“Mongoose” (2009) by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette

BEAR SAYS: My introduction to Lovecraft came, strangely enough, through the non-Mythos story “Cool Air,” which remains my favorite. I feel moved to explore his work in part because it’s such an uncomfortable blend of the unsettling and the problematic. I feel moved to question the boundaries of Lovecraft’s (often uncomfortably racist and misogynist) biological determinism, and find that his own metaphors of alienation and internalized inhumanity make an excellent tool for doing so.

MONETTE SAYS: I found Lovecraft in graduate school and feel instantly in love, not only with his darkly elaborate cosmology, hi ghouls and shoggoths and Elder Gods, but also with his own love affair with the English language. And somehow, for Lovecraft and for me, the two things to together: the words and the monsters, the monsters and the words.
—Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, Lovecraft Unbound 372-373

Deeper down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass, the readers are drawn back to the setting of  “Boojum.” In Bear & Monette’s second collaboration, both of their authorial voices blend and find expression, and the setting is fleshed out. Now in addition to boojums, gillies, and Mi-GO we have cheshires, toves, raths, bandersnatch—and Christians, Arkhamers, and political officers. The human monsters may not be quite as scary as the aliens phasing in from some other dimension, but that’s only because the reader is more likely to be familiar with them.

“Words and monsters”—”boojum” was the name of a nonsense creature from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (An Agony in 8 Fits) (1876); “toves,” “raths,” and “bandersnatch” are taken from Jabberwocky (1871); “cheshire” from the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).  The first four are nonsense words—the mind has no reference for what they look like, because they are not based on anything in human experience, so the reader is forced to use their own imagination—a neat trick which works better in a Lovecraftian context than simply making the alien entities unnameable and indescribable.

“Cheshire” however has a more specific context: the cat that slowly disappears, except for their smile, fading in and out of existence. In the lived-in, blue collar setting of “Boojum,” the cheshires and their handlers have to work for a living—and that’s where the story starts, on Kadath Station, as Israel Irizarry and Mongoose come to deal with an infestation of toves…and all the complications to what is otherwise a relatively straightforward pest removal story set in a space station.

The complications to the plot demand context, some of which we’re given, some of which is left hinted at but unsaid; meat for the reader’s imagination and future developments. Nothing from “Boojum” is discarded, but some of it is given more shape: multiple space stations with familiar names (Providence, Kadath, Leng, Dunwich, Arkham), some sort of Earth-Moon alliance that has commissar-esque political officers running in parallel authority with the stationmaster apparatchiks and bureaucrats. Boojum movements causing rents in space where creatures from an alien food chain can slip through, proliferate, and the tears widen, letting bigger things in…there’s a rationale to the indescribable things that phase in and out of this dimension with the nonsense names. A biological determinism in the food chain established.

Human prejudice has its place too, although the details are scant. The Christians are weird, heavily modified, barely glimpsed, but obviously an unfamiliar and discriminated-against minority; the same applies to the Gillies and the Arkhamers. This is not the Star Trek future of clean ships and racial harmony; there are biases and politics, hints of extremist cults and unsettling human-alien interaction. Somehow, that makes it more believable. Imperfect futures are dynamic, creative; there are places to go…and oh, the places Mongoose and Irizarry will go in this story, on their own quest in Kadath, where the reality grows thin and the toves and raths swarm…

As with “Boojum,” the focus of “Mongoose” is on the relationship between a human and an alien. The relationship alienates the human partner from other humans, and yet at the same time is what makes them unique and special. It is a literal case of alienation by dint of an intimate relationship with an extraterrestrial—and a positive, respectful one. Irizarry is conscientious of his partner’s health and well-being, worried for her safety, her likes and dislikes; they communicate frequently. It is the kind of ultra-personal interaction which is the antithesis of many Lovecraftian stories. The alien never stops being “alien,” but humans—at least some of them—learn to adapt and interact with them. But there is, as the culminating revelation of the story shows, always more to learn.

The Mythos takes a stronger place on stage in “Mongoose” compared to “Boojum,” although casual readers won’t miss much if they haven’t read Frank Belknap Long’s “The Hounds of Tindalos” (1929). Bear & Monette re-imagine and re-invent Mythos concepts, rather than simply regurgitate old familiar names. They work actively to build on the setting hinted at in the first story, but the two remain standalone, complementary: you don’t need to have read “Boojum,” but they don’t explain boojums in “Mongoose.” This is an aggregate mythology, and the sum is greater than the parts—but the readers can enjoy the parts independently. Which is good, because they haven’t been collected yet.

“Mongoose” first appeared in Lovecraft Unbound (2009), and was subsequently reprinted in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Four, The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection, The Mammoth Book of Best New Science Fiction: 23rd Annual Collection, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2010 (all 2010), New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (2011), Clarkesworld Magazine #81 (Jun 2013), and In Space No One can Hear You Scream (2013). It was adapted to audiobook by the Drabblecast in 2010. It is the second of Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette have collaborations, preceded by “Boojum” and followed by The Wreck of the “Charles Dexter Ward” (2012).


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

“Boojum” (2008) by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette

The Lavinia Whateley was a Boojum, a deep-space swimmer, but her kind had evolved in the high tempestuous envelopes of gas giants, and their offspring still spent their infancies there, in cloud-nurseries over eternal storms.
—Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, “Boojum” in The Book of Cthulhu II 237

Sometimes, “Cthulhu Mythos” seems like an inadequate label for a story. “Boojum” is one of those. Bear & Monette’s tale is space opera for the 21st century, tightly written and gloriously imaginative. The Mythos elements themselves are both essential and yet subdued: the spice of the story, but not the meat of it. This isn’t a pastiche of Lovecraft among the stars. It’s a pirate story, in some distant future. Space pirates in a living ship, cracking open freighters; dealing stolen cargo with the Mi-Go.

For literary ancestry, “Boojum” has two notable forebears: “In the Walls of Eryx” (1939) by H. P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling, which is essentially Lovecraft’s version of a 1930s interplanetary tale, and Richard Lupoff’s “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977), which brought Lovecraft’s Mythos to the New Wave of science fiction. The better part of four decades between when those two stories were published—and in that time a space race was ran and won and lost. Another three decades between “Ghooric Zone” and “Boojum”—and what changed?

Attitude, certainly. Bear & Monette’s future is dirty, cramped, blue-collar, more Alien than Star Trek. A Lovecraftian future that feels lived in; realistic but not exactly bleak. There are stark choices and bad options when the only thing between you and hard vacuum is the skin of a giant extraterrestrial entity that you live inside like a space ship, when you live under constant threat that the captain might notice and make an example out of you. When you have to watch your oxygen levels, and it’s rational to choose between living as a brain in a canister or getting eaten by a diamond-toothed monster.

Why call the ship the Lavinia Whateley? In part, this is a signal to the readers of what this story is going to be. We never get a sense of why that name was applied within the context of the setting, except that the other ships like the Marie Curie and the Josephine Baker were also great women. The protagonist Black Alice Bradley swears by “Jesus and the cold fishy gods”; she lived in a world where Gillies from Providence Station are recognizable, where sunstones are mined on Venus, and the Fungi from Yuggoth move through space like the boojum themselves. This is a future which acknowledges Lovecraft, that riffs off his creations, but approaches the material from a contemporary point of view. Not too behooven to the man from Providence.

A good interplanetary story must have realistic human characters; not the stock scientist, villainous assistants, invincible heroes, and lovely scientist’s-daughter heroines of the usual trash sort. Indeed, there is no reason why there should be any “villain”, “hero”, or “heroine” at all. […] No stock romance is wanted.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction” in Collected Essays 2.180

Lovecraft wrote his assertions against romance during the heyday of the scientific romance, when John Carter would travel to Mars and seduce the alien princess Dejah Thoris, decades before Captain Kirk would leave a trail of broken hearts across the galaxy. While certain elements of his advice have aged well, others are less applicable.

In “Boojum,” Black Alice Bradley loves the Lavinia Whateley. Not sexually, though there is a certain intimacy throughout the story: Black Alice and the rest of the crew lives within the Boojum. To Black Alice, the “ship” is Vinnie, and though Black Alice is one of the lowest members of the crew, a self-taught engineer far down in the hierarchy, her sense of wonder and awe at being in the stars is focused on a single individual, a single relationship—we get no sense that Black Alice has any other real friends or lovers among the crew. In a real sense, Vinnie is all Black Alice cares about—and the revelation of the story, which Lovecraft might have at least begrudgingly recognized as something other than a “stock romance,” is that as a living being Vinnie cares about Black Alice.

“Boojum” first appeared in Fast Ships, Black Sails (2008), and was subsequently reprinted in Year’s Best SF 14, The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection, The Mammoth Book of Best New Science Fiction: 22nd Annual Collection (all 2009), The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2009 Edition (2010), Lightspeed (Sep 2012), The Book of Cthulhu II (2012), Space Opera (2014), and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (2014). It was adapted to audiobook by the Drabblecast in 2011. Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette have collaborated on two follow-ups, “Mongoose” (2009) and The Wreck of the “Charles Dexter Ward” (2012).


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