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 “Out of the Aeons,” a collaboration between Lovecraft and Hazel Heald, first published in the April 1935 issue of Weird Tales. You can read it here.
“No human creature had ever climbed Yaddith-Gho or seen that blasphemous fortress except as a distant and geometrically abnormal outline against the sky; yet most agreed that Ghatanothoa was still there, wallowing and burrowing in unsuspected abysses beneath the megalithic walls. There were always those who believed that sacrifices must be made to Ghatanothoa, lest it crawl out of its hidden abysses and waddle horribly through the world of men as it had once waddled through the primal world of the Yuggoth-spawn.”
Summary: Being a manuscript found among the effects of the late Richard Johnson, curator of the Cabot Museum of Archaeology in Boston. A certain event at the museum has been suppressed for the psychic well-being of the public, but Johnson feels driven to record the truth, especially as he fears he’ll soon meet the fate of two other Museum associates, one vanished, one murdered.
He begins with the history of a mummy long featured in the Museum’s collection of preserved corpses. A freighter crew discovered it in prehistoric ruins, on an island just emerged from the Pacific and soon to sink again. It’s the half-stony, half-leathery remains of a crouching man whose claw-like hands shield a face so convulsed with cosmic fear that few viewers escape unchilled. The Museum library holds a metal cylinder found near the mummy, along with the scroll it encased. The metal, tough scroll membrane, and the characters on the scroll resist identification. Some occultists do see a resemblance to hieroglyphs described in the Necronomicon and the Pnakotic fragments.
From 1878 to 1931, the cryptic mummy gets little notice. Then a reporter turns it into a public sensation. Chattering and vacuous herds throng the museum. A white-mittened Swami Chandraputra shows up as well, uncomfortably erudite, and a New Orleans mystic named de Marigny points out that the scroll hieroglyphs and cylinder designs are identical to those in von Junzt’s “Black Book,” Nameless Cults.
Johnson reads Nameless Cults in the expurgated Golden Goblin edition, which he finds more than nauseating enough. From it he learns of primal Mu, a Pacific continent eventually swallowed by the sea. Of special interest is the province of K’naa, which the Yuggoth spawn colonized before the dawn of humanity. On bleak Mount Yaddith-Gho, the spawn built a giant fortress, and in crypts beneath it brooded their god, Ghatanothoa. Long after the spawn’s departure, humans came to K’naa and made sacrifices to Ghatanothoa; they feared if they didn’t, it would lumber from its abyss and waddle through the world of men. That would be bad news because the least glimpse of Ghatanothoa, or even of its perfect image, turns the beholder into a stony, leathery effigy. Worse, the beholder’s brain lives on in the unmoving shell of his body, aware but powerless, until endless epochs drive it to madness.
One human only dared ascend Mount Yaddith-Gho: T’Yog, a priest of Shub-Niggurath. Inspired by the Mother Goddess, he made a scroll that could neutralize Ghatanothoa’s Medusa effect and free men from its brooding menace. But the human priests of Ghatanothoa didn’t want to lose their power over the people of K’naa—or the concubines and slaves that were among the perks of said power. They stole T’Yog’s scroll and replaced it with a very similar (but powerless) one. Unaware of the switch, T’Yog climbed the mountain. He never returned.
The priests of Ghatanothoa preserved the true magical scroll, just in case. When Mu sank, their dark cult continued. Von Junzt implied that it operated in fabled K’n-yan, in Egypt, Chaldaea, Persia, China, Africa, even Mexico and Peru. In modern times the cult is supposedly centered in the Pacific Islands.
In 1932, widespread cult unrest earns the attention of the sensational press. These cultists worship a god whose name comes too close to “Ghatanothoa” for Johnson’s comfort. They also claim a fellow named “Nagob” has T’Yog’s true scroll, and they seem to identify T’Yog himself as the Cabot Museum mummy. “Exotic” visitors begin to appear around its glass case, and attendants catch them muttering chants, making obeisance, even trying to cut the glass. At the same time, the mummy may be disintegrating, or at least softening, relaxing. And are its tightly closed eyes slowly opening?
One night, screams bring police and museum officials running, Johnson among them. They find the night watchman strangled and ascend fearfully to the mummy hall. Two more corpses—fresh ones—await them there. Both belong to known cultists. One lies by “T’Yog’s” case, clutching a scroll almost identical to the one in the library. He seems to have died of fright, but the other cultist has become a duplicate of “T’Yog,” turned to stone and leather.
The mummy itself has fully relaxed—its hands no longer shield its face, and the eyes have popped open. Though Johnson shares with the others a sense of weird stiffness (which still more weirdly wanes when they pass around the cultist’s scroll), he goes to get a magnifying glass. He’s never believed that scenes could be “photographed” on the eye at death or coma, but he does seem to see a tiny image of somewhere else in the mummy’s glassy orbs. It looks like a vault of cyclopean masonry, in which a colossal trap-door rises to reveal a blurry burgeoning shape. That’s in the right eye. In the left, the blur is clearer, and Johnson makes out a tentacled, semi-amorphous, squamous-rugose entity so insufferable he screams and faints.
Good thing Johnson didn’t look in the mummy’s eyes before that petrifying image faded from the initial potency that did in the cultists. By the time a policeman looks, no image at all remains. Even so, Johnson and others begin to feel that the mummy’s eyes watch them, quietly, consciously.
An autopsy on the petrified cultist reveals unpetrified internal organs, including the brain. A later autopsy on the mummy reveals the ultimate horror: after so many aeons, a brain still pulsing and alive.
What’s Cyclopean: Is 11 “cyclopeans” some sort of record? It kind of has to be.
The Degenerate Dutch: Much as in “Call of Cthulhu,” horrific ancient deities seem to make the natives restless. Western civilization, by contrast, stands guard between the world and everyone who wants to worship the gods of petrification.
Mythos Making: It’s all here, all tied together: prehistoric cults to Shub-Niggurath and her family, Yuggothi colonies, Randolph Carter in disguise, gods so nasty even the K’n-yan won’t have anything to do with them, and the inevitable lost civilizations briefly pushed into the light by tectonic activity before being mercifully lost once more.
Libronomicon: Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults is front and center, along with the ancient protective manuscript and its useless forgery. Nice to have quotes from something other than the Necronomicon for once—and note that the style is actually different between the two books!
Madness Takes Its Toll: Yeah. Yeah, aeons-long consciousness without agency is actually a good reason to lose your mental stability.
This story. You guys, this story. This is the best damn Lovecraft story that no one ever talks about. You want forbidden tomes? Here are detailed stories from Unspeakable Cults, and not only a hundred thousand year old protective spell but its hundred thousand year old forgery alongside. You want scary ancient gods? Cthulhu will drive you mad and then kill you; Ghatanothoa will turn your body to stone and let your still-living brain drive itself mad. You want aliens and deep time? Long before the rise of humanity, colonists from Yuggoth land on earth and leave a surplus deity behind on Mu. I may be a little bit in love.
Lovecraft seasons this epic-scale history with wonderfully grounding details. Even while facing the unthinkable, humans insist on acting like humans, from the academic narrator’s snippy comments about bad science reporting to petty political squabbles between rival cosmic-horror-worshipping priesthoods. Our poor mummy risked his sanity to protect the world from a no-really-don’t-worship-that-thing deity—not out of great heroism, but from a desire to win accolades and power for the order of Shub-Niggurath. Not that the goat with a thousand young isn’t, in fact, pretty cuddly by comparison with Big G.
Aeons reminds me a good deal of “Call of Cthulhu”—except that the narrator experiences most of the plot himself (minus the prehistoric bits, for which he’s got excuse), and the deity in question can’t be put off by standard naval battle tactics. The two stories also, unfortunately, share the “nautical looking negro” problem. Obsessive and occasionally murderous cultists consistently hail from Africa and a variety of Pacific islands. European witch scares reflected their tentative forays into the realms of pale people, but in general western civilization—and only western civilization—can be counted on to firmly insist that we ought not worship Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. Yes, yes, you’re standing alone against the forces of darkness. You’re immune to the temptations of the squamous and rugose. We’re all very impressed. Golf claps.
Fortunately Aeons has a lot of shiny—and squamous and rugose—to make up for it.
The threats to sanity here are pretty convincing, and nasty. Locked-in syndrome with perfect life support? Legitimately scary. Scary enough that I’ll let the improbable images frozen on T’yog’s retina slide. However, as a psychologist, I can’t help wanting to slap the researchers who thought vivisection was a good way to handle this unparalleled opportunity. Instead, maybe play some nice music and language lessons around the mummy, talk to it gently—and give it a few decades until fMRI will let you actually hold a conversation. Shortly after that brain stimulation tech will get to the point where you can project images to T’yog’s sensory cortices, and everyone can be happy. Or just take him to Vermont, I hear there are folks there who are really good at brain surgery… Hey.
Hey. Wait a second. Yuggothians have a god who freezes your body while preserving your living brain forever… because they can then remove that brain and cart it around on a grand tour of the universe. Ghatanothoa just provides the deifically-aided equivalent of cryo-storage for the bodies. Admittedly the unspeakable terror is an unpleasant side effect, but it only gets completely unspeakable when you don’t have the complementary technology available.
Damn. That’s a good piece of worldbuilding. I’m just going to sit back and admire that for a minute.
In conclusion, I’m getting exceedingly fond of Hazel and Howie’s Museum of Creep. More exhibits welcome.
First off, how to pronounce the name of this most hideous deity? GAH-tah-no-THO-a? Or GAH-tah-NOTH-oh-a? The first sounds a little more Pacific Islands to my ear.
The boundary between the Dreamlands and the Cthulhu Mythos has always seemed fluid—in this, it mirrors the kinship between its respective genres, fantasy and science fiction. Cosmic-chaotic Other Gods protect the puny gods of Earth’s Dreamlands. Nyarlathotep is a major character in Dream-Quest. “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” and “Out of the Aeons” weave the two milieus still more firmly together, though not without some lumpy seams.
Though “Aeon’s” tone is uniformly grave, I wonder if Lovecraft and/or Heald didn’t have a self-spoofy good time crowding in as many references and tropes as possible. The story opens in uber-classic Mythos style: its highly educated narrator, caught up in events beyond the ken of his science, must record his experience for posterity. Richard Johnson could read as a parody of this character type, because in his prissy elitism he far outdoes, oh, Henry Armitage or William Dyer or Nathaniel Peaslee. The popular press is sensational and rabble-tickling and simperingly infantile! The public it rouses is mentally immature, chattering and vacuously staring! The latter-day worshippers of Ghatanothoa are all “swarthy Asiatics, long-haired nondescripts, and bearded brown men,” whereas the “West” has never favored the cult.
Oh, well, we know from “Call of Cthulhu” that cultists are generally “mongrel.” We also know to avoid islands that rise suddenly from the South Pacific. Islands crowned with Cyclopean alien-angled ruins! That suddenly sink again! At least the Eridanus crew doesn’t disturb that giant trap-door.
Things get a little Dreamlandy when Swami Chandraputra (aka Randolph Carter) shows up at the museum. In the next paragraph, mystic de Marigny does a cameo. But the real Dreamlands punch comes in section III, where the very narrative voice changes, giving us the legend of T’yog in the Dunsanian style of “Doom that Came to Sarnath,” “The Cats of Ulthar,” and “The Other Gods.” This passage names those other gods, Shub-Niggurath anyhow, and (her sons?) Nug and Yeb (Nug-Niggurath? Yeb-Niggurath?) It also mentions our friends from the Lovecraft-Bishop collaborations: the people of blue-lit K’n-yan and serpent-god Yig.
With section IV, we’re back to Johnson’s stuffy narration. Notions from “The Unnamable” creep in: reflective surfaces capture images from the past, some things really can’t be described.
Anyway, of all the stories so far, this one most inspires me to revision. An updating, let’s say, to 1974-1975. I’d switch the narrator from fussy, intolerant Johnson to everyone’s favorite sensational reporter, Carl Kolchak. Come to the Cabot Museum to do a piece on dusty pottery shards, Kolchak stumbles on the mummy hall and T’Yog. His paranormally sensitive nose sniffs out a real story. He writes it up. Sensation indeed ensues. Kolchak is now anathema to curator Johnson, who gives him the boot whenever he notices Kolchak among the chattering herd and the muttering “exotics” around T’Yog’s case.
But our Carl is used to press suppression. He trots over to the Widener Library and, using his editor’s name in vain, gets access to the Necronomicon and Nameless Cults. He also follows innumerable leads about “Nagob,” holder of the true scroll. This puts him on the trail of the two cultists who manage to secret themselves in the museum on that climactic night. Kolchak secrets himself as well and so is on hand when the cultists cut into T’Yog’s case. Seeing the one drop dead and the other turn to leather and stone, he keeps his distance from the mummy and snaps pictures of it without looking through the view-finder.
But wait! The fright-killed cultist isn’t quite killed yet! He struggles up and pushes the true scroll into T’Yog’s case. Its touch reverses the curse and brings T’Yog back to full life! He breaks out of the case just in time to greet Johnson and the cops with a petrifying glare. Oops. More mummies in the hall. Now T’Yog approaches the cowering Kolchak, but Kolchak (having read his von Junzt) has come prepared. He whips out a hand mirror and thrusts it into T’Yog’s face, and the reflection of his own Ghatanothoa-haunted eyes repetrifies the ancient priest!
As more sirens wail, Kolchak cops the scroll and gets the hell out of there. For the first time, he destroys his own camera film, but he keeps the scroll. Maybe after that reflection entirely fades from T’Yog’s eyes, Kolchak will uncurse him again, and then they can have a Scotch and discuss a biography deal. As for Johnson, Kolchak plans to leave him in mummy form. That condition suits the curator so well!
Next week, be careful where you shelter from thunderstorms, lest you learn more than you wanted to about “The Picture in the House.”
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 lives in a large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
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 from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.