Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories. Today we’re looking at “The Mound,” written in the winter of 1929-1930 and first published in the November 1940 issue of Weird Tales. You can read the story here. Spoilers ahead.
Summary: An unnamed ethnologist visits Binger, Oklahoma, chasing the legend of a mound haunted by the apparition of a man during the day, and a headless woman at night. Those who visit often come back mad, or don’t return at all.
Some have gone not merely to, but into, the mound: most recently a pair of brothers. One returned alone three months later, hair white and internal organs mirror reversed. He shot himself, leaving a note about the terrible power of the mound’s inhabitants.
The narrator views the apparitions and talks with the local Wichita. Gray Eagle, the chief, warns him off (in truly excruciating faux dialect). When he’s determined to go, Gray Eagle lends him a pendant made by the people under the mound. He suggests that it may protect the narrator—given that it’s apparently responsible for his family’s century-plus lifespans, that seems likely. Nice of him to lend it out!
Atop the mound, the grass shows no sign of a regularly pacing guard. He unearths a cylinder that the disk sticks to “magnetically,” covered with dreadful carvings. Inside is “The Narrative of Pánfilo de Zamacona y Nuñez, gentleman, of Luarca in Asturias, Concerning the Subterranean World of Xinaián, A. D. 1545.”
We now switch to the memoir of Zamacona, a conquistador following Coronado’s fruitless search for El Dorado. Zamacona meets a young man named, gods help us, Charging Buffalo, who tells him in Wichita Up-Goer Five—you have a bad problem and will be going to R’lyeh today—about his abortive expeditions under the mound.
Zamacona follows CB’s instructions through underground passages, past bas reliefs of the gods Yig and Tulu. Eventually he emerges under a writhing blue sky over a vast plain.
He sees a distant herd of animals—indistinct but frightening—and glittering abandoned towns. He finds a ruined temple surrounded by statues so nauseating that his Catholic mores preclude explicit description. Inside, he finds something even more shocking: nearly everything is made of solid gold.
He hears the approaching herd and, frightened, forces closed the temple door. They try to get in, seeming more deliberate than animals ought, but eventually leave. In the morning, human-looking people arrive. They explain through wordless telepathy that they’ve come in response to the herd’s message.
The K’n-yan are aliens, ancestors of humanity, driven underground long ago. Nevertheless, they are intensely curious about the outside world. Regretfully they cannot permit visitors to return home, lest they reveal the K’n-yan’s survival. On hearing about America’s new conquerors, they resolve to once more post sentries at their gates.
They bring Zamacona to Tsath, a city of gargantuan spires. He sees the various slave classes—intelligent herd-beasts doing human-style work, slaves working under hypnotic commands, and animated corpses. Many corpses have been mutilated—are headless, or have parts transposed or grafted on. The K’n-yan entertain themselves not only by changing between material and immaterial forms, but by shaping other people and objects at will. The slaves are also a source of meat. Even the conquistador is disturbed.
They give Zamacona a schedule of scholarly meetings, and assign him an “affection group” and (apparently very necessary) bodyguards.
For four years he lives among them—avoiding many activities and foods, counting his rosary in penance for others. He desperately wants to leave. The K’n-yan are degenerating rapidly, and his own presence may be accelerating this process by introducing both fear of invasion and a restless desire to see the outside world. People sate this restlessness with transmutation, sadism, and superstition.
Zamacona makes an abortive escape attempt, then begins to write this account. He worries what will happen when his hosts grow bored with him, and starts to parcel his knowledge out like Scheherazade.
One woman out of his 50-person affection group, T’la-yub, falls in love with him and joins his next escape attempt. Her family are lords of a minor—and secret—gate. He’s using her, though—once free he intends to abandon her for a proper Spanish wife.
They dress as slaves and sneak away with five beast-loads of gold, because conquistadors. One beast bolts and runs away.
They almost make it, but the escaped beast tattles and they’re captured. T’la-yub is sent to the amphitheatre, beheaded, and forced to guard her family’s gate. Zamacona is spared, but if he tries to escape again, he’ll suffer a similar—worse—fate. But of course he’d never try anything like that, right?
Of course, he does—this time traveling in an energy state, undetectable. He plans to bring along this document. And that’s where the memoir ends.
Returning to the present: the narrator presents the manuscript to Binger as a hoax, but secretly wonders what befell Zamacona. Did he escape—or did he fail at the last moment, captured by his own undead lover?
On the mound, he finds his pick and shovel stolen. Using his machete, he breaks into an inner chamber.
He finds a flashlight from the most recent explorer. He finds bas reliefs matching those in the manuscript. He stops expecting the reader to believe him.
Unseen hands seem to pluck with increasing force, driven off by the talisman. He speculates wildly: the increasingly degenerate K’n-yan have become more immaterial and more superstitious, and are now held off only by their veneration of the alien metal.
He sees his pick and shovel. And now he believes he can see the K’n-yan and their beasts: “the four-footed blasphemies with ape-like face and projecting horn… and not a sound so far in all that nitrous hell of inner earth…”
He hears something coming towards him. He sees—something—framed between statues of Yig and Tulu. He drops everything and runs in unthinking panic back to the surface.
What he saw was Zamacona’s reanimated body—headless, armless, without lower legs—with words carved on it in Spanish: “Seized by the will of K’n-yan in the headless body of T’la-yub.”
What’s Cyclopean: Masonry, in the tunnel to the underground world. Idols of alien metal. Ruins in the deeper, red-lit world of Yoth (twice). The crypt inside the mound gate.
The Degenerate Dutch: American Indians (Wichita, specifically) apparently worship Yig, Father of Snakes, and talk in stilted pidgin about “bad medicine” and “big spirits” and “um”.
K’n-yan history suggests decidedly odd attitudes about race and class. The bit about idealistic industrial democracy resulting in “masses” only fit to be bred with cattle…
Mythos Making: The K’n-yan worship Tulu (Cthulhu) and Yig. The toad-god Tsathoggua was also worshipped once; the cult was abolished after they found creatures of black slime worshipping the same idols in Yoth. For the K’n-yan, the terrifying entities of the Mythos have become friendly parental figures and fertility goddesses, while torture and sacrificial horror have moved into the secular realm.
Libronomicon: Just the one, terrible manuscript.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Visitors to the mound are rarely sound of mind when—and if—they return. The narrator wants to dismiss his experiences as hallucination. Doesn’t everyone?
YOU GUYS IT’S ANOTHER NAMED FEMALE CHARACTER IN A LOVECRAFT STORY I TOTALLY FORGOT. But that’s about all I like unreservedly about this one. Wow, this is squickier than I remembered. So very much squickier, on so very many levels.
First, the meta-squick: I’d forgotten that this is a collaboration: one of three between Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop. Explanations of their respective contributions hint at a whole lot of “how to suppress women’s writing.” Some sources claim that it was written from a one-sentence outline of Bishop’s, others that she wrote the original, but that Lovecraft revised so extensively as to be essentially the ghostwriter. Bishop was apparently more often a writer of romances, not one of which is available or discussed anywhere I can find; a search for her name merely turns up her collaborations with Lovecraft.
And yet, and yet—this story is different from Lovecraft’s other work. While the dizzying, deep-time descriptions of K’n-yan culture echo his other long works, and “cyclopean” appears often enough to constitute a signature, in other places the seams show clearly.
The racism is less naïve, more systematic, and more horrifically “of its time” than usual. Normally Lovecraft’s xenophobia is pure gut: “instinctive revulsion” and similar assumptions that most Anglo-Saxons are simply grossed out by anything the least bit different. We break this tradition here with an anthropologist narrator, and a narrative deeply informed by 30s anthropology. While at first this seems more open-minded—putting aside for a moment the amazingly offensive dialect and stereotyped names, the narrator seems happy to engage the Wichita as fellow humans—the story descends, like the conquistador Zamacona, into something far more dreadful than expected.
From start to finish, The Mound is informed by at-the-time-current ideas about cultural life cycles: that all cultures begin in savagery, rise into civilization, and descend into decadence—here typified respectively by the Wichita, the white citizens of Binger, and the K’n-yan. Normally when Lovecraft dives into another species’ culture they are truly alien, but also ultimately recognizable as worthy fellow sapients. The K’n-yan, by contrast, are humanoid and indeed ancestors of humanity. At their height, they shared recognizable morals, laws, and family structures with modern Europeans. While the rise and fall of civilizations is typical fare for Lovecraft, this isn’t: in his other stories humanity is one of a string of species with wildly divergent form and psychology, no more or less central to Earth’s history than any other.
The similarity between the K’n-yan and (white, European) humanity seems to be by way of warning: their descent into decadence was explicitly precipitated by the well-meant dangers of meritocratic democracy and abstract art. This matches fears expressed by Lovecraft elsewhere, but seems more sophisticated. One imagines his exchanges with Bishop, each building on the other’s ideas to produce a terrible hybrid.
And the K’n-yan’s decadence really is terrible. Their lives revolve around hedonistic sadism, they have no real affection for each other… unlike the alien details of the Yith or the Elder Things from At the Mountains of Madness, descriptions of the K’n-yan are just one long string of “ick.”
The nameless ethnologist appears in an earlier Lovecraft/Bishop collaboration, “The Curse of Yig,” a much tighter tale of the serpent god’s revenge on a woman who killed his rattlesnake children. I find “The Mound” a novella screaming to be a novel. At its current length, it’s all set-up: first the frame, then Zamacona’s notes on K’n-yan civilization. Fully four-fifths of the story has passed before Zamacona meets T’la-yub and things start to look really interesting. Alas, she’s there as ironic plot device only; if Bishop was hoping for some of her usual romance, she didn’t get it here. Poor T’la-yub. In an affection-group of extraordinarily gorgeous females, she’s only “moderately beautiful” and only of “at least average intelligence.” Also, she’s not a suitable Spanish noblewoman, though Zamacona might possibly settle for “an Indian princess of normal outer-world descent and a regular and approved past.” So there. I wish the pair had escaped to the outer world. I’d love to read about T’la-yub’s response when the man for whom she risked all tried to dump her. Remember, Z, she can dematerialize people. Or parts of people. Just saying.
Anyhow. Too much set-up, not enough climax, plus the usual short shrift given to relationships. Old Grey Eagle gets all chummy with the ethnologist in their very first meeting. We get next to zip about Zamacona’s interactions with T’la-yub or the rest of that affection-group assigned to amuse him. Man, what Jacqueline Carey or Anne Rice or E. L. James couldn’t do with this! And surely those amphitheaters are grim-dark enough for any fantasist. Zamacona may not have accepted Skybox seats to the great communal tortures, or eaten any suspect meat. So what did he have to feverishly finger his rosary beads about? What did his “Catholic” sensibilities prevent him from describing? The sexy stuff, of course. HPL will never do more than hint about that, as in Doorstep. “Shadow out of Time’s” narrator loses wife and children to his long “absence,” but never reports his reaction to this (one would think) crushing blow. Man, domestic angst is a terrible thing to waste.
Nevertheless, “The Mound” offers some cool stuff. It’s a rare departure from New England, and in the vast Oklahoma sky we get a sense of both beauty and the vague menace of a cosmic “vault” from which the flat landscape offers little protection. The narrator of “Color Out of Space” will also feel vulnerable under a sky too open and expansive. In Mythos stories, things always filter down from there, you know.
Including the K’n-yan. “The Mound” seems watered by streams from both the Cthulhu Mythos and the Dreamlands cycle. The Cthulhu influences are obvious, with frequent references to Big C himself. Shub-Niggurath also gets a nod, and a god Not-To-Be-Named whom I’m thinking must be Azathoth, and that mysterious Tsathoggua. The Vaults of Zin are part of the Dreamland subterranean geography. The reptilian race that ruled Yoth could be the infamous serpent men of Valusia. Lomar and Olathoe are mentioned.
Most interesting Mythos addition, for me, is the notion that Cthulhu brought the K’n-yan, ancestors of humans, to earth. Some conflict here with the “Mountains of Madness” notion that humans evolved from a creation of the Antarctic Old One radiates? It kind of makes sense for Cthulhu’s associates to be into the whole sadism thing, since “The Call of Cthulhu” tells us that the Great Squid means to murder and raven in great delight upon awakening. He’s such a hedonist, nothing like the coolly intellectual Yith and Old Ones.
And speaking of the Yith and Old Ones, I’d be so down with visiting either of those races. The K’n-yan? I’ll pass. No, really, I insist. They are indeed one of the squickiest of literary creations, right up there with Dolores Umbridge. No, they make Dolores look like one of her cutesy kitten plates. Once creatures of enormous intellect and technology, they have degenerated into sensation-seekers fully sanctioned and abetted by their slumping society. Immortality has bored them, alas. Is this because they’re human, creatures both of mind and emotion—way more emotion than the other great races seem subject to? Or is it just too easy for Lovecraft to imagine how a human civilization might devolve? After all, he knows how bad humans can be when we depart from the “dignity, kindness and nobility” once paramount to K’n-yan culture—and to Lovecraft’s own deep nostalgia for an imagined 17th or 18th century England.
In horror and fantasy, it’s always been humans who scare me most, and that goes quadruple for the K’n-yan. I’d much rather hang out with the black slime who worship Tsathoggua in black N’kai. Speaking of the black slime, they are this story’s entry into Lovecraft’s Irredeemably Weird Bestiary, where they join shoggoths and space polyps. Anything that can spook a K’n-yan is okay by me, and if Zamacona would just pull himself together, we could go on a nice expedition to their lightless vault of unspeakable troughs. Not that I’ve ever encountered a trough I couldn’t speak about. I’m bad-ass that way.
Join us next week for a truly dreadful message in a bottle in “The Temple.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She has never posted pictures of her cat in either of these venues, suggesting that she may be doing this whole internet thing wrong.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available now from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.