“Houndwife” (2010) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

In the coffin lay an amulet of curious and exotic design, which had apparently been worn around the sleeper’s neck. It was the oddly conventionalised figure of a crouching winged hound, or sphinx with a semi-canine face, and was exquisitely carved in antique Oriental fashion from a small piece of green jade. The expression on its features was repellent in the extreme, savouring at once of death, bestiality, and malevolence. Around the base was an inscription in characters which neither St. John nor I could identify; and on the bottom, like a maker’s seal, was graven a grotesque and formidable skull.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound”

“Houndwife” is a tribute to Lovecraft, and a continuation. It is not a pastiche, as are so many Mythos tales, because it does not attempt to borrow or even suggest anything of Lovecraft’s prose style, however much it may take specific images and ideas from his stories; break them apart, expand on, and rework them. Lovecraft’s story is a background episode: it is unnecessary for the reader to have knowledge of “The Hound” to appreciate and understand “Houndwife,” but those who have read both have perhaps a greater understanding than those who have only read one. It stands on its own, but together they suggest more. That’s rare.

Caitlín R. Kiernan has style.

“Houndwife” revolves around several of her familiar foci—lesbians, the American South contrasted with New England, the Lovecraft Mythos, ghouls, the Church of Starry Wisdom, the occult, and broken perception. The protagonist is an unnamed woman, unlearned but highly intuitive: wisdom borne of experience contrasted against book-knowledge. And this is the story of how she went through a transformative experience, died and was buried, rose again. Not as a martyr or a messiah, not quite as a sacrifice. The experience changes the protagonist, unglues her from the understanding of time. The reader experiences in a linear fashion the protagonist’s now decidedly nonlinear existence.

Lovecraft’s jade amulet from the corpse-eating cult of Leng is the Chekov’s gun of the piece, waiting to be fired. The central mystery of the curious hound-sphinx remains, refracted through the protagonist’s shattered timeline. Only once in a thousand years is a woman chosen to be the houndwife. What that means, ultimately, the answers the Starry Wisdom (and the readers) want, are not readily forthcoming. This is not a Mythos story with passages of long exposition on cosmology or the family trees of the gods: this is a prose poem to experience. Answers, if there are any, will come with reflection.

Aside from the excellent prose styling, and the masterfully done nonlinear structure of the narrative, “Houndwife” is an exemplar of Kiernan’s careful handling and development of characters and relationships, which is part of what sets her work apart from many Mythos writers. While Kiernan has written erotic works, this is not one of them: the lesbian relationship between the protagonist and her girlfriend Isobel Endecott is not there for titillation, but to drive the connection between the protagonist and the cult, and contrast the ties between Isobel and the cult and Isobel and the protagonist. Glimpsed only in fragments, the sense is there of a real relationship, one where both partners are clearly distinct, but a strong attraction and attachment binds them—although strained and slightly alienated by the ritual of death and rebirth.

That too is one of Kiernan’s familiar themes, the strained relationship despite mutual attraction, and is reminiscent of her earlier story “At the Gates of Deeper Slumber” (2009), where the unnamed narrator and Suzanne are not the perfect lesbian couple: they have disagreements, fights, and flaws. They quibble and worry over gender roles and each other’s space. Suzanne refers to the narrator as a “butch dyke” in reference to the persona she projects, but the narrative itself reveals the uncertainty and discomfort—perhaps even jealousy—that accompany the invasion of her home by the Shining Trapezohedron. The narrator cannot give full force to her worries for fear of alienating her partner, and it is the fear of losing Suzanne that is the consuming dread of the piece, more than anything else. Kiernan has revisited this theme of love, loss, and the Shining Trapezohedron in her later piece “Ex Libris” (2012).

The “Kiernan Mythos” is a bit hazier than comparable efforts by other writers, her contributions tend to be free-standing, without the need for strong tie-ins, though they may exist if you look for them: Isobel Endecott probably related to the Endecotts of “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008). She has developed no single common setting like Lovecraft’s Miskatonic region, Ramsey Campbell’s Severn Valley, or W. H. Pugmire’s Sesqua Valley, although certain works like the recent Agents of Dreamland (2017) and Black Helicopters (2018) are tied together, and she has four connected stories in the “Dandridge Cycle”, but she does not invent new gods with unspeakable names or eldritch grimoires which are consistent in story after story. Kiernan’s Mythos tales like “Houndwife” are strange growths sprouting from the Lovecraft Mythos, new stories growing from old soil, each unique and distinct.

I should hope that not even the most die-hard admirer of H. P. Lovecraft’s work would date argue that “The  Hound” (1922) is a well-written story. And yet I love it. Despite all it’s garish purple-prose histrionics, the story pushes my buttons. So, it was probably inevitable that I would someday write a tribute to this minor Lovecraft tale, and in March 2010 that’s exactly what I did.
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan vol. 2, 360

“Houndwife” was first published in 2010 in the Sirenia Digestand first saw print in Black Wings of Cthulhu 2 (2012). It has been reprinted in hardcover twice in her collections Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan vol. 2 (2015) and Houses Under the Sea: Mythos Tales of Caitlín R. Kiernan (2018).

“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.