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 George T. Wetzel’s “Caer Sidhi,” first published in August Derleth’s Dark Mind, Dark Heart anthology in 1962. Spoilers ahead.
“The aqueous wall grew to awesome heights, reaching almost to the waning stars and thrusting its crown through the lower levels of the clouds there.”
Our narrative is stitched together from documents in the case of the Shoal Light, at Banff Firth, Scotland, in the year 1799. Much of the evidence is taken from the journal of lightkeeper O’Malley, beginning with the entry for November 6, in which he describes the “disturbed sleep” he shares with fellow keeper Neal. Neal describes his nightmares as a “whirling around without motion” and believes they’re caused by some baneful local influence. Celtic superstition, thinks O’Malley. The only baneful influence around is the villagers who claim the new Shoal Light has taken “God’s grace” from them. Pretty blasphemous, to suggest God’s been gracing them in the form of salvage from wrecked ships!
Nor are the villagers their only trouble. An inspector’s coming to check their logbook, for several ship’s captains have reported that the Shoal Light beacon operates irregularly. O’Malley finds the reports odd—he and Neal are meticulous in their watches.
Village fishermen attack the Light. Forewarned, O’Malley and Neal drive them off. Neal’s seriously wounded, but O’Malley can’t leave the Light unguarded or the fishermen will surely destroy it. Neal grows delirious. He presses his ear to the floor, explaining that seashells and lighthouses are both hollow spirals subject to the same acoustic phenomena. In fact, the lighthouse is architecturally similar to the Caer Sidhi, the “spiral castle” of Celtic myth. Though exhausted by caring for Neal and doing double keeper’s duty, O’Malley begins to recall bits of lore about the Aes Sidhe and fairy mounds, Otherworlds and their uncanny revolving fortresses, so similar to the modern lighthouse.
A smoke-squall sets in, heralding a rogue wave of monstrous size, itself the herald of a still more fearful storm. O’Malley spots a ship sailing too close to the Banff reef—why doesn’t it heed the Light beacon and back off before wave and storm batter it on the rocks?
His more immediate concern is how he and Neal will survive. He lashes them both to beams, and though the great wave pours tons of water into the Light, wrecking the beacon and nearly drowning them, the tower itself stands firm. The ship’s less durable. O’Malley watches it founder in the wake of the wave, while sailors cling to broken masts. He can’t bear to watch the rebound of the wave end their struggle.
Neal’s ravings worsen. Listening to him, O’Malley recalls more childhood lore about Caer Sidhi, the Otherworld castle that revolves so that those seeking to enter cannot find its door. On the night of November 11, he puts Neal on the parapet outside the tower, for he has “a horror of him now,” yet “cannot put him in the sea.” Perhaps he’s mad, for the view outside begins to blur as if glimpsed through flawed glass. He seems to have inherited Neal’s nightmares, for his sleep is cursed with visions of spiral mazes, roofless towers, and circumpolar stars. In this alien place what draws him most is the nebula of Andromeda, a whirlpool of light like a maelstrom vortex or a twist of tower stairs ascending and descending endlessly.
Last, he sees “suddenly descending upon me, like a sentient beast, a towering waterspout—a mass of wind-driven water come screaming out of the starlit darkness, blotting out the stars.” He falls into its darkness and there echoes in his ears, above the shriek of wind and water that phrase of Neal’s: “the whirling around without motion.”
Screaming, he wakes.
Then O’Malley’s journal ends, and we have a letter from the late Inspector John Mishew to the Trinity House of Navigation. Mishew has looked into the Shoal Light tragedy. He found Neal dead of his wound. O’Malley he found broken by privation and obsessed with something he called the Caer Sidhi. He’s probably been insane some time, and is surely not long for this world. Mishew will tend the Light himself until new keepers arrive.
Mishew adds this postscript. He can’t figure out why the postrider couldn’t deliver Navigation’s letter the night before. Couldn’t find the door in the dark, could he? Must have drunk too much ale! Oh, and do send the new keepers soon. Mishew feels himself coming down with an illness. He’s curiously nauseous with vertigo at night, and the stars blur to his eyes and look wrong….
What’s Cyclopean: Amid the roaring water of the roegflage, the lighthouse shakes “as if beset by a cyclopean earthquake.”
The Degenerate Dutch: O’Malley assumes the country folk object to the lighthouse because they’re used to plundering shipwrecks. That… may not actually be the issue.
Mythos Making: Non-euclidean architecture is unhealthy for everyone in perceptual range.
Libronomicon: No books, though O’Malley’s clearly read his Taliesin.
Madness Takes Its Toll: This is one of those stories: every other paragraph O’Malley is questioning Neal’s sanity, or his own. And with good reason.
It always sucks when you’re just trying to keep sailors from crashing into rocks, only you accidentally build a non-Euclidean lighthouse that drives men mad. As one does.
In retrospect, I’m surprised that we haven’t found more stories conflating Lovecraftian critters with the Fair Folk—inhuman, unknowable, prone to folding space, and likely to completely mess up your life simply by dancing too close. Lovecraft himself made the connection. The Mi-go/Outer Ones, we learn, are the source of fairie myths. They tempt people underhill for strange and wild (and sometimes disembodied) revels, and time spent there may not much relate to time elsewhere on. And is R’lyeh, rising periodically to cast its influence over the world before vanishing once more, really all that different from Brigadoon or a fairie market?
“Caer Sidhi” skirts the edge of both fae and mythosian lore. Miscellaneous Celtic myths are referenced only briefly save for the titular revolving castle, originally from the Book of Taliesin. The Lovecraftian referents are even subtler, but clearly not accidental. (When’s the last time someone used “cyclopean” in English-language prose without intending a callback?) The overlap in this particular case is not in the uncaring destruction wrought by fae/elder entities, but the incompatibility between their architecture and human perception. R’lyeh’s non-Euclidean geometry is bad enough on a brief visit; few people would try to camp there overnight, let alone set up a predictable signal light. It turns out to be a bad idea.
As we mentioned last week, Lovecraft’s narrators rarely actually go mad, but have to knowingly suffer the breakdown of their beliefs about how the world works. O’Malley’s descent into madness is more blatant. We never learn much about what he expects from a rational world, aside from Euclidean geometry. But we do see what suffers when those expectations break down—first in Neal, then in O’Malley himself, and finally in the investigator.
A search of roegflage turns up only one instance in English beyond this week’s story, in an iffily scanned 1755 Natural History of Norway, where
the fudden explofion of a wind confined and agitated in a thick cloud, which being impetuoufly difcharged upon the water, the furface is feparated, and rifes up into the air like dull or fmoke,. and hence, amongft us, this hurricane is very properly called Roeg-flage, i.e. fmoke-fquall.
In “Caer Sidhi,” the hurricane seems half-tsunami; it’s not clear how much of the great wall of water is real, how much hallucination, and how much a thing of the Other World. It does seem notable that O’Malley describes it in unnatural terms, from the “aqueous wall” “reaching almost to the waning stars” through the statement that the tower is built to withstand Atlantic storms “vastly more destructive than anything known to nature.” Which—normally I tend to think of Atlantic storms as things pretty well known to nature. Not in this case, apparently.
At first, I accepted O’Malley’s claim that the fishermen objected to reduction in shipwrecks—perhaps they were Innsmouth relations, happy to keep the sea for themselves. By story’s end, though, it seemed likely that they fit a different Lovecraftian trope: the rural folk who’re never openly acknowledged, or forgiven, for being exactly right about the eldritch abomination in their midst. Does the Shoal Light in fact take away deific grace? Um, probably. It certainly steals it from its inhabitants.
In 1971, Tom Tryon wrote a novel called The Other. Critics loved it. Booksellers loved it. I heard it was, as Austen’s Catherine Moreland might have breathlessly whispered, “truly horrid.” So I got my claws on a copy, and it destroyed me with a certain scene involving a pitchfork hidden points up in a hayrick into which kids liked to jump from the loft high above. The Other hid it there, on purpose. The Other was the Bad One in this tale of twins. There’s always a Bad One, a Lore for every Data. So just think. If those who’ve actually (or figuratively) shared our wombspace can turn on us, how much more likely are those several degrees separated to turn mean? To start out mean, because it’s their nature? To have no concept of meanness we could understand, maybe no concept of good and evil at all?
All kinds of Others out there, man.
See, each of us, Howard posthumously included, are the center of it all—we are each the One. The Ones closest to us by blood and household ties are Family. The Ones similar to us are Tribes. Only the One is the One, but the closest of the concentric circles of Otherness will often feel Oneish. Friends are an interesting category. However Otherish they might seem, there must be must some sympathetic Oneishness that brings them into closer orbit to the One than expected.
But the REAL Others. The irredeemable ones. The ones therefore on a not-for-me scale from uninteresting to annoying to scary, no really scary, panic-striking, apocalyptically TERRIFYING! The more Others you perceive around you and the higher you rate them on the Otherness scale, well, basically, the more jumpy and paranoid a life you’re bound to live. (“You” being, for the moment, yeah, our Howard.) Or, could be, your Other-fears will ferment into stellar weird fiction while you maintain exterior Yank composure, pretty much. Could be, even from the start, that some of your Others will be very close to home. Could be that some will be farther out there than anyone has dared to fear before. And it could be, now and then, that your pen might go rogue and discover hints of Oneishness even in the more alien of the not-Yous.
Our story of the week, “Caer Sidhi,” doesn’t mess for long with lesser Others. The local Scots annoy newly arrived lightkeepers O’Malley and Neal, then become a threat, then fade into insignificance in the face of the Otherworld itself. Yes, that Otherworld, as supposedly described by the sixth century “Chief of Bards” in the tenth century Middle Welsh Book of Taliesin. Not for nothing does scholar T. Stephens call the bard’s effusion on Caer Sidhi, the spiraling or revolving castle, “one of the least intelligible of the mythological poems.” Dreams like Neal’s (and later O’Malley’s) are of the high-fever variety that torment with their relentless locomotion that gets the dreamer nowhere and that insist on meaning all while revealing nothing.
Of course something stranger than the aes sidhe lurks in the Otherworld impinging on the Shoal Light. Something its keepers start out describing in terms of the legends their ancestors doubtless devised to explain the phenomenon. When O’Malley “inherits” Neal’s nightmares, he begins with wandering through cromlechs and menhirs laid out in a spiral maze, then graduates to a roofless tower and the view it affords of constellations whirling around Polaris. The nebula of the Andromeda Galaxy next fixes his attention, whirlpool of light. Add two more spirals, each more abstract from the “actual” dreamscape: a maelstrom sheltering the Kraken, a spiral stair ascending and descending endlessly. Except that we’re in 1799, he might have fancied this the DNA strand encoding all of creation. Uh oh. Here comes the Mythosian beast Chaos, mocking all other spirals by manifesting as a spiral itself, the Waterspout of Doom!
It’s about the Otherliest of Others, what intrudes on Banff Firth in this story, for it boils down to geometry at the end, summoned by geometry. O’Malley figured it out eventually: “…the spiral stairs, the revolving light—this tower is akin to the Caer Sidhi. Lighthouse geometry and architecture might be precarious!”
Oh hell yeah! In the Mythosian universe, geometry is arguably the most perilous of scholarly pursuits. Ask Walter Gilman of Witch House infamy. Ask those stalked by the Hounds of Tindalos. Ask unfortunates swallowed by nonEuclidean angles. Who knew, back in tenth grade, what horrors we might have brought down upon ourselves by screwing up that proof about the trapezoid thingies? Why didn’t somebody stop that girl in homeroom who filled the margins of every notebook with spirals? Spiral after spiral, increasingly elaborate. I think she got really long fake nails in senior year, which impeded pen-swirling. Only that may have saved our solar system.
But the biggest danger of all, I now realize, remains that devil’s tool, the SPIROGRAPH. You know, the one where you put the gear wheel thingie in the ring thingie and whirl it around with a pen, creating more and more elaborate (and ARCANE) designs the more thingies and pen colors you employ. It’s only a matter of time and spirographing monkeys and perfect alignments of the stars before the SPIROGRAPH OF THE OUTER GODS will be produced. And then? Cosmic madness, that’s all. More than usual, I mean.
I’m pretty sure I’d have created the SPIROGRAPH OF THE GODS long ago, except that I have this nervous tic that causes me to skid the gear thingie across the whole design at the last second, leaving an ugly pen slash, if not gouged paper. Ruination, in either case.
Cosmos, you’re welcome.
Next week, a more human-ish Other in Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley’s “Black as the Pit, From Pole to Pole.” You can find it in Lovecraft’s Monsters.
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.