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 Neil Gaiman’s “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar,” first published in Mike Ashley’s 1998 anthology, The Mammoth Book of Comic Fantasy. Spoilers ahead.
“Well, it’s not exactly a common name, is it? Nyarlathotep. There’s not exactly going to be two of them, are there? ‘Hullo, my name’s Nyarlathotep, what a coincidence meeting you here, funny them bein’ two of us,’ I don’t exactly think so.”
Benjamin Lassiter’s Texas hometown is dry in two senses: little rain and no booze allowed. He’s taking a break from the desert with a walking tour of the British coastline, armed only with a single guidebook. The author seems never to have been to the coast, or maybe even Britain. So far he’s gotten bad advice about how the shoreside bed-and-breakfasts are open off-season (not); where to find the most “scenic” areas (translation: “ugly, but with a nice view if the rain ever lets up”); and that the locals love nothing more than young American tourists (way wishful thinking.)
Five hellish days into his trip, he comes to a town so drab it doesn’t even rate a “charming.” Innsmouth boasts a rusty pier, rotting lobster pots, and B&Bs with names like “Mon Repose” and “Shub Niggurath.” The only fish-and-chip shop’s closed on Mondays. That leaves a dubious-looking pub called “The Book of Dead Names,” proprietor A. Alhazred. Ben knows that all bars are sinful places, but, hey, what choice does he have?
The barmaid has no nonalcoholic beverage but “cherryade,” which tastes strongly of chemicals. For food she offers a “ploughman’s,” which turns to be cheese, a lettuce leaf, a bruised tomato, a stale roll and a mound of unidentifiable brown stuff. While Ben’s picking at this, two gentlemen in long coats and scarves join him. They look a bit like frogs, but they’re quite friendly after Ben accidentally buys them a round of Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar. The barmaid brings Ben a pint too. What the hell. He tries it. The brown ale tastes of goat. He discreetly doesn’t mention this to his new companions.
Seth and Wilf suppose Ben’s one of their American cousins from Innsmouth, Massachusetts. You know, the town made famous by that one whose name they don’t mention, but it’s H. P. Lovecraft. What did he know, with all his purple blather about “eldritch” and “gibbous” and “batrachian”?
Ben keeps sipping his Peculiar. It begins to taste better. Seth says “batrachian” means “frog-like,” but Wilf thinks it’s a kind of camel. Suppose he were wandering in the trackless desert on a pilgrimage to the Tomb of Nyarlathotep, he’d be glad to get a nice plate of roasted camel hump. Seth scoffs that Wilf’s never even been out of Innsmouth, has he? Well, no. But he does order another round of Shoggoth’s for the three of them.
Loosening up, Ben says he’s studying metallurgy. What do Seth and Wilf do? Oh, they’re acolytes of Great Cthulhu. Not a busy profession, it mostly entails waiting around until those strange aeons in which He will waken from dreaming death and consume the world.
In his inebriated state, Ben finds this unspeakable funny. It’s also the last bit he remembers clearly. Later, he’ll vaguely remember taking a walking tour of Innsmouth with Seth and Wilf. They point out the Nameless Temple of Unspeakable Gods, where there’s a jumble sale every Saturday. At the end of the rusty pier, they admire the ruins of sunken R’lyeh out in the bay, visible under the light of the gibbous moon. Then Ben suffers violent alcohol-induced “sea-sickness.” Then things get…odd.
Next morning he wakes on a rocky moorland, no Innsmouth in sight. At a petrol station they tell him there’s no town named Innsmouth on the British coastline. Ben looks for the page in his guidebook describing the place, but finds it torn out.
Back home in Texas, he’s glad to be far from the sea. Still, he later moves to Nebraska to put even more distance between himself and the big wet. He saw things beneath that rusty pier, or thinks he saw them, that he can never quite forget. Things lurked under long raincoats that man was not meant to know, and those things were “squamous.”
He sends his sarcastically annotated copy of A Walking Tour of the British Coastline to its author, and asks her to send him a copy of the missing page. But when months and years and decades pass with no reply, he’s secretly relieved.
What’s Cyclopean: Wilf and Seth kvetch about “eldritch,” “squamous,” “batrachian,” and “gibbous.” “Bloody peculiar frogs.”
The Degenerate Dutch: British food has apparently improved over the past few decades (as has American), but it still has a… reputation.
Mythos Making: The references are thick on the ground, but the neotopic “Dulwich” is a particularly nice addition to Lovecraft Country. Must be around here somewhere, where did I put my map?
Madness Takes Its Toll: Visit not-so-scenic Innsmouth—then move as far from the ocean as you can possibly get. Whether this is a phobia or a perfectly logical reaction is left as an exercise for the reader.
It probably says something about my experience with the Mythos that I encountered “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar” well before reading “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” I’ve since enjoyed the darker stuff—but I still appreciate the snark of this relatively light piece. And as I said a while back, I like the way it balances the humor with a sharp edge of horror. This may be a bit of fluffy British pub humor, but R’lyeh is visible from the docks.
This time around I’m catching references more subtle than the Shub Niggurath B&B. (Connotationally, would that translate as “Momma’s House”? Presumably feeding and housing one or two extras on any given night is no trouble for the goat with a thousand young.) The story’s structure is more like “The Festival” than “Shadow Over Innsmouth”—the strange (eldritch) destination taken for granted, the welcoming natives, the concluding horror, and then the whole town vanished from neighbor’s memories as well as from the landscape itself. Then Ben “awoke on the cold hillside,” traditional after a night underhill. Trust Gaiman to stick a Keats reference (and maybe Tiptree as well?) in the middle of a fluff piece.
Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar itself makes a fine addition to the SFnal bartender’s line-up, along with the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster and Romulan Ale. It appears to be more alarming than the latter, and somewhat less than the former—unless it’s named for its makers… or ingredients. Either option boggles the mind and disturbs the palate. Better order a gin and tonic instead, just in case. Although now I kind of want a story about that shoggoth-owned-and-operated microbrewery.
I’m always amused by stories in which Lovecraft himself co-exists with the Mythos (including my esteemed co-blogger’s, where Lovecraft’s the one member of the conspiracy who couldn’t distinguish Things Man Was Not Meant to Know from Things Man Will Pay For By the Word). Here he’s the main feature of the shaggy dog story: Deep Ones Kvetch About Lovecraftian Prose. Personally, if I were a Deep One, I’d find more to complain about in Lovecraft than a “batrachian” or two, but then I’m not on my second pint of Shoggoth’s either.
Wilf and Seth’s complaints about Lovecraftian vocabulary may have planted the seed for my cyclopean counts, as well as for my conviction that “gibbous” belongs under that heading in spite of being a word that non-Lovecraft people might ever use. They’re not, however, the source of my original misconception that “rugose” meant “reddish”—that one’s still a mystery. I still can’t bump into an “eldritch” or a “gibbous,” though, without hearing “…the moon was nearly full, and everybody what lived in Dulwich was bloody peculiar frogs.” Nor can I disagree with Ben Lassiter’s conclusion that whatever the official dictionary definition of “squamous,” you know it when you see it.
Speaking of “eldritch,” there’s something else weird going on here, hidden in the background. Wilf and Seth, on first spotting Ben, immediately mistake him for “one of our American cousins.” Now if there’s one thing we know about Deep One hybrids, it’s that they stand out visually. Even those who look relatively normal by outsider standards, like Asenath Waite, have those bulging eyes. Then there’s the fact that Ben does find Innsmouth, England despite its technical non-existence—maybe for the same reason Festival’s narrator is able to find Dread Kingsport? If he’s got a touch of the Innsmouth Look himself, Nebraska may not be far enough for Ben to run.
After so many Cthonian-generated earthquakes and cold-colder-coldest wars, isn’t it great to go on walkabout and discover one of the hidden gems of the British coastline? Very relaxing. The only thing nicer is to have Neil Gaiman along to point out the sights and recommend warming libations once the chilly trek is done. Better Neil, for sure, than the writer of that guidebook poor Ben Lassiter totes around. Seems he didn’t get much satisfaction from his trip prior to Innsmouth, but the writer didn’t let him down there. Instead she led him to the kind of experience most of us can only sigh for—a prime seat at the bar between genial Deep Ones. Or should I say, as Seth and Wilf do, acolytes of Great Cthulhu?
One of my favorite fictional characters is Dickens’ Joe Gargery, who’s fond of saying, “And then, what larks, Pip!” What larks are what we get here. Following a few digs at off-season walking tours and their literary promoters, Gaiman settles in to drop as many Mythosian reference as the story will hold without imploding into another dimension. A village named Innsmouth is our first indication that Ben is really not in Texas anymore. A B&B called Shub Niggurath? I don’t know if you have to be a Lovecraft scholar to wonder what that’s doing on the British coastline, scenic or otherwise. Frog-faced denizens? I guess one could chock them up to a certain amount of regional inbreeding. But come on, Ben. Only the fact that you were exhausted and starving can excuse you for entering a pub called The Book of Dead Names without hesitation. On the other hand, you were encouraged by the proprietor’s name. Anybody with a moniker like Abdul Al-Hazred must be a whiz at those fine Indian curries of which you’ve just had your first taste.
Hey, wait a minute. Is Neil Gaiman poking fun at our provincial hero? Doesn’t he know you don’t mess with Texas? Especially not those alcohol-free towns where tempers can get, well, tinder-dry. Good thing Ben’s a long-suffering fellow. Although we do get hints that Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar can loosen up the most virgin of teetotalers, given a few sips, and pints. Maybe it DOES have some goat in it, what with Shub-Niggurath running a bed-and-breakfast nearby.
Once the well-swaddled Seth and Wilf join Ben on their barstools, the references flow as from an untended spigot. H. P. Lovecraft dethrones Voldemort as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, except by Seth and Wilf, who have a great deal to say about the heinous one. That our Ben thinks Lovecraft might be a rock band confirms him as a true innocent. This only encourages Seth and Wilf to launch into literary dissection highly critical of Lovecraft’s vocabulary. Eldritch and gibbous, batrachian and squamous come in for much derision. The blokes are especially ticked off by “batrachian,” as used in describing their own visages. Except Wilf thinks it refers to a two-humped camel rather than a frog. I guess he’d rather look like a camel than a frog, or at least he wouldn’t mind murdering him some camel hump after a rigorous pilgrimage to Nyarlathotep’s desert tomb.
True to the conventions of dialogue between frequenters of pubs, Seth brings old Wilf down a peg by forcing him to admit he’s never been out of Innsmouth. Not that it matters. The acolytes of Great Cthulhu will one day be heirs to the whole world! They know all about dead Cthulhu dreaming in sunken R’lyeh, and eternal lying about, and strange aeons. They’ve had time to do a lot of reading while they perform their acolytic duty of waiting around for Great C to get off his dead duff and stretch and dress and use the toilet and read the papers and breakfast on the planet. Only Great C won’t eat that brown stuff that’s on Ben’s plate there—He’s no fool.
I have questions. What do they sell at jumble sales in the crypt of the Nameless Temple of Unspeakable Gods? I suppose you could pick up a cracked sacrificial goblet or tattered paperback Book of Eibon or decapitated figurine of Great C at a good price there. And wait a minute. Stross told us R’lyeh was in the Baltic Sea. Now Gaiman wants us to believe it’s a skiff ride from the British coastline. Whatever happened to that balmy South Pacific location? Wait. It’s dawning on me. Like any respectable kingdom of God (Gods), R’lyeh must be everywhere there are faithful souls to remember it.
Biggest question: What does our innocent-abroad Ben see under the pier at Innsmouth that drunken night? Something that makes him avoid the sea forever, that we know. The shoggoths that brew the Old Peculiar? Deep One temptresses clad in nothing but their scales? Bloody rituals? A vision of Great C himself? We will never know, for Ben will never say.
Gaiman suggests, however, with admirable delicacy, that Ben was traumatized by what he glimpsed under Seth and Wilf’s raincoats. By which I can only assume that the ultimate horror was seeing his erstwhile drinking buddies strip down for a skinny-dip beneath the gibbous moon.
Yikes, no wonder he was relieved never to hear back from the guidebook writer, or to receive the missing page that would confirm (like Peaslee’s Yithian notebook) that Innsmouth was no mere batrachian and squamous dream.
Next week, we add to the Libronomicon bookshelf with Ramsey Campbell’s “Cold Print.”
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.