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 reading Mariana Enriquez’s “Under the Black Water,” first published in English in Things We Lost in the Fire, translated by Megan McDowel. Spoilers ahead.
“She dreamed that when the boy emerged from the water and shook off the muck, the fingers fell off his hands.”
Marina Pinat, Buenos Aires DA, isn’t thrilled with the smug cop sitting in her office. He hasn’t brought a lawyer—after all, he says, he’s innocent. Never mind that Pinat has his voice on tape, saying “Problem solved. They learned how to swim.” The time stamp suggests that he at least knew that two young men were thrown into the Ricachuelo River. But then, that sort of thing happens a lot in the Villa Moreno slum, and convictions are few.
Yamil Corvalán’s body has already washed up, a kilometer from the bridge. He tried to swim through the black grease that covers the river, holds it “calm and dead.” He drowned when he could no longer move his arms. The body of Emanuel López, the second boy, still hasn’t surfaced.
I didn’t do it, the cop says. But still: If only that whole slum would go up in flames. You have no idea what goes on there.
But Pinat does, and doesn’t try to investigate the slum from her desk like some of her colleagues. Just a few months ago, she helped win a case against a tannery that dumped toxic waste in the river for decades, causing a massive cluster of childhood cancers and birth defects: extra arms, cat-like noses, blind high-set eyes. She met Father Francisco, who told her that no one even came to church.
After the cop leaves, a pregnant teenager comes in, demanding a reward for information about Emanuel. He’s in Villa Moreno. He came out of the water. He’s only been back a little while. And he wants to meet Pinat. Maybe the girl is lying? After all, a living boy is one less crime to accuse the cops of. But the next day, when she tries to call people in the slum, none of her contacts answer. So, time to leave her desk and investigate.
On the southern edge of the city, past the Moreno Bridge, the city frays into abandoned buildings and rusted signs. Beyond this empty area live the city’s poor by the thousands. The slum spreads along the black river, to the limits of vision. The river itself has been the chosen dumping site for waste from cow offal up through the tanner’s heavy metals. Her father, who once worked on a River Barge, told stories of the water running red. Its stench, he said, was caused by its lack of oxygen. The river’s dead, unable to breathe.
The driver makes her walk the last 300 meters; the dead boys’ lawyer won’t come at all. Pinat’s dressed down from her usual DA suits, and carries only enough money to get home and a cell phone to hand muggers if needed. And her gun, of course.
In the Villa, she’s startled by silence. Normally there’s music, motorcycles, sizzling grills, people talking. Normally there are people. But now the streets are dead as the river. Eventually, still unable to reach anyone, she tries to find her way to Father Francisco’s church. She recognizes that little yellow house, so she’s not lost. But behind her, footsteps squelch: one of the deformed children. She’s disturbed by his toothless mouth and sucker-like fingers. He passes her, gliding toward the church.
The church has been painted yellow, decorated with a crown of flowers, and the walls are covered with graffiti: YAINGNGAHYOGSOTHOTHHEELGEBFAITHRODOG. (It’s the most remarkable word we’ve ever seen.) The boy opens the door; she goes in. And the church… is no longer a church. The chairs have been cleared out, along with the crucifix and the images of Jesus and Our Lady. Instead there’s a wooden pool topped with a freshly slaughtered cow’s head. Hallelujah?
You shouldn’t have come, says Father Francisco. He’s emaciated, dirty, his hair overgrown and greasy. Also he’s very, very drunk. “In his house,” says the boy, “the dead man waits dreaming.” The priest is furious, and furious with Pinat for being stupid enough to come.
In the distance, she hears drums. She’s relieved—obviously, everyone has just gone to practice the murga for carnival, or already started to celebrate a little early. The cow’s head, clearly, is just some of the neighborhood drug dealers trying to intimidate the priest.
You have to get out of here, Pinat tells him. He laughs. He’s tried! But he’s not getting out, and neither is she. “That boy woke up the thing sleeping under the water. Don’t you hear them?” For years, he says, he thought the rotted river a sign of ineptitude. But now he knows: they were trying to cover something up, keep it from getting out. But the police throwing people in there, that was stupid. People swimming under the black water, they woke the thing up. “Emanuel” means “god is with us.” But what god?
Pinat’s dubious about all this, or wants to be. Never mind how the priest knows she’s there about Emanuel, or knows about the pregnant girl who pointed her this way. She tries to get them out of there, and he grabs her gun. Before she can react, he shoots himself. She leaves the church crying and shaking.
The Villa’s not empty any more; the drums are passing in front of the church. It’s no murga, but a shambling procession. Among the children marked by the black water, she thinks she spots the cop, violating his house arrest. They’re carrying a bed, with some human effigy lying on it. She’s trying to get a glimpse when the thing moves, and its gray arm falls over the side. Then she runs, trying to ignore the agitation of the water that should be able to breathe, or move. And it definitely shouldn’t be swelling. She runs, not looking back, and covers her ears against the sound of the drums.
What’s Cyclopean: This is very much a place-as-character story. In the slum Buenos Aires “frays” into abandoned storefronts, and an oil-filled river “decomposes” into “dangerous and deliberate putrescence.”
The Degenerate Dutch: The river’s pollution causes birth defects. The children born with those defects are, alas, treated more as symbols than characters, or as indications that the river leaches humanity. The priest refers to them as “retards,” but the narrative itself isn’t doing much better.
Mythos Making: The graffiti on the church includes the name “Yog Sothoth” amid its seeming gobbledygook. Meanwhile, “in his house, the dead man waits dreaming.” So what is prisoned under the river?
Libronomicon: No books this week.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Father Francisco doesn’t handle his parishioners’ new faith well. TW for suicide.
Anne wasn’t able to submit a commentary this week. Her absence is absolutely not due to nefarious extraterrestrial body-snatching, we promise.
I’ve been wanting to read more weird fiction in translation, so was excited to pick up Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire. Translation is its own art, of course, and je ne parle pas Espanol, so the story I’ve actually read may be as much the work of Megan McDowel as Enriquez. Either way, it’s good to read a story with different settings from our usual selection, different points of view, different horrors. Well, maybe not always that last. I swear we don’t keep picking stories with shootings and killer cops deliberately. It’s just that even the weirdest fiction needs a way to elide the seams between real-world horror and supernatural horror—and many authors have similar observations about the former.
Enriquez’s seams are fine ones. Much of “Black Water’s” horror is the surreal constraints of poverty, pollution, and corrupt authority. After a few pages of that, walking corpses and abomination-imprisoning oil slicks just seem like a logical extension. Defiled churches, shambling inhuman processions… hey. Hey, wait a second—does this sound familiar to anyone else?
“Under the Black Water” isn’t quite a “Shadow Over Innsmouth” retelling, but it riffs on the same tune. Isolated locals take dubious actions around a nearby body of water, resulting in children “born wrong.” A new and suspicious religion drives Christianity from the community. There are hints of sacrifice, mysterious deaths of the young. An outsider comes in to investigate, and ultimately flees a danger never made fully clear. And in trying to make those insular locals truly terrifying, the narrative gets problematic as all hell.
Yeah, skip continents, and the tainted roots of horror will still get you. In this case rather than Lovecraft’s racism and terror of mental illness, we get ableism and a fun-sized dose of fat-phobia. I felt unpleasant echoes of “That Only a Mother,” a much-reprinted golden age SF story in which the shocking twist at the end is that the otherwise precocious baby hasn’t got any limbs (and, unintentionally, that the society in question hasn’t got a clue about prosthetics). Not one of the blind kids with misshapen hands gets characterization, or even a speaking role other than to mouth platitudes about dead things dreaming. Instead we get “deformed children with their skinny arms and mollusk fingers, followed by women, most of them fat, their bodies disfigured by a diet based on carbs.”
Body horror based on real bodies is horrible, but not necessarily in the way the author wants.
I’m still intrigued by the idea of pollution as a messed-up attempt at binding—containing, of course, the seeds of its own destruction. The pollution, holding down whatever lies under the river, shapes the community, its children, its resentment, until they burst forth into something that will stir the river and release what lies beneath. Oh come, Emanuel? And of course, whatever lies beneath the river might have been less malevolent, if it hadn’t spent all that time bathing its ectoplasm in toxic sludge. As it is, the cow’s head, and the yellow–tainted cross and flowers, don’t promise a happy relationship, regardless of who worships what.
Next week, Lovecraft and Henry S. Whitehead explain why you should be more careful about mirrors in “The Trap.”
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. 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.