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“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).

“Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” (2012) by Gemma Files

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Cassilda’s Song in “The King in Yellow,” Act 1, Scene 2.
—Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow (1895)

Alice is a forensic pathologist is called away to a remote tropical island to dig up and reassemble the bodies from a mass grave that the locals have been adding to for centuries. Down through the layers and the bodies, peeling away one onion-skin layer of mystery at a time. The inbred, insular locals aren’t talking who killed the victims or why—”it’s a serious Innsmouthian situation ’round these parts” one character chimes; a good line, though the character isn’t quite genre-savvy enough to survive the final act.

The island’s name is Carcosa.

Robert W. Chambers, H. P. Lovecraft, and so many other authors built their mythology on evocation and intimation, explicit references which implied a wider body of lore, names to conjure with and carefully detailed, realistic descriptions. The mystery, and the connections that tie stories together, is part of the attraction of the Mythos. The appearance of the terrible play The King in Yellow is what helps tie together the first stories in Chambers’ 1895 collection to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Readers never see Hali and Carcosa in those stories; the eponymous King remains off the page, so that the reader fills in the gaps with their own imagination, stranger and more terrible than anything Chambers could have come up with.

Yet exegesis is a long tradition in Mythos fiction. While stories like “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys may offer expansions and emendations of Mythos fiction, to enhance, extend, and revisit, the purpose of exegesis is to re-contextualize and explicate. That’s what Gemma Files does in “Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars”—totally removed from the play itself, through the eyes and ears of Alice, she unravels a Carcosa and a Lake of Hali, twin suns and black stars. The result is a double narrative: there are the events of the story itself, as the dig unfolds, going deeper into the black volcanic soil of the mass grave, and there is the story of Carcosa—what it is, who lives there, what little of its history and folklore that can be passed on in pidgin or through their interpreter.

The Innsmouth reference is no accident, though maybe a touch of red herring. Lovecraft was fond of the twin narrative structure in his own works: stories like “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” focus not only on a contemporary plot but the deeper mystery that led up to current events, which come together in a single revelation and climax. In particular, Files picks up one of Lovecraft’s most popular themes—the reclusive, insular, inbred community with its dark secret. Carcosa is re-imagined as Lovecraft Country, akin to Dunwich and Innsmouth, Averoigne and Stregoicavar; a volcanic outcrop set in a far and obscure archipelago off of Indonesia; where the natives have lived generation after generation with little contact from outsiders. The re-build is done with great care for realism, reflecting real-world research. If there was such a place as Carcosa, set where Gemma Files has set it, then that place and that people would look and sound as she describes them.

This is not “the” explanation for the strange and obscure imagery from the excerpts of the play in Chambers’ stories. It is one explanation, one writer’s personal exegesis, one possible explanation to fit the images and plot of Chambers’ fragments. The exegesis forms the secondary narrative of the story, the history being told to Alice. Her story, the first narrative, is in the bodies being dug on the island, weird anatomies that speak of a small genepool compounding small mutations—and it is in Alice herself.

“Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” is a story told in second person. The reader is addressed as if they are Alice, the perspective is told through her senses, though the reader is not always aware of everything Alice has said and done. Our sense of Alice as a person is limited: not sexless, but not focused on reproduction like Dr. Katherine Cullom, the protagonist of “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens. The narrative notes her practical modesty in the disposable “grave bras” she brings to the dig, garments to be worn for the duration of the time at the gravesite and then discarded when the dig is over, but not romantic entanglements or threats of rape. Like in Lovecraft’s fiction, sex doesn’t enter into it unless essential to the plot.

Reproduction is the engine that drives this story, although it takes Alice to piece that together, one bone at a time. The story as Alice discovers is one of biological determinism different from anything Lovecraft imagined, borne out in the pathologist’s perception of the world, rather than the racialist science of Lovecraft’s period. Instead of measuring facial angles, Alice looks at how the bones fit together (or don’t), the interplay of connective tissue, the signs that indicate whether this skeleton was male or female. The native Carcosans, for all that they form a definitive cultural Other for the story, largely feature only be reference, or through the dead. Even the interpreter Ringo, who tells Alice so much, is seen by his relatives as an outsider rather than a prodigal son…and that’s probably for the best. The Carcosans are different, they are Other, but they are neither stereotypes nor monsters; Alice knows them as different, because of their anatomical anomalies, but still recognizably human.

Which is an interesting lesson for Mythos fiction. That an individual people can be distinct, physically and culturally, yet still recognizably people and deserving of respect. Alice as a scientist can differentiate anatomy without bias; the one character, Ken, who is notably bigoted toward the inbred nature of Carcosa is universally depicted as uncouth, his moralizing judgments on their way of life unnecessary. The rest of the team are focused on the excavation, the crime that was committed—has been committed, for who knows how long—and in a real way, they are proven right. Incest is not the cause of the problems in Carcosa. In lost Carcosa, the mystery Alice unveils one corpse at a time is stranger still.

“Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” was first published in the Yellow Mythos anthology A Season in Carcosa (2012) and reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 24 (2013). Gemma Files is a familiar name among the current generation of Mythos writers, several of her notable Mythos and Lovecraftian stories and poems include”Marya Nox” (2009), “Haruspicy” (2010), “Jar of Salts” (2010), “[Anasazi]” (2014), “The Harrow” (2014), “Hairwork” (2015), “Grave Goods” (2016), “Little Ease” (2016), and “Every Hole in the Earth We Will Claim as Our Own” (2016).

 

“Showdown at Red Hook” (2011) by Lois H. Gresh

In my Mythos tales, I like to push Lovecraftian science and themes in new directions. So, for example, while HPL incorporated the astronomy and physics ideas of his day (eg, cosmos within cosmos and other dimensions), I speculate about modern science: quantum optics, particle physics, chaos theory, string theory, and so forth. While HPL showcased his creatures against a backdrop of bleak humanity—I pit my own types of creatures against the horrors of the Mythos, and I want my creatures to fight back. Examples of these stories are Mandelbrot Moldrot, Where I go Mi-Go, Showdown at Red Hook, and Scourge of the Old Ones.
—Lois H. Gresh, “Underlying Darkness” in Eldritch Evolutions 9

There are no rules for the Cthulhu Mythos, only conventions. While some writers are content to play within the limits of the setting as conceived by Lovecraft and his contemporaries, the spectrum of Mythos fiction is much broader—and entire anthologies have been written exploring the Mythos in the changing context of different periods, different genres than just the 1920s and 30s. Sometimes this is simply a change of setting: the story retains all the elements of the Mythos, only in a different place and period, such as Victorian London in “Magna Mater” (2015) by Arinn Dembo and “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer…and sometimes, you get something much stranger.

“Showdown at Red Hook” is a remix, a transposition of certain Lovecraftian names and characters to a weird western milieu. The heaviest source is Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook,” which provides the name of the protagonist, lawman Tom Malone, the name of the setting—the dead village of Red Hook—and the name of the terrible tribe which serves as the antagonists, the Chepachet; their strange chant is lifted from the bits of incantation that Lovecraft himself took from that most eldritch of tomes, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and included in his story for a touch of real occultism. Gresh includes it here as a laughing nod toward Lovecraftian convention, but a convention juxtaposed against an entirely inappropriate and nonsensical setting.

Similarly, while “Chepachet” is a real Native American word, used for a street in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn and a town in Rhode Island, it was never the name of an actual people. It is entirely a comedic wink-and-nod to readers for her false Native American tribe to chant “Hel sother sabaoth tetragramaton ischyros va adonai messias escherheye!“, echoing the cultists in Lovecraft’s tale, just as it is a joke to name Malone’s not-quite-so-trusty deputy “Al Blackwood”—knowing that readers will be familiar with weird story writer Algernon Blackwood, one of Lovecraft’s favorite authors. It’s all in fun, and in keeping with the Mythos tradition.

Yet there is a frisson. The story is a weird western, not a straight western tale or a straight Mythos tale but something uniquely its own, and the tropes of the two contrast and blend oddly. It’s a setting and a story told in broad strokes and little details, with important chunks of the plot and action lost or glossed over in moments of almost psychedelic imagery. It’s a story readers absorb first and unweave later. Yet start pulling at the threads, and there are some strange things in the warp and weft of the story.

The Chepachet, for example, are more alien than any Native American people that frontier settlers ever encountered; yet they fill the place and are addressed in the story as stereotypical Native Americans in frontier horror tales, despite their many tentacles and bizarre undead horses. They are literally inhuman, but are lumped together with the native human peoples of the Americas. The Chepachet represent the conjunction or mishmash of two entirely separate conceptions of the Other. The joke, of course, is that many frontier horror stories deny the basic humanity of Native Americans anyway: it is hard to distinguish between simple prejudice and true alienation.

There is one one, or maybe two, women in “Showdown at Red Hook.” The first is Mae Curwin, whose safe delivery is the nominal point of Malone and Blackwood’s trip through Red Hook. The second, who only appears at the very end, is Malone’s mother, stolen by the Chepachet when he was a boy—echoes of frontier horrors, the kind that Robert E. Howard used to regale Lovecraft with in his letters, when the Native Americans were painted as real-life boogeymen that stole horses and women; killed, kidnapped, and raped…except the Chepachet are not real Native Americans; they are inhuman horrors, and when their chief Dagon says “I want that squaw” he implies something worse than Malone imagined may have happened to his mother. Yet Dagon’s specific delivery of why he wants Curwin is comical: “Virgin, 18, blonde: good squaw for the Old Ones”—an echo of Sandra Dee’s role in The Dunwich Horror (1970).

Mae Curwin’s role as a literal sex object is underscored at several points in the narrative; in western fiction white women are sometimes treated as the currency of transactions and the prize to be fought over and claimed by the victor—and Gresh plays this both seriously and for laughs. The trope is never exactly subverted, but neither is it explicitly fulfilled: Malone is a lusty, red-blooded man, but fights to overcome his basic instincts as he knows manly heroes should, playing into the gender role assigned to him; the Chepachet are not rapacious Native Americans in the sense of sexual assault, for while they are all male they are all essentially sexless, with no women or children evident at their encampment. Curwin is the living MacGuffin of the story, but not for the usual western reasons, but for a Lovecraftian one: as a suitable sacrifice, just as in “The Horror at Red Hook.”

Tom Malone, like his namesake in Lovecraft’s story, sees and experiences terrible things, and is a character caught very explicitly between being the masculine, action-oriented western hero and the more reluctant, passive Lovecraftian protagonist…and all, apparently, according to plan:

[Dagon] had played on Malone’s need to be the manly one, the hero. […] And now, what could Malone possibly do?

While the plot centers on Dagon’s effort to secure Mae Curwin as a squaw for the Old Ones, the way he accomplishes that is to manipulate Malone to bring her to him…and Dagon wants it to be Malone, because he wants Malone to trade Mae for his mother. This is the real point of transition for Malone, from the western hero to the Lovecraftian protagonist. Like Lovecraft’s Malone, Gresh’s Malone ends up unable prevent the young woman’s sacrifice.

Given how blithely and purposefully (one might say gleefully) Gresh blends up the tropes and references of both Lovecraftian horror and frontier horror, the story as a whole can be taken as an extended farce, not meant to be taken too seriously. She plays on the juxtaposition of tropes, and the points where they conjoin: the alien Other, the female sacrifice, the male protagonist. The result is definitely outside of the regular run of Cthulhu Mythos tales, but as a mashup addresses several of the themes of gender and Otherness in the two genres in ways that many Lovecraftian weird western tales don’t.

Lois H. Gresh is a New York Times bestselling author. “”Showdown at Red Hook” was first published in her collection Eldritch Evolutions (2011), part of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu Fiction line, and was reprinted in Cult of the Dead and Other Weird and Lovecraftian Tales (2015, Hippocampus Press). In addition to her many short stories of the Mythos, Gresh edited the anthology Innsmouth Nightmares (2015) and wrote the novel Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Deadly Dimensions (2017) and its sequel Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Neural Psychoses (2018).

“The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys

Keener news-followers, however, wondered at the prodigious number of arrests, the abnormally large force of men used in making them, and the secrecy surrounding the disposal of the prisoners. No trials, or even definite charges, were reported; nor were any of the captives seen thereafter in the regular gaols of the nation. There were vague statements about disease and concentration camps, and later about dispersal in various naval and military prisons, but nothing positive ever developed. Innsmouth itself was left almost depopulated, and is even now only beginning to shew signs of a sluggishly revived existence.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

Concentration camps today are largely associated with the second World War: the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese Americans, the Bataan death march and other horrors. The Nazi government would begin the creation of concentration camps soon after Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933…but Lovecraft would not have known about this at the time he was writing “The Shadow over Innsmouth” in Nov-Dec 1931. Lovecraft’s use of the idea would hearken back to the first World War, when the United States and other nations interned “enemy aliens”—sometimes on the basis of ethnicity and nationality, sometimes for disloyalty, real or suspected.

The reference to concentration camps in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is thus a sub rosa nod to readers, cluing them in that these people were different and perhaps held dangerous loyalties. Yet it is a message whose meaning has changed over time. Readers who have grown up in the aftermath of World War II, with a full awareness of the horrors that the Nazis would accomplish and the extremes that Americans would go to when driven by fear and prejudice—and because of this change in syntax, it has inspired different fictional interpretations, the two most notable of which are Brian McNaughton’s “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) and Ruthanna Emrys “The Litany of Earth” (2014).

We need not dust off the history of our nation’s dealings with the Indians to find examples of genocide, nor even go so far from our doorsteps as Montgomery, Alabama, to see instances of racism. Right here in our own state of Massachusetts, in February of 1928, agents of the U.S. Treasury and Justice Departments perpetrated crimes worthy of Nazi Germany against a powerless minority of our citizens…
—Brian McNaughton, “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (Even More Nasty Stories 7)

McNaughton’s opening sets the scene: the events of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” are not undone, but are showcased in an entirely different light, in line with contemporary attitudes towards racial prejudice and xenophobia. The raid becomes not a protective government hand sweeping in to solve a terrible threat, but a jackbooted act of discrimination, with a reductio ad Hitlerum thrown in just in case anyone missed it. This was immensely novel at the time, and the story carries on from there in much the same vein: set in the modern day, two generations removed the end of Lovecraft’s story, Bob Smith is a descendant of Innsmouth, his grandmother being one of the few that escaped the federal raid, and apparently ignorant of the Innsmouth heritage, the religion…all of it, except what bits and fragments his senile grandmother had told him.

Part of what makes McNaughton’s story work is what is said and left unsaid. Readers who may empathize with Bob Smith and the other Innsmouth residents are subtly reminded at every turn, without being explicit, that these people are not entirely human, that their religion (“In the name of Mother Hydra!”) was real, and also that they face prejudice from being who they are and holding to their beliefs. Shades of the Holocaust, with a blending of conspiracy theory and institutional racism; but where a Jew might be called a “hymie,” the Innsmouth pejorative is “Kermie”—after Kermit the Frog, to reflect their batrachian appearance.

The twist of the story is not so much the action climax, or the revelations about Bob Smith’s extracurricular activities that follow, but that the residents of Innsmouth are at least as dangerous as Lovecraft had written them, with McNaughton’s own small embellishments on Esoteric Order of Dagon theology and ceremonies adding a rather more overtly sordid and bloody emphasis. It’s a subversion of expectations: in an era when judging people by appearance, ethnicity, and religion are all considered taboo, when the discrimination and prejudice they have suffered is shown at length and in great detail, with parallels drawn to that experienced by real-life groups…readers may well have been sympathetic for Bob Smith, until he showed his true colors.

What stops “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” from being a fable whose moral is that race prejudice is a positive thing? McNaughton was clever enough to make use of the racial allegories that can be read in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and contemporary post-WWII, post-Civil Rights era mentality, and bold enough to do a Twilight Zone-esque subversion of expectations, but the subtextual message of the story is unpleasant: that sometimes prejudices are justified. It’s doubtful McNaughton ever intended that specific reading; after all, the idea that the residents of Innsmouth are partially inhuman fish-people is normally taken for granted by Mythos authors—and that itself is part of the problem.

The idea that there is a race that is inherently considered monstrous and a threat to “regular” humans in fiction is already unpleasantly close to the stereotypes and libels applied to real-world minorities and ethnic groups. The fact that writers use that idea without examination of the underlying implications is worse—nothing McNaughton writes about Deep Ones and Innsmouth hybrids is very different than the characterization in “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) by Ann K. Schwader or “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens. However, because he specifically invoked tropes of institutional racism, prejudice, and hate crimes, McNaughton is taking the subtext and making it text—what could be read as a dog whistle in the first “Innsmouth” becomes blatant in “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth.” The latter remains a good story, but also serves as an example for why it can be very difficult to tell stories that interact with racism in a realistic way in Lovecraft’s fiction.

In the evenings, the radio told what I had missed: an earth-spanning war, and atrocities in Europe to match and even exceed what had been done to both our peoples. We did not ask, the Kotos and I, whether our captors too would eventually be called to justice. The Japanese American community, for the most part, was trying to put the camps behind them. And it was not the way of my folk—who had grown resigned to the camps long before the Kotos’ people were sent to join us, and who no longer had a community on land—to dwell on impossibilities.
—Ruthanna Emrys, “The Litany of Earth”

Emrys starts from the same place as McNaughton: the Innsmouth diaspora. In her setting, the concentration camps of 1928 faded into those set up for Japanese-Americans starting in 1942. Innsmouth is mostly gone, and after her release Aphra Marsh too tries to reclaim what bits and pieces she can of her heritage, while living with the Japanese family she had shared the camp with.

What is markedly different between the two stories is tone. “The Litany of Earth” is a not a horror story, but a dark fantasy. There is no subtle hinting; the Cthulhu Mythos is real to Aphra, a part of her old life before the government shut her away and what she hopes to get back. While race is still a point of discrimination, Emrys focuses on religion and the eradication of history and culture:

In ’26, the whole religion were declared enemies of the state, and we started looking out for anyone who said the wrong names on Sunday night, or had the wrong statues in their churches. You know where it goes from there.

Contrasting with Aphra is FBI Agent Spector: an agent of the government that imprisoned her, a German immigrant of Jewish descent. Almost a literal “Good German.” Their shared experience of discrimination provides at least a slight thawing of relations, though not instant rapport. After all, he needs her help.

“And every religion has its fanatics, who are willing to do terrible things in the name of their god. No one is immune.” His lips quirked. “It’s a failing of humanity, not of any particular sect.”

The focus on religion cuts away from some of the less pleasant aspects of Lovecraft’s concentration camp victims. Aphra Marsh and her folk are a people apart, but a sharp delineation is made between the cultists of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Call of Cthulhu,” less of race and more in understanding and approach: in Agent Spector’s plea for cooperation, it is the extremists with their blood sacrifices that are the bad guys. Even among those there are poseurs, con-artists, the desperate and deluded.

Yet Aphra Marsh sticks to Lovecraft’s script that the Deep Ones are a different race of people, and that their attributes are not those of homo sapiens. Biological immortality, an ancient culture and eldritch lore, an attachment to aspects of nature—the Deep Ones in “The Litany of Earth” are the second cousins of Tolkien’s Sea Elves from The Lord of the Rings. As in Tolkien’s work, there is a pettiness to some humans, a clash over the limited lifespan compared to those of the elder folk. The same essential conflict, only with Lovecraftian trappings.

Thus, “The Litany of Earth” shares some of the same problems as “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth.” The central falseness of racism and racialism is that humans are, for better or for worse, all basically the same. Races are a social construct, not a biological one. Different populations may exhibit common features due to shared ancestry, but homo sapiens is one species. The Deep Ones are different. They may look human, when young; they may interbreed with humans, yet they are fundamentally other. In the fantasy setting of the Cthulhu Mythos, the Deep Ones embody the Nazi conception of a race apart far more than the Jews ever did.

When the lines between allegory and exposition are erased, you’re not looking at racism as was understood and practiced by Lovecraft, or in the concentration camps of World War II. If the subject of fantastic racism actually is alien, the dynamic shifts and the old arguments used to oppose it have to shift as well. The trappings are the same, but you’re not dealing with human-on-human racism, but something akin to destroying the natural habitat of apes and cetaceans and keeping them in captivity—and whether or not the detainees have human-level intelligence, or what constitutes “human” as far as rights, become part of the conversation. Or at least it should.

Neither McNaughton or Emrys really want to explore that direction in these stories; their narratives depend on Deep Ones that are human enough to face prejudice and be sympathetic, and alien enough to provide a core of real insurmountable difference with actual humans. Both McNaughton and Emrys also hedge away from miscegenation and immigration, arguably the most prominent themes regarding race in “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” There’s no real discussion in either story of the Deep Ones having come to Innsmouth from somewhere else and absorbing or displacing the population; the threat to humanity is never existential as far as Deep Ones irrevocably contaminating the human gene pool or culture. The protagonists in each story are members of an embattled minority, almost an endangered species, at least on land.

Genocide is the shadow that hangs over both McNaughton and Emrys’ versions of Innsmouth. The purpose of concentration camps when Lovecraft wrote “The Shadow over Innsmouth” was internment, at least in the United States; yet it lead inexorably to the effort to exterminate entire peoples by the Nazis. In “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth,” the effort is ongoing, albeit less direct; in “The Litany of Earth,” the FBI’s focus has shifted to cultists, but it took WWII for them to begin to face their mistakes. In both cases, families were broken up, generations lost. McNaughton and Emyrs looked, with the wizened eyes of those who have seen the outcome of the Holocaust, past the end that Lovecraft wrote at the consequences which he did not, could not fully predict.

Complaints from many liberal organisations were met with long confidential discussions, and representatives were taken on trips to certain camps and prisons. As a result, these societies became surprisingly passive and reticent. Newspaper men were harder to manage, but seemed largely to coöperate with the government in the end.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

Brian McNaughton got his start as a writer in the fan-scene of the 1950s; worked as a newspaperman, and eventually spent over a decade writing pornographic novels and stories for adult magazines, before crossing back over into horror and weird fiction in the 1980s, where he won acclaim, including a World Fantasy Award in 1997. He wrote a number of Cthulhu Mythos stories, with a penchant for outrageousness, sexuality, and black humor. His best short horror fiction is collected in Nasty Stories (2000) and Even More Nasty Stories (2002), and he wrote several novels of the Cthulhu Mythos—including a pornographic novel involving another Innsmouth survivor, Tide of Desire (1982) under the name Sheena Clayton. He died in 2004.

Ruthanna Emrys continues the story of Aphra Marsh in her series The Innsmouth Legacy, currently consisting of Winter Tide (2017) and Deep Roots (2018). Her Lovecraftian short fiction includes “Those Who Watch” (2016), and with Ann M. Pillsworth she is part of Tor.com’s series The Lovecraft Reread.

Harlem Unbound (2017) by Darker Hue Studios

 

Black Harlem—of possible interest to you as a source of sy[n]copated melody—is impressive to the Easterner chiefly on account of its size, since all the eastern towns have large African sections. To many westerners—as, for instance, a friend of mine in Appleton, Wisconsin, who never saw a nigger till he was in college—it would be quite stupefying. I don’t know whether are are any blacks in your part of the world or not—of, if so, how thick they are. In Harlem there must be about as many as there are in all the southern states put together—one realises it unpleasantly in the uptown Broadway subway, one of whose three branchings above 9th St. leads to the black belt. […] All the drug stores carry rabbit’s-foot luck charms, dream books, anti-kink fluid & pomade for the wool of dusky sheiks & sirens, & (also for the rites of Congolese coiffure) devices called “straightening-irons.” The clothing-stores feature gaudy & eccentric suits & flaming haberdashery.
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 27 Mar 1934
Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, Duane W. Rimel & Nils Frome (2016) 65-67

 

Spivey
Chris Spivey

Harlem Unbound is a roleplaying game supplement published by Darker Hue Studios for use with The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game (Chaosium), and compatible with the GUMSHOE system used by Lovecraftian roleplaying games like Trail of Cthulhu (Pelgrane Press). The brainchild of Chris Spivey and a multiracial group of writers, artists, editors, etc., it has the distinction of being the first Lovecraftian roleplaying product to focus on the black experience during the 1920s in the United States—a period of legal segregation, jazz and blues, the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance. Yet to appreciate what Harlem Unbound is and why it is important, it is necessary to look back on what Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying is and where it came from.

Dungeons & Dragons was first published in 1974, and initiated the popularization of roleplaying games as a hobby and the roleplaying game book as a form of literature. Heavily inspired by pulp fiction, Lovecraft and other Weird Tales favorites appear in “Appendix N: Inspirational and Education Reading” in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), and Cthulhu Mythos made an appearance in the 1980 supplement Deities & Demigods—but quickly discovered that another company, Chaosium, had acquired license to adapt Lovecraft’s works for roleplaying game purposes. They published the first edition of The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game in 1981; almost forty years later, the game is on it’s 7th edition, and has spawned innumerable spin-offs and third-party supplements: Delta Green, Achtung! Cthulhu, The Laundry, Trail of Cthulhu, etc.

The conceit of Call of Cthulhu is that the player’s characters are investigators; one takes the role of the Keeper to guide the game, adjudicate rules, and act as referee and storyteller. By default the action is set during the 1920s-1930s period (though other settings have since expanded the scope of the game and its various spin-offs). There is a heavy simulationist element to the game—vehicles, weapons, and other equipment are adapted primarily from what would have been available in real life, with prices for goods taken from contemporary catalogs; contemporary fashions and events like World War I, the Great Depression, and Prohibition often feature in the setting materials; and historical individuals like Duke Ellington, Al Capone, and Aleister Crowley are included alongside fictional characters. Real history blends with the fictional background of stories by Lovecraft and others.

The endemic racism, misogyny, and nativism of the period is a bit of a sticking point, and not one that Chaosium and various other companies and writers have handled well. There is a conflict in writing Call of Cthulhu material between catering to contemporary sensibilities and the accurate depiction of hard realities of what African-Americans and other people of color experienced during Lovecraft’s lifetime—and in his fiction. There are few black or ethnic characters in Lovecraft’s fiction, and those that do exist are not generally portrayed positively; the Cthulhu Mythos fiction generated by Lovecraft’s contemporaries such as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, and August Derleth are not much better in this regard. To adapt the material of the Cthulhu Mythos to the purposes of play the writers have to balance accurate portrayal of the material versus contemporary knowledge and acceptable use.

It can be a difficult balance to strike. The horror evoked by Lovecraft when he presented Marceline Bedard from “Medusa’s Coil” as being mixed-race reflected the horror of white people to the idea of people of color that could “pass.” Today the “revelation” is downright offensive to contemporary audiences; a straight adaptation of Marceline that focused on her black ancestry would be accurate to the source material, but unacceptably tone-deaf. Yet one of the issues faced by Call of Cthulhu products is meeting these very challenges…and failing. Charles Saunders wrote of a similar issue in fantasy fiction in his essay “Die, Black Dog!”, where contemporary writers were repeating the characterization of pulpsters from the 1930s:

[…] in the worlds of today’s fantasy, the racial atmosphere remains unchanged. Blacks are either ignored or are portrayed in the same hackneyed stereotypes that should have died with colonialism.

The latter has been especially true for supplements set in Africa such as The Cairo Guidebook, Secrets of the Congo, Secrets of Kenya, Secrets of Morocco, Mysteries of Sudan and the Achtung! Cthulhu Guide to North Africa; or Asia such as Myseries of the Raj, Secrets of Japan, and Secrets of Tibet; and to a lesser extant in supplements dedicated to cities with large multiracial populations, such as Secrets of New York and the New Orleans Guidebook. Most supplements to the game frankly ignore race, or if it is an issue deal with it curtly and perfunctorily. Long-time players will probably be familiar with the scenario “Dead Man Stomp” and its “Special Comments”:

Race is important in this adventure. Identify the race of each investigator before play begins. Choice of race brings no penalty, but a questioner’s race can determine the accessibility of information. Read this adventure before presenting it: if all the investigators are African-American, for instance, rather than a racial cross-section, or are all white, or are all Asian-Americans, the keeper must devise some patches. The scenario presumes that the investigators are white.
The Call of Cthulhu (2005, 6th edition) 270

For most Call of Cthulhu products, “presumes that the investigators are white” is the default. Just as it is in Lovecraft’s fiction. When the writers, editors, and audience are all largely white themselves, the “presumption” often goes unnoticed, unquestioned, and un-examined. Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying, as an extension of Cthulhu Mythos fiction, ultimately faces many of the same issues regarding race, and for the same reasons.

Harlem Unbound is something else. The book itself is written very typically for Call of Cthulhu supplements: roughly the first half is dedicated to background materials, systems, character options, scenario hooks, and non-player characters for a game set in Harlem, while the back half contains a handful of scenarios for the Harlem setting. The books aren’t so standardized that they write themselves, but there’s a clear goal for every book written in a real-life historical setting after the advent of the World Wide Web: be better than the equivalent Wikipedia page, provide enough hooks for roleplayers to build stories off of.

Harlem Unbound easily does that: the writing is crisp, informed, and focused. Tangents like the Harlem Hellfighters, the Harlem Race Riot of 1935, and the Rise of the Ku Klux Klan are relegated to sidebars.  The Mythos elements are generally slight in the first half of the book, but given the dearth of Mythos fiction set in Harlem, the writers didn’t have much raw material to work with. The game presents character creation rules for Harlemites using both Call of Cthulhu‘s Basic Roleplaying System and the GUMSHOE system; from a game design standpoint it’s a professional product, with little touches of flavor in the new occupations made available for players, like Conjure Woman and Hellfighter. The production values are very high, especially considering this is the first product from an independent studio: the vivid use of red against the white page and black text stands out well, and extends into much of the artwork, making for a striking visual aesthetic that’s easy to read.

The very best section, and worth the price of the whole book, is the chapter on storytelling. This is traditionally an area which Call of Cthulhu fails to provide much if any useful guidance, and almost never with regards to racism and racial appropriation. The approach is hard-hitting and to the point:

When playing someone of a different race, there must be sensitivity to avoid any form of cultural appropriation. It is possible to honor and interact with the culture on more than just an aesthetic level. Blackface? Just don’t. Don’t try to talk with a “black” accent. Don’t try to have “black” mannerisms or fall into any of the countless stereotypes.

These are real issues for players to deal with. While it might be laudable in a period drama to depict the realities of life and language of discrimination that people of color lived under daily, in a casual roleplaying game environment the realistic depiction by gamers of 1920s racism is generally not acceptable—players do not want to be discriminated against in-game for the race or gender of their characters, nor should the casual racism of the period be accepted as something for players to perform “in character.” If you are going to incorporate racial discrimination as part of the game setting, it needs to be front and center, part of the social contract that players enter into when they agree to game—and there need to be limits.

Case in point, in a film or television program, the N-word will be weighed in the script long before an actor ever utters it, the impact and meaning judged according to the needs of the plot and the characterization of the players—roleplaying gamers cannot be expected to evaluate that kind of context on the fly, nor should they be encouraged to use it without restraint simply because it was in common use in the 1920s. Casual racism, even in “fun”, should not be encouraged. As Spivey puts it:

CAN I USE THE N-WORD IN MY GAME?
Short answer? No.

It is never okay for a non-black Keeper to use it, and even black Keepers should be wary of it. “Wait, what? It’s just a game…” is possibly the thought going through your mind.

Let’s assume that everyone who would want to say that word in the game is not racist or bigoted (that laughing you hear is my internal cynic). Even if all of that remains true, what does using the word really bring to a scene? Is it impact or shock you’re looking for? If so, that can be conveyed by the actions of your antagonists.

The last half of the book mostly consists of five scenarios (“Harlem Hellfighters Never Die,” “Harlem (K)Nights,” “The Contender: A Love Story,” and “Dreams and Broken Wings”). This is followed by “Souls of Harlem,” a guide to the Harlemites with important focuses on issues like LGBTQ, the Italian and Jewish communities, Nelia Larsen’s novel Passing, the all-black 1921 musical Shuffle Along, and Beta Israel;  and brief appendices with a guide to period slang, a timeline of major events, recommended media, etc.

Harlem Unbound is a very solid Call of Cthulhu supplement. Like many CoC products, the writers focus on setting and verisimilitude first, and if Mythos material seems lacking, the material integrates well with other CoC products: Keepers can drop in NPCs or locations from Secrets of New York without a problem, or borrow the Voodoo rules from The New Orleans Guidebook to give root doctors and Hoodoo practitioners more bite, for example. Gumby’s Bookstore could serve as the focal point for a Bookhounds of London-style campaign set in Harlem (Bookhounds is a Trail of Cthulhu expansion using the GUMSHOE system). The 369th Infantry regiment, the famous Harlem Hellfighters, saw service in World War II, and could easily fit into an Achtung! Cthulhu campaign.

The straightforward approach to difficult subjects like racism, language, segregation, and roleplaying are all appreciated. Harlem Unbound provides something new to Call of Cthulhu that isn’t yet another avatar of Nyarlathotep or one more sinister cult or terrible tome: a game that doesn’t presume players or their characters are white.

HarlemUnboundI backed the Kickstarter for the publication of Harlem Unbound on faith; I haven’t read any of Chris Spivey’s work on Cthulhu Confidential, or seen anything of the work of the other writers Bob Heist, Ruth Tillman, Alex Mayo, Sarah Hood, and Neall Raemonn Price, but I liked the look of the samples and I’m glad to have backed the project and received the finish product. As a genre, Cthulhu Mythos roleplay has been so stuck in a rut for so long, we need books like this to really shine a light on how little attention most works for Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu and related games devote to the portrayal and experience of people of color, either as characters within the game as as players and Keepers.

 

“Magna Mater” (2015) by Arinn Dembo

One thing—you may be sure that if I ever entitled a story The White Ape, there would be no ape in it. There would be something at first taken for an ape, which would not be an ape. But how can one ever get those subtleties across?
—H. P. Lovecraft to Edwin Baird, 3 Feb 1924, Selected Letters 1.294

The story opens with a reflection on the essential narcissism of homo sapiens as the nameless female protagonist approaches the British Museum, sometime in the 19th century. A good time to reflect on the species. Anthropologists and biologists began to re-evaluate what it meant to be human, and racialists muddied the waters.

Evolution, that gentle assertion of gradual change in a species over time, had proved both contentious and poorly understood well into the 20th century—put on trial and lost when John Thomas Scopes was found guilty and fined in 1925. Evolution resisted hierarchical relationships, defining human beings as just one animal among many; racists depended on hierarchies to support their prejudices of superior and inferior, measured skulls and facial angles to “prove” their claims. It was common, during Lovecraft’s lifetime, to classify black people as biologically primitive by ascribing them ape-like qualities or directly inferring close kinship:

The negro is obviously a link betwixt apedom & man; though all species do not show equal affinity to the beast. The Bantu of Central & Western Africa (The Guinea Coast nigger) is the most gorilla-like; whilst the tribes of Eastern & Southern Africa are more or less permeated with blood from other races. The Bantu is undoubtedly the purest negro type—the ape-man in all his sweet simplicity.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 22 Jun 1917, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 111

Sentiments like these can sometimes lead to reading of Lovecraft’s fiction as racial allegory. “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” can be read as a thinly-veiled parable of miscegenation, with the mysterious bride out of Africa and the social and biological degeneration of her descendants among what was an upper-class British family. Yet that reading is too simple by itself: there are distinct parallels between “Arthur Jermyn” and the Tarzan stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example, including the white or grey apes, the lost city in Africa, and the princess of that lost race—and the cultural complex of ideas surrounding eugenics, devolution, and the blurry line between hominid species popularized by “missing links” like the Piltdown Man hoax.

Missing links are a subject that weighs on the nameless protagonist of “Magna Mater,” as she bewitches her way into the depths of the British Museum. The story bares similarity to “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer, not just for the common setting, but because it is predicated on the reader being familiar enough with the references to Lovecraft’s fiction to understand what is going on—Dembo doesn’t reiterate the entire plot of “Arthur Jermyn.” She doesn’t need to. The story wasn’t written to re-package Lovecraft’s mysteries, or to rebut them, but to expand on and explore them in a new way. “Homo jermynus” is enough to clue in readers to the story’s background as the narrator narrows in on the common object that binds “Magna Mater” and “Arthur Jermyn.”

Virginia Richter in Literature after Darwin (2011) identifies several tropes of popular Victorian and early contemporary fiction, including regression (the fear of  devolution), simianation (the blurring of boundary between human and ape), and assimilation (the threat of contamination through contact with the evolutionary Other, through regression, miscegenation, etc.) Several of these play out through “Arthur Jermyn,” and by extension needed to be addressed in “Magna Mater.” Not reiterated, exactly, but revisited, reimagined, and reworked. Lovecraft’s story is one of anthropological anxiety, the biological doom that cannot be escaped save through self-destruction; Dembo’s story is one of anthropological otherness and acceptance.

Regression is a problem of perception: the stress is made that jermynus is a hominid species, evolutionary equal to homo sapiens, separate and distinct from apes. Simianation is addressed through an almost scientific examination of jermynus, anthropological anxiety giving way to anthropological voyeurism—not just of mere biology, but of culture. Like homo sapiens, homo jermynus is an intelligent, social animal. Yet the crux of “Magna Mater” is assimilation. Where Lovecraft wrote:

If we knew what we are, we should do as Sir Arthur Jermyn did; and Arthur Jermyn soaked himself in oil and set fire to his clothing one night.

Dembo’s nameless protagonist expresses empathy:

Things are always hard for mixed children.

Assimilation still proves a threat to homo sapiens, but the manner in which it is achieved is more akin to Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch. Rather than being a source of degeneration for the human race, homo jermynus:

The women of a superior race are always ‘beautiful.’ You want to make with me and make strong children. Offspring who will inherit my superior genes […] Our children pass on the traits for golden hair, for blue eyes, or stronger bones. Wherever you see those features, you are seeing our descendants among you.”

There’s a reversal of expectations here: racists of Lovecraft’s vintage denigrated black people as being primitive, more closely akin to apes because of their physical features, while in “Magna Mater” the script is flipped so that the stereotypical “Aryan” traits of blonde hair and blue eyes is revealed to be because of their intermarriage with homo jermynus, rather than any innate quirk of evolution. As a story element, it is problematic: making white people special isn’t the opposite of claiming black people are inferior. While it is doubtful Dembo intended the reading in that way, since it is really an elaboration of Lovecraft’s emphasis on “white apes,” it is an exemplar of the difficulties that can come from trying to address racial text and subtext in extant works. Dembo’s approach bears similarities to certain readings of “Arthur Jermyn,” notably:

What Lovecraft appears to be suggesting is that the inhabitants of the primeval African city of “white apes” are not only the “missing link” between ape and human but also the ultimate source for all white civilization. The entire white race is derived from this primal race in Africa, a race that had corrupted itself by intermingling with apes.
—S. T. Joshi, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (1999, 365)

The nameless protagonist doesn’t go quite so far in her claims, but just as the Übermensch manages to destroy the normal man by their very presence, her very presence destroys many of the narcissistic precepts which homo sapiens had of themselves which she had commented on in the opening paragraph.

“Magna Mater” packs a lot into a relatively short and simple story. The plot is exhausted in a few pages, the challenges that the narrator encounters are few and relatively easily overcome; she enters the story with a single motivation and there is never a sense that she will be stymied from accomplishing that, nor is she. Much of the conflict occurs not with the characters in the pages but in the reader as they work to assimilate the new information—and it works. Every setup in the story has a payoff, the characterization is en pointe throughout, so that the very ineptitude of the human characters underscores the overt exposition regarding homo jermynus. Even the brief action scene is well-played to contrast the sapiens and jermynus characters, in action and reaction, and reinforce the central themes of the story, revisiting and reworking those introduced by Lovecraft.

The nameless female protagonist is, in more ways than one, a good example of the complementary nature of the “Magna Mater” and “Arthur Jermyn.” In Lovecraft’s story the ancestral mater familias is an unnamed, veiled figure, whose very existence drives the plot. Yet she is a figure without agency, unspeaking, unable to act in life, and in death represented only by her descendants and her preserved corpse. The lead of “Magna Mater,” while still nameless and veiled, is the active figure that the nameless grandmother was not, and it is her will and actions which accomplish things, her knowledge that enlightens the audience—and her reaction to the body of that ancestral African princess markedly different than Arthur Jermyn’s.

“Magna Mater” was first published in She Walks in Shadows (2015), an anthology of Lovecraftian fiction by female writers, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles. Arinn Dembo’s other Lovecraftian stories include “Between the Lines” (2003) and “ICHTHYS” (2009).

“Keeping Festival” (1997) by Mollie L. Burleson

I first “met” Lovecraft around 1950, when I saw Orson Welles read “The Rats in the Walls on TV. I was stunned. Later I searched for Lovecraft at libraries, book sales, and just about everywhere. Finally in 1971 I found a copy of Best Supernatural Stories of H. P. Lovecraft. I wrote an inscription in it stating how happy I was to find it! […] He took me to Marblehead (Kingsport, as I soon learned), and we met Ken Neily there to celebrate the real Yuletide. What a wonderful experience that was. We went there for fifteen years, never missing a one. We went in sleet, snow, ice, rain, etc. In time, other lovers of HPL joined us […]
—Mollie Burleson, The Providence Pals 47

Marblehead, December 21st. Lovecraft aficionado Paul wants to experience Yuletide in Kingsport, for the first time, to try and find something of what inspired Lovecraft to write “The Festival”—and finds, along the way, an unexpected bit of company. A three page story which is not exactly an homage to Lovecrat’s fiction, but to the meaning of that fiction to one person. A prose poem about the experience of Lovecraft’s fiction, which  can be both solitary and intensely personal or a shared and communal.

As with “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ, there is a degree of awareness involved in this story. “Keeping Festival” establishes quickly that Lovecraft existed, as a writer of fiction, as he does in the world we know; there is never a suggestion, as is sometimes popular in works like Robert Bloch’s Strange Eons (1978), that the Cthulhu Mythos is also real—the world presented is as close to a realistic and accurate portrayal of contemporary Marblehead as possible. It is not, strictly speaking, a fantastic story at all but an episode from life.

Until a nameless man arrives to share the experience, one as immediately familiar to Cthulhu Mythos fans as the appearance of a particular beekeeper would be to Sherlockians. At this point, the brief sketch dips into magical realism—or perhaps just a daydream—as the stranger takes their leave, and Paul is left in a sublime moment of reliving a scene from their story.

Without being a sequel or prequel or in any way a part of the narrative of Lovecraft’s “The Festival,” Burleson’s is nevertheless completely beholden to it. In three pages she tries to capture something like fifteen years of Yuletide gatherings on the same scene. Not for the sake of Lovecraftian horror, or to add on to the Cthulhu Mythos, or as a commentary on Lovecraft’s fiction but as a testament to how it made her feel. The old familiar ritual, the desire for a communion with Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who had walked those snow-laden streets which he had set down on paper in 1923.

On each 21st, Don would stand on the steps of the church, prototype of the one in “The Festival,” and recite from it with all of us looking on, beginning with “The nethermost caverns are not for the fathoming of eyes that see.”
—Mollie Burleson, The Providence Pals 48

Is the reader then a participant, or a witness? Context is important. This is not a story for the uninitiated: readers without a fair familiarity with “The Festival” are not going to pick up on the references to that story, just as readers unfamiliar with Lovecraft himself will not pick up on the Easter egg of the piece. This is the kind of short fiction that can really only be written to an audience already steeped in Lovecraftiana—and combined with the realistic and almost sentimental tone, it’s perhaps no surprise that its one and only appearance in print is the relatively obscure Return to Lovecraft Country (1997).

Mollie Burleson has written a handful other pieces of Lovecraftiana and Mythos fiction, including “The Buglight” (1994), “Literary Remains” (1996), “The Dome” (2010), “Hotel del Lago” (2014), “The Quest” (2016), and “A Yuletide Carol” (2016), but is probably best remembered for her essay “The Outsider: A Woman?” (1990, Lovecraft Studies #22/23), which suggests an alternative and influential reading of Lovecraft’s story.

“Flash Frame” (2010) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

After that he killed the time at a cheap cinema show, seeing the inane performance over and over again without paying any attention to it.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch House”

Scene: Mexico City, 1982. A character in its own right, which fills in the role of the story just by showing up. The narrator is a freelance journalist, hard-boiled as they come, carefully devoid of name or gender. The framing of the story is so slight, the reader might gloss over it: the narrator is in the present day, where Wikipedia makes a mockery of research, but recalling an incident from 28 years prior. A new editor wants something better than the usual stories, the journalist sniffs around for one—and finds it, at an adult theater named El Tabu, where a cult does private screenings, once a week.

“Flash Frame” is a member of an obscure club, literary kin to Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images (1989), Theodore Roszak’s Flicker (1991), Simon Spurrier and Smudge’s Chiaroscuro (2000 AD Prog 1507-1517, 2006), and John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns (2005). Weird fiction where instead of a forbidden book or manuscript, the central mystery revolves around a film. A throwback to the idea that the camera captures something more than mere image. Lovecraft toyed with a similar concept in his story “Nyarlathotep”, but the possibilities remained undeveloped until succeeding generations of writers brought it to the page and the screen.

The story is lean, devoid of excess description or introspection from the narrator, who remains very grounded—like a journalist, presenting the facts and their impressions, not their theories. Unlike many Lovecraftian tales, the horrors are described, sometimes in terse but graphic detail; it’s the surrounding mythology which is only hinted at, a blank space left for the reader to fill in by reading between the lines…and that is not the Cthulhu Mythos. Not explicitly.

The book is rigidly suppressed by the authorities of most countries, and by all branches of organised ecclesiasticism. Reading leads to terrible consequences. It was from rumours of this book (of which relatively few of the general public know) that R.W. Chambers is said to have derived the idea of his early novel The King in Yellow.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The History of the Necronomicon

Before Lovecraft ever put together the idea of a shared universe, Robert W. Chambers some names from Ambrose Bierce’s stories “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886) and “Haïta the Shepherd” (1891) for stories in his weird fiction collection The King in Yellow (1895); Lovecraft and his contemporaries would go on to add elements from that seminal work to the Cthulhu Mythos, but the “Yellow Mythos” as an original expansion of Chambers’ work and shared concept in its own right, not dependent on Cthulhu or the Necronomicon (though occasionally tying into it), has developed a fairly dedicated audience and coterie of contributors.

“Flash Frame” sits in no easily definable frame of Mythos reference. Moreno-Garcia doesn’t play the game of name-checking popular entities like Cthulhu or Hastur, no tomes pop up in the course of the story, and even the name of the cult is an unfinished, undefined ellipsis trailing off into disinterest. The framework of the narrative borrows strongly from the Lovecraftian tradition, but it isn’t written to be a defined part of the shared universe. It exists as it’s own thing, ambiguous enough to suggest an avatar of the King in Yellow or Nyarlathotep without needing to nail it down with exact certainty what is going on or what entities are involved. The narrator probably doesn’t even know. They heeded the warning.

The story works as well as it does because the narrator and the setting are absolutely grounded, far way from the poor pasticheur’s focus on cramming Mythos references into the story, Moreno-Garcia makes sure the character of the narrator and the city are well-defined, because they help carry the story. Readers believe that El Tabu existed, and that’s because it, or something like it did—in the Mexico City of the author’s youth.

Well my Mexico, the Mexico of my youth is quickly eroding through the work of time and distance, although I suppose that is true for any of us when we look back at our youth. What is captured in the stories is my vision of a time and place that was and never was because any time we look back we distort the place we came from. The factories near my home are gone, they’ve built expensive condos. The butcher moved. The park got a makeover. So every time I go back to visit I’m looking at a superimposed image of what was there and what is there now.
—Silvia Moreno-Garcia, “An Interview with Silvia Moreno-Garcia”

This transposition of the Mexico of yesterday and today is brought home in the end of the story, where the frame completes itself and the narrator brings the story back from 1982 to the present. El Tabu is gone, replaced by a block of condos. But something survives…

“Flash Frame” was first published in the Cthulhurotica (2010) anthology, edited by Carrie Cuinn. It contains sexually explicit imagery, but the way sex is presented in the story is as a vehicle for horror, rather than a mechanism of reproduction. The yellow woman is an intrusive, otherworldly element, the juxtaposition of carnal imagery with the vivid description of imposition and disgust demonstrates the violation of the narrator’s personal space—even into their mental space. There are always images we cannot unsee, sounds we cannot unhear, words we cannot unread. The narrator’s response to this unwanted contact is not arousal, but unease and revulsion…not because of risk of pregnancy, or rape, but from mere exposure.

This is an aspect of sexual horror which is often overlooked: the exhibitionist who violates taboos of acceptable dress—in the past, exemplified by the naked man or woman in the trench coat, today the unsolicited dick pic—and it is different from biological contagion. An STI can be treated like any other disease, but information cannot be so easily forgotten or erased; nor can the subject forget their inherent vulnerability. A victim can potentially fight back against a physical assault, but it is impossible to close oneself off completely from all unwanted sounds and images…though the narrator, who has given the matter some thought, definitely makes a considerable effort to do just that.

“Flash Frame” has been reprinted in The Book of Cthulhu (2011), and in Moreno-Garcia’s collection This Strange Way of Dying (2013); it was also adapted on Tales to Terrify (2012). Despite her success with short stories and novels, Silvia Moreno-Garcia is perhaps better known as publisher at Innsmouth Free Press, and together with Paula R. Stiles edited works including Historical Lovecraft (2011), Future Lovecraft (2011),  Innsmouth Magazine (2009-2014), Sword & Mythos (2014), and She Walks in Shadows (2015, also published as Cthulhu’s Daughters).

“Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) by Ann K. Schwader

Most interesting of all was a glancing reference to the strange jewellery vaguely associated with Innsmouth. It had evidently impressed the whole countryside more than a little, for mention was made of specimens in the museum of Miskatonic University at Arkham, and in the display room of the Newburyport Historical Society. The fragmentary descriptions of these things were bald and prosaic, but they hinted to me an undercurrent of persistent strangeness.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

The story takes place in a desert town, far from the ocean. A lonely businessman traveling far from home, steps into an art museum to relieve a moment’s boredom. What follows is an exercise in titillation. “Gillman-Waite” is the hook; “Iä, Hydra Mother!” is the sinker, and in between is the line, reeling the reader in slowly, paragraph by paragraph.

Ann K. Schwader is a poet laureate of the Mythos, but her fiction receives relatively little attention. In stories like “Mail Order Bride” (1999) and “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) she offers a quiet, but distinct, embellishment on the Deep Ones. Both stories focus on the oft-neglected feminine side of their life and worship, but both are also written so that the narrative viewpoint is that of a male human, and this point-of-view character’s relationship with the Mythos in the story is complicated by their relationship with women. The alien nature of the Deep One hybrids is never apparent on the surface, because they find women themselves alien and incomprehensible. Yet chauvinism is far from their only or worst sin, as the protagonist of  “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” recalls:

The strain and twist of muscles under slick cold skin, almost slipping from his grasp as she struggled…

A past episode of sexual violence tends to evaporate any good will the reader has toward a protagonist, but even this is a cue that Schwader plays with. Rape is an act of domination, a show of power and physical strength against someone weaker rather than an expression of lust—and the protagonist even recalls “he did what he’d done in anger”—but his victim’s response emasculates him (figuratively), and there hovers over the story the question of who, exactly was (and is) in control. That anxiety as much as anything drives the mood of story.

Mechanically, Schwader astutely utilizes several familiar devices from Lovecraftian storytelling. The structure of the story thus takes on two parallel narratives: the nameless protagonist viewing the exhibit in the museum, and the flashbacks of the same protagonist to a drunken night in a college town in Massachusetts and the secret shame of what he did there. This is a common track in much Lovecraftian fiction, where the events of the current day are one level of the narrative, and the uncovered history (biographical, genealogical, etc.) forms a secondary narrative, both progressing toward a common conclusion; compare to “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where present-day exploration of the town is juxtaposed with the story of how it came to its current condition, and the author’s own story and that of his family are intertwined in the narrative of both.

The story sets a steady pace: marked not by the number of the exhibits but by the protagonist’s growing sense of dread, and the completeness of the memory of the night he wants to forget. In many Mythos stories the climax of the plot or action, and the climactic revelation are often two separate events—the latter typically occurring, in Lovecraft, at the very end of the story, sometimes as the final line of the story. In “The Shadow over Innsmouth” for example the climax is the raid on Innsmouth by federal authorities and the torpedoing of Devil’s Reef, but the climactic revelation is when the protagonist discovers their own Innsmouth heritage—and embraces it. In this story however, the climax and revelation occur essentially simultaneously, coming together naturally at the end of the tour with the final exhibit, past memory merging with terrifying present. Schwader also uses a familiar trick of Lovecraft’s where an aesthetic element slowly grows throughout the piece to set the pace; in this case, the humidity grows steadily throughout, a marked contrast from the dry desert air of the opening that takes on sinister connotations by the time the protagonist reaches the final exhibit.

To call “Objects in the Gilman-Waite Collection”  an embellishment is to recognize that the story, while it can stand on its own, is really building off of something larger than itself. Schwader doesn’t recap the whole history of Innsmouth here; she doesn’t need to. No explanation is ever given regarding Cthulhu, Mother Hydra, or the Deep Ones, and the author does not try to cram in any new Mythos entity or large chunk of exposition explaining some aspect of Mythos lore or carving out some unique corner of Lovecraft Country. What it does do is successfully gild the lily.

All in the band of the faithful—Order o’ Dagon—an’ the children shud never die, but go back to the Mother Hydra an’ Father Dagon what we all come from onct—Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah-nagl fhtagn—”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

Mother Hydra is mentioned only once in Lovecraft’s fiction: a single throwaway line in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” as a sort of Eve figure or mother-goddess, her character, worship, and cult are never explored or expanded upon by the Providence gentleman. It’s not much to work with, but rather than writing paragraphs of exposition to expand on Mother Hydra, Schwader does it subtly. The little expansion on Mother Hydra during the climax and revelation at the end of the story serves the plot, not the other way around…and in the end, there are still things left unexplained, mysteries for the reader to make up their own mind about, and perhaps explore.

“Objects from the Gilman-Waite Collection” first appeared in Ann K. Schwader’s collection Strange Stars & Alien Shadows: the Dark Fiction of Ann K. Schwader (2003) and the limited edition (100 copies) Cthulhu’s Creatures (2007), and was reprinted in Ross E. Lockhart’s anthology The Book of Cthulhu II (2012). Why the story hasn’t been reprinted more broadly is hard to say—there’s been no shortage of Innsmouth-themed anthologies since 2003—and what little critical appraisal it has received is in the brief notes in Strange Stars & Alien Shadows.  Editor Kevin O’Brien notes a “feminist tone” in her story “Mail Order Bride,” expanding:

Though the protagonist is male, the agents of the Deep Ones are female and their patron is not Dagon but Hydra. The tone was obvious throughout, yet it wasn’t blatant. The story was not a diatribe against men, and it even managed to make me sympathize with the otherwise unsympathetic male caricature. Yet almost from the beginning it was clear that the women were in control, and their control only became stronger with time.
—Kevin O’Brien, introduction to Strange Stars & Alien Shadows ix-x

The same basic observation can be applied to “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection”—but there’s a weird assumption there. Why would a feminist Cthulhu Mythos story be “a diatribe against men?” Joanna Russ, more noted for her feminist fiction, didn’t exactly write a “diatribe” in “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964); Irvin Rubin is a caricature of a certain type of socially awkward male fan, but not all men. The answer might be supplied in part by Robert M. Price’s notes to the story:

Perhaps because of the patriarchal nature of the Mythos, we rarely see women involved in cultic activities, except as sacrificial victims. They are almost certainly involved, among the nameless and faceless crowd of worshippers, but we almost never see them. […] In this story Ann gives us a glimpse of an exclusively female cult dedicated to Mother Hydra, one in which the only service a man might provide is as the sacrifice. Disturbing perhaps; after all, it’s based on the radical feminist idea that, aside from fathering children, men are practically worthless in a society dominated by women. But what’s sauce for the goose….
—Robert M. Price, Strange Shadows & Alien Stars 199

There’s a political angle to both O’Brien and Price’s interpretations of Schwader, and a subcurrent of that is, for all their praise of her work, a negative association of feminism. The implicit idea that female empowerment is somehow a threat to the power, authority, or position of men: that there is a balance of power between the sexes, and if women gain power men must lose power.

As Price notes, the treatment of women in the Cthulhu Mythos is not very pretty. Lovecraft never employed the “virgin sacrifice,” but there are female rape victims in “The Horror at Red Hook,” “The Curse of Yig,” and hinted at in the notes to “The Shadow over Innsmouth”; the ape princess in “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” ends up stuffed and mounted, Lavinia Whateley births two monstrous children in “The Dunwich Horror,” for which willing or unwilling service she is blocked from the rites and eventually disappeared. Aside from pregnancy and implied sexual violence, this is no worse than the fates of Lovecraft’s male characters—who often end up dead or occasionally worse—but in the wider Mythos, the female sacrifice is a not uncommon trope. Molly Tanzer even invoked it in “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer.

The idea of this negative drawback to female empowerment or emphasis is a real part of the horror of the stories—to male readers, at least. Just as Tina L. Jens played with uniquely female horrors of reproduction in “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens, here Schwader may be playing on a uniquely male horror: the loss of privilege afforded by their gender…or maybe that horror is just the natural result of Schwader following her own voice, as an independent female Mythos writer:

Women in the Mythos—why there aren’t more of us, why there are as many of us as there are, or even why we’re here to begin with—have become quite a topic in Lovecraftian circles. […] After spending the last couple of years trying to formulate answers, I’ve come to only one conclusion. One little secret to share about women in the Lovecraftian Mythos.

We were there from the start.

[…] Like all Lovecraftians, I’m interested in the past. In traditions. Women have their own literary tradition to reclaim in the Mythos, and I hope to see more of us doing so in future anthologies and collections.
—Ann K. Schwader, “Reclaiming the Tradition” vii-viii