“The Book of Fhtagn” (2021) by Jamie Lackey

I’d thought that changing the ghost to a scion of the Elder Gods made the play more relatable, and that changing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into mad cultists had added a bit of reality. But maybe that was just me.
—Jamie Lackey, “The Book of Fhtagn”

It’s not just her. Lovecraft may not have literally rewritten Shakespeare to dd in elements of his own Mythos, but he did have an interpretation of the Bard’s most famous depiction of madness which dovetails nicely with Lackey’s philosophical approach to Innsmouth in “The Book of Fhtagn”:

Continuing in the dramatick line, but ascending the scale several degrees, I find “Hamlet” a most absorbing character, even as you do. It is hard for me to give an original estimate or opinion, since other commentators’ opinions are so abundant; but I find in Hamlet a rare, delicate, & nearly poetical mind, filled with the highest ideals and pervaded by the delusion (common to all gentle & retired characters unless their temperament be scientific & predominantly rational—which is seldom the case with poets) that all humanity approximates such a standard as he conceives. All at once, however, man’s inherent baseness becomes apparent to him under the most soul-trying circumstances; exhibiting itself not in the remote world, but in the person of his mother & his uncle, in such a manner as to convince him most suddenly & most vitally that there is no good in humanity. Well may he question life, when the perfidiousness of those whom he has reason to believe the best of mortals, is so cruelly obtruded on his notice. Having had his theories of life founded on mediaeval and pragmatical conceptions, he now loses that subtle something which impels persons to go on in the ordinary currents; specifically, he loses the conviction that the usual motives & pursuits of life are more than empty illusions or trifles. Now this is not “madness“—I am sick of hearing fools & superficial criticks prate about “Hamlet’s madness”. It is really a distressing glimpse of absolute truth. But in effect, it approximates mental derangement. Reason is unimpaired, but Hamlet no longer sees any occasion for its use. He perceives the objects & events about him, & their relation to each other & to himself, as clearly as before; but his new estimate of their importance, and his lack of any aim or desire to pursue an ordinary course amongst them, impart to his point of view such a contemptuous, ironical singularity that he may well be thought a madman by mistake. He sums up this position himself when he says:

“How weary, stale, flat, & unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world
Fie on’t! ah, Fie! ’tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank & gross in Nature
Possess it merely.”

—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 14 Nov 1918, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 219-220
Quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2.

There is a kind of depth in the philosophy of the Lovecraft Mythos which is rarely explored in fiction. Scott R. Jones went into it in When The Stars Are Right: Toward An Authentic R’lyehian Spiritualityand Randolph Partain in Lessons From An Indifferent Cosmos: How Cthulhu Can Help You Be A Better Human. Few look beyond the self-blinded earthgazers who see Cthulhu as an evil that must be vanquished, or Innsmouth as a place of horror that has to be escaped rather than a place of dark beauty to be explored and appreciated.

Which is exactly the choice that Jamie Lackey presents in “The Book of Fhtagn.”

The closest works of comparison are probably Innsmouth (2019) by Megan James and “Down into Silence” (2018) by Storm Constantine. With “The Book of Fhtagn,” they present an Innsmouth not as it was, but as it is or might be. A contemporary Innsmouth where the Mythos coexists with smartphones and pumpkin spice, high school plays and global warming. Where James and Constantine play up the domestic and tourist angles, however, Lackey leans into the darker aspect of things: what if it’s not just about being born in Innsmouth, or visiting it? What if there’s a choice involved in becoming a full member of the community? Personal sacrifices to be made? Which begs deep questions about Lovecraft’s philosophy, of going through the motions of daily life when we are all just temporary, meaningless things on a cosmic scale of time.

And, for a teenager in high school, what the heck to do with the rest of their life.

I had gone into the ocean, and a part of me would now live there forever.
—Jamie Lackey, “The Book of Fhtagn”

Like Lovecraft’s Hamlet, Lackey’s Kimberely gets her glimpse of absolute truth—and finds in that contemplation of how small and pointless the mundanity of life is, a certain freedom of detachment from everyday things—and in time she finds the courage to embrace her new purpose.

Jamie Lackey’s “The Book of Fhtagn” is published in the Fall 2021 issue of Starward Shadows Quarterly.

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

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