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 R.A. Kaelin’s “Mnemeros,” first published in 2015 in Lynn Jamneck’s Dreams From the Witch House anthology. Spoilers ahead.
“Some names are like keys; they swing doors wide open that are best left shut.”
Leah Byrd recalls her youth in a rural Texas rotten with ghost towns. With the nearest “live” town two hours away, she made her own entertainment exploring abandoned buildings for relics like bent branding irons and old medicine bottles.
Her best leads come from an old “River Rat.” He tells her about strange carved stones down by the Brazos River, which were there before the Comanches. ‘Course, you don’t touch ‘em, or the tarry stuff they drip. And you watch out for the River Things. In 1876 when they built Rath City with the river stones, the Comanches attacked over it. Religious tomfoolery, folks thought. But the Comanches were right, because that whole town disappeared one night, and something took the stones back.
After hearing that story, Leah has to head for the Brazos. She packs a .22 and saddles up Pistol, a “racetrack reject” willful but fast. Thunderstorms have left the way through neighbors’ pastures more hog wallow than road; Leah’s surprised when a “city” car churns up behind. The old man driving looks like a professor from an old-time movie. In fact, he is a professor, Dr. Arnold Peaslee of Miskatonic University, come to see the Brazos stones. What luck meeting Leah, who can guide him!
Leah’s wary but Peaslee’s enthusiasm wins her over. She warns him the river’s flooded, the paths treacherous. Peaslee remains game, abandoning his car to brave shin-deep mud and cactus thickets. Pistol spooks at invisible threats. What she can’t hear spooks her — where are all the frogs that should be singing post-rain? What’s that stinking musk like skunk and garter snake combined?
They find a trap full of feral hogs strangely butchered, their bones sorted into piles. Leah’s horrified. Peaslee exults. It’s proof that the stars are right, and they are here!
If “they” means the River Things, Leah says, we better turn back.
No, says Peaslee. He’s read books and learned their language. He urges Leah on, presses payment on her, and tells the story of Mnemeros, an ancient god from the stars.
Leah, who’s a big reader and already questioning Bible truth, asks if Mnemeros is a demon. No, Peaslee says, he’s one of the Great Old Ones, “awesome interdimensional lords with shapes and voices that would blast a man sightless and raving, if the experience didn’t kill him outright.”
Aeons ago, they descended to Earth and built their holy city R’lyeh, where they ruled until the stars closed to them and they fell into deathlike darkness. Mnemeros, their brother, ran late behind them, when the path was already closed. He, god of a thousand faces and ten thousand hands, burned all the way down. He burns still, scattered and corrupted, pleading in dreams for aid his brothers won’t give. But corrupted, Mnemeros has become more like mortal men. He can speak to them. If one could remake him, think of the knowledge he could give in return!
Who’d be crazy enough to put a demon back together, Leah demands.
In reply, Peaslee ungloves a hand coated tarry black. It burns, he says, but it’s the mark of the initiated, to whom great things will be revealed.
The terror of his tainted touch drives Leah and Pistol to the riverbank stones and a newly eroded-out cave mouth. Peaslee takes a similar stone from his satchel, dripping pitch that ignites in blue flames. He lifts it and chants in an ululating tongue. Things drop from the cave into the river. Sinuous arms whip from the water and yank Peaslee in.
Pistol bolts back up the brush-choked path. Leah hears and smells pursuers; looking back, she glimpses black shapes, some big as cattle, slithering and crawling, glistening like frogs. Also a monster hog, black and pulsing. The chase intensifies when they reach the road through the pastures. A thunderstorm breaks. A single River Thing slithers out of a ditch in front of them. Leah shoots it but Pistol throws her, leaving her to run on her own.
She makes it to an abandoned church and bolts herself in. Things lay siege. Lightning reveals hieroglyphics magic-markered on the walls. Chanting drones in her ears. Disoriented, Leah flees to the belfry. From its windows she sees a horde of Things but also a jumble of farmhouses, churches, post offices, silos, Comanche tipis, like “some terrible vision of the past and the present and the future, all coinciding in the same space.” Back in the church, she finds the “dull yellow heat of some other time” and a ritual being performed over a humming mass of flesh: the monster hog, but mutated into some enormous fetus, or tumor, or heart. The River Thing she shot is brought in. It speaks in Peaslee’s voice: “Ms. Byrd! Please don’t be afraid.”
Things charge Leah. Grappled in their arms, dragging them along, she reaches the roof. Ms. Ross, the landowner, arrives and fires on the horde. Leah gets into Ross’s truck, but not without getting black Thing “blood” on her back.
When she wakes in the hospital, she learns the doctors couldn’t remove that blood without cutting away all the skin it had adhered to, and fast, because it was spreading. Also, she was missing two weeks, not one afternoon. Also, Peaslee visited many years before Leah supposedly met him. He disappeared, leaving behind his car. Never did find him.
Ms. Ross burns down the abandoned church. She also does some dynamiting by the Brazos. No one tells Leah what she blew up, but Leah has theories.
Leah’s moved away from that “rural wasteland.” Lately, though, she’s had dreams and been possessed with a longing to return. She remembers a voice she heard in the church. Not Peaslee’s. Her own, calling her back to the “patchwork god.” There’s work to do before the Lord can swim down to the gulf. So much work, so little time before the third gate opens.
What’s Cyclopean: The descriptions in this story are hideously organic: landscape like a living thing, living things like… something unthinkable, touched by a baleful intelligence.
The Degenerate Dutch: The Comanches attacked old Rath for using the carved river stones to build his saloon. Of course, “we sent an expedition as far as Lubbock to teach them a lesson.” Never mind that they were right.
Also, “Yanks have got only sentimentality where their brains should be.” In fairness, our boy Arnold is no disproof.
Mythos Making: As long as there’s a Dr. Peaslee at Miskatonic, there’ll be misguided expeditions in search of dangerous artifacts.
Libronomicon: There are very old books, transcribing the language of the river things, and describing the methods needed to master it.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Peaslee is, if not mad, obsessed and misguided. Leah seems all too sane, and in a world of trouble.
Wow. This may in fact be the creepiest story I’ve read for the Reread, and it has some competition. I mean that in the best possible way. It also continues the run of brilliance we’ve had so far from Dreams From the Witch House.
“The Woman in the Hill,” an earlier selection from the same anthology, also played with the trope of the thing that touches you once and changes you irrevocably. Unfixable mistakes are among my personal nightmares, so I’m a sucker for this trope to begin with. In Muir’s story, it’s never quite clear what the cave’s victims are becoming a part of—Anne even suggested that it might… not be that bad. Kaelin goes to the other extreme—if you’re going to tell people what’s going on, tell enough to scare the hell out of them. Though maybe Anne’ll argue that union with Mnemeros is just another form of eldritch transcendence. Peaslee certainly seems to think so. Or the thing that was Peaslee. Me, I’ll take my chances with any of the other dread fates on offer first. I like being myself, totally not drippy and tarlike, even if it means forgoing the secrets of cosmic history.
I can see why Peaslee might choose differently, though. He has to be the grandkid, after all, or great-grandkid, of Nathaniel Peaslee, who got a direct look at those histories firsthand. It stands to reason that his descendant would (1) hanker after vast and inhuman records of Earth’s history, and (2) have some tolerance for body horror.
Mnemeros Itself is an excellent addition to the Mythos. The name is obviously a translation, Its fall simplified for the comprehension and seduction of human minds, but the form and means fit nastily into the rest of the pantheon. Mnemeros is indeed, as Peaslee points out acidly, not Godzilla. Not made by humans—just in need of a few anxious monkeys, along with hogs and miscellaneous organic matter, to stitch Itself back together.
The whole atmosphere is amped up by the descriptions that make everything in Leah’s world alive and dangerous. The river “snakes across the landscape like a groping alien limb.” Stormy skies are “bruised black-blue.” Even before she’s racing away from a Mnemeros-infused hog through a timelost ghost town, smelling “the stink of a skunk and a garter snake put together,” there’s no getting away from the living landscape.
Then there’s the time. Canonically we’re well after 1971 and before internet access becomes common, maybe some time in the 80s. And it’s specifically April 15th, when the stars are right and taxes come due. But Leah’s literally unstuck in time, experiencing hours but missing for weeks, guiding to his fate-worse-than-death a man who disappeared years past, falling into the past of the desecrated church and its surrounding town. And her real town has a timeless western quality: a place where rancher’s territorial respect and mutual protection, and the gossip of guys named Rat, shape social life.
Leah’s voice is the perfect guide to all this: her snark, her hunger for adventure, her cynical doubt that leaves her too dubious of evil to avoid it. That makes the ending all the worse. Her voice is turned against her, proof that though the doctor’s flay her back and she flees Texas entirely, she’s already failed to get away. Like the narrator of “Shadow Over Innsmouth”—only slimier and less individualistically—she’s become the thing that pursued her.
But enough of that. There’s so much work to do before the third gate opens. And so little time.
With “Mnemeros,” we for a second time feature debut fiction—the author’s first published story. The first was Amelia Gorman’s “Bring the Moon to Me,” which wove knitting, computer language and eldritch apocalypse into a lyric gem of a story around 1000 words long. R. A. Kaelin’s offering is a whole string of gems, some highly polished, some left jagged. That it suffers from what I call the Cartoon Bulldog Syndrome isn’t a fault we need attribute to authorial inexperience. I just read a Cartoon Bulldog novella by an author with many acclaimed novels and collections to his credit: He front-loaded the story with background and build-up (the huge head and forequarters of the bulldog), then accelerated into the development (the rapidly slimming torso) and flew through climax and denouement (the teeny-tiny hindquarters.)
You might justly argue that bulldogs are fine, even cartoon ones like Loony Tune’s classic Spike. Okay, for Spike’s sake, and clarity, let’s rename the Syndrome the Collapsing Star Syndrome (only don’t get astrology nerd picky about solar masses, okay?) As our star (story) collapses (progresses), its matter (material) grows denser, until we have a veritable neutron star of exposition, action, revelation, confrontation, escape, aftermath, happily ever after, but wait there’s more packed into a space barely big enough to hold a comma!
I finished “Mnemeros” confused but happily unnerved and inspired to read the story again. My diagnosis, therefore, was that the cause of its CBS was no rare pathogen but that flu-common germ “I’m Trying to Squeeze a Novel into a Shorter Form.” Kaelin’s “rural wasteland” is so richly described I don’t experience it as wasteland at all; it makes me wish I could explore it through a full-length book. It’s a genuine place, furnished with specific things, like trailers converted into feral hog traps, and hogs converted into patchwork gods, and a clapboard Baptist church with a belfry and an owl’s nest and the “thick miasma of mouse urine.” And because she’s of this place, Leah knows to worry about whether there are rattlesnakes in the abandoned church—where there are mice, there will be rattlers, and a Western diamondback will kill you sure as a River Thing if you can’t get antivenom. For me, Leah’s done what a fictional character should do—she’s become real. I care. I want to hang out with her. I want to hang out with her mom and brother and Ms. Ross and the River Rats, too.
I want to know much more about Mnemeros, whose Great Old One name we don’t yet know. Mnemeros is evidently from the Greek, mnemos, the prefix for memory. Peaslee does regard him as a repository of knowledge, a cosmic Library of Alexandria. Shouldn’t Mnemeros be a patron deity of the Yith? Shouldn’t they be trying to reshelve his scattered “volumes” in proper order? Maybe they are, through Peaslee, whose family has a strong association with the conic time-travelers. And what about the weird time shifting stuff Leah goes through? Something the Yith might orchestrate? Or Mnemeros himself, who broken now, might bend time chaotically, giving Leah a bumpy temporal ride.
Novel-worthy setting, check. Characters, check. Central mystery and antagonist, check. Plot potential, double check. A thread I find especially intriguing is Peaslee’s unconvincing argument that putting Mnemeros back together won’t cause any serious trouble. He appraises Leah when he speaks of a second gate that could open with the proper alignment of constellations. Earlier he’s said that on this day, April 15, the stars are right. Was Peaslee of the tarred hand the first gate? Could Leah be the second gate, and is that why she must not be afraid, as Peaslee constantly implores her, and why her own voice calls her back to the abomination in the church?
The opening of the second gate would enable Mnemeros to move to “more populated areas to harvest the organics he requires.” Leah eventually moves far from her rural Texas home, and might not Mnemeros move with her, in her? She was splashed with the black blood (?) of the River Things—could be some microscopic tendril of it penetrated to spine, spinal cord, brain. There to establish a subtle dominion of dreams cloaking actions, of desires resistible only so long. Because Leah, the second gate, has to go home and help patch the god together before the third gate opens. Whatever that might be?
Speaking of bad-idea academic expeditions, next week we’ll read Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “A Mountain Walked.” You can find it in Joshi’s The Madness of Cthulhu anthology.
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.