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 Laird Barron’s “Shiva, Open Your Eye,” first published in the September 2001 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and later collected in Barron’s The Imago Sequence and Other Stories. Spoilers ahead.
“A majority of the things I might tell are secrets. Therefore, I shall not reveal them whole and glistening. Also, some things are kept from me, discomfiting as that particular truth may be.”
Our narrator is an old man. A very very very old man. As he opens his tale, he’s living on a farm in Washington State, about to receive a visitor claiming to be a property assessor. Narrator knows better. Knowing better is one of his knacks. This strapping big fellow in the ill-tailored tweed jacket is ex-military, currently a private investigator, and he smells of 3-IN-ONE Oil because he’s packing a thirty-eight-caliber revolver. Just in case the very old man should turn out to be dangerous. He gives Narrator a fake name. Narrator knows his PI license says Murphy Connell.
Narrator takes his time making Connell tea: winter makes him “lazy…torpid,” plus it lets him “savor [their] time together.” Meanwhile Connell’s “accipitrine eyes darted and sliced from shadowed corner to mysterious nook.” He’s nervous, and why not? After all, he’s investigating the disappearance of thirty people.
While Connell tramps the fields looking for crude graves, narrator muses over the “murky prehistory of [his] refined consciousness, when [he] possessed the hubris to imagine a measure of self-determination in this progress through existence. The Rough Beast slouching toward Bethlehem of its own accord…Foolish [him].”
Connell asks to examine the barn. In its cavernous gloom, Narrator notes that Connell’s sweating with fear now, not exertion. Too bad Connell keeps resisting “the muffled imprecations of his lizard brain” in favor of reason and bravado. An enormous tarp-draped mass rises nearly to the ceiling beam. What is it? Connell asks. Narrator grins and pulls the shroud from his “portrait of divinity.”
It is “the Face of Creation…the construct born of that yearning for truth slithering at the root of [narrator’s] intellect,” an “intumescent hulk” of clay “prolongated, splayed at angles, an obliquangular mass of smeared and clotted material” dripping “milky-lucent starshine.” Connell stands speechless and gropes for his revolver. But narrator has begun to “bloom,” to Become something that will vanish Connell like all those others, in some incomprehensibly horrible way he himself won’t remember afterwards.
Now, narrator only relates the above anecdote because it’s the same every time. In dreams he goes back to a primordial sea. He has lived through every stage of evolution of life on earth, occupying one “shell” after another. In between have been blissful periods of Becoming, when he simply is, reveling in his pleasures. Images come to him sometimes, “stark recollection of a time predating the slow glide of aeons in the primeval brine…purple dust and niveous spiral galaxy…the sweet huff of methane in [his] bellowing lungs, sunrise so blinding it would have the seared the eyes from any living creature…and [he] knew there were memories layered behind and beyond, inaccessible to the human perception that [he] wore as a workman wears boots, gloves, and warding mantle.”
Narrator can’t think too much of the “buried things.” Here’s what he knows for sure. He’s only a fragment of something much larger. A wizened monk once told him of Shiva the Destroyer. Men prayed to Shiva because they dared not slight Him, even though if Shiva opened His eye and gazed on the world, it would perish. Narrator’s cycle has seasons. Spring, when he walks with others “of his kindred shell,” unfulfilled. Summer, when his shadow changes, when he learns to blossom, to suckle nectar, to become legend. Autumn, when his power wanes toward hibernation.
Winter, which comes now.
He leaves the farm for a ghost town on Alaska’s Bering Coast and holes up in one of the long-abandoned shacks. There he listens to a staticky Nome station, waiting for news that will signal impending doom. It’s the usual litany of sorrows and atrocities. He closes his eyes and sees a probe venturing beyond Pluto, “a stone tossed into a bottomless pool, trailing bubbles.” All the while the religious pray, the scientists ply their instruments, the thinkers argue, the warriors prepare for peace by forging weapons, a child looks at the sky. What’s up there? Believe Narrator, he doesn’t want the answer.
A sense of urgency drives narrator onto the frigid beach. He tears off his clothes and stands on “the cusp of the sea, naked and shriveled.” Overhead “a ripple is spreading across the heavens and the stars are dancing wildly in its pulsating wake. A refulgence that should not be seen begins to seep from the widening fissure…God opening His Eye to behold the world and all its little works.”
Narrator has seen this before. Time to sleep. He slips into the black water, and his shell starts to flake away. Soon he’ll wriggle free, but leaves one last “pearl” of wisdom that no one will ever find. “Whatever God is, He, or It, created us for amusement…[His is] a world of appetite, for God is ever hungry.
“I know, because I am His Mouth.”
What’s Cyclopean: Along with standard terms like “aeon” and “abomination,” this week’s selection has too many delightfully esoteric adjectives to count. One prime passage offers a vision of the cosmos: “purple dust and a niveous spiral galaxy, a plain of hyaline rock broken by pyrgoidal clusters ringed in fire…”
The Degenerate Dutch: When you’re helping Shiva eat the world, little distinctions between humans don’t loom terribly large. Although this may change with the seasons: our narrator waxes nostalgic for when he “hated my enemies and loved my friends and wore the values of the tribe without the impetus of subterfuge.”
Mythos Making: The narrator might, possibly, be Nyarlathotep. Or this might just be a universe of cosmic horror, in which ecosystems and civilizations exist solely to provide the gods with entertainment and nutrition.
Libronomicon: A couple centuries back Narrator visited a wise man in a cave. Together they “read from crumbling tomes scriven with quaint drawings of deities and demons.”
Madness Takes Its Toll: Investigator Connell has a few seconds to regret peeking at Narrator’s artistic efforts. “To gaze fully on this idol was to feel the gray matter quake inside its case and reject what the moist perceptions thought to feed it.”
A few weeks ago, the Lovecraft eZine asked me my least favorite thing about this reread, and I allowed as how I would appreciate fewer stories that follow some horrible person’s internal monologue until he finally gets eaten by a grue.* So I seriously appreciated this week’s story, which first hinted at ye standard serial killer narrator, but turned out to be nothing of the sort. Instead, it turns into Grandpa Nyarly Natters On About the Nature of Reality, a much less common and more enjoyable plot. Or plottish thing. I’m not picky, at least not about that.
“Shiva” was Barron’s first pro sale, and a deliberate Lovecraft homage. Even leaving aside the Maybe-Nyarlathotep narrator, it’s Lovecraftian in both language and attitude. I’m a sucker for Lovecraftian language-play, and enjoyed the “subterranean illume” and the “intumescent hulk” and even especially the humans “formicating the earth.” Kindle’s dictionary extension was at a loss; Wikipedia informs me that “Formication is the medical term for a sensation that exactly resembles that of small insects crawling on (or under) the skin.” Tell me that isn’t the best verbing of a noun that you’ve seen all year.
The language games go further: toss-axes indeed do not ring in the tulgey wood by accident, but are presumably thrown by beamish boys hunting jabberwocks. There’s a whole implied sidebar about the parallels between Lovecraft’s nonsensical universe and Carroll’s, folded into that one line.
One thing I appreciated about our nameless (unnamable?) narrator, pulling me through the first half of the story, was the level of characterization permitted by near-omniscient attention to detail. Before all the cosmic meandering, we get an intensive portrait of luckless investigator Murphy Connell through the contents of his pockets. Where a pettier narrator might build up their own ego on Connell’s imperfections, Narrator’s description is neither disdainful nor generous. It’s ruthlessly accurate, and makes Connell’s incomprehensibly horrible fate feel more personal—even though, the story’s end implies, that fate must inevitably fall on all of humanity. And much of the rest of life on Earth: 75 to 96% if previous extinction events are any guide.
The story’s second half really is “Grandpa Nyarly Natters On”—if this really is Nyarlathotep and not some parallel entity, it’s an interesting take on Its role in the universe, and what it really means to be the Voice/Mouth of a Mythosian creator. Endless cycles of creation and destruction, interspersed with the “bliss” of mindless predation in the deep ocean or, if you go back far enough, the vacuum of deep space. Narrator describes himself (itself?) as a “summer thing.” As in, “after winter, summer?”
Narrator’s inadequately described objet d’art may be the most intriguing part of the story. What is it, aside from a good way to paralyze humans with horror while you prepare to serve them? An “obliquangular mass of smeared and clotted material” doesn’t exactly leave one with a clear picture—probably fortunate for the reader. The accompanying philosophical ponder rings true: “art is not relative to perfection in any tangible sense. It is our coarse antennae trembling blindly as it traces the form of Origin…” If the reader is supposed to imagine anything, it’s probably multidimensional R’lyehn architecture that bends minds until they break. But I can’t help picturing the sort of outsider art (should that be Outsider art?) sometimes found in rural garages. Perhaps a tire-and-beer-bottle sculpture of Cthulhu really is the best way to capture the ineffable secrets of reality.
* Most favorite thing = our commenters. Much easier question.
Ruthanna, did you have fun putting together this week’s What’s Cyclopean segment, or did the plethora of choices overwhelm you like a gelid and pyrgoidal tsunami off the glaucous Bering Sea? [RE: Yes. And yes.]
Howard, I’m afraid Mr. Barron has called your gibbouses and batrachians and nonEuclideans and raised you a clathrose, accipitrine and obliquangular! Talk about a thrilling game of high-stakes vocabulary poker, the teetotaling New England gentleman with a poet’s soul versus the Iditarod-racing Bering Sea fisherman (with a poet’s soul—and creds.) Barkeep, get Mr. Lovecraft another cup of coffee. Not sure what Mr. Barron would like, but whatever, leave the bottle, it’s on me.
I read that “Shiva, Open Your Eye” is Laird Barron’s first pro-published fiction. It’s also a masterclass in diction that suits the narrating character, made multiply impressive by the many faces of this particular narrator. Or facets, or masks, or shells, all mere shifting realities over “the ineffable nature of the cosmos, naked and squirming.” Okay, so I poke some fun at the big words above, but they and their elite Greco-Franco-Roman kin work in this story. What’s more, they get along just fine with all the other words, however scruffily Anglo-Saxon.
After all, if anyone’s earned the right to run the gamut from grandiloquence to folksiness, it must be our narrator, a man so Terribly Old he’s spanned all of human time. Plus all of terrestrial time. Plus all of cosmic time? Perhaps. His memory is, mercifully, managed.
One thing’s certain. He could have gone through a truckload of Word-A-Day calendars by story start.
And at story start, he tosses us a riddle, simply worded enough. “Ineffable” is the only fancy word in the paragraph. In fact, the only really fancy word on the first two or three pages is “griseous.” As in Connell’s brown-flecked gray beard. Narrator (and Barron) might have used grizzled, a more common adjective, but I like the hint “griseous” gives us of narrator’s intellectual depth. Simultaneously we’re learning of his psychic gifts as he both reads Connell’s mind and clairvoyantly catalogs the contents of his travel bag.
Though we get no direct dialogue (or Lovecraftian rural dialect), we get the sense narrator speaks to Connell like any superannuated country codger. Connell’s welcome to ramble about and have a gander for Uncle Sam. Come in, rest his feet. Have some tea, or would he rather have a nip of the ole gin? That Connell replies tea would be lovely amuses narrator no end—what an overplaying of the government man role, and so against type, too, like “a gravel truck dumping water lilies and butterflies.”
Narrator has exquisite sensibilities. He’ll shortly note that Connell has “accipitrine” (hawklike) eyes. He’ll reveal that he’s read more than the National Geographics on the sagging shelf as he drops a reference to Lewis Carroll’s “tulgey woods” and compares himself (ironically) to Yeats’s Rough Beast slouching toward Bethlehem.
When narrator escorts Connell into the barn and toward his inevitable end, the diction steadily ramps up. A little last folksiness, wouldn’t do for a government man to trip and sue the dirt out from under my feet, ha, ha, and we plunge for real into a terrifyingly complex and sophisticated mind. Spiderwebs are “clathrose awnings of spent silk.” The barn light is “subterranean illume.” Narrator’s “sculpture of the magnificent shape of God” is but “a shallow rendering of That Which Cannot Be Named; but art is not relative to perfection in any tangible sense.”
The Face of Creation exposed, narrator begins to “bloom” into what’s hidden in the old-man chrysalis, and his language blooms fervid too. The sculpture is “prolongated,” “obliquangular,” “glaucous,” “milky-lucent,” “intumescent”! And yes, those are all real words, and evocative ones, too. “Obliquangular” is some mathy geometrical term that hurts my brain, while “milky-lucent” describes the appearance of certain minerals exposed to light. You know, both milky and translucent. Gorgeous.
Spectacular, too, I think, is the way Barron sticks narrator’s landing after Connell’s (literally) indescribable death. Encased in the human shell again, exhausted, narrator lapses into the simple language that is often the most viscerally beautiful: “I left the farm and traveled north. Winter was on the world. Time for summer things to sleep.”
“Shiva” would be a decent Guy-Gets-Eaten-By-Monster story if it ended at this point, except…no, it’s more than that, damn it, gotta be. Look at that winter-summer metaphor at the close. That’s a big metaphor. It comes in the Necronomicon. Remember? “Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, and after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again.”
Under Lovecraft’s pen, Dr. Armitage and friends were able to delay summer for a while. That is, the summer of the Old Ones and subsequent winter of earthly life. Barron extends—prolongates—his story into the dreaded winter, from our human point of view. Fortunately for him (it), his narrator isn’t human, won’t even wear that shell for much longer, either physically or mentally. Summer is good, a time of feeding. Winter is not bad, not so cold after all, a time for sleep, and always, in some far future, another sticky world to wake to, more clay to shape for the Hungry God.
And in a last burst of powerful simple diction, Barron’s narrator knows God is Hungry, “because I am His Mouth.”
Next week, small town life has a few problems in Thomas Ligotti’s “The Shadow at the Bottom of the world.” You can find it in his Grimscribe collection, among others.
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.