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 Thomas Ligotti’s “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World,” first published in his 1991 collection Grimscribe: His Lives and Works. Spoilers ahead.
“On the calendars which hung in so many of our homes, the monthly photograph illustrated the spirit of the numbered days below it: sheaves of cornstalks standing brownish and brittle in a newly harvested field, a narrow house and wide barn in the background, a sky of empty light above, and fiery leafage frolicking about the edges of the scene. But something dark, something abysmal always finds its way into the bland beauty of such pictures…”
In a certain small town, this autumn is not the calendar-perfect month of fruitfulness and foliage the people have known before. A bitter scent pervades the air. The trees and weeds sport a hysteric brilliance. The very stars seem “to grow delirious and take on the tints of an earthly inflammation.” Mr. Marble, who travels between town and countryside and who has studied the seasonal signs longer than anyone, prophesies strange things.
A field adjacent to town retains summer heat in its soil. One night many are “nudged from our beds” to witness how its guardian scarecrow jerks and kicks and seems to strain for flight or to declare itself to the heavens.
The next morning, people gather in the field under a leaden sky. The scarecrow now slumps inert under their bemused scrutiny, but Mr. Marble’s eyes gleam with perceptions the rest could never understand. The trees blaze on uncannily, and insectile droning vibrates the air from under the too-warm earth.
The farmer who owns the field finally steps forward and tears clothes and straw from the scarecrow. Beneath is no wooden framework but the twisted and withered simulacrum of a man, composed of something resembling black fungus. A thick stalk rises from the earth to support it. Those who dare touch the marvel find it barely tangible, with no more substance than wind or water or shifting flames.
Attempts to chop it down fail—an axe blade sinks as into mire that then tugs back. Attempts to dig find no bottom to “the sprouting blackness.” The people return to spend restless nights in homes that feel “as small as dollhouses beneath the dark rustling depths of the season.”
Under “the frigid aurora of dawn,” the townspeople return to the field. It’s gone, the farmer tells them, sunk into a pit with no bottom. There’s no filling it in; they can only cover it over with boards and a mound of earth. The hectic leaves still refuse to fall.
People begin to dream that they’re being “consumed by the feverish life of the earth, cast among a ripe, fairly rotting world of strange growth and transformation…where even the air was ripened into ruddy hues and everything wore the wrinkled grimace of decay, the mottled complexion of old flesh.” Mr. Marble still trundles his sharpening grindstone through the streets, but now he claims he can read the undying leaves like pages of a secret book. Finally everyone begins to make out their “chromatic designs.” Worse, they glimpse faces, “leprous masks,” in dark corners of their homes; across the wall of an old shed may spread “nameless patterns…like a subterranean craze of roots and tendrils…the same outlines of autumnal decay we saw in our dreams.”
Always eccentric, Mr. Marble becomes so odd that people shun his company. At last he no longer appears in streets or lanes, a disappearance that coincides with a new phenomenon: Twilight sees the trees light up with vague phosphorescence. Full dark turns it into an “untimely nocturnal rainbow” of “peach-gold and pumpkin orange, honey yellow and winy amber, apple red and plum violet…the pyrotechnics of a new autumn.”
On that “iridescent eve” the people retreat into their houses, but Mr. Marble returns to wander the streets in trance, bearing a keen knife, “possessed by the ecstasies of a dark festival.” Tattered and rigid as a scarecrow, he lurks in yards, he stalks along fences, he pauses in an intersection in the center of town. Now the people know what must happen. “The slaughtering beast had come for its own.” Some force, some “hungering presence,” an “eternal darkness” greater than that natural return to the earth that comes to all humans, has risen and claimed the expert blade-whetter as its avatar and butcher.
All cower, hoping with little hope that the massacre will pass them by. Then voices call out in the streets: Mr. Marble has gone into the woods, leaning forward as if into a high wind. The trees blaze on. The insectile hum shrills. Then, suddenly, both blaze and hum cease.
In the morning the earth is cold, the trees are bare, and the leaves lie withered on the ground. All signs of the “appalling season” are gone, except—Mr. Marble lies beside a dismantled scarecrow, left arm slashed to the bone, right hand still clutching his knife. His blood has soaked the earth; those who touch his wound find not blood but a shadowy blackness they’ve felt once before.
The people know what’s dragged Mr. Marble into its “savage world.” See, his “affinity with the immanent schemes of existence had always been much deeper than ours.” And so they bury him deep, in a bottomless grave.
What’s Cyclopean: There are shadows everywhere: “a bog of shadows,” “a chasm of moist and fertile shadows,” “moldering shadows.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Ligotti handles eldritch infestation in a rural community far better than Lovecraft, with no distaste or degeneracy.
Mythos Making: Colors that infect and possess humans, making foliage glow with unnatural light and life? Never heard of ‘em.
Libronomicon: No books this week: developments are passed between neighbors in whispered rumor and dubious prophecy.
Madness Takes Its Toll: We’re relieved to learn that our nightmares “were not a sickness restricted to solitary individuals,” and in our relieved communication we become “a race of eccentrics.”
What is it about bearing a name with an initial L that sparks dreams of sinister returns, awakenings, transformations? There’s Lovecraft, of course, and for the past three weeks we’ve explored the unholy visions of Langan, Laird, and now Ligotti. Nor have I forgotten that monstrous young acolyte of the truly ellish Livia Llewellyn!
Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for autumn, so “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” was bound to lure me in, who cared if its mug of fresh-pressed cider delivered a bitter and poisonous residue in the last swallows. Speaking of swallows, they’ve already left us here in Rhode Island, winging their way south with a “beat and quiver of impatient pinions,” as Kenneth Grahame describes their yearly exodus in The Wind in the Willows. Swallows also figure in Keats’s masterwork, “To Autumn,” which strikes me as a mirror image of Ligotti’s “Shadow.” It pictures the perfect autumn Ligotti represents by a generic calendar photo, only with the brilliantly specific. In the first stanza, all ripens to abundance, for autumn is the:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core…
Between poem and story, is the contrast a simple one of plenty versus decay? To be honest, we don’t know what success the farmers enjoyed around Ligotti’s town this year, since his narration begins post-harvest. Ligotti’s not interested in either a normal or idealized autumn, but in a special season, a strange season, or even a prolongation or permutation of the fall into a new span of our annual revolution. A disruption of time, at least for this small chunk of space.
In his third stanza, Keats too goes post-harvest, to deliver the melancholy-soothing elegy for the moribund year of which Ligotti’s townspeople are cheated:
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
There, that’s not so bad, is it, the stubble-plains in rose rather than the “spectral tints” of an “untimely nocturnal rainbow”? Hedge-crickets are always nice, and even “wailful choirs” of gnats are far preferable to underground chitterers whose shrills rise to the “pitch of vicious laughter.” Unless—
You’re in the mood for a fine terrifying companion to Lovecraft’s “Color Out of Space.” Which, don’t know about you, but I always am. The parallels seem open, intentional: the tainted farms, the unnatural warmth of their soils, the chromatic wildness of their vegetation, the nighttime phosphorescence it eventually displays, and the mental havoc that the tainting influence exerts on people within its range. The differences are greater, and deeper. Lovecraft’s story is told by an outsider to the central action, decades later, in a journalistic style. Ligotti’s is told in the uncommon first person plural point of view, the tale of the whole town, its legend, its truth; and its language is the long-breathed poetry of nightmare rendered coherent by time. Lovecraft’s disruptor comes from outside our world, probably by accident, a nasty bit of cosmic misfortune for the Gardner family. Ligotti’s comes from within our world, may be an intentional betrayal on the part of “creation itself,” as humans understand it. Unlike the Color, which I feel is just doing what it must to survive and get back into Space, I can imagine the Shadow as evil. My human point of view, naturally. The Shadow’s mileage doubtless varies.
Mr. Marble, in contrast to the Gardners and all their crumbling animals, is no random victim. He always exceeded his neighbors in that understanding of “the immanent schemes of existence” that marked him as the Shadow’s target, both priest and sacrifice. If he’s traded his blood for burned-black barely tangible shadow, perhaps his compensation will be eternal life. Perhaps he will serve as once and future avatar for the Shadow, not to be stymied by a mere bottomless pit of a grave. A periodic eruption of endemic disorder.
After all, besides overripeness and decay, the dominant metaphors of this story are those of disease and contagion. Leaves are “hysteric” in their brilliance, a “plague of colors that…infect our dreams.” Other hues are “rashy” or “bled with a virulent intensity.” Weeds mount “intemperate” displays. The stars grow “delirious” and take on “tints of earthly inflammation.” Dormant vines look like “dead veins.” Loam “festers.” Imagined faces are “leprous masks.” What may rise from the autumn fields is a “howling malignity.” The townspeople falter as they try to dig up the fungal mannikin, “as in the instance of someone who is hesitant to have a diseased part of his own body cut away in order to keep the disease from spreading.”
Hmm. Could it be the cure is worse than the disease, if the attempt only releases more metastases? Or could it be that on some ancient-deep level of our psyches, we accept those “schemes of existence” even when Existence is hungriest? Yeah. We may realize, with time, that there’s no digging deep enough to get all those damn tendrils. We may learn to trust, with time, in the concept of scapegoats, here in the form of season-savvy Mr. Marble. It was in his genes to succumb. Or to evolve, I wonder, to his reward?
Scarecrows and brightly colored Autumn leaves—what could set a more idyllic scene? Yet Ligotti invokes more fear with these traditional elements than some authors manage with all the gore-chomping monsters in the world. Checking back to our “Last Feast of Harlequin” post, I find that I said something similar about winter holidays; apparently making prosaic seasonal elements terrifying is just one of his talents.
Scarecrows do have inherent potential for horror, and many people find them disturbingly deep in the uncanny valley. In the right light they might seem corpselike, imprisoned on their posts—what if they break that prison and start walking around? And what’s really under those old clothes? Nothing so innocent as straw, apparently. Something fungous, or perhaps alien to the matter we know and understand.
And thus we come to the less obvious horror of Autumn leaves. This week my kids have delighted in DC’s belated flourish of orange and red and yellow (“And pink!” announced the 2-year-old), all innocent pleasure. But consider more deeply, and those colors herald death: both the Tarot’s death-as-unknowable-transformation and the true mortality of the year and the harvest and the leaves themselves. Leaves that refuse to fall, colors that refuse to die down to brown… are undead? A zombie of the trees? Or perhaps a vampire, sucking life from the land around.
But now this sounds familiar in another way. Ligotti’s undead Autumn, making a puppet of its human tools and seeking a sacrifice to the deep earth, isn’t quite Lovecraft’s unearthly and indescribable Color. But they might be very, very distant cousins. Don’t ask me to pick favorites, though. I love the Color for its sheer alien-ness and implacability, and for the li’l baby color that doesn’t make it off Earth and gets stuck in the reservoir. Poor kid, someone should take care of it. But this week’s thoroughly earthly color gets points by not striving for inadequate scientific explanations—it seems instead some elemental force of the Harvest. It’s describable, and too local to deny its connection with humanity, yet still incomprehensible. No comets required; it could show up anywhere. In your town. Maybe it’s already there, extending fungous roots into a random mall mannequin. Sweet dreams.
We’ve occasionally commented on the difficulty of writing, believably, a truly Mythosian entity that demands sacrifice. Why should Cthulhu care about the difference between a live human and a dead one? Even for non-Mythosian entities, it can be a hard sell to avoid puppy-kicking and make the custom as thoroughly justified and carefully targeted as real-life examples. (Sonya Taaffe nailed it, and I bought it in “Harlequin” because hungry worm-people explain everything.) Here it works because it’s not a human custom, and because the entity seeking our blood seems so archetypal—the “more fundamental order of being” might be the spirit of the Year King, or the elemental harvest. Poor possessed Mr. Marble is closer to the Wild Hunt than to any ritualized altar.
Finally, I have to comment on this story’s fabulous language. First there’s the unusual voice: first person plural provides reader-encompassing intimacy without the potentially alienating artificiality of second person. (Like the inclusive community radio voice of Welcome to Night Vale’s Cecil Palmer—and I just realized that this story could reasonably take place in Night Vale…) Then there are the descriptions. I highlighted half the text as I tried to pick out favorite phrases. So many unexpected and vivid combinations: “a bog of shadows,” “the molten texture of spoiled fruit,” “innumerable insects laughing,” “a freakish mask painted with russet, rashy colors…” Rashy colors—you can picture it instantly, yet when’s the last time you heard Fall leaves compared to an outbreak of eczema?
Those gorgeous colors are going to look just a little different to me, tomorrow morning.
Next week, Theophile Gautier’s “The Mummy’s Foot” demonstrates, yet again, why you should always tread carefully (so to speak) in mysterious shops.
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.