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 Brian Lumley’s “Cement Surroundings,” first published in August Derleth’s 1969 Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Volume 2 anthology. Spoilers ahead.
“And moreover, as if these books were not puzzling enough, there was that other thing!! What of the indescribable, droning chant which I often heard issuing from Sir Amery’s room in the dead of night? This first occurred on the sixth night I spent with him and I was roused from my own uneasy slumbers by the morbid accents of a language it seemed impossible for the vocal chords of Man to emulate.”
Sir Amery Wendy-Scott, renowned for exploring “dead and nigh-forgotten civilizations,” returns from his last expedition a broken man. His fellow explorers don’t return at all; according to Amery they perished in an earthquake.
The pre-Triassic G’harne Fragments led them to the African interior in search of a city reared before humanity’s birth. G’harne lay in a taboo area, so the “savages” who found a wandering and deranged Amery didn’t kill him. Slowly he made his way back to London, where he developed a sudden fascination for seismography and an uncharacteristic terror of the Underground.
Retreating to the Yorkshire moors, he spends hours staring at his homemade, especially sensitive seismograph. He asks his nephew Paul to visit. Paul, a writer, accepts; it’s he who records this story.
Amery shows Paul two pearly spheres of calcium, chrysolite and diamond dust. They’re all he carried from G’harne. He found them in a stone box engraved with monstrous sacrifices to a Cthonian deity. The inscriptions matched the G’harne Fragments—and the Pnakotic Manuscripts. He deciphered enough to catch a reference to “young ones”—could the spheres merely be the baubles of a G’harnian child? As he rants about “alien gods defying description,” Amery’s eyes glaze and his speech falters.
Paul grows concerned over his uncle’s seismographic obsession and newly acquired occult library. Still more worrying is the droning chant that issues from Amery’s room in the dead of night. Its language seems too outré for human reproduction, yet Amery is weirdly fluent in it.
As weeks pass, Amery seems to recover, grow less nervous. Paul attributes this to whatever Amery’s latest seismographic studies have revealed. At last Amery speaks of the doomed G’harne expedition, prefacing his account with tales heard from African tribesmen. The ancient worm-god Shudde-M’ell lives deep beneath the ruins, waiting for the stars to be right and his hordes sufficient to bring about the return of such star-born abominations as Yog-Sothoth and Yibb-Tsttl.
Growing agitated, Amery declares he can’t stand the bare earth of the moors—he needs cement surroundings. That night! When the things came up below G’harne, rocking the earth as they dug! The expedition had disturbed them. Maybe they thought they were under attack. Oh God, Wilmarth at Miskatonic could tell some tales, and what about the Johansen narrative, the Pabodie expedition to the Mountains of Madness? Ce’haiie, Cehaiie—G’harne incanica….
Paul tries to calm Amery, but the torrent of memory flows on. Amery woke in G’harne to find the ground breaking up, to hear screaming, to see the rubbery things, smell their slime, listen to them sucking his colleagues dry. And the chanting! Amery leaps up, re-enacts his mad flight from the monsters, runs into a wall and stuns himself. Paul manages to get him into bed and watches until morning, when Amery wakes much improved. Maybe reliving the earthquake (and his worm-thing delusion) has cured him.
A week later Paul feels an earth tremor. Amery rushes to his seismograph. The instrument shows no spike, however, and Amery declares he must have imagined something. Paul doesn’t believe it. That night he examines the seismograph and its flat readings for the past twelve days. A screw lies on the floor; when Paul returns it to its housing, the stylus immediately starts jerking again.
Next morning Paul goes into town and researches recent earthquakes from Africa to the Straits of Gibraltar, through Europe and into England. He maps them in an atlas. They move in a fairly straight line toward his uncle’s cottage! He hurries home, or to the remains of home—the cottage has collapsed. Police and rescue are on scene, but have found no trace of Amery. Paul scrambles over the debris to see a gaping hole in the study floor. It doesn’t look sunk in—it looks made by tunneling from below.
Paul settles in a nearby town, hoping his uncle will show up. It’s a desperate hope, for he’s read Amery’s last letter, scrawled just before the disaster. Paul himself is typing a last missive, for they have come to him in dreams, as they must have come to Amery. They know Paul too is a danger and must be eliminated. They exercise some hypnotic control, keeping him from fleeing. The earth now shakes too much for him to type—he’ll attach his uncle’s letter to his typescript, a warning fellow humans will too likely ignore.
Amery wrote of the absolute necessity for mankind to mount a scientific war against the Cthonians, lest they unleash cosmic horror on Earth. He realizes his mistake now—those pearly spheres were no baubles but eggs, and the Cthonians reproduce far too slowly to lose any offspring. They tracked Amery by the eggs, they come for the eggs, but the eggs have already hatched, and Amery has shriveled the newborn monsters with a cigar. What mental screaming that unleashed! It’s too late for Amery—Paul must alert the authorities—tremors—cracks in the ceiling—they’re coming up—
The last paragraph is a police report. The authorities have found Paul and Amery’s warnings but believe them to be an elaborate hoax, promotion stunts for a story Paul was writing, inspired by his uncle’s seismographic findings. Investigations continue….
What’s Cyclopean: Paul suffers “the chill, hopping feet of some abysmal dread from the beginning of time.” But his late uncle’s letter assures us that the Cthonian threat must be addressed by “men who are ready for the ultimate in hideous, cosmic horror.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Those superstitious African savages would totally have killed Sir Amery if they hadn’t been worried about Cthonians. Not like the civilized primitives who’ve learned it’s safer to suck up to visiting British explorers…
Mythos Making: We’re well and truly in Cthulhoid territory this week. Lumley offers callouts of everything from Innsmouth and R’lyeh to Howard’s black stone. The new kid is the relatively easy-to-pronounce Shudde-M’ell.
Libronomicon: Lumley offers the pre-Triassic G’harne Fragments sitting side by side on an extensive bookshelf with Golden Bough, Cultes Des Goules, “hag-ridden Caracalla,” and the Cliff Notes for the Necronomicon.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Amery’s got an understandable case of PTSD, with an even more understandable set of anxiety triggers… and very bad communication skills. Meanwhile, Paul assures us, rantingly, that his nerves are gone but his mind is intact.
“Cement Surroundings” falls on the balance point of the Lovecraftian timeline. HP himself had long since passed, and Derleth’s efforts had made his canon broadly available. The modern Lovecraftian renaissance, rich with reinvention and deconstruction, was as alien a future as the cruel Tsan-chan empire. His fans wanted more of that thing they’d liked so much, from whatever source might provide.
And that’s what “Cement Surroundings” does—and does well. It’s more of that thing you liked, complete with eldritch tomes, italicized shocking revelations, and hostile inhuman civilizations bent on playing alarm clock to unpleasant deities. There are miscellaneous references to Innsmouth and the Pnakotic Manuscript and the Wendigo, to assure you you’re at home in the Mythos and not in some other uncaring universe. There are superstitious native tribes as set dressing and exposition sources. (Superstitious natives always know exactly what’s going on.) There’s even an unhinged but basically accurate rant. Sir Amery doesn’t mention Shoggoths, but you get the feeling he would have gotten around to it eventually. It’s fun.
The Cthonians are lightly sketched, terrible by suggestion rather than detail. Taking the story on its own more-of-the-same terms, that detail is the one thing I want more of. Maybe Burrowers Beneath, which I haven’t yet read, gives the sandworms culture and biology to match the Yith or Mi-Go. In “Cement,” we learn only that they’ve had a civilization for going on 250 million years, they worship a scary scary god, and they love their children. Color me kind of sympathetic, even if they do cause earthquakes in their parental protectiveness. (Sir Amery assures us they’re driven by ambition rather than affection. But “they don’t love their children like we do” is an old libel; I wanna hear it from the worm-mama herself before I believe it.)
As it happens, earthquakes are to me what a nice day at Coney Island was to Howard. I find seismic activity in all its forms terrifying, and would really rather not think about the inhuman horror a couple miles below our feet. Critters that cause earthquakes are not okay. Earthquakes that chase you—not okay at all. The Cthonians are well-geared to freak me out. At the same time, if you want to snaffle mysterious orbs from an alien city, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get what’s coming to you.
Wilmarth could tell Paul as much, if he ever responds to his e-mail. Ancient alien cities are never dead, and never fully abandoned (even if all that’s left is a flock of lizard ghosts and maybe an orphaned baby). Though neither long-lost lizard people or wayward elder things seem to have any great ambitions. The Cthonians want to do the same thing we do every night, Brain. That’s the trick to keeping your spirits up for a few aeons—a really motivating goal to focus on.
Though maybe they’re not so motivated. They can travel all around the world, but unless someone touches their eggs they basically hang out in G’harne. Again, I want to know what they’re doing. They can’t spend the entire 2.5 million years plotting eldritch resurrection. Pinochle, maybe?
The most unlikely thing in this story, though, is the constable’s appended suggestion that Amery and Paul disappeared to promote an as-yet-unpublished fantasy short. I want to send my next piece to whatever magazine he had in mind, because that must be some word rate.
What could be nicer than a narrative scribbled in sweaty desperation as unthinkable horrors approach to do the narrator even more unthinkable harm? Why, TWO such narratives in one story! And that’s what we get in “Cement Surroundings.” We also get the Mythos debut of the Cthonians, though they go unnamed except for their god-leader Shudde-M’ell. Lumley would include “Surroundings” in his first Titus Crow novel, The Burrowers Beneath, where the subterranean monsters make many appearances in all their wormy, squid-like, slime-dripping, blood-slavering glory. I remember loving the novel back in my first burst of Lovecraftian enthusiasm, but so far I haven’t been able to find my tattered copy among the many vintage paperbacks triple-stacked on my bookcases. It’s the 95 cents (!) DAW edition with the lurid orange cover. Black tentacles spotted with gray-blue slime burst from the earth before a row of Tudor houses. Very pleasing.
Contrasting his heroes with Lovecraft’s, Lumley remarks that “I have trouble relating to people who faint at the hint of a bad smell…My guys fight back.” I guess you’d expect that from a man who served in the British Army’s Royal Military Police before becoming a full-time writer. One thing that stuck with me from Burrowers was the combination of scientific weapons (as Sir Amery calls for) with mystical ones. Crow and his allies find that atomic radiation doesn’t bother Cthonians, mature specimens of which can swim in the earth’s molten core; water, however, can harm them. They also make much use of the Elder Sign, in the same way Van Helsing brandishes a crucifix at vampires. Something about the symbol repels the monsters and, pretty much, all the other bad Mythos creatures who are opposed to the good Mythos creatures, like a shoggoth that attacks our heroes’ boat at the behest of the water-shunning Cthonians. As in “Surroundings,” you do not mess with Cthonian eggs and hatchlings. You just don’t. Not even if you have really good earthquake insurance.
On rereading I find “Surroundings” a good straightforward horror story, but maybe a little heavy on the Mythos references. Yog-Sothoth gets a shout-out, as does the more obscure Yibb-Tsttl. There are nods to good old Albert Wilmarth, “The Call of Cthulhu” (Johansen’s account of R’lyeh rising), “At the Mountains of Madness,” and Derleth’s “The Thing that Walked on the Wind” (the Norris case and Dr. Spencer of Quebec University.) Like any respectable seeker after strange knowledge, Amery has acquired dark tomes like the Cultes des Goules, but also has two of Lumley’s own inventions, the G’harne Fragments and the Cthaat Aquadingen. It’s a big point in Lumley’s favor that Amery doesn’t have his own copy of the fabulously rare Necronomicon, but only Feery’s Notes on the Necronomicon, which I suppose is marginally less insanity-inducing than the original. Although one doesn’t like to think what must have happened to the note-taking Feery him or herself. Oh, and we get the mandatory transliteration of unpronounceable yet somehow pronounced syllables, including the classic “fhtagn,” adding good stuff like “ep-ngh fl’hur.”
There’s reason for Amery’s ability to speak the Cthonian chant-tongue, though. Like great Cthulhu Himself, the squid-worms are masters of psychic communication, telepathy, dream-invasion. When the explorer chants at night, in his sleep, are they not speaking directly through him?
Too bad they didn’t just negotiate for the return of their eggs. To be fair, maybe past negotiations with humans didn’t go so well. Even Amery admits his party started the G’harne trouble by digging into the ruins. Even he supposes the Cthonians might have felt attacked. They may be practically gods, but they’re still vulnerable—for one thing, it takes them an awful long time to reproduce, and their young are tender. In Burrowers, we’ll learn that baby Cthonians can’t stand high heat, thus the efficacy of Amery’s cigar in dispatching his pair. That means the eggs and young can’t be kept in the safe molten depths with the adults. Any old archaeologist or caver might come across a clutch and carry it off, and it’s got to be a pain in the tentacles to dig continent-long tunnels in pursuit of the kidnapped, even if you do get a nice blood meal for your trouble.
I always felt bad for those hatchlings, but if I remember right, Titus Crow and crew won’t have Amery’s foolishly visceral reaction. No, they’ll keep any Cthonians they capture to experiment on, because that’s the rational human way. Because the Cthonians must mean mischief. They must plan to invite all sorts of alien-god abominations to their destroy-the-Earth-as-men-know-it party. Because alien-god abominations spend every aeon dreaming about destroying-the-Earth-as-men-know-it. They just do. Come on, they look like giant mole-squid-worm thingies! They’re slimy and smelly! They chant in crazy-ass languages! And sacrifice—something—to their god with the scary name of Shudde-M’ell!
I don’t know. That used to make perfect sense to me. As I get older, I wonder why all these Mythos creatures should be so interested in destroying-the-Earth-as-men-know-it. I wonder whether Howard didn’t start wondering the same thing. From Cthulhu, who was all about ravening, he progressed to the Yith, who mainly observed and recorded, who when they did commit psychic genocide, did it only to save their own race. Hmm. Yeah. Hmm…
Next week, we’ve got an early Halloween… treat? …in Robert Bloch’s “Notebook Found in a Deserted House.”
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.