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 David Drake’s “Than Curse the Darkness,” first published in 1980 in Ramsey Campbell’s New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos collection. Spoilers ahead.
“The trees of the rain forest lowered huge and black above the village, dwarfing it and the group of men in its center. The man being tied to the whipping post there was gray-skinned and underfed, panting with his struggles but no match for the pair of burly Forest Guards who held him.”
From 1885 to 1908, King Leopold of Belgium ruled what he called the Congo Free State. His chief interest was supposedly humanitarian, but our story begins with three instances of the gross inhumanity with which Belgian operatives “improved” the native peoples and relieved them of the biological and mineral wealth they were too backward to appreciate.
Lt. Trouville oversees the whipping of a “lazy” rubber gatherer by his Baenga Forest Guards. All goes smoothly until the gatherer’s seven-year-old son Samba wrestles with the whip-wielder. A Guard clubs Samba, deforming his skull. The father tears free, to be shot by the Guards. Trouville scolds his minions for wasting bullets when spear thrusts would have done the job.
Sgt. Osterman oversees rubber collection at another forest village. His Baenga second Baloko accuses the village chief of adulterating his rubber with trash to make quota. Obviously chief M’fini’s been spending too much time with his three wives, too little working for King Leopold. Baloko will help him do better. He castrates M’fini. Now he and Sgt. Osterman will have to take care of M’fini’s youngest wife themselves, and they get right to it.
Capt. de Vriny, commanding a Belgian steamer, surprises renegade traders Gomes and Kaminski—renegade, it seems, because they believe in fair trade. His Guards kill Gomes and his African associates and shoot Kaminski in the face, knocking both his eyes from his head.
Deep in the forest, after each incident, drums sound. There are rumblings neither of man nor the Earth, and soil bubbling like hot tar births deadly appendages.
Meanwhile, in London, Dame Alice Kilrea studies obscure tomes and corresponds with royal personages about her fear that “in the jungles of that dark continent the crawling chaos grows and gathers strength.” Luckily she’s armed herself with formulae to stop it, if only the royal personages will secure her access to Leopold’s Congo. Dame Alice is sure they’ll exert themselves, as “life itself” is at stake here!
Soon Dame Alice and her American bodyguard Sparrow are in the Congolese forest, shepherded by now-Colonel Trouville, de Vriny, and Osterman. She questions them about the ongoing native rebellion and its gods. Trouville and de Vriny laugh—why, they are the gods in this part of the forest! But Osterman admits that the rebels do have a new god, nothing like the usual fetishes. This god will supposedly free the natives by the simple expedient of devouring the whole world.
Alhazred called it Nyarlathotep, Dame Alice says. The Balongo name it Ahtu. Gentlemen, there are powers in the universe bent on sowing chaos. One can either help, or fight them. She’s chosen to fight.
The Belgians invade a riverside village and torture its priest until he reveals the rebels’ gathering place. Their leaders are strange. One’s a boy missing an ear, with a head like a stoved-in melon. This boy hears the god Ahtu and does his bidding. Another’s an old man missing his manhood, who “quickens” the ground where Ahtu sleeps. The third’s a white man without eyes, who can see Ahtu, and how It grows ripe.
A tremor shakes the ground. A tentacle bursts free, carrying off the screaming priest. Dame Alice shouts words unknown to the rest as the tentacle rears two hundred feet overhead—as if struck by lightning, the terrible appendage explodes.
Undeterred by horror, the Belgians press toward the rebel village. The rebellion must end! So it must, Dame Alice says, if mankind’s to survive another month.
The rebels deep in the forest are all “cut” men, missing feet or hands, mutilated by whippings, or eyeless. Despite their injuries, they dance around the three leader-prophets, chanting “Ahtu, Ahtu!” Dame Alice explains that Ahtu and its fellows may not be gods at all, but “cancers, spewed down on Earth ages ago. Not life, surely, not even things—but able to shape, to misshape things into a semblance of life and to grow and to grow and to grow.”
With a last “Ahtu!”, the three leaders sink into the ground as the god-cancer erupts in waves and tentacles of animated earth. Dame Alice chants from her book, while Sparrow fends off human attackers. A “trunk” fifty feet wide rears above them. Tendrils studded with sharp quartz protrude from its base and wreak bloody havoc on Belgian operatives and worshippers alike. But with five last words, Dame Alice summons gouts of “cauterizing flame” which slowly drive Ahtu back into the ground. A volcanic explosion marks its demise—for the moment. As Dame Alice says, a surgeon doesn’t kill a cancer but only cuts all she can, knowing some must remain to slowly grow again.
Trouville approaches, dapper as ever, while his Forest Guards slaughter a two-year-old child found in a rebel hut. Dame Alice hopes it will be more than their lifetimes before Ahtu returns, but she’s troubled by why the rebels would have summoned it, knowing they’d be the first to die. Sparrow laughs, for it’s occurred to him that if Ahtu and its worshippers were evil, why then, they must be good! Huh, never thought of that before.
The Baenga Guards laugh, too, as they impale the child on a spit for roasting.
What’s Cyclopean: Summon things man was not meant to know, turn the Earth into a “ball of viscid slime.” Sounds like a plan.
The Degenerate Dutch: “Darkness” engages head-on with Lovecraft’s racism… while still managing to have elder gods worshipped primarily by nameless brown people.
Mythos Making: This version of the Crawling Chaos is more a tentacular ice-9 than clever Soul and Messenger.
Libronomicon: Dame Alice repeatedly mentions Alhazred, presumably referring to the Necronomicon. She also carries everywhere a book of useful incantations, presumably How to Banish an Elder God in Ten Excruciatingly Difficult Steps.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Exposure to Nyarlathotep makes it hard to hold onto your sanity. So does exposure to the soldiers of the Congo Free State.
Commenting on “Than Curse the Darkness,” David Drake writes he was always puzzled by why Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones attracted human minions, given Their goals included annihilating humanity. Cultists like old Castro in “Call of Cthulhu” assume the Old Ones will spare their followers. What’s more, They’ll usher in a scarlet age in which their followers can shout and kill and revel with impunity, even learn whole new ways to shout and kill and revel!
Sure, Castro. Like Cthulhu is going to whisper in your dreams that once you’ve freed Him from R’lyeh, you’ll be just one more splat on the non-Euclidean architecture. More likely when the Great Old Ones don’t need human cultists anymore, it’s goodbye, guys, like everybody else. That’s assuming the Old Ones are alien enough not to need or enjoy worship and dominion, unlike ourselves.
Drake’s Old Ones ARE just that alien. Dame Alice reduces them from gods to subsentients, not even alive as we understand living. They are “cancers” from outside, forces able to “misshape things into a semblance of life and to grow and to grow and to grow.” They don’t want to rule our world. They don’t want anything. Mindless (where have we heard that before?) they “permeate” whatever they touch, morphing it, oh in Earth’s case, into “a ball of viscid slime hurtling around the sun and stretching tentacles toward Mars.”
From our point of view, that’s existential terror in the extreme. I don’t care how many sacrifices you’ve made to nurture Ahtu, how strenuously you’ve danced for Its sake—you aren’t going to survive viscid slime-ification.
Yet Drake’s cultists accept this price. Dame Alice can’t understand such fanatic self-sacrifice. I imagine she’d have equal trouble fathoming the “mongrel” cultists of “Call of Cthulhu,” the inbred wizards of Dunwich and hybrid Dagonites of Innsmouth, and the heterogeneous hordes of Red Hook. Even when she descends from noble privilege into the heart of darkness, even when she witnesses close up the grossest inhumanity of which humanity is capable, she doesn’t GET IT. There are peoples so oppressed and persecuted, so circumscribed and harried by circumstance, that they find their lives unlivable. They stand at the edge of a void, and hey, know what? The void looks better to them than the world that’s pushed them toward it, be the void glory or oblivion.
Drake writes that he could have chosen many other times and places than the Congo Free State for his tale. “Knowledge of history isn’t an altogether cheerful accomplishment.” The Congo Free State will sure as hell do, however. The novelette can detail only a few of the atrocities wreaked on the Bakongo people by Belgians and their African allies. I find the featured victims Sambo and M’fini and Kaminski, later Ahtu’s prophets, the only sympathetic characters in the story, along with their fellow victim-rebels. The murdered trader Gomes deserves special mention for dealing fairly with the Africans and for his outrage over Belgian looting. That he’s married an Angolan woman is further evidence that he’s de Vriny’s polar opposite.
The designated villains of the piece are capital-letter BAD GUYS, Europeans and Africans alike. Trouville’s a dapper monster, de Vriny plump and effete yet vicious, Osterman a loutish drunk. Balongo, representative of the Baenga Forest Guards, is as amoral and sadistic as his masters, and a cannibal besides. Not that I question the historical reality behind these characters, but they verge on stereotype, especially in dialogue.
However Drake counters the BAD GUYS with Dame Alice, who’s the story’s most complex character. She saves the day, but she’s no HERO. The noble Irish society of her birth would have preferred Alice to divert her abundant energy into raising spaniels; it’s something of a triumph that she’s pursued arcane scholarship instead, and to depths that have warped less steely minds. Alice has seen the truth of the worlds but kept her sanity. Her sense of duty has broadened to include protection of all earthly life from cosmic cancer, even if she can only protect it temporarily. But her dutifulness is abstract, chilled. She cares about humanity, not individual humans. Maybe she can’t afford to care about this particular African priest staked and tortured. She doesn’t enjoy the spectacle or approve of Belgian cruelties. She puts up with them because she’s chosen to fight and fighting’s often ugly. She’s an ugly duckling herself, fashioned for no feminine softness. Privilege remains hers. Privilege makes her work possible. It also blinds her to the desperation of those who can only achieve equality by uniting all mankind in alien annihilation.
For if Ahtu subsumes all things into Itself, then won’t all things be one?
Dame Alice can’t get that.
Know who can? Sparrow, Alice’s little American desperado-cum-bodyguard. His is the story’s clearest moral vision, or clearest amoral vision. His business is personal (and employer) survival, and he’s amused to think he can label this self-evident imperative as “good.” If the other side’s evil, Sparrow must be on the side of the angels, right?
In the end, we all shine, or glint: Alice’s lantern-lit book and Sparrow’s revolvers, the cut men’s scars, Ahtu’s quartz-spiked tendrils and the Baengas’ filed teeth in the moonlight….
“Than Curse the Darkness” is a nesting doll of Degenerate Dutchiness, some layers of which are more deliberate and effective than others. This thing made me think, I’ll give it that. I really wanted to like it—but not everything I’m thinking is very nice.
The first layer is Drake’s central conceit: push anyone hard enough and universal oblivion starts to sound pretty good. King Leopold’s Congo was at least as nasty as Drake portrays. If the rulers of the world are killing and mutilating your children for fun and profit, then the crawling chaos might seem a liberator of sorts. Of course then someone will be obliged, Lovecraft-style, to come in and defend civilization—but it does certainly beg the question of whether civilization is at that point worth saving.
Drake’s introduction implies sympathy with this nihilistic brand of rebellion. Which brings us to another layer: the whole story is from the oppressors point of view. I like a good villain story as much as the next person, but this seems like a weird choice. Not only do we see entirely through the eyes of some of the douchiest people who ever douchecanoed, but they’re the only ones who get to protag. Some even get to be fairly sympathetic: Dame Alice in particular would get a lot of credit for her hard work saving the world, if only she weren’t on such friendly terms with the genocider-in-chief.
The rebels, on the other hand, are mostly nameless “natives,” led (if that’s the term) by a couple of people about whom we know nothing except for how our protagonists mutilated them. They’re ultimately as anonymous as Lovecraft’s own scary brown cultists. The story may not approve of Leopold’s Congo, but it’s mostly a story about antiheroic white people saving the world. Um.
Out yet another layer, the whole conceit is actually, when you think about it harder, kind of insulting. It is in fact the case that when people are oppressed, they eventually rebel. And their rebellion… is generally carried by some vision of a better life, however faint the possibility or wide the river of blood between. “Anything would be better than this” has led to some pretty iffy anythings, of course. But to go directly for the apocalypse after less than thirteen years (the CFS’s full span), without first trying to slit a few rubber-loving throats, would bespeak a distinct lack of imagination.
In the real world, as uncomfortable in its own way as the Mythosian cosmos, nihilism isn’t usually born from absolute degradation. More often, it comes from privilege fractionally reduced or even just threatened. It comes from people who aren’t getting the everything they think they deserve, but who still have the power to drag everything down in retaliation.
This is not to say that oppression doesn’t lead some people to: “Hell, let’s just burn it all down.” And there’s an intriguing story to be had from the perspective of the people trying to summon Ahtu, that would leave you uncomfortably sympathetic and wondering if there really wasn’t any other way… but that would have involved looking through another set of eyes.
I can’t help comparing “Than Curse the Darkness” with Everfair, Nisi Shawl’s recent novel in which the Free State inhabitants are fortunate enough to find themselves in a Steampunk universe rather than cosmic horror. There, European idealists (much like those who helped bring Leopold down in real life) along with Leopold’s victims (much like those who resisted in real life) come together to imagine and build a new country—a vision of creation rather than destruction. One certainly doesn’t expect this kind of optimism in Lovecraftiana—but the breadth of understanding of who acts would have been welcome.
Next week, Livia Llewellyn provides that more personal and nuanced—and very up-close—view of an eldritch summoning in “The Low Dark Edge of Life.” Fair warning: this story gives “Furies From Boras” a run for its money as the least Safe For Work story we’ve ever covered.
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.