“The Land of the Reflected Ones” (1995) by Nancy A. Collins

Of the hundred copies of the Aegrisomnia that Shroud had privately published, however, only one was complete and unabridged. And bound in leather. And that was Stroud’s private copy—the one with his own personal annotations scrawled in the margins. The one he had bound himself—with the skin of his virgin daughter. Granted, she wasn’t his legitimate daughter—her mother was a marginally retarded scullery maid who had been with the household since childhood—but the gesture put to the pale anything the self-styled “Beast” had ever done.
—Nancy A. Collins, “The Land of the Reflected Ones,” Eternal Lovecraft 93

The NecronomiconUnaussprechlichen KultenCultes de GoulesThe Book of Eibon. Names to conjure with, and many folks have tried to do just that over the decades. Lovecraft’s evocative title and elaborate history of the Necronomicon inspired comparable efforts by Robert E. Howard and others, and by 1937 there was a veritable library of Mythos tomes—yet only an inkling of what would come. The invention and proliferation of these occult tomes has become a characteristic of the Mythos in its many forms, some writers would elaborate on works created by Lovecraft and others, many would create their own additions to the growing catalog. Entire books have been written about these fictional grimoires, from fictional works like Joan C. Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonici (1995) and Nate Pedersen’s The Starry Wisdom Library (2014) anthology to non-fiction books like Harms & Gonce’ The Necronomicon Files: The Truth Behind the Legend (2003).

Pseudobibliophilia takes an odd turn in Nancy Collins’ “The Land of the Reflected Ones.” By the numbers, this is straightforward Mythos pastiche: Emerson wants the Aegrisomnia; the old man wants too much money for it…but Emerson gets the book anyway, and in a manner that no reader will feel bad for what happens to him afterwards. Yet there’s a strange dinginess to the situation which Collins deliberately plays up: the quarrel is over a difference of two hundred dollars. Whatever priceless secrets it holds, that’s what the book is worth to the old man, because he needs to cover the rent for himself and his wife—and it is more than Emerson can afford.

The situation is both tragic and ironic: Emerson, gloats about his superiority over others while admitting that he doesn’t understand people, and has exhausted his sizable inheritance on occult tomes to no appreciable benefit; he gloats over the power and fortune that the book will give him, without considering the consequences of getting what he wants, despite the quite wisdom of the old man; and in the end Emerson is forced to abandon what little he has to flee from the police for his crime, and in fleeing one prison, ends up in a far worse one—with the tiny coup de grâce delivered by the old man’s wife.  From beginning to end, all that happens to Emerson is his own fault, and the reader can only follow along, and nod—because Emerson is a bastard, designed to remove the slightest trace of sympathy for the character.

The plot may be uncomplicated, but it’s fine execution, the foreshadowing of Through the Looking-Glass, and the way some common Mythos tropes and conceptions are subverted in this story make it shine. Emerson is a bastard of a character, a vain and self-centered occultist who thinks he’s better than everyone else because he comes from a privileged background; the dark mirror-image of the Lovecraftian protagonist in many ways. The materialist money-grubbing over the Aegrisomnia stands in stark contrast to the almost spiritual aesthetics which govern the Mythos in place of crass economics: rather than being held as a priceless relic, the grimoire is reduced to a commodity with a price tag, and not even a fabulously expensive one at that. The grand plans of Emerson and the cosmic horrors hinted at by his occult library are undershot and mired in the tawdriness of the whole affair.

Weirdly for a Cthulhu Mythos tale, “The Land of the Reflected Ones” there is also a distinct moral framework to the story.

In H. P. Lovecraft’s original conception, the universe of the Mythos is essentially amoral, in the sense that “bad” deeds are not specifically punished and “good” deeds not specifically rewarded. There are tales of revenge, such as “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” and the macabre quasi-fable of “The Cats of Ulthar,” and the “villains” and “monsters” in Lovecraft’s stories often face some setback or grisly end—yet the “victories” are almost always temporary and ultimately somewhat hollow. “The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be.” Azathoth, the ultimate power and authority in Lovecraft’s cosmology, is a blind idiot who will devour everyone indiscriminately. “Good and bad,” are human terms, from a human frame of reference.

Collins provides that frame of reference by contrasting the immoral, unsociable, power-hungry Emerson with the old bookseller and his wife. In one of the best passages in the story, the old man relates:

I know human leather when I see it. Had a book come through here a few years back—belonged to some bastard in the Nazi High Command. It was pornographic pictures—women with animals, men with children. It was bound just like that. I burned it. I would have burned that thing, too, if I didn’t need the money so badly—

The old man’s error, which leads to his death, is not trusting his instincts. If he’d left the Aegrisomnia alone, or burned it, then he’d never have had to deal with Emerson. The old man’s wife is Emerson’s comeuppance: raised by his entitled mother to think he was better than everyone else comes to bite Emerson in the ass when one of the people he thought was beneath him turns out to be a sorceress in her own right—just as,  ironically, Emerson’s own mother was eventually unplugged by her own son, because she raised him to be such a prick.

The Aegrisomnia itself is the MacGuffin, and the plot of the story as a Mythos pastiche rests on its characterization; consequently the book gets more descriptive text and history than Emerson or any of the other characters. The backstory briefly parallels  the familiar histories of the Necronomicon and Unaussprechlichen Kulten, with cycles of translation and prohibition, but the fine details—the Borgia pope, the human leather cover, the disappearance during the Blitz—are evocative and specific without delving into excess. Even the name aegri somnia (“troubled dreams”) hints at the bad karma that surrounds this book.

Collins’ story probably owes a debt to Ramsey Campbell’s “Cold Print” (1969). Both stories involve a bookshop, bring the Mythos down to the gritty street-level, obsessive protagonists, and have a similar approach to Mythos books as a kind of quasi-pornography—taboo literature which both readers and characters tend to fetishize above and beyond the actual content. Collins name-drops Campbell’s Revelations of Glaaki among the titles in Emerson’s library, a nice nod to one of the contemporary masters of Mythos fiction.

“The Land of the Reflected Ones” first appeared in Tombs (1995) and has been reprinted twice, in Eternal Lovecraft: The Persistence of H. P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture (1998) and Collins’ collection Avenue X and Other Dark Streets (2000). Nancy A. Collins has written over seventeen novels, as well as dozens of short stories and comic books. Her other most notable Cthulhu Mythos story is “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996), which also appears in Avenue X and most recently in Tales Out of Dunwich (2005) and as an ebook (2012). “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” was nominated for a Bram Stoker award for best novelette. The Aegrisomnia was introduced in “Sunglasses After Dark” (1989), the first in Collins’ Sonja Blue stories.