The Lovecraft Reread

World’s Most Terrifying Pillow Book: Livia Llewellyn’s “The Low, Dark Edge of Life”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

Today we’re looking at Livia Llewellyn’s “The Low, Dark Edge of Life,” first published in Nightmare magazine in December 2016. It is seriously not safe for work, don’t click on that link unless you’re over 18. But if you are over 18, go read it now, because it’s awesome. Spoilers ahead.

“Even with my black-tinted glasses, even with my eyelids shut tight, the fertility of the land shimmers in my sight like the roiling surface of the sun; and over the bucolic valleys, great colorless shapes float and dart and spread their death-filled jaws, and no one sees them but me.”

Summary

Here we have an unnamed translator instead of an unnamed narrator. He or she has struggled through the only intact relic of the Leuven (Belgium) Exclusion Zone: the diary of Lilianett van Hamal, an American girl who arrived in Leuven shortly before the Great Summoning of 1878 left the town a smoking ruin. Putting Lilianett’s narrative in readable form was no easy task, since the girl’s writing is a mass of “chicken scratches and insane scribblings that [she believes] in [her] blind state to be actual legible writing.”

Because as far as the doctors can tell, Lilianett is blind, her pupils as cloudy white as the ocean mists of her native Arkham. Physically sightless, she nevertheless sees well enough to get around and notice fine details of her surroundings. She can even see things no one else does, colorless shapes with “death-filled jaws” where others see only clouds, black globules and spidery masses that float unnoticed about the supposedly sighted. Yet living human faces appear to her only as swarming masses of “interdimensional” bees.

She comes to Leuven from lifelong residence in an Arkham sanitarium, because, yes, doctors insist she’s mad, and her mother preferred opium and art to taking care of her. Her destination is the Groot Begijnhof, a walled enclave within the ancient walled city, home to the Most Holy Order of the Filiae Solitudinus (Daughters of Isolation), an ostensibly Catholic sisterhood with roots in ancient Assyria. Lilianett’s aunt is its leader. She welcomes her niece with slaps and chained imprisonment in a garden shed, for what is Lilianett to her except the “thirteenth vaginal canal of a bio-mechanical machine.”

What? Hold on. Not a tome but a catalog of tomes will shortly explain.

Lilianett scratches down her journal in the darkness of the shed. At night she’s visited (and not only in dreams?) by a being that leaves a trail of phosphorescence from the nearby canal to her cot, a phosphorescent handprint on her cheek, the taste of salt on her lips. After doctors verify her virginity, she’s taken into the Order – apparently virginity is a super important component of the Daughters’ upcoming ritual/bio-mechanical machine. As Lilianett is sewn into the Order’s black habit, her aunt reads from an auction catalog that describes a tome recovered from the Church of Starry Wisdom in Providence.

Las Reglas de Ruina (The Rules [or Ruler] of Ruin) is the work of Friar Philip of Navarre, penned in the early 1500s as he spiraled into “nightmare-fueled madness.” A 16th century Daughter of Isolation, Maria van Hamal, commissioned thirteen copies of the book. Somehow all these copies made it to a subterranean lair in Manhattan, uncovered in 1835. Twelve disappeared. The thirteenth is the one on auction. It’s notable for weird decorations on the covers. On front is a leathery ovoid with internal folds that may represent an extremely yonic maelstrom. Latin script surrounds it: Immensus astra inclinant filiae, sed non obligant filiae – Las Reglas de Ruina inclinant Kassogtha, sed non obligant Kassogtha. Latin scholars, please correct me. Best I can get out of this so many years out of Latin class is “To the endless stars the Daughters bow, but the Daughters don’t bind them. To the Rules of Ruin Kassogtha bows but is not bound.” Yeah, don’t quote me on that.

On the back cover is a leathery protrusion ten inches long, which is exactly what you think it is though the chaste catalog declines to name it so. There are also a bunch of chains, meant to link the books to female celebrants, transforming a circle of thirteen into a “wondryechaun” (amazing object or device) of “iron, flesh and bone” through which the above-mentioned Kassogtha can return to Earth. Who’s Kassogtha? Oh just the sister and bride of Cthulhu, aka the Leviathan of Diseases. And what’s Her goal? Only to “wreak unspeakable, apocalyptic perversions upon mankind.”

Suddenly, Lilianett’s feeling much less enthusiastic about participating in any Daughterly summoning rituals. The night before she comes up with a plan: Since virginity’s so important to the ritual, maybe she can mess it up by losing hers too soon. Remember that phosphorescent visitor to her shed? She lies exposed on the steps leading down to the canal and voila! Something very like a Deep One emerges from the murky water to deflower her, and that’s cool. Back in Arkham she used to see Deep Ones sporting in the waves all the time. Maybe she’s got some Deep One blood herself, as well as the blood (ichor?) of whatever impregnated her mother during a previous Order ceremony! [RE: “Shadow Over Innsmouth” does rather imply that Deep Ones are easy, doesn’t it?]

Next day the Order, joined by apparent Christian priests (very leering), constructs its biomechanical summoning machine by chaining together a circle of twelve acolytes around Lilianett. Each has one of those weirdly adorned books, um, attached to their, ah, ovoids; when Lilianett, er, gets the thirteenth book with its massive protuberance inserted into her, eek—you know, you can probably figure this one out for yourself. The whole silver-netted circle becomes a writhing orgasmic whole. Lilianett’s aunt waits for her goddess to rise from the “birthing circle of limbs.” The priests wait for it to rise and confer …favors on them. Some people have a thing for tentacles, okay?

Too bad Lilianett herself becomes the goddess—too bad for everyone else, at least. Her fellow acolytes die in “poisonous tides of red.” She stands, wraps the ceremonial chains around her like a cloak, and whistles those ubiquitous floating black spidery things down to devour the salacious priests. Who knew she was always their mistress, masked?

What Lilianett does to her aunt is too horrible to detail, which in this story is saying a lot. She also kind of blacks out on what she does to Leuven, to leave it a smoking ruin. Now, holed up in Bruges, she plans her voyage back to the New World. There she’ll have more room to “run and scream and consume.” The ticket agent warns her about traveling that time of year, and the risk of “rough men,” but he’s just a mortal with much to fear. Whereas Lilianett, come into her birthright, doesn’t fear. She brings it.

What’s Cyclopean: Llewellyn both revels in bits of thoroughly Lovecraftian dialect— “gibbering maws” – and comes up with her own delightful turns of phrase. Through our narrator’s eyes, facial expressions are made apian: “the bees made a waxen, misshapen semblance of incredulous disbelief over the pulsing folds.”

The Degenerate Dutch: Lilianett doesn’t see color [AMP: As in race, not hues, I take it]. No, really, she doesn’t—human faces just look like masses of bees.

Mythos Making: Kassogtha is a creation of Joseph Pulver, in his 1999 novel Nightmare’s Disciple. She generally appears as a writhing mass of tentacles, getting her groove on with Cthulhu. She’s his mate and sister, which has to be an idea they picked up while Nyarlathotep was spending all that time in Egypt. She also has a Twitter account and an AO3 tag; enter at your own risk.

Libronomicon: The Catalogue of the Occult Library of the recently disbanded Church of Starry Wisdom of Providence, Rhode Island, gives detailed descriptions of what must have been an extremely alarming book auction. It describes in turn Las Reglas de Ruina, which is… not meant to be only read.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Lilianett is judged insane even by Arkham standards. [AMP: Friar Philip descends into “nightmare-fueled madness,” too.]

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Stories like this are why I read weird fiction. I will now attempt to talk about how awesome it is without actually resorting to obscenity.

Llewellyn (new to me, and I’ll be looking for more of her stuff) is apparently a writer of both horror and erotica, and it shows. Nothing feels forced or gratuitous. The violence and sex and inhuman perceptions mesh seamlessly, all equally and organically discomfiting. Faces made of bees and Arkham Asylum and permanent tornadoes and extremely phallic book covers and… it all fits, it all makes its own reality.

The Mythos is both omnipresent and lightly painted. Lilianett herself is from Lovecraft Country, and indeed there’s every reason to believe she’s got a share of Innsmouth blood. (And maybe Dunwich?). She invokes Mother Hydra and speaks R’lyehian. Kassogtha is one of many later additions to Lovecraft’s pantheon. But Leuven and its Sisters are new, and we see far more of them than we normally do of Scary Faceless Cultists. And Lilianett sees, and describes in detail, all those terrors that hover beyond human perception.

Oh, yes, and then there’s the ritual. You know those indescribable rituals, like Ephraim Waite runs in “Thing on the Doorstep”? The blasphemies so terrifying that the author actually refrains from discussing their details? I have to admit that most of the time, leaving everything to my imagination results in some pretty pedestrian images. I look at the prudish dudes writing the stories, and the things they’re willing to describe as scary, and I’m like, “They’re dancing around a bonfire naked and chanting in a language that IS NOT ENGLISH OMG. The potluck afterwards will include unholy amounts of hummus.”

Maybe I need to go back to some of those stories and imagine more bibliophilic orgy-sacrifices. Llewellyn describes her indescribable ritual in all its explicit and gory detail. It makes Saturday night at the Underryd Dance Hall look like senior prom, and not the one they invited Carrie to either.

Carrie, right. I am a sucker for powerful-yet-restricted girls getting their bloody revenges, aren’t I? This one is particularly welcome after last week’s “Than Curse the Darkness.” I wanted to see through the eyes of someone willing to summon world-destroying elder gods, and it looks like I got my wish. Lilianett has every reason to raise apocalyptic powers. One of the few things the story leaves ambiguous is whether this is nature or nurture. (Embrace the power of AND?) She’s an apocalyptic power herself, of course, a goddess or demi-goddess for whom tearing out guts is just part and parcel of claiming her womanhood. But she’s also a human woman, or has at least been living like one. And being treated like one—like a blind and ostensibly mad girl in a Victorian-era asylum. Not quite Leopold’s Congo, and yet thoroughly patronizing and isolating. The isolation may be the key: she’s never been given the slightest reason to identify with humans, so it’s not surprising that she really, really doesn’t.

After all, what’s more human than being afraid?

End note: This story also has the distinction of being one of the few amid the reread to actually give me nightmares. Said nightmares were about Lilianett showing up in the comments to this post, and being… displeased. Everyone stay safe out there.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Oh yeah. As promised, this one gives Fager’s “Furies from Boras” a hard run for the title of most disturbingly graphic take on classic monster summoning. According to her website, Livia Llewellyn is a native of Alaska who now resides in an East Coast megapolis. Probably not Arkham, ‘cause Arkham’s not that big. By day she’s a typically harried secretary (can I empathize, oh yes I can.) By night, she writes both erotica and horror, and if this story’s a typical example of her work, she writes both genres with panache and poetry.

Here she combines them, with panache and way visceral poetry. Lovecraftiana and scary psychosexual stuff? Why not? In fact, what’s a more logical extension of that repulsion-attraction dynamic that’s the driving heart of Howard’s best work? I think he went as far as he dared in “The Thing on the Doorstep”—as far as he dared both from personal squeamishness and given the publication standards of his day. I also wonder what Hazel Heald would have thought of “Low Dark Edge,” for hers was the keenest female sensibility in the early Mythos.

Lilianett might just be my favorite female Mythosian protagonist. She’s not just a “strong” or “kick-ass” woman – she’s the Eternal Strong and Kickass Feminine personified. Literally. Kassogtha may have borne two of Cthulhu’s daughters, but seems to me she leaves the Mother-Goddess duties to Shub-Niggurath. Kassogtha’s all appetite. In fact, She (through Lilianett) is constantly conflating the acts of consumption and sex. She is going to devour-[bleep] twitching remains. [RE: Bleeps inserted both from personal squeamishness and to try and preserve the publication standards of this website. Plus ca change…] She is going to “walk over an ocean of flesh, scooping it up with my endless mouths and [bleeping] their remains until they have been unmade into my bones, my womb, until I quicken squat grunt them out again, hollow them out again with my fingers and tongue—”

Whew, good thing Lilianett’s journal goes illegible at that point. My imagination is getting overstimulated, even as my gorge rises.

That’s some powerful writing there, to evoke such strong reaction.

Yet Kassogtha-Lilianett must be terribly beautiful in Her/her cloak of silver chains, and I can’t help but cheer Her/her in the way She/she puts those shadowy patriarchs-behind-the-Order in their place (the air-spiders’ stomachs.) I can’t feel bad for Aunt van Hamal, sorry, however spattered she ends up.

It’s unclear when the unknown translator finishes work on Lilianett’s journal but it must be after 1976, when the last section was discovered in Bruges. Miskatonic University is still around, because it leads the research on the Leuven Exclusion Zone. Gotta conclude, therefore, that Kassogtha-Lilianett hasn’t devoured the world yet, in spite of having a hundred years or so to do it. Could Lilianett’s body contain the goddess only so long? Did She/she get bored and cruise back to the stars? Does She/she still lurk somewhere in the expanses of America, gathering a new female cult around Her/her? Maybe that habit of smoking opium that She/she took up post-Leuven has mellowed Her/her out of the need to immediately binge on humanity.

All we know is that there are no records of Lilianett van Hamal after 1878. Her remains have never turned up. Interesting, we Miskatonic types must think, if not terribly reassuring.

 

Next week, C.L. Moore makes a compelling argument that evil overlords should play nice with captured heroines in “Black God’s Kiss.”

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint on April 4, 2017. You guys that is three weeks away! Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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