“Taste of the Snake’s Honey” (2005) by Rio Matsudono (松殿理央) was published in the second volume in the Lairs of the Hidden Gods series from Kurodahan Press, edited by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健). It is the English-language translation of the 2002 novella 蛇蜜 (Hebi Mitsu); the translator was Erin S. Brodhead.
Sexuality is a fundamental aspect of Yig. In “The Curse of Yig” (1929) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, this nature is implicit: the curse of Yig is that Aubrey Davis bears children with snake-like characteristics. While at least one critic claimed this was a story of maternal impression, the impression usually given was that Yig raped her, presaging to some degree the connection between Yog-Sothoth and Lavinia Whateley in “The Dunwich Horror.” The aspect of Yig as a sexual deity was affirmed in “The Mound” (1940) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft as “the principle of life symbolised as the Father of all Serpents.”
In writing that, Lovecraft might have been inspired by contemporary ideas that ancient serpent deities represented phallic cults, as discussed in O. A. Wall’s Sex and Sex Worship (1922); this was a book that Robert E. Howard owned, and Howard mentioned phallic worship in at least one letter to Lovecraft (A Means to Freedom 1.87). A few later authors have taken the general idea of the Father of Serpents as a masculine deity of virility and run with it; occultists like Kenneth Grant have incorporated Yig into their system as an aspect of masculine sexual power, representing the “Ophidian Current” in his Typhonian Trilogies.
Sex presents certain difficulties for translation; the language of sex is usually either dryly technical (penis, vagina, anus, etc.) or extremely idiomatic or euphemistic (rod, Johnson, 69, French letter, salad tossing, etc.), and sexual slang varies by region, language, culture, and period—compare the language in The Merry Order of St. Bridget (1857) to something like Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy, and it’s easy to see that while it covers some of the same thematic ground, the language and cultural syntax have shifted drastically. Trying to write period-appropriate sexual language is tricky enough, translating it in such a way that it retains the essence of its meaning for an audience doubly so…and that’s before you try to work the Mythos into it.
This is all necessary ground to cover because “Taste of the Snake’s Honey” is one of the relatively scarce Mythos works which contains a great deal of sexual matter, but isn’t really erotic in any significant sense. The best comparable work is probably Robert M. Price’s “A Thousand Young” (1989), which follows a young libertine seeking admission into a Mythos cult through increasingly deviant sexual acts, but both that story and this one are ultimately a more explicit version of the decadent pleasure-seekers in Lovecraft’s “The Hound”—the idea being that libido sciendi, the desire to know, the quest for forbidden knowledge applies equally well to sexual knowledge as it does to, say, advanced mathematics and occultism (cf. “The Dreams in the Witch-House”).
Sometimes this is very explicitly the case, such as in “Under the Keeper of the Key” (2015) by Jaap Boekestein, but in the case of Rio Matsudono, it’s more of a barometer to let readers know that the ambient sexual morality of the tale is falling fast, and as the Lovecraftian protagonist slides from receiving fellatio from women who had had all their teeth removed to necrophilia, the novella is really just getting started.
Which is all on purpose: the acts given are almost dry in their description, which might be a translation issue (see above; imagine trying to write 1930s-period sexual decadence to a 2000s-contemporary Japanese audience, and then imagine trying to translate that into English for a completely different audience) but likely also because the purpose of the acts is not to titillate or tantalize but to transgress, to provoke a degree of rejection and outrage at the breaking of taboos. The actual acts themselves aren’t dwelt on until we get to the literal climax of the story, because the author isn’t trying to get you off, or go into horrorporn territory with microscopic detail a la Edward Lee’s Hardcore Lovecraft novels like Going Monstering.
For “The Taste of the Snake’s Honey,” sex isn’t the revelation, it’s the initiation.
What the reader and the protagonist are initiated into is another question. Rio Matsudono’s novella is a direct expansion on the lore of Yig, and the straightforward lore dumps are maybe at the expense of the story itself. Like with The Queen of K’n-yan (2008) by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健), there’s an effort to at least draw parallels between an aspect of Lovecraft’s Mythos with Chinese folklore…and the parallels work fine; the exposition is a little heavy at points, but that’s pretty common in Lovecraftian pastiches. What the story lacks, aside from a certain prosody, is a direct explanation for what drove the sexual decadence of the protagonist in the first place…unless you understand and appreciate Yig’s role as a fundamentally sexual entity to begin with.
So much of this novella is stated bluntly or outright that some of the subtextual implications and assumptions can be easily lost. The protagonist’s sexual activities aren’t portrayed as mental illness or learned practices; they’re the result of natural inclinations—or, maybe, supernatural ones. Nature winning out over nurture. At the same time those sexual desires and activities appear to have nothing to do with the final resolution of the plot: they led the narrator protagonist to the point of revelation, but aside from plot fiat there was no reason that these specific revelations had to happen in this way. A surface read of this story might suggest that Rio Matsudono wanted to deliberately shock the reader, but the apparent conflict can be resolved by thinking of Yig and his children as driven by inhuman appetites.
He was not wholly evil, and was usually quite well-disposed toward those who gave proper respect to him and his children, the serpents; but in the autumn he became abnormally ravenous, and had to be driven away by means of suitable rites.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop, “The Curse of Yig”
Suppose these appetites are analogous to the strange hankerings of a pregnant woman? Suppose the hungers for strange flesh, and blood, and wild venturings way over the borders of sane sexuality are a reaching out for ultramundane fare, the pickles and ice cream of the alien soul coming to birth within the confines of a human life that is only a womb for that which gestates inside, increasingly making its presence known?
—introduction to “Taste of the Snake’s Honey” in Inverted Kingdom 113-114
The introduction to “The Taste of Snake’s Honey” spotlights the issue for reader, although like all good warnings to the curious, the full implications aren’t necessarily clear until after the novella is finished. Then the story can be seen in the theme of “Paedomorphosis” (1998) by Caitlín R. Kiernan—a changeling or puberty story, where the old self is shed to make way for the new, adult form.
If read from this angle, the sexual deviations from the beginning of the story are not just there to shock the reader, but as deliberate steps in a process of development. The sexual pleasures being sought are increasingly strange and terrible by human standards because what the protagonist is being prepared to mate with is nothing human. It’s a rationalization which resolves some of the apparent conflicts in the story, such as why the narrator feels their behaviors are different from those of decadent humans who engage in the same or similar practices like teratophilia or necrophilia.
A point of view which potentially has interesting implications if applied to some of the other entities in the Cthulhu Mythos, especially those that pass for human, or whose cults engage in proscribed sexual practices.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).