The eerie nostalgia of Gladwell’s enigma might have resonated in Lovecraft’s skull.
—Ramsey Campbell, introduction to The Starry Wisdom: A Tribute to H. P. Lovecraft
Lovecraftian fiction tends to be fairly conservative in form. Pulp tales were designed for ready consumption, even if readers did occasionally have to reach for the dictionary, and the stories follow the lines of standard genre tales for the most part. The writers in the generations following Lovecraft & co. were not obligated to follow the same constraints for publication, but many fell back on conventional narrative structures, especially for homages and pastiches. Experimental Lovecraftian fiction remains rare.
The Starry Wisdom: A Tribute to H. P. Lovecraft (1994) was an entire anthology of Lovecraftian fiction—Lovecraftian in the sense that many of the stories were about Lovecraft and his influence, not just embellishments on the Mythos, much of it experimental or at least unconventional. By luck or dint of effort, the anthology has proven surprisingly influential in the long term; Alan Moore’s “The Courtyard” went on to inspire several successful comics and graphic novels, and other noteworthy contributors include J. G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, and Grant Morrison. In addition to prose it contains John Coulthart’s classic adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu”, a graphic stories by James Havoc & Mike Phillbin and Rick Grimes, and three essays on the Lovecraftian occult. It was a groundbreaking, forward-looking collection of a very different kind of Lovecraftian fiction than the collections of reprints and pastiches that were being put forth by Chaosium at the time.
Adèle Olivia Gladwell is the only female author in the book.
“Hypothetical Materfamilias” is a non-traditional narrative, partaking of a stream-of-consciousness, but really it is the kind of half-poetic speech of ‘zines, underground comix, and white label remixes. Like a lot of experimental fiction, the nuance of the piece is less in a coherent account of a series of events than the feel and rhythm of the words, the emotions and associations evoked by the images they describe; weird phrases rise to the eye at random from what at first glance might be literary noise. Readers bring their own experience to such a piece which will color any interpretation, yet there is a story there, in the flow of words.
Lovecraft, from within a tableau of fastidious time, knows IT comes for him. IT keeps coming.
The focus of Gladwell’s piece is on IT—never named or defined, the story works around the definition of IT with the promise and portent that “IT comes. And you know IT comes for you.” The gist of the narrative is of death and birth, except played in in a kind of reverse, like watching a baby being born in rewind, disappearing back into its mother. An unbirthing portended and sometimes shrouded in symbolism, and focused on a male figure who is, by context, probably Lovecraft; the unnamed female figure that appears in italicized paragraphs might be his mother, the eponymous “hypothetical materfamilias” of the title; the author herself is “I,” the one writing the story, who breaks through occasionally to speak directly to the reader, and she is the medium through which the message is expressed. Identifications are necessarily vague—is IT death? Lovecraft? Cthulhu? Is IT knowable, in any sense, or is it defined by being undefinable?
Lovecraft is mentioned by name exactly three times in “Hypothetical Materfamilias,” and no other Mythos entities or architecture are mentioned explicitly by name: while some of the images and descriptions appear to coincide with elements of Lovecraft’s fiction, there are no direct references or allusions as in Tina L. Jens’ “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb.” This story is essentially as far as a work of Lovecraftian fiction can get away from being Cthulhu Mythos fiction; Joanna Russ’ “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It Into My Pocket… But By God, Eliot, It Was A Photograph From Life!” would still be Lovecraftian in tone and content even if you removed any explicit reference to Lovecraft, but remove three words from “Hypothetical Materfamilias” and the piece isn’t “Lovecraftian” in the strictest sense.
Most Mythos and Lovecraftian fiction do not challenge the reader; they may play with uncomfortable scenes and concepts, but the communication of those images and ideas is usually couched in a very familiar narrative framework—the discovery of old family secrets, an exploration into the forbidden, an extraordinary event to be witnessed or explained—”Hypothetical Materfamilias” is more of an experience. It challenges the reader to question what they just read, to derive sense from it, to fit it into a rational framework; but the normal levers and handholds of Mythos fiction are absent here. There is little for the reader to grasp, save the three uses of Lovecraft, and those don’t help very much; a sift for themes and images will turn up similarities with other things Lovecraftian, but how much of these are a reflection of the writer’s intent versus the reader “reading in” to the text?
Gladwell’s few writing credits before this piece were entirely through Creation; it isn’t hard to see these as possible vanity publishing projects, and this represents her last known published work. While the piece meets the bare minimum for inclusion in the book by the triple invocation of “Lovecraft,” like calling forth Bloody Mary or the Candy Man, the lack of any real Mythos or Lovecraftian theme have probably doomed it to obscurity. All of which may be reasons why “Hypothetical Materfamilias” have failed to gain traction, besides the 1999 reprint of The Starry Wisdom.
Yet there is no work which is not due serious consideration—every writer starts and ends somewhere, every person has relationships. Every writer starts and ends somewhere, and every story has to be appreciated and judged on its own merits, and in its context. In this case, that means to consider Gladwell’s piece next to the rest of The Starry Wisdom anthology. In that context, “Hypothetical Materfamilias” fits rather well.
Many of the works are experimental or use a nontraditional narrative, not all of them refer directly or indirectly to Lovecraft or the Cthulhu Mythos, most of the writers are not familiar names in Mythos anthologies, and few of the works have been republished. So in that respect at least, Gladwell’s story is of a piece with the rest of the anthology. It may not be an instant classic of Lovecraftian fiction like Coulthart’s graphic adaptation or Moore’s “The Courtyard,” and stands separate from the kind of borrowing and elaboration that marks much of Mythos fiction such as Robert M. Price’s “A Thousand Young” and Grant Morisson’s “Lovecraft in Heaven,” but it works fine as a standalone piece separate and outside of the usual Lovecraftian tradition, as an example that Lovecraftian fiction need not be constrained to familiar channels.