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 Holly Phillips’s “Cold Water Survival,” first published in Ellen Datlow’s Lovecraft Unbound anthology in 2009. Spoilers ahead.
“Cutter is dead and I don’t know what to feel.”
Five seasoned adventurers have embarked on their most extreme endeavor yet: the exploration of Atlantis, a Denmark-sized berg calved by the Antarctic ice sheet. Despite cooperation from Australia and McMurdo Station, the authorities don’t know what to make of civilians claiming an iceberg in international waters as their own sovereign country. They’ve pretty much left the explorers to their frigid isolation.
Nameless female narrator is the videographer of the group, as well as one of its expert climbers. She begins her story with Cutter’s fall into a crevasse near their camp. While filming his fatal accident, she unknowingly records shapes deep within the ancient ice. The remaining four “Atlanteans” grieve for their friend, yet they can’t suppress excitement over narrator’s discovery. Narrator and Del recover Cutter’s body. On the way down, they spot more vague shapes; at crevasse bottom, they find a man-sized ice block that looks something like an ammonite. They bring it up as well.
Narrator persuades Del, Andy and Miguel to report Cutter’s death – they can’t go on pretending he’s alive. But they won’t abandon Atlantis, and she doesn’t think anyone will bother forcing them off.
They house the “ammonite” in an unheated tent. Narrator decides it looks more like a 3D Celtic knot and dreams of an alien eye opening in its frozen heart, of octopus-like limbs swirling to embrace her. She and Andy look over the edge of the berg ice-cliffs into the Antarctic waters and see dim shapes that “coil and turn and dive, smooth and fluid as silk scarves on the breeze.” Are they seals, dolphins, giant squid? They vanish before the two women can identify them.
The four make a trip to a second crevasse, planting orange flags to guide them back to camp. All see ice pillars rising from it, structures like emergent buildings or vehicles – or they all think they do. The video record inexplicably shows nothing unusual. Are they suffering from a stress-induced group delusion? Narrator’s less sure a couple days later, when she finds her fully-charged camera drained and a recording on it she didn’t make. None of them could have made it, because they haven’t come equipped to dive in the near-freezing ocean, and the tape shows a dive under the iceberg, where algae paints the ice-cathedral “ceiling” with what look like glyphs. Among the strange life she’d expect, stranger life swarms, something like jellyfish in their transparency but much weirder, “fluid, many-limbed, curious.” These creatures ascend a sort of ice-chimney, evidently to the bottom of the crevasse into which Cutter fell. At least they find spattered blood there, which they absorb “until each creature is tinted with the merest thread of red.”
The group’s divided over this tape, which could only have been made by one of the creatures themselves, borrowing narrator’s camera! Del wants to think it’s a hoax, but whose? Andy thinks aliens, only aliens far more at home on Atlantis than themselves. Miguel walks out. Later they discover he’s left camp. A storm’s rolling in, and the other three must go after him.
They battle through wind and icy fog toward the second crevasse. The white-out triggers illusions: weird-angled walls rising from the haze, bell-like voices singing under ice and water. The berg, “melting and flawed to its core,” suffers tremors, flinging the three rescuers around while from the depths issues “a deep immense creaking moan that might have come from some behemoth’s throat.” The ice stills, but not before scattering their guide-flags. Disoriented, they can only follow the jumbled flags onward.
At the end of the marked trail they find “spires of ice…like jagged minarets…great pillars, crystalline arches, thin translucent walls…an inhuman city in the ice.” Andy yells for Miguel. Del, ever the survivalist, starts up the camp stove. Narrator films the city. Down its “tilt-floored icy avenues,” she and camera focus on a “clarity that swirls like a current of air – like a many-limbed being with a watery skin.” She zooms in on an eye, vast and staring.
Miguel stumbles out of the ice, his “high-crooning” like the “glass-harmonica singing of the wind.” They manage to get him back to camp. Narrator realizes something’s been there in their absence, poking through their supplies, inspecting her camera. She takes an axe to the ice-shape they brought from the crevasse and chops it to shards. Del comes after her and drugs her into sleep, as they’ve already drugged Miguel.
Awake, Miguel does nothing but gibber words so alien they make him drool and choke. Outside, the ice births more spires, walls, an alien city like a “lab-grown crystal.” Narrator realizes that Atlantis belongs to the ice-creatures, has always belonged to them. What will happen to humanity as more of the polar ice melts, releasing – something – into the warming seas? Won’t – something – reclaim the water-world it once ruled? Well, humanity warmed the planet and so brought this attack on itself, not from space but from Earth’s own deep past. Andy and Del start planning an escape via inflatable lifeboat. Narrator wonders why they should leave Atlantis, “just when things are getting interesting.”
“Get beyond it, [she’ll] have to tell them, as [she] did when Cutter died.” Because, see, “We have to look beyond.”
Meantime she downloads her log and video files to flash drives that’ll fit in a waterproof container. Just in case she needs to leave a “message in a bottle.”
What’s Cyclopean: Phillips gets her effect through simple, vivid descriptions: “It was so blue. Ice like fossilized snow made as hard and clear as glass by the vast weight and the uncountable years.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Distinctions among humans barely register.
Mythos Making: Those are probably relatives of the Old Ones. Or something like.
Libronomicon: No books, but an extensive videography record.
Madness Takes Its Toll: The moan of the transforming iceberg is “a sound to drive you insane.” That seems… like a pretty reasonable reaction, actually.
What’s better than wandering through the halls of the Mythos to discover intriguing side tunnels chipped out of the living rock by (previously) unread hands? Supply me with a thermos of coffee and some energy bars, a flashlight in case things get dark (because you know they will), and I’m happy. Holly Phillips is a lifelong resident of British Columbia, one of the many places I must visit before the Great Old Ones rise and devour the world (probably saving the Burgess Shale for a tasty mid-apocalypse snack.) In the Lovecraft Unbound anthology, Phillips appends these notes to “Cold Water Survival”:
“Lovecraft appeals to me for…that connection he draws between insanity and the perception of the inhuman universe (and which comes first?); the thoroughly satisfying notion of ancient, alien civilizations buried under this thin skin of humankind; his baroque weirdness. It amuses me to think we might actually be related…The likelihood is vanishingly small. Still, that sort of hidden connection to the past, and to tainted bloodlines, seems very Lovecraftian, don’t you think?”
In “Cold Water Survival,” we return to another of my dream destinations, Antarctica. The story’s ties to At the Mountains of Madness are more oblique than those in Leiber’s “Terror from the Depths,” but Phillips’ selection of epigraph from Lovecraft’s novella is telling. The two works share an atmosphere as menacingly disorienting as Lovecraft’s “queer antarctic haze” or Phillips’ “freezing fog.” They both make “some fiendish violation of known natural law” primary plot center and driving psychological goad. There’s no worldview upheaval as potent as finding out that not only are we not alone in the universe, we’re not even alone on “our own” planet. In fact, we’re the Johnnies-come-lately, the roaches who survived Armageddon to reign supreme. Well, to reign supreme until through short-sighted cockiness we have remade the world to better suit our predecessors, survivors via hibernation and the patience to wait for the stars to be right again, as I guess they’ll always become if you can hang around that long.
Nice concept, an independent group making themselves a temporary nation on a doomed-to-melting iceberg, and what a great setup for isolation, both spatial and emotional. The world changes first for this little self-selected tribe, and communications snafus keep them from warning everyone else. Narrator does her best to preserve the cautionary tale, but by the time anyone finds her “message in a bottle,” will the thawing of the whatever-they-ares still be news?
I really don’t know. Must these creatures be inimical to humanity? Narrator seems to assume so. After all, they’re utterly alien, unthinkable and unnamable in the classic Mythosian manner! Yet she acknowledges that the havoc they’re wreaking on Atlantis (from the human “settlers'” point of view) may simply be incidental, “careless.” At the same time, the creatures are aware of the “settlers” and may even be trying to communicate with them through dreams, selfie video tapes, teaching Miguel to speak however droolingly in their own tongue. Okay, Miguel might have picked up a few phrases while wandering in the burgeoning ice-city. Or the creatures could have taken over his body, inhabited his brain, hence his current “psychosis.” Not that such a takeover couldn’t be an attempt to communicate, however disastrous to the intended “mouthpiece.”
Ultimately Phillips’ narrator proves herself that epitome of the Lovecraftian protagonist, even through her existential terror able to marvel at the impossibilities that have inspired it. Del and Andy may want to leave Atlantis, but narrator’s girding herself to convince them they have to “get beyond” their panic. To get beyond because then they can all look beyond. Come on, why else did the five of them come to Atlantis, if not to place themselves where things could get seriously “interesting.”
Fear plus Awe can equal Curiosity. Curiosity can lead to Knowledge. What does Knowledge lead to, Despair or Wisdom? Some of each, alternating or simultaneous?
Yeah, I think Holly Phillips is related to Howard Phillips, through outlook if not genetics.
And what about these floaty watery airy many-limbed beings? Can we Mythos taxonomists identify them, or are they a whole new species-genus-family-etc.-phylum? They’re not Elder Things. They’re sort of shoggothian, though much less amorphous. Maybe they’re Phillips’ own contribution to the Great Races, ancient allies or enemies of the Elder Things, the Cthulhu-Spawn, the Yith and Yuggothians and Flying Polyps. I notice they may exist on a continuum of the invisible-energetic through the ethereal (airy aspect) through the semi-material (watery aspect) and the fully material (ice-ammonite form.) Maybe they manifest themselves and their artifacts in whatever matter is around, here, air, water, ice. Hence the ice-cities growing like crystals from the frigid substance of the berg and the beings sometimes just bubbles, sometimes skinned in water.
Also, the many-limbed beings may not be the only weird species on and around Atlantis. Some of those other ice-bound shapes seem much bigger. Do we want to know more about—them?
Come on, let’s be like Narrator. We’re here, might as well look beyond and enjoy it.
Lovecraft was terrified of the ocean, of deep time, of inhuman intelligence that might surpass us—and varied in how effectively he shared that fear. At the Mountains of Madness is one of his masterpieces: the overwhelming vast cold of Antarctica is legitimately awe-inspiring even before you add in the aeons-spanning civilization of the Old Ones. Phillips gets a similar effect, riffing on “Mountains” without depending on it for borrowed power.
Antarctica has connotations now that it lacked in 1936. “Cold Water Survival” is unabashedly Anthropocentric horror. The melting glacier is a potent reminder of Deep Time and mortality, inextricably mixed in truly Lovecraftian fashion. Humanity’s immense power to shape the Earth leads to our ultimate powerlessness as our creations overwhelm us—a problem for the Old Ones, and now for us. Cosmic horror, it turns out, maps pretty well to climate change, just as it did to the Cold War. Perhaps all apocalypses are one in the eye of the Sleeping God.
I actually find the cosmic horror take on apocalypse optimistic. Humanity may pass, but we’ll have successors. Mass extinctions may come and go, but civilization is a constant. It’s not all up to us.
Narrator has a very modern method of distancing herself from horror. The story frequently falls back from her own vision to the video record she’s making of their expedition. This put me in mind of two panels I attended at Arisia a couple of weeks ago: one (which I was part of) on writing sensory details, the other (which I wasn’t) on adapting prose to film. The first emphasized the importance of engaging all senses in your descriptions, something “Survival” does only sparingly. The second emphasized noting every visual detail in a story, and amping those up for the limited sensory palette of the screen. The former is usually my preference—actually, when I’m left to my own devices characters end up with distinct smells and extremely vague appearances. But the vivid imagery afforded by a vast glacier is enough to make that single sense sing.
The internet is full of images from real glacial expeditions, awe-inspiring and alien. The shapes and colors are unlike anything else found on Earth (or as Narrator puts it, “Earth”). Caverns and cracks beyond human scale, blues that the eye can barely comprehend. A calving glacier, caught on camera, is indescribable as Lovecraft’s best graveyard monster. Modern documentary abilities are a thin shield between these and the limits of our comprehension.
The thawing creatures themselves are kept appropriately vague. Their appearance, powers, goals, can be inferred but not known. They could be Lovecraft’s “men,” dangerous as us because of their very similarities, or his gods that destroy us casually, without truly noting our existence. Or both. Even what they’ve done already is left uncertain. Are the dead radios only a problem on Atlantis, or has the static spread worldwide? Fredric Brown posited in 1945 that the death of world-spanning communications might lead to a more relaxed society; effects today would simply be catastrophic.
One final way that Phillips mirrors Lovecraft is in the vital role of cat-killing curiosity. Narrator’s expedition has claimed Atlantis because they can, stays in spite of death and conflict because they want to learn more. And is likely to die for the same reason—a fate Narrator seems to half-embrace. “Why should we leave just when things are getting interesting?”
Next week, the ocean is still pretty scary in F. Marion Crawford’s “The Upper Berth.”
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.