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 J.R. Hamantaschen’s “Cthulhu, Zombies, Ninjas and Robots!: or, a Special Snowflake in an Endless Scorching Universe,” first published (we think) in his 2015 collection, With a Voice That is Often Still Confused But is Becoming Ever LOUDER and Clearer. Spoilers ahead.
“The words and wisdom of H.P. Lovecraft are best enjoyed alone. Nay, they can only be savored when alone.”
Did Malcolm really think he would find kindred spirits at a gathering called the Con of Cthulhu? And by kindred spirits, he means people who appreciate the true genius of H. P. Lovecraft, which shone forth less his fictional “Yog-Sothery” than in the dour yet courageous musing of his essays and letters. For example, Howard wrote: “I am not a pessimist but an indifferentist…both schools [optimism and pessimism] retain in a vestigial way the primitive concept of a conscious teleology—of a cosmos that gives a damn one way or the other about the especial wants and ultimate welfare of mosquitos, rats, lice, dogs, men, horses, pterodactyls, trees, fungi, dodos, or other forms of biological energy.” Also: “It is good to be a cynic—it is better to be a contented cat—and it is best not to exist at all.” Also: “To expect perfect adjustment and happiness is absurdly unscientific and unphilosophical. We can only seek a more or less trivial mitigation of suffering.”
Oh sure, over the con weekend Malcolm sits in on plenty of panels where so-called academics and scholars claimed to appreciate Lovecraft’s insights into the indifference of the cosmos and the mere flicker of human existence in deep time. But look at them, hypocrites, still believing enough in the future to HAVE CHILDREN!
A stroll through the vendors’ hall plunges Malcolm deeper into sneering discontent. Everywhere self-proclaimed Lovecraftians blaspheme against his great fictional metaphors by lapping up endless derivative books, jokey T-shirts, kitschy knickknacks, and, perhaps worse of all, CHILDREN’S merchandise. Old Ones and Outer Gods plushies? Hello Cthulhu onesies? Malcolm can’t decide which is more contemptible, all the fat sloppy losers he’s seen this weekend or the damn hipsters. To kill time, he trolls one of the latter, a steampunk-clad twenty-something who admires Malcolm’s antique watch. Oh, Malcolm says. He didn’t even know until this con that Lovecraft wrote fiction. He was into the essays, you see, the great man’s inspiring thoughts on culture and race. Before Steampunker can respond with righteous indignation, Malcolm makes a swift exit.
His stop at a coffee shop, otherwise okay, is ruined by the presence of a plush Cthulhu demanding tips. Back at the con, he attends a reading by an author supposed to be a “fantastic weird fiction prose stylist.” He notes that she treats a fan dismissively, arrives late, and spends a long time bragging about how her story will be featured in a best-of-the-year anthology. Funny, Malcolm thinks, how all the same authors are always in the best-of-the-year anthologies. The Elder Gods Themselves couldn’t fathom it, but then again, nepotism is a human invention.
Eventually the bragging ends and the reading begins, but by then Malcolm recognizes another author in the audience. This fellow sits with his wife, bouncing his baby boy on his lap. The baby wears a Hello Cthulhu onesie.
Malcolm remembers how the author said, at his own reading, that Lovecraft’s cosmic philosophy had “exploded the way his brain worked.” Really? So, “did the cosmic insignificance of all known human achievements, virtues and morals mean anything to this charlatan when he planned his little family vacations and doctors’ visits for junior and told his wife he ‘loved’ her? Was little junior still a special snowflake in an endless scorching universe?”
Mr. Author-Man is a disgrace to Lovecraft’s glorious memory and philosophy, Malcolm decides. Therefore Mr. Author-Man is perfect.
Malcolm buys Author-Man’s latest novel and takes it to Author-Man’s hotel room to get it signed. The purging will begin. What will Author-Man say when he wakes up to find his wife and baby dead, gibberish signs and words carved into their bodies, lamps arranged around them in a triangle, eyelids hewn off, fingers missing, four punctures circling their navels?
The “ritual,” by the way, signified nothing.
Malcolm feels bad about it, actually. He should just kill the pretentious author the next time, leaving the innocent family members alone. It does make a point, of course, if the author lives to suffer through Lovecraft’s final lesson:
“It’s not as cute to talk about the uncaring universe when it comes home.
“The uncaring universe appears a lot different when it comes home.”
What’s Cyclopean: Go on, look up “queef.” I dare you.
The Degenerate Dutch: Douchebag Narrator “trolls” a random con-goer by pretending to be really into Lovecraft’s views on race.
Mythos Making: All the ephemera of Mythosian fandom—the t-shirts, the plushies, the bumper stickers—come in for mockery. So do the multitudinous anthologies, some of which we may actually have covered in the Reread.
Libronomicon: Narrator lists the full catalogue from one Lovecraftian publisher, from C is for Cthulhu to The Horror From Bedford, Massachusetts to several titles we can’t/won’t repeat in this venue.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Douchebag Narrator appears to be an extremely ordinary psychopath.
Sometimes Amazon, like its mythic namesake, shoots an arrow straight to the weak spot in its target’s battle-tested armor and coughs up a “You Might Also Like” that you might also like. That was the case with the intriguingly titled collection With a Voice that is Often Still Confused But is Becoming Ever LOUDER and Clearer by the equally intriguingly named J. R. Hamantaschen. Wait a minute, aren’t those cookies? Hamantaschen, I mean. And yes, they are, the wonderful triangles of crumbly sweet dough stuffed with many fruits, or nuts, or seeds, or even chocolate which appear for Purim toward the dreary middle-ish of March. I like the apricot ones, and also the traditional poppyseed ones that could have snaky roots back to pagan fertility festivals as what Susan Schnur called “sacred vulva cakes.”
But what I meant to say, regarding Amazon’s suggestion, is: I must have been hungry. I clicked on BUY. Good decision. First, the author explained in his Introduction (of Sorts) that Hamantaschen was indeed a nom de plume, and yeah, he knew he was naming himself after a cookie. Second, he offered his email address for readers visiting the NYC area who wanted to hang out over coffee, given said readers weren’t assholes. Third, I found his stories really were weird and despairing enough to save me from those ABBA-and-Ghirardelli-inspired spirals into cheerfulness to which I am occasionally prone. At such times, I know that I’m one slippery slope closer to the Hallmark Channel Christmas Movie Spectacular. But now I only have to reread the first story in With a Voice, “Vernichtungsschmerz,” to catch myself! (That’s one of those lovely German words with no simple English translation—it expresses the simultaneous experience of intense physical pain and sense of impending doom. What could be nicer?)
For those of you who snarf chocolate and sing “Super Trouper” simultaneously, maybe you should read “Vernichtungsschmerz” right now. “Cthulhu, Zombies et alia” should be enough for the rest of you.
I’m going to have to focus on just one thing that interested me about this story, or I’ll run way over my allotted word count. So. What’s with this indifferentism thing? Why does Howard call himself an indifferentist, rather than the pessimist he supposes others must assume him to be? Should we assume that Malcolm also considers himself an indifferentist, and if so, does he succeed? In what sense, yes? In what sense, no?
Looking at the big picture—the cosmic view, as it were—optimism goes beyond individual hopefulness. It’s the belief that goodness pervades reality and ultimately predominates over evil. Pessimism, conversely, is the belief that evil pervades reality and ultimately predominates over good. Ah, then. Cosmic-view-wise, of course Howard was an indifferentist! The fact is that human factions, even human individuals, often don’t understand each other, often don’t agree on what’s good and what’s evil. So how can humanity hope to understand other intelligences, some perhaps so alien as to defy our perception as life forms, some perhaps so powerful as to strike us as deities? Nor should we assume other intelligences would understand us, or care to. As for the cosmos itself, apart from its creatures! Surely it’s “as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles” which might be the best description of Azathoth, seething chaos at the heart of creation, idiot god, blind and mindless and, has to be, indifferent. Right?
For individual humans, though, what does it mean to be “indifferent?” If the universe doesn’t give a damn and all human endeavor is futile, is suicide really the logical choice, nonexistence the sensible and blissful goal? If so, both Lovecraft and Malcolm fail to reach the noblest peak of indifference, for neither kills himself. Neither even manages to sit quietly in a dark and muffled room, with hands folded and head bowed. Lovecraft writes, and publishes, and corresponds, and visits friends, and corresponds, and collaborates, and writes and publishes and corresponds and visits and collaborates and corresponds some more, reaching out, thinking, caring, eating ice cream, damn it!
And Malcolm? He should know better than to go to that con. He does know better, and yet—
I think he both nurses the dim hope of finding a kindred spirit and savors the high probability of running across plenty of people to sneer at and to feed his multitude of resentments. He is the only one who really understands Lovecraft’s philosophy, because he’s the only one who truly accepts it and LIVES it. He doesn’t skate with nervous laughter across the surface ice of its fiction, clutching plushie abominations and joke coffee cups. He doesn’t preach the gospel of cosmic indifference and mankind’s insignificance and the agony of existence and then spawn children to share “the whirling vortex of meaningless pain.” He doesn’t keep fans waiting fifteen minutes for a reading because he has to talk to his publicist and then spend the next fifteen minutes bragging about the so-important best-of anthology he’s just gotten into oh no. And he’s certainly not Author-Man who so embodies everything wrong with the self-styled followers of Howard (who are not Malcolm) that he must be taught a lesson.
Now, this Malcolm may be indifferent to societal norms of good and evil, but he’s far from indifferent to his own twisted notions of morality and philosophical consistency. Truth is, he’s a bundle of raw nerves of caring. But—does he kill anybody over it?
I’m not sure. The lack of details, the logistics, that niggling bit about Malcolm buying the book earlier and then going to get it signed later? Why not at point of sale, as usual? No, I’m more inclined to think Malcolm fantasizes the murders of Author-Man’s wife and child in rich, sick detail in the safety of his own hotel room. Has probably done the same thing many times before. I mean, we all do, right? I don’t know how many aortas I’ve psychically popped at great distances in my day….
Uh, only of genocidal dictators, of course. And then it didn’t work.
Ah, Lovecraft’s letters: the source of much deep philosophy and much existential angst. Howard himself, of course, handled the meaningless and ultimately futile nature of existence by creating art, mentoring students, and building a network of friendship and exchange so strong that it kept his work alive for a century afterwards. One implication of an uncaring universe, he perhaps understood, is that humans are under absolutely no obligation to be perfectly consistent in their philosophy when there are stories to be written and legacies to be sought.
Our douchebag narrator seeks a different sort of legacy—maybe he dreams of something akin to our century-plus obsession with Jack the Ripper. Or maybe he really is, as he claims, just furious that people appreciate Lovecraft’s work without turning completely nihilistic. “The uncaring universe—” he says, as he congratulates himself on his work, “—appears a lot different when it comes home.” Yes, of course it does. But there’s an inherent paradox in trying to demonstrate that point. Douchebag, you aren’t the uncaring universe. You’re a human who cares enough about the nature of the universe to deliberately add to the sum total of human suffering. There’s this thing where killers—and the general run of horrible people who are not onboard with the project of civilization—tend to think of themselves as embodiments of natural forces, bringing home to their naïve, sheltered, or willfully blind victims the true nature of reality. But considering oneself that important, and acting on it, cannot possibly be consistent with true Lovecraftian philosophy.
So this story made me think, inevitably, of the “Doll’s House” storyline in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. The Corinthian, a toothy-eyed gentleman killer who’s escaped from the Dreaming, gathers his wanna-be human followers at a “cereal convention.” (Speaking of pointed parodies of fannish get-togethers.) There they share the deep philosophies and abiding obsessions behind their… work. But when Dream catches up with them, he’s disgusted by their pettiness. “Until now, you have all sustained fantasies in which you are the maltreated heroes of your own stories. Comforting daydreams in which you are, ultimately, shown to be in the right.” Hamentaschen’s narrator would fit right in. And would richly deserve the punishment that Dream inflicts on that auditorium full of murderers—he takes that dream away, leaving them with no escape from their own petty irrelevance.
And but so anyway. This story certainly succeeded in evoking an emotional response from me. Possibly because my take on an uncaring universe is the polar opposite of Douchebag Narrator’s. “…and yet… and yet… somewhere in between cosmic indifferentism and the inherent futility of all organic life was room for children.” Yes. I kind of wrote a book about that.
Lovecraft says it himself, and I doubt Hamentaschen chose the narrator-undermining quotes accidentally: if the universe has no preferences, then the best thing we can do is try to diminish the pain of living. Then there’s Hamentaschen’s title: who, after all, is the special snowflake? It’s certainly not Mr. Author-Man, or his wife and kids. In among the digs at Cthulhu plushies and themed anthologies, Hamantaschen is making a fairly sharp point—and it’s not the one Malcolm is going for.
Next week, young Lovecraft shares Roman reminiscences in “The Very Old folk.”
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.