Hogan’s smile slipped again. “You’re asking me to roll over and take it? How is that going to look?”
“Better than an FBI raid on Innsmouth or the mob squad kicking in your door, I’d bet.”
—G. D. Penman, “Moonshine”
Detective Vergil Levard of the catches a cold one, and the hunt for the murderer takes him from Jimmy Hogan’s speakeasy in Arkham to the small seaport of Innsmouth and back. An investigation only hampered by two things—the victim’s tattoo, which ties into Levard’s unquiet past, and the strange attraction between Vergil and Jimmy…and the 1920s is a dangerous time for bootlegging up the Miskatonic River or lifting shirts.
While Lovecraft set most of his stories in the contemporary period, the tales themselves don’t often evoke the tone of the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age. That’s not to say the Great Depression and Prohibition entirely pass the Cthulhu Mythos by; Lovecraft himself has his protagonist quietly procure a bottle of bootleg whiskey to ply Zadok Allen with in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but for the most part such human institutions take a back seat to the stranger horrors. Nor did Lovecraft or his immediate collaborators attempt to fuse the hardboiled detective style, made infamous by film noir, with the early Mythos—all that would come later, as succeeding generations of authors visited and revisited the old ground. Lovecraft himself wrote:
There is certainly room for another Antarctic tale—in fact for many more, if told by different authors & with wholly different elements & stresses. No field, as such, can be said to be really exhausted; for a scene or theme is merely an auxiliary of the artist in his unique expression of himself. There can be as many different & non-conflicting stories about the same thing, as there are different artists.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 25 Dec 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 285
Penman certainly takes different stresses. The setting is well-researched, peppered with period slang appropriate for a hard-nosed cop and a bootlegger to bandy about, and the homoerotic attraction between Vergil and Jimmy is quick, but not forced, immediate, or without social and personal hurdles. The development given to their relationship is part and parcel of the plot, as are some of the reasons why Vergil is hesitant to enter into it—homosexuality could still get you fired, in the 1920s, and might get you killed. This isn’t a stress normally made in Lovecraftian works, although Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows made a point of it in their comic series Providence (2015-2017).
In a longer work, this might have been explored further—and “Moonshine” definitely has the bones of what could have been a hardboiled or atmospheric psychological horror novel, but the balance is struck toward a story that is shorter, punchier, and faster paced, a touch more Dashiell Hammett than Lovecraft. Readers familiar with the Mythos will have already seen a couple plot twists coming—once Vergil and Jimmy hit Innsmouth, it’s only a matter of time before a few old faithful horrors come into play—but Penman has a few tricks up his sleeves, and a couple permutations that are both original and fitting. No Elder Signs or incantations come in to save the day, no convenient Necronomicons are pulled out of muscular keisters. Like a good detective, Vergil pieces the story together…and with a bit of a bluff, the duo survive.
There is one interesting exchange which deserves a bit of a deeper look:
“That’s why I was scared when you first laid one on me. I thought this thing…This thing we are. It was something they’d done to me. Something they’d put in me.”
Vergil Levard’s confession of a past growing up within a cult of his own is a little less shocking to contemporary sensibilities—the dark side of new religious movements in the United States over the past hundred years makes mumbled ideas of “Blood rituals. Really evil stuff […]” as quaint as Lovecraft’s always-off-the-page orgies and rites concerning his own cults—but there is a fundamental recognition of the homosexual experience here which is not often included. The culturally-impressed self-loathing and self-denial, the idea that there is something wrong or alien with them—and maybe that there is someone or something else to blame for that, some malign influence or experience that caused them to be like this. That doesn’t turn out to be the case in “Moonshine,” but it’s a part of the LGBTQ experience which gets little play in Mythos stories, and the very act of opening up about it is obviously a tremendous relief to the Detective, even if he comes to the conclusion that maybe Yog-Sothoth isn’t the reason he’s gay.
It is a rare instance of a positive personal revelation in a Mythos story, and there are thematic parallels with the personal revelations and acceptance of the nameless protagonist in “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” While Vergil Levard maybe hasn’t processed all he experienced as the child of a cult, he has at least come to some greater knowledge and acceptance of himself. The parallels were addressed by Robert M. Price in a footnote in his essay “Homosexual Panic in ‘The Outsider'” (1982):
Faced with so repugnant a prospect as recognizing as his own a sexuality he has always regarded as perverse, the homosexual may for a time try to avoid admitting to himself what he knows only too well to be true. In the classic “reaction formation” pattern, he will redouble his detestation for acknowledged gays, for he “regards as an enemy anyone who appears to be a mirror image of himself, because his enemy is himself” (Weinberg, p. 81) (emphasis added). The parallel to Lovecraft’s story is stunning: the Outsider at first fears the monster as a dangerous Other. Yet he soon discovers that the hideous enemy is himself, literally his own mirror reflection. *
* “The Shadow over Innsmouth” may be interpreted in a similar light.
In “Moonshine,” Penman toys with this formulation—Jimmy Hogan is both a criminal and out-and-proud, while Vergil Levard is both police and in the closet—but in this case, opposites do attract. Of course, in this case it helps that they have something of a common cause and, soon after meeting, a common enemy: the conflict helps drive what might otherwise have been a couple chapters of self-loathing, introspection, bad feelings and missed connections—not bad stuff for a novel, but would have ruined the pace of a fast-set story like this.
G. D. Penman has written and published a number of short stories, but “Moonshine” published through the queer small press JMS Books, is his first Mythos story.