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 Tamsyn Muir’s “The Woman in the Hill,” first published in 2015 in Lynn Jamneck’s Dreams From the Witch House anthology. Spoilers ahead.
“There were things in the alcoves but she said she had not touched them and repeated this as though it was important, that she had not touched them.”
Letter from Catherine B. to Dr. Dorothy L., dated November 11, 1907, from Turanga, New Zealand.
Catherine informs her good friend Dorothy that this is the last time she’ll write. However fantastic her narrative seems, she relates only fact. She begs Dorothy to believe her.
No doubt Dorothy’s heard rumors about Catherine’s young friend Elizabeth, but she should rest assured that Elizabeth was as sensible and down-to-earth as any farmer could wish in his wife. The trouble began one summer night when Elizabeth came pounding on Catherine’s door, so frantic with fear it took strong tea and whiskey before she could tell her story:
Elizabeth has been out on the Peninsula to look for her missing friend Alice. Having enough bush-sense to fear neither the terrain nor the local Maori, she heads up into the hills. In the side of one she finds a cave mouth – no, an actual door, two stone jambs and a stone lintel set into the earth and “crudely worked” with carvings that don’t look native. Elizabeth ventures inside.
A spacious corridor leads to a large chamber, from which more corridors branch. There are also alcoves, and in the alcoves niches, and in the niches things that Elizabeth does not touch. She pushes onward, downward, until she reaches a room vast as a cathedral, where a slow-moving pool of water washes past a stone block and enormous basin – and Alice. She’s not injured or unwell, but she’s – not right. She tells Elizabeth she’s imprisoned. And then – Elizabeth flees.
“Tell me I’m here,” Elizabeth begs Caroline. “For the love of God, keep me here!”
The next day Elizabeth returns to her husband, but she’s never the same, not even after Caroline takes her back to the Peninsula and shows her the fateful hill, entirely door-free. After a few months of self-isolation, Elizabeth disappears as did Alice before her.
Dorothy knows that Caroline has never “taken freaks,” and yet now she’s tormented by dreams of a darkened door. A rainy June day finds her back at Elizabeth’s hill, and this time the stone-framed door is there, waiting. Caroline enters and studies the crude carvings, sometimes seeing only gibberish, sometimes grotesque faces, sometimes a chain of yoked beasts marching down the stairs. Unlike Elizabeth, she dares to open some of the bundles in the hall of endless niches. What she finds upsets her more than bodily remains – clothes, all women’s clothes, from modern English back through traditional Maori.
She descends to the cathedral of the pool and altar. Elizabeth, apparently well and living, awaits her. Thank God Caroline’s come to let her out! Let her out? Caroline says. Why, if she’s uninjured, hasn’t she walked out on her own, and why indeed has she come back to this place she feared so?
“Caroline,” Elizabeth says calmly, “I never left.” Then she walks toward Caroline, and it’s “the manner in which her bones shifted inside her skin, and in contrast to how you or I would move” that makes Caroline raise her deceased husband’s gun and shoot her friend dead.
Not that she waits to watch Elizabeth fall, for she’s too desperate to escape to the sane upper world.
So, Dorothy, did Caroline actually kill Elizabeth, or “is the very idea I could have killed her a laughable one?” Maybe if she could have found Elizabeth’s clothes and burned them. In fact, all the clothes need to be burned, purged, but who dares go into the hill even to purify it?
Caroline must go back. She’s already been caught, and the hill haunts her beyond endurance. Dorothy must not investigate. She must never come to Turanga, for “this country is so new to us and so old to the world and its emptiness should have been a warning rather than an invitation – there are terrible things in the darkness and I will not let you become another of them.”
In fact, if Dorothy does ever stumble across that door, she must think of Caroline within. “Then use dynamite.”
Here the letter ends. An editorial postscript notes that it was found among the effects of Dr. Dorothy L., who disappeared in May, 1908.
What’s Cyclopean: The word of the day is “morbidity,” which our narrator Caroline is totally not prone to.
The Degenerate Dutch: Caroline’s a British colonist and has predictable, if understated, attitudes toward the native Maori.
Mythos Making: Lovecraftian fiction has a long and noble tradition of manuscripts that warn the reader not to follow in the author’s footsteps. You’d think people would learn to listen…
Libronomicon: No books, just the epistle of the story itself.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Caroline thinks Elizabeth W- is a madwoman, then worries that Dorothy will think her mad.
Dreams From the Witch House is rapidly earning a place as one of my favorite Lovecraftian anthologies. One of the things I appreciate is how well it covers the range from explicitly Mythosian to pitch-perfect cosmic horror with nary a Necronomicon in sight. Muir’s slice of New Zealand Gothic falls into the latter category. It’s unquestionably Lovecraftian, and yet I’m not remotely tempted to map her cave onto any canonical place or entity. It’s entirely its own thing.
And that thing is terrifying. Any sensible person—which apparently doesn’t include Dr. Dorothy L- [ETA: or my co-blogger, apparently] —would rather explore the ruins of R’lyeh or the restricted stacks at Misk U than go through those doors. The inescapable trap, the irrecoverable mistake, are potent nightmares. And the trap you think you’ve escaped, only to discover yourself merely dangled as bait… and all those neatly wrapped bundles of clothing. What’s happening to those women? Do you really want to know?
It’s an intimate trap, too. Passed from friend to friend, woman to woman, from each victim to the person she trusts most to confide in—or who’s most willing to chase after her mysterious disappearance. (And this confidante is explicitly never their husbands, at least not in the links we see.) Perhaps Caroline’s not so far off in describing it as a disease. It’s not unusual for horror to take on the metaphor of the STD; a terrible fate passed through platonic friendship is rarer and in some ways worse. Celibacy’s one thing, but to prevent this particular contagion, you’d need to be alone in your most desperate hour—to have not one person who cared enough to listen, or to try and rescue you from the brink.
Putting aside that disturbing thought, I love this story’s specificity of place. Anne commented on the same thing a few weeks ago in Nadia Bulkin’s “Red Goat Black Goat.” Muir similarly immerses Caroline’s experience in the details of New Zealand, from the dangers of the bush to the “sickly radiance” of the Aranui grottoes. At least as much as creepy subterranean carvings, this type of detail is part of cosmic horror’s heritage. Lovecraft painted on a grand scale, but his best stories have that sense of place: the sunset spires of Providence in “Charles Dexter Ward,” the Vermont hills in “Whisperer in Darkness,” the distant plume of Erebus in “Mountains of Madness.” If you’re going to convince readers of an immense and uncaring universe, it helps to have them see and hear and smell some intimate and knowable location. To ground abstract terror in someplace too real to ignore. So many stories stand or fall on their invocation of that ground. It’s one of the under-sung qualities that makes a story truly “Lovecraftian.”
Another Lovecraftian inheritance is the story’s format: the warning manuscript shows up over and over, from “Dagon” to “The Mound” and beyond. Some explicitly tell the reader not to do what the author has done; some merely imply it; a few strongly urge the reader to stop reading at all. That might have been the smart thing to do here, for the endnote makes clear that Dorothy has, in fact, attempted to retrieve her friend. And vanished, like everyone else who thinks they can treat the cave “sensibly.” It’s probably meaningful that Caroline finds only one Maori outfit. The people whose landscape this really is, the ones who’ve known it the longest, aren’t caught up in the deadly assumption that their reason can overcome all obstacles. They’ve figured out how to do the actual sensible thing—and stayed away.
Because it’s almost Thanksgiving, and in spite of the fact the uncaring cosmos has given me a cold with sound effects worthy of Romantic era galloping (and hacking) consumption, I emerge from Muir’s excellently eerie tale on an upbeat. Do not suppose it’s the heavy dose of cough syrup that’s left me (in imagination, I think) dancing with Lavinia through the stone-crowned hills and singing:
They say the human race is falling on its face
And hasn’t very faaaaar to go;
But every whippoorwill (whippoorwill??)
Is selling me a bill
And telling me it just ain’t so!
No, it’s not the cough syrup, it’s bona fide epiphany, same as that girl in the underpants in James Joyce, speaking of which, I guess there would be some bloomers in the niche bundles under the hill. Because 1907 and previous. Also corsets.
Which naturally leads us, as all literary discussions finally do, to the question of the unreliable narrator.
We have two narrators in “Woman in the Hill,” hence two potentially unreliable ones. There’s letter-writer Caroline, who along with her own story relates the one Elizabeth babbled to her one sleepless summer’s night. I’m not saying either woman’s lying about the terror of her experiences under the hill or the misery of her life after her “escape.” Both make reasonable deductions about the subterranean complex, for as long as the place allows reason to prevail. Both react with understandable bewilderment, revulsion and gut fear when confronted by friends who seem alive and well (and yet…), who act like their old selves (yet no, so different), who bone-deep don’t move right. Nor would one expect them to shake the trauma of a radically altered worldview overnight, especially when part of the post-underhill “syndrome” included an irresistible need to return.
Add to the above: Caroline has reason to believe that when a woman disappears under the hill, one of her close friends will come to find her, hence becoming the next victim. So she writes Dorothy begging her NOT to come to Turanga. BUT. It could also be that the seeker (next victim) will be whomever the current “mark” tells her story to (hence usually a friend.) In which case when Caroline writes Dorothy, professing to warn her off, she actually compels Dorothy to come.
Or is it?
I don’t know. I thought we were talking about unreliable narrators.
And we are, because here’s how Caroline (and Elizabeth before her) were unreliable narrators! They think that UNDER THE HILL = BAD. Not judging them. Of course they would think it’s bad. First of all, it’s underground and dark, with crude scary carvings and ominous altars and basins and dubious subterrane waters. Add up the tropes. Nothing Silence of the Lambsy about the niches full of women’s clothes, either. Revenant friends who move like something from a Japanese horror movie? What’s to worry about?
Lots, I get it. In your first few encounters with the vastness of time, space and being, your needle’s likely to swing to the FEAR end of the response dial, not the AWE one. However, I have drunk the cough syrup, and my eyes have opened. Couldn’t UNDER THE HILL = GOOD? What if it’s a vast repository for women’s souls, a vital part of which is left behind on the first visit, perhaps to be melded into a humaniform yet alien, perfected if initially wobbly, immortal body? Then the immortal form calls back the original form, claims the rest of the soul, and gets rid of the unneeded carcass, but keeps the clothes. For a fashion archive. Because Nyarlathotep is into the history of costume. And maybe there’s another hill and underhill, to collect men, unless they’re in the same underhill but Caroline didn’t happen to open any niche parcels with BVDs in them.
Still, think of the “under-the-hills” in Lovecraft. Repositories, like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault! Safe storage, hedges against disaster. The Yith nestle their archives in bedrock that will last until the death of the planet itself. The Mi-Go cache sleeping bodies and canistered brains under mountains in Vermont. The Elder Things’ Antarctic city, its history told in murals, survives in the embrace of meters-thick ice. Joseph Curwen keeps dehydrated savants and luminaries deep under his Pawtuxet farm, a private reference library any historian would envy.
And now, because I am due for another dose of inspiration, I will close this brilliantly semi-coherent post with best Thanksgiving wishes to all our readers and everyone at Tor.com!
Next week, based on the title alone, we’re reading J. R. Hamantaschen’s “Cthulhu, Zombies, Ninjas and Robots!; or, a Special Snowflake in an Endless Scorching Universe.” You can find it in his collection, With a Voice That is Often Still Confused But is Becoming Ever Louder and Clearer.
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.