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 Reza Negarestani’s “Dust Enforcer,” a chapter from Cyclonopedia: Complicity With Anonymous Materials, a 2008 novel published through Re.Press. This week’s excerpt can be found in Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s The Weird anthology. Spoilers ahead, but it’s not really the sort of piece where that matters.
“Abdul Al-Hazred as an adept rammal (sand-sorcerer) probably wrote Al Azif through the dust-infested language of Pazuzu, who constantly enriches its howls with pest-spores in order to expand the hallucinatory space of progressive arid diseases.”
Caveat Lector: No summary can substitute for reading this excerpt from Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, described by editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer as a fusion of “Lovecraftian horror and Middle Eastern history with occult war machines and the US ‘war on terror.’” Also as an atlas of demonology and a philosophic grimoire. Does the author “use the shell of nonfiction forms…as a delivery system for the weird”? In “Dust Enforcer,” hell yeah. It reads like a brief or a printed lecture rather than a short story, so instead of our usual narrative synopsis, the scrawled notes of an undergraduate wandered into a doctoral candidates’ colloquium are all I can offer. Brackets [ ] corral the note-taker’s reactions and should not be taken to imply critical judgment [as if!]
- PART ONE: PAZUZUPazuzu is the Sumero-Assyrian demon of epidemics, aka the southwestern desert wind, aka the xero-informatic Abomination or Dust (= 100 = NO GOD) [???], aka cultist of Tellurian Dustism for “wind is truly the high acolyte of dust, as well as being the dust enforcer.” And [as Prof. Negarestani quotes from Relico-something] Pazuzu’s also like “a schematic diagram of the middle-eastern population and its peculiarities.” [Whoa.]
- Demon Pazuzu scavenges surface biosphere (dust or inorganic bacterial relics), conducts them to xenochemical hydro-currents or cosmic wetness (hydrochemical singularities). Plagues emerge, which Paz returns to earth as dust soups or epidemics or xero-informatic communications/demonic possessions [?!?!] This process takes the form of a non-Aristotelian spiral because [um] terrestrial hygiene industry spreads anti-pest agents and overproduces defense mechanisms, which are scavenged by Paz’s pest-industry.
- Everything’s dust anyway, so don’t bother cleaning up.
- What Pazuzu looks like: Really thin. Accompanied by locusts. [Not good pets, as they eat all Paz’s food, hence why he’s really thin?] Has four wings, feathered. Almost fleshless head like mash-up of rabid dog-jackal-hyena. [Did you know hyenas have sex with the dead animals they’re eating, while also laughing? That’s multi-tasking. Pass the brain-bleach, please.] Paz has a beard that [somehow?] confers an apotropaic character. Which means Paz can ward off evil influences as well as seed them. So he’s definitely part of the Assyrian Axis of Evil-against-Evil. [the AAE-a-E?] Oh, and he has a snake-headed penis. [What kind of snake? A spitting cobra would seem appropriate.]
- PART TWO: XENO-AGENTS AND THE ASSYRIAN AXIS OF EVIL AGAINST EVILThe human defense mechanism of self-fertilizing paranoia identifies every contact as a potential incursion; the harder it pushes against these terrifying perceived invasions, the more it opens to the Outside or xeno-agents (demons.)
- Demons possess humans to turn them into pest-feeding farms for incursions from Outside, like xeno-excitations and cosmic diseases. A demon exploits the human victim’s desire for openness. The human can cope with only so much “outside,” after which he’s cracked open and the demonic “spectacle” is achieved.
- BUT — The demon doesn’t seek to “dismantle (anthropomorphic) identity; instead it tries to make identity a gate for summoning new demons from the furious clashes between xeno-particles and the resisting system.” Because “beyond the borders of identity lies the indifferent realm of unconditional (absolute) madness, or that which can never be schizoid, since schizophrenia germinates on the wasted remains of boundary, territory and capacity.” Schizophrenia, you can work with that, demonically speaking. Nihilism, not so much.
- The Jinn are a race created by Allah before humans, of fire rather than dust. Unlike angels, they have will and can choose to obey or disobey the Divine. The Jnun are the female side of this race, and their name also means delirium, maddening love and terminal schizophrenia (aka corrosive tidal waves of xeno-excitations.) [Keeps coming up, ask prof after class.]The Jnun are daughters of Lilith and live in the terrible desert Rub-al-Khalie, where Abdul al-Hazred sojourned for ten years. Al-Hazred must have communicated with these female gates to the Outside while he wrote the Necronomicon, his “chef d’oeuvre on cosmodromic blasphemy.”
- It must have been uncomfortable for our favorite tome writer, since Jnun possess men by opening them to the Outside in ways described as cracking or butchering or devouring. Passage to the Outside through the female gates or “vulvo-cosmic singularities” was also said to lead inevitably to radical delirium. [No explanation for why Al-Hazred’s work is so radically, um, un-vulvic.] In Moroccan folklore, the Jinniya (female Jinn) Aisha Qandisha is particularly fearsome, for she “opens the man to a storm of incoming Jnun and Jinns, demons and sorcerous particles of all kinds; making the man a traffic zone of sweeping cosmodromic data.” [I don’t care who you are, that has to get old fast.]
What’s Cyclopean: Pazuzo is “an occultural operative of the xero-informatic Abomination.” Its flight produces “crypto-vermiform parasites” on dunes.
The Degenerate Dutch: Ali Osa, a US officer in Iraq, says that “they believe… the whole Middle East is overclouded by some kind of fog of war which is peculiar to the near and middle-eastern regions of Asia.”
Mythos Making: Negarestani pulls Abdul Al-Hazred and the Necronomicon into his own mythology.
Libronomicon: Parsani’s Notes on Reliquology and Ibn Hamedani’s Aja’ib Nameh (The Book of Marvels) join the Necronomicon on the shelf.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Negarestani includes extensive descriptions of the supposed role of demons in schizophrenia.
It happens, not infrequently, that I find myself over my head when wading into the hazardous bayous of Mythosian lore; rarely, however, have I plunged into so deep and murky a drop-off as Reza Negarestani’s “Dust Enforcer.” Or maybe a better metaphor would be that rarely have I bumbled into so treacherous a patch of desert quicksand. At first read I was simply kerfuddled, kerfuzzled and kerfoozulated. At second read I experienced flashes of insight that never quite kindled comprehension. But I was intrigued, and I knew my next step must be to consult those plumbers of the murkiest murks and quickiest sands, the sages at Miskatonic U.
The concept that intrigued me most was that demons bother to possess humans, beings so much weaker than themselves, because they (the xeno-agents) DO gain something essential through communication with the “human security system.” Apparently demons are concerned with maintaining their outsideness or exteriority and do so by proving it, flaunting it, making a spectacle of it in overwhelming the human capacity to open to the outside. There is implied (especially in the case of the seductive Jnun) an interaction between demon and human beyond that of predator and prey, in that the human may desire as well as fear to “open” to cosmic influences, extramundane experiences.
Smells like our old friend Attraction Versus Repulsion, doesn’t it?
Linked to the above concept is the idea that a demon profits nothing from destroying a human target’s identity. Absolute madness is sterile; twisted identity, the “wasted remains of boundary, territory, and capacity” allows for schizophrenia, which is fertile ground for “furious clashes between xeno-particles and the resisting system.” I bet furious clashes produce lots of energy!
Which brings me back to the sages of Miskatonic U and specifically to Afua Benetutti, Chair of the Department of Semitic Languages. In addition to the heavy labors that position demands, she also studies the deep psychology of human-magician/xenosapient-magician interaction. (She’s particularly interested in human magician-Outer Gods, i.e. Nyarlathotep, interaction, but shh, you know how hard it is to get something like THAT past an institutional review board.) Anyhow, I knew she’d be up on the Cyclonopedia and Middle Eastern demon insurgencies if anyone was.
In fact, in calling a reliably indiscreet friend at Semitic Languages, I learned that Professor Benetutti was part of a joint MU/Saudi/WHO (Paranormal Division) excursion into that very Rub-al-Khalie of which we’ve been reading. It seems that tribal settlements have reported cases of prolonged delirium and alienation unsettlingly reminiscent of Jnun and Jinn lore….
Unlike my friend, Professor Benetutti is the soul of discretion. Fortunately, I’ve also learned that Carl Kolchak has managed to get himself embedded with the mission and is even now deep inside the Empty Quarter where Abdul Alhazred sported with dust and demons. So far we’ve managed a brief email exchange, in which Carl tells me one of the party (male) has already “lost it and wandered off into the dunes, had to be dragged back howling.” Afua is reading the wind-markings on the sand, but won’t tell Carl what the wind’s writing—can’t be good, from the way she shakes her head, though. Oh, and the damn locusts buzz all night long. He can hardly get an hour’s sleep. It reminds him of this old girlfriend of his, how she used to snore. Hey, wait a minute—
But that’s where the email ends. Let’s hope we hear from Carl again soon!
The Vandermeers suggest that Cyclonopedia, the novel from which “Dust Enforcer” is an outtake, may be “the most innovative and audacious weird text of the decade.” I believe it. It’s certainly the weirdest thing I’ve read in almost four years of this Reread. I’m pretty sure I’m missing at least half of what’s going on, simply due to my lack of familiarity with Arabic literature. But beyond that, the layered pseudo-non-fictions, with some facts repeated and others contradicted, the shifts between mythology and politics and philosophy and psychology—it’s fascinating and frustrating and intriguing and I have no idea what a whole novel of this stuff looks like, but I’ll probably have to find out.
Yet in some ways, “Dust Enforcer” is very traditionally Lovecraftian. Measuring these things by how easy it is to fill in our standard headings, Negarestani includes everything from wildly cyclopean vocabulary to toll-taking madness, and for good measure drags the dubiously named Abdul Al-Hazred kicking and screaming into a legitimately Arabic mythos. Why was Abdul mad? How did he keep busy for all that time in the desert? What are the actual dangers of practicing the magic described in the Necronomicon? Sit down, you’re about to get all the creepy details.
But the Lovecraftiana, thorough as it is, is only one layer—not even a foundation, but a strand in a complex tapestry that also weaves modern philosophy and postmodern literature, and a profoundly political anger at humanity’s inability to resist “solutions” that spiral into worse and worse problems. “Self-fertilizing paranoia,” indeed. Sure, of course our continued response to dangers with “security measures” that bring on further danger is a convenient breeding mechanism for demons. Why not, it screws up everything else.
It’s probably impossible to write something this brilliantly strange without screwing something up. In this case, the undifferentiated whirlwind of mythology and clinical psychology leads to some… problematic… treatment of mental illness. In your average work of Lovecraftiana, it’s either clear that the “madness” in question is straightforward PTSD or anxiety disorder, or it’s so poeticized that I can place it in a different box entirely from any real-world experience. But once your description of schizophrenic symptoms gets good enough, using those symptoms to worldbuild the effects of demonic possession is maybe a little too clever. And then there’s that line where “total eradication of identity… ends up in autistic nihilism.” Yes, “autistic” was originally a Greek-derived word referring to the complete isolation of the self from social interaction. You know what? It means something else now.
After which we suddenly get several pages about how jnun (female djinn) are particularly scary and threatening to coherent selfhood because they bring on delirious, maddening love and can be irresistibly seductive. I know you want to ground your weirdness in familiar touchstones for the reader, but why do those touchstones so often have to be common prejudices? As long as we’re out in the realms of demonology, driving humans mad by opening them to the Outside, why not have your demons also be fungi (more Lovecraftian yet!) with 36,000 genders all of which breed through horrific interactions with humanity?
And yet, I can forgive a lot for the sheer weirdness of the rest of the chapter. My favorite part may be Rammalie—“communication with other worlds and aeons through patterns on pebbles and desert sand.” Data storage in patterns of dunes, runes written in epidemics… there’s so much possibility here, and I don’t think I can resist finding out more. Assuming I can convince the librarians at Miskatonic to let me into the restricted stacks. Or get Kolchak to pick the lock.
Next week, John Langan’s “Wide Carnivorous Sky” is a Middle Eastern demon story set during the Iraq War, complimentary to this week’s selection with more plot but fewer vulvo-cosmic singularities.
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.