“Shoggoths in Bloom” (2008) by Elizabeth Bear

The sea-swept rocks of the remote Maine coast are habitat to a panoply of colorful creatures. It’s an opportunity, a little-studied maritime ecosystem. This is in part due to the difficulty of access and in part due to the perils inherent in close contact with its rarest and most spectacular object: Oracupoda horibilis, the common surf shoggoth.
—Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom” in The Book of Cthulhu 150-151

Shoggoths appear or are mentioned only three times in the work of H. P. Lovecraft: they appear on the page in At the Mountains of Madness (written 1931, published 1936), and they are mentioned in passing but do not appear in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (written 1931, published 1936) and “The Thing on the Doorstep” (written 1933, published 1937). It is in the latter story that we learn there are shoggoths in Maine.

In “The Mound”, Lovecraft had shown how an “advanced” yet alien race had used biological science to enslave and shape living creatures to their use. Intelligent beings became beasts of burden and livestock. The shoggoths extended this conception: where part of the horror in “The Mound” (as with the earlier story “The Rats in the Walls”) was that the creatures of K’n-yan were part-human, the shoggoths were entirely inhuman in their conception. Biological robots in all but name, engineered lifeforms created to serve…and for anyone raised in the United States of America, as Lovecraft and most of his readers would have been, there are connotations there. Because for centuries the slave system of the United States had been based entirely on race.

Lovecraft knew this. He commented on historical slavery in his letters with friends. Like many white people in the early 20th century, he was misled by the Lost Cause propaganda of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Dunning School—and by his own prejudices—about the horrors of slavery. His view of the plantation system in the antebellum South (and his own native Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, which was an historical nexus for the slave trade) was rose-colored. The best example of Lovecraft’s line of thought on this matter, when he and his friend and fellow pulpster Robert E. Howard had fallen into a discussion of what we would call wage-slavery today:

As for peonage or actual slavery—that is hardly a practical possibility except with inferior or badly-cowed race-stocks. The whole psychological equilibrium which made it possible in mediaeval and ancient times has been permanently destroyed. But it really wouldn’t be so bad to enslave niggers, Mexicans, and certain types of biologically backward foreign peasants. I’m no abolitionist—in fact, I’d probably have been almost ostracised in New England in the hectic days of Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips, and Bostonese pharasaism in general. Of course, slavery ought to be regulated by stringent laws as to the treatment of slaves—laws backed up by frequent governmental inspections, and sustained by a carefully directed public sentiment as to humane conditions. In the 18th century, when we had negro slaves in Rhode Island, there was never any discontent or talk of ill-treatment. On the large estates of King’s County (estates duplicating the plantations of the South, and quite unique for the North) the blacks were in general simply contented—having their own festivities, and indulging in a kind of annual Saturnalia in which large numbers met and elected one of their number “King of Africa” for the ensuing year. One of my ancestors—Robert Hazard—left 133 slaves in his will. What caused slavery to decline in the north was the complex economic readjustment which rendered large-scale agriculture and stock-raising no longer as profitable as maritime commerce. When it no longer paid to keep niggers, our pious forbears began to have moral and religious scruples about the matter—so that around 1800 Rhode Island passed a law limiting slavery to black over 21, and declaring all others, and all subsequently born, free. Later this was amended to free the adult negroes—though most stayed right on with their masters as nominally paid servants. In the next generation, when slavery was defunct in the north but seen to be still a source of profit in the south, it occurred to northern politicians to become very Quixotic and devoted to the ideal of freedom—hence the impassioned frock-coated moralists of the abolitionist school, calling upon heaven to end the unrighteous curse of human bondage. But on the whole I don’t think slavery would form a practical policy for the future. Psychological conditions have changed. I don’t think inferior races, or persons of very inferior education or capacity in any race, ought to have the political franchise; but I think it is the best public policy to give them as much freedom as is consistent with the maintenance of the civilisation on an unimpaired level.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 7 Nov 1932, A Means to Freedom 466-467

Howard, for his part, concurred and cited his own family’s history of slaveowningalthough as Rob Roehm pointed out on Howard History, Robert E. Howard appeared ignorant of the details of his own ancestors’ violence toward their slaves.

The shoggoths had rebelled.

Rebellion was the one great fear of all slave-owners; that the violence inflicted on slaves for years and generations would be returned. Lovecraft, writing in 1931, might have been inspired by the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) mentioned in books he read that year such as William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929). The racial violence of that conflict was very clear to Lovecraft, and in discussing one of August Derleth’s voodoo stories of the period Lovecraft notes:

[…] you have the woman describe herself & family as Haitian, which conclusively implies nigger blood. There are no pure white Haitians. White persons living in Haiti are not citizens, & always refer to themselves in terms of their original nationalities—French, American, Spanish, or whatever they may be. The old French Creoles were wholly extirpated—murdered or exiled—at the beginning of the 19th century.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 9 Sep 1931, Essential Solitude 1.376

Shoggoths are not explicitly a metaphor for the Haitians throwing off the yoke of slavery, or of any African-American rebellion. Slavery in the pulps was not uncommon when it came to both historical and fantasy subjects, and the treatment was seldom sympathetic unless person enslaved was white, as is the case in “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967) by Robert E. Howard—and that involves a very different set of racial stereotypes, though white supremacy is still implicit.

It is notable that in At the Mountains of Madness, none of the characters are explicitly African-American. There is no one in that story who might sympathize with the shoggoths through the lens of their personal history. No one like Paul Harding, the protagonist of Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom.”

Harding’s an educated man, well-read, and he’s the grandson of Nathan Harding, the buffalo soldier. An African-born ex-slave who fought on both sides of the Civil War, when Grampa Harding was sent to serve in his master’s place, he deserted, and lied, and stayed on with the Union Army after.
—Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom” in The Book of Cthulhu 150

It is interesting to compare and contrast Harding with Theotis Nedeau in “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” (1982) by Charles R. Saunders. Both characters are Lovecraftian protagonists as they might have been. College-educated African-American men, with deep roots in American history. However, both Bear and Saunders take their characters further, exploring the black experience in the United States at the time. Throughout the story we get more hints of Harding’s background, his mother in Harlem, his experience with segregation and Jim Crow in the South, and even fighting prejudices from nominally sympathetic white Yankees like Burt Clay in Maine.

His Ph.D. work at Yale, the first school in America to have awarded a doctorate to a Negro, taught him two things other than natural history. One was that Booker T. Washington was right, and white men were afraid of a smart colored. The other was that W. E. B. Du Bois was right, and sometimes people were scared of what was needful.
—Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom” in The Book of Cthulhu 155-156

There is no doubt that the Cthulhu Mythos needs more characters like Paul Harding, and more stories like “Shoggoths in Bloom.” Not because fans of the Mythos need to be beaten over the head with the historical horrors of racial violence and discrimination in the United States or any principle of forced inclusion as a form of political correctness, but because Harding brings a new and important perspective to shoggoths, both as a natural scientist and an African-American who remembered the scars of shackles around his grandfather’s back, and the dark lines of scar tissue on his back.

That is the advantage of inclusiveness: bringing in new points of view.

Bear makes this especially topical in that the story is implicitly set during the opening days of World War II—before there is a war, before the United States is in it. The Holocaust has begun, though the world may not yet know it. What can one man do, when faced with such a threat? Especially when the people around him seem devoted to doing nothing. To standing by while Jews are legislated against, forced out of public life and into concentration camps. This is a different tact than undertaken by “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys. In those stories, the comparison between the concentration camps at Innsmouth and the Nazi efforts fall apart a bit because the Innsmouth folk are confirmed as at least partially inhuman; but in “Shoggoths in Bloom,” it is their common humanity that makes Paul Harding sympathize with the Jewish people in Germany. A victim of racial violence and discrimination all his life, he feels for them as a fellow-sufferer.

In 2009, Elizabeth Bear wrote an article titled “Why We Still Write Lovecraftian Pastiche”, where she writes:

As for what it is about his worlds that brings me as an artist back to them time and again? It’s the holes, quite frankly. The things I want to argue with.

I want to argue with his deterministic view of genetics and morality, his apparent horror of interracial marriage and the resulting influence on the gene pool, as exemplified in The Shadow over Innsmouth. That leads me to write a story like “The Follow-Me Light,” in which a descendent of the Marsh and Gilman families meets a nice human girl and wants to settle down. I want to argue with his reflexive racism, which leads me to write a story like “Shoggoths in Bloom,” in which an African-American college professor confronts the immorality of slavery on the eve of one of our greatest modern atrocities.

Lovecraft is dead, so such an argument might strike readers as one-sided—but it isn’t, not really. Because people are still writing Mythos fiction and pastiche, still elaborating, reinterpreting, re-engaging with Lovecraft’s world and concepts. The context and syntax of the conversation changes, but it hasn’t stopped. People still find new things they want to talk about, and new ways to talk about it. That is in large part what keeps the Mythos alive as a mode of weird fiction.

“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear won the 2009 Hugo award for best novelette; it was also nominated for a Locus award the same year. It was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction (Mar 2008), and has been reprinted many times, including in The Book of Cthulhu (2011) and New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (2011), and it lent its title to Bear’s collection Shoggoths in Bloom (2012). Readers interested in a deeper analysis of the story may be interested in “How to Hack Lovecraft, Make Friends with His Monsters, and Hijack His Mythos: Reading Biology and Racism in Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom”” (2016) by Anthony Camara.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Windwalker’s Mate (2008) by Margaret L. Carter

She had been chose, she said, to be sacrificed to Ithaqua, the wind-walking elemental which the Stillwater people are said to have worshipped, and she had decided that she would flee, rather than die for a pagan god, of whsoe existence even she was not too sure.
—August Derleth, “The Thing That Walked on the Wind,” Strange Tales of Mysery and Terror Jan 1933

Ithaqua is one of August Derleth’s original contributions to the Mythos; the story that introduced him is first mentioned to Lovecraft in 1930, after Wright apparently rejected it (ES1.277). The sort of chequered history has dogged the Windwalker down the decades; few writers have made much use of Derleth’s creation, although Brian Lumley has made good use of Ithaqua—and given that entity a penchant for spawning children, a la Yog-Sothoth and “The Dunwich Horror”—in works such as “Born of the Winds” (1975) and Spawn of the Winds (1978).

It is Lumley’s interpretation that almost certainly inspired M. L. Carter’s dark paranormal romance novel Windwalker’s Mate (2008), although she puts her own spin on the proceedings. Shannon is a survivor; after the Rite of Union, she left the cult that was trying to bring strange Mythos entities to overrun this world—and forty weeks later she gave birth to her son Daniel, never knowing if his father was Nathan, the son of the culture leader who had participated in the rite with her, or the Windwalker who had possessed him.

Romance may seem an odd genre for Lovecraftian fiction; Lovecraft himself saw little of it in his life and his stories focus very little on those kind of human relationships. Nor were many of Lovecraft’s followers very inclined toward such things. Yet there is a thin substratum of genuine Mythos romance, dealing with the complex tangle of human relationships in a Mythos milieu—and much more seriously than “I Wore The Brassiere Of Doom” (1986) by Sally Theobald or “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” (1990) by Esther M. Friesner. These are works that tend to get overlooked by the main audience of Mythos writers; stuff like Tide of Desire (1983) by Sheena Clayton, Arkham Dreams (2011) by Robin Wolfe, Widdershins (2013) by Jordan L. Hawk…and one might even include The Dunwich Romance (2013) by Edward Lee, although that gets a little more hardcore than the others.

There are a few steamy moments in Windwalker’s Mate. It is far from the elaborate sexual fantasies of, say, Shoggoth Butt Invasion (2016) by Jason Wayne Allen. The sex scenes serve the plot as much as the reader; Shannon is reconnecting with Nathan, worried about her kidnapped son, placing her hope that coitus will re-establish their telepathic bond (it makes sense in the context of the book)…

He deepened the kiss, drawing her back into the present. her tongue darted eagerly to meet his. His hand cupped her breast through the T-shirt and thin bra. The tingling in the nipple zapped to the pit of her stomach and the V between her legs. The explosion of colors crashed over her again.

Then she saw stars falling like snowflakes and the sky behind them splitting open.
—Margaret L. Carter, Windwalker’s Mate 105

…yet the emotional core of the novel is very serious. Shannon is trying to save her son; she’s a lonely single mother, the cops are useless, and the former cult leader is trying to use Daniel to summon Ithaqua and the Ancient Ones into the world…there is a great deal of drama, both of the mind-numbingly mundane and weird kind.

It works. Opinions will vary on the approach, but M. L. Carter succeeds at what she set out to do: write a paranormal romance with the Mythos as a setting. If Chaosium ever published a sequel to The Ithaqua Cycle (1998/2006), this would not be out of place. The basic premise is much like the question of what happens after Rosemary’s Baby? only with Rosemary having the hard practicality to not stay with the Satanic cult because she had a baby to think of now. Daniel might well be the spawn of the Windwalker, but he isn’t a Wilbur Whateley-esque monster…not yet, anyway.

Windwalker’s Mate was published in 2008 by Amber Quill Press. Carter’s other Lovecraftian works include “Prey of the Goat” (1994) and the erotic novella Tentacles of Love (2009).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

The Queen of K’n-yan (2008) by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健)

This is Cthulhu Mythos fiction unlike any you have read before.
—Darrel Schweitzer, introduction to The Queen of K’n-Yan xiii
The Queen of K’n-yan (2008, Kurodahan Press) by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健) is the English-language translation of his 1993 novel 崑央の女王 (K’n-Yan no Joō); the translator was Kathleen Taji.
There is a world of Mythos fiction beyond the English language, and it depends on translation. The original works of Lovecraft and his contemporaries, their ideas, concepts, and language, have to be translated from their original English into the new language. This process is not automatic or uniform, not every word that Lovecraft & co. wrote has been translated or published; many of the letters especially have not yet made the jump into other languages, and may never. Imagine what it takes to read Lovecraft, filtered through someone else trying to capture his style and language, to twist the language to translate not just the literal words but the ideas and weird names which might not transliterate easily or cleanly.
Then imagine translating an original Mythos novel back into English. How much survives? How much is recognizable? What new cultural syntax is picked up?
It is more of an issue than you might think, because there is a cultural syntax to the Cthulhu Mythos already; the stories, and the secondary literature of pastiches, sequels, prequels, etc. are highly intertextual, sometimes metatextual—and not everything that is written in English gets translated. The result is that some ideas which are largely outmoded in current English-language Mythos fiction may be retained longer in non-English-language Mythos fiction; and of course some new bits are often added which English language Mythos fans have never seen before.
Kathleen Taji’s translation of The Queen of K’n-Yan is a good example. As a novel, Asamatsu Ken’s work is definitely atypical for Mythos fare: the setting is a contemporary Japan and WW2-era China, the massive, secured corporate arcology and overall plot are something out of a cyberpunk novel, echoes of The Thing (1982), Aliens (1986), and Gunhead (1989). Archaeological mystery and psychic flashbacks to a Japanese war camp conducting medical experiments on Chinese civilians give way to a survival horror/body horror aesthetic somewhat foreshadowing works like Parasite Eve (1995) and Resident Evil (1996).
As the title suggests, the primary Mythos influence of the story is “The Mound” (1940) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft:
It isn’t too much of a spoiler to let you know that Asamatsu Ken’s The Queen of K’n-yan involves the discovery of a mummy from that same underground realm, but excavated in China […]
—Darrel Schweitzer, introduction to The Queen of K’n-Yan ix
Asamatsu Ken takes the idea of the people of K’n-Yan and expands them to a global scale, parts of their underground realm running throughout Asia, and ties them into existing history and mythology:
Before the advent of humanity, the world was divided and ruled by several races of intelligent beings. That’s to say, the dragon race, the denizens of Zhùróng – the fire deity – the earth wolf tribes, the wind bull people, and the star-spawn – as can be deduced, they symbolize the five elements of water, fire, earth, wood, and metal. The human descendants of the dragon race are the Han, the human descendants of the earth wolf are the Manchu, and the human descendants of the wind bull people are the Tibetans […] The denizens of Zhùróng, the symbol of fire, rose in revolt against the Yellow Emperor and were sealed underground in retribution. The underground cavern where they were imprisoned is called K’n-Yan. And the star-spawn were banished to the distant heavens.
—Asamatsu Ken, trans. Kathleen Taji, The Queen of K’n-Yan 85
For English-language Mythos fans, this might be sounding suspiciously like the early “elemental” theory of the Cthulhu Mythos first postulated by August Derleth in “The Return of Hastur” (1939). Derleth designated various entities according to the four elements of the Western tradition of Hermetic occultism (Cthulhu, water; Tsathoggua, earth; Hastur, air; and creating Cthugha as the missing “fire elemental”). Asamatsu Ken is certainly paying homage to this idea, even if he is taking it in a different direction:

What appeared were strange sentences containing a mix of Chinese characters, cursive Japanese hiragana, and roman letters. They read –

“Beseech the god of the western seas, THCLH, with sacred reverence.
Beseech the forefather of heat and flame, THGHC, with sacred reverence.

Beseech anon our birth lord, ZTHRNG, with sacred reverence.

The infant princess, through the black disease

When reborn as Queen

Even death will not die…”
—Asamatsu Ken, trans. Kathleen Taji, The Queen of K’n-Yan 112

Zhùróng is a complicated personage, but often considered a god of fire; THGHC is a reference to Derleth’s Cthugha, THCLH to Cthulhu. The complexities of Japanese, Chinese, and Japanese languages coming into play here were probably difficult to translate, but readers can recall how in “The Mound” Cthulhu was represented as “Tulu” and get the vague idea of how Japanese readers might have been piecing together clues.
As an aside, applying the five-element approach to the Mythos is not unique to Asamatsu Ken’s work either. Shirow Masamune in his manga Orion (仙術超攻殻オリオン) has a Cthulhu-esque entity arise from an occult effort involving an unbalanced water-element.
The discussion of “races” in the context of Mythos fiction is more complicated, and not unique to this work. Perhaps for the best, Asamatsu Ken doesn’t delve too deep into the geopolitics or genetics of it all. The main characters are left piecing together bits of history so old that they’ve faded into myth, trying to sort out bits of truth from the old legends.
As the story enters its penultimate phase, the survival horror aspect comes to the fore. A weird game of cat-and-mouse occurs between Morishita Anri (the novel’s protagonist, Japanese), Dr. Li (the novel’s secondary antagonist, Chinese), and the Queen of K’n-Yan, who a la The Thing has taken on the form of a human woman—hinted to possibly be either Morishita or Li. Reanimated body parts are combined together in was reminiscent of Bride of Re-animator (1990):
An ankle with eyes. A left hand with three lips. Orifices with fangs. A large intestine with wings on its back. Thirty upper arms congealed together, spherical in shape. A thigh with a face, knees with thin hands, and ankles growing out of shins. Eyeballs with tentacles, and most horrendous of all, hordes of internal organs, squirming and groping.
—Asamatsu Ken, trans. Kathleen Taji, The Queen of K’n-Yan 175
Strange as it may be with all these diverse elements, the novel does actually come together at the end, in a fairly satisfying way. Not every mystery is explained, nor do they need to be; background noise about large sinkholes in China where the Princess of K’n-Yan was discovered, outbreaks of disease, and rising heat suggest what is about to come, but that is a horror for the future beyond the last page in the novel.
For all that works, at least within the internal rationale of the novel, there are a few things that don’t translate well. There are elements of style and plot which simply don’t come across to English-language readers as nicely as they could, and it is difficult (not having read, or able to read, the original) to tell whether this is a quirk of the translation being too literal or simply a faithful reproduction of Asamatsu’s style which doesn’t quite click.
Stylistically, the chunks of raw exposition embedded in the narrative stand out as exactly that; the Mythos references when they come aren’t exactly subtle. From the standpoint of characters, most are fairly weakly developed except for the protagonist Morishita Anri and the mysterious Dr. Li…and even then, there is a relatively late development in the novel which comes almost out of nowhere:

Something was trying to take shape. Akiyama Haruka’s face appeared in midair – three times larger than the actual face. This was followed by the appearance of a neck, shoulders, lithe arms, and lastly, shapely breasts. Akiyama winked at Anri, and her pupils sent an insinuating and lascivious look her way.

“Hold me, please…pretty please.”

On hearing her words, Andri felt like retching.

The queen knows?! Somehow she’s found out that I’m gay.
—Asamatsu Ken, trans. Kathleen Taji, The Queen of K’n-Yan 199

The issue of Mosihita Anri’s homosexuality, for about the first hundred and ninety-eight pages up until this point, is so low-key as to be completely absent. Going back to re-read the novel, there are only extremely vague hints which maybe point to that if the reader already knows she’s a lesbian; this feels like a character development which was either not communicated well in the original or which was so subtle that the translation didn’t quite convey it. Which is not in any way a dig at Kathleen Taji, only an exemplar of how difficult the job of translation is. How do you communicate someone’s sexuality in Japanese culture when they do not have any immediate love interest? Were there cues that would have made sense to a Japanese audience that an English reader would miss?
These are the kind of questions that consume the reader in The Queen of K’n-Yan. It is an effective Mythos novel; Asamatsu Ken knows what he is doing. Yet it is undoubtedly a very different Mythos novel from August Derleth’s The Lurker at the Threshold (1945) or Robert Bloch’s Strange Eons (1978). The setting and the syntax are in line with Japanese horror of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Mythos translated, adapted, and integrated into a post-WW2 world with computers, genetic engineering, wuxing, and the People’s Liberation Army.
Perhaps most importantly, The Queen of K’n-Yan is an example of what translation offers to the English-speaking audience: something different, a new way to think about the old Mythos. For those of us who cannot read Japanese, it is only through translation that we can approach these works—even if, like Wilbur Whateley in “The Dunwich Horror,” thumbing through the English translation of the Necronomicon, we know that there is something missing from the original.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Machines Are Digging” (2009) by Reza Negarestani

H. P. Lovecraft has an alarming but over-neglected passage about this holey space or ()hole complex (with an evaporative W) as the zone through which the Outside gradually but persistently emerges, creeps in (or out?) from the Inside. A complex of hole agencies and obscure surfaces that unground the earth and turn it to the ultimate zone of emergence and uprising against its passive planetdom and onanistic self-indulgence of the Sun with its solar capitalism. “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)
—Reza Negarestani, “Machines Are Digging: Lovecraft and Poromechanics of Horror” in Songs of the Black Würm Gism (2009) 167

“Machines Are Digging” is an excerpt-cum-recension of a section of Reza Negarestani’s experimental novel Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anomalous Materials (2008); the two texts are not identical, but represent different iterations of the same concept. The piece represents the crossroads between Negarestani’s philosophical horror and Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, the aesthetic point of contact where they come together and, while approaching the material from different angles, arrive at about the same conclusion.

Negarestani’s approach to horror fiction is with the same care, and to a degree with the same attitude, as writing an essay on philosophy or physics. The format and language of his work echoes that of a very intelligent post-graduate student engaging with concepts at a high level, a straight-faced presentation which is ever so delicately off, so that the reader isn’t quite sure whether the author is a genius or genuinely deluded. Even the select choice of word and phrase underlines the academic tendency to define and re-define a technical language for itself.

There is an art amounting to poetry in the suggestive but probably meaningless phrase, and that is the kind of texture that high-level philosophical works tend to have. “Solar capitalism,” for example—what does that mean? On the surface, it does not connect with any familiar phrase or concept. If you pick it apart to try and find meaning—ah, now the reader is playing Negarestani’s game. They’ve bought into the piece enough to start thinking about it, and once you do that you’re getting into the slightly-warped logic, the madman thinking where the view of reality is skewed, like the first step down the rabbit hole of a conspiracy theory.

Philosophical word-games aside, “Machines Are Digging” works in large part because there is something to the connection with Lovecraft that Negarestani talks about. When he writes:

According to Lovecraft, the realism of horror is built upon poromechanics. The poromechanical universe of Lovecraft or ()hole complex is a machine to facilitate the awakening and return of the Old Ones through convoluted compositions of solid and void. (ibid., 168)

He is, knowingly or not (always hard to tell with Negarestani; it’s tricky with any philosopher or madman to know whether they actually have some secret knowledge or are making shit up as they go along) echoing some solid critical scholarship regarding Lovecraft’s themes. Because Lovecraft did like big holes dug in the Earth and could not lie; the idea of underground caverns and large enclosed spaces feature prominently in stories such as “The Festival,” “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Transition of Juan Romero,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” “The Nameless City,” At the Mountains of Madness, etc. and even featured in essays such as “A Descent to Avernus.”

Critics have speculated on the whys and wherefores of Lovecraft’s fascination, from Jungian womb-symbols to shamanic thresholds between the waking and dreaming worlds; the latter a significant plot point in Alan Moore & Jacen Burrow’s Lovecraftian graphic novel Providence. Scott R. Jones compiled an anthology of tales based around the concept, titled Chthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth (2018)One of the collections of memories dedicated to Lovecraft is Caverns Measureless to Man (1996).

Which is a long way to say: Negarestani is on to something.

In pulp-horror fictions and cinema and in Lovecraft fiction, it is the abode of the Old Ones, worm-entities and the blob (petroleum) that surpasses the tentacled-heads in sentience and foreignness. R’lyeh is the every dream, motion and calculation of Cthulhu on the solid part of the earth’s body. (ibid., 173)

Whether or not you buy into what Negarestani is selling is something different. Few people fall headlong into philosophy, because the empirical world is quite a bit messier than the general truths espoused, and conclusions arrived at after torturous paragraphs of twisted logic sometimes don’t seem quite so significant and valid in the harsh light of day when your tea has grown cold. But sometimes, you can pull out some wonderful idea or turn of phrase buried in there, a little treasure to wonder at and turn over in your head. “Machines Are Digging” is, regardless of its other merits, a source of inspiration.

In poromechancial cosmology of Lovecraft, exhumation is undertaken and exercised by units called Rats. In fact, ‘the dramatic epic of the rats’ (Lovecraft) can be found in their act of exhuming surfaces, solid bodies and structures resisting perforation. Rats are exhuming machines, not only full-fledged epidemic vectors but also ferociously dynamic lines of ungrounding. (ibid., 175)

Now who can argue with that? I think we’re all indebted to Gabby Johnson for clearly stating what needed to be said. I’m particularly glad that these lovely children were here today to hear that speech. Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish, it expressed a courage little seen in this day and age.
—Olson Johnson, Blazing Saddles (1974)

“Machines Are Digging” is experimental fiction, or at least is not concerned with a traditional narrative or format. It is perhaps as close as any writer has come to something like genuine Lovecraftian literature, in the sense of trying to write something that genuinely challenges the reader’s preconceptions and introduces a few new ones; a Necronomicon Lite, fiction and fact and big ideas woven together into something which leaves the reader’s mind spinning off into unfamiliar branches of thought. As bizarre and occasionally baffling as it may be, there are rewards to be gained from Negarestani’s challenging read.

As mentioned above, “Machines Are Digging” is an excerpt, or variant text, from Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia. The major differences between the two are a slight truncation of the version in Songs of the Black Würm Gism, and the lack of the surrounding context provided by the novel.

In Cyclonopedia, “Machines Are Digging” is explicitly a pseudo-text among pseudo-texts, a found document that is part of a cache of data for the user to sift through; a part rather than a whole. Reading it in Songs of the Black Würm Gism, wedged between Wakamatsu Yukio’s black-and-white photographs of naked women covered in worms, frogs, octopi, and insects and “Frater Monstrum’s” Chaos Magick-inflected account of “H P Lovecraft and the Loch Ness Monster,” the reader doesn’t necessarily get the full burn of Negarestani’s thesis—but it is certainly in good company.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

 

 

“Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

You know, it takes profound art and profound insight into Nature to turn out stuff like Pickman’s. Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That’s because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear—the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness. I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch—beyond life—that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Doré had it. Sime has it. Angarola of Chicago has it. And Pickman had it as no man ever had it before or—I hope to heaven—ever will again.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model” (1927)

“Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” is a sequel in every sense of the word. Not only does Kiernan unfold the next chapter in the narrative, peeling away more onion-layers to reveal deeper mysteries, but it is a continuation of the themes of the original story in a new direction. Without so many words, Kiernan asks and answers the unobvious question: What’s better than a photograph from life?

The story could have been labeled “Eliot’s Tale”—Eliot being the person to whom Thurber, the protagonist in Lovecraft’s story, had been addressing his narrative to. Now three years later, Thurber was dead and it was Eliot picking up the pieces of the man’s life, sorting through the letters and drawings, uncovering something that Thurber, in Lovecraft’s story, failed to mention: Pickman’s nudes.

It isn’t some lingering prudery that kept nudity out of Lovecraft’s story, nor is it any particular prurience of Kiernan’s that places it at the center of hers. Lovecraft’s focus was on one of Pickman’s models, the necrophagous critters that haunt Boston’s old tunnels; Kiernan’s focus is on his other model—a young woman whom any artist might sketch in the nude to hone their skills at anatomy, and who catches Eliot’s attention.

The development of the investigation is leisurely, with specific details that are highly suggestive but never so explicit as to reveal the central mystery. Hints along the way, artfully arranged, touching on some of Kiernan’s favorite themes…echoes of “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Hound,” old family shames and lesbian desires—and a particular anatomical feature—that echo Kiernan’s own stories like “Houndwife” (2010), “pas-en-arrière” (2007), and Daughter of Hounds (2007). Always keeping that toehold in reality, the story coded with all the care of a good hoax, as when Kiernan discusses what might well have been the inspiration for the story:

It might have only been a test reel, or perhaps 17,000 or so frames, some twelve minutes, give or take, excised from a far longer film. All in all, it was little but than a blatantly pornographic pastiche of the widely circulated 1918 publicity stills of Theda Bara lying in various risqué poses with a human skeleton (for J. Edward Gordon’s Salomé).
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Pickman’s Other Model” in Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart 276

thedaskeleton

I overheard, when the lights came back up, that the can containing the reel bore two titles, The Necrophile and The Hound’s Daughter, and also bore two dates – 1923 and 1924. (ibid)

As much as Lovecraft and others liked to portray the artist as portraying some supernal truth, Kiernan knows that reality tends to be much baser. So much is the case when Eliot finally meets Pickman’s other model in the penultimate chapter: a tired young woman who has seen a little too much of the world, with bad habits and a filthy mouth. Living in the present but still haunted by the past.

A past which catches up to her in the final chapter, hinting as Lovecraft did of more in heaven and earth than was dreamt of, darker and uglier realities at play which even the best of art could only hint at as a shadow in the final flickering frames on a black-and-white reel.

The success of “Pickman’s Other Model (1930)” is less in revelation than in suggestion and presentation. This is a story not so much for readers who want another piece of the Mythos puzzle as much as those who enjoy the process of discovery…and how some stories and images stay with you, for a long while. That is the other question, and perhaps as close to a theme of Kiernan’s narrative and her utmost reflection on Lovecraft’s: How do you unsee such things? You can’t.

“Pickman’s Other Model (1930)” was first published in Kiernan’s Sirenia Digest (March 2008), it has been reprinted Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror (2010), New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (2011), Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart (2012), Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan Volume Two (2015), and Houses Under The Sea (2018).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

 

 

“Boojum” (2008) by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette

The Lavinia Whateley was a Boojum, a deep-space swimmer, but her kind had evolved in the high tempestuous envelopes of gas giants, and their offspring still spent their infancies there, in cloud-nurseries over eternal storms.
—Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, “Boojum” in The Book of Cthulhu II 237

Sometimes, “Cthulhu Mythos” seems like an inadequate label for a story. “Boojum” is one of those. Bear & Monette’s tale is space opera for the 21st century, tightly written and gloriously imaginative. The Mythos elements themselves are both essential and yet subdued: the spice of the story, but not the meat of it. This isn’t a pastiche of Lovecraft among the stars. It’s a pirate story, in some distant future. Space pirates in a living ship, cracking open freighters; dealing stolen cargo with the Mi-Go.

For literary ancestry, “Boojum” has two notable forebears: “In the Walls of Eryx” (1939) by H. P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling, which is essentially Lovecraft’s version of a 1930s interplanetary tale, and Richard Lupoff’s “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977), which brought Lovecraft’s Mythos to the New Wave of science fiction. The better part of four decades between when those two stories were published—and in that time a space race was ran and won and lost. Another three decades between “Ghooric Zone” and “Boojum”—and what changed?

Attitude, certainly. Bear & Monette’s future is dirty, cramped, blue-collar, more Alien than Star Trek. A Lovecraftian future that feels lived in; realistic but not exactly bleak. There are stark choices and bad options when the only thing between you and hard vacuum is the skin of a giant extraterrestrial entity that you live inside like a space ship, when you live under constant threat that the captain might notice and make an example out of you. When you have to watch your oxygen levels, and it’s rational to choose between living as a brain in a canister or getting eaten by a diamond-toothed monster.

Why call the ship the Lavinia Whateley? In part, this is a signal to the readers of what this story is going to be. We never get a sense of why that name was applied within the context of the setting, except that the other ships like the Marie Curie and the Josephine Baker were also great women. The protagonist Black Alice Bradley swears by “Jesus and the cold fishy gods”; she lived in a world where Gillies from Providence Station are recognizable, where sunstones are mined on Venus, and the Fungi from Yuggoth move through space like the boojum themselves. This is a future which acknowledges Lovecraft, that riffs off his creations, but approaches the material from a contemporary point of view. Not too behooven to the man from Providence.

A good interplanetary story must have realistic human characters; not the stock scientist, villainous assistants, invincible heroes, and lovely scientist’s-daughter heroines of the usual trash sort. Indeed, there is no reason why there should be any “villain”, “hero”, or “heroine” at all. […] No stock romance is wanted.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction” in Collected Essays 2.180

Lovecraft wrote his assertions against romance during the heyday of the scientific romance, when John Carter would travel to Mars and seduce the alien princess Dejah Thoris, decades before Captain Kirk would leave a trail of broken hearts across the galaxy. While certain elements of his advice have aged well, others are less applicable.

In “Boojum,” Black Alice Bradley loves the Lavinia Whateley. Not sexually, though there is a certain intimacy throughout the story: Black Alice and the rest of the crew lives within the Boojum. To Black Alice, the “ship” is Vinnie, and though Black Alice is one of the lowest members of the crew, a self-taught engineer far down in the hierarchy, her sense of wonder and awe at being in the stars is focused on a single individual, a single relationship—we get no sense that Black Alice has any other real friends or lovers among the crew. In a real sense, Vinnie is all Black Alice cares about—and the revelation of the story, which Lovecraft might have at least begrudgingly recognized as something other than a “stock romance,” is that as a living being Vinnie cares about Black Alice.

“Boojum” first appeared in Fast Ships, Black Sails (2008), and was subsequently reprinted in Year’s Best SF 14, The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection, The Mammoth Book of Best New Science Fiction: 22nd Annual Collection (all 2009), The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2009 Edition (2010), Lightspeed (Sep 2012), The Book of Cthulhu II (2012), Space Opera (2014), and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (2014). It was adapted to audiobook by the Drabblecast in 2011. Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette have collaborated on two follow-ups, “Mongoose” (2009) and “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” (2012).


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)