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 Samantha Henderson’s “Maybe the Stars,” first published in the August 23rd 2012 episode of Drabblecast. Spoilers ahead—but it’s short and awesome and we highly recommend reading/listening to the original first. Follow those links!
“My people came from the stars in the beginning, and the older I get, the louder they call.”
Little Useless has worked so long for Dimar’s crew on Midnight’s Lady, she can’t be sure whether her memories of dry land and a full belly are real or dreams cobbled together from passenger conversations. Either way, she drives such thoughts away. Safer to go about her duties of cleaning up the nastiest messes humans at sea can produce, from decks down to the bowels of the hold, where a stout barred cage has held everything from drunk sailors to a smuggled full-grown tiger.
One night a small vessel delivers a new occupant for the cage. Little Useless creeps down to see a gray hunched lump. Its fishy smell overwhelms the lingering feline stink; it breathes as if the rusty hold air oppresses it. When it snarls and lunges, it reveals a high domed head, flat nose, huge bulbous eyes set toward the sides of its head, and nearly lipless maw sporting serrated teeth. Webbed hands bear razor-claws.
Later the cook sends her back down with a pan of fish entrails. She shoves the pan under the cage door, but the creature leaves it untouched. It stares at her with a bulbous eye. Its skin is peeling, and its lips look cracked, painful.
She dumps the guts and returns with buckets of seawater. Her intuition’s correct: The creature partially revives after bathing in salt water. Breathing more easily, it’s even capable of speech. It was born long ago in air, it says, then went into the water. Now it can stay in the air only temporarily before it begins to rot. Because, to answer Little Useless’s question, it is no longer human.
Little Useless realizes that for a long time she hasn’t considered herself human. When she glimpses her reflection, she sees an odd-jointed figure like a spider. Passengers let their eyes slide over her; crew members avoid speaking to her, even to scold or threaten.
She continues to bring the creature seawater. It—he—tells her some of his people, like himself, were born of a human mother or father on land. Then they return to ocean cities like Gormengi of the infinite maze, and Pai where the water’s so clear one can see all the way up to the stars. His name’s unpronounceable by humans, but she can call him Poc. He doesn’t ask her name, but he does ask what will happen to her when she grows. When Little Useless says if she’s lucky she’ll die before then, Poc tells her a story.
He swam upriver once, into a lake under a volcano. Though men lived nearby, it was peaceful until the day of gunfire. Human corpses began to float on the surface of the lake. Poc saw a girl child swimming, trying to escape. Though she must have been terrified, she reached down to him. And some impulse made him reach up. Almost he had her when she was shot. Even so, Poc took her body to Mother Sea and ate it with compassion, so it might not be desecrated.
Her next visit, Little Useless notices Poc’s declining again. He gives her a gold sphere chased with tiny figures of marine life. Listen: Poc knows where the ship is. He can feel the water’s surge against the hull; the stars speak to him though he can’t see them, for his people came from the stars in the beginning. If she drops this Y’aggathi Sphere into the sea, his people will come for him. Of course, they’ll kill everyone on board. Her alternative: keep the sphere, and humans will pay her a fortune for it.
Little Useless makes her choice. She goes on deck, intent on throwing the sphere overboard. Unfortunately its gleam draws the attention of first mate Hermer. She just manages to fling the sphere, to trip the lumbering mate as he grabs for it, to see it sink safe. He beats and kicks her, breaking ribs, but she crab-scuttles back to the hold ladder and down, to Poc.
He reaches through the bars to comfort her in her injury. She did it, Little Useless says. Now, could she go with him? Could she have some deep-sea blood? Could she change?
No, child, says Poc reluctantly. She’s not like him.
Little Useless has learned not to cry, but she cries now. Poc strokes her back as she falls into half-sleep. She hears the slap of webbed feet on deck and the screams of the crew.
It’s later. She’s alone under the stars. The bodies are gone, the smell of blood remains. Another ship has grappled Midnight’s Lady. People have boarded, men and women in uniform. One finds speaks anxiously of a child, malnourished and badly beaten, almost catatonic….
As night falls, Little Useless watches stars appear. In her hand she has the smaller sphere Poc’s left her. She can sell it and try to prosper. Or if she really can’t stand to live and be human anymore, she can return to the sea, and Poc will take her into it, though she can’t live beneath the surface.
There will always be the sea, Little Useless thinks. And if not the sea, maybe the stars.
What’s Cyclopean: Poc names the cities of the deep water: Y’dari, Y’goreth, Yith of the shell-black waters, Gormengi of the infinite maze. And S’Barsi, and Pai…
The Degenerate Dutch: Dimar seems eager to dismiss passengers, crew, and prisoners as useless, or moneybags.
Mythos Making: Henderson builds on Lovecraft’s Deep Ones, adding cities and customs and songs.
Libronomicon: Pirates aren’t much for reading.
Madness Takes Its Toll: In S’barsi, mad gods speak from the crack in the ocean floor.
At least once before in this blog, I must have heaved out a sigh freighted with the lament: Oh, the humanity! Right, Howard? You loaded sighs of your own with the same plaint, mainly directed at our insignificance in a cosmos made daily vaster and less man-centered by man’s own curiosity, his own science. Oh the wonder of our minds, oh their limits, oh that double curse! Not to mention, though you often did mention it, shuddering, humans had such a regrettable tendency toward degeneration. Offhand I can’t remember if you describe people of the darker races actually degenerating; maybe that’s because you found the process more dramatic in white people, who had much farther to fall on the cultural scale, from dim but gentle squatters in the Catskills to outcast Whateleys of Dunwich and demon-contaminated Marshes of Innsmouth to (worst of all) betrayers of noble blood like de la Poers and Jermyns.
Oh, the humanity! People are victims or victimizers, and indifferent nature takes whoever’s left by drowning or infected gunshot wound, to name just a few of its methods. That could describe Little Useless’s worldview, as shaped by the short horrific life she’s lived. She may have had a different life before, one that included solid ground underfoot and enough food and a loving hand but she can’t be sure. Worse, it would be too painful for her to be sure, for then she would have lost too much to bear.
Putting the lie to her name, Little Useless pulls several times her weight aboard ship, and so Dimar tolerates her—much as he might a mangy ship’s cat adept at rat-catching. Not that he’d ever reward the cat with a kind word or tin of sardines. Threats and kicks are better ways to control animals. And so living like an animal has become Little Useless’s survival strategy. Semi-feral, wary, she avoids human notice as much as possible while peering at them from the shadows, her robust natural curiosity turned tensely defensive. Over time she views the physical effects of her abuse as transformation to a “thin, oddly jointed” spider-child. Can she wonder the passengers who once showed sympathy now prefer to treat her as invisible, that crew members don’t speak to her?
It’s all right to be an animal. Humans are animals, too. But each animal must be true to its species, the lion to Panthera leo, the lamb to Ovis aries, the human to Homo sapiens. If you skitter around as much spider as girl, Homo arachnoides, real humans are going to treat you like a monster. Inhuman. Unlike them. Who are only metaphorically monsters.
Now, let’s talk about Homo pisciformes, aka Poc. In case his appearance left the reader unsure, Poc removes all doubt he’s a monster by admitting he hasn’t been human for a long time. Inhuman, ergo monster. He once was human, though; what’s more, he remembers his human name and, by implication, much of his human history. Take his story about the sweetwater lake in the hollow of an extinct volcano, near which humans dwelt in precarious peace. Why did the river wending to this particular lake and adjacent village intrigue him? Perhaps it wasn’t chance that led him but some salmon urge, some call back home. If so, was this the place where child Poc heard gunfire and people wailing, even as decades later and a hemisphere away he might hear another people wail in torpedoed Y’ha-nthlei?
I can see child Poc swimming for his life from one of those massacres humans of one ethnic or political or religious or fill-in-the-blank groups are always executing on another. Poc was genetically luckier than the girl of whom Little Useless reminds him, born to dive for the sheltering depths; even so, must he not have felt terror sharp as hers? Sufficient for adult Poc to identify with her desperation, to reach for her? While, for the girl, the pursuing humans were known monsters, the unknown fish-demon—because unknown—a possible paw in the storm.
Little Useless needn’t know Deep One funeral rituals to realize Poc honors the murdered girl when he eats her corpse. She shivers with terror when Poc asks what will happen when she grows—grows a woman’s body the humans around her will casually defile. She shivers with hope, that Poc has taken a human girl to his Mother Sea, that he’s treated her there with compassion.
Oh the inhumanity of men, the humanity of monsters. For the reader, Little Useless’s last plea to Poc hits with tragic force: Take her with him though she’ll drown—better that than stay on land and be human. Conversely, Poc’s promise to take her undersea if she can’t prosper among humans gives Little Useless peace, a happy ending.
But will she need to use his Get-Out-of-Humanity-Free calling sphere? Can we hope not due to the deaths of her Midnight Lady tormentors and the arrival of apparently legitimate rescuers? Has long-lived Poc seen enough humane humans truly to hope for Little Useless’s prosperity?
What do you think, Howard? Emily? Can hope be the thing with scales?
If there’s anything even the least literate pirate ought to figure out, it’s that those who make their lives on the water should think twice (or three times, or a hundred) before messing with those who live in it. Don’t deny Poseidon His due, don’t challenge mermaids to singing contests, and don’t, by Dagon and Hydra, try to make a quick buck in the Deep One trade.
This reminds me a bit of Bear and Monette’s “Boojum,” wherein Black Alice Bradley survives the Mi-Go’s objections to a canister-laden cargo by merging with her ship. There’s similar dubious greed-fueled judgment on the captain’s part. And there, too, we find a protagonist more interested in connection than in mere survival. Alice, a junior engineer whose captain is kinda dismissive of her advice, has things so much better than Little Useless that the human mind cannot conceive of the distance—but I think they might get along anyway.
“Maybe the Stars” actually feels like it could be in the Boojum-verse. At minimum, it takes place in some future time. When Poc talks about the earlier massacre, he implies strongly that it happened at least a century after the Innsmouth raid—Winter 1927-1928, for those who don’t have the date memorized—and was at the point of the story “many years ago” even by Deep One standards. Maybe Little Useless isn’t just speculating randomly about going to the stars at the end—maybe that’s a real, if dangerous, possibility. One that would normally be out of reach for someone in her position, but could be bought with a certain rare artifact.
I like the Y’aggathi sphere, a nice update to the stones that Lovecraft’s would-be Dagon-lovers used to summon their partners. Admittedly it seems a bit low-bandwidth. Is “come up here and kill everyone” that common a message? Though maybe it just means “come up here,” and “kill everyone” is simply the default reaction to finding one of their own imprisoned. And clearly, in fact, there’s some flex, since Poc’s people don’t kill Little Useless, presumably because he’s right there and tells them not to. So telling her they would was, perhaps, a test? Poc has a weird sort of honor, going for “save me and die” over the in-fact-more-accurate “save me and get a valuable reward.” Or maybe he just has a sense for which message is more likely to appeal to the scullery slave of a greedy pirate crew.
Whatever’s going on in his head, this story makes my short list of Deep One stories that manage the right mix of awe, empathy, and otherworldliness, along with Sonya Taaffe’s “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” and Seanan McGuire’s “Down, Deep Down, Below the Waves.” Wonder and glory—not even forever, just for the brief mortal moments of reading—aren’t easy to come by. It’s hard to blame Little Useless for yearning after those moments of deep vision and intimacy, regardless of the cost.
Next week, another salty tale, translated from the French, in Jean Ray’s “The Mainz Psalter.” You can find it in The Weird.
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.