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 Kim Newman’s “The Big Fish,” first published in the October 1993 issue of Interzone. (If that link doesn’t work, The Book of Cthulhu 2, edited by Ross Lockhart, is available as an e-book.) Spoilers ahead.
“The Bay City cops were rousting enemy aliens. As I drove through the nasty coast town, uniforms hauled an old couple out of a grocery store. The Taraki family’s neighbours huddled in thin rain howling asthmatically for bloody revenge.”
Bay City, California, February 1942, and post-Pearl Harbor the US has entered WWII. Released from military service due to “too many concussions,” our unnamed narrator toils on in his day (and night) job as a private detective. He’s just started a case for B-movie star Janey Wilde, best known for her serial “The Perils of Jungle Jillian.” Wilde wants him to find her vanished ex-flame, “big fish” gambler Laird Brunette. Unnamed narrator (can we call him Dick?) heads for the Seaview Inn and marina, from which Brunette runs his off-shore gambling ship, the Montecito.
Dick has an appointment with Brunette’s partner, Gianni Pastore. Along the way he watches a Japanese-American family taken into detention. A mob loots their grocery store and apartment. Funny how Sicilian-born capo Pastore, who keeps a portrait of Mussolini on his mantel, is allowed to go on living in his marble-fronted mansion. There’s justice for you.
But at the Seaview, Dick finds Pastore no longer living anywhere. He’s been tortured and drowned in a bathtub. Before Dick can anonymously tip off the cops, he’s confronted by suavely British Edwin Winthrop, dishily French Genevieve Dieudonne and hulking FBI agent Finlay. They too are interested in Laird Brunette. Also in his new lady friend, actress Janice Marsh. After quizzing Dick about his (nonexistent) knowledge of Innsmouth, Cthulhu, and the Esoteric Order of Dagon, the trio releases him with a warning to drop Wilde’s case.
Back in his office, Dick slugs bourbon and peruses literature Wilde gave him on Brunette’s latest cult. Well, if it isn’t the Esoteric Order of Dagon, started in Innsmouth by Captain Obed Marsh, with a sister temple in Venice, CA. There’s also Janice Marsh’s studio bio, and hey, she just happens to be Obed’s descendent!
Next morning Dick calls Janey Wilde, who now confides her real reason for pursuing Brunette. They have an illegitimate son, and Brunette’s absconded with baby Franklin. Worse, Wilde fears that Janice Marsh means to do something “vile” to the infant.
Dick drives to the beachfront Venice temple, where he encounters a hooded and robed (and fish-smelling) cultist, who takes him to the auditorium to meet “the Daughter of the Captain.” This turns out to be Janice Marsh herself. Dick introduces himself as Herbert West Lovecraft (having recently glanced at a copy of Weird Tales). Janice tells him the Order is a genuine religion, not a scam. He’s been asking about Brunette – did Wilde send him? Poor girl, she’s delusional about that “baby” of hers and Laird’s. Why, she’s such a psychoneurotic she once accused Janice of performing human sacrifices!
After enduring a steamy clinch with the lissome but unpleasantly bug-eyed Marsh, Dick gets a call from a friend at the District Attorney’s office. Bernie warns him to let the Brunette case go. Military and government big-shots are involved. Dick’s next step is not to drop the case but to go bar-hopping in search of leads. He meets Curtis the Croupier, formerly of the Montecito, now enlisted and eager to get far away from the place where so many of Brunette’s associates are coming to watery ends, just like Gianni Pastore. Dick asks Curtis point-blank if Brunette is alone on the Montecito right now. No, Curtis says. Dick: He’s not there? Curtis: He’s not there alone.
Dick borrows a boat from the Seaview marina and, in spite of the seemingly perpetual rainstorm, motors out to the Montecito. It looks deserted, neglected. He climbs aboard onto a slimy deck. Below music seeps from the casino, a crazy choir of inhuman-sounding voices. Dick creeps toward the singing, to be grabbed by Brunette himself—no longer the cool crook but a madman. They mustn’t disturb the Deep Ones, Brunette says, meaning the singers. It’s the time of the Surfacing, and someone has to drop depth charges and torpedoes on the Sister City beneath his ship, before it’s too late!
Janice Marsh appears, wearing nothing but a gun. This isn’t as enticing as it sounds: she has no hair, or nipples, or navel. Scales run between her legs, and her skin gleams like a shark’s. She carries baby Franklin, who speaks in an old man’s voice. Captain Obed Marsh has returned, Janice explains, and has taken up residence in Franklin’s brain.
She casually snaps the babbling Brunette’s neck, then tells Dick he can still join “them” and experience raptures in the deep. Dick figures he could shoot her before she shoots him, but hey, there’s something about a naked woman that makes one reluctant to pull the trigger, and weird as she looks, Janice actually is beautiful.
Suddenly he hears thunder, or explosions. The floor buckles. Panic ensues. Worshippers scatter. Dick gets hold of Franklin, whose baby howling seems to overpower psychic invader Obed. He gets out a hatch, onto the top deck, to see launches and planes attacking the ship and the strange lights in the water beneath it. Janice Marsh scrambles by, gives Dick a last big kiss, then dives for the submerged city.
A launch picks up Dick and Franklin as the Montecito sinks. It happens to hold his old friends Winthrop and Dieudonne and Finlay. Winthrop explains that the public is to believe the “Great Los Angeles Air Raid” was all about people panicking over an imagined Japanese attack and firing skyward for hours. Which by the way covered the noise of the battle at sea. Man’s fight against the Deep Ones is much older than any world war, but the destruction of Y’ha-nthlei’s Sister City will put the fish-frogs in their place for a while. Winthrop can move on to the fight against Hitler. Finlay can return to his secret outfit in the FBI, the so-called “Unnameables.”
And Dick will deliver Franklin back to Janey Wilde. Some studio flack will cover up Janice Marsh’s disappearance. And the truth about the Montecito will be swallowed up by the War, leaving nothing but tales. Weird tales.
What’s Cyclopean: Dick, who has never read Weird Tales, randomly asks the Dagonian high priestess for a “cyclopean” book. The story works better when it sticks to noir detective cant, in which Janet Marsh’s “silk-scaled” voice particularly stands out.
The Degenerate Dutch: Dick opens the story being snarkily cynical about the Japanese American internment camps, but most of the (very mild) 40’s-era racism is just there for unexamined local color. Maybe the internment camps are, too.
Mythos Making: The International Dagon-Fighters of Mystery name-drop as many “Shadow Over Innsmouth” references as possible, which is maybe not the best way to get a private eye to drop a case.
Libronomicon: The Necronomicon makes a somewhat random cameo, chiefly so Dick can ask whether Alhazred’s mad because his royalties haven’t come in. Best explanation so far.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Laird Brunette seems to have suffered from dating things man was not meant to know (in the biblical sense).
Query: What do you get when you bed down the Cthulhu Mythos with the hardboiled detective story?
Response: I’ll get back to you on that. Shortly. I swear on my only slightly expired PI license.
My favorite hardboiled detective, truth be told, is Bill Watterson’s Tracer Bullet, alter-ego of his immortal cartoon creation Calvin (friend of Hobbes.) He keeps two Magnums in his desk. One’s a gun, and he keeps it loaded. The other’s a bottle, and it keeps HIM loaded.
Add tentacles to the above, and we’ve got “Big Fish,” right? Kim Newman’s private dick (that’s “Dick” to me) is obviously a drinking buddy of Tracer’s. If anything, he’s even more fond of poking affectionate fun at noir tropes and traditions. “Big Fish” has them all, from the title to the PI narrator’s world-weary snark and alcoholism to the well-dressed crooks and crooked cops and gun-toting femmes fatales.
But “Big Fish” also has the Necronomicon, Deep Ones and Great Cthulhu Himself. Unholy crossing of genres! Or is it?
It appears I’m a dame with more questions than answers today.
Anyway, London-born Kim James Newman has written film history, horror and alternate history fiction, all of which figure in this story. Like Neil Gaiman, he’s used Moriarty henchman Sebastian Moran to relate the exploits of his infamous boss. Also from Conan Doyle, he’s borrowed the name “Diogenes Club,” which in his fictive universe refers to a top-secret branch of British intelligence, dedicated to discreetly handling situations beyond the scope and credulity of regular spies and law enforcement. It appears that Winthrop and Dieudonne are members of this exclusive club, cousin to Stross’s “Laundry,” while Finlay precedes Mulder and Scully as a contributor to the X-Files.
Man, I love me a good covert monster-hunting organization. So much that I’ve had to invent one of my own, the Order of Alhazred, aka Abdul’s Irregulars. I also love me intrepid (or just plain reckless) private trackers of the weird, like darling Carl Kolchak. Newman’s “Dick” reminds me of Carl, too, albeit he wields a .38 Colt Super Match rather than a camera.
One of my favorite bits of “Fish” is how Newman embodies his crossed genres in their defining pulps, Black Mask and Weird Tales. The first presided over the birth of noir, the second over the spawning of the Mythos. Now we’re back to our original question: Do the two play well together?
Certainly they have a lot of fun together. I mean, the sacred name Cthulhu described as “hawk-and-spit syllables?” Deep Ones and cultists cavorting in the casino of a gambling ship? Obed Marsh’s great-etc. granddaughter as B-movie queen? You have to smile at least. On a deeper level, both genres share an emphasis on darkness, a penchant for violence and deviant behavior, a philosophy little flattering to humankind, little hopeful for its ultimate destiny. But they differ in scope and tone. Noir is local, usually confined to a particular region, even city. The Mythos is far-flung, to all the strange corners and curves of our cosmos and dimensions beyond. Noir tonality tends toward the jaded, the sarcastic, the cynical, the shake of a head that knows too much to be surprised by any horror or depravity, even if the stomach still turns. Mythos tonality is more emotional, even Romantic, reveling in terror or wonder or the potent blending of both. Even when doing so forces a scream from the protagonist’s throat, Mythos looks up. Or out. Or beyond.
Noir looks down, at the cigarette butts and discarded bottles and mangled bodies, then steps over them. Though it can also nurse a streak of chivalry towards the dames and downtrodden, a Quixotic drive toward justice, however scoffed at by the very one driven. Case in point: “Dick” goes to great lengths to help Jungle Jillian (the “good” dame) while spurning Ms. Marsh (the “bad” dame.) He even manages to rescue baby Franklin. I doubt Lovecraft would have done that. He’d either have let Franklin get split like a wishbone or permanently possessed by the spirit of Captain Obed.
So, noir and Mythos, compatible or not? I think they’re up to a few dates together, maybe a brief torrid affair, and that’s what they get in “Big Fish.” Great while it lasted, baby, but I don’t see any matching rings or picket fences or little Franks in our future.
A last note: To borrow Newman’s phrase, one of the small detective-type details I noticed was the similarity of dame names: Janey (Wilde), Janice (Marsh.) Also both ladies are very, very good swimmers, Janey an Olympian, Janice a Deep One. Hmm. Could be something there. Could be I just need another slug of bourbon….
Unsurprisingly, I have strong opinions about many of this story’s ingredients. Probably most surprisingly to our readers here, one of those ingredients is Venice Beach, California. I stayed there during my very first professional conference. In the late 90s the area was on its way up again, and I could stroll from my Art Deco hostel to the arty waterfront street fair. The image of the Esoteric Order of Dagon nestled among stilt-walkers and semi-pro portrait artists amuses me, and makes me more forgiving of the story’s myriad flaws, and more attentive to its pleasures, than I might be otherwise.
Less surprisingly, I have strong opinions about stories of Deep Ones that take Zadok Allen’s prophetic slander as accurate. These opinions I am sometimes willing to set aside, acknowledging that the Deep Ones are among the most popular of Lovecraft’s creations and most people enjoy a good monster too much to roll their eyes at the implicit puppy-kicking. I know what I’m in for when I open these things, and Newman’s take on infant sacrifice at least plays interestingly with “Thing on the Doorstep.” Plus I got to root for tiny Franklin expelling Obed with the power of his cry. Wailing babies certainly make people want to leave the room; they seem like a good choice for an exorcism.
And then—really not at all surprisingly—I have strong opinions about stories of Deep Ones set around the World War II era and referencing the Japanese American internment. In this case, those opinions can be summarized as: Why the blink would you start out with the injustice of that internment front and center, then switch over to Deep Ones, then fail entirely to mention the camps into which Innsmouth’s population was disappeared? I’m not sure whether Newman had himself forgotten those camps (some reviews congratulated me on making them up), or hoped the reader had, or wanted to retcon them for convenience. Their negative space distracted me mightily, and makes the story feel like an unfinished conversation. At least “Big Fish,” unlike some stories I could name, doesn’t use the Deep Ones’ monstrosity to imply that other such internments are also justified.
I think Newman may intend the Deep Ones and the Japanese Americans as contrast, harmless neighbors feared while the real threat goes unappreciated. For me that doesn’t quite work, in large part because Innsmouth’s neighbors despised it and did appreciate its threat (if threat there was).
I don’t have strong opinions about genre-crossing noir detective pastiche—this one’s pretty good as fantastic mystery yarns containing the word “dame” go, and our narrator’s struggles as he navigates the genre’s fuzzy edge are darkly amusing. That edge gets pretty rough in places, though, and annoying questions bleed through. Who sends the misaddressed issue of Weird Tales—is this his official notification from the author of an impending genre switch? Why, for one brief slapstick, does an experienced private eye suddenly get completely incompetent and familiar with the word “cyclopean?” If Lovecraft exists in this universe, what did Janet Marsh think of “Shadow Over Innsmouth?”
This is ultimately fluff—it doesn’t exactly stand up to a deep read, or even a shallow one if the tide is high. But Newman clearly had fun writing it, and I had fun reading it. Stories can do worse.
Next week, we jump back 80 years but keep our feet wet with Lord Dunsany’s “Poor Old Bill.”
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.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint on April 4, 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, 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.