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 Kage Baker’s “Calamari Curls,” first published in 2006 in her Dark Mondays collection. Spoilers ahead.
“Holy water, prayer and police tape had done all they could do; the glowing green miasma was dissipating at last, and the walls and windows of Calamari Curls had begun to appear again in ghostly outline. Even now, however, it was obvious that their proper geometry could never be restored.”
Nunas Beach, founded in 1906 on a stretch of sandy coastline south of San Francisco, has always been a hard-luck town. The original resort mostly washed out to sea or sank beneath wind-heaped sand; people soon deserted what remained except for three gritty streets and a scattering of shanties among the willow thickets. Still, it was a cheap place for social castaways like Pegasus Bright, who lost both legs to a landmine and who was unpleasant both drunk and sober. He could cook, though, and so he opened the Chowder Palace. The sole restaurant in Nunas Beach, it became the hangout-by-necessity for locals and scanty tourists alike.
That is, until outsiders buy the long-closed Hi-Ho Lounge across the street and turn it into Calamari Curls, a bright and bustling seafood place with excellent food and a neon octopus sign visible from the highway. Mr. Bright now watches with trepidation and hate as locals and tourists flock to Curls. Other shops in Nunas Beach benefit from the influx of visitors. Not Mr. Bright. He’s left to brood alone with his bourbon bottle.
One day he’s desperate enough to seek out Betty Step-in-Time, aka Elizabeth Marques, performance artist, interpretive dancer and transgender shaman. Betty holds forth on the Nunas Beach pier, dressed in pink middy top, sailor’s hat, tap shorts and tap shoes. She (Mr. Bright insists on “he” throughout, a linguistic choice that reflects his general level of personal charm) rides a pink bike and communicates in mime. Naturally Mr. Bright has always disdained this fellow townsperson, but now he seeks Betty’s help against Calamari Curls. They need to stand together against gentrification, right? And since Betty is a shaman and all…
Betty mimes that she’ll be a shaman for the whole $180 Mr. Bright’s brought with him. Several days later, she sashays into the Chowder Palace with a folder full of photocopied local history. Turns out Calamari Curls stands on the site of the Alder Street Natatorium, which was closed in 1922 following mass hallucination of a “sea creature” and the never-explained disappearance of the whole staff. In 1950 three young men opened the Hi-Ho Lounge above the old natatorium. It closed not long after, following a disastrous “poetry reading” which left one owner comatose and the others vanished, permanently.
So? Mr. Bright says.
Betty next produces a pink-inked astronomical/alchemical chart involving lunar phases and symbols representing things Mr. Bright has only imagined before on a three-day bender. From Betty’s vigorous miming, Mr. Bright at last understands that on the next full moon… well, let’s just say (or explicate through charades) that the stars might be right.
The full moon rises on Saturday night. A mediocre rock band’s performing at the Curls’ Talent Nite. Patrons are more diverted by Betty, who appears at the door dancing to the band’s rendition of “Louis, Louis.” Mr. Bright watches events unfold from the Palace window.
First a tremor shakes Curls. Then its lights take on a greenish cast. The always incomprehensible song lyrics begin to include such ominous gibberish as “Nyarlathotep” and “ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” The singer becomes a “white-eyed thing,” the band members play ear-bleeding melodies on reed pipes, and diners begin to run for the restrooms, nauseated. Many slip on seawater condensing from the thickening air. Floor tiles explode upward with jets of green gas and black water. Tentacles soon follow.
Her dance done, Betty flees by pink bike. Across the street Mr. Bright laughs and drinks bourbon as Calamari Curls begins “its warping, strobing, moist descent through the dimensions.”
Dawn finds fire engines, ambulances and hastily summoned holy men just departing the scene, leaving the Nunas Beach mayor to ask Mr. Bright if he knows anything about the catastrophe. Mr. Bright considers the last of the green miasma and how the ruins of Calamari Curls have lost their proper geometry, never to be restored. Of course he had nothing to do with it, but he’s glad to see Curls go. The rents in Nunas Beach won’t be rising anytime soon now, will they?
How can Mr. Bright think about rents when they have “another vortex into a lost dimension, smack in the middle of town this time”?
Oh, Mr. Bright will manage. So will everyone else. After a while people stop noticing the eldritch wreck of Curls. The black things that mewl and gibber at night around Mr. Bright’s garbage cans can be quelled by thrown skillets. And his customers come back. What’s more, he mellows out, warming even to Betty Step-in-Time. Takes all kinds to make a world, Mr. Bright now opines. You really shouldn’t judge folks without you get to know them.
What’s Cyclopean: The “glowing green gas of all corruption” eventually dissipates into a mere “miasma,” at which point it’s time for the clean-up crew. Even afterward, though, “black things mewl and gibber” around the site.
The Degenerate Dutch: I’m 90% sure the constant misgendering of Betty is supposed to be the narrator and not the author, but it’s still unpleasantly distracting. Also, just a wee survival tip: maybe don’t misgender Cthulhu-summoning shamans.
Mythos Making: Talent night can only be improved by invoking Nyarlathotep in the middle of “Louie Louie.”
Libronomicon: Newspaper clippings and old town records hint at things man was not meant to know, just as they do in “Call of Cthulhu.” Or kind of like that, anyway.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Lotsa perfectly sane jerks in this story.
I adore Kage Baker’s Company novels, a potent mix of intensely cynical profit-grubbing time travel, Weird California urban legend, snarky social satire, and vast conspiracies spanning human history. It was a yen for the Weird California stuff in particular that led me to suggest this week’s story.
I share Lovecraft’s adoration of my native New England, but not his fears: to me old Victorians and forest-covered mountains and beaches at high tide are signs all’s well with the universe. California, on the other hand, is eldritch. For a start, there’s earthquakes. I’ve been in one of those, and it’s just not natural. Ground isn’t supposed to do that. There are roads that assume a supernatural ability to avoid driving off cliffs. Dark sorcery is required to produce water. But the mountains rise over the ocean with perfect liminality, and creative energies concentrate on the verge of Cthulhian singularity. Baker at her best played with all of this and threw in subterranean lizard people, the mysteries of Catalina Island, and a deep knowledge of movie history from the trivial to the terrifying.
That’s what I wanted from “Calamari Curls.” What I got was a story that is regretfully forgettable. I know it’s forgettable because I forgot it: I’ve read the Dark Mondays collection and yet recollected nothing of “Curls” other than the California setting and the inclusion of tentacles. Had I remembered, I probably would have pored through my Baker collections to find a more awesome story that could be reasonably classed as Weird, rather than this undeniably Lovecraftian piece that is clever but very little else. If this is your first of her works, I’m sorry and I swear it’s not representative. Go read “The Dust Enclosed Here” or “Lemuria Will Rise” or In the Garden of Iden.
Back to “Calamari Curls,” which is made particularly unfortunate by Betty the Magical Trans Woman, who A) only speaks in pantomime and B) is misgendered throughout by the admittedly unsympathetic narrator. I spent the whole story waiting for the hoary old trope of Do Not Offend Wizards to rear its cyclopean head and gobble up Mr. Bright for his temerity, but alas no luck. It wouldn’t have been a more original story if he’d paid the inevitable price for mistreating the staff of Rent-a-Thing-Man-Wasn’t-Meant-To-Know, but it would have been a better one.
That said, it is clever, beyond the obvious rock’n’roll invocation of elder gods and the town full of vortices into lost dimensions. Betty’s explanation of the new restaurant’s site history is reminiscent of stories like “Call of Cthulhu” where the eldritch is gradually revealed through rumor and newspaper clipping and hint-filled letter. Nunas Beach itself smacks of Innsmouth—the economic ruin secretly a shield against prying tourist eyes—long before the locals turn out to know quite a lot that man was not meant to etc.
I also feel like “A pastor, a priest, and a rabbi walk into the aftermath of a cosmic horror incursion” sounds like the beginning of a much more interesting story. Or possibly just a really good joke.
The restaurant industry is a cutthroat business, with warring chefs and many new shops closing within a year or two of opening. Fortunately most don’t go down as spectacularly as Calamari Curls, or I think people would eat at home a lot more, with all the doors and windows locked. Remembering what happened in “Bad Sushi,” they might also adopt Lovecraft’s aversion to seafood.
That said, I wouldn’t mind living in a dune shanty outside Nunas Beach, as long as I could do my own cooking and I stayed on Betty Step-in-Time’s good side. I might even play poker with Peg Bright from time to time, now he’s mellowed out about people different from himself, which used to be pretty much everyone. Why, he couldn’t even stand old Charlie, who’d only lost a leg to a shark, the dumbass, rather than in service to his country. Live and let live is Mr. Bright’s motto now, so long as you’re not a direct business competitor. And come on, Calamari Curls didn’t fit in to Nunas Beach, did it? All bright and happy and prosperous and not-misfit-y as it was? I wonder why the two suits relocated there. I wonder why someone put a swimming pool in a beach town in the first place. Maybe the natatorium was just a front for illegal hootch, since people suspected ergot poisoning to have caused its unfortunate mass hallucination incident.
Ultimately you should always believe the native peoples or early settlers. Didn’t missionaries forbid their parishioners to go to the stretch of coast that would eventually become Nunas Beach? Yes. Yes, they did. There were also rumors of pirates. Pirates, sure, just like at Devil Reef in Innsmouth. Pirates get blamed for all seaside unpleasantness really caused by marine Mythos creatures, don’t they? Nunas Beach also has this little problem with interdimensional rifts. The one across the street from the Chowder Palace is not the only one in the area, we learn at story close, for the mayor pitches a fit about having ANOTHER one right in the middle of town!
He kind of overreacts. People get used to stuff, however outré. Why, they don’t even notice Curl’s non-Euclidean geometry after a while. Which speaks to the resilience of the human mind in a far more positive manner than Lovecraft generally did. Folks might have been eaten at Calamari Curls, or transformed into minions of the Outer Gods, but did they go mad? Not that we’re told. Why, Mr. Bright’s worldview and attitude only improve!
I guess whether a reader likes “Calamari Curls” will depend on his or her tolerance for a whimsical/humorous approach to a canon that is anything but whimsical or humorous. [RE: Or how high your bar is set for snickering—in my case it’s at “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar” and GURPS IOU.] With possible Dreamlands exceptions, that is, for I think Lovecraft is sometimes a bit wry in his works set in that milieu. I have a fairly high tolerance for Mythos Light. Most things Light—I got in big trouble with fellow Tolkien fans in high school when I read the heinous Harvard Lampoon parody “Bored of the Rings” and laughed. Laughed! I was going straight to Mordor, obviously. Then again, I identified strongly with the hobbits, who like nothing more than a good guffaw. Those who identified with Elves, or worse, Wizards, tended to be way less amused.
This might be as good a time as any to confess that in high school I often wore a football jersey with the name FRODO on front and the name CTHULHU on back. I also sort as a Hufflepuff-Slytherin toss-up, which may explain the jersey?
Or wasn’t it a good time?
Oh well, “Calamari Curls” is growing on me. Which makes me wonder about how I’d feel about calamari curls, that is tentacles, actually growing on me. The moral of the story could be a comfort in that case: Takes all kinds to make the world, even Medusans. Ask old Mr. Bright, or even Betty Step-in-Time, if you are so enlightened as to have learned to bear the proximity of mimes.
Now that’s enlightenment on a cosmic scale!
Next week, David Drake’s “Than Curse the Darkness” answers the question of why you might want to summon Cthulhu from his aeon-spanning slumber.
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.