Strange Flesh: The Use Of Lovecraftian Archetypes In Queer Fiction - Mysterium Tremendum
- 30 May 2017
- Nick Jones
Authors Note: This is Part 4 of an ongoing series.
“The entire tradition of cosmic horror fiction can be regarded as a heroic but doomed attempt… …to communicate the uncommunicatable, by suggesting – in the absence of any possibility of explicit description – the sheer enormity of the revelation that would be vouchsafed to us, were we ever granted permission to see and conceive of the world as it really is, rather than as it appears to our senses: deflated, diminished and domesticated. It is for this reason that “the cosmic horror”, conceived as an entity is by far the most elusive of all the icons of horror fiction, almost definable by its indescribability. Its presence can be felt, but only the merest glimpses can ever be caught of its form. Its description and definition can be tentatively approached in various ways – one may observe that it is daemonic rather than demonic, and that it is more akin to the alien than the traditionally supernatural – but can never be completed or clarified.” (Stableford, 2007, p. 71)
Mysterium Tremendum is a novella by American author Laird Barron, taken from his 2010 collection Occultation and other stories. The novella was the recipient of the Shirley Jackson award in 2011. (Science Fiction Awards Database, 2016)
While the author Laird Barron, himself, is not gay, this story is a fantastic example of how Lovecraftian themes can be manipulated to tell a story from the perspective of queer characters. It is therefore worth considering in our studies.
It details the adventures of four gay men as they go on a camping trip in search of some mysterious ruins detailed in an even more mysterious book which one of them purchased at a second-hand store.“The Black Guide”.
“The book shone in the dusty gloom of that aisle, and it radiated an aura of antiquity and otherworldliness, like a blackened bone unearthed from the Burgess Shale. The book was pocket-sized and bound in dark leather. An embossment of a broken red ring was the only cover art. Its interior pages were of thin, brown paper crammed with articles and essays and route directions typed in a small, blurry font that gave you a migraine if you stared at it too long. The table of contents divided Washington State into regions and documented, in exhaustive detail, areas of interest to the prospective tourist. A series of appendices provided illustrations and reproductions of hand-drawn maps. The original copyright was 1909 and this seventh edition had been printed in 1986. On the title page: attributed to Divers Hands and no publisher; entitled Moderor de Caliginis.” (Barron, 2010)
This book contains “a listing of secret attractions, hidden places, and persons “in the know” regarding matters esoteric and arcane.” (Barron, 2010) A kind of tourist guide for the weird.
This book of course, follows another motif of Lovecraftian Horror - drawing upon the theme of forbidden knowledge, it is the forbidden book archetype. Lovecraft himself, frequently referred to a sinister black book marked with strange signs – The Necronomicon. In his short fictional essay “The History of the Necronomicon” Lovecraft describes the text:
“Original title Al Azif-azif being the word used by Areabs to designate that nocturnal sound (made by insects) suppos’d to be the howling of daemons. Composed by Abdul Alhazred, a mad poet of Sanaá, in Yemen… …The book is rigidly suppressed by the authorities of most countries, and by all branches of organised ecclesiasticism. Reading leads to terrible consequences.” (Lovecraft, 2009)
After this introduction in which the narrator – Willem, discovers this book with his partner Glenn and their two friends Dane and Victor, we are given a bit of backstory. Willem and Glenn live together. However, as soon as this is made apparent, the author, sets about constructing a rendition of Lovecraft’s archetypal Outsider, bringing it forward arguably in complexity and making it fit for the modern horror age.
“Glenn hadn’t proposed and I was too stubborn, too afraid of rejection to propose to him.” With this line, we begin to see that although Willem is in a relationship, there is still a degree of isolation between him and his partner. Barron continues to set up this outsiderness in his principle characters:
“His father was dead; a career railroad man, second generation Irish, he dropped in his traces from a heart attack when Glenn was fifteen… …As for me, my father had been a white boy from the Bronx who served thirty years in the Army, the last decade of it as a colonel. My mother was a former Brazilian teen-queen bathing beauty who married Dad to get the hell out of her home town. Dad passed away in his sleep from an overdose of pills a few weeks before I met Glenn. I sometimes wondered if it’d been accidental or closer to the protagonist’s opt-out in that famous little novel by Graham Greene. Mom pretended I’d court a fine young lady one day soon and sire a brood of kids. My brothers were scattered across the world. The eldest kept in touch from India. Otherwise, I received birthday cards, the odd phone call or email, and that was that.” (Barron, 2010)
This chunk of backstory establishes Willem as been an Outsider. He is isolated from his siblings and his mother, his father is dead (possible suicide) and to top it all off, he’s gay. A gay character or characters fits perfectly with the Outsider archetype as previously discussed, and even when Barron places these gay outsiders in a group together, they are still isolated from the rest of society as we will see later.
Back home, Willem begins to research into The Black Guide, seeking information on what it is all about. During his online research he comes across the journal entries of a young girl named Rose who also had come across a copy of The Black Guide and gone exploring a “tomb” on the Olympic Peninsula with friends, only to never update her online journal again. Willem leaves an anonymous message inquiring after her status to satisfy his curiosity.
Days later, Willem, Glenn and Dane and Victor are shooting the breeze, when they tell the Willem about a friend they had in High School – Tommy – who was killed a couple of years ago while waterskiing.
Afterwards, the friends decide to use The Black Guide to plan a hiking trip to find a dolmen it details as existing, despite their knowing there are no such things to be found in the state. They plan the trip before getting drunk and heading to bed.
Willem, however ends up sleeping on the couch that night after Glenn tries to initiate sex with him, while “dead drunk”. Snoozing on the couch, he encounters the ghost of Tommy, who converses with him:
“Turning, I saw a man sitting in the armchair in the corner near the pine shelf that housed a meagre selection of my books. A burst of light from the TV screen revealed this wasn’t Glenn or our guests. I was woozily drunk – the topknot, the surly, piggish features, the short, bulky frame, was precisely how I’d envisioned the inimitable Tommy of college lore… I saw he was naked, one thick leg folded across the other to artfully cover his manhood. His flesh was very pale; the flesh of a creature who’d dwelt in a sunless grotto for ages…
“I’ve just come to talk,” he said” (Barron, 2010)
After a bit of surreal small-talk, Tommy begins to enquire about The Black Guide:
“I snapped my fingers. “I knew it. The book.”
“Right on, Ace. The book. The Black Guide. You been fucking around with it, haven’t you?”” (Barron, 2010)
Around this point, Tommy’s ghost merges into the shadows and Willem hears an old woman’s voice whisper “There are frightful things” (Barron, 2010) before falling into a fitful sleep.
The following day, the gang begin their journey to hike through the woods in search of the dolman. Willem tells Glenn about his encounter with Tommy’s ghost, who strangely doesn’t disbelieve him, rather he ponders to himself “What does it mean?” (Barron, 2010)
As their trip progresses, Willem interacts with a college professor over the phone who has studied the Black Guide. The professor warns him to be careful with using the book:
“This may sound, nutty, but be careful. As I said, I met decent folk on the main. User-generated content has its perils. There exists a certain potential for mischief on behalf of whoever anonymously recommends an attraction or service. Look sharp.” (Barron, 2010)
This is the first of several warnings that Willem receives, and ties into the theme of forbidden knowledge we touched on previously, just as in The Shadow over Innsmouth, Willem ignores the warning signs of danger in his pursuit for “forbidden” knowledge.
While having a couple of drinks, Willem is speaking with Victor when Victor reveals that Tommy as well as himself, Dane and Glenn all joked around with black magic and the occult in College. It is also revealed that Tommy did not die while waterskiing, rather he fell into a sinkhole when he, Victor, Dane and Glenn were camping not far from their current location. The event was so traumatic and strange, that they invented the waterskiing story to avoid uncomfortable conversations.
The second warning for Willem and in this case the other characters as well, to turn back comes up during their stop-over in a small township outside the woods they are about to hike through. In a car park outside a bar they are leaving, the gang are descended upon by a group of homophobic college jocks, resulting in a huge, bloody fight. Instead of being reluctant to fight, the gang seemingly enjoy the violence, effectively ignoring this second “warning.”
“Dane snatched the antenna off the truck and began whipping all three of them. He grinned through a mask of gore, cocking his forearm behind his neck and then slashing in an elegant diamond pattern… …The golf club made a thwock! As it struck my upraised arm. The pain cranked a rotor in my brain and turned operation over to the lizard. I laughed with rage and joy and impending lunacy. I caught the golf club as my attacker… …readied for another crack at me, and wrenched him off balance. I kneed him in the balls. He vomited and slumped on all fours and I grabbed his hair and kneed him in the jaw, twice, with enthusiasm. His nose and jaw squished nicely. He crawled away spewing blood and teeth as he shrieked.” (Barron, 2010)
The gang escape the carnage of the fight barely, and flee in their car into the woods, deciding to continue their hike after all. After a couple days hiking, Willem receives his third and final warning to turn back, and this time, it comes in the form of the very strangeness he’s seeking, a creature, stalking their camp in the middle of the night:
“The animal stood in the center of the road and there was no mistaking it was staring at me. Then another shape appeared near the first and that caused my balls to tighten. The second animal rose directly from the road, as if the shadows had coalesced into solid form, and as it materialized I noted that even obscured by darkness, it didn’t resemble any bear I’d ever seen. The beast was too lean, too angular; the neck and forelegs were abnormally long, and its skull lopsided and cumbersome. I pulled the automatic and chambered a round. I considered calling to my companions, but hesitated because of the impression this entire situation was balanced on the edge of some terrible consequence and any precipitous action on my part would initiate the chain reaction. There are terrible things. A cloud rolled across the stars and as the darkness thickened, the animals moved in an unnatural, sideways fashion, an undulation at odds with their bulk, and vanished. Symbols of warning conjured from night mist and shadows; ill omens dispensed, they drained back into the earth. I half-crouched, gun in my fist, until my legs cramped. A scream echoed far off from one of the hidden gulches, and I almost blew a hole in my foot. It took me a long while to convince myself it had been the cry of a bear or a wildcat and not a human. By then it was dawn.” (Barron, 2010)
The otherworldliness of this encounter serves not only as a final warning to turn back, but also shows us the true isolation of the environment the characters now find themselves in. Like Lovecraft, Barron has not only created Outsiders of his characters through their personalities and actions, but also through the scenery that is so far off from normal human activity, is in a way alien.
The next morning, despite making everyone else aware of the strange creature in the night, the gang decide to carry on towards their destination. They soon pass through the ruins of a strange village before finally reaching their destination – the dolman from the Black Guide.
They begin to investigate beneath the monolithic stones, where they discover a water filled basin and a strange Idol. It is here, that the fruition of their efforts comes to light in all its horror:
“He drew a cigarette and leaned against the basin to steady himself. The snick of his lighter, the bloom of flame, shifted the universe of its axis. He shuddered and dropped the lighter and stepped back far enough that I glimpsed a shivering cord the diameter of a blue ribbon leech extended from beneath the lip of the basin and plunge into the junction of his inner thigh and groin. Greasy bubbles surfaced from the depths of the stagnant water, and burst, their odor more foul than the effluvium of the dead vines liquefying along the walls, and the scum dissolved to reveal a surface as clear as glass. The trough was a divining pool and the water a lens magnifying the slothful splay of the farthest cosmos where its gases and storms of dust lay like a veil upon the Outer Dark… …Glenn shouted and jerked my shoulder, and we tripped over each other. I saw Dane scrambling towards the entrance, and Victor frozen before the idol, face illuminated in the lurid radiance. His expression contorted and he gripped his skull in both hands, fingernails digging. The slimy cord drew taut and released from the muscle of leg with a wet pop, left a bleeding circle in the fabric of his pants. Another of these appendages partially spooled from the niche nearest me, writhing blindly as it sought to connect with warm meat.” (Barron, 2010)
The group are attacked by leech-like creatures which seem to be manifesting from the basin and inside the dolman. Willem passes out, and when he recovers, Dane has disappeared, Glenn is panicking and Victor is in a state of shock, laughing and gurgling: “You should’ve seen what I saw. This isn’t a tomb… it’s… …They’ll be here soon, my sweets… Be still, be at peace. They love you. You’ll see, you’ll see. Everything will change; you’ll be remade, turned inside out. We won’t need our skin, our teeth, our bones.” (Barron, 2010)
At this moment a figure appears nearby, “naked and its skin glistened with a pallid white like the soft meat of a grub.” (Barron, 2010) This humanoid figure crawls towards them, but stops short of stepping out from the shade and into the light. Willem and Glenn act fast, binding the now mad Victor and fleeing back the way they came through the trees where they eventually reunite with Dane before finding their car and fleeing the forest.
In the aftermath of the events, Victor is hospitalized and Dane cares for him in his insane state. Willem and Glenn return home, where Glenn begins to hear things in the house at night. Glenn eventually reveals to Willem that their dead friend Tommy was “so deep into black magic it blew my mind when I finally caught on.” (Barron, 2010) That Tommy claimed to have discovered some kind of alien life out there that he wanted to meet, but that he was afraid as his uncle (another occult practitioner) warned him “the only thing an advanced species would want from us would be our meat and bones.” (Barron, 2010) Glenn also reveals the truth behind Tommy’s death:
“Tommy didn’t fall. He was snatched by a hand… not a hand that belonged to any regular person I’ve seen. An arm, fish belly white, shot up and caught his belt and yanked him in… and the hand had… claws.” (Barron, 2010)
One evening after this, Glenn and Willem are visited by a being that looks like the girl Rose, whom Willem had read the journals of online, the apparition drags Glenn through their cellar door and into what seems to be another dimension:
“The pull was ineluctable; I released the doorframe and crossed the room in slow, tottering steps like a man wading into high tide. The universe whirled and roared. I came within kissing distance of my love and looked deep into his dull, wet eyes, gazed into the bottomless pit. His face was inert but for the eyes. Maybe that was really him waiting somewhere down there in the dark. “Oh, honey,” I said, and stepped back and shut the door.” (Barron, 2010)
The story ends, with Willem moving away to the country, eventually finding another lover, although he is haunted by the events that have transpired for the rest of his life.
Mysterium Tremendum is a near perfect example of what both cosmic horror and queer horror can be. It employs Lovecraft’s Outsider archetype and combines it with the outsider-ness of being gay in a predominantly hetero society, it mirrors TSOI in that the pull towards forbidden knowledge is so strong that Willem foregoes every warning thrown his way until it is too late to turn back, and lastly, it conveys flawlessly what Dziemianowicz writes in regards to Lovecraftian horror:
“By dwelling on (the) characters’ all-too-human reactions to phenomena that exceed their understanding, (the writer can) achieve “the essence of externality” and a more profound sense of isolation than his work had hitherto expressed: his characters would gaze into the void and realize that their lives, their interests, and their pretensions to significance were merely the finite foreground to an infinitely expanding background. Their new self-awareness of their true place in the vast design of the universe would cut them adrift from earlier certainties about themselves and humankind.” (Dziemianowicz, 2011)
Barron, L. (2010). Mysterium Tremendum. In Occultation: And other stories [Kindle 6 version]. Retrieved from http://www.nightshadebooks.com/book/occultation-and-other-stories/#.V07CnJF97IU
Dziemianowicz, S. (2011). Outsiders and aliens: The uses of isolation in Lovecraft’s fiction. In D. E. Schultz & S. T. Joshi (Eds.), An epicure in the terrible: A centennial anthology of essays in honor of H. P. Lovecraft [Kindle 6]. Retrieved from http://www.hippocampuspress.com/h.p-lovecraft/about-hp-lovecraft/epicure-in-the-terrible-centennial-anthology-of-essays-in-honor-of-h.-p.-lovecraft
Lovecraft, H. P. (2009). "The history of the Necronomicon" by H. P. Lovecraft. Retrieved from http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/hn.aspx
Science Fiction Awards Database. (2016, May 30). sfadb : Shirley Jackson Awards Winners By Name. Retrieved from http://www.sfadb.com/Shirley_Jackson_Awards_Winners_By_Name
Stableford, B. (2007). Cosmic horror. In S. T. Joshi (Ed.), Icons of horror and the supernatural: An encyclopedia of our worst nightmares (p. 66). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.