“Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses” (2015) by Valerie Valdes

One squat, black temple of Tsathoggua was encountered, but it had been turned into a shrine of Shub-Niggurath, the All-Mother and wife of the Not-to-Be-Named One. This deity was a kind of sophisticated Astarte, and her worship struck the pious Catholic as supremely obnoxious.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Brown-Reed Bishop, “The Mound”

Valerie Valdes is not the first Mythos writer to invoke the Jehovah’s Witnesses, one of those peculiarly American outgrowths of Christianity that emerged from the Third Great Awakening (mid-1800s to early 1900s), and best known today for door-to-door evangelism and recruitment. That earlier effort, Robert M. Price’s “Behold, I Stand At the Door and Knock” (1994) focuses on a similar theme, though with a less pronounced element of satire: why don’t the cults of the Cthulhu Mythos proselytize?

The religious aspect of the Mythos have been the focus of many writers; Lovecraft and his contemporaries were generally vague and sometimes contradictory on specifics of theology and cosmology, dogma and sectarian strife. The views of these native or syncretic religions was almost always presented from the skewed perspective of an outsider—someone who had not been raised or initiated into the mysteries—and bound about with much occultism, overtones of Theosophy and other new religions, or anthropological theories and reconstructions of old religion; the main exception being “The Call of Cthulhu,” where the aged mestizo Castro spilled some secrets for the benefit of the audience. Yet the fundamental question always was: why worship the Great Old Ones? Why venerate Shub-Niggurath?

It is indicative of the nature of the short piece as a whole, that while the tone is light and darkly comic, there is real meat in the concepts, and sometimes the questions raised cut to the bone:

“Sister,” I said. “Why did you not tell her that Shub-Niggurath grants immortality to her chosen?”
—Valeria Valdes, “Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses”

Valdes has a good answer for this, with a reference to Ramsey Campbell’s classic tale of Shub-Niggurath “The Moon-Lens” (1964) for any Mythos lorekeepers among the reading audience. For the most part, “Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses” emphasizes the surreal contrast of the secretive, monstrous cultists of Shub-Niggurath going door-to-door, pamphleting the neighborhood (there’s a website on the back), striving to stay on script—and it is an interesting script:

Are there mysteries in your life that do not have satisfying answers?

Have you ever felt that no benevolent god watches over you?

Do you feel your life is insignificant?

That you are a tiny ant in  a vast, uncaring universe?

…and if you answer yes to the above, “Then you will be happy to know there are answers to your questions, if you dare to look.”

The target of this pitch is Yourladies Benitez, a young hispanic woman. There’s an implicit frisson to that combination of age, ethnicity, and gender when it comes to religion; Benitez embodies the conflict between the heavy Catholic cultural influence of the older generation and the more agnostic or atheistic youth, and the stereotypes of women as more prone to spirituality. On the front of the pamphlet she is handed, is “a young woman very like Yourladies[.]” To the cult of Shub-Niggurath, Benitez is a likely mark—the very things that would set her apart from more traditional stereotypes of Hispanic women as devout Catholics are exactly what Shub-Niggurath’s witnesses are looking for.

The setup and execution of Benitez’ targeting for initiation riffs off the comment from Lovecraft and Bishop’s “The Mound”: the deliberate contrast of socio-cultural norms between the older and younger generation. Yourladies Benitez (female, Hispanic, agnostic?) offers a contrast to Lovecraft & Bishop’s  conquistador Pánfilo de Zamacona y Nuñez (male, Spanish, Catholic), and the different perspectives of the two characters is reflected in their reaction to the worship of Shub-Niggurath: Pánfilo’s disgust and Yourladies’ grudging acceptance.

The glimpses Valdes offers of the theology of Shub-Niggurath in the story are few, but quintessential and nihilistic: “There is no point to anything. No point at all.” Yet that basic tenet proves ultimately freeing to Benitez—freedom from her supervisor, her job with the pin-stripe uniform, eventually even her clothes. As the Cthulhu cultist Castro put it, she became:

[…] as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy […]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

“Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses” appeared in She Walks in Shadows (2015). Valeria Valdes’ first novel Chilling Effect is due out in 2019.

“ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer

I always preferred to think that strong women and loving couples and flirting and passion and a hundred other delightful emotions existed, somewhere, in Lovecraft’s world, and we just didn’t get told that story. Which begs the question: what if these realistic, flesh and blood and sex and sweat characters did meet up with Lovecraft’s?
—Carrie Cuinn, Cthulhurotica (2010) 5

“ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” begins with an unusual twist on the Greek myth of Pygmalion. The story of Pygmalion and his statue-bride has been adapted to a Mythos vein at least a few times, notably by August Derleth in “Innsmouth Clay” (1971) and Clint Collins in “The Summoned” (2011), but here Tanzer subverts the expectations in a manner that is quirky and surreal: rather than focus on Pygmalion and Galatea, the narrator of the story is Pygmalion’s offering to Aphrodite—inanimate, but possessed of anima. A passive actor in the proceedings of the story, this unique nameless narrator acts as witness of and commentator on the events that follow.

H. P. Lovecraft was a transgressive writer, whose fiction violated the cultural taboos of his era—he wrote stories featuring cannibalism, necrophilia, atheism, nihilism, incest, cosmic miscegenation, and inescapable biological determinism. Molly Tanzer is a subversive writer, whose stories undermine the reader’s expectations; she sets tropes on their head, teases well-worn plots and situations then inverts them, challenges staid conventions with fresh perspective. The Cthulhu Mythos provides plenty of raw material.

As a mature genre, Mythos horror has its own tropes and familiar elements. A reader who has suspended disbelief for the insidious cults of Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth in “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and “The Dunwich Horror” need not be reintroduced to them fresh; cultists and tentacled entities became a stock element in much of the fiction after Lovecraft and his contemporaries. What was transgressive in the 1930s became accepted, and eventually kitsch: the default late-night gatherings of robed strangers have taken on the verisimilitude of Hollywood Satanism, only with naughty tentacles instead of inverted crosses. Overripe for satire and subversion.

London during the Victorian period; the British Museum, with the relics of a recent archaeological dig on display; a curator with untoward designs on a puritanical innocent maid; a small gathering of cultists; a summoning ritual which requires sacrifice—this is almost a by-the-numbers plot, until the climax. All of which is by design: Tanzer knows the tropes she is invoking, builds the scenario up so that savvy reader’s expectations are pointed in one direction before she pulls the rug out and switches gears. The language, fitting for a story dealing with Shub-Niggurath, titillates and teases of things to come:

“Do you know what a dildo is?” asked the docent roguishly, his mustache twitching as he tried not to smile.

This is not erotic Lovecraftian fiction, although Tanzer deliberately flirts with the possibility. The nameless narrator is not coy, but neither are they crude; sex-positive without being sex-obsessed. Tanzer’s story is a pastiche not of anything Lovecraft wrote specifically, but of an accepted standard of Mythos fiction, where virgins are to be sacrificed by robed cultists, preferably in as leering and erotic a manner as possible, such as put to film by Roger Corman in The Dunwich Horror (1970). The Hollywood version of the Mythos, where all the real horror and atmosphere has been boiled off, leaving a handful of reoccurring images and predictable plot devices. Then Tanzer flips the script.

ConquerorWomb_cover02-187x300“ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” is a piece it would be hard to write before the 21st century. It requires the build-up of Mythos fiction tropes from the 70, 80s, and 90s, and it requires a publisher and audience willing to deal with such a surreal, adults-oriented approach as far as the unique narrator and the overall plot of the story. It’s not erotica, but it’s also not for kids: that weird middle ground of adult fiction that is sexually explicit but isn’t porn. There weren’t a lot of publishers for that material, and still aren’t. As kitsch as the robed-cultists-sacrificing-the-virgin is, the Mythos is still transgressive to many people, to the point that a sex-positive protagonist in a Mythos story is subversive.

That’s really the interesting thing about this story, not so much the events of the plot or characters but what the plot and characters say about the average understanding and approach to Mythos fiction. In M. L. Carter’s “Prey of the Goat”, Shub-Niggurath is a figure of negative sexuality, characterized by unhealthy lust, violation, non-consensual sex, and threats of sexual violence; in Tina L. Jens’ “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” the protagonist is the center of a plot that involves her being coerced into sex; in Joanna Russ “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” a Lovecraftian entity entraps the male character with promise of a romantic relationship—these are all essentially negative depictions of sexuality, sex as a medium for horror.

Sex itself is not demonized in Tanzer’s story. The depiction of Shub-Niggurath is effectively the same as in “Prey of the Goat,” but the sexual act is portrayed by the narrator and the helping characters as a positive thing with many warm recollections, when everyone involved is willing and has a good time. Tanzer does not dismiss the possibility of rape—that is a real and vital source of conflict throughout the story—but sexual assault and horror are not the sole depictions of sexuality in the narrative. This is a marked contrast from a great deal of Cthulhu Mythos fiction, and although Tanzer doesn’t dwell on the implications in the story itself, it feels almost like a response to the question Carrie Cuinn posed in her introduction to Cthulhurotica.

“ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” was first published in The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction #7 (2012), and then reprinted in the ebook-only anthology Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath (2014). Molly Tanzer has written a number other Mythos tales such as “Go, Go, Go, Said the Byakhee” (2011), “Herbert West in Love” (2013), “The Curse of the Old Ones” (2015, with Jesse Bullington), and “The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad” (2015); and has carved out her own corner of Lovecraft Country with the Ivybridge Twins stories, set in the Victorian period and collected in A Pretty Mouth (2012).

“Prey of the Goat” (1994) by Margaret L. Carter

…so from the wells of night to the gulfs of space, and from the gulfs of space to the wells of night, ever the praises of Great Cthulhu, of Tsathoggua, and of Him Who is not to be Named. Ever Their praises, and abundance to the Black Goat of the Woods. Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness” (Weird Tales Aug 1931)

RP_shubniggFew of the entities of the Cthulhu Mythos created by Lovecraft & his correspondents in the 1930s were implicitly or explicitly female; of those the most enduring in the imagination of Mythos writers and fans is Shub-Niggurath. Mother Hydra, whatever her literary charms, has not inspired multiple anthologies dedicated to her. Shub-Niggurath is itself nebulous, never appearing on the scene, but as an element of ecstatic worship and invocation in several of Lovecraft’s stories; in “The Mound” Shub-Niggurath is portrayed as a “sophisticated Astarte,” in Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Holiness of Azédarac” the familiar epithet is given a masculine twist as “the Ram with a Thousand Ewes”;  it is only in his letters Lovecraft described Shub-Niggurath explicitly:

Yog-Sothoth’s wife is the hellish cloud-like Shub-Niggurath, in whose honour nameless cults hold the rite of the Goat with a Thousand Young. By her he has two monstrous offspring—the evil twins Nug and Yeb. He has begotten hellish hybrids upon the females of various organic species throughout the universes of space-time (cf. “The Dunwich Horror”) [. . .]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 1 Sep 1936, Selected Letters
 5.303

Most of the stories about Shub-Niggurath that have been published are written by men. This may not be terrible surprising: most Cthulhu Mythos published has been written by men. When “Prey of the Goat” first appeared in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle (1994), M. L. Carter was the only woman whose work was represented among the offerings.

24516480The horrors of Lovecraft were, by and large, of equal terror to all—you don’t need to be a white male to appreciate cosmic horror, and assigning sex and gender to some of the more alien creatures of the Mythos may be a somewhat laughable enterprise—a diminution of these eldritch deities to prosaic human concerns. But there is a caveat: sex exists in Lovecraft’s fiction, and with the purpose: procreation. Female characters, be they willing participants or victims, may lay with and beget monsters. Important segments of Lovecraftian fiction fall into the familiar cycles of the “demon lover” or “rape fantasy,” which Margaret L. Carter recognized:

 

H. P. Lovecraft, who was strongly influenced by Arthur Machen, has a wizard’s daughter raped by the outcast dark divinity, Yog-Sothoth, in “The Dunwich Horror.” The girl gives birth to twins, one a queerly repulsive boy who grows at an impossible rate but looks outwardly human, the other an invisible monstrosity, formed of elements alien to this universe. Asenath in “The Thing on the Doorstep” is the result of a union between a blasphemously evil necromancer and a “thing from the sea.”
—M. L. Carter, introduction to Demon Lovers and Other Strange Seductions (1972)

 

Carter brings this understanding and approach to the sexuality of the Cthulhu Mythos to “Prey of the Goat.” As a horror story, it hits familiar beats: a strange, horrible old artifact. Disturbing dreams. Carnal acts that hint at possession. Prayer and invocations. A victory…with an aftermath. The “demon’s” name is Shub-Niggurath, but the aesthetics are not beholden to Lovecraft; this is the erotic nightmare in a Christian Episcopal mold, a new priest facing an old Catholic terror without even a rite of exorcism in his arsenal. The Mythos elements are prominent, but reserved; Carter seeds a few connections without going overboard. This is a story that ties in to the larger Cthulhu Mythos, but its world is intimate, focused on just two people and their relationship.

The protagonist is Father Michael Emeric, the recipient of the amulet of Shub-Niggurath is his wife Terri. Much of the fine detail in the plot is not devoted to Mythos minutiae, but on the dynamics of the relationship between the two, their respective roles of husband and wife, man and woman; Michael tries not to overstep, to respect Terri’s agency, but when he does feel the need to undermine it finds it surprisingly easy. There’s an undercurrent in the story when it demonstrates how easy it is for Michael to slip into stereotypical masculinity to get what he wants, yet also how reluctant he is to do that. Terri for her part shares a distinct parallel with the female protagonist of  Tina L. Jens’ “In His Daughters’ Darkling Womb (1997)”:

If they could have had a baby—but years of trying had produced no conception, with infertility tests failing to reveal the cause. Now that Terri was past thirty, they’d given up.

Infertility as a literary device has its uses: it it obviates the question of why characters do not have children, it makes conception (if it does happen) all the more miraculous or unholy. Yet there is a fundamental difference in approach between how Carter and Jens use it in these stories—in Jens’ story, the protagonist is female, the miscarriages she suffers are a result of failing to carry to term rather than failure to conceive; in Carter’s the protagonist is male, and the cause of the infertility is more ambiguous. If the infertility tests have failed to reveal a cause, is that because the cause lies not within her, but within her husband?

Carter essentially is putting the infertility fear on the other foot: not the feminine fear of miscarriage, or inability to have children, or birthing a monster, but the masculine fear of being cuckolded. The title “Prey of the Goat” forces the reader to ask the question: who is the prey, Michael or Terri? Certainly, the pastor’s wife is the one possessed by Shub-Niggurath, the one who has to suffer through the terrible erotic dreams where:

Then the goat stepped down into the crowd. She grabbed the first man and forced him to—forced him into her. He screamed.

But Terri tells her husband, when he asks her role in the dream, “I was the goat!” Later on, Michael wakes to find his possessed wife riding him—a rare example of rape of a man by a woman in Mythos fiction—the first dream is revealed as foreshadowing. Terri is the focus of the supernatural activity of the story, but the plot involves both of them, and this feeds into the ambiguous sexuality of Shub-Niggurath, who blends male and female characteristics in its appearance here. Whether Michael is threatened by the superior masculine aspect of Shub-Niggurath, or by the sexual dominance asserted by Terri under the Goat’s influence, the unexpected menage has Michael questioning his inadequacy, an attitude that carries right through to the foreboding end of the story. Abortion is ruled out by faith, but also by Michael’s impotent clutching at straws: “Besides, she might be wrong. It might be mine.”

“Prey of the Goat” almost never appeared at all; it was originally accepted for Lin Carter’s Weird Tales published by Zebra Books, but that series ended in 1983. If not for The Shub-Niggurath Cycle a decade later, it might never have seen publication at all. Which is a shame since it is a deceptively simple plot which is well worth deeper consideration. Carter has returned to the Mythos a few times, most notably with the romance novel Windwalker’s Mate (2008) and the erotic novella Tentacles of Love (2009).