Ajan Somnung had sternly encouraged us not to look too closely for some secrets, but to turn our eyes to the lessons of the Buddha. The search for Nirvana should supersede any attachments ot this illusory world and all its perilous entanglements. He had taught us that death was impermanent, a great dreaming slumber, and one day, we could break free of our eternal returns because, after a time, even death would die.
—Bryan Thao Worra, “What Hides and What Returns” in Historical Lovecraft 227
Lovecraft did not create the unseen, the indescribable, the unnameable, the ineffable, the invisible monster or threat. Before him there was Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” (1907), Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing” (1893), Guy de Maupassant’s “Le Horla” (1887). Maupassant was alive during France’s imperial drive into Southeast Asia, although he did not quite live to see the establishment of the French Protectorate of Laos at the end of the Franco-Siamese War of 1893. It is in Laos under the French where and when Bryan Thao Worra has set “What Hides and What Returns.”
It is important to remember that weird fiction was never created in a vacuum, that the people who wrote these stories lived in a busy, complex, and changing world. Where many writers found horror in distant and exotic places, such as “The Lair of the Star-Spawn” (1932) by August Derleth and Mark Schorer, Lovecraft found just as much potential for terror and antiquity in his proverbial backyard; Lovecraft Country as it was originally conceived was about finding the darkness close at hand, both geographically and chronologically, in stories set not in some far-off place and time.
This can hold true, of course, for people that are in places which Lovecraft would have felt wild & exotic as well. For the Lao, their country was no more strange and exotic for them than Massachusetts and Rhode Island were to Lovecraft. And for Worra, that means there is just as much potential there to find horror in their own backyard.
It is interesting to compare and contrast this story with “Dreams of a Thousand Young” (2014) by Jennifer Brozek; both are Mythos stories set in European “protectorates” in Asia, the imperialist intrusion of the British and French setting up the well-trodden trope of ignorant Westerners sticking their greedy noses into dark places. Where they differ is in approach and presentation; Worra’s protagonist Saeng is philosophical, ungreedy, clever enough to put a few pieces of the puzzle together and wise enough to let sleeping gods lie, so to speak, and in “What Hides and What Returns” Laos itself becomes a character, with much of the story given over to describing the environment, the peoples, the interaction of history and the present—and it is not dark and forbidding, except through the eyes of European characters.
Well, except for one part. Worra has made of Laos a bit of Lovecraft Country.
There is a curious question, posed and answered to the reader, which sets the tone of the story and perhaps the Mythos:
Some would say it was an inappropriate gathering, but if you learn from it, how can it be wrong? Our worlds are not some fragile bits of glass that shatter at the encounter with the Other. Our ability to inquite surely defines our humanity; it sets us above hounds and mere rutting beasts of the field, all jaw and genital.
—Bryan Thao Worra, “What Hides and What Returns” in Historical Lovecraft 228
This might be taken as a gentle rebuke of Lovecraft’s opening to “The Call of Cthulhu”:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. 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.
But Saeng’s statement is given near the beginning of the story, before the end—where all is not quite revealed—and while Saeng never quite rebuts himself, he does end by noting that: “[…] some things were meant to stay forgotten….” (236). It is a fine point, but one which many Mythos enthusiasts will appreciate: the naive young Lao did not conceive of such a horror, only experience of encountering such a thing could bring them around to a Lovecraftian point of view.
Like “Red Goat, Black Goat” (2010) by Nadia Bulkin, Worra manages to evoke the Mythos without falling into the habit of naming familiar names. There is no Necronomicon in this story (although Worra creates his own addition, an occult variant of the Thao Cheuang), no Cthulhu or other familiar Mythos entity. It is instead unseen Sealed Evil In A Can, and if the trope is hoary and well-represented in Mythos fiction, it’s because it works.
The point is less that some Lovecraftian horror waits to be unleashed, but that the Lovecraftian experience is ultimately universal. It can be set anywhere or anywhen; it is not relegated to Massachusetts in the 1920s, it can be experienced regardless of race, gender, or religion.
“What Hides and What Returns” by Bryan Thao Worra was first published in Historical Lovecraft (2011); it has not since been republished. While Worra has written other fiction, he is also a very notable poet, whose Lovecraftian works include “The Deep Ones” (2007), “Fragment of a Dream of Atlantean Yellows” (2013), “Dead End in December” (2013), “Laonomicon” (2013), “The Doom That Came To New Sarnath” (2013), and “The Pearl in the Shadows” (2016), many of which can be found in his Demonstra (2013).
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).