“The Challenge From Beyond” (1935) by C. L. Moore

Didn’t the F. F. [sic] “Challenge from Beyond” turn out well, considering? Yours was by far the best installment insofar as originality and workmanship are concerned. You had the hardest section, too—having to explain all the unconnected ramblings of your predecessors. Several of the installments, including mine, were carelessly written and loosely phrased, but yours, as usual, was a miracle of exact wording. And wasn’t it interesting to see how the personality of each writer colored his installment.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 11 Dec 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 87

Catherine Lucille Moore was one of the most prominent female writers at Weird Tales during its heyday, a contemporary and correspondent to H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and others in “the circle,” who praised her fiction. Several of her stories have definite aspects reminiscent of the nascent Cthulhu Mythos: Moore’s “Shambleau” (Weird Tales Nov 1933) and Robert E. Howard’s “The Slithering Shadow” (WT Sep 1933) both feature tentacled aliens who carnally assault their victims; the strange angles and dimensions of the  tunnel in the depths of Joiry Castle in “Black God’s Kiss” (WT Oct 1934) and “Black God’s Shadow” (WT Dec 1934) are reminiscent of Lovecraft’s non-Euclidean geometries. Moore was introduced to her future husband and writing-partner Henry Kuttner through Lovecraft, and Kuttner made his own contributions to the Mythos, such as the Book of Iod.

Moore never participated directly in the collaborative universe of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and others—made no addition to the library of eldritch titles, no strange god with an unspeakable name, there was no road from Joiry to Averoigne or Arkham, Hyboria or Hyperborea. Neither did Lovecraft or the others reference her fiction in their own works. This was not in itself exceptional—other writers in “the circle” chose not to participate, or participated only through collaboration, like E. Hoffmann Price, who together with Lovecraft wrote “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (WT Jul 1934), but who by himself never wrote a Mythos story, nor had any of his works referenced by his contemporaries in their Mythos stories. Moore was much the same; a colleague but not a co-conspirator… except for in one thing.

“The Challenge from Beyond” was the brainchild of Julius Schwartz, the teenage editor of the Fantasy Magazine; for the third anniversary issue of the fanzine, he had cooked up the idea of two round-robins, both titled “The Challenge from Beyond,” one being weird fiction and the other being science fiction. Schwartz successfully managed, after some effort and shake-ups, to attract a solid line-up for both; for the weird, C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long each wrote a section, building on each other’s efforts. Moore started it off.

Julius Schwartz has inveigled me into one of these chain-story things in which you are also scheduled to be drawn. I wrote a first installment and mailed it to him on the 18th. Certainly not a brilliant thing by any means—it’s hard to get very brilliant in three pages, especially if they’re chiefly devoted to setting the stage—but the best I could think of just then If it comes to you next, as I think it will, perhaps you can do better on the second installment. If you want to be bothered.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 22 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 53

I hope you haven’t had too much trouble over your installment. Mr. Schwartz asked me to be as weird and original as possible in starting it out, and I was notably neither. At least there was a vast expanse of room for improvement as the story advanced. Frankly, if I’d been able to think up something strikingly weird and new  I wouldn’t have given the idea away for nothing. Anyhow, it will be interesting to see what the others have done with such a poor start.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 22 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 62

Self-effacing to a fault, Moore’s section of “The Challenge from Beyond” is despite her mea culpas perfectly competent. True, not much happens and there is no mention of fantastic monsters, evil sorcery, lost races, or aliens from another planet or dimension—but it manages to hint of otherness, and establishes tone, character, setting, and subject, staying true to the basic premise while providing an obvious hook for the next writer. For 857 unpaid words, that’s not bad—and while dwarfed by Lovecraft (2,542) and Howard’s (1,037) sections, it is the third-longest section overall.

But is it a contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos?

And yet—that writing. Man-made, surely, although its characters were unfamiliar save in their faint hinting at cuneiform shapes. Or could there, in a Paleozoic world, have been things with a written language who might have graven these cryptic wedges upon the quartz-enveloped disc he held? Or—might a thing like this have fallen meteor-like out of space into the unformed rock of a still molten world? Could it—
—C. L. Moore, “The Challenge from Beyond”

Moore’s section was followed by a rather generic entry by A. Merritt—and it was up to Lovecraft to tie together the elements from their respective sections and actually begin to weave a story out of the thing. In Lovecraft’s section, Moore’s queerly-marked cube becomes an alien artifact, mentioned in the Eltdown Shards—a Mythos tome created by his correspondent Richard F. Searight. This is essentially the single element that ties “The Challenge from Beyond” into the larger collaborative universe that Lovecraft and his contemporaries were creating.

Reaction to the story in the letters of Lovecraft et al. is fair, with most of the focus on the interplay between Lovecraft and Howard’s sections—the Lovecraft swapping the mind of Moore’s geologist with that of a sentient extraterrestrial worm on a distant world, and Howard deciding that said geologist rather liked being an alien worm, and developed a desire to conquer this new planet—but this amusing juxtaposition of style could never have taken place without Moore’s initial contribution.

Debating C. L. Moore’s place as one of the early contributors to the Cthulhu Mythos is a strange hair to try and split, though I have done it myself in discussing “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ. Moore wrote an idea, Lovecraft picked it up and ran with it, and any ties to his Mythos are through Lovecraft’s efforts. This was typical: Lovecraft’s previous collaborations with Anna Helen Croft, Winifred Virginia Jackson, his wife Sonia H. Greene, Clifford M. Eddy Jr., E. Hoffmann Price, R. H. Barlow, etc. had involved him expanding on the ideas of others, while adding his own. The difference here is that we know exactly where Moore’s prose ends and Lovecraft’s begins, because of the nature of the round-robin; in general collaborations, Lovecraft had a tendency to re-write much of the prose himself, muddying the issue of exactly how much each writer contributed in terms of pure wordcount and conception.

Whether or not you agree that Moore should be counted amid the co-creators of the Cthulhu Mythos, she was one of the peers in the circle of Weird Tales pulpsters, and she her contribution should not be neglected.

“The Challenge from Beyond” was first published in the Fantasy Magazine Sep 1935; it has been republished and recollected numerous times since then. It is out of copyright and may be read for free online.

“Are You Loathsome Tonight?” (1998) by Poppy Z. Brite

Now the stage is bare and I’m standing there
With emptiness all around
And if you won’t come back to me
Then they can bring the curtain down
“Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

Not many writers would say that Elvis Presley had much to do with Lovecraft; the few who would are like to take a comedic bent, as Yvonne Navarro did in “WWRD” (2018). Yet if a writer were to step back away from the Mythos and look at the themes and ideas expressed by Lovecraft in his fiction—there is a horror story to be woven from the life of Elvis, one as terrible and inevitable as all human stories are.

Poppy Z. Brite (Billy Martin) is better-known in Mythos circles for “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood” (1990), which has been reprinted many times, including in the seminal Cthulhu 2000: A Lovecraftian Anthology (1995).  “Are You Loathsome Tonight?” gets far less attention, and far fewer reprints. The lack of response is probably because it is not what people expect, when they come to a “Lovecraftian” story: no Mythos, no tentacles or eldritch tomes. Parts of it are passages taken directly from books about Elvis’ life, and death, interspersed with stories about snakes which intersect oddly with the rest—they fit, like pieces of a puzzle where the larger picture is still obscure. It’s Lovecraft credits are boiled down to a single quotation, appended at the very end of the text:

Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation.
—H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

Like “Hypothetical Materfamilias” (1994) by Adèle Olivia Gladwell and “Commencement” (2001) by Joyce Carol Oates, this is a story which stretches the bounds of “Lovecraftian.” It is a work patently informed by something Lovecraft wrote, yet not dependent on any of his individual creations. The narrative is nontraditional, the atmosphere it develops is one of slowly growing disquiet, rather than cosmic horror.

Images, interposed, become conflated by context. The roiling bolus of snakes in a mating ball. The terribly swollen megacolon of Elvis as he sits on his jet-black throne, drugs slowing his digestive system to a terrible crawl. It takes the imagination of the reader to fit the pieces together, to suggest a greater horror than reality…and there is an art and skill in the arrangement of those pieces, to make readers take that approach. The terrible inevitability of the piece lends a sense of apprehension to the whole affair—because most everyone should know how this ends. Elvis, even in death, is a figure larger than life, his semiotic ghost pervading the popular culture.

The craft of the story can be seen especially in the beginning and the ending; the title and the closing quotation of Lovecraft. The title is a reference to Elvis’ 1960 hit, yet with the twist: what is loathsome? Is it what Elvis would become, as years of abuse took its toll? The title sets up the sense of apprehension, the situation-normal-all-fucked-up; it hints at the reader what to expect—and Lovecraft, at the end, tells them what they just read. What the reader sought, or experienced, whether or not they recognized it at the time.

“Are You Loathsome Tonight?” was first published in the collection of the same name, and has been reprinted in Self-Made Man (1999), The Children of Cthulhu (2000), and is available on kindle. Poppy Z. Brite/Billy Martin currently has a GoFundMe campaign.

 

 

“Pugelbone” (2010) by Nadia Bulkin

For it is of old rumour that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnel clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Festival”

Set in an unknown but recognizable tomorrow. In the crowded urban structure known as the Warren, people live in close proximity. Isolated from the outside, both physically and economically, the Meers (Meerkats) grow up in the crush of humanity, amid an urban ecosystem grown subterranean and strange with a new horror, one the children call…Pugelbones.

“Pugelbone” is not a Cthulhu Mythos story; there are no quotes from the Necronomicon, no reference to any recognizable corner of the Miskatonic Valley, no alien gods and sinister cults. Yet Nadia Bulkin’s story is built up from a base of Lovecraftian literary DNA, like a slab of artificial meat grown in a lab. A product of the strange and marvelous now, hacking the genetic material of “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls” and building it back up into something you can sink your teeth into.

The protagonist Lizbet was born a Meer. A girl that just liked to break things. An outsider among an outsider group, she is at once sympathetic and unreliable. All she wants is custody of her daughter—and the only way to get it is to interact with the unsympathetic bureaucracy as represented by Dr. Roman. These are adult fears: poor people trapped in a system they never built or opted in to, trying to navigate the weird social spaces of interviews with indifferent people that decide their fate. “Pugelbones” is Lizbet’s story—the story she tells Dr. Roman, to try and win back her daughter, and the story of telling that story, as Roman deflates, dismisses, and directs the conversation. A “passive listener” that has all the power in the relationship, and diminishes Lizbet with insinuation.

Yet Dr. Roman never denies the essential reality of the Pugelbones.

In Lovecraft’s stories like “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls,” the underground space—a favored personal image which appears in his stories—contains or did contain other horrors: a teeming mass of humanity or near-humanity. Societies that set themselves apart, to live, work, breed, and die down there. Written before Lovecraft’s period in New York City, it is still tempting to see an echo in these stories of urban fears, the great crowded tenements and filthy streets. Contemporary concerns, expressed in Lovecraft’s own language and filtered through his own prejudices, but still tapping into the 1920’s zeitgeist. Lovecraft’s stories are told from the interloper’s perspective, from those who had not been born and  bred.

What would “The Lurking Fear” read like, if told from the perspective of a Martense?

[…] a degenerate squatter population inhabiting pitiful hamlets on isolated slopes. Normal beings seldom visited the locality till the state police were formed, and even now only infrequent troopers patrol it. […] With whimpering insistence the squatters told tales of a daemon which seized lone wayfarers after dark, either carrying them off or leaving them in a frightful state of gnawed dismemberment; while sometimes they whispered of blood-trails toward the distant mansion.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Lurking Fear”

Nadia Bulkin’s story works because some of those horrors present in the early 20th century still haunt us in the early 21st century. The poor may not be seen as “gently descending the evolutionary scale” as Lovecraft put it, but the Meers are no less the subject to prejudice and stereotype. Lizbet is subject to the same prejudices that Lovecraft’s Catskills white trash, with the added bonus of being a woman, and a single parent, with all the additional onus that brings. These are all adult fears, the kind of tangible horrors of desperation that can face anyone today. Bulkin taps into the same zeitgeist as Lovecraft did; her story works because the situation is presented so realistically.

The Pugelbones are the element of the weird which is interwoven with the more mundane horrors of child protective services and overpopulation, and like many Lovecraftian horrors they are very material entities. An undiscovered species, urban predators. The truth about them is not half as terrible as Dr. Roman’s towing the official government line about their existence, or her insinuations about Lizbet’s relationship with them. They are the great mystery of the piece, only half-glimpsed through the Meer’s story, their presence told in piles of trash and smears of blood.

Yet the story is theirs, as much as it is Meers: these Lovecraftian beasties are essential to the piece, and Bulkin wisely keeps them off the page for most of it. Readers get hints of them long before they see them, rumors and legend before the Pugelbones appear in a scene. Rather than being specifically horrific themselves, the Pugelbones are the catalysts for the human horrors; the outside element that disrupts the human narrative, like the xenomorphs of Ridley Scott’s Alien, the one terrible unpredictable event which starts off the cascade of adult fears.

Chthonic_FC_01-712x1024Nadia Bulkin’s “Pugelbone” first appeared in ChiZine (Oct-Dec 2010), and was reprinted in her collection She Said Destroy (2017), and Cthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth (2018). Bulkin has been prominent the last few years in various anthologies, and her corpus of Lovecraftian and Mythos fiction includes “Red Goat Black Goat” (2010), “Truth is Order and Order is Truth” (2014), “Violet Is The Color Of Your Energy” (2015), “Pro Patria!” (2015), “There Is A Bear In the Woods” (2016), “I Believe That We Will Win” (2016), “Empire Down” (2017), and “A Dream, and a Monster at the End of It” (2017).

“Keeping Festival” (1997) by Mollie L. Burleson

I first “met” Lovecraft around 1950, when I saw Orson Welles read “The Rats in the Walls on TV. I was stunned. Later I searched for Lovecraft at libraries, book sales, and just about everywhere. Finally in 1971 I found a copy of Best Supernatural Stories of H. P. Lovecraft. I wrote an inscription in it stating how happy I was to find it! […] He took me to Marblehead (Kingsport, as I soon learned), and we met Ken Neily there to celebrate the real Yuletide. What a wonderful experience that was. We went there for fifteen years, never missing a one. We went in sleet, snow, ice, rain, etc. In time, other lovers of HPL joined us […]
—Mollie Burleson, The Providence Pals 47

Marblehead, December 21st. Lovecraft aficionado Paul wants to experience Yuletide in Kingsport, for the first time, to try and find something of what inspired Lovecraft to write “The Festival”—and finds, along the way, an unexpected bit of company. A three page story which is not exactly an homage to Lovecrat’s fiction, but to the meaning of that fiction to one person. A prose poem about the experience of Lovecraft’s fiction, which  can be both solitary and intensely personal or a shared and communal.

As with “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ, there is a degree of awareness involved in this story. “Keeping Festival” establishes quickly that Lovecraft existed, as a writer of fiction, as he does in the world we know; there is never a suggestion, as is sometimes popular in works like Robert Bloch’s Strange Eons (1978), that the Cthulhu Mythos is also real—the world presented is as close to a realistic and accurate portrayal of contemporary Marblehead as possible. It is not, strictly speaking, a fantastic story at all but an episode from life.

Until a nameless man arrives to share the experience, one as immediately familiar to Cthulhu Mythos fans as the appearance of a particular beekeeper would be to Sherlockians. At this point, the brief sketch dips into magical realism—or perhaps just a daydream—as the stranger takes their leave, and Paul is left in a sublime moment of reliving a scene from their story.

Without being a sequel or prequel or in any way a part of the narrative of Lovecraft’s “The Festival,” Burleson’s is nevertheless completely beholden to it. In three pages she tries to capture something like fifteen years of Yuletide gatherings on the same scene. Not for the sake of Lovecraftian horror, or to add on to the Cthulhu Mythos, or as a commentary on Lovecraft’s fiction but as a testament to how it made her feel. The old familiar ritual, the desire for a communion with Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who had walked those snow-laden streets which he had set down on paper in 1923.

On each 21st, Don would stand on the steps of the church, prototype of the one in “The Festival,” and recite from it with all of us looking on, beginning with “The nethermost caverns are not for the fathoming of eyes that see.”
—Mollie Burleson, The Providence Pals 48

Is the reader then a participant, or a witness? Context is important. This is not a story for the uninitiated: readers without a fair familiarity with “The Festival” are not going to pick up on the references to that story, just as readers unfamiliar with Lovecraft himself will not pick up on the Easter egg of the piece. This is the kind of short fiction that can really only be written to an audience already steeped in Lovecraftiana—and combined with the realistic and almost sentimental tone, it’s perhaps no surprise that its one and only appearance in print is the relatively obscure Return to Lovecraft Country (1997).

Mollie Burleson has written a handful other pieces of Lovecraftiana and Mythos fiction, including “The Buglight” (1994), “Literary Remains” (1996), “The Dome” (2010), “Hotel del Lago” (2014), “The Quest” (2016), and “A Yuletide Carol” (2016), but is probably best remembered for her essay “The Outsider: A Woman?” (1990, Lovecraft Studies #22/23), which suggests an alternative and influential reading of Lovecraft’s story.

“Commencement” (2001) by Joyce Carol Oates

When I was eleven or twelve years old, I discovered H. P. Lovecraft in the Lockport Public Library, in upstate New York—the collection of Lovecraft stories was large and unwieldy with a distinctive font, which I can “see” vividly if I shut my eyes. The stories that riveted me immediately were “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Dunwich Horror.” At once I fell under the Lovecraftian spell—subsequently I have reprinted Lovecraft tales in anthologies of “literary” stories in the hope of breaking down the artificial barriers and unfortunate prejudices between genres.
—Joyce Carol Oates, Lovecraft Unbound 

Joyce Carol Oates had written eloquently about Lovecraft in The King of the Weird (1996), and curated a collection of his best fiction, Tales of H. P. Lovecraft (1997). Two of her novelettes have appeared in the Lovecraftian anthologies: “Commencement” in Lovecraft Unbound (2009) and “Shadows of the Evening” in Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (2015). Neither is a story of the Cthulhu Mythos. Oates does not partake of the shared creative universe created by Lovecraft and his contemporaries, her works are not set in and do not expand on the setting as Tina L. Jens does in “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” or Margaret L. Carter does in “Prey of the Goat”; she does not reference Lovecraft himself as Joanna Russ in “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It Into My Pocket…But By God, Eliot, It Was A Photograph From Life!” or Adèle Olivia Gladwell in “Hypothetical Materfamilias.”

What is a Lovecraftian tale, without the Mythos and without Lovecraft?

LovecraftUnboundEllen Datlow, editor of Lovecraft Unbound, states in her introduction that she had read and enjoyed Lovecraft, but:

I’ve also read the multitudes of pastiches in anthologies of work “inspired” by Lovecraft, but most—for me, at least—are too obvious and bring little new to the table.

It’s a fair observation, and goes hand-in-hand with Oates’ remark on the prejudices of genre fiction. Lovecraft is more than just a bunch of strange and evocative names, and in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, the Providence gentleman himself observed:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Lovecraftian pastiche may replace “bloody bones” with “eldritch tentacles” and the “clanking chains” with the Necronomicon, but the same principle applies: what writers are trying to recapture should not be the outward form of Lovecraft’s Mythos, but the central mood or essence. This is what Oates tries to capture in her tale, without recourse or reference to any of the outer trappings of the Mythos.

“Commencement” is a work of weird allegory. It is time for Commencement at the University, the annual academic ritual through which graduates get their degrees. There are no names, for even though this is a special event (the two hundredth anniversary of the University), it is also somewhat timeless, a ritual repeated every year without fail. The formula of the university commencement gives the shape of the story. As the pomp and symbolism of the ceremony slowly unfolds, so too do we get a glimpse of the broader setting—advancements in human genetic engineering, cloning, hints of hard science fiction—and the themes of continuity, of the marriage of ancestral strength to contemporary progress.

Then comes the climax, the conferring of the honorary degrees. The mystery of the Pyramid, foreshadowed slowly and with a slow build up of suspense Lovecraft would have approved of, is revealed but not explained. The viewpoint character for the story is the Assistant Mace Bearer, a nameless protagonist that harkens back to the initiates of “The Festival” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth”—unsure and unready for what transpires, as the Commencement continues in its final stages of the Recessional and Disrobing, they find the central truth to all such rituals: to participate in it is to experience a profound change. Like the protagonist in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” they accept this new self that they have become.

The crux of Oates’ conception is the subversion of expectations; the fact that the ceremonies of medieval universities are still used in the present day are taken as granted. Lovecraft could not have contrived a better source of robed cultists or strange rites than reality provides. What Oates adds is the secondary layer of meaning—the mystery that the outward forms hide and disguise—and then drives it how during the climax. The horror of “Commencement” is not in the visceral details of the conferring of the honorary degrees, but in the culpability of the thousands of attendees, the group acceptance and participation which normalized such bloody exercises as the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome, Madama la Guillotine during the Terror, the Salem Witch Trials, or the sacrifices of Xipe Totec atop the Pyramid of the Sun in Tenochtitlán.

Is it Lovecraftian? The University is not Miskatonic University, not as Lovecraft envisaged it. A story does not automatically become Lovecraftian because an editor includes it in an anthology. Context can color a story, suggest associations which the author might not have intended. If encountered outside Lovecraft Unbound—Oates’ novelette first appeared in Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction (2001)—would it strike the reader as Lovecraftian? Without any direct allusion to Lovecraft’s works, the average reader probably wouldn’t make that connection. Technically, the story does not even have any supernatural element. Yet the influence of Lovecraft is certainly in the piece, with echoes of his themes and methods. Critical readers would no doubt pick up on the Lovecraftian vibe, as Datlow appears to have done, and scholars might look at Oates’ own definition of Lovecraft’s fiction:

Lovecraft with the fusion of the gothic tale and what would come to be defined as science fiction, and with the development of a species of horror fantasy set in meticulously described, historically grounded places (predominantly, in Lovecraft, Providence, Rhode Island; Salem, Massachusetts; and a region in northern central Massachusetts to which he gave the name “the Miskatonic Valley”) in which a seemingly normal, intelligent scholar or professor, usually a celibate bachelor, pursues a mystery it would wiser for him to flee.
—Joyce Carol Oates, Tales of H. P. Lovecraft viii

This is, if not exactly a synopsis for “Commencement,” at least highly evocative of the final product. It may not fulfill Lovecraft’s definition of a weird tale, and readers may never know whether or not Oates consciously had Lovecraft in mind when she conceived and executed this story, it certainly shows his influence. Not with tentacles or the Necronomicon, but by reproducing in form the shape and mood of Lovecraft’s stories, at least as she understands it.

So yes, “Commencement” is Lovecraftian.

 

“Hypothetical Materfamilias” (1994) by Adèle Olivia Gladwell

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) 1639140-starry_wisdomwas 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.

“I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ

Before the story begins, before the very first word, Lovecraft fans will recognize the title as the the climactic revelation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” (1926). The title is the hook to reel the reader in, and the import of that one line doesn’t hit the reader until the penultimate sentence. Despite the fact that “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1964, it would not appear in a Mythos anthology until Cthulhu 2000 (1995)… and it hasn’t been reprinted in a Mythos anthology since.

This might seem odd, considering that Joanna Russ might be the first female prose writer who contributed to the Cthulhu Mythos. H. P. Lovecraft himself collaborated with “Elizabeth Berkeley” (Winifred Virginia Jackson) on “The Green Meadow” (1918-1919) and “The Crawling Chaos” (1921), Anna Helen Crofts on “Poetry and the Gods” (1920), and his future wife Sonia Haft Green on “The Horror at St. Martin’s Beach” and “Four O’Clock” (1922). None of these are Mythos tales per se, although “The Crawling Chaos” became a sobriquet for Nyarlathotep. Later, working as a revisionist, Lovecraft ghost-wrote tales for  female clients including “The Curse of Yig” (1928), “The Mound” (1929-1930), and “Medusa’s Coil” (1930) for Zealia Brown Reed Bishop; “The Horror in the Museum” (1932), “Winged Death” (1932), “The Man of Stone” (1932), “Out of the Aeons” (1933), and “The Horror in the Burying-Ground” (1933-1934). HPL also “collaborated” with Catherine L. Moore insofar as both contributed sections to the round-robin “The Challenge from Beyond” (1935); Moore herself never appears to have written a Mythos story.

From Lovecraft’s death until 1964, when Russ’ “I Had…” was published, the sub-genre of Mythos fiction appears quite bare of female writers—although it is hard to say this with utmost certainty, given the prevalence of the fanpress (for example, Virginia “Nanek” Anderson contributed the poem “Shadow Over Innsmouth” to The Acolyte Winter 1942). Certainly the first edition of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1969) was all-male, as were several anthologies that followed. Russ finally made it in to the revised version of Tales, the 1990 edition, with her second and final Mythos story “My Boat” (1976).

The problem for editors and anthologists is that “I Had…” was way ahead of its time. It is a reference to H. P. Lovecraft and his Mythos, but it isn’t a Mythos story in itself, does not use or expand the mythology. August Derleth, if he had been in a litigious mood, could hardly have found anything to issue a cease & desist about except the title. The crux of the story is that if you recognize the title, if you pick up the story to read it, if you go in there expecting another pastiche or sequel to “Pickman’s Model”… then you the reader have taken the bait.

Which is all the more apt when you consider that the story is almost cruelly accurate portrait of a certain segment of fandom itself; the socially awkward nerd, the obsessive Lovecraft fan which is a Western prototype of the otaku. Even today the caricature of Irvin Rubin she sketches cuts precisely because fannish collectors not only knows something of the type, but if they’re reading the story then they probably identify at least a little bit with that dark side of fandom. Rubin is the bookish kid with no friends who grew up to be a bookish adult with no friends, no lovers, no real life but a long delayed adolescence. There but for grace may have gone us all. For many such fans starved of human companionship, the possibility of real interaction is enticing as it is abnormal…so it is when Rubin meets a woman.

On a technical level, Russ is playing a stranger game than even the premise of the story. In format, it is not quite a Lovecraftian pastiche; Rubin is the vaguely Lovecraftian protagonist, but the story itself is told through two narrators—the good-hearted, older Miss June Kramer he works with, and a nameless narrator who provides the final piece of the story. Kramer’s narrative gives a view of Rubin by someone who is at once wiser and sympathetic, though we see little enough of her: the Miss suggests a woman who never married or divorced, rather than a widow; her age is somewhere north of 40, putting at least 12 years between her and Rubin; she has sufficient regular social interaction to have a group of ladies over for bridge and to share a story over a cup of coffee in the company cafeteria—and who is moved enough by Rubin to leave her bridge game and go to his cold room, just to prove that he does have at least one friend. The nameless narrator we never see; Kramer’s narrative serves to get us to the anticlimax, where Rubin is about to be married. The nameless narrator carries the story through the last part, which Miss Kramer never saw—perhaps because Russ didn’t want her to see it, wanted her to preserve the innocence of knowing what really happened to Irvin Rubin. Yet Russ definitely wants the reader to know what happened to him…

It is the reader that completes this story. If you haven’t read “Pickman’s Model,” if you aren’t familiar with Lovecraft and that certain type of obsessive and lonely fan, then the story is a fine weird tale, but nothing special. Maybe even a little hokey, because like M. R. James it leaves a great deal unsaid, unexplained; the meaning is implied between the lines. The catch requires recognition, and a very different use of Lovecraft than almost any other author has ever used. Arguably, Russ didn’t have to use Lovecraft for the story—but who else would she use, in 1964? Lovecraft already had the legend for it, the myth built up around himself and his writings.

Once you read the story, once you get the cruel joke, you may never read it again. The prose is not beautiful, the essence of the story a one-note tragedy. That couldn’t have helped it with the anthologists either: many fans want pastiches, stories that celebrate and expand on Lovecraft & co.’s artificial mythology, and many writers want that too. It’s fun, it’s part of the game. “I Had…” is ultimately more adult and demanding—a story with insight, which demands a moment’s reflection. One you may be glad to have read, if only because it is so different from what most people consider a “Lovecraftian” story.

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