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 Gene Wolfe’s “Lord of the Land,” first published in 1990 in his Starwater Strains collection. Spoilers ahead.
“Something moved when he switched off the light. And for an instant he had glimpsed his own shadow on the window blind, with that of someone or something behind him, a man even taller than he, a broad-shouldered figure with horns or pointed ears.”
Folklorist Samuel Cooper, aka The Nebraskan, has found a prime source in old Hop Thacker. They rock on the farmhouse porch, sipping granddaughter Sarah’s lemonade; Cooper surreptitiously turns on his miniature recorder when Hop launches into his uncanny tale:
Back in great-grandpaw’s time, three fellows decided to see who could shoot the most crows off a mule carcass. One was Colonel Lightfoot. One was Laban Creech. The third Hop calls Cooper, as if in lieu of a forgotten name. At dusk, Creech kills a “black hopper” too big for a crow. Cooper approaches – the dying creature’s like a crook-legged, wry-necked man, yet it’s not human, and its mouth is full of grave worms. It asks who shot it. Cooper says Creech. Before they can bury the soul-sucker, as Hop names it, its corpse vanishes. So does Creech. One killingly hot summer day, young Hop sees Creech become the soul-sucker himself, a roving black shadow come to “attend” a neighbor’s funeral.
See, the main job of a soul-sucker is to round up ghosts that won’t quit Earth for Heaven or Hell. Sometimes it hankers to drain a live person, and then it’s fight or die for that poor fellow.
Sarah’s father, Joe Thacker, invites Cooper to stay the night. Cooper accepts, though he’s confused by Sarah’s at once hospitable and anxious behavior. In the guest room, he browses Schmit’s Gods before the Greeks. The Egyptian deity Anuat, Lord of the Land, filled a role like the soul-sucker’s: herding reluctant souls into the realm of death and judgment. Anuat appeared as a jackal or jackal-headed man – might Hop’s soul-sucker have a similarly canine aspect?
Rejoining the family for sitcoms, Cooper senses suppressed fear. He retires early. Sarah follows with towels, and he asks what’s wrong. She counters with the suggestion the two of them go “to town” for the night. Though attracted to Sarah, Cooper declines to repay his host by seducing his daughter. Later he finds her note in his towels: Don’t tell him what grandfather told you. Him—her father?
The weirdness escalates. First Cooper glimpses the shadow of a tall pointy-eared figure in his bedroom. Then he dreams of Necropolis, city of tombs, where a jackal feasts on Cooper’s own mummified corpse. Waking, he discovers someone’s locked his door—but also slipped the key underneath, not so much locking him in as locking something out. A bodiless voice whispers in his ear: You must come to me.
Cooper slips back into dream, to watch the jackal vomit worm-riddled carrion. Cooper puts worms in his mouth, experiencing not disgust but “peace, health, love.” We will teach you, the worms murmur. Have we not come from the stars? Your own desire for them has wakened, Man of Earth.
That desire drives Cooper to use his key on the nearest tomb. Only the tomb door becomes the door of the guest room. Joe Thacker enters, Hop and Sarah close behind. “Fight him, young feller!” Hop yells. “Pa, DON’T!” Sarah screams. She slashes Joe with a butcher knife. He knocks her down. Cooper grabs Joe’s arm and demands explanation.
“It is love,” Joe says. Behind his parted lips, worms writhe. “That is your word, Man of Earth. It is love.”
Cooper fights, but is shoved back toward the bed. Joe bends over him, eyes full of pain yet speaking in the jackal’s voice: Open to me. And Cooper, feeling his previously unrecognized soul rush into his throat, says, “Yes.”
Joe’s mouth-worms, Cooper now sees, are actually the tentacles of a slime-sheathed horror. Suddenly Joe drops to the mattress, dead—Hop has buried Sarah’s knife in his back.
The old man collapses. He mutters about how he tried to warn Cooper with his soul-sucker yarn, while the Nebraskan carries him to bed. You gotta understand, Joe was himself most of the time, only attacking those dead or nearly so. Started when Joe shot a soul-sucker in the woods—he never had a restful day after its spirit got him.
No, Cooper says. The thing’s no spook, but an alien that parasitized Joe and who knows how many others, going back to ancient Egypt. One thing’s sure: they must kill it! Only when Cooper and Sarah return to Joe’s corpse, there’s no tentacled thing in his mouth, only a coating of slime. The creature’s escaped.
Or has it? Sarah kneels by her father and kisses him. Sometime later, when Cooper finally breaks free from shocked paralysis, dead man and living woman are “still locked in that kiss, her face ecstatic, her fingers tangled in the dead man’s hair.”
Two days later, back on the road, Cooper sees that kiss in every shadow.
What’s Cyclopean: “A daedel labyrinth of death and stone.” If you’re going to use one $20 word in a story, make it a doozy.
The Degenerate Dutch: Wolfe is actually good enough to write Appalachian dialect phonetically without looking down his authorial nose. However, it’s nearly impossible to use von Dänikenish extraterrestrial explanations for cultural accomplishments without seeming just a wee bit patronizing.
Mythos Making: Ancient Egyptian gods of the dead and Appalachian cryptids are really just mind-controlling aliens from beyond the stars. Maybe the confusion comes from Lovecraft and Houdini’s “Under the Pyramid”?
Libronomicon: Cooper carries The Types of the Folktale and Schmit’s Gods Before the Greeks in his luggage, because you never know when you might need to make an emergency Aarne-Thompson motif classification.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Everyone in this story appears to be sane. It’s just that some of them are also possessed.
Think you have a tough job? Well, try being a folklorist – it’s got to be one of the most dangerous professions on Earth (and all connecting dimensions.) Lovecraft’s Albert Wilmarth may be the dean of folklore warriors, but Wolfe’s Nebraskan matches his academic fervor and adds roguish color to the often monochromatic professor role. Samuel Cooper, Ph.D., of the University of Nebraska, appears in four Wolfe stories: today’s “Lord of the Land,” “The Nebraskan and the Nereid,” “The Fat Magician,” and “The Eleventh City.” He seems a decent guy, not overeager to play the salesman’s part in a farmer’s daughter joke, but he’s not above recording a subject without consent or noticing when pretty young women are, gasp, sexually desirable. He can also throw a mean punch. You have to admire that in a professor.
Hop and Sarah are equally cool characters. Hop’s dialect-laced ramblings made me grin, reminding me of Mark Twain’s great contribution to the Loquacious Old Dude archetype, Jim Blaine of Roughing It. Blaine’s famous in the mining camps for his tale of Grandfather’s Old Ram, which he can only tell when sociably drunk, and which is about everything but the ram. Hop Thacker may indulge in stream-of-memory storytelling, but since he belongs to the Loquacious Old Dude subtype that’s sharper than he lets on, there’s method to his meandering. He inserts Cooper’s name into the crow-shooting tale not out of senile slip but to heighten his warning; the insertion also alerts us that something more than porch-rocker jawing’s going on here. If Hop erred in letting his possessed son “mostly” feed on the dead and dying, he redeems himself by sinking that butcher’s knife before Joe can feed on Cooper. His act is rendered more poignant because Hop knows its probable consequence – the abruptly homeless soul-sucker will seek residence in the one who killed its former host.
At first Sarah plays the shy but randy farmer’s daughter, but like Hop she’s more than she chooses to appear, with multiple layers to her canniness. Her “humble” deprecation of the farmhouse accommodations is a first attempt to get Cooper out of danger. That failing, she switches to blown kisses, perfume and arranging to sit next to Cooper on the couch. When he doesn’t jump at her offer to “go to town,” she whispers that he should pretend illness and leave to find a doctor. Cooper doesn’t get it, however. He thinks she’s still trying to get in his pants. Her last resort is the note in the towel – she was prepared for all contingencies.
By locking Cooper’s door, Sarah gains precious seconds to try and stop Joe before he gets to Cooper. She even tries to stab her father. But it’s what happens after Joe’s death that really ramps up my interest.
Actually, the graphic yet finely wrought Necropolis dream sequences had already convinced me this was no simple Bad-Monster!-Kill-It! story. Mummy-worms, anyone? Come on, they’re a lot tastier than you’d think, because they represent union with star-creatures, ancient and cosmically wise. Union too, maybe, with the sucked souls of all their victims – um, I mean, lucky chosen inductees into the collective.
Cooper’s ready to join up after Joe explains things. It’s all very sexy, in fact, how he’s bent backwards over the bed, how he “opens” to Joe, how his soul rushes up into his throat. Which brings us back to Sarah. How sexy-terrible is the way she locks lips with her dead father–to join, we must fear, with what still lurks inside him. Cooper saw pain in Joe’s eyes, presumably all that was left of his humanity. But he sees ecstasy in Sarah’s face as that kiss goes on and on.
Hop always feared possessed Joe would go after his daughter. Did Sarah fear that as well, or in some dark chamber of her heart, did she want it? Is it fear that Hop will become the soul-sucker’s next host that drives her to that pre-emptive kiss-union? Or is it selfish desire? Or maybe the soul-sucker simply prefers a strong young body and so psychically reels her in as it tried to reel Cooper.
“Lord of the Land” raises many more questions than it wishes to answer, a Wolfe trademark. Like, does the tentacled slimy thing represent a new Great Race, or a lost Outer God larva, or what? Given its implied origin in ancient Egypt, I conjecture it’s one of the child-minions of Nyarlathotep, which He seeded into select followers to keep an eye on us People of Earth while delivering godly messages elsewhere. But that’s just me.
Last word: This story also got me thinking about how pieces we consider Mythosian can vary widely in their canon dependence or references. Wolfe appears to have made up the Schmit book and Anuat, a much nastier jackal god than Anubis. He uses none of the classic Mythos tomes, settings, characters, or creatures. Hell, Cooper doesn’t even wonder what Wilmarth would have thought of the soul-sucker! So, is this Lovecraft Lite? Anti-pastiche? What ties it to the Mythos – merely the tentacles and slime and a professor protagonist and a gabby old guy? But the Mythos doesn’t own those tropes. And I don’t like the sound of Lovecraft Lite or anti-pastiche.
What makes “Lord” Mythosian is its take on ur-Mythosian concepts like the staggering vastness of time and space, and the very OTHERNESS of the inhuman intelligences that sometimes drop to Earth. How terrible these things are, and yet, how tempting. It could be Wolfe wins the prize for combining revulsion and allure with his wormy jackal vomit that’s really all about peace, health and love on a starry scale.
I’m voting for him and the worms, anyhow.
You guys, this story is the creepiest. I’m normally pretty difficult to scare, probably a failing in a reader of weird fiction. “Lord of the Land” hits my threshold for walking around turning on all the lights. And checking whether my bed is still in place. And very carefully not looking out the window.
Some of the story’s shiver-inducing success is down to Wolfe’s status as one of the best sculptors of prose in genre fiction. There are sentences that would send me into paroxysms of writerly envy if I weren’t busy hiding under the covers. The combination of dream logic and nailed-down eyeball kicking detail is wondrous. “Eyeless and desiccated, smeared with bitumen and trailing rotting wrappings…”
The really effective thing, though, the thing that breaks through my jaded reading distance, is the layering of fears, and the seamless movement between them. Between one moment and the next, you might be dealing with an urban legend about monsters on dark country roads, denying the almost-evidence of your almost-senses in an unfamiliar bedroom, or seeing your own corpse in the city of the dead. Or fighting alien body-snatchers who awaken your desperate and awestruck desire to eat grave worms. (Well, that escalated quickly.) If none of that tickles the dank corners of your personal nightmares, your work with the Green Lantern Corps probably keeps you too busy to read anyway.
As mentioned in the comments last week, before the Mythos coalesced into full-on worldbuilding it was simply a web of mutual reference, hints of shared folklore dropped casually amid original creations. It’s appropriate that a piece with a folklorist narrator does this perfectly. Direct references to Lovecraft’s work are as light as they come, a brief mention of Houdini’s Egyptian exploits. And yet the tentacled soulsuckers fit easily in the same cosmos as elder things and mi-go.
Likewise the Thackers aren’t so far off from their kin outside Dunwich—even though Wolfe’s handling of rural folk, not to mention rural dialect, is infinitely more respectful than Lovecraft’s. Wolfe preserves the idea of horror grown strong in a place of few neighbors and unshakable family ties, without making the people themselves horrible. Even the grandfather who protects his soulsucking “son,” and the daughter who provides quiet backup for the creature’s depredations, are sympathetic.
The alien carries its own issues, though, and not just the issue of not wanting to lose your selfhood while blissed out on grave worms. Once you bring von Däniken into the mix, it’s hard to avoid the implication that most humans need aliens to do much of anything. Whether you want to build a pyramid or come up with a really scary campfire story, you’d better apply to your nearest UFO for help. This is merely fun conspiracy-mongering until you ponder that the one culture you know isn’t getting a hand up from little green men is your own. So maybe you’re the only ones that didn’t need it… Wolfe doesn’t go there, but it’s a short hop once the ancient astronauts rear their heads (or their tentacles).
One last thing: in addition to hiding under the bed, I learned something awesome from this week’s reading. As Cooper speculates that rural Appalachia gets its monsters by way of Egypt, he mentions the US Army importing camels and camel drivers. It turns out this was absolutely a thing, albeit an unsuccessful one. Army commanders apparently didn’t appreciate the advantages of camels for carrying mail across the Southwest desert—presumably because unlike the brilliant generals who came up with that stroke of genius, they were the ones being spit on every time one of the creatures threw a tantrum.
Next week, California too has its isolated seaside towns; join us for Kage Baker’s “Calamari Curls.” You can find it in her Dark Mondays and Best of Kage Baker collections, and in the Book of Cthulhu anthology
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.