The Lovecraft Reread

The Luck of the Irish, and Other Cliches: “The Moon-Bog”

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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 Moon-Bog,” written in somewhere in the vicinity of March 1921, shared at an amateur journalists’ club Saint Patrick’s Day Party on March 10 1921, and first published in the June 1926 issue of Weird Tales. You can read it here.

Spoilers ahead.

“And that night my dreams of piping flutes and marble peristyles came to a sudden and disquieting end; for upon the city in the valley I saw a pestilence descend, and then a frightful avalanche of wooded slopes that covered the dead bodies in the streets and left unburied only the temple of Artemis on the high peak, where the aged moon-priestess Cleis lay cold and silent with a crown of ivory on her silver head.”

Summary: Our narrator visits an old friend in County Meath, Ireland. Denys Barry made a fortune in America, which he’s using to restore his ancestral home in Kilderry. Locals approve at first, but by the time of narrator’s visit, they’ve all deserted the village. See, Barry plans to drain the great bog by his castle, and has no patience for cautionary legends about its grim guardian spirit and the ancient stone city that sleeps beneath the red-heathed morass. Partholan’s children built the city in fabulous years beyond history; when these roaming sons of the Greeks all died to plague, their patron moon-goddess buried them under an avalanche of hills. Only a strange bleached ruin remains above the surface, gleaming spectrally from its islet far out in the bog. Our narrator can see the ruins from his tower bedroom, and on his first night in Kilderry, he seems to hear faint music drifting across the brooding waters.

Barry has replaced the recalcitrant Kilderry villagers with servants and laborers from the north. The change of air doesn’t seem to suit them, for they wake each morning exhausted from dreams they can’t remember. Questioned by the narrator, some do seem to recall hearing strange sounds.

The second night narrator dreams of a marble city. Pestilence destroys the populace. Hills slide down to cover the dead, leaving only the temple of Artemis exposed. He wakes to wild piping. From his window he looks down on dancing revelers. Half are the laborers who should be asleep. Half are airy beings clad in white, like naiads from the fountains of the bog.

Sure enough, the laborers are exhausted next morning, though they retired early. Narrator, formerly excited about draining the bog and plumbing its archaeological secrets, now dreads the idea of disturbing the watery wilderness. Barry, though, laughs at his tentative misgivings.

The third night, narrator wakes to a room filled with red refulgence and the reverberations of mad piping. He fears to look out the windows, but instead dresses and prepares to escape the castle. Can’t help himself, though: He first looks east across the bog, and sees the distant ruin made whole, a vision of undecayed marble. This impossibly restored edifice pours forth the scarlet beams that render the whole landscape hellish.

He looks north, to the village. Again, bog-wraiths and laborers dance together, the humans lurching blind and brainless as if dragged by a demon will. Barry’s servants join the procession toward the bog. The airy naiads gracefully melt into the waters; the humans splash after and go under without a fight. The music stops. The red light goes out. The wan moon begins to rise.

Narrator finds himself praying to every Greek deity he can remember. Maybe that saves him from the icy wind that blasts across the bog and sets off shrieking in the castle below. He falls helpless, while Barry’s screams reach an indescribable pitch. At some point he rouses himself to flee.

Making his way along the edge of the bog, he notices that its previously lifeless depths now host enormous piping frogs. They gaze at a beam of radiance, which forms a pallid path to the distant ruins. In the beam is the ultimate horror: a shadow writhing as if in the clutch of invisible captors, a shadow in which narrator sees a blasphemous effigy of his old friend, Denys Barry.

Our narrator is found the next day near a neighboring village, wandering and mindless. When he comes out of his merciful oblivion, he can no more explain the disappearance of Barry and his laborers than can the County Meath police. But forever after, he’ll shiver at marshy places and moonlight.

 

What’s Cyclopean: The stone city beneath the bog is almost certainly cyclopean, though not described as such. But the description is not without its purple moments: the sun sets fulgently, ruddy refulgence streams through a gothic window, and the flame-reflecting marble of the ancient stone city pierces the sky, titanic and column-cinctured.

The Degenerate Dutch: You’d expect Lovecraft to freak out about the Irish, but except for the assumption that peasants still answer to lords in castles, his portrayal here is actually pretty sympathetic.

Mythos Making: Those flutes! Can they really be unrelated to the monotonous piping flutes that guide the dance of mindless gods? (Maybe the mindless gods are ensorcelled by the fae in their sleep? Maybe not.)

Libronomicon: The Book of Invaders is real, a medieval pseudo-history that cheerfully mixes Christian and Celtic Pagan mythologies. In addition to offering a foundation for Moon-Bog’s back-story, its mention hangs what’s likely a deliberate lampshade on this story’s similar mix: Celtic Pagan and Greek Pagan mythologies alongside Lovecraft’s more usual Mythos tropes.

Madness Takes Its Toll: The narrator is prone to hallucinations, but mostly manages to distinguish them from reality. This actually turns out to be surprisingly common, and it makes his uncertainty later in the story rather more effective.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

There’s no reason for me not to like this story. It’s got creepy old houses; I like creepy old houses. It’s got loving description of bogs; I love bogs. It’s got incomprehensible creatures from beyond space-time who lead sleepers to their dooms; I like incomprehensible creatures from beyond space-time. They’re even trying to protect the beloved bog from the productive logic of industrial development, which is always a plus in incomprehensible creatures etc.

I’m sure someone could write a truly excellent story combining Lovecraftian cosmic horror and the darker aspects of Celtic myth. (And though all the overt call-outs are to Greek mythology, the actual critters and plot draw from the most familiar aspects of Irish fairy stories.) But no matter how I squint, this is not that story. Instead of an unholy syncretism between elder gods and fair folk, somehow the two myth-sets end up filing the edges off each other. The end result is a story that annoyed me far less than I expected, given its origins, but that ultimately just kind of sits there, reminding me of more effective stories that play with the same tropes.

The Rats in the Walls,” for all its irritations and cats that shall not be named, more directly ties the attempt to reclaim ancestral glory to the claimant’s ultimate fall—largely because the ancestors in question turn out to be themselves deeply problematic. Denys Barys’s error, though, isn’t in claiming his inheritance, only in trying to modernize it a little too far.

And “Whisperer in Darkness,” not in the least bit Celtic (or Greek, for that matter), does a far more thorough and interesting job of merging the stories of the fae with something unexpectedly alien. I kept thinking of that story, because so often the imagined is more frightening than what’s shown directly. Yet the bog-covered Nyarlathotepan abyss into which Moon-Bog’s workers plunge isn’t nearly as terrifying—because not nearly as tempting—as the journey you’re in for if you go underhill with the Mi-Go.

For faeries, elder gods, aliens, and similar, there’s a scale of scariness and incomprehensibility—ranging from greeting card cherubs at 1 to Biblical cherubim at 10. At 1, you have critters that are inhumanly benevolent and whose benevolence will always be comfortable. At 10, you may end up dead, mad, or turned into an inside-out pumpkin, with no idea whether the entity in question hated you or loved you or even noticed you. I kind of wonder if Moon-Bog’s problem is some mismatch on this scale. Any story drawing on those tropes needs to be comfortable with the level it’s working at, and no reader is going to enjoy a story set on parts of the scale that don’t resonate with them.

Lovecraft’s most intriguing creations frequently run up at the 8-10 end of the scale, ranging from the somewhat comprehensible Yith and Mi-Go and Elder Things, to Cthulhu and flying polyps and vampire-things stuck in old basements. Very few writers can make complete incomprehensibility work; Howard plays with the idea that comprehension itself could be the most terrible fate possible. There are versions of the fae that go this high on the scale, but most writers want their fairies available for bad-idea deals and assignations, so more often the oldest stories get watered down to the 6-8 range. And to a certain degree, these stories’ familiarity works against anything higher; when people look like they’ve been dancing all night, but remember only going to sleep, you know pretty well what’s up. Trying to match faeries with cosmic horror therefore requires a boost, and Moon-Bog doesn’t put in quite the energy or ambition needed to push them over the edge.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Evidently this is the cheerful St. Patrick’s Day-themed story with which Lovecraft would regale a meeting of amateur journalists in March, 1921. Well, it is set in Ireland, though not in the real village of Kilderry. That’s in County Kerry, at the southwest tip of the island, while Barry’s County Meath is to the northeast. There’s a Ballinlough in Meath, which I guess could be Lovecraft’s Ballylough, nearest rail stop to Barry’s doomed castle.

The Book of Invaders that the narrator mentions is the Lebor Gabala Erenn, an 11th-century Christian pseudo- or mythological history of Ireland. In this and earlier tales, Partholan and his followers descended from Noah. After wandering through places as varied as Anatolia, Greece, Sicily and Iberia, they settled in western Ireland and got busy introducing husbandry, cooking, brewing, trade and architecture (presumably in white marble.) A plague fell upon them and wiped out the whole lot in one week. This one dude, Tuan, supposedly survived through a series of animal transformations, then got back into a human body in the 6th century so he could tell Partholan’s sad tale.

Lovecraft calls the People of Partholan sons of Greece. For the sake of the white marble and columns? Well, the 17th-century compilation, Foras Feasaar Erinn, does describe Partholan as a son of Sera, king of Greece. He had to get out of the country after offing his parents and ended up in Ireland. There are other interesting stories of Partholan killing his wife’s lover and dog. One can understand him doing away with the lover, but the dog? Excessive. Maybe that was why the plague fell on everyone, including Lovecraft’s northeastern branch of Partholanians. Their patron goddess was Artemis, the huntress, notoriously fond of dogs. So could be she smacked them down, then felt bad enough to bury them with hillsides, later the moon-bog.

There are some lovely bits in this one. My favorites are what Kilderry will lose if Barry succeeds in his heinously American plot to make use of “wasted” space: stripping “the forbidden bog of its green moss and red heather, and kill[ing] the tiny shell-paved streamlets and quiet blue pools fringed with rushes.” Wetlands destruction, which does tend to lead to ecological disaster, doesn’t it? Also this description from narrator’s dream of the plague-felled city: “And then a frightful avalanche of wooded slopes that covered the dead bodies in the streets and left unburied only the temple of Artemis on the high peak, where the aged moon-priestess Cleis lay cold and silent with a crown of ivory on her silver head.” The image of Cleis gives me shivers. I bet it’s she who acts as “grim guardian” of her lost people and of the bog that’s become their sheltering shroud. She doesn’t want some ex-pat developer turning the place into a combination peat-mine and suburban tract! Not even if he did do some archaeological digs along the way, thus revealing the glory that was.

Cleis and the Partholanians don’t need their glory exposed, thanks. Their spirits remember and dance the old rituals under the moon, and that’s plenty.

So some good stuff, but on the whole Lovecraft puts the idea of a return to haunted ancestral ground to much stronger use in “The Rats in the Walls,” and that only two years later. Part of Rats’ superiority comes from its greater detail in background and description and from its less hurried pacing. I guess if Lovecraft meant to read “Moon-Bog” after a dinner, as a bit of scary dessert, it wouldn’t do to make it too long. And, in fact, description and pacing suffer less in this story than does characterization. Delapore is one of Lovecraft’s best-realized and most sympathetic characters, while Denys Barry is a near-total cipher. He’s rich, laughs a lot, wants his way, has a vague but not saving interest in antiquity. The narrator’s still worse. He’s Barry’s friend. He’s kind of psychic, “given to strange phantasms.” He likes antiquity, too, has had classical schooling. And he’s up to the great narrator trope of fleeing the final horror in a mindless panic that remembers nothing of how it got from point A (horror) to point B (relative safety.) That’s it.

That’s enough, to be fair, for an after-dinner Irish confection. Let Cleis and her (to me) implied agency take center stage. Cleis and the frogs who were once hapless sleep-deprived laborers. Which makes me think of the ghostly beings of Ib, another doomed and kinda batrachian bunch who danced clumsily.

I hope the naiads and frogs continue their moon-revels. The County Meath police will be too versed in local legend to hang around the bog after dark, I imagine, or to drag its murky and rush-bordered waters for all those missing bodies.

 

Next week, we can speak of the world’s most worrisome college room-mate, “Herbert West—Reanimator,” only with extreme terror.

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 and “The Deepest Rift.” 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.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. The second in the Redemption’s Heir series, Fathomless, will be published in October 2015. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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