“Cthulhu’s Mother” (2015) by Kelda Crich

C’TTAR: Nobody said anything about his mother.
TERRY: Makes you think, eh?
—Kelda Crich, “Cthulhu’s Mother” in Dreams From the Witch House 168

That squelching sound you hear is Kelda Crich (Deborah Walker) driving the knife in. Mind the blood.

Sacred cows exist to be butchered, and the Cthulhu Mythos is no exception. There are entire anthologies devoted to humorous takes and takedowns of Lovecraft, his peers, heirs, and their varied collections, and the tradition of Lovecraftian humor is at least deserving of respect as the main branch of Lovecraftian horror it draws upon. Even Lovecraft would chime in on the subject:

Such writing, to be sure, has its place, as has the conventional or even whimsical or humorous ghost story where formalism or the author’s knowing wink removes the true sense of the morbidly unnatural; but these things are not the literature of cosmic fear in its purest sense.
—H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

“Cthulhu’s Mother” is just such a knowing wink. The reader is treated to a juxtaposition of the seriousness of the Mythos and the informal mundanity of an (apparent) homemaker treating Cthulhu as an oversleeping teenager. The flash fiction story is written as a dialogue, the pompous language of the priest with its talk of strange aeons and sacred this-and-that running up hard against the much more informal and relaxed speech of the Mother. The result is a bit deflating—which is the whole point.

In the harsh light of day, a lot of the tropes of the Mythos seem ridiculous. Suspension of disbelief and appreciation of the subtler horrors requires a process of initiation: you have to read the stories, work your way up to the final, culminating revelations that Lovecraft and his heirs so liked to italicize. Yet like all good humor, the witticisms are only effective because of a bit of cutting insight. Crich can only put in the knife by knowing where to put it:

LENG PRIEST: Women aren’t usually part of the mythos. Except as virgin sacrifices, of course.
—Kelda Crich, “Cthulhu’s Mother” in Dreams From the Witch House 168

H. P. Lovecraft actually did toss a couple references to sacrificing young men and maidens into “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “Out of the Aeons,” but the whole “virgin sacrifice” trope is, like a lot of the Cthulhu Mythos, a later growth. The broader part is somewhat more accurate: Lovecraft included fewer female characters (and female horrors) than explicitly male ones. Shub-Niggurath and Mother Dagon; Lavinia Whateley and Mamie Bishop, Keziah Mason, Marceline Bedard, T’la-Yub, the Ape Princess, and Aesnath Waite…along with a number of smaller roles. More than most readers might remember at first, but still a minority over all.

“Women aren’t usually part of the mythos.” could apply as well to women authors of Mythos stories, of course.

The mother of Cthulhu is never mentioned by Lovecraft in his fiction. It seems a curious omission, unless you realize that Lovecraft had little interest or desire in creating a sprawling, cohesive family tree of a pantheon to rival the Greco-Roman gods—that was the work of later hands, embellishing and restructuring the Mythos, establishing relationships, filling in “gaps” real of perceived. Hence the creation of Cthylla, the daughter of Cthulhu. The whole foundation of “Cthulhu’s Mother” is based on that possibility space: by first establishing that Cthulhu has a mother, and that this is a surprise to the cultists (Cthulhu having a mother is not a guarantee in every interpretation of the Mythos).

The pivot to commentary on women in the Mythos as a whole is Crich twisting the knife a little. A knowing wink to the reader about how much of Mythos fiction is built from tropes, expectations, and prejudices—not in the sense of bigotry, but in the sense of judging Mythos fiction by what has come before, and wanting more of the same rather than new voices and new takes. The readers of Lovecraftian fiction often know what they want, be it pastiche or cultists or an ominous pregnancy, and that slow fossilization of tropes, concepts, and authors is part of what has defined the Mythos over the last four decades, for good and bad.

Fans of Lovecraftian fiction need to be able to laugh at themselves and their works—and maybe reflect on what they read, and why. Because there is more to the Mythos than just the old favorites, fresh voices with fresh perspectives that deserve to be heard.

“Cthulhu’s Mother” was published in Dreams From the Witch House: Female Voice of Lovecraftian Horror (2015). Other Lovecraftian works include the poem “Stone City, Old as Immeasurable Time” (2011).

“Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses” (2015) by Valerie Valdes

One squat, black temple of Tsathoggua was encountered, but it had been turned into a shrine of Shub-Niggurath, the All-Mother and wife of the Not-to-Be-Named One. This deity was a kind of sophisticated Astarte, and her worship struck the pious Catholic as supremely obnoxious.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Brown-Reed Bishop, “The Mound”

Valerie Valdes is not the first Mythos writer to invoke the Jehovah’s Witnesses, one of those peculiarly American outgrowths of Christianity that emerged from the Third Great Awakening (mid-1800s to early 1900s), and best known today for door-to-door evangelism and recruitment. That earlier effort, Robert M. Price’s “Behold, I Stand At the Door and Knock” (1994) focuses on a similar theme, though with a less pronounced element of satire: why don’t the cults of the Cthulhu Mythos proselytize?

The religious aspect of the Mythos have been the focus of many writers; Lovecraft and his contemporaries were generally vague and sometimes contradictory on specifics of theology and cosmology, dogma and sectarian strife. The views of these native or syncretic religions was almost always presented from the skewed perspective of an outsider—someone who had not been raised or initiated into the mysteries—and bound about with much occultism, overtones of Theosophy and other new religions, or anthropological theories and reconstructions of old religion; the main exception being “The Call of Cthulhu,” where the aged mestizo Castro spilled some secrets for the benefit of the audience. Yet the fundamental question always was: why worship the Great Old Ones? Why venerate Shub-Niggurath?

It is indicative of the nature of the short piece as a whole, that while the tone is light and darkly comic, there is real meat in the concepts, and sometimes the questions raised cut to the bone:

“Sister,” I said. “Why did you not tell her that Shub-Niggurath grants immortality to her chosen?”
—Valeria Valdes, “Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses”

Valdes has a good answer for this, with a reference to Ramsey Campbell’s classic tale of Shub-Niggurath “The Moon-Lens” (1964) for any Mythos lorekeepers among the reading audience. For the most part, “Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses” emphasizes the surreal contrast of the secretive, monstrous cultists of Shub-Niggurath going door-to-door, pamphleting the neighborhood (there’s a website on the back), striving to stay on script—and it is an interesting script:

Are there mysteries in your life that do not have satisfying answers?

Have you ever felt that no benevolent god watches over you?

Do you feel your life is insignificant?

That you are a tiny ant in  a vast, uncaring universe?

…and if you answer yes to the above, “Then you will be happy to know there are answers to your questions, if you dare to look.”

The target of this pitch is Yourladies Benitez, a young hispanic woman. There’s an implicit frisson to that combination of age, ethnicity, and gender when it comes to religion; Benitez embodies the conflict between the heavy Catholic cultural influence of the older generation and the more agnostic or atheistic youth, and the stereotypes of women as more prone to spirituality. On the front of the pamphlet she is handed, is “a young woman very like Yourladies[.]” To the cult of Shub-Niggurath, Benitez is a likely mark—the very things that would set her apart from more traditional stereotypes of Hispanic women as devout Catholics are exactly what Shub-Niggurath’s witnesses are looking for.

The setup and execution of Benitez’ targeting for initiation riffs off the comment from Lovecraft and Bishop’s “The Mound”: the deliberate contrast of socio-cultural norms between the older and younger generation. Yourladies Benitez (female, Hispanic, agnostic?) offers a contrast to Lovecraft & Bishop’s  conquistador Pánfilo de Zamacona y Nuñez (male, Spanish, Catholic), and the different perspectives of the two characters is reflected in their reaction to the worship of Shub-Niggurath: Pánfilo’s disgust and Yourladies’ grudging acceptance.

The glimpses Valdes offers of the theology of Shub-Niggurath in the story are few, but quintessential and nihilistic: “There is no point to anything. No point at all.” Yet that basic tenet proves ultimately freeing to Benitez—freedom from her supervisor, her job with the pin-stripe uniform, eventually even her clothes. As the Cthulhu cultist Castro put it, she became:

[…] as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy […]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

“Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses” appeared in She Walks in Shadows (2015). Valeria Valdes’ first novel Chilling Effect is due out in 2019.

“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).