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 Bentley Little’s “Petohtalrayn,” first published in Aaron J. French’s 2015 anthology Gods of H. P. Lovecraft. Spoilers ahead.
“There’s a workroom in the museum that I haven’t shown you yet, that I’m not supposed to show you, that I don’t even think I’m supposed to know about. The artifacts in there…”
Archaeologist Ellison tracks legends of the Dark Prophet, whose arrival has been the knell of doom for civilizations as distant as the Minoans and Mayans. The latest such extinction is that of the Nahapi, native people in Colorado who vanished shortly after Spanish explorers arrived. Ellison, a research fellow at Miskatonic University, goes to London for a joint venture with the British Museum. There he meets William Crowley, who’s also noticed the far-flung Dark Prophet myths. In old notes on Minoan pictographs, Ellison discovers a “translation” of the Prophet’s name: Petohtalrayn. Pet-total-rain? What’s that supposed to mean?
Crowley, well-lubricated by a pub visit, shows Ellison a secret room in the Museum basement. It houses artifacts with shapes so fundamentally “wrong, offensive to the eye,” that Ellison is repulsed. Worse are depictions of the pure black, square-headed figure stalking through a twisted town, leaving bodies in its wake. But worst of all are tiny skeletons Ellison first identifies as rats, supposed to swarm around Petohtalrayn. A closer look shows him that their paws are miniature human hands.
“Some knowledge should not be shared,” Crowley says, a little late. “Some things were meant to stay hidden.”
In spite of rat-man nightmares, Ellison continues to investigate the Prophet-calamity connection. He finds more victim-civilizations, as well as contemporary lay reports of Dark Man sightings and inexplicable rat infestations. Then he meets waitress Jenny, a girl too smart, interesting and attractive for someone as socially awkward as him. Yet somehow they start dating. What luck for him, he thinks. Not luck, Jenny informs him. She has met the Dark Man in dreams, and It (not HE, Jenny insists) told her to watch for Ellison.
Their strange involvement (sorta colleagues, sorta lovers) continues. Jenny feels the Dark Man’s trapped now, unable to communicate except in dreams. Ellison convinces his superiors to let him work full time on the Petohtalrayn project. Weirdly, since Jenny, he’s developed a sense of understanding the Dark Prophet. Could He —It —be a “harvester for the gods, culling the unwanted from the earth and tilling the human soil so new civilizations could grow”? Fearful, yes, but also admirable in a way.
With Miskatonic’s support, Ellison (and, unofficially, Jenny) travel to the Southwest and meet Rick Howell, a discredited museum curator who believes in all sorts of gods with unpronounceable names. He explains that “Petohtalrayn” is simply “Nyarlathotep” spelled backwards, out of fear of putting down Its REAL name. He shows them an obsidian figurine he found digging at the Nahapi’s deserted settlement. Jenny recognizes the Dark Man of her dreams.
The Nahapi site, Howell says, was closed off before he could map it, but he’s sure Nyarlathotep is there still, imprisoned by Its divine superiors. Of course the three of them must go and continue mapping, right?
Right. They drive into the Colorado wilderness, to a box canyon hiding a well-preserved cliff dwelling —and beneath it, tunnels. The system gets ever more complex and delves ever deeper. The explorers push on for days. Jenny dreams that Nyarlathotep is waiting for them. One evening, Howell doesn’t return from his mapping stint. Ellison and Jenny go after him, Jenny increasingly terrified and reluctant, Ellison determined.
At last they find a cavern vast beyond comprehension, containing a whole “city” of stalactites and stalagmites in “unwholesome” shapes. The city is peopled by swarming rat-people, and albino mutants of once-humans, descendants of the survivors of the Prophet’s cleansings. In their worshipful midst stomps and raves the mad god Nyarlathotep, indeed imprisoned. Somewhere, an unseen piper plays. Mythos readers will recognize the tune.
Howell must be dead, for it was only Ellison and Jenny who were summoned. They hear Nyarlathotep’s voice in their heads. They must approach. Jenny, no longer hesitant, strips and mates with the Dark Prophet. Left bloody and lunatic, she at once gives birth to the god’s offspring, black slime that coalesces into warped human shape.
For Ellison, Nyarlathotep has another role. He will lead Its followers to the surface, to clear the earth of unworthy humanity. Then Its god-superiors can return and, Its task completed, Nyarlathotep will again walk free!
Rat-people carry Ellison through endless tunnels to the upper air, trailed by the mutant horde. He emerges to see the first target of their campaign, a nearby town. “Forward!” he commands. But the mutants instantly burn in the sunlight, shriveling like fire-exposed worms. In Ellison’s head, he hears the screams of Nyarlathotep’s impotent rage. This is but one of many times the god has tried and failed to escape.
Ellison could escape to the sun-saved town, but the drag of Nyarlathotep’s will forces him back underground. He will mate there with Jenny, or whatever, and create a new army that can withstand the light, cleanse the earth of humanity, and restore Nyarlathotep to “Its rightful place among Its eldritch brethren.”
With a last breath of fresh air and look at the sun, Ellison descends “into the darkness of his new home.”
What’s Cyclopean: Prototypically Lovecraftian adjectives on display this week include “abhorrent” designs, “offensive” and “unwholesome” shapes, and “eldritch” gods.
The Degenerate Dutch: Ellison may not want to see parallels between ancient “primitive” cultures and myths, and modern vulnerabilities, but the story is perfectly willing to treat all humanity as similarly unworthy.
Mythos Making: The not-quite-titular N plays a starring role, and Ellison gets on the tenure track at Miskatonic. Plus bonus mindless piping, with all that implies.
Libronomicon: The folklore shelves at Miskatonic, UCLA, and the British Museum are full of Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. As a result, Ellison gets to write—or at least start—a monograph on apocalyptic references to the Dark Prophet.
Madness Takes Its Toll: N makes a terrible seducer. We don’t recommend mindless piping as background music for your next tryst.
“Petotalrayn” wavers between annoying me with tropey cliches, and intriguing me with takes on the Mythos that I’d like to see more of. I like a good secret history as much as the next person. Ellison’s opening research, though, is too pat, from the colleague who hints darkly about the reality behind myths, to the scary forbidden back room, to the connect-the-dots mythological parallels.
Things pick up when Jenny appears. I like the idea of N as apocalyptic matchmaker. How many people can say they’ve been set up on a blind date via prophetic dream? Their “yours until the end of the world, I think we have about three hours left” relationship makes a nice contrast with the grand scale vision of N “tilling the soil” of human civilization. I suppose eventually someone’s gotta clear the way for the beetle people.
And then we have to go and waste Jenny, personal harbinger to Big N, on a scene of puppy-kicking squick-fridging. Girls are actually more than a way to make slimy babies, and girls directly in touch with the minds of elder gods doubly so. Why doesn’t she get to lead the armies of flammable darkness herself? Why does she have to give lunatic, slimy birth wailing in pain, and then disappear while the armies of darkness are stuck with a mere assistant professor as general? The underground squick does set the mood, but mostly reminds me of the final sequence in “Horror at Red Hook”—both its lack of linear sense and the sudden descent into pedestrian sexual anxiety.
Back to Ellison’s research. Having once been in thrall to academia myself, there are bits that ring true. When Ellison denies that modern “Dark Man” dreams might have any bearing on historical apocalyptic visions, you can understand why he wouldn’t want to admit the connection: that would require interdisciplinary work. Miskatonic’s hearing-and-permission for Ellison’s research, on the other hand, isn’t quite how academic freedom—or funding—normally works. Then again, perhaps Miskatonic exercises more veto power over professors’ work than most schools. That would actually make sense, even be survival-oriented… if only their judgment were better. On the other hand, newly minted grad students willing to risk their lives for tenure are a dime a dozen. Presumably Miskatonic has protocols in place for expeditions that never return. Search-and-rescue probably doesn’t enter into it.
The details of Ellison’s research ring less true. The ways he stretches his findings to make connections aren’t quite abstruse enough. The conceit of the non-name “Petotalrayn” leads to some really weird contortions. It doesn’t really resemble Latin, and I can’t imagine an actual specialist thinking it did. And it seems likelier that he’d seek more and more obscure languages, rather than speculate that “pet total rain” is a Flood reference. For that matter, British people don’t generally avoid writing names by writing them backwards. They usually go for the stolid “N—,” or dramatic cognomeni like “He Whose Name Shall Not Be Written Out.”
Then there’s the point where Ellison should at least consider the possibility that someone’s hoaxed lemur hands on rat skeletons. He doesn’t; he just squicks. He’s a lousy academic; he’s probably going to do much better as father to the legions of darkness. And I don’t think he’s actually going to do well at that—N-directed breeding would still make N’s creatures, and unless elder gods are fond of loophole-ridden traps, the new batch of kids will still be allergic to sunlight.
Not that I’m in favor of cleansing the earth, but how about instead of the “breed a new army for generations and hope they’re good with maps” plan, we try the “go out and buy a bunch of cloaks, then ride by night like Ringwraiths” plan? It’s so mad, it just might work.
Full disclosure: Nyarlathotep is by far my favorite Mythos entity. I mean, really, what could be nicer than the Soul and Messenger of the Outer Gods (only one of this entity’s myriad titles). I can see Jenny’s point in calling the Dark Prophet “It” rather than “He,” but I’ll probably lapse into “He” in my comments, as I tend to think of Nyarlathotep as Lovecraft first described him in the 1920 prose poem of the same name: “swarthy, slender and sinister” with the mien of a Pharaoh, and often a Pharaoh’s outfit as well. Wikipedia lists 23 avatars of Nyarlathotep, from the gelatinous Ahtu of the Congo to the Whispering Man who haunts the dreams of the mad. Lovecraft himself gave us that swarthy fellow fond of electrical gadgets, wild beasts and apocalypse (“Nyarlathotep”); the protector of the weak gods of Earth and Randolph Carter’s nemesis (The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath); the Black Man who hangs out with Keziah Mason and Brown Jenkins (“Dreams in the Witch House”); and the Starry Wisdom’s idol of three-lobed burning eye and hellish batwings (“Haunter of the Dark.) He’s also mentioned in passing in “Rats in the Walls,” “Whisperer in Darkness,” and “Shadow Out of Time.” He does NOT appear in “The Crawling Chaos.” Go figure.
One thing we can be sure of about Nyarlathotep: He’s always up to something. Or to many things. At once. As Soul and Messenger, he’s a very busy entity, the cosmos’s most impressive multi-tasker. He appears to have an affinity for the human form and human worship, but that may just be because we’re humans and only know about his interactions with us. I imagine that to his other known acquaintances, the Mi-Go and Yith, he appears in their own likenesses. He’s said to have a thousand avatars. I expect that’s a big underestimate.
The other thing we can be sure of about Nyarlathotep: Whatever he IS up to, it’s inscrutable, beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. Maybe beyond the comprehension of the other Outer Gods and Greater Races, too. Maybe he evolved from the mindless chaos Azathoth to be its agent or servant. Or maybe Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath, the other Outers, jointly created Nyarlathotep, again to serve them and liaise with lesser beings. I’m partial to the idea that Nyarlathotep, like so much SFF AI, has developed an intelligence and consciousness and WILL of his own. He serves the Outer Gods, all right, but increasingly for his own cryptic purposes.
Bentley Little first impressed me with his novel The Walking, which had one of the most disturbing and haunting openings I’ve ever read. He is, I believe, an adamant writer of HORROR, not dark fantasy, and we can certainly see that bent in his Nyarlathotep. It surrounds itself with some monstrous monsters, all right, the hordes of Brown Jenkins-like rat people, the legions of nastily mutated and slimy humanoids, wallowing in their own filth. What emerges from Its union with Jenny beats Geena Davis’s maggot-delivery in The Fly, and that’s going some. And this Nyarlathotep’s all about destruction, to a point that appalls even his superior gods. Here we have a variation on the Good Outer/Other/Elder Gods versus the Bad Outer/Other/Elder Gods. Because It’s gone way beyond Its assigned task of weeding out weak civilizations, the Good Gods have locked It up, with no entertainment but that lone mad piper on leave from Azathoth’s retinue. I wonder if the piper’s music is what keeps Nyarlathotep a prisoner —It doesn’t seem able to pass beyond the piper’s audibility range.
This Nyarlathotep is so bent on wiping out humanity, it seems to think that genocide will earn it freedom. Does it think the Good Gods are punishing it for not wiping out humanity fast enough? Bloodily enough? Is it right, because the Good Gods actually aren’t Good? Hey, they could just be TESTING Nyarlathotep, to see how loyal a servant it really is! Gods are big on testing their minions, you know.
Lots of Mythosian stuff I like here, from the evocation of “Witch House” and “Rats in the Walls” in all those Brown Jenkinses to the creepy echo of “Lurking Fear’s” Martenses in the inbred subterranean mutants. Could be my bias, but I don’t see Nyarlathotep as a single avatar liable to imprisonment by more powerful gods. Not that Little necessarily does either —all Ellison knows about is this particular avatar, the Dark Prophet, so that’s all the story’s about. Jenny, I don’t know. She seems set up to be the big shocker at the finale, the classic female horror victim, and in the classic female way, through violation and alien impregnation. Plus I don’t see what’s going to make Ellison such a savior of Nyarlathotep’s plans, siring a viable army where so many others have failed.
That could be Ellison’s delusion, though, the obsession he now shares with Nyarlathotep, which is a tragically cool idea.
Last quibble: How could Ellison be a research fellow at Miskatonic University and never get into the Arcane Archives and learn about the Outer Gods? Or why didn’t the profs there recognize that Petohtalrayn was Nyarlathotep but ill-disguised by the backwards spelling?
Could be really good security at the MU Library, I guess. Or the profs set poor Ellison up!
That’d be like them, the smug and secretive bastids.
Next week we’re taking a break for holidays—the following week, if you’re feeling tired and out of sorts, it could be that you partied a little too hard for New Years, or it could be… something else. Colin Wilson’s “Return of the Lloigor” will tell you all about the unsettling possibilities.
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.