Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”
Some of the best stories are those that leave a great deal unsaid and unseen, letting the reader fill in the gaps on their own. A few critics have called this a weakness when it comes to horror stories—the inability of the writer to describe things, or a crutch to avoid giving description. Yet not every story needs for every mystery to be explained, and there are narratives where the very inexplicableness of events is part of the point. Something Penelope Love captures very well.
A new road is going through Ramsey Campbell’s Severn Valley, to cut through an ancient earthwork known as Morley’s Mound. Rescue archaeologists have arrived to excavate, to see what they can salvage before the bulldozers and concrete mixers come. A pleasant, tight-knit group let by the shy Andrew, who is on the dig with his wife Carol and their newborn Diane. Josephine has come to write up the dig for a local paper. The cozy domesticity is only interrupted by the fact that the site had been disturbed by a self-styled antiquarian in the last century—the eponymous Morley—who had tunneled into the mound and left something behind. A quasi-Grecian mask of Byatis.
The disappearance of Carol and baby Diane is inexplicable. The center of the narrative cannot hold, the long paragraphs fall apart into patchy staccato snippets of the investigation. All the set-up for a murder mystery, suspicion falling on each in turn, to be as quickly dismissed. Mum and child are gone. Some people just vanish, and it is left for those left behind to try and make peace with it—even if there is no sense to make of it.
The pain of not knowing is a very adult fear.
There is no Mythos horror in the conventional sense in this story; it is much more personal. As with “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens, the Mythos is the catalyst to bring cosmic horror to a more personal level. It is one thing to know, intellectually, that all things will die; it is something else again to have it actually happen, especially without any apparent reason. If Love had left it at that, it would have been a competent enough piece of fiction, though critics could point out that nothing much happens and it would appear to be only tangentially connected to the Mythos.
However, “Unseen” is bookended with an opening statement from Lovecraft, which supplies the title but apparently nothing else…until the very end. As the bulldozers rend the barrow open, and the final mystery is discharged. It isn’t an answer, not really, but it is a conclusion. A piece of a puzzle that will never be completed, but enough edge pieces are in place to guess at the shape of the thing—and that is enough. It is quintessentially Lovecraftian, in the sense that Love takes one of Lovecraft’s ideas and runs with it, and shows the reader what it is like when something intersects the normal human life from outside, and upsets all previously held notions of space and time.
“Unseen” was published in Made in Goatswood (1995), and has never been reprinted. Penelope Love has written a substantial amount of Mythos material, much of it for the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, where her credits include The Horror on the Orient Express and Terror Australis. Her Mythos fiction includes “The Whisper of Ancient Secrets” (2010), “Daddy, Daddy” (2014), and “Turn Out The Light” (2015).
Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)