The Lovecraft Reread

Elder Gods Make Terrible Babysitters: Nadia Bulkin’s “Red Goat Black Goat”

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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 Nadia Bulkin’s “Red Goat Black Goat,” first published in the June 2010 issue of Innsmouth Free Press. Spoilers ahead.

“We can’t trust people from outside the family,” Putri said. “The Goat-Nurse says so.”

Summary

Floods wrack West Java, Indonesia, but the mountain perch of the Gunawan estate has saved it from inundation. Ina Krisniati, or Kris, has waded through rising waters and mud to reach the villa. At the top of the driveway, feral goats greet her, strangely eager for her attention, but Kris pushes on to the front door. Mrs. Gunawan, dressed as glamorously as a soap star, admits her. Ah, Kris must be the new babysitter, and oh, she didn’t touch those feral goats, did she? Good, because only Mrs. Gunawan and the children are allowed to do that.

The children are Putri and her younger brother Agus, who broke an arm in a fall from his horse. Kris tells the children she’s there to watch them, but Putri imperiously tells her they already have someone to take care of them, the Goat-Nurse who’s been with them from birth.

Next day Putri and Agus show Kris their tame goats, placid white-wooled creatures tended by herder Tono. Tono, too, warns against the feral goats. That night, sent up to Putri’s room, Kris finds the hall pitch black, the lightbulb burned out. She feels her way along. Why do the door knobs feel cold and oily and the walls as if they were coated with a wax smelling of soil, sweat and corpses? She thinks of Putri’s Goat-Nurse. Was she a babysitter like Putri, but from hundreds of years before? Maybe Dutch. Maybe a prison nurse. Cruel. Then maybe she lost her legs in an accident and had goat legs sewn on as prosthetics….

As if in answer to her thoughts, hooves clop-clop nearby. Straining to see, Kris makes out a monstrous creature, with a face “of a sort,” a long neck and “livestock legs.” It melts into crawling darkness and floor-to-ceiling smoke “thick, almost woolen.” As Kris covers her eyes, something whispers in her mind: Maybe you should lose your legs. Maybe I should have them.

Mrs. Gunawan’s call breaks Kris from paralysis. Downstairs in the dining room all seems normal, yet for Kris everything’s a blur. Except for the children. Later Putri warns Kris that the Goat-Nurse doesn’t like her, and the Goat-Nurse gets mad easy. For example, after Daddy had a fight with Mama and left, he got eaten in the jungle by a tiger. Or so Goat-Nurse says. “She has power, Kris,” Putri says. “You have to be respectful.”

Kris fears that though the Goat-Nurse is supposed to protect the children, she had some part in breaking Agus’s arm. Mrs. Gunawan admits that the Goat-Nurse has stopped taking care of the kids, which is why Kris is there. Nor is she some jinn an imam could dispel. She’s something else that came during a drought year, long ago, and made a bargain with the family to grow plentiful crops and fatten the tame goats. One day, her husband said, the feral goats just showed up. Like God sent them.

Tono steals money from Mrs. Gunawan. She dismisses him, thrusting feral goat wool into his hand which he can’t drop or rub off. It’s a curse that pursues him to Bandung, the nearest city: that night darkness rumbles over the roof and descends the hill, emitting the roar of “the Goat in bloom.” Kris hears distant screaming and crashes. Next day Bandung authorities claim a violent storm tore off roofs, crushed people, impaled them on branches. As if to refute the claim, something drops Tono’s head on the Gunawans’ front porch.

Two months pass with no Goat-Nurse appearances. Mrs. Gunawan’s father-in-law comes to chastise her for chasing the Goat away. Mrs. Gunawan counters: That monster hurt her son, even though father-in-law promised she wouldn’t hurt the kids. No, father-in-law says. He promised Mrs. Gunawan she’d have grandchildren, same promise he got.

On jum’at kliwon, spirits’ night, the Goat returns, draping many woolen arms over the house, drenching the walls with grease and dirt and blood. The children “cuddle into the Goat’s familiar warmth,” but Mrs. Gunawan stays in bed, sick. Later Putri demonstrates the Goat’s love for her by jumping off the roof, only to be carried to the ground by a black cloud, unharmed.

Another morning finds the estate enveloped in velvety darkness. Mrs. Gunawan chokes to death, throat and mouth stuffed with black wool. Kris wants to leave with the children, but Putri resists. “The Goat is our real mother!” she insists. “She is everyone’s real mother!”

The tame goats have been silent too long, and Kris intuits why. Come see what the Goat does to her children, she tells Putri. She herds the kids to the goat enclosure. Instead of the placid animals, they find a sea of wool, and blood, and bones, entrails, milky eyes, horns. One goat seems alive, rising “a little slip of flesh and bones…on a pair of shaky stick-legs.” As Putri runs toward it, the goat becomes “elephantine…a lumbering mess of smoke and wool.” It wears “a human face, strapped on like a dancer’s mask…long and misshapen and false.”

I love you I love you I love you most of all, Kris mind-hears. The Goat whips up Putri, and the child’s faith fails, she screams for help. Kris tries to reach her, but as the Goat swallows Putri whole, she can only claw her own skin and howl.

The Goat leaves Agus behind as unworthy, though he begs to be loved. The feral goats move in to devour the tame ones, and also Kris’s legs. She lies passive, barely blinking. Their feast done, the feral goats return to the forest, “following the scent of the great and ever-wanting Goat.”

What’s Cyclopean: Bulkin’s descriptions can be remarkably vivid even with nary an adjective in sight. “Then she seeped through the roof and drenched the walls with wool-grease and the dirt of twenty cities, the blood of six hundred.”

The Degenerate Dutch: No broad strokes here–Bulkin beautifully integrates Javanese legendry and culture and characters with Mythosian tropes.

Mythos Making: The Goat With a Thousand Young is a terrible babysitter.

Libronomicon: No books this week.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Sharing her kids with the Goat isn’t particularly good for Mrs. Gunawan’s mental health—and who can blame her? (Aside from the 21 people killed when she temporarily redirects Her ire.)

 

Anne’s Commentary

Nadia Bulkin describes her stories as “socio-political horror” and quotes Werner Herzog to sum up her writing aesthetic: “Civilization is like a thin layer of ice on a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.” Surely Lovecraft would have agreed with Herzog, for as much as Howard revered the culture of his English forebears, he didn’t exclude it from the inevitable extinction of humankind, that melting of all our fragile veneers beneath the glare of cosmic truth In the end we all have to go because the gods and/or universe don’t care—they just don’t. Come on, what part of indifference don’t you understand?

Bulkin, I think, is neither god nor universe, because she’s not indifferent. Certainly not to setting. That the Indonesia in which she stages “Red Goat, Black Goat” is her particular field of study as a political scientist and international relations pro can come as no surprise. Toto of Tindalos, we’re not in the US or England this week. We’re in Western Java, in the hills above its provincial capital Bandung. On the horizon is the far-from-extinct stratovolcano Tangkuban Perahu. Moon orchids grow on the Gunawan estate. Kris doesn’t compare the Gunawan children to generic pups or kittens—no, they’re malu-malu, an Indonesian name for the slow loris. And the Goat doesn’t return to the estate any old night; it comes on “ju’mat kliwon,” when evil spirits are at their strongest and when they kill as many people as they can before dawn sends them packing back to hell. Detail, detail, detail, lushly place-specific.

In my very brief hunt for the notion of a Goat-Nurse, I’ve found no legend peculiar to Java. I did find fascinating material on the use of goats to give suck to human babies. Apparently the Khoikhoi people of South Africa would tie infants to she-goats’ bellies to feed. In Europe goats served as wet-nurses in foundling hospitals, where they were even preferred to human nurses as less prone to pass disease, and, I suppose, less likely to demand a salary. Seems appropriate, then, that the Black Goat of the Woods should also be Mother of a Thousand Young, in fact a universal Mother, as Putri maintains.

Interestingly, Lovecraft goes into very little detail about Shub-Niggurath in his own stories, mostly using the name to give added zest to incantations. In a letter he describes the entity as evil and “cloud-like.” With Hazel Heald in “Out of the Aeons,” he (or Hazel, or both) describe Shub-Niggurath as the ally of humanity against Ghatanothoa, also as a Mother Goddess. Sons Nug and Yeb are presumably favorites. The “Thousand Young” are probably even more numerous than their name states and may serve as Mom’s messengers and “stand-ins,” as in Fager’s “Furies from Boras.”

A mother with perhaps infinite offspring can’t be expected to love all equally, can she? She doesn’t, anyhow, in “Red Goat, Black Goat.” Putri is the Goat-Nurse’s (and Goat’s) pet, the one she loves most of all. Agus she deems not worthy. Putri glories in her status. Agus is ashamed of his. The terror and poignancy of the story have roots in the dynamic we’ve so often discussed regarding human reactions to cosmic truth: fear and repugnance versus awe and attraction, or combined together, or alternating with each other. Putri’s faith in the Goat is absolute, until it’s not, until it’s tested in the Mother’s maw, her ultimate acceptance of the chosen one. Agus can be comforted by his Goat-Nurse, and harmed by her, afraid yet still longing for her affection. Mrs. Gunawan calls the Goat a monster, yet she’s not averse to using the Goat’s power to curse, even when the death and destruction reach far beyond her target. Appropriately the Goat’s curse finally falls on Mrs. Gunawan.

Kris was brought up on the milder menace of jinn, which an imam can dispel. She can tell the Goat-Nurse she’s not afraid of her, but she is afraid. Terribly afraid, poignantly brave in the face of that fear, until the Goat reveals itself in full glory, out of the gore of slaughter. Then Kris loses all her sanity points at once, first frenzied into shrieking self-harm, then plunged into a catatonic state so deep she lets wild goats eat her legs without a fight, with barely a blink. Yikes. The Goat didn’t like Kris conceiving of her as a nurse with goat prosthetics, nor was she kidding when she mused that maybe she’d have Kris’s legs instead.

Fearful symmetry indeed, from the Goat churning murky, in this story-forest of the night. Fearful, gorgeous, unsettling work on Bulkin’s part. Four cloven hooves up!

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

The children of elder gods are always bad news. They break into your libraries and steal your books. They spoil your carefully planned summoning rituals. They terrify the obstetrician. Fortunately for everyone, the Mythosian pantheon is less, um, prolific, than the Greek. Mostly. Mama Shub is the exception, the Goat With a Thousand Young. In Lovecraft’s own stories, we never do get to see the babies. For him, her maternity is sufficiently monstrous all by itself. Later writers give her both the nameless but creeptastic thousand, plus a few child-deities like Ithaqua worthy of names of their own. (I do not have time to write Mythos/Watership Down crossover fic. Or to make blasphemous jokes about the Goat With Hrair Young.)

Bulkin’s Shub goes one creepier, adopting young to smother with her absolute and fickle love. The exact nature of that relationship is… ambiguous. The Dark Mother is a classic trope, and her “protection” can take on some nasty forms. The goat-nurse gets angry so easily, can see threat or offense in the smallest things.

But then at the beginning of the story we get the pointed description of “fat, gentle livestock, happy to spend their lives in a backyard enclosure before being sold off to butcheries.” Those domesticated goats might well be described as “lucky” by wild creatures who didn’t see their final fate. Food, safety, affection—and the promise of grandchildren. If you want to keep a herd, after all, you need to keep a couple alive to birth the next generation.

And then, third contrast, there’s Tono staring over the fields at Tangkuban Perahu—that’ll be the “just another volcano” that Mrs. Gunawan invokes. A god’s anger might as well be a natural disaster. The logic of human emotion doesn’t apply; it’s bigger than anything you can understand or turn aside. Even if your family happens to be able to talk with her, it isn’t likely to change what happens.

It’s not clear how this poor family came to Shub’s attention in the first place. Did She catch Herself a family of feral humans, and tame them so they’d stay in the idyll of her enclosure? Did Mrs. Gunawan’s father-in-law (or his parents or grand-parents or etc.) make some sort of pact? That seems both very western and very un-Mythosian, though it’s not unheard of for people to think they can get the better end of a deal with Cthulhu. Mrs. Gunawan herself certainly seems to have fallen into that trap, assuming when she married into the goat family that they had themselves a safe-if-disturbing little familiar spirit.

A toyol is an interesting choice of assumption on her part, too. This is not exactly my specialty, but the internet informs me that a toyol is a child-spirit invoked from a dead fetus. They can be used for errands, as Kris delicately puts it, often the sort that will help your family prosper. It doesn’t sound like they’re generally a good idea, but it’s relatively easy to put them to rest. Mrs. Gunawan’s mistake is thinking she was dealing with a child when she was really dealing with a mother. The mother. Everyone’s real mother.

When Mama’s unhappy…

 

Next week we go back to the ocean, and to the company of ghosts, in Mary Rickert’s “Journey Into the Kingdom.”

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots (available July 2018). Her 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.” 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.

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