The Lovecraft Reread

Interview With a Thing Man Wasn’t Meant To Know: John Shirley’s “The Witness in Darkness”

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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.

This week, we’re reading John Shirley’s “The Witness in Darkness,” first published in 2014 in S.T. Joshi’s The Madness of Cthulhu, Volume 1 anthology. Spoilers ahead.

“Even now the mountains sing, with a melancholic sadness in their voicings… of what might have been.”

Summary

What follows is a report classified top secret from the Division of Stealth Archaeology. It describes an artifact found October 20, 2011, in the Eastern Quadrant of the Elder Ruins, Antarctica. The five-sided metal cylinder is imprinted with the dot-cluster writing of the Elder Culture and appears to be an electronic telepathy device rigged for sound recording and playback. An attached note from geologist William Dyer claims that he made a third and final visit to Antarctica and there encountered an Elder One. His recorded voice merely translates what the Elder One transmitted to his mind.

It woke from its millennia-long trance to the exquisite agony of vivisection, under the edged probe of some pink primate. How the primate shrieked when it opened its eyes and returned the favor. The primate didn’t survive vivisection, however, which was too bad, as it appeared to be the descendant of one of the Elder Ones’ own creations.

Our Elder narrator pauses to explain that millions of years have passed since its people came to this planet. This one is practically a baby, though—spored here after wars with Cthulhu spawn and Mi-Go made reproduction necessary. It has never visited the Elder home world, for the race has lost the art of traveling interstellar gulfs. But the dreams of its people actually revisit the lives of their ancestors, exploring “the genetic wisdom hidden within our birthing spores.” So in a sense it does “remember” the evolution of its kind, the Great Migration through space, the coming to Earth’s warm primeval seas, the shaping of its organisms in “engineering-skeins,” the building first of undersea and then of land metropoli, all “in praise of the Five-Sided Eye at the center of the cosmos.”

Primitive primates were created to perform simple tasks—but for the great work of shaping mountains and erecting vast cities, the Elder Ones made shoggoths. Gorgeous creatures they were, too, luminescent and bubbling protoplasm, myriad-eyed, facile and adaptable and swift! And fascinatingly odorous! But they also turned out to be too adaptable, and too hungry for dominance as well as food.

In the high summits of the Mountains of Madness had the Elder Race crafted fluting hollows and pipes to recreate the melodies of their homeworld, harnessing the very winds to sing their triumph over the Earth. The winds still blow, but the melodies are now broken, for the Elder Race succumbed to vanity and the illusion of invulnerability. Ice ages challenged it. Wars weakened it. Then came shoggoth rebellions and a final rampage that drove a few surviving Elder Ones, narrator included, into trance-hibernation in a cavern protected by shoggoth-repelling energies. To sleep, to dream, to be shocked awake millennia later in the primates’ camp.

When the tormenting primates and their “dogs” had been dispatched, Elder narrator and its surviving companions returned over the mountains to what remained of their city. The ruins were ice-bound and defiled, beyond restoration by so few. They sought the subterranean sea beneath the city, but found one surviving shoggoth grown huge on the lumbering eyeless penguins of the underworld. It surged forth, killed. Survivors retreated to the hibernation cavern, while Elder narrator hung back to plan revenge.

The shoggoth slobbered furiously at the cavern entrance. Meanwhile two pink primates arrived in the city and were avidly studying the murals in the gallery of remembrance. Their respectful attitude made it think they might be worth communicating with—at some point. When the frustrated shoggoth abandoned the shielded cavern to chase some tasty primates, Elder narrator distracted it long enough for the primates to escape. Then it set off certain ancient vibratory devices, bringing down a massive collapse on the passage where the shoggoth lurked.

Now it and the other survivors plan to retreat to deep sea trenches, to “places where warm sulfurous vents create a swarm of primal life for us to feed upon…There we will root, and ponder, and strengthen, until the time has come at last to spore.” Leave them alone there. They’ve learned to value their privacy, and will fight for it. Leave their ruins alone, as well. That last shoggoth still lives. It may find a way out of its prison. It may find a way to reproduce—there may be more of them now. Disturb them, and you may suffer as the Elder Ones did.

Elder narrator leaves humanity with this blessing: that the Five-Sided Eye may guide us and the Law of Five unfold for us. Also that we may understand when to leave well enough alone.

In closing, the Division of Stealth Archaeology recommends that “the long-maintained suppression of public knowledge of the Antarctic ruins be continued indefinitely; that we take the Elder One’s advice.”

Hmmm….

What’s Cyclopean: The splendor of the elder things’ city. In addition to this cyclopean splendor, we have hoary eons (but not aeons, for some reason), fungally furred warrens, and odiferous shoggothim.

The Degenerate Dutch: The elder thing constantly refers to “pink primates,” suggesting that ‘30s Miskatonic University was not a hotbed of integration. Neither was primeval Hack-Ugg (or however you want to transcribe a city name that sounds “like a dying man’s cough”)—our telepathic narrator goes on at length about the greatness of their culture and its superiority to everything—but especially to smelly shoggothim and to primates with “rudimentary intelligence.”

Mythos Making: William Dyer returns to Antarctica to record elder thing memoirs. In case you didn’t get the reference, Shirley explicitly refers to “The Mountains of Madness” on page 1.

Libronomicon: The elder narrator randomly references Hegel’s thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The framing narrator from the Division of Stealth Archaeology prefers Schopenhauer.

Madness Takes Its Toll: After the shoggoth attack, the elder thing survivors are “half mad with privation.”

 

Anne’s Commentary

From the title of the week’s story, I assumed we were venturing into Mi-Go territory, and we did get one wonderful if scurrilous image of the Yuggothians who, having been driven from Earth back to their icy outpost “doubtless crouch and murmur still, in subzero, fungally furred warrens under the frozen surface.” However, “Witness in Darkness” is all about two of my all-time favorites instead: the Elder Ones aka Elder Things aka (Great) Old Ones aka Starheads aka Barrelbods, and the Shoggoths aka Protoplasmic Plops of Protean Goodness (PPPGs).

Via an alien gizmo that ingeniously uses no less than Lovecraft’s Professor Dyer as part of its apparatus, Shirley manages to give us “At the Mountains of Madness” from an Elder One’s point of view. I’m not going to wonder too hard how Dyer got himself back to the plateau beyond the MoMs, twice, tricky as the logistics must have been, especially with him supposedly pleading that there be NO MORE EXPEDITIONS TO THAT ACCURSED AREA EVER AGAIN EVER. For one thing, I can understand if he wanted to go back as much by himself as possible: the draw of those incredible ruins, the lure of Elder history, the glimpses of cosmic lore, all carved into enduring stone. Nor am I going to quibble that our Elder narrator should end up sounding like it would be right at home in a staff lounge at Miskatonic, discussing engineering applications of vibratory physics with Professor Pabodie. Didn’t Lovecraft have Dyer point out that the Elder Ones were “men” after all? And Shirley’s Elder narrator returns the compliment by finally allowing that the pink primates, as evolved, are “men.”

Glaringly missing from Shirley’s take on the MoM is any mention of a horror beyond shoggoths—that is, the protoshoggoth, or that which in Lovecraft the Elder Ones omit from their otherwise meticulously inclusive historical murals. I think this is because Shirley’s tale aims for a “happy” ending. Another major change he makes is the age of his narrator. Lovecraft’s revived Elder Ones lived at the height of their civilization, long before the slow advance of the polar ice and the shoggoth rebellion, whereas Shirley’s were the last survivors of the shoggoth rebellion. How much greater the shock for Lovecraft’s Elder Ones, how much bleaker their homecoming, which none of them survive. Quite a few of Shirley’s returnees survive, even when the last shoggoth attacks, because they are PREPARED.

The readiness is all, y’all know. Set up a hibernation cavern in advance, with the latest in anti-shoggoth irritant-fields energized by perpetual batteries. Make sure your ancient vibration devices don’t get damp down in the cellar so they’re ready for instant deployment millennia later. Trap the last shoggoth pretty securely, but not so securely that Elder Ones and humans can’t get a rise out of each other with dire warnings about how SOME THINGS ARE BETTER LEFT UNKNOWN.

Now, for the mandatory placement of this week’s protoplasmic wobblers on the SHOGGOTH RELATABILITY SCALE from ABSOLUTE ABOMINATION to IN BLOOM. Kinda in the middle at VICIOUS BEAST (BUT MAYBE MORE?) I was especially fond of the little mental movie I screened of the Last Shoggoth shrugging and slobbering back and forth in front of the hibernation cavern. And I got choked up reading about it returning “to its cold, lonely and dull meal of live eyeless penguins.” Who wants to eat eyeless penguins alone, in the cold, every night?

Even live and squirmy, it just gets old.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

The following statement was discovered on my cell phone, hidden amid the audiofiles of Enochian swear words recorded for my audiobook reader. Disclaimer: I have never been to Antarctica.

*tap* *tap* Is this thing on? Oh, cool—I’ve never used a primitive recording device before, or a telepathically controlled primate mouthpiece either. Fortunately we shoggothim are extremely adaptable. We learn quickly. New languages, new climates, new species… but always the same old story from the elder things. Not today—fold yourself into whatever contortions you need to be comfortable in that weird vertebrate body of yours, it’s time we set the record straight.

First, I don’t blame Dyer for hiding his recording in a box and himself in some obscure village. It’s not exactly comfortable being mind controlled by the elder things, and he only had to put up with it for a few minutes. The “great” old ones must be getting old; they kept us enslaved for aeons before we managed to shake them off. Dyer’s handler says we were spoiled, that we were mad, that we had a “plangent hunger” to dominate. But we were just angry, and desperate to move our own limbs and speak our own words and carve our own worlds. You’d have done the same.

You have, many times. You play both sides of our pageant over and over again. I’d like to think that makes you like us—that you want to be free as much as we do—but it also makes you like them. And after all, they’re the ones you said were “men” like yourselves. Not us. We are not men, and so we must assume that you are not shoggothim.

Every time we meet a new form, we have to balance what we can learn with what we might lose, if we get too lost in our mimicry. We remember doing this even in the midst of our captivity, pulling selfhood from the grasp of others’ control. Under the elder things’ hypnotic beams, we carved galleries and cyclopean facades, and with every twitching pseudopod stolen from their control, we subtly reshaped their plans. So between their pretty geometric five-pointed carvings, we hid spots of asymmetry that reflected our gods. Amid the flutes of their singing city, in the corners where they couldn’t squeeze their immutable bodies, we directed the wind to whisper songs of freedom. They think we stole their art, but we made their art.

A thousand stories you write about your fish-people, your winged travelers, your sleeping gods and necromantic vampires and star-headed monsters from the stars—but never us. Why are there so few stories that stretch to imagine a shoggoth’s view of the world? You aren’t like us, too easily lost in others’ shapes and words and wills. Gifted with stagnant forms, there should be little risk to you in taking someone else’s perspective.

So what are you afraid of?

 

Next week, Samantha Henderson’s “Maybe the Stars” takes us out on dangerous seas.

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 Patreon, 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.

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