In the coffin lay an amulet of curious and exotic design, which had apparently been worn around the sleeper’s neck. It was the oddly conventionalised figure of a crouching winged hound, or sphinx with a semi-canine face, and was exquisitely carved in antique Oriental fashion from a small piece of green jade. The expression on its features was repellent in the extreme, savouring at once of death, bestiality, and malevolence. Around the base was an inscription in characters which neither St. John nor I could identify; and on the bottom, like a maker’s seal, was graven a grotesque and formidable skull.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound”
“Houndwife” is a tribute to Lovecraft, and a continuation. It is not a pastiche, as are so many Mythos tales, because it does not attempt to borrow or even suggest anything of Lovecraft’s prose style, however much it may take specific images and ideas from his stories; break them apart, expand on, and rework them. Lovecraft’s story is a background episode: it is unnecessary for the reader to have knowledge of “The Hound” to appreciate and understand “Houndwife,” but those who have read both have perhaps a greater understanding than those who have only read one. It stands on its own, but together they suggest more. That’s rare.
Caitlín R. Kiernan has style.
“Houndwife” revolves around several of her familiar foci—lesbians, the American South contrasted with New England, the Lovecraft Mythos, ghouls, the Church of Starry Wisdom, the occult, and broken perception. The protagonist is an unnamed woman, unlearned but highly intuitive: wisdom borne of experience contrasted against book-knowledge. And this is the story of how she went through a transformative experience, died and was buried, rose again. Not as a martyr or a messiah, not quite as a sacrifice. The experience changes the protagonist, unglues her from the understanding of time. The reader experiences in a linear fashion the protagonist’s now decidedly nonlinear existence.
Lovecraft’s jade amulet from the corpse-eating cult of Leng is the Chekov’s gun of the piece, waiting to be fired. The central mystery of the curious hound-sphinx remains, refracted through the protagonist’s shattered timeline. Only once in a thousand years is a woman chosen to be the houndwife. What that means, ultimately, the answers the Starry Wisdom (and the readers) want, are not readily forthcoming. This is not a Mythos story with passages of long exposition on cosmology or the family trees of the gods: this is a prose poem to experience. Answers, if there are any, will come with reflection.
Aside from the excellent prose styling, and the masterfully done nonlinear structure of the narrative, “Houndwife” is an exemplar of Kiernan’s careful handling and development of characters and relationships, which is part of what sets her work apart from many Mythos writers. While Kiernan has written erotic works, this is not one of them: the lesbian relationship between the protagonist and her girlfriend Isobel Endecott is not there for titillation, but to drive the connection between the protagonist and the cult, and contrast the ties between Isobel and the cult and Isobel and the protagonist. Glimpsed only in fragments, the sense is there of a real relationship, one where both partners are clearly distinct, but a strong attraction and attachment binds them—although strained and slightly alienated by the ritual of death and rebirth.
That too is one of Kiernan’s familiar themes, the strained relationship despite mutual attraction, and is reminiscent of her earlier story “At the Gates of Deeper Slumber” (2009), where the unnamed narrator and Suzanne are not the perfect lesbian couple: they have disagreements, fights, and flaws. They quibble and worry over gender roles and each other’s space. Suzanne refers to the narrator as a “butch dyke” in reference to the persona she projects, but the narrative itself reveals the uncertainty and discomfort—perhaps even jealousy—that accompany the invasion of her home by the Shining Trapezohedron. The narrator cannot give full force to her worries for fear of alienating her partner, and it is the fear of losing Suzanne that is the consuming dread of the piece, more than anything else. Kiernan has revisited this theme of love, loss, and the Shining Trapezohedron in her later piece “Ex Libris” (2012).
The “Kiernan Mythos” is a bit hazier than comparable efforts by other writers, her contributions tend to be free-standing, without the need for strong tie-ins, though they may exist if you look for them: Isobel Endecott probably related to the Endecotts of “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008). She has developed no single common setting like Lovecraft’s Miskatonic region, Ramsey Campbell’s Severn Valley, or W. H. Pugmire’s Sesqua Valley, although certain works like the recent Agents of Dreamland (2017) and Black Helicopters (2018) are tied together, and she has four connected stories in the “Dandridge Cycle”, but she does not invent new gods with unspeakable names or eldritch grimoires which are consistent in story after story. Kiernan’s Mythos tales like “Houndwife” are strange growths sprouting from the Lovecraft Mythos, new stories growing from old soil, each unique and distinct.
I should hope that not even the most die-hard admirer of H. P. Lovecraft’s work would date argue that “The Hound” (1922) is a well-written story. And yet I love it. Despite all it’s garish purple-prose histrionics, the story pushes my buttons. So, it was probably inevitable that I would someday write a tribute to this minor Lovecraft tale, and in March 2010 that’s exactly what I did.
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan vol. 2, 360
“Houndwife” was first published in 2010 in the Sirenia Digest, and first saw print in Black Wings of Cthulhu 2 (2012). It has been reprinted in hardcover twice in her collections Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan vol. 2 (2015) and Houses Under the Sea: Mythos Tales of Caitlín R. Kiernan (2018).