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 Lin Carter’s “Something in the Moonlight,” first published in the December 1980 issue of Weird Tales. You can find it in the Cthulhu Mythos Megapack (Wildside Press, 2012) or in The Xothic Legend Cycle (Chaosium Inc., 2006).
“Through the use of the Ritual of the Silver Key I have been in communion with the fungoid intelligences of Nzoorl, and obtained precious glimpses of S’glhuo and Ymar. But nothing avails me…”
The statement of Charles Winslow Curtis, MD is intercut with the notes of his patient Uriah Horby, documenting the latter’s shocking death.
In 1949, Curtis leaves Miskatonic University for the Dunhill Sanitarium in Santiago, California. He gets a cordial reception from Dr. Colby, director of the sanitarium. Curtis’s chief interest is in acute paranoia, isn’t it? Well, Colby has just the patient for him. Uriah Horby, oddly intolerant of moonlight. Draws his drapes against it, keeps all his lights burning at night. And more: he’s terrified of lizards. Sure, many people are phobic of reptiles, but Horby now. The lizard he’s afraid of, it lives on the moon.
Curtis expects to find Uriah Horby like other paranoids: neglectful of personal hygiene, eyes darting to every corner in search enemies. Instead he finds a middle-aged man as scrupulously neat as his room, writing in a tight legible hand nothing like the usual paranoid’s scrawl. More startling is the “tranquil sanity” of Horby’s gaze. In the relatively informal conversations that take the place of clinical interviews at Dunhill, Curtis soon learns that Horby has buttressed an excellent education with extensive travel. Though conversant on many subjects, he’s developed a fixation on demonology. If Curtis were familiar with the Necronomicon, he’d know that man isn’t the first master of Earth. Beings from other worlds, even planes of existence, ruled before him. Immortal, godlike beings of incomprehensible intelligence and pure devouring evil—and they want to return.
Curtis is chilled that Horby can speak such nonsense in “quiet, sober tones.” Horby says that Alhazred describes prehistoric towns called Sarnath and Ib. In Ib dwelt amphibious frog-like beings called the Thunn’ha who worshipped the great water-lizard Bokrug. And yet it was not Bokrug who dwelt in the moon, but That which he served…
When the narrative switches to Horby’s notes, we find that his candor in conversation with Curtis is feigned. He actually views the young doctor with contempt: amiable enough but blind and ignorant, “as they all are.” No one knows the value of Horby’s discoveries or the perils awaiting mankind. Soon the frogs in the lake behind the sanitarium will start their hellish nightly chorus, for the Appointed Hour cometh, and he must organize his notes. Perhaps Curtis can help him get the full text of the Zoan chant?
After listening to Horby’s speculations that Bokrug and the Thunn’ha had come to Earth through extra-galactic “star-spaces” with the Great Old Ones, Curtis remembers that the Miskatonic Library has a copy of the Necronomicon, a rare tome that even during his time at the university was connected to murder and suicide.
Meanwhile Horby’s desperately trying many spells and rituals to fend off impending danger. Nothing works. He needs the Zoan chant from the Necronomicon, and if only the damned frogs in the lake would stop singing!
Curtis reports that Horby’s asked him for help obtaining passages from Alhazred’s book. Why not? It’s a harmless favor that will help him gain the patient’s confidence. He sends a telegram to Miskatonic. Meanwhile Horby grows increasingly agitated – he seems convinced the defenses he’s built against his “lunar enemy” are about to fall. Horby’s told him the ancient gods and their servitors still have human followers. Bokrug’s cultists have read the monograph Horby wrote about them. That’s why he’s a marked man!
The Miskatonic contact comes through with the Necronomicon extracts. One names the lizard-god Horby fears: Mnomquah, who wallows in the slimy waves of the Black Lake of Ubboth beneath the moon’s crust. But the contact regrets that he couldn’t copy down the so-called “Zoan chant” from Book VII since the pages were illegible. Horby triumphs briefly to find his suspicions about the lizard-god’s identity correct, then despairs that he has no chant to “direct the energies against the Black Lake.”
Curtis, dismissed, leaves his patient. A nurse reports that Horby’s loud chanting is disturbing the other patients, and Curtis sends him to administer a sleeping pill. Out in the lake the frogs are practically roaring. Curtis looks out his window to see the moon glaring “like a gigantic eye of cold white fire” upon the marshy lake. Something rises from the water, black and huge, and pushes through the reeds with a strange hopping gait. Blink, it’s gone. Must have been a dog from a neighboring farm, except for that slug-like slime-track –
Next comes a “shriek of unutterable terror” as from “the abysm of Hell.” The frogs shut up. Horby keeps screaming. Curtis and half the sanitarium arrive in Horby’s room to find the window shattered, the drapes rent, the moonlight pouring in, and a reek of stagnant sea water everywhere. Horby lies in the wreckage with a look of intolerable fear on his face, dead. There’s not a mark on his body.
The nurse crouches among slime-smeared manuscript pages, giggling and chewing papers. All they can get out of him, between giggles, is that something came through the window, jumped on Mr. Horby, it was like…it was like…Giggles.
Curtis tells director Colby he doesn’t know what to think about all this, but he does. Mnomquah had gotten his revenge, and poor Horby was saner than the rest of them.
What’s Cyclopean: The batrachian Thunn’ha worship their reptilian divinity with abominable rites.
The Degenerate Dutch: One supporting character gets described repeatedly as “the male nurse.” It’s not clear why it was so urgent to make this distinction, except perhaps to emphasize that there are no women whatsoever in this story.
Mythos Making: Several Mythosian deities get mentioned in passing—though not Shub-Niggurath or Yig, of course. There are shout-outs not only to “Doom That Came to Sarnath” but possibly also “The Moon-Bog” and “The Shuttered Room.”
Libronomicon: Every one of Lovecraft’s manuscripts shows up in passing, though the classic Necronomicon takes center stage. The major new contribution is Horby’s monograph on Sarnath, which may only have been read by the cultists who keep an open Google search for “Bokrug.” At least it beats having zero citations.
Madness Takes Its Toll: This is the classic story in which exposure to eldritch critters costs sanity points, complicated by centering around an asylum patient whom Curtis finally admits is “saner than we are.”
I suggested this story to Ruthanna as our next selection because I thought we hadn’t done any Lin Carter yet. That’s how thoroughly I’d forgotten we’d featured “The Winfield Heritance” a few months back (May 24, 2017). [RE: Me too.] Sorry, Mr. Carter. It’s me, not you. Or maybe, for me, it’s a little you. [RE: Me too.] About “Winfield,” Ruthanna noted an interest-deafening clamor of shout-outs; rereading our “Winfield” post, along with “Something in the Moonlight,” I’ve got to concur, loudly. With a shout, even.
I found that “Moonlight” read smoothly enough in the Curtis sections, although I wondered why this young and eager psychiatrist didn’t follow up on his astonishment that one so rational and so obviously capable of self-care as Horby should be hospitalized. Sure, he has a bizarre fixed idea about a monstrous lizard god in the moon and its Earthside amphibious servants, but a lot of people walk around free with bizarre ideas rattling in their skulls. Is Horby a danger to himself or others? If Curtis has any reason to think so, he doesn’t note it down, nor does he record how Horby ended up at Dunhill. Did he admit himself, for safety’s sake? Did his family pressure him to “get help?” Did the state commit him for some insanity-provoked crime? I don’t know. Does young Dr. Curtis? Does the author, or does he just need Horby to be in Dunhill for the plot’s sake and do we the readers REALLY want to read the guy’s whole thousand-page psych record, GOD(S)!
Okay, if you’re going to get testy, we’ll go on to the Horby sections. They’re where the patented Wizardly Jargon begins, made the more unpalatable by the trademarked Unpronounceable Neologisms. In his notes, Horby name-drops the usual tomes and tome authors: the Necronomicon (which his dad just happened to own, though an incomplete copy, guess the ghouls had been gnawing on a few chapters), Cultes des Goules (see, ghouls), Von Junzt, Prinn. Then he reels off a few of the spells he knows: the nine formulae between the Ngg and the Hnnrr (!), the Zhooric sign, the Chian Pentagram, the Xao games, the thirteen formulae between the Yaa (I can say this one) and the Ghhgg (forget about it). But wait, there’s more! The D’horna-ahn Energies, the Ritual of the Silver Key which brings communion with fungoid intelligences of Nzoorl and glimpses of S’glhuo and Ymar, guys on Ktynga (who can’t help), mighty Yhtill who could help but you have to go to Carcosa first and take the Vow before the Elder Throne (not a day trip). Finally there are forty-eight Aklo unveilings (no, forty-nine, but that last one depends on Glaaki taking mankind, sounds iffy), and the enormous energies of the Pnakotic Pentagram, and (my own fave) the reversed angles of Tagh-Glatur!
I get it – a lot of the tomes and spells refer to the creations of other members in the Universal Order of Lovecraftian Weirdocity (UOLW), and it’s good and legitimate fun to salute them in this manner. And, in the first place, it’s good and legitimate fun to make up new Lovecraftian Weirdocity, to play with the crazy names and tropes. But I fear Carter’s a prime example of what can happen to stories spawned in a shared-cosmos as vast and Azathoth-chaotic as the Cthulhu Mythos. A new god pops up in every other story, along with its own alien race(s) of servitors and human cultists and lairs on Earth and off and dedicated tomes and curses. Nor is it enough for Shub-Niggurath to have a Thousand Young, Carter has to give Cthulhu three sons! And no, reader Kirth Girthsome’s comment notwithstanding, their names are not Mike, Robbie, and Chip.
Point being, the shared-cosmic landscape gets crowded fast. Got crowded fast in the case of the first waves of peri- and post-Howard Mythos writers. They were an enviously exuberant bunch, and yet—
The flame that boiled a strong-flavored brew in the pot might produce just froth at the top. Decorative, but relatively tasteless.
Or, for a more subject-pertinent metaphor:
Say you’re Shub-Niggurath, doing what any given Outer God of Fecundity does on a typical workday. Having done this for a few eternities, you more or less mindlessly bud off a new creature, then swivel an eye stalk to take a look. It’s vast and colorful and scoots around energetically, but…
It’s flat. It’s all teeming surface, with no meat or bone beneath. No heart.
Meh, can’t win ‘em all. With one mighty sweep of a nether-pseudopod, you sweep it out into the space-time continua.
To conclude, I feel like I’m picking on Lin Carter here, especially since he can’t fight back. I hope. Could be he just hit my last nerve with that ill-conceived notion that Outer Gods or Elder Gods or Great Old Ones or any of Their miscellaneous spawn would give a flying shoggoth that some dust mote of an inferior being published a small monograph about doomed Sarnath, for Azathoth’s sake.
I mean, really.
First published in 1980… which was how long ago? Aaahhh, the horror! Excuse me. Lin Carter’s “Something in the Moonlight” falls into what I think of as the “middle period” of Lovecraftian literature—long after Lovecraft put out his last new work, but before you could get a plush Cthulhu at every con. So I’m willing to forgive the story’s… let’s be generous and call it prototypicality… in the abstract—Carter’s readers were presumably delighted by every scrap of Cthulhoid referentiality they could get their hands on.
But by all the gods beyond the stars, this story would be about five pages long if you cut the name-dropping. It would not, I think, be much more effective as a horror story. I don’t hate it, but it earns my most passionate “meh.” It might make a half-decent backdrop for a Call of Cthulhu game, with the player characters providing a last minute Zoan chant save. Or failing to do so, and joining the “male nurse” gibbering on the floor. Or saving the day and then gibbering, because seeing Bokrug is probably unpleasant even if you defeat him.
Lovecraft was prone to this Excessive Mentioning himself. Long passages of “Whisperer in Darkness” and “Thing on the Doorstep” are just people going on about Azathoth and the horrible Shoggoths (which is the name of my next band). Sometimes I enjoy those rants and sometimes I roll my eyes, often both at the same time. A good rant requires, however, a certain energy level. Here, insufficiently distracted by momentum, I start checking off boxes. Aklo—yes, that’s Machen’s “The White People.” We all know what the “ritual of the Silver Key” accomplishes. The terrifying chorus of frogs is straight out of “The Shuttered Room.” The endless list of signs and chants that might be used to fight off ancient horrors, if only you knew their names… well, the Derlethian heresy is everywhere in these degenerate days, isn’t it?
I’m amused that Dr. Curtis appears to be the only person in the Miskatonic Valley who hasn’t already read the Necronomicon. It’s kind of nice to be reminded that the famed university does, in fact, have departments other than Mathematics and Folklore. Though I can’t say much for their psychology program; giving someone with ostensible paranoid delusions access to texts at the center of their delusions… I’m no clinician, but that sounds a bit dodgy. Then again, Curtis is quickly caught up in his patient’s beliefs—perhaps he picked up something at Miskatonic after all, if only by osmosis.
Lovecraft’s own work rarely ended with gibbering. Rather, his characters were too sane, overwhelmed by truths they wished they could avoid, writing them down to try and excise the horror. Maybe Male Nurse will write his own nameless narrative one of these days. But for Curtis, our current narrator, the thing that interests me most is his refusal to discuss what happened with the other doctor. They’ve both seen something inexplicable, and he lies. Out of denial, because to name it would be to make it more real? Reflexively clinging to what “sane” people are supposed to say? Or because he’s gotten caught up in Horby’s obsessions and doesn’t want to contaminate anyone else? Do Horby’s studies, like The King in Yellow, draw those who come too close into the horrific world they describe?
And what was Horby trying to do, anyway? At some points he simply seems desperate to defend his life and soul. No one wants to become one of the “Million Favored Ones,” after all. But then there’s that rant about being an emperor “when the Earth is cleared off.” Somewhere in between those two, I’d like to think there’s a happy medium.
Next week, it’s just a simple scam scientific expedition, what could possibly go wrong? Oh wait, Rolling in the Deep is by Mira Grant. We’re all gonna die…
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.