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.
Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)