“Showdown at Red Hook” (2011) by Lois H. Gresh

In my Mythos tales, I like to push Lovecraftian science and themes in new directions. So, for example, while HPL incorporated the astronomy and physics ideas of his day (eg, cosmos within cosmos and other dimensions), I speculate about modern science: quantum optics, particle physics, chaos theory, string theory, and so forth. While HPL showcased his creatures against a backdrop of bleak humanity—I pit my own types of creatures against the horrors of the Mythos, and I want my creatures to fight back. Examples of these stories are Mandelbrot Moldrot, Where I go Mi-Go, Showdown at Red Hook, and Scourge of the Old Ones.
—Lois H. Gresh, “Underlying Darkness” in Eldritch Evolutions 9

There are no rules for the Cthulhu Mythos, only conventions. While some writers are content to play within the limits of the setting as conceived by Lovecraft and his contemporaries, the spectrum of Mythos fiction is much broader—and entire anthologies have been written exploring the Mythos in the changing context of different periods, different genres than just the 1920s and 30s. Sometimes this is simply a change of setting: the story retains all the elements of the Mythos, only in a different place and period, such as Victorian London in “Magna Mater” (2015) by Arinn Dembo and “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer…and sometimes, you get something much stranger.

“Showdown at Red Hook” is a remix, a transposition of certain Lovecraftian names and characters to a weird western milieu. The heaviest source is Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook,” which provides the name of the protagonist, lawman Tom Malone, the name of the setting—the dead village of Red Hook—and the name of the terrible tribe which serves as the antagonists, the Chepachet; their strange chant is lifted from the bits of incantation that Lovecraft himself took from that most eldritch of tomes, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and included in his story for a touch of real occultism. Gresh includes it here as a laughing nod toward Lovecraftian convention, but a convention juxtaposed against an entirely inappropriate and nonsensical setting.

Similarly, while “Chepachet” is a real Native American word, used for a street in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn and a town in Rhode Island, it was never the name of an actual people. It is entirely a comedic wink-and-nod to readers for her false Native American tribe to chant “Hel sother sabaoth tetragramaton ischyros va adonai messias escherheye!“, echoing the cultists in Lovecraft’s tale, just as it is a joke to name Malone’s not-quite-so-trusty deputy “Al Blackwood”—knowing that readers will be familiar with weird story writer Algernon Blackwood, one of Lovecraft’s favorite authors. It’s all in fun, and in keeping with the Mythos tradition.

Yet there is a frisson. The story is a weird western, not a straight western tale or a straight Mythos tale but something uniquely its own, and the tropes of the two contrast and blend oddly. It’s a setting and a story told in broad strokes and little details, with important chunks of the plot and action lost or glossed over in moments of almost psychedelic imagery. It’s a story readers absorb first and unweave later. Yet start pulling at the threads, and there are some strange things in the warp and weft of the story.

The Chepachet, for example, are more alien than any Native American people that frontier settlers ever encountered; yet they fill the place and are addressed in the story as stereotypical Native Americans in frontier horror tales, despite their many tentacles and bizarre undead horses. They are literally inhuman, but are lumped together with the native human peoples of the Americas. The Chepachet represent the conjunction or mishmash of two entirely separate conceptions of the Other. The joke, of course, is that many frontier horror stories deny the basic humanity of Native Americans anyway: it is hard to distinguish between simple prejudice and true alienation.

There is one one, or maybe two, women in “Showdown at Red Hook.” The first is Mae Curwin, whose safe delivery is the nominal point of Malone and Blackwood’s trip through Red Hook. The second, who only appears at the very end, is Malone’s mother, stolen by the Chepachet when he was a boy—echoes of frontier horrors, the kind that Robert E. Howard used to regale Lovecraft with in his letters, when the Native Americans were painted as real-life boogeymen that stole horses and women; killed, kidnapped, and raped…except the Chepachet are not real Native Americans; they are inhuman horrors, and when their chief Dagon says “I want that squaw” he implies something worse than Malone imagined may have happened to his mother. Yet Dagon’s specific delivery of why he wants Curwin is comical: “Virgin, 18, blonde: good squaw for the Old Ones”—an echo of Sandra Dee’s role in The Dunwich Horror (1970).

Mae Curwin’s role as a literal sex object is underscored at several points in the narrative; in western fiction white women are sometimes treated as the currency of transactions and the prize to be fought over and claimed by the victor—and Gresh plays this both seriously and for laughs. The trope is never exactly subverted, but neither is it explicitly fulfilled: Malone is a lusty, red-blooded man, but fights to overcome his basic instincts as he knows manly heroes should, playing into the gender role assigned to him; the Chepachet are not rapacious Native Americans in the sense of sexual assault, for while they are all male they are all essentially sexless, with no women or children evident at their encampment. Curwin is the living MacGuffin of the story, but not for the usual western reasons, but for a Lovecraftian one: as a suitable sacrifice, just as in “The Horror at Red Hook.”

Tom Malone, like his namesake in Lovecraft’s story, sees and experiences terrible things, and is a character caught very explicitly between being the masculine, action-oriented western hero and the more reluctant, passive Lovecraftian protagonist…and all, apparently, according to plan:

[Dagon] had played on Malone’s need to be the manly one, the hero. […] And now, what could Malone possibly do?

While the plot centers on Dagon’s effort to secure Mae Curwin as a squaw for the Old Ones, the way he accomplishes that is to manipulate Malone to bring her to him…and Dagon wants it to be Malone, because he wants Malone to trade Mae for his mother. This is the real point of transition for Malone, from the western hero to the Lovecraftian protagonist. Like Lovecraft’s Malone, Gresh’s Malone ends up unable prevent the young woman’s sacrifice.

Given how blithely and purposefully (one might say gleefully) Gresh blends up the tropes and references of both Lovecraftian horror and frontier horror, the story as a whole can be taken as an extended farce, not meant to be taken too seriously. She plays on the juxtaposition of tropes, and the points where they conjoin: the alien Other, the female sacrifice, the male protagonist. The result is definitely outside of the regular run of Cthulhu Mythos tales, but as a mashup addresses several of the themes of gender and Otherness in the two genres in ways that many Lovecraftian weird western tales don’t.

Lois H. Gresh is a New York Times bestselling author. “”Showdown at Red Hook” was first published in her collection Eldritch Evolutions (2011), part of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu Fiction line, and was reprinted in Cult of the Dead and Other Weird and Lovecraftian Tales (2015, Hippocampus Press). In addition to her many short stories of the Mythos, Gresh edited the anthology Innsmouth Nightmares (2015) and wrote the novel Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Deadly Dimensions (2017) and its sequel Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Neural Psychoses (2018).

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