To help celebrate Women in Horror Month, I wanted to look at three stories from New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird. I chose this for several reasons. It’s a fairly recent anthology, 2011, with every story published this century. Also editor Paula Guran has some impressive horror cred. And finally, cuz Lovecraft.
Mongoose by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette
First, a disclaimer. I don’t like drawing endless parallels. It seems somehow minimizing which is not my intent. I’m merely trying to explain where Mongoose situates me which is squarely in a world I can only describe as equal parts Men In Black, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, Jasper Fforde’s The Fourth Bear, John Myers Myers’s Silverlock, and Blade Runner.
Guran says in her introduction that, “Sometimes, the New Lovecraftians simply have fun with what are now well-established genre themes,” and have fun these two did. I’m a big fan of clever, geeky references (for the record, “geeky” is a term of utmost admiration in my sphere), and Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette make them sooo cleverly.
The Lewis Carroll material obviously stands up strong on its own, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. To bastardize the original, it just gets cleverouser and cleverouser.
The eponymous Mongoose herself is a phase-shifting predator called a cheshire. Naturally. She works with a human counterpart, Irizarry, ridding space stations (Kadath, Providence, Leng, Dunwich. How cool is that?) of toves. People travel on living spacecraft, boojum, with names like the Erich Zann or Arthur Gordon Pym.
The references also have subreferences. One of the worst things a station can encounter is a bandersnatch (already a priceless term), but then we get genus and species: pseudocanis tindalosi.
Not that this is all lighthearted romp. At one point, Irizarry “could sense the thinning and stretch of reality all around them, see it in the warp of the tunnels and the bend of the deck plates.” Gotta wonder if the folks responsible for games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Hektor got a hold of this story.
Still, odd a term as it may seem, this story becomes in many ways, well, delightful. The next cat who comes into my life will likely end up with the name Mongoose.
Bad Sushi by Cherie Priest
Baku is an aging sushi chef. A baku is also a creature out of Japanese folklore. It devours nightmares.
John Pinette once did a bit about trying to lose weight and dreaming that Dr. Phil was outside yelling, “It’s not what you’re eating. It’s what’s eating you!”
Like The Stuff.
Baku notices that something’s a little off about the sushi he’s been preparing. Almost simultaneously, he notices something’s a little off as well about the patrons of the restaurant he works in. What’s a little off about them becomes a lot off about them. Fast.
Baku’s manager admits there’s “a new vendor for some of the fish. It’s a company from New England,” (of course it is) “and they carry a different stock from the Gulf Coast company” (of course they do). Baku later sees “a big white truck with a large ‘A’ painted on the side. He couldn’t make out the company’s name; it was printed in a small, elaborate script that was difficult to read.”
New England? An “A?” Dare we make the leap?
Yes. Yes we dare.
Baku traces the new stock to its source, leading to a resolution in which Priest shoulders her protagonist with the implications of his name as well as a literal nightmare.
Pickman’s Other Model (1929) by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Not to detract from the other two stories, but this one stands out as the most Lovecraftian of the three and with good reason. Kiernan picks up shortly after where Pickman’s Model leaves off. Blackman, her narrator, relates his association with his friend, Thurber (who Kiernan shrewdly establishes as the narrator of Pickman’s Model). Thurber has committed suicide.
Tasked with sorting through Thurber’s papers, Blackman uncovers unsettling sketches of silent movie actress, Vera Endecott, described as “a woman whose loveliness might merely be a glamour concealing some truer, feral face,” and compared to such contemporaries as Musidora and Theda Bara.
Blackman himself sounds respectably like one more in a long line of ill-fated Lovecraft narrators: “the mind may not…simply forget the weird and dismaying revelations visited upon men and women who choose to ask forbidden questions.” It’s straight out of the Lovecraft playbook.
Someone sees something (in Blackman’s case, a disturbing film featuring Endecott) that triggers unexplainable dread leading to obsession, nightmares, madness, and death.
Lovecraft’s style and tone are nicely handled. Little verbal details like “grisaille” and “prognathous” create plenty of Lovecraftian heft.
But there is also a ripple effect that calls to mind Chambers’s King In Yellow. The victims are connected. Thurber suffers through his association with Pickman as do Blackman from his association with Thurber and Vera Endecott from her association with Pickman and Blackman.
Pickman’s Other Model (1929) works as a standalone story. It also works as a sequel. But ultimately, it reads like a finely executed second chapter to the source material.