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 John Connolly’s “Mr. Pettinger’s Daemon,” first published in his 2004 Nocturnes collection. Spoilers ahead.
“The moisture tasted like blood upon my tongue.”
Army chaplain and WWI veteran Mr. Pettinger is summoned to his bishop’s palatial library. Pettinger thinks the bishop, with his tapered bald head and flowing crimson robes, looks like a bloody dagger; his skeletal fingers move like spider legs. Pettinger dislikes the bishop’s fingers. But then, he dislikes the bishop.
He dislikes more his current post at an army hospital. It’s hard to soothe shattered minds and shore up shaken souls when his own sanity and faith are so fragile. In dreams, he still hears shells explode and rats scurry in the trenches. Worse, Pettinger’s mind keeps returning to the four British deserters they found in a shell crater in no-man’s-land, tearing strips of warm meat from a German soldier’s corpse and feasting on them.
Before execution, the deserters’ leader told Pettinger: “I have eaten the Word made flesh. Now God is in me, and I am God. He tasted good. He tasted of blood.”
But there’s no way Pettinger can confide such memories to the bishop, not when this arachnid of a man can decide whether he gets a living in some peaceful parish. Maybe in time, the bishop says. First, Pettinger must go to Chetwyn-Dark and see to its minister, Mr. Fell. Fell has suffered from alcoholism and other nervous complaints, for he’s “sought proof of that which must be understood through faith alone.” The “comparative solitude” of Chetwyn-Dark, a small parish near the southwest coast, was intended to cure Fell. Instead, he’s taken to locking himself in the church. His congregation hears him digging in there. Highly irregular. Mr. Pettinger must comfort his brother. Or have him committed. Either way, Mr. Fell must stop embarrassing the bishop.
Pettinger arrives in Chetwyn-Dark on a rainy evening. From Fell’s garden, he sees the ancient church. No one’s home at the rectory, but a simple supper’s laid out in the kitchen. Upstairs a guestroom’s prepared. In Fell’s untidy bedroom, Pettinger discovers yellowed Latin manuscripts and Fell’s translations of the same. One manuscript describes the foundation of the original church at Chetwyn-Dark, back in the 900s. The second describes a tomb in the church, and a stone on the floor nearby. A rubbing accompanies this translation, showing a cross with a face behind it. The face reminds Pettinger of a gargoyle with its huge furious eyes and gaping mouth. The third translation is littered with gaps and question marks. Some words, however, are underlined: entombed, malefic, and, again and again, daemon.
Remembering Fell’s habit of locking himself in the church, Pettinger hunts out a set of spare keys and goes to confront his host. The front door’s locked and barred. On his way to the back door, he hears a sound like someone tunneling underground. The back door yields to a key. He enters, calls for Fell, hears the digging stop. Stones have been removed from the floor, leaving a man-sized gap and a tunnel beneath. One of the stones is the source of Fell’s rubbing.
The tunnel emits three things: the sound of renewed digging, the stench of excrement, and a faint light. Pettinger slides down a short slope to a stone-flagged passage with wooden braces, many new, as if added by Fell. One support in particular interests him, an old one carved with writhing serpents and the face of a beast with tusks protruding from a snouted mouth. It reminds him of the face on the stone above. This brace also features ancient iron bolts and new ropes which seem designed, if the ropes are pulled, to bring down the ceiling of the tunnel.
He proceeds toward the digging sound. Turning a corner, he discovers the corpse of a clergyman—Fell, mouth contorted and eyes bloody from burst vessels. His hands are raised, as if to ward something off.
Nothing’s in front of Fell except a stone wall. But the wall has a hole in it, and the digging comes from behind it. So it wasn’t Fell digging down—it was something else digging up!
Pettinger peers into the hole and glimpses the gleam of all-black eyes and yellow tusks. Many-jointed fingers, gray-scaled and tipped with huge curved nails, thrust through the opening as the creature reaches for him. Pettinger can feel “its fury, its malevolence, its searing, desperate intelligence, and its absolute loneliness.” Then it pulls its hand back and starts battering the wall. The ancient stonework cracks. Pettinger scrambles back up the tunnel, praying and crying at once. In the beast’s howls he discerns words, though in no language he knows. Then he hears the wall collapse and the beast—the daemon—pursuing, its talons scraping on the flagstones.
Pettinger barely reaches the roped brace in time to pull the iron bolts free. As the tunnel roof collapses, the daemon retreats to avoid being buried under the rubble, and Pettinger escapes to the “blessed calm” of the ancient church.
The Fell problem solved, Mr. Pettinger receives his reward: the living at Chetwyn-Dark. He repairs the church floor, performs his few ministerial duties, writes, walks by the shore. Where Fell found his manuscripts remains a mystery. They reside now in the bishop’s safe, unless he’s burned them. Sometimes Pettinger lights candles for Fell and prays for his soul.
As for the daemon, Pettinger still hears it at night, alone in the church, “digging, patiently and intently…its progress infinitesimally slow, yet still progress…
“It can wait.
“After all, it has eternity.”
What’s Cyclopean: The bishop, “yellow-socketed” and with “arachnoid” fingers, may be the real monster of this story.
The Degenerate Dutch: It hardly matters that the Germans are the enemy; you’re still not supposed to eat people.
Mythos Making: World War I sets the template for much of Lovecraft’s horror.
Libronomicon: The bishop distrust books, seeds of sedition in undisciplined minds. AMP: Also mysterious Latin manuscripts!
Madness Takes Its Toll: The war shattered some men’s minds like dropped crystal. Others, like Pettinger, just require surreptitious therapy sessions and pills to sleep.
This week John Connolly gives us my favorite subtype of Big Revelation story, in which the Person of Faith Who’s Lost Their Religion Finds It Again, Or Maybe Its Reverse.
My impression, based on a meandering graze down the buffet table of literature, is that WWI was the first conflict to produce a really bumper crop of posttraumatic stress fiction and poetry. Was one of the sequelae of the War to End All Wars a surge in the rejection of traditional beliefs? Or had the fin of the 19th siecle already planted seeds of intellectual and spiritual restlessness ripe to sprout under the new century’s first great bloodletting? Throw in the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed more people than the war itself, and you had a half-decade horrific enough to challenge anyone’s faith in divine benevolence.
For Lovecraft and peer writers, the Great War seethes like pernicious background radiation. Another of his “WWI” stories is “Rats in the Walls,” in which Delapore’s war-killed aviator son is one of the ghosts driving him toward Exham Priory. Randolph Carter, whom friend Warren describes as “a bundle of nerves,” might well be one after serving with the French Foreign Legion, presumably in the Battle of the Somme.
Mr. Pettinger’s survived the war with body intact. He’s even retained a little sanity. However, he doesn’t believe God protected him in the trenches; he’d only like to believe that. In fact, he believes God’s abandoned mankind to its fate. That’s if He ever existed at all. Or, to speculate even more darkly: Do the words of the cannibal-deserter ring in Pettinger’s mind because they toll the truth? Say man is God’s Word made flesh. That flesh tastes of blood, ergo God’s Word tastes of blood. What’s that say about God’s nature? About man’s nature as the creature fashioned in His own Image?
Fell apparently needed no war to drive him to doubt, and alcohol, and “obscure rantings.” According to the bishop, Fell looks for proof that God exists, but establishing proof is the job of scientists—look, dyed and slide-affixed, here’s the bacterium that causes tuberculosis! One can’t affix God to a slide or pin Him down in a specimen drawer. Only faith can fathom Him. Only the torture of doubt can follow the suspension of faith.
Pettinger finds such high flown words hollow coming from the bishop, whose concept of God amounts to a tool for control of the masses. He’ll later find that Fell has, through his manuscripts, stumbled on an indirect but not altogether unreasonable method of “proving” God exists. Let’s sketch out Fell’s logic.
PREMISE: A supremely GOOD deity must be opposed to (or balanced by) a supremely EVIL one.
PREMISE: The GOOD and EVIL deities have supernatural subordinates (angels/demons).
CONCLUSION: If we can find either an angel or demon, then a GOOD deity (GOD) must exist.
Here’s the problem. What if Fell’s first premise is wrong? What if there needs be no balance of GOOD and EVIL? What if EVIL is all there is, a God who tastes of blood? In which case, would the universal “impulse” be EVIL at all, having no GOOD to oppose it? Or more like NATURE RED IN TOOTH AND CLAW again, or the “Lovecraftian” terror of INDIFFERENCE. So take your pick. EVIL. Or NATURAL LAW, unfeeling but structured. Or AZATHOTH, the IDIOT CHAOS. Looking any of these in the tusky face was enough to drop Fell dead in his shabby clerical garb.
Pettinger’s made of tougher, and subtler, stuff. His fear of the daemon is tempered by sympathy, even empathy –now we see how well he must have functioned as a field and hospital chaplain. Looking into the creature’s entirely black eyes, he thinks its pupils must be permanently enlarged, “desperately seeking light in that dark place.” As it reaches for him with a clawed hand, he feels not only its “fury and malevolence” but also its “searing, desperate [again] intelligence and its absolute loneliness.” When it howls, he hears more than animal ululation—he hears words. If the Word can be made flesh, then may not the Flesh make words?
The creature is too terrifying for Pettinger to meet, as little prepared as his skimming of Fell’s notes has left him. But he doesn’t turn down the bishop’s offer of Chetwyn-Dark for his own parish. Nor does he avoid going into the church at night, alone, when he knows he may hear the sound of digging far beneath its foundations. Is he heartened by this proof that the creature’s indeed, daemon or god, immortal? And his daemon or god, Mr. Pettinger’s? Malign, desperate, furious, brilliant, lonely. Maybe…familiar?
Stinking like the trenches, coarse-furred like the rats.
Tasting of blood. Tasting good.
The Word made Flesh.
World War I lurks in the background of all Lovecraft. In some stories, like “Dagon” and “The Temple,” it’s explicit. In most it’s a spectral presence, unnamable and unspoken: the force that tore through boundaries that once seemed unassailable, shattered the rules of civilization, and broke the minds of those who looked on it directly. Though Lovecraft wasn’t himself one of those witnesses, the wounds were red and raw around him.
John Connolly writes from a greater distance, but also with a modern understanding of PTSD. He hasn’t forgotten, though, the degree to which such trauma was (and in some quarters still is) considered shameful and unspeakable. It only makes sense that other unspeakable things should show up around the edges. In lesser hands, the titular daemon could have been a monster of the week. Instead, the question isn’t whether Pettinger will get away from the monster, but what he’ll get from his encounter. If, per Baudelaire, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, it follows that any man of faltering faith should want to meet a daemon.
Faith plays an odd role in the Mythos. Where Connolly’s story may well take place in a Christian universe, Lovecraft’s cosmic horror is not so compatible. His gods are palpable and interventionist—but not particularly personal. You can look on Cthulhu or Shub-Niggurath with your own eyes, but you may regret it. You might even get in a word or two before you get eaten or stomped. Nyarlathotep as always being the exception, but the conversation’s unlikely to be a pleasant one. Randolph Carter may have a personal relationship with N, but isn’t likely to urge the same on others.
Later writers often drift back to a dualistic cosmology, with forces in play who actually like humanity, even notice us. Usually the effect is one of dilution. Everything just feels less cosmic if the universe breaks down into easy, human-comprehensible patterns. Connolly’s overtly Christian framework works better for me, maybe because of how it turns that dichotomy around. If daemons prove the existence of G-d, after all, then G-d implies the existence of daemons.
Interesting daemon, by the way. It certainly looks the part. But we never do find out exactly what it wants. I’m struck by the emotional description: fury, malevolence, “searing, desperate intelligence,” and “absolute loneliness.” And yet, one doubts this creature wants to sit down for a friendly chat. Perhaps, like those poor soldiers caught in no-man’s-land, it has a more tangible way of getting to know people. If G-d tastes of blood, then—flip side, again—anything that tastes of blood is a taste of G-d. Yum. And daemons, of course, are supposed to be lonely because they’re cut off from the divine.
Speaking of monsters cut off from divinity, the bishop plays an odd role in this story. He’s not just the old man in the inn who kicks everything off, but another and less insight-producing horror for Pettinger. He’s described in inhuman terms: yellow-eyed, spider-fingered, hairless, a bloody dagger. He’s separated from the god he ostensibly serves not supernaturally, but simply because he’s more interested in power and control than in real faith. Pettinger despises him, believing that he couldn’t stand up to a real test. He also fears the control the man has over his life. The daemon has the power to kill him; the bishop not only has the power to make him miserable, but the desire to do so for his own good.
The happy ending, such as it is, places Pettinger far closer to the daemon than to the bishop. And closer, by implication, to G-d. Which is, Lovecraft-like, not a happy thing—but unlike many of Lovecraft’s narrators, Pettinger seems to find that an acceptable trade-off.
Next week, a weird western and a hard-riding heroine in R.A. Kaelin’s “Mnemeros.” You can find it in Dreams From the Witch House.
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.