Galileo and Derleth and Chen sought forbidden knowledge, too. That got us this far.
—Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” in Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror 238
“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” differs from its sister-stories “Boojum” and “Mongoose” in several important ways. All three stories take place in the same space opera setting, and they are interconnected by the elements of Bear & Monette’s mythos—boojums, cheshires, toves, bandersnatch, Arkhamers—but their narratives are largely independent of one another. The setting is the same, but not the cast of characters, or the plot, or the approach.
“Boojum” is essentially a sea story, of the kind that went out of style as wooden, wind-powered clipper ships disappeared at the end of the 19th century to steam and coal, a pirate tale in an exotic setting. “Mongoose” is inspired by Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” the literary DNA recombinated into something a little stranger, but it is still very much a set-piece story of a distant outpost under threat. “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” is a story of a plague ship—and a kind of inversion of H. P. Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West—Reanimator,”
Dr. Cynthia Feuerwerker is the complement to Dr. Herbert West: a medical doctor who dabbled in forbidden research and paid the price for it. Where West is callous in his pursuit of knowledge, Feuerwerker is first and foremost an attentive physician. Her intellectual intelligence is balanced by emotional intelligence, her keen scientific curiosity reined in by a moral imperative. Personal concerns outweighed by certainty of ethical responsibilities, echoed by the repeated phrase “that’s how you get war crimes.”
Sometimes, the right thing to do is disobey orders.
So instead of a story about a nameless protagonist that aids and abets a reanimator, Bear & Monette wrote a story about a doctor calling out the reanimator and tell them why they were wrong.
Haven’t you ever heard of what happened to the Lavinia Whateley?
—”The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” 255
In deliberately borrowing from one of Lovecraft’s stories to essentially have a zombie-story set on a dead ship in space during a nominal salvage run, Bear & Monette also take the opportunity to peel back the onionskin on their setting a little more. Readers learn about the Arkhamers, with their arcane academic society and naming conventions, a further peek at one of the more discriminated groups in the boojumverse. They also run into names not taken from Cthulhu Mythos fiction, but from the real-life people that wrote and published those stories: Wandrei, Derleth, and Caitlín R. Kiernan.
This brand of meta-awareness, of mixing fictional creation and real-world persons in the same name-dropping fashion, is old hat in the Mythos. Lovecraft included references to Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith in his stories; August Derleth included references to Lovecraft and his stories alongside the Necronomicon and other Mythos tomes. The boundary between fact and fiction was blurred a little, and that’s part of the point of doing these self-referential name drops—to push the hoax a little in the direction that maybe Lovecraft & co. were really onto something, that maybe what they wrote about does exist—a premise for works as different as Robert Bloch’s novel Strange Eons (1978) and Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows graphic novel Providence (2015-2017).
“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” is doing something a little different, though. The question asked in “Boojum” is: what does Lavinia Whateley mean in the context of this setting, that they would name a ship after her? In “Mongoose,” why are so many of the stations of similar names drawn from the Cthulhu Mythos? By ranking Derleth next to Galileo, the suggestion is that this is the future of a setting where some aspect of the Mythos was real, and was revealed by Lovecraft’s posthumous publishers. It is an evolution of Richard Lupoff’s approach in “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone”, with a greater eye to the process of discovery and acclimatization.
The boojumverse is not Cthulhupunk, it is the step beyond that. A setting where the alien horrors of the Mythos are, if not exactly normalized, something humanity has adapted itself to. The success of Bear & Monette is not just in writing three great stories, but in looking a little further than other writers into what the exposure of the Mythos might mean if it did not immediately destroy humanity. In Moore’s script for Providence, he suggests that the Lovecraftian scholars might become Lovecraftian scientists—and the boojumverse is a setting where that might well have happened.
We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”
Maybe that’s the worst part of human nature. Nothing ever stops us. Not for long.
—”The Case of the Charles Dexter Ward” 272
Cynthia Feuerwerker has voyaged farther than Lovecraft ever foresaw, when he wrote of Herbert West’s nominally laudable scientific inquiry and desire to achieve the medical goal of defeating death perverted and degenerated by “a soul calloused and seared.” West was willing to kill for his researches; Feuerwerker was not. Bear & Monette’s moral, if there is one, is less than comforting: someone will try again. This was not the first reanimator, nor will it be the last. Human curiosity often outstrips its ability to foresee the implications and ramifications of what it does and what it creates.
“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” was first published as an audiobook on the Drabblecast (2012). It was reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection and The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 26 (both 2013), New Cthulhu 2: More Recent Weird (2015), Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (2016), and Chiral Mad 4: An Anthology of Collaborations (2018).
It is the third of Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s collaborations, preceded by “Boojum” and “Mongoose”.
Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)