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 Cherie Priest’s “Bad Sushi,” first published in the August 2007 issue of Apex Digest. Spoilers ahead.
“Even after sixty years, the memory of it shocked him—the way the thing had grabbed him by the ankle. The thing that seized him felt like a living cable made of steel.”
78-year-old Baku works as sushi chef in an Asian restaurant. He’s been an American citizen for some time, but he grew up on the coast of Japan, netting his living from the sea. When he was sixteen, the Emperor called him into service at Guadalcanal. After much frantic shooting at “blue eyes,” he barely escaped the American takeover—but only after a harrowing adventure in the sea he thought he knew so well.
Sixty years later, preparing sushi, he sniffs a “hot, yellow” smell like sulfur, and the adventure replays in his mind with unsettling clarity. During the retreat from Guadalcanal, he was knocked from the transport boat into inky waters. Something with the steely grip of a python coiled around his leg and dragged him under. He managed to slash himself free with his bayonet, and his mates pulled him back into the boat. Still writhing on his leg was a severed tentacle, suckered on one side, spined on the other. Seasoned fisherman that he was, Baku had never seen anything like it, or smelled anything like its stink of dung, rot, and sulfur.
He asks his manager if the restaurant’s getting fish from a different supplier. Yes is the reply, from a New England firm recently expanded into a warehouse by the pier. Why? Is something wrong with the new seafood?
Never one to look for trouble, Baku says no. He continues to detect the sulfurous taint in the new fish and eyes with suspicion the New England firm’s deliveryman, Peter, a hairless and pop-eyed fellow who lumbers about as if he’d be more comfortable in water than on land.
Whatever Baku’s reservations, business doubles after the new fish arrives. People line up around the block, come back night after night, and all of them order the sushi, ignoring the restaurant’s other offerings. The manager is so busy Baku rarely sees him. Cooks and wait staff also feast on the sushi.
All except Baku.
One night Baku finds deliveryman Peter in the restroom, repeatedly flushing a toilet and flooding the floor. When Baku interrupts the strangely ritualistic act, Peter attacks him. Baku flees the restroom, to face customers and staff as freakishly transformed as Peter. They, too, attack, but are too zombie-slow and uncoordinated to swarm him. Baku grabs his prized chef’s knives and runs for it. He has no time to wait for his usual bus—he steals Peter’s malodorous truck and heads for the pier, determined to plumb the mystery of the bad sushi.
From the number of trucks at the busy processing plant, Baku realizes his restaurant isn’t the New England distributor’s only target. He explores, a knife in each hand. He hoped to burn the place down, but there’s no spot dry enough to kindle fire: the floors are thick with reeking muck, and the walls ooze slime.
In the wet-floored ill-lit basement, he encounters his restaurant’s manager, made barely recognizable by his advanced “sushi poisoning.” The manager tells Baku a new order is rising, for HE comes. Follow him into the freezer, and Baku will see something to convince him that resistance is futile.
Instead Baku locks the manager in the freezer. His new plan is to short out the plant’s electrical system, so all the bad sushi goes even badder. The lights fail even before he reaches the outmoded fuse box. Out of a blackness as inky as those waters off Guadalcanal come tentacles that seize Baku. The ensuing struggle tells Baku this monster is too huge for him to fillet it into submission, but he makes it to the fuse box and stabs blindly with his knives—both toward the box and toward his attacker.
Sparks reveal his marvelous and terrible adversary, but the glimpse is mercifully brief. Electricity stops Baku’s heart and surges through him into the monster. His last thought is the ironic observation of how readily one can electrocute something that stands in water.
What’s Cyclopean: Priest manages to avoid temptation: for the most part, this story doesn’t try to describe the indescribable.
The Degenerate Dutch: Baku’s colleagues and customers might think about him differently if they knew what side he fought on in World War II.
Mythos Making: Are those Deep Ones? Is that thing a spawn of Cthulhu or a shoggoth? What’s the technical term for eating the living flesh of an eldritch abomination, anyway?
Libronomicon: No books this week, just knives.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Eating raw whatzit appears to have addictive, not to mention other mind-altering, properties.
After reading this story, I’m doubly glad I never eat raw meat, fish or fowl or beast. Especially fish. The wasabi and pickled ginger are nice, though, as long as they don’t come from the “A” Packing and Distribution Company of what? Innsmouth? Arkham? Y’ha-nthlei?
In “Bad Sushi,” Cherie Priest plays a formally elegant variation on the sturdy trope of contamination phobia. It’s adaptation, not accident, that we humans react with powerful disgust and fine discrimination to foods that smell or taste bad. Sure, there’s the infamous durian fruit, which to many smells like decaying onions or sewage, while connoisseurs savor the “fragrance” of the custardy flesh. There’s the king of umami, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, the scent of heaven to some, of dirty gym socks to others. But most stinky things are plain old rotten, past their prime, danger-Will-Robinson-danger. Expert sushi chef that he is, Baku can detect the least whiff of deterioration in fish meat. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the other cooks, staff, and customers of his restaurant.
Although the stink of this bad sushi isn’t decay, since absolutely fresh eldritch tentacle smells of sulfur, as Baku learned off Guadalcanal. And always remember: By Their Smell shall ye know Them. That is, the Old Ones who lurk on our thresholds. Here one of Them is coming back and sending forth His reeking essence to transform all the people of the world into His minions. At least all the people who will eat raw fish. The rest will just have to be squeezed into Old One food. I guess from context that Priest’s Him is Cthulhu, the minions some form of Deep Ones.
This is a new notion to me: that Deep Ones can be made as well as born. Even in McGuire’s “Down, Deep Down, Below the Waves,” you can only awaken latent amphibianism in those with some genetic predisposition to it, some link to those Below the Waves. Here the idea is that “land mines” of eldritch pale-green flesh can hide in wholesome food or otherwise taint it with mutagens. The contaminant is insidiously addictive, too, causing its victims to come back for more, and more, and more, until they approximate what they eat.
The mutants strike me as lesser Deep Ones at best. At least in the early stages, they act more like zombies or pod-people, a biddable mass- or hive-mind. That would make sense—I mean, is there really enough wonder and glory in Y’ha-nthlei to share with billions of new children of Dagon and Hydra?
Baku makes a dynamic character in his own gradual transformation from enemy combatant to servant to savior. That is, enemy from the “blue eyes” point of view, though more in Baku’s imagination than in reality these sixty years after WWII. Not that he ever harbored much animosity for Americans. In a nice bit of parallel structuring, he’s twice sucked from his hard-working but peaceful life into wars of others’ making; and twice these dislocations leave him in places of inky darkness, twined in tentacles deliberately malign.
That deliberateness makes it worse, doesn’t it? Much is said of the horror implicit in Lovecraft’s vision of a chaotic and uncaring universe. But how much could be made out of Azathoth alone, blind seething mindless chaos? It’s when Azathoth spins off a Mind and Soul in Nyarlathotep that things get truly scary. And from Nyarlathotep and the other Outer Gods come the Great Races of which Cthulhu is a prime representative, and if anyone’s brimming with malicious intention, it’s Cthulhu.
Or benign intention, from His point of view. He may be asleep but He’s not unaware. Surely the petty evils of humanity must penetrate His dreams in sunken R’lyeh. You know, like the world wars that would occasionally provide fodder for His free-ranging tentacled children. Surely He’s doing said humanity a favor by uniting it in the love of sushi and one-minded brotherhood.
Or should I not have eaten that pickled ginger? It WAS touching the sushi roll a little bit….
This story manages to do something extremely difficult: get me disgusted with raw seafood. Fortunately it’s December and it’s cold out, and I didn’t have any sushi treat nights planned any time soon. At this point I might be eyeing my salmon sashimi and flying fish roe suspiciously, watching my fellow diners for signs of mind control and trying not to think about slimy warehouses.
At least I’m not a calamari fan.
“Bad Sushi” is a good, straightforward modern story. It’s squarely in the Lovecraftian tradition, but doesn’t draw directly on any of Lovecraft’s menagerie: no hushed whispers about Cthulhu, no not-so-sneaky references to Miskatonic. It explains the absolute minimum. It gets in, gets its effect, and gets out.
It would have been pretty easy to not-sneak those references, too. It wouldn’t take much to make the “Him” of the warehouse more clearly Cthulhu or Dagon, the addicted diners unambiguously burgeoning Deep Ones. And maybe they are those things. Or maybe they’re something less well-defined, less part of the Mythos’s rich and detailed—and therefore somewhat comprehensible-to-the-reader—cosmos. I enjoy a good Mythos-building yarn, but sometimes it really is good to get back to that core of scary WTF. After all, when “Call of Cthulhu” originally came out, the titular deity was hardly the familiar plushy figure he is today.
Priest also cuts out Lovecraft’s fear of the human Other. Not only cuts it, in fact, but twists it around. Baku, far from being misunderstood, actually was in his youth a soldier fighting against the Americans he now lives and works with. If they found out, they probably wouldn’t be thrilled. And yet, he’s entirely sympathetic. And those youthful experiences are key to his ability to save everyone now. That ability depends on several things. First, he’s a trained fighter: he’s got both the ability and willingness to wield those knives. Second, he’s trained in the ways of the sea: he knows when something smells, um, fishy. (Sorry.) Third, during the scrambling retreat from Guadalcanal, he had an unfortunate encounter of the tentacled kind. Again, he knows it when he smells it.
And fourth, he’s thoroughly prepared for self-sacrifice. This is my favorite thing about Baku as narrator. In a world full of complex motivations and self-doubt, of anti-heroes and supposed likeable jerks—he just does the thing that needs doing. He doesn’t stop to question himself. He doesn’t regret. As soon as he realizes there’s danger, he does something about it. When he realizes that his own death will be necessary to take down the whatzit, he doesn’t blink. All this so matter-of-factly that you scarcely notice he’s being wildly heroic.
This heroism isn’t, I think, reduced by his age. At 78, he’s still sharp both literally and metaphorically. He has a pretty decent life and work he enjoys. And, while there are certainly people who’d rather go down fighting, he doesn’t seem to be the blaze-of-glory sort. If given the chance to choose between dying in bed at 78, and getting electrocuted fighting an eldritch horror in a blacked out warehouse, I suspect he’d rather the former. Probably most people would. And yet, one at least hopes that most people would ultimately do the latter if they discovered it was necessary. Even if they might have to nerve themselves up for it more than Baku does.
Next week, Bentley Little offers anthropological research on the thousand-faced god in “Petohtalrayn.” You can find it in The Gods of H.P. Lovecraft.
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.