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 Anders Fager’s “Furies From Boras,” first published in Swedish Cults (Svenska Kulter) in 2009. For the Old Ones’ sake, don’t click on that link unless you’re over 18. [RE: As far as I can tell the linked translation is by the author—please correct me if credit is needed elsewhere.] Spoilers ahead.
“There’s always been dancing in Underryd.”
In a black-as-night corner of north Smaland, deep in the forest, stands the Underryd Dance Hall. There’s been dancing in Underryd since God knows when and long before that. The current festival place is a purple barn expanded to house five bars, three dance floors and a pizzeria. From all the surrounding towns people bus in five nights a week. Wednesday and Saturday are discotheque nights when teens crowd the buses, drinking and gossiping, texting friends, checking out the cuties.
One particular group of girls monopolizes the second floor bar. Their queen, Anna, lounges on a sofa. Kari flirts with a fellow they’ve dubbed “Meat.” Sofie, the “Guardian,” prowls the perimeter, keeping an eye on things. Bodyguard-big Saga watches Meat’s friends, who seem reconciled to seeing no more of him that evening, given how he and Kari are sucking face.
Alexandra sits with the younger girls and noobies, explaining the joys and dangers of the foray to come. Don’t worry, kids. You’re gonna own it. As midnight nears, she distributes “sweets,” bitter little lumps that sting in the throat, warm the belly and sharpen the senses and libido. She also slips something into Meat’s beer.
As Kari and Meat head for the woods, Anna herds the “flock” of girls after them. All’s going according to plan until one of the noobs tells Sofie she saw a pretty immigrant guy sell Meat some kind of tablet. Sofie shouldn’t have missed that! She lures the dealer into a washroom, where Saga beats him into confessing the tablet was Viagra.
Sofie and Saga take off after the flock.
Meanwhile, out on the bog, a half-circle of semi-naked girls watch Kari and Meat… do things we’re not sure we’re allowed to describe on Tor.com. Under the influence of the “sweets,” Kari hears the trees promise to fulfill her wishes. The other girls wish, too, for beautiful children and happy lives and journeys far from Boras. As they begin to clump and fumble at each other, the first sounds come from the bog beyond. Anna, the high priestess, walks toward the darkness in which something huge wallows and wades and snaps down whole trees. It’s the Messenger, spawn of the Black Goat. The Goat has a thousand young. This one howls along with Anna and the girls.
Back at the dance hall people either cower inside or try to hold off the Death in the bog with swinish behavior, fighting, shouting, humping in the back seats of cars.
Sofie knows her duties as Guardian, the same duties her mother fulfilled, and her grandmother’s sister, and women for aeons before. She gets to the glade by the bog in time to see the climax of the ritual mating and the Messenger that rocks at the edge of the trees. It looks like a ten-meter high clump of kelp with legs like bridge piers, arms thick as tree trunks, and tentacles and eyes and mouths.
The girls fall on Meat, now in his drugged death-throes. They tear him to shreds, wrench off a forearm, eviscerate him barehanded (we can totally describe that part, because Americans are weird). They feast on the flesh; Anna speaks to the Messenger in Pre-Cambrian and offers it Meat’s liver.
By the time Sofie tells Anna about the Viagra, the “poison” is already agitating the Messenger. It can cope with alcohol, but any other human drug can make it unpredictable, and deadly. Priestesses have been killed, whole flocks wiped out.
The Messenger lashes out at dancing Kari, whom Sofie tackles to the ground just in time. Anna, nineteen going on ten thousand, key to strange aeons, urges the terrified flock to safety. Guardian Sofie remains to face the monster. She’s as good as dead, she knows. Tomorrow she’ll be sitting beside the Black Goat.
Sofie shouts a challenge, and the Messenger slashes and pounds. Sofie dodges, takes a hit, impales her leg on a stick. Now she can only crawl. Curious, perhaps horny, the Messenger gropes her with its tentacles. Slime makes the club of an arm poised above Sophie’s face glitter…
Wait, a voice cries. It’s Saga, arrived at last. She’s been Sofie’s shadow since joining the flock, loyal and crazy as a dog. She yells at the Messenger to take her instead, attacks its spongy form. It crushes her, then absorbs her into its arms, like a fish snagged by an anemone.
It lumbers back into the trees, and the girls return. They retrieve clothes, clean each other up. Anna and Alexandra remove all valuables and ID from what remains of Meat. The especially diligent and fat badgers of Underryd will do the rest.
The girls wend their way back to the dance hall, Sofie limping in the rear. A cigarette helps calm her. Kari thanks her for saving her “party.” Thank Saga, Sofie says, and she silently gives the big girl a eulogy: We all thank you. Sleep now. With the young of the Goat. You’re one of the thousand now. We’ll never forget you. Bloody nutter.
The girls go to the place of feasting in Underryd, where the roads from the towns meet, laughing. We ooooown the place, their triumph.
What’s Cyclopean: Pre-Cambrian is the language you speak to the Messenger, even less comprehensible than that newfangled language spoken by trilobites.
The Degenerate Dutch: The drug dealer at the dance is explicitly “the immigrant.”
Mythos Making: The girls of Underryd worship the Goat With a Thousand Young, and make reference to strange aeons.
Libronomicon: It’s always so annoying when you can’t concentrate on the dark rite because you have an essay due the next day.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Eldritch evils from beyond space and time react very badly to most mind-altering chemicals. Conveniently, they’re fine with alcohol, the one such substance that’s impossible to avoid at a bar.
Some relevant tidbits from Supernatural Horror in Literature:
“The Scandinavian Eddas and Sagas thunder with cosmic horror, and shake with the stark fear of Ymir and his shapeless spawn.”
“Wherever the mystic Northern blood was strongest, the atmosphere of the popular tales became more intense…[with] the overtones of glamour so characteristic of our own forest-born and ice-fostered whisperings.”
“Much of the power of Western horror-lore was undoubtedly due to the hidden but often suspected presence of a hideous cult of nocturnal worshippers whose strange customs…were rooted in the most revolting fertility-rites of immemorial antiquity.”
“Furies” has been my introduction to Anders Fager, and he does have a powerful psychic handshake, doesn’t he? I’m already a fan of his fellow Swede, John Ajvide Lindqvist, whose novel Little Star also explores the terrifying power of the adolescent female, especially in “flocks.” Though Lindqvist pulls no punches when it comes to body horror and gore, his more leisured, descriptively minute and elegant prose does mitigate the brute force of the blows. Fager, on the other hand, rightly describes his brand of contemporary horror as “what would happen if James Ellroy took on H. P. Lovecraft.” Like Ellroy, Fager wallops the reader with a clipped style, pervasive slang, and hard-boiled attitude. And here, at least, he does it after leading us in with the (often deceptively gentle) voice of folklore: A long way into the forest, in a black-as-night corner of northern Smaland, is Underryd, where there’s always been dancing. Dancing, how nice! And a purple barn. What could go wrong around a cute little purple barn?
This story provides a master class in effective use of the omniscient point of view. The “hovering” narrator is calm, even soothing, in the opening. Once we’re all belted into his rollercoaster, unable to escape, the wild ride begins. The narrator hops into the heads of character after character at a frenetic pace. Relax and go with it and your neck won’t snap, I promise. The swirl of viewpoints, deftly orchestrated by Omniscient, replicates the hormonally charged atmosphere of the dance hall, then amplifies the naked chaos of the ritual in the forest-circled bog. It allows things to start off with the vulgar banality of teen banter and exhibitionist antics. A sense of menace builds through kaleidoscopic glimpses: the “girlie” shoal around Kari and Meat, isolating the victim from his friends; prowling Sofie, the Guardian; lurking “heavy girl” Saga; the distribution of strange sweets and doctoring of Meat’s beer; the leering envy of Meat’s buddies who think he’s lucked out with Kari, and the concurrent relief of regulars glad they aren’t the chosen one of the evening. Later we even peep through the Messenger’s many eyes as it half-furiously and half-playfully spars with little white “creeps.”
Moving on to the very naked elephant in our Mythos clubhouse—whoa, going to need an NC-17 rating on any movie of this story. I had fun imagining Howard reading “Furies” over my shoulder. Would he be shocked, simply shocked by such blatant sexuality, and homosexuality, and even interspecies sexuality of the most extreme kind? Would he be horrified by the splatterpunk extravagance of the violence? Maybe. But he might also realize, with ironic amusement, that he wrote about stuff as bad and worse in his own stories. I don’t think his sensibilities, aesthetic and moral, would have let him produce anything as raw as “Furies,” and certainly the censors of his day wouldn’t have let him publish if he did. Still. Old Howard hinted about as hard as he could about obscene and bloody rituals and depraved pastimes. Let’s see. We have the charming brothers-in-necrophilia of “The Hound.” We have the shocking ceremony in the Louisiana swamp of “Call of Cthulhu,” where naked corpses (variously disfigured) hang upside down, encircled by naked, ecstatically dancing cultists. We have the torture-amusements of the underworld people in “The Mound.” We have poor Lavinia, wed and bred to Yog-Sothoth on Sentinel Hill. Robert Suydam’s unholy marriage to Lilith under Red Hook. Cohabitations of sometimes dubious consent between Innsmouthers and Deep Ones. Unnatural and UNNAMEABLE offspring of woman and who-knows-what. Monster-spawning incest—and cannibalism—among the Martenses. Herbert West’s gruesome experiments, and Joseph Curwen’s, and innumerable people dismembered or shredded or swallowed by various monsters and gods. Brown Jenkins and his trick of burrowing through a victim’s vitals! The implications of Pickman’s paintings! The decapitating frolics of the shoggoths! Ichor and blood everywhere! Oh, and the most sexually squicky tale of all, about Old Man Waite and Asenath and her (his?) duped bridegroom.
So, yeah, I guess old Howard could imagine things every bit as nasty as the goings-on in Fager’s story, even if he preferred (and/or HAD) to leave the unspeakable largely unspoken. Nevertheless, both writers figure forth deep roots of horror, as in the “hideous cult of nocturnal worshippers whose strange customs…were rooted in the most revolting fertility-rites of immemorial antiquity.”
Strange customs, indeed, especially when practiced by those sweet-faced “tykes” from Boras, who will soon become respectable teachers and lawyers, doctors and mothers. Why, they don’t even have the grace to go instantly and lastingly mad when confronted by a spawn of Shub-Niggurath, Black Goat of a Thousand Young! Talk about calloused modernity, or, as Fager implies, the psychic resilience of the eternal feminine.
One of my favorite scenes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes place at the prom. The popular students get up and makes an announcement: we never talk about it, but we all know there’s something a little weird about Sunnydale. And no matter how thoroughly we deny it, we know what Buffy does for us, because this year’s class has the lowest fatality rate in decades! The speech brings into the open something that had been denied—frequently by force—in previous episodes. That hidden horror felt like a truth of high school. Terrible things are happening, predators lurk in the shadows, and no one can stand to acknowledge it. There’s no point asking the adults for help, either. Their first concern isn’t stopping the predators, but pretending everything is okay.
Boras and its sister towns sure do seem to have a Hellmouth at their crossroads. Sophie and Saga feel like slayers gone very, very wrong. And as in so many other horror-stricken towns, from Sunnydale to Crouch End, evil is abetted by authorities who can’t imagine any higher duty than keeping everything looking normal. Don’t investigate. Close the case file. You know they never find the bodies—better not to try.
Not that anyone would ever treat real life horrors that way, of course.
The flip side of this truth is the desperation of those perpetrating the horror. The Underryd girls are just at the point where you can see the glimmering possibility of getting out—of escaping the limits of your school, your town, your place among your peers. I remember that stab of hope my freshman year, watching the graduation ceremony and realizing that change was really possible. Followed inevitably by three years fearing that something would prevent the longed-for ascendance. How many people would sacrifice to Shub-Niggurath for a guarantee?
Stephen King portrays well this peculiar desperation of adolescent girls. Fager’s shout-out is explicit: “You can’t arrive back in Boras looking like Carrie, can you?” In some ways, though the blood in “Furies” is human, its origins are far less mean-spirited than Carrie’s bucket of pig’s blood. The furies may claw at each other sometimes, and jockey for status, and think snidely of each others’ flaws, but they have each others’ backs. These girls are desperate together.
That togetherness helps overcome the worn and oft-irritating trope of the femme fatale. Usually fatales are all about the male fantasy of the irresistibly sexy woman, and the fear that any woman trying that hard to seduce you really wants to eat you alive! Shambleau, anyone? But “Furies” is about the girls themselves, their ambition and desire for power, and that period as school nears its end when the question of Getting Out is all-consuming.
And it’s about the misdirected strength and real connection between them, a powerful if dark positivity in the midst of slobbering tentacles. “What do you say to someone who’s just decided to die in your place?” Saga is well-named, a valkyrie or slayer turned monstrous by the cage of mundane schooling.
Meanwhile, the story barely acknowledges the girls’ prey as a person with perspective of his own. He’s dehumanized to a shocking degree, down to the name of “Meat.” I’m more forgiving of that than I would be with the genders reversed—probably because the reversed-gender version is far more common, verging on pervasive in some sub-genres. But I’m not exactly comfortable with my forgiveness.
At 18, I suspect I would have read this as a fantasy of power and revenge, the way I did Carrie. At 40, it just invokes that desperation, and makes me think about the mundane horrors which summon the desperation into existence. And it makes me damned glad I’m not in high school any more.
Next week, we look at one of Lovecraft’s inspirations for both dreams and nightmares, in William Hope Hodgson’s “The Hog.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the 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.