“Herbert West in Love” (2012) by Molly Tanzer

“Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror. This terror is not due altogether to the sinister manner of his recent disappearance, but was engendered by the whole nature of his life-work, and first gained its acute form more than seventeen years ago, when we were in the third year of our course at the Miskatonic University Medical School in Arkham. While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his experiments fascinated me utterly, and I was his closest companion.”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”

“Knew you faggots were faggots,” he said smugly. “Going on a date? To a party? I’m not surprised you suck dick by choice, West, but you, Langbroek? You might actually get a girl to look at you! That is, if you weren’t so busy sucking dick. By choice,” he added, and then laughed loudly, hurr hurr hurr.
—Molly Tanzer, “Herbert West in Love”

Readings of homosexual subtext in Lovecraft’s fiction rarely give way to text—critics are more comfortable noting the possible allegories and ambiguity of language than they are exploring those themes in a work of fiction. There are some who do have the courage and insight to go into such uncharted territories, including the graphic novel Providence (2015-2017) by Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows, “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon, and “Herbert West in Love” (2012) by Molly Tanzer. While Lisbon focuses on eroticism, Tanzer addresses the more complex social and emotional issues surrounding the realities of homosexuality in the early part of the 20th century…when gay men could often face violence and legal penalties as well as social ostracism.

Tanzer’s story works because of how well she develops the characters of the story. As a prequel to Lovecraft’s tale, it beautifully sets up a number of scenes, with a great deal of attention to little details of Lovecraftian lore in the name of streets and Miskatonic University faculty—but all of this is dressing for the main question: who or what is Herbert West in love with?

Tristan almost slipped on a patch of ice when West grabbed him by the hand and pulled him down into a kiss, right there in the snowy brightness under the lamppost, but West’s grip was like iron, and it kept Tristan steady on his feet.
—Molly Tanzer, “Herbert West in Love”

It feels like a question that shouldn’t need to be asked, that doesn’t matter, certainly not in Lovecraft’s narrative and most of the stories that follow it. Lovecraft, uninterested in romance, never gave West any romantic partners; it was a rare author that followed that did. The intensity of West’s focus on reanimation often makes him an essentially asexual character, all of his passion devoted to his work. Yet that is the crux of Tanzer’s narrative.

It isn’t a question of whether or not West is homosexual or bisexual; Tanzer and Lovecraft never get inside West’s head on the matter of his sexuality. West is only seen through the eyes of his associates, with their own emotions and prejudices coloring their perceptions. The degree of manipulation that the young reanimator shows make all of his actions suspect. We never know if West is truly attracted to his fellow student, or if sex is one more weapon that West will use to achieve his goal.

Pete Rawlik, who has carved something of a niche in this particular corner of the Mythos, described “Herbert West in Love” as “subversive” in his introduction to Legacy of the Reanimator (2015)—which it is, in a certain sense. The reader is not presented with any definitive statements on West’s sexuality, but his actions in the story frame two possibilities: either West is open to sexual encounters with men, and thus subverting the asexual character created by the largely homophobic Lovecraft; or West is far more treacherous and alien than even Lovecraft portrayed him, willing to feign homosexuality, even with all its attendant potential consequences in the early 20th century, if that will successfully manipulate his assistant.

Either reading changes our perspective on West, and how we read the reanimator from that point on.

“Herbert West in Love” was first published in the Lovecraft ezine, it has been republished in Tanzer’s collection Rumbullion ‘and Other Liminal Libations’ (2013) and the anthology Legacy of the Reanimator (2015).


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

“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” (2012) by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette

Galileo and Derleth and Chen sought forbidden knowledge, too. That got us this far.
—Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” in Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror 238

“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” differs from its sister-stories “Boojum” and “Mongoose” in several important ways. All three stories take place in the same space opera setting, and they are interconnected by the elements of Bear & Monette’s mythos—boojums, cheshires, toves, bandersnatch, Arkhamers—but their narratives are largely independent of one another. The setting is the same, but not the cast of characters, or the plot, or the approach.

“Boojum” is essentially a sea story, of the kind that went out of style as wooden, wind-powered clipper ships disappeared at the end of the 19th century to steam and coal, a pirate tale in an exotic setting. “Mongoose” is inspired by Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” the literary DNA recombinated into something a little stranger, but it is still very much a set-piece story of a distant outpost under threat. “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” is a story of a plague ship—and a kind of inversion of H. P. Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West—Reanimator,”

Dr. Cynthia Feuerwerker is the complement to Dr. Herbert West: a medical doctor who dabbled in forbidden research and paid the price for it. Where West is callous in his pursuit of knowledge, Feuerwerker is first and foremost an attentive physician. Her intellectual intelligence is balanced by emotional intelligence, her keen scientific curiosity reined in by a moral imperative. Personal concerns outweighed by certainty of ethical responsibilities, echoed by the repeated phrase “that’s how you get war crimes.”

Sometimes, the right thing to do is disobey orders.

So instead of a story about a nameless protagonist that aids and abets a reanimator, Bear & Monette wrote a story about a doctor calling out the reanimator and tell them why they were wrong.

Haven’t you ever heard of what happened to the Lavinia Whateley?
—”The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” 255

In deliberately borrowing from one of Lovecraft’s stories to essentially have a zombie-story set on a dead ship in space during a nominal salvage run, Bear & Monette also take the opportunity to peel back the onionskin on their setting a little more. Readers learn about the Arkhamers, with their arcane academic society and naming conventions, a further peek at one of the more discriminated groups in the boojumverse. They also run into names not taken from Cthulhu Mythos fiction, but from the real-life people that wrote and published those stories: Wandrei, Derleth, and Caitlín R. Kiernan.

This brand of meta-awareness, of mixing fictional creation and real-world persons in the same name-dropping fashion, is old hat in the Mythos. Lovecraft included references to Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith in his stories; August Derleth included references to Lovecraft and his stories alongside the Necronomicon and other Mythos tomes. The boundary between fact and fiction was blurred a little, and that’s part of the point of doing these self-referential name drops—to push the hoax a little in the direction that maybe Lovecraft & co. were really onto something, that maybe what they wrote about does exist—a premise for works as different as Robert Bloch’s novel Strange Eons (1978) and Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows graphic novel Providence (2015-2017).

“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” is doing something a little different, though. The question asked in “Boojum” is: what does Lavinia Whateley mean in the context of this setting, that they would name a ship after her? In “Mongoose,” why are so many of the stations of similar names drawn from the Cthulhu Mythos? By ranking Derleth next to Galileo, the suggestion is that this is the future of a setting where some aspect of the Mythos was real, and was revealed by Lovecraft’s posthumous publishers. It is an evolution of Richard Lupoff’s approach in “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone”, with a greater eye to the process of discovery and acclimatization.

The boojumverse is not Cthulhupunk, it is the step beyond that. A setting where the alien horrors of the Mythos are, if not exactly normalized, something humanity has adapted itself to. The success of Bear & Monette is not just in writing three great stories, but in looking a little further than other writers into what the exposure of the Mythos might mean if it did not immediately destroy humanity. In Moore’s script for Providence, he suggests that the Lovecraftian scholars might become Lovecraftian scientists—and the boojumverse is a setting where that might well have happened.

We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

Maybe that’s the worst part of human nature. Nothing ever stops us. Not for long.
—”The Case of the Charles Dexter Ward” 272

Cynthia Feuerwerker has voyaged farther than Lovecraft ever foresaw, when he wrote of Herbert West’s nominally laudable scientific inquiry and desire to achieve the medical goal of defeating death perverted and degenerated by “a soul calloused and seared.” West was willing to kill for his researches; Feuerwerker was not. Bear & Monette’s moral, if there is one, is less than comforting: someone will try again. This was not the first reanimator, nor will it be the last. Human curiosity often outstrips its ability to foresee the implications and ramifications of what it does and what it creates.

“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” was first published as an audiobook on the Drabblecast (2012). It was reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection and The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 26 (both 2013), New Cthulhu 2: More Recent Weird (2015), Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (2016), and Chiral Mad 4: An Anthology of Collaborations (2018).

It is the third of Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s collaborations, preceded by “Boojum” and “Mongoose”.


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

 

“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).

 


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

“ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer

I always preferred to think that strong women and loving couples and flirting and passion and a hundred other delightful emotions existed, somewhere, in Lovecraft’s world, and we just didn’t get told that story. Which begs the question: what if these realistic, flesh and blood and sex and sweat characters did meet up with Lovecraft’s?
—Carrie Cuinn, Cthulhurotica (2010) 5

“ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” begins with an unusual twist on the Greek myth of Pygmalion. The story of Pygmalion and his statue-bride has been adapted to a Mythos vein at least a few times, notably by August Derleth in “Innsmouth Clay” (1971) and Clint Collins in “The Summoned” (2011), but here Tanzer subverts the expectations in a manner that is quirky and surreal: rather than focus on Pygmalion and Galatea, the narrator of the story is Pygmalion’s offering to Aphrodite—inanimate, but possessed of anima. A passive actor in the proceedings of the story, this unique nameless narrator acts as witness of and commentator on the events that follow.

H. P. Lovecraft was a transgressive writer, whose fiction violated the cultural taboos of his era—he wrote stories featuring cannibalism, necrophilia, atheism, nihilism, incest, cosmic miscegenation, and inescapable biological determinism. Molly Tanzer is a subversive writer, whose stories undermine the reader’s expectations; she sets tropes on their head, teases well-worn plots and situations then inverts them, challenges staid conventions with fresh perspective. The Cthulhu Mythos provides plenty of raw material.

As a mature genre, Mythos horror has its own tropes and familiar elements. A reader who has suspended disbelief for the insidious cults of Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth in “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and “The Dunwich Horror” need not be reintroduced to them fresh; cultists and tentacled entities became a stock element in much of the fiction after Lovecraft and his contemporaries. What was transgressive in the 1930s became accepted, and eventually kitsch: the default late-night gatherings of robed strangers have taken on the verisimilitude of Hollywood Satanism, only with naughty tentacles instead of inverted crosses. Overripe for satire and subversion.

London during the Victorian period; the British Museum, with the relics of a recent archaeological dig on display; a curator with untoward designs on a puritanical innocent maid; a small gathering of cultists; a summoning ritual which requires sacrifice—this is almost a by-the-numbers plot, until the climax. All of which is by design: Tanzer knows the tropes she is invoking, builds the scenario up so that savvy reader’s expectations are pointed in one direction before she pulls the rug out and switches gears. The language, fitting for a story dealing with Shub-Niggurath, titillates and teases of things to come:

“Do you know what a dildo is?” asked the docent roguishly, his mustache twitching as he tried not to smile.

This is not erotic Lovecraftian fiction, although Tanzer deliberately flirts with the possibility. The nameless narrator is not coy, but neither are they crude; sex-positive without being sex-obsessed. Tanzer’s story is a pastiche not of anything Lovecraft wrote specifically, but of an accepted standard of Mythos fiction, where virgins are to be sacrificed by robed cultists, preferably in as leering and erotic a manner as possible, such as put to film by Roger Corman in The Dunwich Horror (1970). The Hollywood version of the Mythos, where all the real horror and atmosphere has been boiled off, leaving a handful of reoccurring images and predictable plot devices. Then Tanzer flips the script.

ConquerorWomb_cover02-187x300“ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” is a piece it would be hard to write before the 21st century. It requires the build-up of Mythos fiction tropes from the 70, 80s, and 90s, and it requires a publisher and audience willing to deal with such a surreal, adults-oriented approach as far as the unique narrator and the overall plot of the story. It’s not erotica, but it’s also not for kids: that weird middle ground of adult fiction that is sexually explicit but isn’t porn. There weren’t a lot of publishers for that material, and still aren’t. As kitsch as the robed-cultists-sacrificing-the-virgin is, the Mythos is still transgressive to many people, to the point that a sex-positive protagonist in a Mythos story is subversive.

That’s really the interesting thing about this story, not so much the events of the plot or characters but what the plot and characters say about the average understanding and approach to Mythos fiction. In M. L. Carter’s “Prey of the Goat”, Shub-Niggurath is a figure of negative sexuality, characterized by unhealthy lust, violation, non-consensual sex, and threats of sexual violence; in Tina L. Jens’ “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” the protagonist is the center of a plot that involves her being coerced into sex; in Joanna Russ “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” a Lovecraftian entity entraps the male character with promise of a romantic relationship—these are all essentially negative depictions of sexuality, sex as a medium for horror.

Sex itself is not demonized in Tanzer’s story. The depiction of Shub-Niggurath is effectively the same as in “Prey of the Goat,” but the sexual act is portrayed by the narrator and the helping characters as a positive thing with many warm recollections, when everyone involved is willing and has a good time. Tanzer does not dismiss the possibility of rape—that is a real and vital source of conflict throughout the story—but sexual assault and horror are not the sole depictions of sexuality in the narrative. This is a marked contrast from a great deal of Cthulhu Mythos fiction, and although Tanzer doesn’t dwell on the implications in the story itself, it feels almost like a response to the question Carrie Cuinn posed in her introduction to Cthulhurotica.

“ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” was first published in The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction #7 (2012), and then reprinted in the ebook-only anthology Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath (2014). Molly Tanzer has written a number other Mythos tales such as “Go, Go, Go, Said the Byakhee” (2011), “Herbert West in Love” (2013), “The Curse of the Old Ones” (2015, with Jesse Bullington), and “The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad” (2015); and has carved out her own corner of Lovecraft Country with the Ivybridge Twins stories, set in the Victorian period and collected in A Pretty Mouth (2012).


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