“Prey of the Goat” (1994) by Margaret L. Carter

…so from the wells of night to the gulfs of space, and from the gulfs of space to the wells of night, ever the praises of Great Cthulhu, of Tsathoggua, and of Him Who is not to be Named. Ever Their praises, and abundance to the Black Goat of the Woods. Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness” (Weird Tales Aug 1931)

RP_shubniggFew of the entities of the Cthulhu Mythos created by Lovecraft & his correspondents in the 1930s were implicitly or explicitly female; of those the most enduring in the imagination of Mythos writers and fans is Shub-Niggurath. Mother Hydra, whatever her literary charms, has not inspired multiple anthologies dedicated to her. Shub-Niggurath is itself nebulous, never appearing on the scene, but as an element of ecstatic worship and invocation in several of Lovecraft’s stories; in “The Mound” Shub-Niggurath is portrayed as a “sophisticated Astarte,” in Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Holiness of Azédarac” the familiar epithet is given a masculine twist as “the Ram with a Thousand Ewes”;  it is only in his letters Lovecraft described Shub-Niggurath explicitly:

Yog-Sothoth’s wife is the hellish cloud-like Shub-Niggurath, in whose honour nameless cults hold the rite of the Goat with a Thousand Young. By her he has two monstrous offspring—the evil twins Nug and Yeb. He has begotten hellish hybrids upon the females of various organic species throughout the universes of space-time (cf. “The Dunwich Horror”) [. . .]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 1 Sep 1936, Selected Letters
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Most of the stories about Shub-Niggurath that have been published are written by men. This may not be terrible surprising: most Cthulhu Mythos published has been written by men. When “Prey of the Goat” first appeared in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle (1994), M. L. Carter was the only woman whose work was represented among the offerings.

24516480The horrors of Lovecraft were, by and large, of equal terror to all—you don’t need to be a white male to appreciate cosmic horror, and assigning sex and gender to some of the more alien creatures of the Mythos may be a somewhat laughable enterprise—a diminution of these eldritch deities to prosaic human concerns. But there is a caveat: sex exists in Lovecraft’s fiction, and with the purpose: procreation. Female characters, be they willing participants or victims, may lay with and beget monsters. Important segments of Lovecraftian fiction fall into the familiar cycles of the “demon lover” or “rape fantasy,” which Margaret L. Carter recognized:

 

H. P. Lovecraft, who was strongly influenced by Arthur Machen, has a wizard’s daughter raped by the outcast dark divinity, Yog-Sothoth, in “The Dunwich Horror.” The girl gives birth to twins, one a queerly repulsive boy who grows at an impossible rate but looks outwardly human, the other an invisible monstrosity, formed of elements alien to this universe. Asenath in “The Thing on the Doorstep” is the result of a union between a blasphemously evil necromancer and a “thing from the sea.”
—M. L. Carter, introduction to Demon Lovers and Other Strange Seductions (1972)

 

Carter brings this understanding and approach to the sexuality of the Cthulhu Mythos to “Prey of the Goat.” As a horror story, it hits familiar beats: a strange, horrible old artifact. Disturbing dreams. Carnal acts that hint at possession. Prayer and invocations. A victory…with an aftermath. The “demon’s” name is Shub-Niggurath, but the aesthetics are not beholden to Lovecraft; this is the erotic nightmare in a Christian Episcopal mold, a new priest facing an old Catholic terror without even a rite of exorcism in his arsenal. The Mythos elements are prominent, but reserved; Carter seeds a few connections without going overboard. This is a story that ties in to the larger Cthulhu Mythos, but its world is intimate, focused on just two people and their relationship.

The protagonist is Father Michael Emeric, the recipient of the amulet of Shub-Niggurath is his wife Terri. Much of the fine detail in the plot is not devoted to Mythos minutiae, but on the dynamics of the relationship between the two, their respective roles of husband and wife, man and woman; Michael tries not to overstep, to respect Terri’s agency, but when he does feel the need to undermine it finds it surprisingly easy. There’s an undercurrent in the story when it demonstrates how easy it is for Michael to slip into stereotypical masculinity to get what he wants, yet also how reluctant he is to do that. Terri for her part shares a distinct parallel with the female protagonist of  Tina L. Jens’ “In His Daughters’ Darkling Womb (1997)”:

If they could have had a baby—but years of trying had produced no conception, with infertility tests failing to reveal the cause. Now that Terri was past thirty, they’d given up.

Infertility as a literary device has its uses: it it obviates the question of why characters do not have children, it makes conception (if it does happen) all the more miraculous or unholy. Yet there is a fundamental difference in approach between how Carter and Jens use it in these stories—in Jens’ story, the protagonist is female, the miscarriages she suffers are a result of failing to carry to term rather than failure to conceive; in Carter’s the protagonist is male, and the cause of the infertility is more ambiguous. If the infertility tests have failed to reveal a cause, is that because the cause lies not within her, but within her husband?

Carter essentially is putting the infertility fear on the other foot: not the feminine fear of miscarriage, or inability to have children, or birthing a monster, but the masculine fear of being cuckolded. The title “Prey of the Goat” forces the reader to ask the question: who is the prey, Michael or Terri? Certainly, the pastor’s wife is the one possessed by Shub-Niggurath, the one who has to suffer through the terrible erotic dreams where:

Then the goat stepped down into the crowd. She grabbed the first man and forced him to—forced him into her. He screamed.

But Terri tells her husband, when he asks her role in the dream, “I was the goat!” Later on, Michael wakes to find his possessed wife riding him—a rare example of rape of a man by a woman in Mythos fiction—the first dream is revealed as foreshadowing. Terri is the focus of the supernatural activity of the story, but the plot involves both of them, and this feeds into the ambiguous sexuality of Shub-Niggurath, who blends male and female characteristics in its appearance here. Whether Michael is threatened by the superior masculine aspect of Shub-Niggurath, or by the sexual dominance asserted by Terri under the Goat’s influence, the unexpected menage has Michael questioning his inadequacy, an attitude that carries right through to the foreboding end of the story. Abortion is ruled out by faith, but also by Michael’s impotent clutching at straws: “Besides, she might be wrong. It might be mine.”

“Prey of the Goat” almost never appeared at all; it was originally accepted for Lin Carter’s Weird Tales published by Zebra Books, but that series ended in 1983. If not for The Shub-Niggurath Cycle a decade later, it might never have seen publication at all. Which is a shame since it is a deceptively simple plot which is well worth deeper consideration. Carter has returned to the Mythos a few times, most notably with the romance novel Windwalker’s Mate (2008) and the erotic novella Tentacles of Love (2009).

“Hypothetical Materfamilias” (1994) by Adèle Olivia Gladwell

The eerie nostalgia of Gladwell’s enigma might have resonated in Lovecraft’s skull.
—Ramsey Campbell, introduction to The Starry Wisdom: A Tribute to H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraftian fiction tends to be fairly conservative in form. Pulp tales were designed for ready consumption, even if readers did occasionally have to reach for the dictionary, and the stories follow the lines of standard genre tales for the most part. The writers in the generations following Lovecraft & co. were not obligated to follow the same constraints for publication, but many fell back on conventional narrative structures, especially for homages and pastiches. Experimental Lovecraftian fiction remains rare.

The Starry Wisdom: A Tribute to H. P. Lovecraft (1994) 1639140-starry_wisdomwas an entire anthology of Lovecraftian fiction—Lovecraftian in the sense that many of the stories were about Lovecraft and his influence, not just embellishments on the Mythos, much of it experimental or at least unconventional. By luck or dint of effort, the anthology has proven surprisingly influential in the long term; Alan Moore’s “The Courtyard” went on to inspire several successful comics and graphic novels, and other noteworthy contributors include J. G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, and Grant Morrison. In addition to prose it contains John Coulthart’s classic adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu”, a graphic stories by James Havoc & Mike Phillbin and Rick Grimes, and three essays on the Lovecraftian occult. It was a groundbreaking, forward-looking collection of a very different kind of Lovecraftian fiction than the collections of reprints and pastiches that were being put forth by Chaosium at the time.

Adèle Olivia Gladwell is the only female author in the book.

“Hypothetical Materfamilias” is a non-traditional narrative, partaking of a stream-of-consciousness, but really it is the kind of half-poetic speech of ‘zines, underground comix, and white label remixes. Like a lot of experimental fiction, the nuance of the piece is less in a coherent account of a series of events than the feel and rhythm of the words, the emotions and associations evoked by the images they describe; weird phrases rise to the eye at random from what at first glance might be literary noise. Readers bring their own experience to such a piece which will color any interpretation, yet there is a story there, in the flow of words.

Lovecraft, from within a tableau of fastidious time, knows IT comes for him. IT keeps coming.

The focus of Gladwell’s piece is on IT—never named or defined, the story works around the definition of IT with the promise and portent that “IT comes. And you know IT comes for you.” The gist of the narrative is of death and birth, except played in in a kind of reverse, like watching a baby being born in rewind, disappearing back into its mother. An unbirthing portended and sometimes shrouded in symbolism, and focused on a male figure who is, by context, probably Lovecraft; the unnamed female figure that appears in italicized paragraphs might be his mother, the eponymous “hypothetical materfamilias” of the title; the author herself is “I,” the one writing the story, who breaks through occasionally to speak directly to the reader, and she is the medium through which the message is expressed. Identifications are necessarily vague—is IT death? Lovecraft? Cthulhu? Is IT knowable, in any sense, or is it defined by being undefinable?

Lovecraft is mentioned by name exactly three times in “Hypothetical Materfamilias,” and no other Mythos entities or architecture are mentioned explicitly by name: while some of the images and descriptions appear to coincide with elements of Lovecraft’s fiction, there are no direct references or allusions as in Tina L. Jens’ “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb.” This story is essentially as far as a work of Lovecraftian fiction can get away from being Cthulhu Mythos fiction; Joanna Russ’ “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It Into My Pocket… But By God, Eliot, It Was A Photograph From Life!” would still be Lovecraftian in tone and content even if you removed any explicit reference to Lovecraft, but remove three words from “Hypothetical Materfamilias” and the piece isn’t “Lovecraftian” in the strictest sense.

Most Mythos and Lovecraftian fiction do not challenge the reader; they may play with uncomfortable scenes and concepts, but the communication of those images and ideas is usually couched in a very familiar narrative framework—the discovery of old family secrets, an exploration into the forbidden, an extraordinary event to be witnessed or explained—”Hypothetical Materfamilias” is more of an experience. It challenges the reader to question what they just read, to derive sense from it, to fit it into a rational framework; but the normal levers and handholds of Mythos fiction are absent here. There is little for the reader to grasp, save the three uses of Lovecraft, and those don’t help very much; a sift for themes and images will turn up similarities with other things Lovecraftian, but how much of these are a reflection of the writer’s intent versus the reader “reading in” to the text?

Gladwell’s few writing credits before this piece were entirely through Creation; it isn’t hard to see these as possible vanity publishing projects, and this represents her last known published work. While the piece meets the bare minimum for inclusion in the book by the triple invocation of “Lovecraft,” like calling forth Bloody Mary or the Candy Man, the lack of any real Mythos or Lovecraftian theme have probably doomed it to obscurity. All of which may be reasons why “Hypothetical Materfamilias” have failed to gain traction, besides the 1999 reprint of The Starry Wisdom.

Yet there is no work which is not due serious consideration—every writer starts and ends somewhere, every person has relationships. Every writer starts and ends somewhere, and every story has to be appreciated and judged on its own merits, and in its context. In this case, that means to consider Gladwell’s piece next to the rest of The Starry Wisdom anthology. In that context, “Hypothetical Materfamilias” fits rather well.

Many of the works are experimental or use a nontraditional narrative, not all of them refer directly or indirectly to Lovecraft or the Cthulhu Mythos, most of the writers are not familiar names in Mythos anthologies, and few of the works have been republished. So in that respect at least, Gladwell’s story is of a piece with the rest of the anthology. It may not be an instant classic of Lovecraftian fiction like Coulthart’s graphic adaptation or Moore’s “The Courtyard,” and stands separate from the kind of borrowing and elaboration that marks much of Mythos fiction such as Robert M. Price’s “A Thousand Young” and Grant Morisson’s “Lovecraft in Heaven,” but it works fine as a standalone piece separate and outside of the usual Lovecraftian tradition, as an example that Lovecraftian fiction need not be constrained to familiar channels.