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 Martha Wells’s “The Dark Gates,” first published in 2015 in Aaron J. French’s The Gods of H. P. Lovecraft. Spoilers ahead.
“Steps sounded from somewhere below, heavy, slapping steps as if a large man in swim fins stalked across the tiles. Reja was fairly certain it wasn’t a large man in swim fins.”
Something’s rotten in a great city of ornate granite and limestone buildings, not to mention such steampunkish amenities as massive dirigibles. Baron Mille’s stepdaughter Merita and his wife’s secretary Osgood Rodrign have disappeared, and the Baroness has hired Reja Flinn, private detective, to find them. Reja and her half-fay assistant Fletcher break into Mille’s private country house. There they hope to find the missing persons, alive or in pieces, but they’ll settle for clues about Mille’s new sorcerer Challis. Instead they stumble across a staircase that’s become a transdimensional pocket. Luckily Reja’s brought along silver spell-breaker balls, which reveal a portal back to the house and Challis’s bedroom, where they grab papers, books and a discarded handkerchief. Floppy footsteps sound on the stairs. They escape out a window, look back to see a gray corpselike figure. This particular dead man moves damn fast, chasing them all the way to their rendezvous with a getaway car driven by the Honorable Tamith, Reja’s sorcerer partner.
Tamith uses the handkerchief to locate Challis, who’s headed for the city’s Aerodrome. Baron Mille’s hosting a party there that night, aboard his palatial airship. Reja will get invites to the fest from the Baroness. Meanwhile she and Fletcher puzzle over the purloined papers. Notes indicate that Challis was trying to figure out portals and an incantation to put one in contact with a boon-granting god. Then there are notes on the notes—in a different hand and a language and script even Fletcher doesn’t recognize. Another book details strange cases of personality disruption—the afflicted seem possessed by some outside intelligence. Can it be a coincidence when they meet pre-party with the Baroness, and she confides that Mille’s personality has changed drastically following a severe illness?
Aboard Mille’s airship, the trio discover a secret viewing platform atop the observation deck. On their way up they overhear an argument. Challis declares the spell they’ve come to perform won’t work. Mille grates that “he” won’t listen, they must go ahead. A third voice, rough, mutters too low for Reja to make out its words. Yet it’s only Mille and Challis they find. The pair are wrestling, struggling beside doors opening to thin air and a deadly fall. Mille stabs Challis, then collapses. Challis dies after gasping that “he” says “he” just wants to leave, a lie, “he” really wants power from—
The deity beyond the portal, Tamith concludes.
Mille tells his guards that Challis attacked him first. Reja and company are off the hook and free to go, but Reja won’t give up that easily. She confronts Mille in his private office, tells him she’s working for the Baroness, asks to whom the third voice on the viewing platform belonged. Mille claims there was no third voice and starts writing a check to pay Reja off. Just one flaw in the attempted bribe: he writes in the unknown script that supplemented Challis’s notes. Realizing what he’s done Mille attacks, knocking her down and stunning her. Reja recovers to see him fumbling with some gleaming artifact and muttering a spell. He breaks a window, and hurls Reja through.
She falls not to the city far below but into darkness that buoys her up. Far off she makes out mountains—or the towers of a stone city. Okay, so she, not Mille, has fallen through his portal, taking his silvery artifact along with her. But she’s not alone. A human voice sobs nearby. It’s Merita Mille, who’s been trapped in the dark for days, or maybe years. As for Osgood, Mille murdered him and then claimed that an alien sorcerer inhabiting his body had done it. The alien was trying to contact a god that would help him return to his own body, see—
What Reja sees, far off, is the light that radiates from a congeries of iridescent spheres with a dark heart, framed by pillars of stone higher than the tallest of the distant mountains. It’s a gate, enormous beyond comprehension. On impulse she raises Mille’s artifact, hoping it’s some kind of key or passport.
The dark heart of the congeries seems to ask her what she wants. At that moment, the fondest wish of her heart is to return to the airship, along with Merita. And so it must be. The two women rush, fly, end up on the floor of Mille’s office. Fletcher, Tamith and some of the Baron’s men are there. Merita accuses Mille of murder, and shouting incoherently Mille leaps out the broken window.
If his alien possessor hoped to enter the portal, oops. Instead Mille falls to his death through plain old air.
Before various authorities, Merita tells the whole story of her stepfather’s change, his claim of being possessed, how the alien sorcerer wanted to petition something called Yog-Sothoth. As Reja, Fletcher and Tamith leave the debriefing, a Prefecture inspector stops them. He invites them to return with him to Mille’s country house, to help figure out the transdimensional staircase. There may be something called a “tomb-herd” involved…
Reja and company have never had official Prefecture acknowledgement before. If they help the inspector, their careers may get a lot more interesting, and dangerous. Oh well, says Tamith, someone has to become a “scourge of transdimensional intrusions.”
What’s Cyclopean: Can an airship be cyclopean? How about an airship so big that it takes magic to hold it up?
The Degenerate Dutch: You might stereotype the fae as being really good at wilderness survival, but some of them are city mice.
Mythos Making: Yog Sothoth is the Gate and the Key and the Transdimensional Claw Machine Containing Your Heart’s Desire.
Libronomicon: If you’re sharing your body with a malevolent alien sorcerer, be very, very careful which of you provides handwriting samples.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Alien possession is often mistaken for neurological damage.
If a writer makes the heroic effort to build a viable world or universe, a milieu of her own as it were, more power to her if she visits that milieu again and again, in long-form and short, evolving and embellishing and complexifying the fictional reality toward ever shinier verisimilitude. A few sentences into “The Dark Gates,” I got the tingle that means I’m not on plain old Earth anymore. Was Reja leading me through an alternate Earth history? An other-dimensional parallel Earth? Another planet altogether?
What with our detectives getting chased by a cobbled-together corpse, and perusing undecipherable notes, and infiltrating the Mar A Lago of airships, I just shrugged and enjoyed the journey the first read through. Then I consulted the Great God Google, which kindly verified my hunch: “Dark Gates” is far from Martha Wells’ first tale of Ile-Rien, a Gallic-flavored setting that has progressed from candles to gas lamps to electric light under her creative auspices. The novels Element of Fire and Death of the Necromancer introduced Ile-Rien and its neighbors Adera, Umberwald, Parscia and Bisra. “Private inquiry agent” Reja Flinn has a Riennish mother and a Parscian father. Assistant Fletcher takes exotic origin a step farther by being half-fay—seems another of Ile-Rien’s neighbors is Faeryland. The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy concerns an invasion by the Gardier, a whole race of sorcerers. They aren’t nearly as nice as Tamith. Since Reja mentions that her mother was a spy during the Gardier War, I take it this story occurs a decade or three after that disastrous conflict, when Ile-Rien capitol Vienne has been rebuilt more splendid than ever.
I haven’t yet read Wells’ novels, so I can’t say whether she’s integrated Mythosian magic into her milieu prior to “Dark Gates.” From what Google tells, I guess no. Either way, Mythos gods are right at home in Ile-Rien, and why shouldn’t They be, who traverse all time and space, who may be the origin of all energy, matter, life, magic?
Nor are the Outer Gods and Great Old Ones the only Mythosian gadabouts. The Elder Things and Yuggoth-Fungi and various Colors-Out-of-Space travel far and wide and deep, but arguably the champion eldritch travelers are the Yith. They pack lightest, not even bothering to bring their bodies along as they toss their minds through the light-millenia and aeons. Could it be one of the Great Race that has invaded Baron Mille’s skull? His sudden personality change, following inexplicable nervous collapse, argues for that conclusion. So does his use of an utterly alien language, both in mutters and handwritten notes. The Yith are notorious for their cryptic marginalia, after all. The leading alternative theory would be mind-transfer by a human sorcerer, after the fashion of Ephraim Waite.
I lean toward a Yith invader, given how alien it seems. Thing is, this particular mind-transfer hasn’t gone smoothly, for Mille remains in his own skull instead of leaping into the Yith’s. Oops, must be crowded in there, no more comfortable for the Yith than for the Baron. And why shouldn’t Yith magic and technology occasionally screw up? Maybe Mille’s guest didn’t even mean to switch with him. Maybe some bug sent it not to its chosen target but to that mine fissure in Ile-Rien, where it languished incorporeal until Mille swaggered in. Without the techno-magical paraphernalia to effect eviction, it had to make do with partial possession of the Baron’s body. Oh well, at least Mille was rich enough to afford a sorcerer and the means to make a key to the Gate that is Yog-Sothoth.
And which Outer God more likely to hear the plea of a stranded Yith scholar than Yog-Sothoth, Infinity’s Librarian and Passage-Facilitator? Not that It’s deaf to the plea of a sincere lady detective with the right bling in hand.
This Yog could be all about the bling. Or It could just be the Dude of Yogs, so laid-back that Merita floats around for days in easy pseudopod reach without Yog taking even an experimental nibble.
I enjoyed this wry and rollicking adventure and see Reja and Company’s way clear to more adventures with Lovecraftian monsters, now the authorities have recognized their worth. If nothing else, they need to plumb the mystery of the “tomb-herd” the inspector mentions. A tomb-herd! That must be either a bunch of living dead guys or, better, the herder of tomb residents, from whom it borrows body parts. Then, ingeniously, augments the rotting meat with bits of trash, the ultimate recycler!
Gotta love the big (fast!) gray guy.
Let’s have a little talk about genre crossovers. They’re fun—and sometimes irresistible, both as a reader and as a writer. “A Study in Emerald” is one of my favorite Mythos stories for a reason. They’re also tricky as hell. This week’s story, a steampunk urban fantasy adventure with a little taste of the eldritch, works pretty well for me as steampunk urban fantasy adventure… and leaves me feeling a bit cheated in the cosmic horror department.
What do I like? Well, for starters, this is classic beat-by-beat Lester Dent formula pulp, a story-shape that hasn’t lost its charm over the past 80 years, and which holds promise for any effort to play with the old Weird Tales tropes. It rises above 30s pulp by virtue of having girls who do things, as well as airships (eternal marker of alternate histories), elves, and pay phones. I suspect that pay phones are rapidly turning into their own romanticized marker of an earlier, more innocent age, one in which protagonists couldn’t simply text their parties if separated by dastardly events. Perhaps our children will think of them like airships.
Reja makes a fine magical detective, moving easily between the dark chauffeur-laden underbelly of the gaudy city, and the upper crust who easily wangle invitations to the most exclusive megadirigible parties. A++, would read more of this protagonist. I like her companions, too, though wouldn’t mind seeing the Honorable Tamith get his hands dirty on the ground.
So what’s bugging me? Mostly it’s that Yog Sothoth, the gate and the key and keeper of all irreversible changes, should not be a convenient source of wish-granting. Sure, Reja expresses deep gratitude that when she meets It, her heart’s desire is nothing more hubristic than simply to go home—but we don’t actually see anything like the danger level that comes from your average lamp genie or vindictive gamemaster. It’s all a bit Derlethian: place sacrifice in coin slot, receive wish. It makes the elder god feel tamed by the pulp adventure setting, rather than the setting made more awe inspiringly numinous by fraying into terrifying powers around the edges.
But there’s some interesting play with the Mythos going on here. For starters, there’s the body-borrowing sorcerer that shares Mille’s body. This is a Lovecraftian trope of which I’m not yet tired, raising as it does all sorts of terrifying threats to identity and agency. If you can lose control of your body simply by picking up the wrong artifact, or happening to occupy a convenient landing pad for a passing time traveler, is it really yours to begin with?
Then there’s Baron Mille’s magical Yog-Sothoth-attracting talisman, which turns out to be… a silver key. Yeah, like the one Randolph Carter carries. The one that lets you go home, into the world of your childhood heart’s desire. In a couple of Lovecraft’s shmoopier stories… including “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” a story that also contains sorcerous body-snatching, and throughout which I whined incessantly about Yog Sothoth’s uber-safe cooperativeness. So I shouldn’t, in fact, blame Wells for wish-granting Y.S. at all—she’s drawing this version of Him directly from “Gates.” Which I, um, should have realized a lot earlier from the title. That’s extraordinarily clever. Martha Wells: 1, Ruthanna: 0. I call alien caterpillar hijinks.
Next week, Henry Kuttner’s “The Salem Horror” gives us dreams in an even witchier house.
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,” is now available from Macmillan’s Tor.com imprint. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, 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 young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.