An Interview with Richard L. Tierney

by Robert M. Price

copyright 1984 by Robert M. Price
reprinted by permission of Robert M. Price

Crypt: Dick, anyone who is acquainted with Lovecraft scholarship or has read any of your fiction or poetry, will know you are a fan of H. P. Lovecraft. How did you first happen upon the Old Gent?

Tierney: With me it was "The Shadow out of Time" in Wollheim's Viking Portable Novels of Science. I was fifteen and had been into science fiction heavily for some three years but my reaction was, "Oh, no, this is too much!" But HPL took root and eventually "Shadow" and Mountains of Madness became my two favorites. Later, while feverishly searching out any and every HPL story I could, I realized I'd already read two of them at age eleven --- "Rats in the Walls" and "Dunwich Horror" in the great Wise & Frazer anthology. At the time I'd been disappointed because there were no conventional ghosts in the stories, and I hadn't even noted the author's name. I wasn't ready; I needed a second chance. Luckily I got it.

Crypt: Have you ever tried your hand at any Cthulhu Mythos fiction?

Tierney: I've never done a purely Mythos piece, though most of my stuff contains Mythos references and tie-ins; even so, for the most part I've felt obliged to change some names slightly --- "Primal Gods" for "Elder Gods", for instance, or "Shupnikkurat" as a Mesopotamian-sounding substitute for "Shub-Niggurath". There is an old 10,000-worder I did called "The Howler in the Dark" --- it's a gothic creepy-castle piece set in Scotland. It mentions Azathoth and the Necronomicon, and quotes from the same.

Crypt: Probably your greatest contribution to Lovecraft research, and actually one of the most pivotal contributions anyone has made to the better understanding of the Mythos, is your brief essay "The Derleth Mythos". In it you clearly separate the ideas of Lovecraft from the later elaborations of August Derleth. How would you sum up the difference between the two versions of the Mythos?

Tierney: Derleth's outlook on the universe seems trite compared to Lovecraft's. The two outlooks could be somewhat harmonized by remembering that Derleth's is probably that which most humans would take when confronted with the realization that monstrous beings exist, whereas Lovecraft's later tales come close to explaining those beings' actual nature. I've never found anything in HPL's stories or letters to indicate that he intended to convey a "good vs. evil" cosmic outlook. To humans, "evil" is what hurts and "good" is what feels good, and my impression is that HPL granted no ultimate significance to this; Godzilla and Cthulhu are "good" or "evil" in human eyes according to whether they are bailing us out or gobbling us up. Derleth often quoted a letter to justify his non-Lovecraftian stance, and maybe that letter does exist somewhere in the cobwebbed vaults of the Wisconsin Historical Society, but so far no one but Derleth seems to have seen it.

Actually I've enjoyed the Derleth efforts very much, even if they are irritatingly sloppy at times (e.g., "Something in Wood", in which the protagonist immediately sounds out alien, prehuman hieroglyphs as if they were in a familiar alphabet!). Whenever I've hauled the Mythos into a story I've retained most of the Derlethian additions and premises. Of course, I do think some of Derleth's Mythos tales were definitely unaesthetic. In fact, they may be the worst things he ever wrote. He was very good when it came to haunted houses and spooky rustic settings, and some of his traditional ghost stories are excellent. But he never caught the poetry, the reverberating cosmic thunder sensed afar off, that Lovecraft did, and his attempts at it flopped dismally. When in "The Return of Hastur" an Elder God swoops down to hurl Hastur back to the Hyades, it reminds me of nothing so much as Popeye socking the giant octopus into the wide blue yonder.

Crypt: How do you account for a writer of Derleth's talent producing stories like that?

Tierney: He himself had no high opinion of them. As he once explained it to me, he felt he was writing these stories for an audience of half-wits, namely the Weird Tales readership, and therefore took no pains with them. I believe he was sincere --- his HPL "pastiches" testify to it. He made so many really gross errors of fact (like confusing the Pleiades with the Hyades, R'lyeh with the island of the Deep Ones "off Ponape", etc.) that I think he really was writing those stories in a hurry. I'm currently re-reading The Trail of Cthulhu for the first time in many years, and the stories are as bad as I remember. Dr. Shrewsbury comes off sounding like a pompous and brain-damaged Sherlock Holmes. Evidently Derleth had no knack for imitating Lovecraft to start with (save for some of the rural natural settings) and tried on top of that to dash off his Lovecraftians at the same speed as the tales he was good at. Lovecraft himself composed his tales very painstakingly, and then was never quite satisfied with the results. Considering all that, Derleth's "pastiches" are about what we'd expect.

Crypt: Though so far we've been quizzing you on matters Lovecraftian, most readers will be well aware of several other projects of yours, such as the "Red Sonja" series of novels, coauthored with David C. Smith for Ace Books. Any clues as to just how much of each Red Sonja book is Tierney's and how much is Smith's?

Tierney: No one could ever unravel Dave's work from mine. We'd toss ideas back and forth and come up with a basic plot. Then Dave would rattle off a first draft as fast as he could. I'd revise this to suit myself, often rewriting extensive sections, sometimes changing the plot line altogether. The time involved worked out surprisingly close to 50/50, Dave and I spending about two months apiece per novel.

The final product was my responsibility, save for Ace's goofs and tamperings, which are all too frequent. If you've read Sonja #1 you may have noticed certain scuzzy expletives of a twentieth century flavor, e.g., "assholes" on p. 216 and "Get fucked" on p. 217, and maybe others. I'd like to inform you that these were interpolated by the editors at Ace. Dave Smith and I had nothing to do with it. Folks are going to think that Dave and I share Karl Edward Wagner's view that foul twentieth century anachronisms are O.K. in Sword-&-Sorcery fiction. Anyway, I'm glad to say that Sonja #6 is the last. I've enjoyed writing them but I think half a dozen is quite enough.

Crypt: By the way, speaking of co-authorship, you've had the chance to undertake some, as we say in Lovecraftian circles, "posthumous collaborations" with Robert E. Howard, filling out some of his fragmentary manuscripts for publication by Donald M. Grant. I confess I couldn't detect the seam in "The Slave Princess", but something always struck me funny about "The Temple of Abomination", where Cormac Mac Art runs into a bunch of Shoggoths and star-headed Old Ones!

Tierney: In the Zebra edition of Tigers of the Sea, Howard's portion ends in the second paragraph of page 209 with "Cormac smiled fiercely." Mine begins with "For the moment . . ." Thus, as you can see, I'm the one who hauled in all the Mythos elements! As for Howard's "The Slave Princess", it's pretty straightforward: REH wrote the first six chapters;! wrote the last two.

Crypt: Your interest in both Howard and Lovecraft shows through in your fascinating group of "Simon of Gitta" tales wherein you adapt the Gnostic heresiarch Simon Magus as a Sword-&-Sorcery hero.

Tierney: Doing the Simon series required some research into Gnosticism. All these tales combine Gnosticism and other first-century elements with overtones of the Hyborian Age and the Cthulhu Mythos. Incidentally, I originally pictured Simon as he was played by Jack Palance in The Silver Chalice. However, it's been so many years since I've seen that film that my memory has slipped. I think I now visualize Simon as someone about halfway between Jack and the Marvel Comics version of Conan.

Crypt: That's O.K., since Palance looks like he was drawn by John Buscema!