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 Elizabeth Bear’s Hugo-winning “Shoggoths in Bloom” first published in the March 2008 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. Spoilers ahead.
“The bay is as smooth as a mirror, the Bluebird’s wake cutting it like a stroke of chalk across slate. In the peach-sorbet light of sunrise, a cluster of rocks glistens. The boulders themselves are black, bleak, sea-worn and ragged. But over them, the light refracts through a translucent layer of jelly, mounded six feet deep in places, glowing softly in the dawn. Rising above it, the stalks are evident as opaque silhouettes, each nodding under the weight of a fruiting body.”
November, 1938: Professor Paul Harding has come to Passamaquoddy, Maine, to study Oracupoda horibilis, common surf shoggoths, known to locals as “jellies.” He finally finds a fisherman willing to take him out on the bay, where dormant shoggoths bask atop exposed rocks, blooming—that is, exuding indigo and violet tendrils topped with “fruiting bodies” from their blobbish sea-green masses. Though shoggoths can engulf and digest grown humans, in this torpid state they’re safe to approach. The trip out is uncomfortable. The fisherman doesn’t fancy conversation with a highly educated black man, first he’s ever met. Ironic, Harding thinks, that they probably both served in WWI, though of course not in the same units.
Fossilized tracks place the shoggoth’s origins as Pre-Cambrian. Also remarkable are their lack of nervous system and apparent immortality. Harding manages to leap from the boat to the treacherously slippery rocks, and collects glassy green hazelnut-sized spheres that have fallen from the shoggoths into the seaweed. The weather deteriorates before he can do more—he has to swim back to the boat. The fisherman hauls him in, shivering.
Back in town, Harding goes to the tavern for a warming drink. He overhears locals talking about “Jew bastards” and wars the country should stay out of. He borrows a newspaper and reads with horror about the destruction of Kristallnacht, and the roundup of Jews to places unknown. The fisherman, Burt, joins him. His response to the article: “Oh, Christ, they’re going to kill every one of them.” Harding quotes W.E.B. Dubois about the tragedy of German anti-Semitism, which Dubois compares to Jim Crowism. A bond of sorts forms between the men; Burt shares that his grandfather’s house was on the Underground Railroad.
At the library, Harding finds an 1839 monograph: Deep-Sea and Intertidal Species of the North Atlantic. Pages on shoggoths have been razored out, though not the fine hand-tinted engraving by Audubon. Harding phones his mentor at Yale to seek another copy. Next morning fog keeps the boat in, but Burt invites Harding to breakfast at his house. On the way they talk about how even if the US went to war, Harding wouldn’t get to fight—in WWI, anyhow, the “colored” soldiers mostly worked supply. Burt suggests that Harding could join the French Foreign Legion.
A copy of the missing shoggoth pages arrives not from Yale but from Miskatonic University. Most interesting is a side remark that the Passamaquoddy tribe thought shoggoths were their creator’s first experiment in life. Harding thinks about those glassy nodules falling from the shoggoths’ fruiting bodies. If they strike the parent shoggoth, they just bounce off. But if they strike a neighboring shoggoth, they sink in. A type of reproduction, exchanging genetic material? But if the immortal shoggoths actually reproduce, why aren’t the seas full of them? And if they don’t reproduce, how do they evolve? He fingers one of his nodule samples, oddly icy and getting colder as he handles it. Eureka! What if it’s individual shoggoths that evolve, not the species?
The nodule stings his fingers with frost-bite. He puts it back in the vial, which he slips under his pillow as if to dream on it.
It’s not a dream, though, that he finds himself out on a pier, about to be enveloped by a shoggoth! It doesn’t digest him, but takes him underwater, oxygenating him via a colloid pushed down his throat. Telepathically, it asks for a command. Harding opens his eyes: from inside the shoggoth he sees through the eyes of ALL the shoggoths. Shoggoth memory floods him, and he learns they are the creation of a barrel-bodied, starfish-headed race now gone from Earth. They were created to serve, understand no other way, the perfect slaves. Since the Makers left, they have been free, and unhappy, coming each year to the surface to exchange information and command codes with their brothers. Harding thinks of his grandfather, once a slave, then a buffalo soldier, the scars on his back, the shackle galls on his wrists.
Harding commands the shoggoth to return him to shore. It obeys but releases him reluctantly, almost caressingly. He staggers nearly frozen back to his inn. Submerged in a hot bath, he thinks of how he could command the shoggoths, terrible weapons, to stop the coming war before it started. But this perfect soldier would also be the perfect slave, free not even in its own mind.
Through the nodule, Harding commands the shoggoth to learn how to be free, and to teach freedom to its brothers. Then he crushes the nodule and murmurs part of a child’s rhyme he read in the Gilman monograph: “Eyah, eyah. Fata gun eyah. Eyah, eyah, the master comes no more.”
He sends a telegram to his college, resigning his position. Please send his belongings to his mother in New York—he’s en route to France to enlist.
What’s Cyclopean: Oracupoda horibilis. Horrible prophecy-foot? Horrible prayer-foot? Did they earn that name because they’re thought to pray, or to be a message from the gods—or because you pray when their foot is coming down? The label O. dermadentata, on the other hand, is straightforward, alarming, and accurate.
The Degenerate Dutch: Harding, as one would expect, is hyper-aware of all the bigotries rampant in the inter-war world. Unlike Lovecraft, he doesn’t approve.
Mythos Making: Not only does the story fit shoggoths into a full ecology, but Miskatonic University into the context of the whole academic system and its ornate relationship networks. Plus the mention of a certain Professor Gilman…working on marine biology, of course.
Libronomicon: Information about shoggoths has been razored from Gilman’s 1839 monograph Deep-Sea and Intertidal Species of the North Atlantic. Try the copy at Miskatonic.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Everyone in this story is all too sane—although Harding gets a bit of a start when his dream sequence turns out to be something else entirely.
A couple hours after I read about Harding learning of Kristallnacht, I heard the news from Orlando. I’m afraid that wasn’t a truly remarkable coincidence, since we humans have been committing atrocities upon ourselves for millennia now. Are they occurring more frequently, or does the light speed transmission of modern media only create that impression? I don’t know. I don’t know. Harding thinks that one needn’t be a historian to see war brewing. Burt thinks the European Jews ought to have seen annihilation coming and gotten out. We tell ourselves we won’t forget, we won’t let history repeat itself, and yet it does repeat. We don’t learn, or we don’t want to. Let’s believe love never dies. Let’s at the same time acknowledge that hatred and intolerance too are immortal, at least while we breed on without learning. How huge a potential advantage the shoggoths have, with their transmissible spherelets of acquired wisdom, their truly species-wide memory, their telepathic interconnectedness.
At the start of “Shoggoths in Bloom,” potential advantage is actual handicap. The shoggoths are trapped in their history. They’ve slipped the nooses of their Elder Thing makers, but for them that’s a catastrophe—by design, they accept Orwell’s 1984 slogan, “Freedom is slavery.” With no masters to command them, theirs is an eternity without purpose. Harding realizes that to evolve, the shoggoths need not reproduce. Do they really evolve by exchanging knowledge nodules, though? It’s more like they’re librarians who preserve their books, add new ones every blooming season, distribute copies of previous acquisitions, but none of the librarians ACT on what it “reads.” If it “reads” at all. It may simply catalog. Exist. Waiting for orders from patrons long gone.
Then a new patron-possibility comes along in Paul Harding, himself the descendant of slaves, and of one particular slave-turned-soldier named Nathan. He knows the work of Booker T. Washington, like the shoggoths born a slave. He also knows the work of W.E.B. DuBois, who believes nothing’s solved by being transparent, invisible, inoffensive—again, like the shoggoths!
Like Bear’s shoggoths, that is. Their original literary Maker, Lovecraft, viewed them differently.
Lovecraft’s shoggoths chiefly appear in At the Mountains of Madness, where they serve as the REAL monsters; compared to their amorphous voracity, the Elder Things look positively cuddly—they are MEN, after all, in their way. Builders. Artists. Scientists. The shoggoths (black in “Mountains,” not sea-green as in “Bloom”) would just loll around and eat if the Elder Things didn’t prod them into useful activity. The Elder Things have to keep them bare-pseudopodded and ignorant, too, because if they DID imitate the intelligence of their masters, they could only do so crudely, could only twist borrowed knowledge into sullen rebellion.
Ignorance is Strength, little shoggoths. Strength for the Masters. As it should be.
And yet to compare Lovecraft’s shoggoths to an enslaved human race only goes so far. They’re way more OTHER to the Elder Things than blacks are to whites. They’re the things that should not be made from the UBEROTHER too alien to be, or at least too alien to be depicted. The protoshoggoth, which is white, like whatever awaits Arthur Gordon Pym at the heart of the Antarctic, like the Whale.
Bear’s shoggoths earn the reader’s empathy, as they earn Harding’s when he understands their situation. They’re accepted as part of the natural fauna. Enigmatic, yeah, what with their lack of nervous systems and apparent immortality. Dangerous, could be. Cryptic in their active submarine phases and innocuous in their torpid basking phase. To the folks of Passamaquoddy, mostly an inconvenience, taking lobsters from pot-traps. Still, they don’t dissolve the pots. Plus they’re pretty in bloom, earning their alias of “jeweled shoggoth.”
Nobody goes mad at the sight of Bear’s shoggoths. They even achieve binomial nomenclature: Oracupoda horibilis. The “horrible” or “fearsome” part is easy. What’s Oracupoda, though? Oracle-foot? Eloquent-toes? Best I can do, I’m afraid.
That natural science hasn’t studied the shoggoths more avidly is my one quibble with this story. But allowing that Harding is the first to contemplate specializing in them, he’s a plot-compelling fit. The historical moment chosen for the story is also compelling. “Jellies” don’t trouble with folks as don’t trouble with them. Can’t say the same thing for humans at the brink of global war and genocide. As a veteran of WWI, Harding knows what horrors to expect. Offered a chance—indeed a plea—to become Lord of the Shoggoths, he could prevent those horrors, couldn’t he? Mustn’t he?
His personal history tells him NO. Using slaves even as righteous weapons is wrong. Even if the slaves covet servitude. Harding can’t reveal what he’s learned, either, because that risks others exploiting the shoggoths. If Harding wants to emulate grandfather Nathan, he must do his own shooting. His one command to the shoggoths must be that they relearn freedom as an opportunity, not a curse.
Will the shoggoths be able to do that? And if they are able, will they make their own culture (as Bear seems to hope) or destroy and mock (as Lovecraft feared)? In my take on the Mythos, they’ve formed a symbiotic relationship with the Deep Ones, for whom they are potential weapons—but last-ditch, apocalyptic.
What a wealth of speculation Bear leaves us with, as well as such gorgeous detail that I could write several more posts on the language alone. And the relationship between Harding and Burt! Word count tyranny sucks.
I took all sorts of clever notes on this story Friday. Then came Sunday, and I sat down to write the actual post, and couldn’t think of anything but how much I wanted to aim shoggoths at people who shoot up gay nightclubs on Latino Night. Who was Paul Harding to decide against aiming them at Hitler?
It’s a trope, of course, that some powers aren’t worth the good you could do with them. Batman won’t kill, even to prevent the Joker from killing hundreds. Paul Harding won’t order slaves around, even to prevent Hitler from killing millions. There are steps you can’t take and still be yourself.
Stepping back from the trope, he’s probably even right. Shoggoths are notoriously hard to aim, and the civilian casualties might well outstrip anything he prevented. And beyond that… from the vantage of the 21st century, it’s easy to judge, knowing precisely what’s casting that shadow over Europe. Harding has no such clarity. Even Dubois, whose quote describes the shape of the thing all too well, likely couldn’t foresee the size of it. Without the time traveler’s long view, those who glimpse atrocity are never quite sure what they’re seeing until too late.
And Harding, to his credit, doesn’t turn away. He does the good he can, with what he can see in the place he’s standing. For the shoggoths as well as for the humans.
The shoggoths… Shoggoths are an interesting choice to put at the story’s center. Of all Lovecraft’s late alien creations, they’re the ones who make no case for themselves. They get no monologues, unless “Tekeli-li!” counts. They offer no grand libraries, no bas-reliefs, no temptation of travel or companionship or vision. Others describe them, in hushed tones and horrified screams.
The obvious subversion of the shoggoths—where by “obvious” I mean “why has no one ever done this”—is to present them exactly as they’re described in “Mountains.” That is to say: as rebellious slaves who overthrew their owners, and built their own land under the empire’s ashes. Lovecraft found that the ultimate horror; at least some modern readers place their sympathy elsewhere.
But that’s not what Bear does. Instead, her shoggoths can’t rebel without the paradoxical order to do so. Which makes the story not about what the elder things did to them, but about what humans do to each other—the horrors we visit on ourselves, the choices we make in response. Lovecraft’s version is a comfort by comparison: the ultimate predator, the thing you’ll never see coming until it’s engulfed you, is at least not human. The elder things may have been men, but no one risks extending that dignity to their thralls.
I’ve managed to get through this whole commentary without saying how much I love this story. The prose is full of rich detail: budding shoggoths as cleanly portrayed as a the wild Maine coast around them. An Audubon drawing is an apt metaphor. Everything seems painted from life, no feather missing or hastily scribbled.
“Shoggoths in Bloom” seems the complement of “A Study in Emerald,” the other Hugo-winning Mythos story. Gaiman melds two trope sets to make something that perfectly encapsulates the most beloved features of each. Bear abstracts out the contents of the Mythos for something that isn’t ordinary horror, but gets right everything the original gets wrong. Nothing is quite what it appears, from the shoggoths to the tight-lipped fisherman to the story itself.
Protective coloration all around. By being transparent and invisible, are you hiding from predators, or waiting to strike prey? Or just making yourself vulnerable?
Next week, we learn more than we wanted to know about the contents of the Green Book in Arthur Machen’s “The White People.”
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.