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 Transition of Juan Romero,” written in September 1919 and first published in Arkham House’s Marginalia in 1944. You can read it here.
At two in the morning a lone coyote on the mountain began to howl dismally. From somewhere within the works a dog barked in answer; either to the coyote—or to something else. A storm was gathering around the peaks of the range, and weirdly shaped clouds scudded horribly across the blurred patch of celestial light which marked a gibbous moon’s attempts to shine through many layers of cirro-stratus vapours. It was Romero’s voice, coming from the bunk above, that awakened me; a voice excited and tense with some vague expectation I could not understand: “¡Madre de Dios!—el sonido—ese sonido—¡oiga Vd! ¿lo oye Vd?—Señor, THAT SOUND!”
Summary: Our anonymous narrator is a British adventurer who has spent time in India. There, he associated more closely with white-bearded gurus than fellow officers. Though he declines to relate his personal history, he hints that his delving into Eastern lore led to calamities that drove him to the obscurity of the American West, specifically a gold mining camp in the Cactus Mountains. There he meets Juan Romero, of whose… transition… he wishes to speak in these, the last years of his life.
Romero is a fellow miner, one of a “herd of unkempt Mexicans” from whom he stands out by virtue of his lighter skin and the “refined conformation” of his features, which call to mind the ancient and noble Aztec. [Reader’s note: Obviously the miners were just waiting around for a British dude to come along and judge their hygiene.] Not that Romero is any less ignorant than his fellows, or of higher birth. In fact, he was an orphan found near a crude mountain hut. Two skeletons, presumably his parents, lay beside a rock fissure later closed by avalanche. A Mexican cattle thief raised him and gave him his name. Even so, Romero’s different. He salutes the rising sun as if performing some compulsive but incomprehensible ritual, and he’s unaccountably fascinated by narrator’s Hindu ring and its queer hieroglyphs.
Narrator’s just a common miner now, yet Romero soon becomes like a servant to him. The specifics of his service go unmentioned. The two communicate in limited English and the “patois of the peon of New Spain,” which is far less refined than the Spanish that the narrator learned at Oxford.
One day, overly enthusiastic blasting deep in the mines opens an abyss of seemingly bottomless depth. Spooked miners beg the superintendent to fill in the chasm. Late that night, a coyote howls, a dog barks in camp, and a windstorm rolls in, causing weirdly shaped clouds to scud over the mandatory gibbous moon. Romero gets antsy and starts talking about a “throb down in the ground.” Narrator hears it, too. It’s like the pulsing of engines, yet less mechanical, more vital. Romero stares at narrator’s ring, and narrator sees that it glistens oddly in the lightning flashes.
Lured in spite of their fear, they go down into the mines, their only light the glow from the ring. The “throb” resolves into drumming and chanting that remind narrator of “Oriental” ceremonies. Romero suddenly runs ahead, shrieking in “impressive polysyllables” unlike his usual mix of bad Spanish and English. One repeated word strikes narrator as vaguely familiar: “Huitzilopochtli.”
The glow from narrator’s ring goes out, replaced by a red glare from the new abyss, into which Romero seems already to have fallen. Narrator peers down into flame and uproar. Out of the seething blur shapes begin to form, infinitely distant. Is one Juan Romero? Is—but narrator cannot tell us what else he saw. A great crash knocks him into merciful oblivion.
He wakes in his own bunk, which he apparently never left. Romero is also there, a lifeless body surrounded by curious miners. The terrible bolt of lightning that struck the mountain seems somehow to have killed him, though an autopsy shows no reason for his death.
The deep abyss has disappeared under a cave-in. When the superintendent orders the area drilled, the miners find nothing but solid rock. Oh, and narrator’s Hindu ring has vanished. Somehow he doubts it was stolen by mortal hands.
Years later, narrator sometimes thinks his experience was mostly dream. But when wind and beasts howl in the night, he hears again the throb in the earth and fears that the transition of Juan Romero was a terrible one.
What’s Cyclopean: The adjectival description of the week is “auriferous cavities,” because we can’t just say “gold mines in caves.” The Lovecraftian description of the week, notwithstanding the relatively pedestrian vocabulary involved, is “weirdly shaped clouds scudded horribly.”
The Degenerate Dutch: The narrator claims to have been more comfortable among the natives of India than his fellow Brits, though some unspeakable calamity befell him in that context. Lest you be lulled by this harmonious intercultural exchange, however, he hastens to describe the Mexican miners as ignorant, dirty, and unkempt. Except for the “ancient and noble Aztec,” of course (repeatedly referred to as “the peon”). Who puts himself in the narrator’s service upon seeing his “Hindoo” ring.
Mythos Making: There’s no formal reference to the gods of the Mythos here. But knowing Lovecraft, what else could calamity-inducing Hindus in India and noble Aztecs in Mexico really be worshipping in common?
Libronomicon: The Joseph Glanvill quote is from “Essays on Several Important Subjects.” Fifteenth-century English clergymen: not that into evocative titles. The quote is Poe’s epigraph for “A Descent Into the Maelstrom.” Edgar Allan Poe: very into evocative titles.
Madness Takes Its Toll: It’s not the irresistible urge to go out in a wild thunderstorm, just for a quick visit to the nearby bottomless pit, that makes our narrator fancy he’s gone mad—but noticing that his ring’s started to glow on the way.
Lovecraft obviously had doubts about this early effort, since he never tried to publish it. Indeed, it only survives because a friend badgered him for the manuscript and made a typescript of it. Yet it’s a complete (if much compressed) story, not a fragment. It’s not sketchy, like notes, or unpolished, like an abandoned first draft. Which is not to say it’s good. Lovecraft’s verdict is sound. Other stories written in 1919 are markedly better, including “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” “The Doom that Came to Sarnath,” and “The White Ship.” And, like “Statement,” it suffers from going far afield from the geography of Lovecraft’s experience, there Florida, here Nevada (if the Cactus Mountains are the same as the Cactus Range of Nye County).
Still, some interesting things.
Mexicans and Native Americans get no respect here, but, you know, Romero’s different, “vastly unlike…the average ‘Greaser’ or Piute of the locality.” He’s paler. He’s refined. Yet this isn’t because of some conquistador or Caucasian pioneer in his family tree. And, no! It’s not because he’s in any way related to white apes! Nothing is known about his parents, who appear as two skeletons by a rock fissure curiously prophetic of that greater abyss in the mines. Romero’s obviously descended from the noble Aztecs. (And why are the Aztecs nobler than other Mesoamericans to Lovecraft? Because they had big cities? An empire? Lots of gold? A cool calendar?) He’s even equipped with racial memories, which emerge in his daily salutation to the sun and his polysyllabic howls at the climax, at least one of which names a Mesoamerican deity, the war-sun god Huitzilopochtli. Huitzilopochtli was fond of human sacrifices, needing blood to keep the world from ending and all. Was Romero’s destiny only to serve the god as a nutritious snack? I don’t know. With his mysterious birth and innate superiority over his peers, must he not have been meant for more than that?
After all, Lovecraft didn’t title the story “The Death of Juan Romero” or “The Sacrifice of Juan Romero.” Transition, that’s an evocative and provocative word. A passing from one state to another. Romero’s body is dead, for sure (though undevoured, even unmarked). But what evolution of Romero did narrator see in the abyss, and what was with him? Something too awful to mention—awful, however, in what sense of the word? Monstrous? Awe-inspiring? Monstrously awe-inspiring? We’ll never know, because narrator has one of those convenient lapses into oblivion at the moment of revelation. Besides, he doesn’t dare tell us more. We couldn’t handle the truth.
And this is another of those stories where the recipients of dread revelations aren’t physically present at the revelations. They are in some sort of trance or dream-state, astral travelers perhaps. Romero and narrator never leave their cabin, as the pilgrim of “The Festival” never descends in body into Kingsport, or so the snow-recorded footprints tell us. Randolph Carter is another sort of “astral traveler,” at least when he adventures in the Dreamlands.
Then there’s the “Hindoo” ring of our narrator, who teases us about his calamitous doings in India. I guess he’s psychically sensitive to begin with, hence his affinity for eastern lore and its teachers. It’s intriguing, though it never really goes anywhere, how Lovecraft tries to link eastern and western, Hindu and Aztec mythologies. Romero can’t possibly know anything about Hindu “hieroglyphs,” yet he’s drawn to the ones on the ring, being a latter-day scion of the Aztecs. So whatever is in the abyss, doing all that chanting and drumming, it may not be a strictly local deity. It may have ties to Hindu gods—to all gods in humanity’s pantheons. Why? Because aren’t all human gods pale and parochial stand-ins for the ultimate “gods” of the cosmos? You know, the Outer ones.
I’m thinking Lovecraft already have had a dim sense of the stupendous truth of the Mythos while he was working on “Transition.” Perhaps his discontent with the story lay in how vague this apprehension remained.
Lovecraft apparently hated this story, as Anne documents above. Yet I think it’s actually a good deal better than many early works that he happily acknowledged—its most notable flaw is the pervasive racism, hardly unique and hardly something that would have embarrassed the author. I have no idea why it distressed him—perhaps something in the positive portrayals of India sat wrong, or perhaps something more obscurely personal. I’d have disclaimed “Celephais,” personally.
In spite of the constant harping on the dirty ignorance of his fellow miners—I’m sure our British friend is spotless after days delving after gold—this is a cool, creepy mood-setter. Mind you, I’m a sucker for thunderstorms and infinite pits and chanting from nowhere, but who isn’t? Events are sketched in minimalist brushstrokes, giving the bulk of the words to a few evocative lightning-flash images: the pulsing rhythm that shakes the earth, the helpless passage through the storm, the glowing ring.
Here, narrative shortcuts that irritate me elsewhere feel like they just might be deliberate artistic decisions. Somehow the sketchbook story makes me more willing to forgive the fainting spell that conveniently frees the author from his descriptive duty—or maybe I’m just in a good mood this week. I certainly feel easy enough mocking the same trope when it turns up in “Picture in the House,” “Under the Pyramid,” “The Festival,” etc., etc.
Another to-be-repeated trope that shows up here, I think for the first time, is the weirdness of the underground. Unlikely caverns will continue to appear under the earth throughout Lovecraft’s oeuvre, and vanish just as mysteriously as this one does. There’s the one under Dreamland Kingsport in “The Festival,” Joseph Curwen’s hidden lair in “Charles Dexter Ward,” the depths reported by jerk Harley Warren in “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” impossible deep passageways in Egypt and New York and Boston. And of course in “Dream Quest” we finally get confirmation that they don’t exist in our ordinary reality at all. Structural engineers can rest easy, at least so long as no one asks them to take up architecture in the Dreamlands.
The Aztec pantheon is an interesting choice of reference, and not one Lovecraft uses all that often. It’s tempted many horror writers, given the likely (if somewhat disputed) prevalence of human sacrifice. (I’m not going to get into it here, but as a non-historian I’m pretty fond of Charles Mann’s discussion, in 1491, of the difficulty of piecing together a clear picture of a society documented by, 1, a culture that rivaled Orwell’s Oceania for willingness to rewrite their own history, and 2, a bunch of conquistadors.) Huitzilopochtli was the principle Aztec deity of the sun, and thence of war and human sacrifice. Aztec mythology is notable for the Lovecraftian notion that sooner or later, all your sacrifices won’t be enough to keep the sun in the sky, your civilization will collapse, and the cycle move on to giant beetles or whoever else happens to be up next. One wonders to what use Romero’s sacrifice was put…
Back to India—the most intriguing events in this story may be those the narrator refuses to discuss. Yet in spite of that reticence, he still wears a beloved ring in remembrance. What happened to him? Whatever it was, it forced him to flee the British Empire, sans any preexisting wealth. And it left him knowing that something other than “mortal hands” might steal a ring. If he’s reluctantly willing to talk of the terrible fate that befell Juan Romero… what isn’t he willing to discuss? I suspect it’s something that he did—whatever transition-worse-than-death Romero encountered, at least it wasn’t the narrator’s fault—or something he worshipped. (Not the standard Hindu pantheon, if one had to hazard a guess.) Or both.
Join us next week for our Halloween reread of “At the Mountains of Madness.” We’ll be starting with Chapters 1-4. [Ruthanna: Also next week, my best co-blogger’s own Fathomless comes out. Those look like Deep Ones on the cover, and also possibly a shoggoth…]
Ruthanna Emrys’s non-Hugo-nominated 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 on October 27, 2015. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.