Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks” (1974) is interesting, not because the story itself is particularly good – it’s actually a rather weak take on some very familiar Cthulhu Mythos themes – but because, for the most part, it deals with something of a background on the original “Weird Tales circle” (heavily fictionalized obviously) and casts some obvious clones of Lovecraft and Wright in a story that would have been much more interesting were the men themselves actually written as themselves.
Confused yet? Sorry.
Basically the story features some characters who are obvious takes on Lovecraft and Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright (as well as a third, main character based on no one in particular) and throws them into a plot straight out of the Mythos. That’s the interesting part. The rest is, well, “Sticks” itself.
Wagner’s actual story deals with an artist stumbling upon some strange stick structures in the woods one day. He follows the odd symbols to a crumbling old house, enters, descends to the cellar and is attacked by a skeletal thing that should be long dead but has an iron grip. He escapes and pushes that horror to the back of his mind as he is shipped off to fight the Nazis.
Upon returning he has changed, though the truth is he changed long before setting foot in Europe. Lapsing into something of a hermit lifestyle the artist is eventually contacted by an old friend from the pulps who commissions him to do some illustrations for a famous pulp author (a take on Lovecraft). Of course he incorporates the imagery of the sticks into his artwork and all hell breaks loose as a cult arises that is very much real and seeking to raise the Great Old Ones.
Wagner never explicitly mentions the Lovecraft Mythology – or any of the places, gods, or creatures associated with them – but rather hints at the idea and creates some of his own (which, like the story itself, come off as poor imitations of Lovecraft). Even with this though the story is very obviously part of the Mythos – even if it doesn’t want you to know it is.
So how exactly does one recommend a story such as this that, while well written and a little on the spooky side, does so much wrong? Wagner’s writing has never been my favourite (though I’ll admit to not having read a lot of his stuff) and his decision to beat around the Mythos bush comes off as a little disrespectful and off-putting, but I’d still have to recommend “Sticks” for its use of a shadow Lovecraft and Wright and his very Chambers-esque (as in Robert W.) way of writing insanity. The idea of the cult itself is also somewhat interesting and I also liked his somewhat rural take on cosmic horror (wherever did that idea come from…).
Hardly the classic many weird fans seem to think it is, but worth a look for those interested in another take on the Mythos featuring Lovecraft himself (or the next best thing) and a rare appearance by the editor.