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“The Challenge From Beyond” (1935) by C. L. Moore

Didn’t the F. F. [sic] “Challenge from Beyond” turn out well, considering? Yours was by far the best installment insofar as originality and workmanship are concerned. You had the hardest section, too—having to explain all the unconnected ramblings of your predecessors. Several of the installments, including mine, were carelessly written and loosely phrased, but yours, as usual, was a miracle of exact wording. And wasn’t it interesting to see how the personality of each writer colored his installment.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 11 Dec 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 87

Catherine Lucille Moore was one of the most prominent female writers at Weird Tales during its heyday, a contemporary and correspondent to H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and others in “the circle,” who praised her fiction. Several of her stories have definite aspects reminiscent of the nascent Cthulhu Mythos: Moore’s “Shambleau” (Weird Tales Nov 1933) and Robert E. Howard’s “The Slithering Shadow” (WT Sep 1933) both feature tentacled aliens who carnally assault their victims; the strange angles and dimensions of the  tunnel in the depths of Joiry Castle in “Black God’s Kiss” (WT Oct 1934) and “Black God’s Shadow” (WT Dec 1934) are reminiscent of Lovecraft’s non-Euclidean geometries. Moore was introduced to her future husband and writing-partner Henry Kuttner through Lovecraft, and Kuttner made his own contributions to the Mythos, such as the Book of Iod.

Moore never participated directly in the collaborative universe of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and others—made no addition to the library of eldritch titles, no strange god with an unspeakable name, there was no road from Joiry to Averoigne or Arkham, Hyboria or Hyperborea. Neither did Lovecraft or the others reference her fiction in their own works. This was not in itself exceptional—other writers in “the circle” chose not to participate, or participated only through collaboration, like E. Hoffmann Price, who together with Lovecraft wrote “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (WT Jul 1934), but who by himself never wrote a Mythos story, nor had any of his works referenced by his contemporaries in their Mythos stories. Moore was much the same; a colleague but not a co-conspirator… except for in one thing.

“The Challenge from Beyond” was the brainchild of Julius Schwartz, the teenage editor of the Fantasy Magazine; for the third anniversary issue of the fanzine, he had cooked up the idea of two round-robins, both titled “The Challenge from Beyond,” one being weird fiction and the other being science fiction. Schwartz successfully managed, after some effort and shake-ups, to attract a solid line-up for both; for the weird, C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long each wrote a section, building on each other’s efforts. Moore started it off.

Julius Schwartz has inveigled me into one of these chain-story things in which you are also scheduled to be drawn. I wrote a first installment and mailed it to him on the 18th. Certainly not a brilliant thing by any means—it’s hard to get very brilliant in three pages, especially if they’re chiefly devoted to setting the stage—but the best I could think of just then If it comes to you next, as I think it will, perhaps you can do better on the second installment. If you want to be bothered.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 22 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 53

I hope you haven’t had too much trouble over your installment. Mr. Schwartz asked me to be as weird and original as possible in starting it out, and I was notably neither. At least there was a vast expanse of room for improvement as the story advanced. Frankly, if I’d been able to think up something strikingly weird and new  I wouldn’t have given the idea away for nothing. Anyhow, it will be interesting to see what the others have done with such a poor start.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 22 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 62

Self-effacing to a fault, Moore’s section of “The Challenge from Beyond” is despite her mea culpas perfectly competent. True, not much happens and there is no mention of fantastic monsters, evil sorcery, lost races, or aliens from another planet or dimension—but it manages to hint of otherness, and establishes tone, character, setting, and subject, staying true to the basic premise while providing an obvious hook for the next writer. For 857 unpaid words, that’s not bad—and while dwarfed by Lovecraft (2,542) and Howard’s (1,037) sections, it is the third-longest section overall.

But is it a contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos?

And yet—that writing. Man-made, surely, although its characters were unfamiliar save in their faint hinting at cuneiform shapes. Or could there, in a Paleozoic world, have been things with a written language who might have graven these cryptic wedges upon the quartz-enveloped disc he held? Or—might a thing like this have fallen meteor-like out of space into the unformed rock of a still molten world? Could it—
—C. L. Moore, “The Challenge from Beyond”

Moore’s section was followed by a rather generic entry by A. Merritt—and it was up to Lovecraft to tie together the elements from their respective sections and actually begin to weave a story out of the thing. In Lovecraft’s section, Moore’s queerly-marked cube becomes an alien artifact, mentioned in the Eltdown Shards—a Mythos tome created by his correspondent Richard F. Searight. This is essentially the single element that ties “The Challenge from Beyond” into the larger collaborative universe that Lovecraft and his contemporaries were creating.

Reaction to the story in the letters of Lovecraft et al. is fair, with most of the focus on the interplay between Lovecraft and Howard’s sections—the Lovecraft swapping the mind of Moore’s geologist with that of a sentient extraterrestrial worm on a distant world, and Howard deciding that said geologist rather liked being an alien worm, and developed a desire to conquer this new planet—but this amusing juxtaposition of style could never have taken place without Moore’s initial contribution.

Debating C. L. Moore’s place as one of the early contributors to the Cthulhu Mythos is a strange hair to try and split, though I have done it myself in discussing “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ. Moore wrote an idea, Lovecraft picked it up and ran with it, and any ties to his Mythos are through Lovecraft’s efforts. This was typical: Lovecraft’s previous collaborations with Anna Helen Croft, Winifred Virginia Jackson, his wife Sonia H. Greene, Clifford M. Eddy Jr., E. Hoffmann Price, R. H. Barlow, etc. had involved him expanding on the ideas of others, while adding his own. The difference here is that we know exactly where Moore’s prose ends and Lovecraft’s begins, because of the nature of the round-robin; in general collaborations, Lovecraft had a tendency to re-write much of the prose himself, muddying the issue of exactly how much each writer contributed in terms of pure wordcount and conception.

Whether or not you agree that Moore should be counted amid the co-creators of the Cthulhu Mythos, she was one of the peers in the circle of Weird Tales pulpsters, and she her contribution should not be neglected.

“The Challenge from Beyond” was first published in the Fantasy Magazine Sep 1935; it has been republished and recollected numerous times since then. It is out of copyright and may be read for free online.

“Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses” (2015) by Valerie Valdes

One squat, black temple of Tsathoggua was encountered, but it had been turned into a shrine of Shub-Niggurath, the All-Mother and wife of the Not-to-Be-Named One. This deity was a kind of sophisticated Astarte, and her worship struck the pious Catholic as supremely obnoxious.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Brown-Reed Bishop, “The Mound”

Valerie Valdes is not the first Mythos writer to invoke the Jehovah’s Witnesses, one of those peculiarly American outgrowths of Christianity that emerged from the Third Great Awakening (mid-1800s to early 1900s), and best known today for door-to-door evangelism and recruitment. That earlier effort, Robert M. Price’s “Behold, I Stand At the Door and Knock” (1994) focuses on a similar theme, though with a less pronounced element of satire: why don’t the cults of the Cthulhu Mythos proselytize?

The religious aspect of the Mythos have been the focus of many writers; Lovecraft and his contemporaries were generally vague and sometimes contradictory on specifics of theology and cosmology, dogma and sectarian strife. The views of these native or syncretic religions was almost always presented from the skewed perspective of an outsider—someone who had not been raised or initiated into the mysteries—and bound about with much occultism, overtones of Theosophy and other new religions, or anthropological theories and reconstructions of old religion; the main exception being “The Call of Cthulhu,” where the aged mestizo Castro spilled some secrets for the benefit of the audience. Yet the fundamental question always was: why worship the Great Old Ones? Why venerate Shub-Niggurath?

It is indicative of the nature of the short piece as a whole, that while the tone is light and darkly comic, there is real meat in the concepts, and sometimes the questions raised cut to the bone:

“Sister,” I said. “Why did you not tell her that Shub-Niggurath grants immortality to her chosen?”
—Valeria Valdes, “Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses”

Valdes has a good answer for this, with a reference to Ramsey Campbell’s classic tale of Shub-Niggurath “The Moon-Lens” (1964) for any Mythos lorekeepers among the reading audience. For the most part, “Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses” emphasizes the surreal contrast of the secretive, monstrous cultists of Shub-Niggurath going door-to-door, pamphleting the neighborhood (there’s a website on the back), striving to stay on script—and it is an interesting script:

Are there mysteries in your life that do not have satisfying answers?

Have you ever felt that no benevolent god watches over you?

Do you feel your life is insignificant?

That you are a tiny ant in  a vast, uncaring universe?

…and if you answer yes to the above, “Then you will be happy to know there are answers to your questions, if you dare to look.”

The target of this pitch is Yourladies Benitez, a young hispanic woman. There’s an implicit frisson to that combination of age, ethnicity, and gender when it comes to religion; Benitez embodies the conflict between the heavy Catholic cultural influence of the older generation and the more agnostic or atheistic youth, and the stereotypes of women as more prone to spirituality. On the front of the pamphlet she is handed, is “a young woman very like Yourladies[.]” To the cult of Shub-Niggurath, Benitez is a likely mark—the very things that would set her apart from more traditional stereotypes of Hispanic women as devout Catholics are exactly what Shub-Niggurath’s witnesses are looking for.

The setup and execution of Benitez’ targeting for initiation riffs off the comment from Lovecraft and Bishop’s “The Mound”: the deliberate contrast of socio-cultural norms between the older and younger generation. Yourladies Benitez (female, Hispanic, agnostic?) offers a contrast to Lovecraft & Bishop’s  conquistador Pánfilo de Zamacona y Nuñez (male, Spanish, Catholic), and the different perspectives of the two characters is reflected in their reaction to the worship of Shub-Niggurath: Pánfilo’s disgust and Yourladies’ grudging acceptance.

The glimpses Valdes offers of the theology of Shub-Niggurath in the story are few, but quintessential and nihilistic: “There is no point to anything. No point at all.” Yet that basic tenet proves ultimately freeing to Benitez—freedom from her supervisor, her job with the pin-stripe uniform, eventually even her clothes. As the Cthulhu cultist Castro put it, she became:

[…] as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy […]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

“Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses” appeared in She Walks in Shadows (2015). Valeria Valdes’ first novel Chilling Effect is due out in 2019.

“Moonshine” (2018) by G. D. Penman

Hogan’s smile slipped again. “You’re asking me to roll over and take it? How is that going to look?”
“Better than an FBI raid on Innsmouth or the mob squad kicking in your door, I’d bet.”
—G. D. Penman, “Moonshine”

Detective Vergil Levard of the catches a cold one, and the hunt for the murderer takes him from Jimmy Hogan’s speakeasy in Arkham to the small seaport of Innsmouth and back. An investigation only hampered by two things—the victim’s tattoo, which ties into Levard’s unquiet past, and the strange attraction between Vergil and Jimmy…and the 1920s is a dangerous time for bootlegging up the Miskatonic River or lifting shirts.

While Lovecraft set most of his stories in the contemporary period, the tales themselves don’t often evoke the tone of the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age. That’s not to say the Great Depression and Prohibition entirely pass the Cthulhu Mythos by; Lovecraft himself has his protagonist quietly procure a bottle of bootleg whiskey to ply Zadok Allen with in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but for the most part such human institutions take a back seat to the stranger horrors. Nor did Lovecraft or his immediate collaborators attempt to fuse the hardboiled detective style, made infamous by film noir, with the early Mythos—all that would come later, as succeeding generations of authors visited and revisited the old ground. Lovecraft himself wrote:

There is certainly room for another Antarctic tale—in fact for many more, if told by different authors & with wholly different elements & stresses. No field, as such, can be said to be really exhausted; for a scene or theme is merely an auxiliary of the artist in his unique expression of himself. There can be as many different & non-conflicting stories about the same thing, as there are different artists.

—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 25 Dec 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 285

Penman certainly takes different stresses. The setting is well-researched, peppered with period slang appropriate for a hard-nosed cop and a bootlegger to bandy about, and the homoerotic attraction between Vergil and Jimmy is quick, but not forced, immediate, or without social and personal hurdles. The development given to their relationship is part and parcel of the plot, as are some of the reasons why Vergil is hesitant to enter into it—homosexuality could still get you fired, in the 1920s, and might get you killed. This isn’t a stress normally made in Lovecraftian works, although Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows made a point of it in their comic series Providence (2015-2017).

In a longer work, this might have been explored further—and “Moonshine” definitely has the bones of what could have been a hardboiled or atmospheric psychological horror novel, but the balance is struck toward a story that is shorter, punchier, and faster paced, a touch more Dashiell Hammett than Lovecraft. Readers familiar with the Mythos will have already seen a couple plot twists coming—once Vergil and Jimmy hit Innsmouth, it’s only a matter of time before a few old faithful horrors come into play—but Penman has a few tricks up his sleeves, and a couple permutations that are both original and fitting. No Elder Signs or incantations come in to save the day, no convenient Necronomicons are pulled out of muscular keisters. Like a good detective, Vergil pieces the story together…and with a bit of a bluff, the duo survive.

There is one interesting exchange which deserves a bit of a deeper look:

“That’s why I was scared when you first laid one on me. I thought this thing…This thing we are. It was something they’d done to me. Something they’d put in me.”

Vergil Levard’s confession of a past growing up within a cult of his own is a little less shocking to contemporary sensibilities—the dark side of new religious movements in the United States over the past hundred years makes mumbled ideas of “Blood rituals. Really evil stuff […]” as quaint as Lovecraft’s always-off-the-page orgies and rites concerning his own cults—but there is a fundamental recognition of the homosexual experience here which is not often included. The culturally-impressed self-loathing and self-denial, the idea that there is something wrong or alien with them—and maybe that there is someone or something else to blame for that, some malign influence or experience that caused them to be like this. That doesn’t turn out to be the case in “Moonshine,” but it’s a part of the LGBTQ experience which gets little play in Mythos stories, and the very act of opening up about it is obviously a tremendous relief to the Detective, even if he comes to the conclusion that maybe Yog-Sothoth isn’t the reason he’s gay.

It is a rare instance of a positive personal revelation in a Mythos story, and there are thematic parallels with the personal revelations and acceptance of the nameless protagonist in “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” While Vergil Levard maybe hasn’t processed all he experienced as the child of a cult, he has at least come to some greater knowledge and acceptance of himself. The parallels were addressed by Robert M. Price in a footnote in his essay “Homosexual Panic in ‘The Outsider'” (1982):

Faced with so repugnant a prospect as recognizing as his own a sexuality he has always regarded as perverse, the homosexual may for a time try to avoid admitting to himself what he knows only too well to be true. In the classic “reaction formation” pattern, he will redouble his detestation for acknowledged gays, for he “regards as an enemy anyone who appears to be a mirror image of himself, because his enemy is himself” (Weinberg, p. 81) (emphasis added). The parallel to Lovecraft’s story is stunning: the Outsider at first fears the monster as a dangerous Other. Yet he soon discovers that the hideous enemy is himself, literally his own mirror reflection. *

* “The Shadow over Innsmouth” may be interpreted in a similar light.

In “Moonshine,” Penman toys with this formulation—Jimmy Hogan is both a criminal and out-and-proud, while Vergil Levard is both police and in the closet—but in this case, opposites do attract. Of course, in this case it helps that they have something of a common cause and, soon after meeting, a common enemy: the conflict helps drive what might otherwise have been a couple chapters of self-loathing, introspection, bad feelings and missed connections—not bad stuff for a novel, but would have ruined the pace of a fast-set story like this.

G. D. Penman has written and published a number of short stories, but “Moonshine” published through the queer small press JMS Books, is his first Mythos story.

“Are You Loathsome Tonight?” (1998) by Poppy Z. Brite

Now the stage is bare and I’m standing there
With emptiness all around
And if you won’t come back to me
Then they can bring the curtain down
“Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

Not many writers would say that Elvis Presley had much to do with Lovecraft; the few who would are like to take a comedic bent, as Yvonne Navarro did in “WWRD” (2018). Yet if a writer were to step back away from the Mythos and look at the themes and ideas expressed by Lovecraft in his fiction—there is a horror story to be woven from the life of Elvis, one as terrible and inevitable as all human stories are.

Poppy Z. Brite (Billy Martin) is better-known in Mythos circles for “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood” (1990), which has been reprinted many times, including in the seminal Cthulhu 2000: A Lovecraftian Anthology (1995).  “Are You Loathsome Tonight?” gets far less attention, and far fewer reprints. The lack of response is probably because it is not what people expect, when they come to a “Lovecraftian” story: no Mythos, no tentacles or eldritch tomes. Parts of it are passages taken directly from books about Elvis’ life, and death, interspersed with stories about snakes which intersect oddly with the rest—they fit, like pieces of a puzzle where the larger picture is still obscure. It’s Lovecraft credits are boiled down to a single quotation, appended at the very end of the text:

Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation.
—H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

Like “Hypothetical Materfamilias” (1994) by Adèle Olivia Gladwell and “Commencement” (2001) by Joyce Carol Oates, this is a story which stretches the bounds of “Lovecraftian.” It is a work patently informed by something Lovecraft wrote, yet not dependent on any of his individual creations. The narrative is nontraditional, the atmosphere it develops is one of slowly growing disquiet, rather than cosmic horror.

Images, interposed, become conflated by context. The roiling bolus of snakes in a mating ball. The terribly swollen megacolon of Elvis as he sits on his jet-black throne, drugs slowing his digestive system to a terrible crawl. It takes the imagination of the reader to fit the pieces together, to suggest a greater horror than reality…and there is an art and skill in the arrangement of those pieces, to make readers take that approach. The terrible inevitability of the piece lends a sense of apprehension to the whole affair—because most everyone should know how this ends. Elvis, even in death, is a figure larger than life, his semiotic ghost pervading the popular culture.

The craft of the story can be seen especially in the beginning and the ending; the title and the closing quotation of Lovecraft. The title is a reference to Elvis’ 1960 hit, yet with the twist: what is loathsome? Is it what Elvis would become, as years of abuse took its toll? The title sets up the sense of apprehension, the situation-normal-all-fucked-up; it hints at the reader what to expect—and Lovecraft, at the end, tells them what they just read. What the reader sought, or experienced, whether or not they recognized it at the time.

“Are You Loathsome Tonight?” was first published in the collection of the same name, and has been reprinted in Self-Made Man (1999), The Children of Cthulhu (2000), and is available on kindle. Poppy Z. Brite/Billy Martin currently has a GoFundMe campaign.

 

 

“The Insider” (1998) by Stanley C. Sargent

Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness.
H. P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider”

The conceit of “The Insider” is that it is a prequel to Lovecraft’s “The Outsider.” Although both stories stand well enough on their own, once you get the idea the slight aping of Lovecraft’s diction and the general direction of Sargent’s story takes on a new dimension. It’s a solid, well-written Mythos tale, clever without being extravagant or feeling the need to explain everything, with a satisfying ending.

“The Insider” is not one of Sargent’s better-known tales; his claim to fame, if any, probably rests on the story “The Black Brat of Dunwich” (1997) and his essay “Howard Phillips Whateley, An Observation” (1999, rev. 2002), both of which focus on alternative interpretations of Wilbur Whateleywho, like the eponymous Insider/Outsider, is marked from birth as one apart. It’s a subject that Sargent, growing up as a homosexual, could and did empathize with. It was Sargent who has made the strongest, or at least most elegant argument that Lovecraft himself might have been a closeted homosexual:

I read “The Outsider” when I was about 14 and beginning to realize there was something very different about me, my deep dark secret.  We are talking about growing up in the farm country of Ohio in the early ’60s here.  When I read “The Outsider,” I felt convinced the author had gone through the same situation I was going through, the abject horror of recognizing you are gay in a very anti-gay world.

Years later, I tried to find an alternative reason for HPL considering himself such an extreme “outsider,” but I discovered no plausible other reason for such an extreme feeling of being an isolated monster.  I didn’t really care a whit about HPL’s sexual orientation (I am not trying to claim him as one of “us”), so at the time it occurred to me that I might be projecting a bit.

Yet, as I read more about HPL’s life, I began to see that all the ingredients were there.  His upbringing with a dominant, overly protective mother (who dressed him as a girl for the first few years of his life) and the nearly total absence of a father is the classic formula for a male child being gay. Although he declared his distaste for homosexuals, in particular effeminate males, he was often described as effeminate himself.  Plus he was a close friend with Samuel Loveman for many years and Loveman was hardly in the closet about his activities.  Finally, I can come up with no other logical explanation for HPL’s close relationship with the teenage Barlow during the last years of his life, to the point of making Barlow his literary executor.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe HPL was able to cast off the conventions he clung to so desperately enough to actually “come out.”  I think HPL saw in Barlow the self-accepting talented writer he had always wanted to be himself but couldn’t be.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Barlow had discussed his own “outsiderness” with a very understanding HPL, but I doubt HPL could have ever brought himself to own up to his own similar orientation.

It all makes even more sense if you interpret “The Dunwich Horror” as an autobiographical cloaked confession of his dilemma.  Wilbur obviously represents HPL, all the way down to HPL believing his own appearance was “hideous” (again, thanks to mom), and I believe the twin brother was the a symbol of the homosexual desires HPL so desperately tried to suppress.  No one could see the monster and it was essentially so evil that it had to be contained.  Yet it kept growing and even Wilbur feared it would someday break out (read “come out”) and destroy the world (Lovecraft’s little conservative world).  That thought terrified him as being gay went against everything he believed in; it must have been awful for him.  He surely married Sonia, a mother figure, in hope of changing his orientation, a very common and futile mistake.  If he didn’t confess his problem to her, she undoubtedly guessed and was sympathetic.

I suppose I’ll be up for a lynching when die-hard Lovecraftians read this, but I’m convinced I’m right.  Even my friend Wilum Pugmire disagrees with me strongly on this point.  Lovecraft would certainly have equated his unnamable secret with Wilde’s unspeakable love.
Stanley C. Sargent, interview with Peter A. Worthy (1998)

Whether or not readers agree with Sargent’s interpretation as fact, from a literary standpoint the idea has a degree of merit: it is possible to engage with Lovecraft’s creations from that viewpoint…and why not? It’s a fair cop. Robert M. Price engaged with the idea in his essay “Homosexual Panic in ‘The Outsider'” (1982). It was probably not Lovecraft’s intent in this case to provide such an interpretation…but readers are free to interpret an author’s work as they would.

Knowing Sargent’s thoughts on “The Outsider” can in turn influence a reader’s response to “The Insider.” The theme of the lonely, ostracized young man that resorts finally to cutting as a release from the stigma of being different—only to be further punished and set apart for his behaviorresonates. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” is designed to provoke empathy in the readers, and “The Insider” is both a response and an echo to that. “The Insider” need not be an allegory for homosexuality per se, any more than “The Outsider” must be read in such light; both stories focus on both external appearance and the desire for acceptance, aspects of human experience which are adaptable to many different syntaxbecause we all live in a world where discrimination is real, be it based on age, gender, sexuality, physical appearance or ability, race, or faith.

Have we not all been an Insider/Outsider at some point, if only in our own heads?

“The Insider” was published Tales of Lovecraftian Horror #8 (1998), and was republished in Sargent’s collection The Taint of Lovecraft (2002).

 

“Some Distant Baying Sound” (2009) by W. H. Pugmire

Now, as the baying of that dead, fleshless monstrosity grows louder and louder, and the stealthy whirring and flapping of those accursed web-wings circles closer and closer, I shall seek with my revolver the oblivion which is my only refuge from the unnamed and unnamable.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound”

St. John is dead, and Christina Sturhman takes the revolver out of her mouth, determined not to end her life in so cowardly a fashion. She travels instead to Sesqua Valley, the secret corner of the Pacific Northwest which W. H. Pugmire has built and claimed for his own, to ask for help from the strange beings there—the sorcerer Simon Gregory Williams, his assistant Marceline, and his brother the poet William Davis Manly. Ever following her is the hound…

Like “Houndwife” (2010) by Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Some Distant Baying Sound” is in ways a continuation and a tribute to H. P. Lovecraft’s seminal tale of two grave-robbing decadents who eventually unearth something profane and come to a grisly end because of it—and it is interesting and sometimes enlightening to see what two different authors will make of the same material, and the different directions they will take from the common beginning in Lovecraft’s story.

Both Pugmire and Kiernan take Lovecraft’s story essentially at face value: though they may add details, they subtract nothing, and by luck they happen to focus on different aspects of the story, so the three stories could almost form a little trinity—such is the way the Cthulhu Mythos grows. The major difference is that Pugmire makes the unnamed protagonist of “The Hound” a woman, where Kiernan implicitly suggests they were male. The latter is more likely Lovecraft’s intention, but the story is ambiguous enough to permit either reading.

The question of why Pugmire went with this interpretation is an open one. Both Lovecraft and Pugmire’s stories have Sturhman and St. John in an intimate friendship, but not explicitly a romantic or sexual one…and even if it were sexual, there is no reason why it could not be homosexual; Pugmire has depicted gay men in relationships in his fiction before. Having Sturhman as female perhaps side-steps any question of sexual attraction to two great beasts of Sesqua Valley, Simon Gregory Williams and Williams Davis Manly, allowing them to be platonic enemies and friends, respectively…although again, Pugmire has never shied away from the inhabitants of the valley having a fluid sexuality.

Upon arriving to meet Simon Gregory Williams and his assistant, Sturhman succumbs to Marceline’s seduction rather easily, though the subtle insinuation of Simon orchestrating the affair for his own purposes raises questions of consent. This gives an opportunity for Pugmire to indulge in the sensual, poetic prose that he is known for, and it is a curious coincidence that both Kiernan and Pugmire, following their own muses and devices, both feature lesbian sexuality so openly in their tributes…although there is a bit of play to be considered between sexuality and gender identity in the two stories.

What is the gender of the Hound/sphinx entity, which pursues in the three stories? In Lovecraft’s original, gender is unknown and irrelevant: it is the figure of pursuit. “Houndwife” suggests implicitly that the Hound is a male figure, but the gender (and even reality) of the Hound is again left ambiguous, and again is irrelevant for the Hound’s function in the story. Yet in “Some Distant Baying Sound,” there is a crucial binary presented by Williams Davis Manly, between the female and male sphinx, and this indeed turns out to be the case because in the story the distinction becomes a necessary one. In all the story, the actual gender of the Hound/sphinx is relevant only insofar as it relates to their relationship with the individual being “hounded,” and as this never includes sexual predation, gender largely doesn’t enter into the plot.

The denouement of “Some Distant Baying Sound” comes in a rush. The early parts of the story had a rather dream-logic pace that fits with Pugmire’s style and his characterization of the Valley itself. The pieces fit together well enough, but the expected confrontation turns into more of an acceptance of self—one more obvious in hindsight, and which yet leaves some unanswered questions…although it seems clear that Sesqua Valley has gained a new permanent resident.

Neither Pugmire or Kiernan’s stories offer a particularly deep exegesis of the Mythos, although fans might appreciate their attention to detail, and the subtle expansion of certain elements connected to the jade of Leng. These are not tributes meant necessarily to explicate a murky corner of Lovecraft’s world, but sensual explorations and extrapolations of the basic atmosphere and key elements of “The Hound.” Celebrations of the mood that Lovecraft evoked, with mysteries yet remaining mysterious and some graves left unspoilt for the next generation of necrophiles.

“Some Distant Baying Sound” was first published in Pugmire’s collection Weird Inhabitants of Sesqua Valley (2009), and republished in his collections The Tangled Muse (2010) and Uncommon Places: A Collection of Exquisites (2012). Unlike “Houndwife,” “Some Distant Baying Sound” stands less well on its own. Full appreciation requires at least a passing familiarity with either Lovecraft’s story or Pugmire’s Sesqua Valley tales, and preferably both. Given that the story is published primarily in Pugmire’s own collections, among his other Sesqua Valley tales, this works out fine. If at some future date it ends up in an anthology next to “Houndwife,” the editor might need to add a bit of clarification for readers unfamiliar with Pugmire’s corpus.

“Houndwife” (2010) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

In the coffin lay an amulet of curious and exotic design, which had apparently been worn around the sleeper’s neck. It was the oddly conventionalised figure of a crouching winged hound, or sphinx with a semi-canine face, and was exquisitely carved in antique Oriental fashion from a small piece of green jade. The expression on its features was repellent in the extreme, savouring at once of death, bestiality, and malevolence. Around the base was an inscription in characters which neither St. John nor I could identify; and on the bottom, like a maker’s seal, was graven a grotesque and formidable skull.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound”

“Houndwife” is a tribute to Lovecraft, and a continuation. It is not a pastiche, as are so many Mythos tales, because it does not attempt to borrow or even suggest anything of Lovecraft’s prose style, however much it may take specific images and ideas from his stories; break them apart, expand on, and rework them. Lovecraft’s story is a background episode: it is unnecessary for the reader to have knowledge of “The Hound” to appreciate and understand “Houndwife,” but those who have read both have perhaps a greater understanding than those who have only read one. It stands on its own, but together they suggest more. That’s rare.

Caitlín R. Kiernan has style.

“Houndwife” revolves around several of her familiar foci—lesbians, the American South contrasted with New England, the Lovecraft Mythos, ghouls, the Church of Starry Wisdom, the occult, and broken perception. The protagonist is an unnamed woman, unlearned but highly intuitive: wisdom borne of experience contrasted against book-knowledge. And this is the story of how she went through a transformative experience, died and was buried, rose again. Not as a martyr or a messiah, not quite as a sacrifice. The experience changes the protagonist, unglues her from the understanding of time. The reader experiences in a linear fashion the protagonist’s now decidedly nonlinear existence.

Lovecraft’s jade amulet from the corpse-eating cult of Leng is the Chekov’s gun of the piece, waiting to be fired. The central mystery of the curious hound-sphinx remains, refracted through the protagonist’s shattered timeline. Only once in a thousand years is a woman chosen to be the houndwife. What that means, ultimately, the answers the Starry Wisdom (and the readers) want, are not readily forthcoming. This is not a Mythos story with passages of long exposition on cosmology or the family trees of the gods: this is a prose poem to experience. Answers, if there are any, will come with reflection.

Aside from the excellent prose styling, and the masterfully done nonlinear structure of the narrative, “Houndwife” is an exemplar of Kiernan’s careful handling and development of characters and relationships, which is part of what sets her work apart from many Mythos writers. While Kiernan has written erotic works, this is not one of them: the lesbian relationship between the protagonist and her girlfriend Isobel Endecott is not there for titillation, but to drive the connection between the protagonist and the cult, and contrast the ties between Isobel and the cult and Isobel and the protagonist. Glimpsed only in fragments, the sense is there of a real relationship, one where both partners are clearly distinct, but a strong attraction and attachment binds them—although strained and slightly alienated by the ritual of death and rebirth.

That too is one of Kiernan’s familiar themes, the strained relationship despite mutual attraction, and is reminiscent of her earlier story “At the Gates of Deeper Slumber” (2009), where the unnamed narrator and Suzanne are not the perfect lesbian couple: they have disagreements, fights, and flaws. They quibble and worry over gender roles and each other’s space. Suzanne refers to the narrator as a “butch dyke” in reference to the persona she projects, but the narrative itself reveals the uncertainty and discomfort—perhaps even jealousy—that accompany the invasion of her home by the Shining Trapezohedron. The narrator cannot give full force to her worries for fear of alienating her partner, and it is the fear of losing Suzanne that is the consuming dread of the piece, more than anything else. Kiernan has revisited this theme of love, loss, and the Shining Trapezohedron in her later piece “Ex Libris” (2012).

The “Kiernan Mythos” is a bit hazier than comparable efforts by other writers, her contributions tend to be free-standing, without the need for strong tie-ins, though they may exist if you look for them: Isobel Endecott probably related to the Endecotts of “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008). She has developed no single common setting like Lovecraft’s Miskatonic region, Ramsey Campbell’s Severn Valley, or W. H. Pugmire’s Sesqua Valley, although certain works like the recent Agents of Dreamland (2017) and Black Helicopters (2018) are tied together, and she has four connected stories in the “Dandridge Cycle”, but she does not invent new gods with unspeakable names or eldritch grimoires which are consistent in story after story. Kiernan’s Mythos tales like “Houndwife” are strange growths sprouting from the Lovecraft Mythos, new stories growing from old soil, each unique and distinct.

I should hope that not even the most die-hard admirer of H. P. Lovecraft’s work would date argue that “The  Hound” (1922) is a well-written story. And yet I love it. Despite all it’s garish purple-prose histrionics, the story pushes my buttons. So, it was probably inevitable that I would someday write a tribute to this minor Lovecraft tale, and in March 2010 that’s exactly what I did.
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan vol. 2, 360

“Houndwife” was first published in 2010 in the Sirenia Digestand first saw print in Black Wings of Cthulhu 2 (2012). It has been reprinted in hardcover twice in her collections Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan vol. 2 (2015) and Houses Under the Sea: Mythos Tales of Caitlín R. Kiernan (2018).

Ex Libris Miskatonici (1993) by Joan C. Stanley

Joan Stanley is a long-time science-fiction and fantasy fan who fell in love with Lovecraft’s writing by reading At the Mountains of Madness while in the tenth grade. To a life-long resident of Boston, those shoggoths pouring out of the cave resembled nothing so much as a speeding MTA streetcar coming out of a Tremont Street tunnel, or a subway train screeching through the Park Street Under. She often wondered if Lovecraft had once been terrified by the city subway system. In real life, she is a criminal lawyer (that can mean whatever you wish) whose only previous forays into writing have been in the appellate courts.
Ex Libris Miskatonici, back cover copy

During the lifetime of H. P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries, the Cthulhu Mythos was created and grew. Different writers came up with their own unique contributions—Lovecraft with the Necronomicon, Miskatonic University, Dunwich, Innsmouth, Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, etc.; Robert E. Howard with Nameless Cults, Justin Geoffrey, and Stregoicavar; Clark Ashton Smith with the Book of Eibon, Tsathoggua, and Averoigne; Robert Bloch with Cultes des Goules and De Vermis Mysteriis; and so on and so forth. What is more exceptional, and made a true shared setting, was how they would borrow and share each other’s creations in their stories: Howard’s mad poet Justin Geoffrey would be from Lovecraft’s Arkham, Smith would slip a reference to Shub-Niggurath into tales set in Averoigne, etc.—and those strange and terrible tomes with the evocative names would end up piled next to each other in macabre libraries. It is a process that continues even today, as in “The Land of the Reflected Ones” (1995) by Nancy A. Collins.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when writers who had very different styles were writing stories far apart from one another, without any centralized source for the mythology they were concocting, there were discrepancies. Details in one story were not always in agreement with other stories. This was not all to the bad, by Lovecraft’s estimation: the little disagreements sometimes echoed real mythology, increasing the verisimilitude of the whole. It also provided a kind of literary game for readers, if they wanted to track down those different references, to see how they connected, and to theorize about the bigger background hinted at. More than a few of those writers would go on to offer their own exegesis of the Cthulhu Mythos, its history and cosmology, as in “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys and “Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” (2012) by Gemma Files.

Joan C. Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonici: A Catalogue of Selected Items from the Special Collections in the Miskatonic University Library (1993), however, is something on an entirely different scale. Ostensibly, this is a (mostly) in-universe document (the copious footnotes providing real-life references for various titles and citations), a brief history and description of the Miskatonic University Library’s Special Collections related to the Cthulhu Mythos, written in the style of a catalog. A massive investment of time in effort to collect, collate, and synthesize the vast amount of eldritch pseudobiblia created by Lovecraft & his heirs over seventy years, distilled down into a 66-page staplebound pamphlet. While there have been previous efforts to collate Mythos tomes in essays like Lin Carter’s “H. P. Lovecraft: The Books” (1956), or to collect and synthesize data on works like the Necronomicon in Mark Owing’s The Necronomicon: A Study (1967) or the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonici represents one of the most substantial effort of bibliographic creativity in the Mythos until The Starry Wisdom Library: The Catalogue of the Greatest Occult Book Auction of All Time (2014).

It is a work of love, as well as scholarship and imagination.

It also represents a relatively unique opportunity to look at the occasionally problematic history of several of these Mythos tomes, and how Stanley did or did not choose to address them.

The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan were mentioned in passing by H. P. Lovecraft in “The Other Gods”, and became adopted as part of the Mythos by later writers. While Lovecraft only refers to this occult collection in “The Other Gods” and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, both set in the Dreamlands, later authors have them appearing in the waking world on Earth—and often with an affiliation for the Cthulhu Mythos in China and other parts of Asia, if not directly attributed to some Chinese scholar. The whole issue highlights the fact that most Cthulhu Mythos tomes, like most of its writers, are culturally tied to “the West” (Europe, North America, and Australia, more or less). It’s a largely implicit cultural bias which is slightly less apparent because a large number of Mythos tomes ultimately derive from some alien or pre-human source: the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic cult in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” for example, is rumored to be headquartered in China, but the closest thing there is to a central text for the cult is not a Chinese tome, but the Necronomicon.

The use of the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan as a Chinese cultural artifact of the Mythos is probably a solution to both the lack of such a specific text in the works of Lovecraft and his contemporaries, and a desire to avoid an over-reliance on familiar standbys like the Necronomicon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and Cultes des Goules. While European contacts with Asia goes back thousands of years, making it not impossible for copies of these texts to have traveled the physical distance, the appearance of European Mythos tomes to the exclusion of written works in the indigenous languages and cultural context would somewhat disenfranchise local Mythos-goings-on: after all, Asia has a very long history of literacy, religion, and occultism, there is no reason why they should not have generated Mythos tomes in local languages and writing-systems. While some writers have created new tomes set in Asian context, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan have become something of a default, the Chinese equivalent of the Necronomicon for many writers purposes; it serves this function in the Masks of Nyarlathotep (1989) campaign for the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, for example.

Stanley’s approach to the Seven Cryptical Books is synthesis, striving to bring together all the disparate references to the tome which had seen print to that time and grounding the text in actual Chinese language and history. The result is one of the best sections of Ex Libris Miskatonici, and leads into one of the most curious: the Book of DzyanHelena Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine (1888) had claimed the Book of Dzyan as a source for her Theosophical materials, and Lovecraft referenced the book in “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” (with William Lumley) and “The Haunter of the Dark.” Stanley, however, chose to gloss it as actually an ancient Chinese work, not the more familiar Theosophical text, and thus acts as a sort of rider to the entry for the Seven Cryptical Books and previous sections in this regard.

Another consequence of Lovecraft and his contemporaries’ lack of broader cultural familiarity and penchant for exoticism were errors that cropped up in naming: “hazred” is not a proper Arabic name, nor is Al Azif; the Greek for Necronomicon is erroneous; Unaussprechlichen Kulten is not the proper German translation of Nameless Cults, and so on. Stanley, to her credit, tries to make the best of the situation by pointing out the errors and inconsistencies and offering possible solutions rather, sometimes working off the work of others (she cites Sandy Petersen’s explanation for “Abdul Alhazred” from the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, for example, with her own flourishes). For later writers and their fictional works, like Brian Lumley’s Cthaat Aquadingen, she was forced to get more creative, working up a container title (Codex Dagonensis), and then presenting Lumley’s title as a British localism.

Taken as a whole, Joan C. Stanley’s book is an exceptional example of a small and somewhat obscure form of fiction, one that seeks to mimic creative non-fiction with all the care and attention to detail of a good hoax. This kind of effort to create an “in-universe” document (more or less) is more typically associated with the occult (such as the Simon Necronomicon (1977)) or roleplaying games (such as Le Culte des Goules (2012) by Antoine Téchenet), but it represents the fundamental desire that readers have to interact with the Mythos at a deeper level. Ex Libris Miskatonici is a high-level example of the interaction between fan-fiction and fan-scholarship, showcasing not just the mental gymnastics that some Mythos writers have to go through, but that something positive and worthwhile can result.

Necronomicon Press published Ex Libris Miskatonici in 1993, and a second edition in 1995. It has since been out of print.

“The Land of the Reflected Ones” (1995) by Nancy A. Collins

Of the hundred copies of the Aegrisomnia that Shroud had privately published, however, only one was complete and unabridged. And bound in leather. And that was Stroud’s private copy—the one with his own personal annotations scrawled in the margins. The one he had bound himself—with the skin of his virgin daughter. Granted, she wasn’t his legitimate daughter—her mother was a marginally retarded scullery maid who had been with the household since childhood—but the gesture put to the pale anything the self-styled “Beast” had ever done.
—Nancy A. Collins, “The Land of the Reflected Ones,” Eternal Lovecraft 93

The NecronomiconUnaussprechlichen KultenCultes de GoulesThe Book of Eibon. Names to conjure with, and many folks have tried to do just that over the decades. Lovecraft’s evocative title and elaborate history of the Necronomicon inspired comparable efforts by Robert E. Howard and others, and by 1937 there was a veritable library of Mythos tomes—yet only an inkling of what would come. The invention and proliferation of these occult tomes has become a characteristic of the Mythos in its many forms, some writers would elaborate on works created by Lovecraft and others, many would create their own additions to the growing catalog. Entire books have been written about these fictional grimoires, from fictional works like Joan C. Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonici (1995) and Nate Pedersen’s The Starry Wisdom Library (2014) anthology to non-fiction books like Harms & Gonce’ The Necronomicon Files: The Truth Behind the Legend (2003).

Pseudobibliophilia takes an odd turn in Nancy Collins’ “The Land of the Reflected Ones.” By the numbers, this is straightforward Mythos pastiche: Emerson wants the Aegrisomnia; the old man wants too much money for it…but Emerson gets the book anyway, and in a manner that no reader will feel bad for what happens to him afterwards. Yet there’s a strange dinginess to the situation which Collins deliberately plays up: the quarrel is over a difference of two hundred dollars. Whatever priceless secrets it holds, that’s what the book is worth to the old man, because he needs to cover the rent for himself and his wife—and it is more than Emerson can afford.

The situation is both tragic and ironic: Emerson, gloats about his superiority over others while admitting that he doesn’t understand people, and has exhausted his sizable inheritance on occult tomes to no appreciable benefit; he gloats over the power and fortune that the book will give him, without considering the consequences of getting what he wants, despite the quite wisdom of the old man; and in the end Emerson is forced to abandon what little he has to flee from the police for his crime, and in fleeing one prison, ends up in a far worse one—with the tiny coup de grâce delivered by the old man’s wife.  From beginning to end, all that happens to Emerson is his own fault, and the reader can only follow along, and nod—because Emerson is a bastard, designed to remove the slightest trace of sympathy for the character.

The plot may be uncomplicated, but it’s fine execution, the foreshadowing of Through the Looking-Glass, and the way some common Mythos tropes and conceptions are subverted in this story make it shine. Emerson is a bastard of a character, a vain and self-centered occultist who thinks he’s better than everyone else because he comes from a privileged background; the dark mirror-image of the Lovecraftian protagonist in many ways. The materialist money-grubbing over the Aegrisomnia stands in stark contrast to the almost spiritual aesthetics which govern the Mythos in place of crass economics: rather than being held as a priceless relic, the grimoire is reduced to a commodity with a price tag, and not even a fabulously expensive one at that. The grand plans of Emerson and the cosmic horrors hinted at by his occult library are undershot and mired in the tawdriness of the whole affair.

Weirdly for a Cthulhu Mythos tale, “The Land of the Reflected Ones” there is also a distinct moral framework to the story.

In H. P. Lovecraft’s original conception, the universe of the Mythos is essentially amoral, in the sense that “bad” deeds are not specifically punished and “good” deeds not specifically rewarded. There are tales of revenge, such as “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” and the macabre quasi-fable of “The Cats of Ulthar,” and the “villains” and “monsters” in Lovecraft’s stories often face some setback or grisly end—yet the “victories” are almost always temporary and ultimately somewhat hollow. “The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be.” Azathoth, the ultimate power and authority in Lovecraft’s cosmology, is a blind idiot who will devour everyone indiscriminately. “Good and bad,” are human terms, from a human frame of reference.

Collins provides that frame of reference by contrasting the immoral, unsociable, power-hungry Emerson with the old bookseller and his wife. In one of the best passages in the story, the old man relates:

I know human leather when I see it. Had a book come through here a few years back—belonged to some bastard in the Nazi High Command. It was pornographic pictures—women with animals, men with children. It was bound just like that. I burned it. I would have burned that thing, too, if I didn’t need the money so badly—

The old man’s error, which leads to his death, is not trusting his instincts. If he’d left the Aegrisomnia alone, or burned it, then he’d never have had to deal with Emerson. The old man’s wife is Emerson’s comeuppance: raised by his entitled mother to think he was better than everyone else comes to bite Emerson in the ass when one of the people he thought was beneath him turns out to be a sorceress in her own right—just as,  ironically, Emerson’s own mother was eventually unplugged by her own son, because she raised him to be such a prick.

The Aegrisomnia itself is the MacGuffin, and the plot of the story as a Mythos pastiche rests on its characterization; consequently the book gets more descriptive text and history than Emerson or any of the other characters. The backstory briefly parallels  the familiar histories of the Necronomicon and Unaussprechlichen Kulten, with cycles of translation and prohibition, but the fine details—the Borgia pope, the human leather cover, the disappearance during the Blitz—are evocative and specific without delving into excess. Even the name aegri somnia (“troubled dreams”) hints at the bad karma that surrounds this book.

Collins’ story probably owes a debt to Ramsey Campbell’s “Cold Print” (1969). Both stories involve a bookshop, bring the Mythos down to the gritty street-level, obsessive protagonists, and have a similar approach to Mythos books as a kind of quasi-pornography—taboo literature which both readers and characters tend to fetishize above and beyond the actual content. Collins name-drops Campbell’s Revelations of Glaaki among the titles in Emerson’s library, a nice nod to one of the contemporary masters of Mythos fiction.

“The Land of the Reflected Ones” first appeared in Tombs (1995) and has been reprinted twice, in Eternal Lovecraft: The Persistence of H. P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture (1998) and Collins’ collection Avenue X and Other Dark Streets (2000). Nancy A. Collins has written over seventeen novels, as well as dozens of short stories and comic books. Her other most notable Cthulhu Mythos story is “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996), which also appears in Avenue X and most recently in Tales Out of Dunwich (2005) and as an ebook (2012). “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” was nominated for a Bram Stoker award for best novelette. The Aegrisomnia was introduced in “Sunglasses After Dark” (1989), the first in Collins’ Sonja Blue stories.

 

“Pugelbone” (2010) by Nadia Bulkin

For it is of old rumour that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnel clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Festival”

Set in an unknown but recognizable tomorrow. In the crowded urban structure known as the Warren, people live in close proximity. Isolated from the outside, both physically and economically, the Meers (Meerkats) grow up in the crush of humanity, amid an urban ecosystem grown subterranean and strange with a new horror, one the children call…Pugelbones.

“Pugelbone” is not a Cthulhu Mythos story; there are no quotes from the Necronomicon, no reference to any recognizable corner of the Miskatonic Valley, no alien gods and sinister cults. Yet Nadia Bulkin’s story is built up from a base of Lovecraftian literary DNA, like a slab of artificial meat grown in a lab. A product of the strange and marvelous now, hacking the genetic material of “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls” and building it back up into something you can sink your teeth into.

The protagonist Lizbet was born a Meer. A girl that just liked to break things. An outsider among an outsider group, she is at once sympathetic and unreliable. All she wants is custody of her daughter—and the only way to get it is to interact with the unsympathetic bureaucracy as represented by Dr. Roman. These are adult fears: poor people trapped in a system they never built or opted in to, trying to navigate the weird social spaces of interviews with indifferent people that decide their fate. “Pugelbones” is Lizbet’s story—the story she tells Dr. Roman, to try and win back her daughter, and the story of telling that story, as Roman deflates, dismisses, and directs the conversation. A “passive listener” that has all the power in the relationship, and diminishes Lizbet with insinuation.

Yet Dr. Roman never denies the essential reality of the Pugelbones.

In Lovecraft’s stories like “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls,” the underground space—a favored personal image which appears in his stories—contains or did contain other horrors: a teeming mass of humanity or near-humanity. Societies that set themselves apart, to live, work, breed, and die down there. Written before Lovecraft’s period in New York City, it is still tempting to see an echo in these stories of urban fears, the great crowded tenements and filthy streets. Contemporary concerns, expressed in Lovecraft’s own language and filtered through his own prejudices, but still tapping into the 1920’s zeitgeist. Lovecraft’s stories are told from the interloper’s perspective, from those who had not been born and  bred.

What would “The Lurking Fear” read like, if told from the perspective of a Martense?

[…] a degenerate squatter population inhabiting pitiful hamlets on isolated slopes. Normal beings seldom visited the locality till the state police were formed, and even now only infrequent troopers patrol it. […] With whimpering insistence the squatters told tales of a daemon which seized lone wayfarers after dark, either carrying them off or leaving them in a frightful state of gnawed dismemberment; while sometimes they whispered of blood-trails toward the distant mansion.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Lurking Fear”

Nadia Bulkin’s story works because some of those horrors present in the early 20th century still haunt us in the early 21st century. The poor may not be seen as “gently descending the evolutionary scale” as Lovecraft put it, but the Meers are no less the subject to prejudice and stereotype. Lizbet is subject to the same prejudices that Lovecraft’s Catskills white trash, with the added bonus of being a woman, and a single parent, with all the additional onus that brings. These are all adult fears, the kind of tangible horrors of desperation that can face anyone today. Bulkin taps into the same zeitgeist as Lovecraft did; her story works because the situation is presented so realistically.

The Pugelbones are the element of the weird which is interwoven with the more mundane horrors of child protective services and overpopulation, and like many Lovecraftian horrors they are very material entities. An undiscovered species, urban predators. The truth about them is not half as terrible as Dr. Roman’s towing the official government line about their existence, or her insinuations about Lizbet’s relationship with them. They are the great mystery of the piece, only half-glimpsed through the Meer’s story, their presence told in piles of trash and smears of blood.

Yet the story is theirs, as much as it is Meers: these Lovecraftian beasties are essential to the piece, and Bulkin wisely keeps them off the page for most of it. Readers get hints of them long before they see them, rumors and legend before the Pugelbones appear in a scene. Rather than being specifically horrific themselves, the Pugelbones are the catalysts for the human horrors; the outside element that disrupts the human narrative, like the xenomorphs of Ridley Scott’s Alien, the one terrible unpredictable event which starts off the cascade of adult fears.

Chthonic_FC_01-712x1024Nadia Bulkin’s “Pugelbone” first appeared in ChiZine (Oct-Dec 2010), and was reprinted in her collection She Said Destroy (2017), and Cthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth (2018). Bulkin has been prominent the last few years in various anthologies, and her corpus of Lovecraftian and Mythos fiction includes “Red Goat Black Goat” (2010), “Truth is Order and Order is Truth” (2014), “Violet Is The Color Of Your Energy” (2015), “Pro Patria!” (2015), “There Is A Bear In the Woods” (2016), “I Believe That We Will Win” (2016), “Empire Down” (2017), and “A Dream, and a Monster at the End of It” (2017).