“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” (1990) by Esther M. Friesner

If you had not used Ms. Lovecraft’s text as the basis for our novel, Fires on the Sea would have languished as unknown as its first authoress. What a loss to us all that would have been!
—Esther M. Friesner, “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” in Cthulhu 2000 (1991) 244

The initial premise of “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” is designed to knock the steadfast and serious fan of H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos off their rocker: what if one of H. P. Lovecraft’s manuscripts was being re-written and published as a contemporary romance novel, trashy cover and sex scenes and all? For a writer whom many fans had raised up on a pedestal, both in real life and in fiction, the juxtaposition of tone and genres is designed to raise hackles. Then when the knife is firmly inserted, Esther M. Friesner starts to twist it just enough to tickle the funnybone…

There is a fine line between a reference and an in-joke. Readers intimately familiar with the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft recognize the reference in the title to “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ, and that recognition preps the reader for the story: it helps to establish the world. In-jokes are similar in that they are never explained to the reader; either they get them or they do not. The elaborate riffing on Gnophkehs in “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price is an in-joke, only really comprehensible to someone aware of the fan-scholar debate on the subject. While it contains a lot of clever wordplay and humorous imagery and characterization, “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” is built on Mythos in-jokes, from by-the-way references to various Mythos stories to a groaner of a knock-knock joke from a gang of shoggoths. Yet there is a lot more at work in the story.

“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” blends fiction and reality: set in a contemporary (1990) world of cappucino machines and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), but one where both Lovecraft and his literary creations such as Arkham both coexist. While the former is uncommon, the latter is very typical of a certain type of Mythos fiction. Lovecraft himself would drop references to Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith into stories like “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Call of Cthulhu”; August Derleth would go Lovecraft one better by dropping in references to Lovecraft and the Arkham House collection of his tales next to the Necronomicon. Derleth was not doing this tongue-in-cheek, he was building an idea that Lovecraft had based some of his tales on reality—an idea revisited by later authors such as Robert Bloch in his novel Strange Aeons (1978) and Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence (2015-2017). Where other authors use that as a jumping-off point to reflect on, revisit, or revise Lovecraft’s fiction, Friesner does it to underline the silliness of the premise, to take off the kid gloves and show nothing is off-limits.

If the gloves are off for Lovecraft, Friesner also isn’t worried about bloodying her knuckles against the cut-throat world of book contracts, agents, and editors, and the whole innate silliness of the romance industry. Most of the jokes made are at the expense of Robin Pennyworth, the sole male reader in a female-dominated book publisher. His awareness of his failure to meet up to 1980s expectations of masculine attitude and behavior, reminiscent (if not so focused on homophobia) of “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg, is meat for his domineering boss Marybeth Conran, who is quick with a cutting remark like:

If everything Chuckie Ward tells me is true, she’s led a life of such isolation that when you stumbled into her life, no wonder she mistook you for a man.

Sarah Pickman, the object of Robin’s amour and the co-author of Fires of the Sea, is portrayed far more positively than Conranwhose only goal is to rule her department with an iron fist and bind the writers with the worst possible contracts. In many subtle ways, Friesner plays up her parallels with her supposed ancestor H. P. Lovecraftreclusive nature, thriftiness, and the invitation by a romantic partner to New York City all being obvious homages to Lovecraft’s nature and biography.

So too, Friesner has put some effort into the references to the romance novel itself, alluding to characters and scenes that would be appropriate if Lovecraft himself had written an Innsmouth-based romance novel…which does beg the question of whether or not she was aware of previous efforts in this direction. Robert M. Price, writing as “Sally Theobald” (a play on one of Lovecraft’s pseudonyms) published an eldritch confessional-style yarn titled “I Wore The Brassiere of Doom” (1986); Brian McNaughton, writing as “Sheena Clayton” had written an Innsmouth-based erotic/romance novel titled Tides of Desire (1983). Price, like Friesner, focused on the silliness of the serious and asexual Lovecraft trying his hand at such an unfamiliar genre; McNaughton was aiming less at humor and more at a serious erotic paranormal romance work (although he was a couple decades early for that particular genre). Both ideas have bones: Edward Lee would revisit the idea of Lovecraft maintaining a sideline in erotic fiction with Trolley No. 1852 (2009)while Friesner was playing the idea for laughs, in the long run it looks like there’s at least some market for those kind of materials.

The topicality of the story might make it something less than classic; its references to late-80s American culture are already dated nearly three decades after its original publication, such as the final whopper:

[…] while I looked and looked for mention of a pace-name you use, consulting the Britannica and the geographical listings in the Unabridged, it only shows up a an adjective. It sounds so familiar. I think I may have heard of a Trump resort located there, but correct me if I’m wrong.

Where is Stygia?

This is at least a more subtle insertion of a Trump reference into Lovecraftiana than Trump Vs. Cthulhu: Two Small Hands, One Big Problem (2018), and is actually a very clever final in-joke referencing the works of Robert E. Howard (who, along with Clark Ashton Smith, get nods in the story). Lovecraft had written in a letter:

There is no such name as Stygia … the adjective Stygian being derived from the name Styx—the River of the Dead. Two-Gun Bob misuses the word-root when he speaks of a country called “Stygia”. Indeed, he takes frequent & unwarranted liberties with classical names ( or variants of names) in devising a nomenclature for his prehistoric world. Price & I have laboured with him in vain on that point.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 28 Sep 1935, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 290

This is Friesner showing her homework and giving the knife one last little twist, this time to Robert E. Howard fans, although her subtle references to Red Sonja owe more to the Marvel comic books or the 1985 film than anything Ms. Cromwell (er, Robert E. Howard) ever wrote.

“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” was first published in World Fantasy Convention 1990: An H.P. Lovecraft Centenary Celebration (1990), and reprinted in Friesner’s collection It’s Been Fun (1991), the anthologies Cthulhu 2000 (1995) and Cthulhu and the Coeds, or, Kids & Squids (2000); it has also been translated into French as “L’amour est une indicible purulence” and published in Fées & gestes (1998). Her story “The Shunned Trailer” was published in The Cackle of Cthulhu (2018).

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