BEAR SAYS: My introduction to Lovecraft came, strangely enough, through the non-Mythos story “Cool Air,” which remains my favorite. I feel moved to explore his work in part because it’s such an uncomfortable blend of the unsettling and the problematic. I feel moved to question the boundaries of Lovecraft’s (often uncomfortably racist and misogynist) biological determinism, and find that his own metaphors of alienation and internalized inhumanity make an excellent tool for doing so.
MONETTE SAYS: I found Lovecraft in graduate school and feel instantly in love, not only with his darkly elaborate cosmology, hi ghouls and shoggoths and Elder Gods, but also with his own love affair with the English language. And somehow, for Lovecraft and for me, the two things to together: the words and the monsters, the monsters and the words.
—Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, Lovecraft Unbound 372-373
Deeper down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass, the readers are drawn back to the setting of “Boojum.” In Bear & Monette’s second collaboration, both of their authorial voices blend and find expression, and the setting is fleshed out. Now in addition to boojums, gillies, and Mi-GO we have cheshires, toves, raths, bandersnatch—and Christians, Arkhamers, and political officers. The human monsters may not be quite as scary as the aliens phasing in from some other dimension, but that’s only because the reader is more likely to be familiar with them.
“Words and monsters”—”boojum” was the name of a nonsense creature from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (An Agony in 8 Fits) (1876); “toves,” “raths,” and “bandersnatch” are taken from Jabberwocky (1871); “cheshire” from the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The first four are nonsense words—the mind has no reference for what they look like, because they are not based on anything in human experience, so the reader is forced to use their own imagination—a neat trick which works better in a Lovecraftian context than simply making the alien entities unnameable and indescribable.
“Cheshire” however has a more specific context: the cat that slowly disappears, except for their smile, fading in and out of existence. In the lived-in, blue collar setting of “Boojum,” the cheshires and their handlers have to work for a living—and that’s where the story starts, on Kadath Station, as Israel Irizarry and Mongoose come to deal with an infestation of toves…and all the complications to what is otherwise a relatively straightforward pest removal story set in a space station.
The complications to the plot demand context, some of which we’re given, some of which is left hinted at but unsaid; meat for the reader’s imagination and future developments. Nothing from “Boojum” is discarded, but some of it is given more shape: multiple space stations with familiar names (Providence, Kadath, Leng, Dunwich, Arkham), some sort of Earth-Moon alliance that has commissar-esque political officers running in parallel authority with the stationmaster apparatchiks and bureaucrats. Boojum movements causing rents in space where creatures from an alien food chain can slip through, proliferate, and the tears widen, letting bigger things in…there’s a rationale to the indescribable things that phase in and out of this dimension with the nonsense names. A biological determinism in the food chain established.
Human prejudice has its place too, although the details are scant. The Christians are weird, heavily modified, barely glimpsed, but obviously an unfamiliar and discriminated-against minority; the same applies to the Gillies and the Arkhamers. This is not the Star Trek future of clean ships and racial harmony; there are biases and politics, hints of extremist cults and unsettling human-alien interaction. Somehow, that makes it more believable. Imperfect futures are dynamic, creative; there are places to go…and oh, the places Mongoose and Irizarry will go in this story, on their own quest in Kadath, where the reality grows thin and the toves and raths swarm…
As with “Boojum,” the focus of “Mongoose” is on the relationship between a human and an alien. The relationship alienates the human partner from other humans, and yet at the same time is what makes them unique and special. It is a literal case of alienation by dint of an intimate relationship with an extraterrestrial—and a positive, respectful one. Irizarry is conscientious of his partner’s health and well-being, worried for her safety, her likes and dislikes; they communicate frequently. It is the kind of ultra-personal interaction which is the antithesis of many Lovecraftian stories. The alien never stops being “alien,” but humans—at least some of them—learn to adapt and interact with them. But there is, as the culminating revelation of the story shows, always more to learn.
The Mythos takes a stronger place on stage in “Mongoose” compared to “Boojum,” although casual readers won’t miss much if they haven’t read Frank Belknap Long’s “The Hounds of Tindalos” (1929). Bear & Monette re-imagine and re-invent Mythos concepts, rather than simply regurgitate old familiar names. They work actively to build on the setting hinted at in the first story, but the two remain standalone, complementary: you don’t need to have read “Boojum,” but they don’t explain boojums in “Mongoose.” This is an aggregate mythology, and the sum is greater than the parts—but the readers can enjoy the parts independently. Which is good, because they haven’t been collected yet.
“Mongoose” first appeared in Lovecraft Unbound (2009), and was subsequently reprinted in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Four, The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection, The Mammoth Book of Best New Science Fiction: 23rd Annual Collection, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2010 (all 2010), New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (2011), Clarkesworld Magazine #81 (Jun 2013), and In Space No One can Hear You Scream (2013). It was adapted to audiobook by the Drabblecast in 2010. It is the second of Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette have collaborations, preceded by “Boojum” and followed by “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” (2012).
Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)