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 Tim Pratt’s “Cinderlands,” first published in the Drabblecast podcast in August 2010. Spoilers ahead.
“The lemons were small, and while they were yellow, it was less the yellow of cartoon suns and more the yellow of jaundiced skin or nicotine-stained teeth.”
Close to the end:
Dexter West wakes to the sound of claws on the hardwood floor of the apartment above—no. He’s moved into a house of his own; the noise is coming from the heating duct in his walk-in closet. He presses an ear to the metal and listens to the scuttle of tiny claws. Rats. In the duct. Or in the walls? He should get a cat. Back in bed, he dreams of digging bottomless holes in his new backyard, filled with squirming black-furred rats the size of kittens.
Beneath the toxic fruit trees in his grassless yard, Dexter digs with the spade the old man handed him. From black earth he turns up cinders and ashes, rusted nails, shards of glass, earth-crusted bullets, and fragments of stone statuary—the orbit of an eye, a mouth with triangular teeth, a tiny hand with six clawed fingers. He asks, “What do you mean, this used to be the cinderlands?” But the old man next door is gone.
Dexter bought the sprawling one-story house despite its dilapidation and the state of the neighborhood, more empty houses than inhabited. The bank sold the place at a bargain price, having repossessed it from dissolute heirs who’d turned it into a commune of sorts—a cult, one bank official whispers. Dexter doesn’t care about the sordid history. Due to his settlement with the city in a police brutality case, he paid cash and still has enough left to make renovations. The neighborhood will surely improve, his investment will pay off. In the meantime, he can take time off from teaching history and work with his hands, even tend his own little orchard and garden.
He’s picking a sunny spot for his tomatoes when an old man shows up at the fence between his yard and the seemingly deserted house next door. The man wears a white suit of archaic cut and a broad-brimmed straw hat. “I wouldn’t put roots down here if I were you,” he says by way of welcoming Dexter to the neighborhood. See, the soil’s poison. There’s…oh, lead and mercury and who knows what. Air’s bad, too. Whole area used to be the cinderlands. If Dexter doesn’t believe it, dig a little.
To expedite the experiment, the old man produces a bright-bladed spade (presumably from the same place Highlander Immortals keep their swords). Dexter digs up disturbingly sharp, pointy, broken things… and when he looks up, the old man is gone.
Dexter doesn’t plant tomatoes, and just as well. His trees produce bizarrely inedible fruit: jaundiced lemons, plums that rot rather than ripen, cherries that shrivel like shrunken heads, crab-apples that host vast numbers of unidentifiable worms.
A bit later still:
One day Dexter comes home to find intruders have left muddy footprints, scraps of papers covered with weird geometric diagrams, and a straw hat with crushed crown. A trail leads to the back fence, as if something heavy were dragged there; beyond Dexter’s yard, the trail vanishes. He calls the police, but when the dispatcher realizes he’s the one who sued the city, he suggests Dexter wait a while for a response. A while as in forever.
Very near the end:
All summer Dexter listens to the nighttime skittering of the duct rats. He scatters poison through the house. Funny, how he never sees rodent droppings or nibbled wiring. He gets a cat, but it dies after a few days. While burying it, he unearths knife blades of flaked stone, and bone fragments that suggest other animals have been interred here before.
Just before the end:
A final three a.m. comes, with the duct-scuttling reaching an unbearable crescendo, and Dexter grabs his wrecking bar. The ducts are useless, remnants of someone else’s failed renovation project, so why not take them out? He smashes until a plate pops open like a trap door and spills forth a “greasy black flood” of rats that aren’t entirely rats. Glistening green-black growths pulse on their backs, like parasitic fungus or external tumors. Except that each growth has its own marble-sized blue eye. Except that all the eyes move and blink in unison, as if they’re parts of one super-organism.
The rat-things also move as one, racing from Dexter’s bedroom in panicked flight. To get out of the bedroom, Dexter must flee in the same direction. He stumbles among the horrors toward the back door. A “violation of all laws of nature and perspective” halts him. As the rat-things hurtle across the yard, they seem to grow bigger, not smaller. By the time they reach the rear fence, they’re the size of cars. But instead of crashing into the fence, they vanish, as if turning a corner or dropping into a hole. Neither of which exist. At least to his eyes. So what is his house, anyway? An interdimensional right-of-way? A detour? An escape route? Escape from what?
As if in answer, something thumps in his bedroom, like a great weight dropping.
Like the rat-things, Dexter flees. He sees the old man, hatless now, shaking his head by the back fence, but he keeps running. Perspective shifts. The fence gets smaller the nearer he approaches, the old man farther away. Then something falls on him, “radiating ancient, indifferent heat,” and Dexter realizes he’ll never reach the exit in time, that after all “he was too small, and the world, and all the things in it, were just too big.”
What’s Cyclopean: The tainted fruit receives loving and vivid description: jaundiced, nicotine-stained, dripping, slimy, shriveled…
The Degenerate Dutch: Will there ever be a week when police violence is not a timely plot element? Pretty please?
Mythos Making: There are rats in the walls. There’s also a force “so vast and impersonal that it was wholly unconcerned with individuals.” (It’s City Hall, but that doesn’t help.)
Libronomicon: A Necronomicon might have done Dexter some good.
Madness Takes Its Toll: No madness this week.
Somehow before reading “Cinderlands,” I failed to mark it in my mind as “first turn on all the lights and make sure you aren’t alone.” I have no idea how I managed this oversight, because I have in fact read Pratt’s Marla Mason series. Gritty urban fantasy about a sorceress who controls her city’s magical population through ruthlessness and sarcasm—set in a cosmic horror universe replete with parasitic fungal intelligences, and a magical cloak that turns out to be a malevolent eldritch abomination next to which the One Ring looks like tacky department store jewelry.
“Cinderlands” might well take place in the outskirts of Marla’s city. It’s not just the universe as a whole that’s large and impersonal and uncaring, with spots of malevolence to break the tedium. It’s the city as a whole, with the cops’ casually violent misidentification grown, malignantly, into bureaucratic ire against his temerity in objecting to that attack. It’s Dexter’s own house, twice tainted by industrial pollution and uncontrolled summoning activity. (My guess: following said summoning, Marla came down on the “dissolute heirs” with her usual firmness. And didn’t bother to pay the mortgage afterwards.)
Anyone who’s ever moved into a house—even one not at the edge of a gritty urban fantasy city—has found unfortunate surprises. At our first house, the overgrown back yard turned out to contain several tons of miscellaneous trash, most notably including seventeen giant light-up plastic Santas. It’s nothing on Dexter and his yard full of mercury and toothy idols, but I sympathize..
Then there’s the dubious neighbor, also a common hazard of homeownership. Here I have fewer horror stories of my own to share—at the Santa house, the informal motorcycle club next door sometimes woke us early, but were also sweet people. The mysterious old man inhabiting the uninhabited house, on the other hand… I suspect he might be a relation of Keziah Mason’s. On the one hand, useful warning about the soil, and helpful loan of a shovel. On the other hand, not-so-helpful bemused observation of Dexter’s escape attempts. As long as you’re going to warn people about gardening, why not explain about the dimensional rift too?
There are delicious hints of several Lovecraftian creations, none too direct, but resonant. The tainted soil seems to combine ordinary pollution with Color-style infestation. Fortunately Dexter has better sense than to eat the fruit, for all the good it does him. There are reminders of the Witch House even aside from Keziah’s cousin—residents of a cosmic horror universe should be advised to always be extremely cautious about moving into a new place, and have a low bar for moving out. (Yeah, there’s a contradiction there. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.) And finally, of course, there’s the Rat-Like Things in the Walls. Dexter sensibly acquires a black cat with a dubious name that starts with N—which immediately dies.
And there are parasitic things on the rat-things. Things with eyes. Dexter thinks of parasitic wasps, mind-controlling roaches for their own convenience. Also known as the creepiest thing in nature that isn’t a mind-control fungus. It turns out that parasitic wasps are probably the most common type of animal in the world, a piece of information that I share because I love you and want you to know what kind of universe we co-habit.
Sometimes, as an unseasonable Nor’easter gnaws the cyanotic fingers of an early summer dawn; sometimes, between the struggle to ensock and then beshoe the feet; sometimes, as the first deep quaffs of caffeine jolt the moribund brain to some semblance of functioning, IT strikes. It being either the Gaboon viper whose cage you forgot to close the night before or else epiphany.
Since my wife won’t allow me to keep Gaboon vipers or any other harmless venomous serpents, it was epiphany that struck me this cold-gray-workrush morning. It concerned Tim Pratt’s “Cinderlands,” which I’d read at impressionable bedtime and, more generally, that ancient and honorable icon of the weird tale, the haunted house. Here’s its elevator pitch:
Real estate is destiny.
Its explanatory power spreads far beyond horror fiction, and fiction in general, into real life, on the most local to the most global scale. For now let’s stay in genre and intimate and start with any character’s most personal real estate, the body. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll say the body’s synonymous with a character’s One (or Self)—everything outside the body is Other. Uh oh, remember our current focus on the Other as a core human fear and thus as a prime maker of monsters? What’s a body to do about all this Otherness in its immediate vicinity?
It better claim some of that Otherness as an extension of its Self. Beyond the absolute practical requirements of shelter, it better make itself a home, a sanctuary, a fortress, gardens, farms, acreage, kingdoms, all under its control. Okay, or even just a condo. A room. One’s own square of pavement.
Real estate. A secondary Self to be cared for, cleaned, decorated, cherished (or not) like the primary Self. At the very least, you wouldn’t want the secondary Self to be invaded by Otherness anymore than you’d want the primary Self to be. Possession = bad, therefore hauntings = bad.
Or, in Dexter West’s case, home = transdimensional traffic hub = bad. Bad prospects for neighborhood gentrification or a rise in resale values, what with the Cinderlands Superfund site in West’s backyard and the burgeoning rat problem and the weird old guy next door who dresses like Colonel Sanders and delivers cryptic warnings about putting down roots in toxic soil. At least the weird old guy tried harder than the bank who sold the house to poor Dexter without full disclosure about the cult who occupied it before him.
The house, I suppose, was originally sane, a reasonable ranch with a neat grove of fruit trees behind. Then those dissolute heirs took over and established their “commune.” With the angle-obsessions of all good Mythos cultists, they would have added the funky additions, the odd-sized storage rooms painted red, the strangely-angled cabinets. Theirs, too, would have been the ducts-to-nowhere, remnants of a bungled renovation. Oh well, that’s all part of buying an older home, inheriting the mistakes of the previous owners. Their design and/or execution sins, as it were.
Dexter may inherit sins. He may even inherit mistakes, if the dissolute cultist heirs didn’t mean to disappear and abandon their property. Cultists, listen up! Unless your coven or circle or whatever has board-certified metaphysicians and licensed and insured temporal-spatial plumbers among its members, hire some! Amateurs shouldn’t mess with interdimensional matrices and the laws of perspective!
I’ve barely scratched the top layer of yellowed paint on the thick-coated woodwork of this topic, and here it’s time to close. Not, though, without one glancing blow at the ancient quarrel raised with so many haunted house stories and films: This is stupid—why don’t they just GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE? So unrealistic! Unless we’re talking very brief visits to the house in question, I’m inclined to disagree—the more especially when that house is the person’s own residence. Not so romantic, but probably the strongest reasons to stay in a haunted house are financial ones. It’s hard to argue with a mortgage or lease. Dexter West has poured almost all his lawsuit “blood” money into his house. He doesn’t owe the bank, but if he can’t sell the property for at least as much as he paid, he’s going to take a painful hit. Other stay-put factors: history with house, sentimental ties, location, family obligations/pressures, market realities.
And then some people are sheer ornery, while others are sheer curious. Or maybe just ornery and/or curious enough?
Big, big caveat: If you find you’re dealing with something that wants to chew your face off, and it has the chewers to do it (as in, Mythosian vs. plain spectral), do get your butt out of Dodge before the perspective shifts too much.
Next week, Joyce Carol Oates just published a collection entitled Night-Gaunts. We are intrigued by the titular story, and expect ticking. Fiendish, gruesome tickling.
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.