The Lovecraft Reread

Like Taking Cyclopean Candy From a Baby: Lovecraft and Greene’s “The Horror at Martin’s Beach”

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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 Lovecraft and Sonia H. Greene’s “The Horror at Martin’s Beach,” written in June 1922, and first published as “The Invisible Monster” in the November 1923 issue of Weird Tales. Spoilers ahead.

“Even the strugglers, after a few frantic screams and futile groans, succumbed to the paralyzing influence and kept silent and fatalistic in the face of unknown powers. There they stood in the pallid moonlight, blindly pulling against a spectral doom and swaying monotonously backward and forward as the water rose first to their knees, then to their hips. The moon went partly under a cloud, and in the half-light the line of swaying men resembled some sinister and gigantic centipede, writhing in the clutch of a terrible creeping death.”

Summary

Unnamed narrator relates the still-unplumbed horror that struck Martin’s Beach in 1922. Professor Alton attempted explanation in his article, “Are Hypnotic Powers Confined to Recognized Humanity?” – but business interests squelched the ensuing publicity. Narrator witnessed the occurrence, which leaves her shuddering to this day at the sight of the ocean, but thinks the appalling implications should be more widely known.

James P. Orne was captain of the fishing smack Alma out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. In May 1922, he and his crew fought a marine monster for forty hours, finally killing it. The beast measured fifty feet long and ten feet wide, with fishlike gills, a scaly hide and a single eye. Most amazing, though, was the modification of its pectoral fins to rudimentary forelegs and six-toed feet. When Orne housed the preserved specimen in a floating museum, scientists flocked to examine it. So did tourists, for Orne had cannily docked the museum at Martin’s Beach, a popular resort centered at the Wavecrest Inn. Naturalists concluded the monster’s brain was developed beyond anything among known fishes—and that, despite its size, it was still an infant. Public interest surged.

Alas for Orne and the scientists, a July storm carried off the museum ship and its treasure. Searches proved fruitless. Orne returned to the Wavecrest Inn to wrap up his business, but on August 8, the horror came.

Twilight found Martin’s Beach still populated by strollers and swimmers, while the fashionable lounged on the Inn veranda along with Orne and his scientific colleagues. The rising moon cast a silver light-road from horizon to strand, a familiar phenomenon made odd by an anomalous ripple that coursed along it: stealthy, deliberate, somehow calculating. When the ripple reached the black reefs offshore, it stilled. Next a sound “belched” from the brine, a “a scream of anguish and despair that moved pity even as it mocked it.”

Though the “unearthly ululation” was nothing like a human cry, lifeguards hurled out an air-cushion ring tethered to a long rope. Something seized the ring. A crowd gathered to watch the rescue. But the lifeguards couldn’t budge whomever—or whatever—they’d “hooked.” In fact, it dragged them off their feet and into the water. Captain Orne and other strong men joined in the wild tug-o-war. It couldn’t be a drowning man at the other end of the rope. Could a whale have swallowed the air-cushion? A whale, or… something less familiar?

Orne ordered a boat to approach and harpoon the unseen leviathan. He tried to surrender his place at the rope, but found he couldn’t let go—his hands were locked to the straining cord! The same inexplicable trap had snared the other men gripping the rope. As the tide rose around them, they were drawn out to sea, writhing like a “gigantic centipede” or “human snake.” Watchers found themselves strangely apathetic. They made no attempt to assist the doomed but watched in “mute fascination.”

A sudden thunderstorm drove spectators up to the hotel veranda. From there, unnamed narrator watched the victims bob to their deaths and imagined their panic in the face of a “malignant universe.” She fancied, too, that far out by the reefs she saw a single great eye alight with revolting purpose. The storm ended abruptly with a great din, and then the moon again cast silver on the calmed sea, where nothing was visible but the eddies of a whirlpool.

Yet out of the whirlpool, narrator heard the “faint and sinister echoes of a laugh.”

What’s Cyclopean: The din of the apocalyptic, planet-rending peal in which the voice of heaven resounds with the blasphemies of hell. When a sound is cyclopean, you know you’re in trouble.

The Degenerate Dutch: “Yankee shrewdness” is the only ethnic epithet on display here. Of course, we all know about the Ornes.

Mythos Making: The ocean off New England is rife with eldritch goings-on.

Libronomicon: Alton’s “Are Hypnotic Powers Confined to Recognized Humanity?” wins the prize for best article title ever. That’s gonna get a lot of citations, not to mention a lot of researchers complaining about sensationalist press coverage.

Madness Takes Its Toll: If hypnotic powers are confined to recognized humanity, the witnesses’ apathy would make a nasty textbook example of the bystander effect.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Were Lovecraft and Greene star-crossed lovers, defeated by illness and adverse finances, or was their marriage a mistake from the outset? Active in the amateur press and a businessperson often on the road, Sonia was an unusually independent woman for her time. Howard seemed content as a bachelor, actual or in effect, his circle of friends and correspondents a sufficient “family.” In any case, the best-known “child” of their courtship is this week’s story. Lovecraft visited Greene in Brooklyn in 1922, the year “Martin’s Beach” was written—did they brainstorm the piece then? Or was it Greene’s production, acquiring Lovecraftian signatures when he edited it for Weird Tales (1923)? To my eye, those signatures are bold, from the pseudoscientific explanation implied by “Professor Alton’s” article to the purple cacophony of the climax, which even tosses in Lovecraft’s treasured modifier “Cyclopean” and his favorite atmospheric effect, the abrupt thunderstorm.

Martin’s Beach appears to be a Lovecraft Country destination, rather than part of our mundane Massachusetts landscape. It’s south of Gloucester, which in my reckoning places it well south of Kingsport, Arkham and Innsmouth. Other reckonings may vary, as do the portals into Lovecraft country itself.

Reading this story, with its possible trope of Mom-Monster-in-Search-of-Lost-Baby-Monster, reminded me of a favorite old movie, Gorgo (1961). This fine Godzilla wannabe featured the giant sea lizard Gorgo, stirred up from the depths off Ireland (!) by volcanic activity. It ends up as a circus attraction in London. Scientists believe that at 65 feet tall Gorgo is a mere child of its species—Mom would probably top 200 feet. Which pronouncement is naturally followed by Mom’s emergence. Her name is Ogra—don’t ask me how anyone knows this. Anyhow, Ogra stomps toward London, defying the usual tanks and aircraft. After much urban devastation, she rescues little Gorgo, and mom and baby return to their ocean home, aw, so heartwarming.

Gorgo poster

Greene’s monster is more sea-serpent than sea-lizard, a fish rather than a reptile—or at least, fishlike. It has gills, okay, and scales, and the general conformation of a fish. But it’s a fish with rudimentary legs and a big-ass brain. That makes it sound more like a smart tadpole to me. You know, a creature undergoing metamorphosis from juvenile to mature morphology. So “Mom” might look a lot different. She might have fully functional legs, two or four or more. She still has just the one eye, though. That’s a species constant, and a suitably weird one. In fact, it makes the species TRULY Cyclopean!

Not that the second sea monster needs to be the first one’s Mom. It could be Dad. Greene assigns no specific relationship. The second could even be unrelated to the first. What if the “baby” was Mother Hydra or Father Dagon’s favorite pet, or favorite pet’s unbearably cute offspring? That makes sense to me, as far as filling the big plot hole in the story is concerned.

This could be one of those tales born in a single striking image, that of the hapless men hauled to their watery deaths under the silver moonlight, later electric-blue lightning. The obvious problem is, why don’t they just let go of the rescue-line? Well, they can’t—for some reason, their hands are “welded” to the rope. “For some reason” is not enough explanation. So, perhaps on revision, let’s mention the possibility of hypnosis, mind-control exercised by the vengeful monster (hence “nonhuman” hypnosis.) But let’s not belabor the explanation. Let’s just drop the title of Professor Alton’s monograph. The wise reader will take the hint.

It must be not only a single application of mind-control, however. All the rope-holders must be affected. What’s more, all the spectators must be affected. It’s implied that they are, for they don’t try to help the victims but merely gape in “mute fascination.” I mean, all Captain Orne and his co-sufferers needed was for someone to splash out after them with a knife to cut the rescue line. But mass hypnosis would explain why nobody comes up with this obvious solution, practically instinctive, you’d think, to any fisherman in the crowd.

A creature able to pull off that kind of mind-control (or curse, supposing it’s the superscience of magic) is a god in effect, if not in name. What’s more, the creature seems capable of weather-control, of summoning a thunderstorm out of nowhere, then dispelling the special effect when no longer required. We should just be glad this being was satisfied with the deaths of Orne and friends. If it WAS satisfied, ready to subside once more into oceanic depths beyond human ken and concern.

Maybe it wasn’t satisfied, though. Maybe it’s just taking a little nap between attacks. Come to think, Lumley’s Cthonian parents weren’t sated with Amery’s blood. And like them, Greene’s monster or god arrives to find its loved one slain. That’s a declaration of interspecies war, people.

Good thing unnamed narrator steeled herself to write “Martin’s Beach.” We are all forewarned—you hook something really big and weird, better cut your line instead of reeling it in.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

If speculative fiction has taught us anything, it’s that the phrase “juvenile specimen” is always a harbinger of doom. If someone shows off a giant carcass or captive critter, and tells you to imagine what the mama must be like… maybe take into consideration how the mama feels about all this sample-gathering. For that matter, it’s probably best to run the first time you see something vaguely egg-shaped.

For some reason, no one ever counters all this maternal protectiveness by suggesting that the critter in question uses r strategy reproduction. Maybe because that’s less reassuring the more you think about it.

“Martin’s Beach” wins points for not simply showing us the giant sea monster that can be easily inferred from the baby version. Instead, there seems to be something almost deific—or, the narrator suggests, infernal—at work. The physical monster, if there is one, stays out of sight, even as an ordinary fish never catches more than a glimpse of the human fisherman and hasn’t the capacity to understand the technology of the hook. The swaying, centipede-like crowd on the horror’s line is a genuinely frightening image, and the storm serves as much to obscure details better left vague as to show off Mama’s powers.

Why are protective parents of other species so frightening, anyway? Shouldn’t we have some empathy with anyone who wants to protect (or avenge) their kids? But like any predatory species, our hunts have long depended on culling the weak and the young. Then there’s the fact that infants of whatever species tend to curl up in the little hidey-holes that we’re good at spotting, or tripping over. Prototypically, if you find a baby bear, Mama’s not going to be thrilled with you even if you meant no harm. Stories of this sort walk the line between fear that something will do unto us as we do unto others, and fable suggesting that we maybe ought to be more careful about our own doings unto. (I’m thinking about Godzilla, where the Mama in question is more or less the planet. Or the ocean.)

“Martin’s Beach” falls on the first side of the line: there’s no suggestion that Orne acted unreasonably, and most of the victims had little to do with his museum. The narrator describes the scene in unnatural terms—the reverse of the Godzilla-type story in which the seemingly monstrous turns out to be the natural consequence of human hubris. The final echo of laughter underlines this interpretation, reflecting as it must motivations and emotions entirely unlike what a (hypnotic, weather-controlling) human parent would feel under the circumstances. Something’s taking pleasure in its catch. Perhaps the baby itself was intended as bait?

For all the strength of its tropey premise, “Martin’s Beach” is flawed on the actual text level. It’s somewhat overwrought, and I can’t help feeling that it’s trying too hard to sound like a single-author Lovecraft story. Compare this with the Heald collaborations, which seem to take that effort as an amusing challenge—“Out of the Aeons,” for example, uses “cyclopean” a self-aware eleven times, but plays with the Mythos with wild abandon, adding details and character moments atypical of HP’s usual work. Zealia Bishop brings an academic anthropology to her stories, along with eerie inland landscapes that Lovecraft was wholely unfamiliar with. Even Harry Houdini, entirely ghost-written, still stamps the story he bylined with his own outsized personality. Oddly, this story created in concert with Howard’s future wife shows little in the way of obvious collaborative fingerprints. There are no quirks of characterization, no unexpected moments of female (or indeed male) agency, no intrusions of setting or expertise that might draw on her own unique experiences.

Perhaps, sadly, that should have been a clue.

 

Next week, just in case you were feeling optimistic about the state of the world, we’ll read Charlie Stross’s dark novelette, “A Colder War.”

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.

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