howard stories in such books and magazines as I could find at the local second-hand stores. This led me to an anthology called Swords and Sorcery, edited by Conan series editor L. Sprague de Camp. And this in turn led me to three of the most significant discoveries of my young life. For not only did this book contain a Conan story by Howard, it also contained “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller” by Lord Dunsany, “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” by H. P. Lovecraft, and “The Testament of Athammaus” by Clark Ashton Smith! I was blown away, and I immediately expanded my hunting program to include all three of these writers. First I found, at a local newsstand, a new paperback collection of some of Lovecraft’s better known horror stories, which affected me even more deeply than his dream fantasy had done. Then I found, just a few doors down from the newsstand, another used bookshop with a sizable display of Arkham House books in its window, Lovecraft featured prominently among them. Those were magical times.
THOMPSON: In the original edition of The House of the Worm you list among your hobbies “copying the fiction of Lord Dunsany.”
MYERS: That arose out of necessity. Most of Lovecraft was available from Arkham House, as was a goodly portion of Smith. But Dunsany was harder to come by. This would begin to change with the launch of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series under the editorship of Lin Carter, but that launch was still some months away. I eventually found that I could get access to some of Dunsany’s books through interlibrary loan. I read the novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter in this way, and the short story collection The Last Book of Wonder. I liked the novel well enough but I liked the collection more. Desiring a copy of my own, and knowing no honest way to get one, I decided to make it through the simple expedient of typing one myself. This bore unexpected fruit a short time later when I set out to write my first Mythos story. I found myself slipping into Dunsanian cadences almost against my will. In the end I decided to continue in this mode as the path of least resistance.
THOMPSON: I used to retype stories myself as a kid! ;) I would make new anthologies by choosing and retyping stories from other books…although selecting the table of contents was the fun part. I usually lost patience on the retyping and only got through the first few paragraphs…
MYERS: This may be more common than we think. Lin Carter recounts somewhere how the artist Hannes Bok copied A. Merritt’s novel The Ship of Ishtar in longhand from borrowed magazines where it was serialized. Bok later went on to complete a couple of stories left unfinished at Merritt’s death, and to write a couple of Merrittesque novels of his own. Perhaps we should start a school.
THOMPSON: What was it about Lovecraft and Dunsany that inspired you?
MYERS: Dunsany was probably my greater inspiration. I liked his exoticism, his fairytale simplicity, and his effortless wedding of the imaginary and the real. I know that some critics, Lovecraft among them I believe, think his earliest work is his best, books like The Gods of Pegāna and Time and the Gods in which he treats his fantasies with dignity and respect. They are less pleased with things like The Book of Wonder in which he seems all too willing to burst his illusions like so many balloons with a pin. I personally prefer these later stories. I am fascinated by the effects he achieves by juxtaposing fantasy and reality, not to make the fantastic seem real, but to make the real seem fantastic. He shows us a workaday world like a bad play performed by indifferent actors before a shabby canvas backdrop, and compels us wonder who is producing the play and what is behind the backdrop. There is a very short story that epitomizes this for me. It is “Taking Up Piccadilly” in the collection Fifty-One Tales. Lovecraft does some nice things too along this line, but his Dreamlands stories are not necessarily his most Dunsanian. For me that is probably “The Music of Erich Zann.” He inspired me more with the unrelieved darkness of his literary outlook, most famously embodied in his pantheon of monster gods.
THOMPSON: I can see a bit of “Taking Up Piccadilly” in your story “Dusk”…
MYERS: So can I. There are a lot of things packed into that one, from a Luddite’s mourning the disappearance of brick-and-mortar book, movie and record stores, to a middle-aged man’s meditations on mortality. What a fun thing to finish off a book begun by a teenager!)
THOMPSON: Who are your other favorite authors?
MYERS: I tend to favor older fantasy writers. I find that horror is most attractive when it wells up through the cracks in a civilized veneer. I also like prose that is flavorful and fantastic and even a little mad. Dunsany, Lovecraft and Smith all fit nicely into this drawer. So do Poe, Arthur Machen, Robert W. Chambers, M. R. James and M. P. Shiel, to name a few.
THOMPSON: What was the first Mythos story you wrote?
MYERS: The House of the Worm was the first. There may have been a few false starts, but that was the one I finished.
THOMPSON: It’s one thing to write Mythos fiction, and another thing to submit it to Arkham House. How did you end up getting published by them?
MYERS: Sometimes youth and inexperience are a winning combination. I enclosed the story with a book order, and August Derleth responded with a contract. He published the story in The Arkham Collector in 1970.
THOMPSON: I know you had work in The Arkham Collector and Meade & Penny Frierson’s one-shot anthology magazine HPL, and later in magazines like Crypt of Cthulhu and Midnight Shambler. Were you heavily involved in the fanzine scene in the ’70s and ’80s?
MYERS: I was never what I would call heavily involved, in fanzines or in fandom. But there were two Lovecraftian fan communities that I took my membership in very seriously, albeit distantly and for the most part silently. The first was the one surrounding Arkham House itself. Nowadays I hear a lot of people talking about August Derleth’s supposed sins against Lovecraft’s legacy. Nobody was talking about stuff like that at the end of Derleth’s glory years. It was an exciting time. Books were plentiful, with as many as half a dozen new titles released in a single year, and dozens more available on backlist. They were cheap too, with titles published in the forties still selling at forties prices. Even so, I lost not a few pounds of baby fat redirecting my school lunch money toward such illicit delights. But I never really had a chance. There were so many books to chose from, so many paths for the aspiring Lovecraftian to follow. Lovecraft was still the main event: his stories, his letters, his essays and his poems. But one did not have to stop with these. Using Lovecraft as a starting point, one could move sideways to the contemporary writers who worked with him, backward to the older writers who inspired him, or forward to the younger writers whom he inspired in turn. This went far toward fostering my image of Lovecraft as a spreading tree in whose protective shade more delicate plants could thrive and grow. But there were more than the books to be excited about. Derleth himself was a living connection to Lovecraft and his times. He was also a conduit to other surviving members of Lovecraft’s circle, as well as to newer writers mining the same vein. And all contributed, in one way or another, to The Arkham Collector. This little magazine needed only a letter column to make it the voice of a community as it was already the heart.
But I said there were two fan communities. The second was the one surrounding Robert M. Price’s Crypt of Cthulhu a decade or so later. This long-running fanzine served much the same function as The Arkham Collector, but far more ambitiously and, I think, successfully. Today Bob is probably better known as the editor of the Chaosium’s Cthulhu Cycle anthologies, but I really believe Crypt of Cthulhu is the highwater mark in his Lovecraftian endeavors. It is certainly a highwater mark in the field. I wish I had contributed more to it.
THOMPSON: Lin Carter was an early supporter of your work…
MYERS: That is one of the things I am proudest of. Lin Carter is another one of my heroes, not so much for his own books but for what he did for the books of others. As editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, he reprinted—and in some cases gave a second life to—a sizable number of great but obscure fantasy writers running up to Tolkien. (Dunsany, Lovecraft and Smith were all included.) This mass-market paperback series was and is one of the prizes of my personal library, so much so that, in later years when I had more money to throw around, I recreated about half of it in their original hardcover editions. Lin noticed my stories in The Arkham Collector and wrote some nice things about them. Later he included me in anthologies he edited, one in the Ballantine series and several out of it. But my relationship with him was not exactly smooth. I never knew that he was going to use a story of mine until I discovered it in the pages of a new book plucked from some newsstand rack, and I never got paid for its use until I called him on it. For some reason this bothered me a great deal at the time. Now, though, I am inclined to view it more philosophically. The little money he paid me was soon spent, but the prestige he bestowed on me lasted considerably longer, and the pleasure he gave me I have carried with me down to the present day. Thanks, Lin, wherever you are!
THOMPSON: How did The House of the Worm end up getting published in book form?
MYERS: Derleth bought my first four stories for The Arkham Collector. As early as the third he suggested that he would be interested in publishing a collection, which he was already calling The House of the Worm. After the fourth he stopped buying the stories for separate publication so as to save them for the collection. I went on writing, getting as far as the ninth story. Then I got word that Derleth had died, and that took the wind out of my sails for about two years. Finally I wrote the tenth and last story and sent the collection to Arkham House. They (my contact now was Forrest Hartmann, the Derleth family lawyer) responded very favorably. Their only concern was with the shortness of the book. They asked if I had anything suitable to fill it out. I did not, so I wrote the introduction and sent it along to them. The book came out about two years later, in 1975.
THOMPSON: You are an artist as well as an author. What are your visual influences? Were you involved in the visual design of The House of the Worm?
MYERS: My first love of this type was for the comic artists whose work graced the black-and-white pages of Creepy and Eerie. I still seem to favor black-and-white designers and illustrators, people like Dore, Beardsley, Harry Clarke, Sidney Sime and Lee Brown Coye. As for my book, I had no input in it after the typescript left my hands. But I believe Allan Servoss, who did the drawings, was selected by Derleth before he died. Lin Carter reported in 1972, three years before the book came out, that Derleth had planned to issue it “with delightful illustrations by a new artist.” And Servoss’s illustrations are certainly delightful.
THOMPSON: Your early Dreamlands work seems to combine the influence of Lovecraft and Dunsany, but your stories are actually darker than their dream fiction, and frequently end with much more horrible fates for your protagonists…
MYERS: Well, I was a very dark young man. I was still a teenager first of all, and that can be hard on anybody. But I was also a rather odd teenager, socially isolated and emotionally withdrawn. Asperger’s Syndrome was not much talked about then; but my wife Jenn—Jennifer McIlwee Myers, a popular writer and speaker on autism and an Aspergerian herself—tells me I have had a big red Asperger’s beacon flashing over my head pretty much from birth. Even that is not too unusual, at least not in fannish circles. But I had also undergone a crisis of faith. I was never a young Lovecraft. I took my religion seriously, more seriously than many of the people around me. But I could not take it seriously without questioning it seriously too, and so in the middle of my teenage years I found myself an atheist. That in itself is not a terrible thing. But when you still feel emotional ties to your old beliefs, you cannot cut yourself off from them without bleeding a little. All these things contributed to my inner darkness, and that darkness colored all my early stories to one degree or another. Of course this was many years ago. I feel much better now.
THOMPSON: Your dream stories in The Country of the Worm are very evocative of places: gloomy (and beautiful) cities, deserts, beaches, ends-of-the-world and the sea. Is there a shadow of Southern California here? Do these landscapes inspire you?
MYERS: I am a Southern Californian, and those images had to come from somewhere. But they are not really strong enough to be counted as inspirations. Here is one that is. The neighborhood where I spent the first years of my life was a little suburb southeast of Los Angeles. I think it was mostly populated by retirees. At least I remember it that way, with endless vistas of little old men in shirtsleeves watering roses behind white picket fences. But my father worked in Los Angeles as a bus driver on the night shift. One night our mother packed up us kids and took us to meet my father’s bus, to ride with him along his route as a kind of family outing. I could not have been more than six at the time, since my family broke up before I turned seven. But I still remember the strange people getting on and off at the regular stops, and the stranger buildings, mysteriously dark or luridly lit, lining the empty streets between. On such foundations as these are nightmare cities raised.
THOMPSON: Some of your early stories are very cryptic, which gives them a particularly dreamlike feel. For instance, who is “the One who dwelt all alone in the dark outside the world” who’s writing the story within the story in “Hazuth-Kleg”…?
MYERS: A lot of Dunsany is like that too: long on imagery and short on explanation. The reader must find his own or do without.
THOMPSON: Speaking of mysteries, there is a quote from The Fourth Cryptical Book of Hsan which leads The Country of the Worm, which suggests that there is temptation, as well as horror, in following the Old Ones. The story that most expresses this theme seems to be “The Keeper of the Flame”…
MYERS: I devised the quote for Bob Price for an issue of Crypt of Cthulhu. It was the first thing I wrote for him. I like it a lot, so much so that, when I assembled my “collected works,” I used it as an epigraph for all three volumes to establish a unifying theme. “The Keeper of the Flame” almost certainly grew out of this quote, though it was written eight years after.
THOMPSON: You seem to have taken a long break from writing after the end of The House of the Worm. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What is the other identity of Gary Myers?
MYERS: My title these days is Technical Analyst. I am basically a computer programmer. I find that programming is about as much fun as writing, and it pays a lot better. Don’t quit your day jobs, kids!
THOMPSON: Since you’re a programmer/engineer, I have to ask: do you play video games?
MYERS: No. I have too many seductive siren calls on my time to feel the need for another. Maybe I should, though, if only to show my distain for the present-day children of Dr. Wertham who would declare those games the root of all societal evil, much as they did crime and horror comics back in the days when I was still too young to read them. Would it do any good, I wonder?)
THOMPSON: I, probably like many people in the ’80s, discovered your work because it was mentioned in the Call of Cthulhu supplement H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. Did the authors ask you for permission?
MYERS: They did not ask, but they did not need to. I had already raided Lovecraft and Dunsany for place and character names. How could I object if somebody did the same to me? In any case, it sounds like they did me a favor.
THOMPSON: In the ’90s you began writing Mythos stories set in the modern day, collected in Dark Wisdom. How and why did you end up making the switch? I’ve heard that for a period you repudiated your early Lovecraft-Dunsany stories?
MYERS: The Dark Wisdom stories were all written between 1995 and 2001. I switched over to see if I could do it, and to try to take advantage of a market I saw in the series of Cthulhu Cycle anthologies that Bob Price was then doing for Chaosium. I continued with them because I enjoyed them, and because I wanted to complete the cycle I had planned. Although they are standalone short stories, I actually planned them like a novel, with all of them outlined before most of them were written. To me they feel less like a break from my Dreamlands stories than an extension of them. They are plotted very similarly, I think, and set, many of them, against similar dark city backgrounds.
This much is certain. My repudiation of my early Dunsanian stories had nothing to do with the switch. I had been perfectly happy to continue writing Dunsanian stories for the preceding twenty years. My repudiation was limited to the stories in The House of the Worm, and it was not so much the stories I repudiated, as the fearful way I had botched their presentation. The book was written by a teenager, and it was published, as far as I can tell, at a time when Arkham House was between editors. I sent them a very sloppy book, and they did very little to correct it. I began to see its flaws from the moment I saw it in print, and they only grew more glaring with every passing year. But now that I have brought out the corrected edition I am much happier with it. I even begin to see some of the virtues that others have claimed for it.
MYERS: Bob’s importance to this project cannot be overstated. He suggested the theme for “Understudy,” the first written of these stories. He ran the venues that published some others. Later he suggested that I might do a book. His interest kept up my enthusiasm for the project, much as August Derleth’s had done for my first book thirty years before. And when the book was finished, he wrote me a very nice introduction for it and placed it with the house that published it. The one thing he did not do was edit it. That was a fiction devised by the publisher to try to whip up sales. He had our permission of course. But it occurs to me now that an “Introduction by” credit would have worked just as well.
THOMPSON: Each of your modern Mythos stories is written around a different Cthulhu Mythos god or creature. Which is your favorite and why?
MYERS: I would have to say Nyarlathotep. I have dropped the name of Azathoth more, as the perfect embodiment of an uncaring and incomprehensible universe; but Azathoth is too big have a story. Nyarlathotep has almost too many. He is presented as a man, a magician, a prophet of the gods and a god himself. His roots are in an exotic and mythic past, and his future reappearance will herald the destruction of the world. His parallel to Christ is very close, almost too close to have been conceived by a man like Lovecraft with no interest in religion. Yet he came to him fully formed in a dream. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
THOMPSON: Your modern Mythos stories seem, in some cases, to have more humor than your early stories.
MYERS: I was trying for a variety of voices and tones. Humor was another way to differentiate. But I like to think all my stories are humorous, if only as nasty and brutal practical jokes.
THOMPSON: Reading your work, I feel like you have three different styles: your early Dreamlands style as seen in The Country of the Worm, your modern Mythos style as seen in Dark Wisdom, and the style you use in “The City of the Dead” (in The Country of the Worm) and Gray Magic, which is less naturalistic than Dark Wisdom but different from your early Dreamlands style. What was the story behind your development of these different styles?
MYERS: I did not develop the Dreamlands style. I simply got it stuck in my head through my transcription of Dunsany. In some ways it is still my most natural style, the style I have to cut and burn to arrive at something a sane person would write. The modern Mythos style represents my idea of what is suitable to modern characters in modern settings. The Eibon style is a bit more self-conscious. It is my attempt to convey a flavor of Clark Ashton Smith without the full weight of his vocabulary and construction. I think of it as Smith Light.
THOMPSON: Unless I’m mistaken, “The City of the Dead” is your only published story without any Mythos elements. What inspired it?
MYERS: I wish I knew. I do know that it is the story I cared most about for the longest time. It is really quite an early story, conceived in the middle ’70s, though mostly written in the middle ’80s and finished a long time after. It was my first attempt at a long story, and my first attempt to break away from the Lovecraftian/ Dunsanian mode and do something on my own. It was also my principal proving ground for new styles and techniques. My modern Mythos tales, my Eibon tales and even my later Dreamlands tales might not have been possible without it. With all that care and effort, you might expect a better story. But you can’t have everything.
THOMPSON: You’re obviously a huge fan of Clark Ashton Smith. What led you to write stories about the sorcerer Eibon?
MYERS: I am indeed a huge Smith fan, of his stories and poems both. I once had the whole of “The Hashish-Eater” committed to memory, though I have lost most of it since; and I can still recite “Nero” or “Satan Unrepentant” if forced to it at gunpoint. As for how I came to write about Eibon, it was at the Providence NecronomiCon in 2001. Bob Price, Joe Pulver, Jenn and I were sharing a pizza in an Italian eatery, when talk turned to Bob’s anthology The Book of Eibon which was then stuck in the publisher’s pipeline. Suddenly Joe was struck by the thought that I should contribute to this anthology. Bob as quickly agreed. Only I was hesitant. “I couldn’t kill Eibon,” I began, thinking of my penchant for killing off my protagonists. But Joe would hear none of it. “Why couldn’t he kill Eibon?” he challenged the table, and the seed of “The End of Wisdom” was sown. Of course, by the time the seed came to fruition, the anthology had begun to move again and it was too late to change the contents. But Bob used the story a few years later in a revival of Strange Tales.
THOMPSON: The Eibon that appears in “The End of Wisdom” seems like a different, darker character than the more heroic Eibon who appears in Gray Magic.
MYERS: That was to meet what I saw as the differing needs of the stories. In a long progression of monsters and villains, somebody has to be the hero. It was also influenced by my choice of narrator. Eibon himself narrates the short stories, but for the novel I needed someone different. Someone to act as a stand-in for the reader, to learn things as the reader learns them and respond to them as the reader responds. Someone to play Dr. Watson to Eibon’s Sherlock Holmes. I found him in Eibon’s apprentice Cyron. This Cyron is presumed to be the same who, Lin Carter tells us, compiled and completed the Book of Eibon after his master’s passing; but his background here is rather different. He would be inclined to view Eibon in a more positive light than Eibon might view himself.
MYERS: Measured against the mainstream of fantasy today, I would define myself as more of a horror fan/writer. Measured against the mainstream of horror today, I would define myself as more of a fantasy fan/writer. But I am definitely a fan first and a writer second.
THOMPSON: Why do you write? What do you get out of it, and what do you hope your readers get out of it?
MYERS: My reason for writing fiction has changed greatly over the years. I would say I began from a sense of need, the need to align myself with something I valued in the hope that some of its value would rub off onto me. It was not unlike the dream of being a sports hero or a rock star, though maybe a shade less realistic since, let’s face it, the world is not that interested in Lovecraft and Dunsany. Later I wrote more for the joy of making something that I hoped would be beautiful and durable, as a woodworker might make a stool. As for what I hope the reader gets out of it, I have not given that a lot of thought. But I have had editors I wished to please—August Derleth, Lin Carter, Robert M. Price—and to the extent that I pleased them I judged my work worthwhile. So I hope that I can please my other readers too. And that I can remind them a little of the pleasure they took in the great Originals who brought us together in the first place.
THOMPSON: What story or book would you say you’re most proud of? Out of all your works, what would you first show to unfamiliar readers?
MYERS: I would offer up one of two stories, both in the Dunsanian mode: “The Keeper of the Flame” or “Dusk.”
THOMPSON: As a final question, what are you working on now? Is there a new book or new stories we can look forward to?
MYERS: I am not hopeful. In fact I assembled my “collected works” largely to ink a big black period at the end of that part of my life. Still, never say never. I might get bored and take it up again. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Interview by Jason Thompson.