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 Michael Shea’s “Nemo Me Impune Lacessit,” first published in the March 1982 issue of Whispers. Trigger warning for a man killing the woman who left him, also reference to snuff films. Spoilers ahead.
“What ecstasy of the flesh comes near that first savor of revenge arrived-at, assured?”
We begin with a passage from Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” in which revenge-obsessed Montressor reminds Fortunato that his family motto is Nemo me impune lacessit—No one attacks me with impunity. Witless with drink, Fortunato doesn’t take the hint. Too bad for him.
Too bad the four who arrive at narrator “Monty’s” country estate, Sternbrucke, don’t see through his affected self-deprecation to his true ecstatic anticipation. They are ex-wife Valerie, beautiful but viciously self-absorbed; Kamin, Valerie’s “porno prince” lover, equally beautiful, even more vapid; Natalie, Valerie’s smarter sister—which Natalie will let you know, constantly; and Bo Beck, a “teasing, malevolent sort of pachyderm.” As his visitors exclaim over the manse’s “gothic” glory, Monty confides in the reader:
These shallow children believe him an “oddball, bookish cuckold; a gaunt, Old-Worldly man of late-middle age.” In fact, Monty is more than 200 years old, a cosmos-delving warlock who serves the Old and Elder Ones. But for all his wisdom, he abandoned his priestly duties to woo Valerie, and play the “well-heeled bibliophile” in the gibbering maelstroms of New York and Los Angeles! Then porn film producer Roger and cameraman Bo persuaded Valerie to claim her rightful title as the “Queen of X.” Sister Natalie urged her to divorce Monty in favor of a career that Natalie could help direct. Porn stud Kamin became Valerie’s consort.
This left Monty free to return to his former service—a fortunate escape, and yet he insists on revenging Valerie’s insult while appeasing his neglected gods. Revenge and sacrifice combined!
Monty’s guests think they’ve come to film a horror-porn film, masterminded from afar by producer Roger. The set’s to be a chapel with a unique stained-glass window. Bo thinks Sternbrucke’s extensive and ancient cellars would make a scarier choice. Natalie has her own complaints. Who ever heard of combining horror and sex anyhow? And what’s with the gobbledegook dialogue, Cthulhu fhtagn and crap?
Monty plies his guests with alcohol (served by mute butler Koboldus) and flattery, then skillfully separates them:
He lures Bo Beck into the cellars by hinting that Roger wants to use them for a snuff film. Bo fancies himself the future King of Snuff. Sex is old news, he tells Monty as they tour the underground labyrinth. Death is the new porn! If Monty does have medieval torture chambers, Bo can supply the trash-meat to torture, people dying anyway, wanting to make money, something to leave the mamacita, right? Proud of his puny Evil, Bo doesn’t notice as they descend into a passage decorated with “Cthulhuoid art,” wrought by the same webbed paws that dug the tunnel from the nearby sea. They enter a chamber with Bo’s eagerly anticipated oubliette: Beneath the iron grates seethe shoggoths! Monty calls one forth to “embrace” Bo. Pliant to his will, it sucks out the brain but leaves the body intact…
Natalie assails Monty in the garden as he emerges from underground. He interrupts her renewed complaints with an emotional confession: He must tell her, as she’s the only one with the insight to understand, that Roger wasn’t behind their current project. He, Monty, created and financed it, paid Roger a quarter million to play along, all because he’s a foolish lonely old man! Natalie squawks: A quarter million the sonofabitch hasn’t shared with them? Monty groans: Oh, but Roger didn’t get to enjoy the money, for Monty summoned an Entity to rapt Roger away. If she doesn’t believe him (she raucously doesn’t), he’ll just show her his transcosmic Yuggothian roses.
Lead me to ‘em, says Natalie, eager to play the skeptic. But before blooms bigger than cabbages, reds that devour the eye and set nerves afire, even she must sense Otherness. Her response, as Monty expected, is to attack the Strangeness, run into its enclosure as if she can make it yield. She cannot. She sinks to her knees. The colors aren’t possible, she mourns. They’re “feeling up my mind…groping my brain inside!”
Apparently this pleases Monty’s masters: A body plummets into the rose bed, to be impaled by thorns. It’s Roger, a “torn and emptied bag,” dropped by Tsathoggua, to whom Monty sacrificed the producer. The Yuggothian roses open, disclosing yellow eyes. They press Roger with toothed kisses, devouring the god’s discard, then uproot themselves and surround Natalie. Monty watches her demise, finding it… musical.
The last act of his revenge takes place in the chapel. Valerie and Kamin cavort on an altar beneath a vast color-shifting window. As the May Eve moon rises behind the glass, certain Visages appear. Bo Beck shambles to the camera. The actors speak their lines as if transported. The window seethes and resolves into a “cephalopod leviathan,” great Cthulhu Himself! Valerie and Kamin scream, but their cries are lost in unearthly fluting.
Bo Beck steps forward, revealed as Koboldus in his true Deep One form. Monty intones Syllables of Consignment. The window bursts inward; Hounds of Tindalos attack Kamin and Azathoth’s spidery companion Araknadd battens on Valerie’s head. But the sacrifices have eyes only for Cthulhu, who “after one voluptuous pause, pinched those two squalling morsels from [the altar].”
Monty will relive this triumph to the end of his days, for few such are granted to any artist.
What’s Cyclopean: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are full of “tube-battening, freeway-creeping, gibberish-howling yahoos.” The warlock’s dungeons, by contrast, delve down to meet “squiddish throngs.”
The Degenerate Dutch: This is a story about a guy killing his ex-wife because she had the temerity to leave him, and has all the respect for women (and for men, for that matter) that you’d expect.
Mythos Making: Shoggothim in the dungeon, Yuggothians in the garden, and a flock of elder gods in the chapel. Sternbrucke is quite the estate.
Libronomicon: The story starts with a quote from Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” In addition to Poe’s Montressors, several military organizations also use the title phrase as a motto.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Beck howls and gibbers in his sanity’s annihilation in response to meeting a shoggoth. Seems reasonable, if slightly unfair to the poor shoggoth.
As this is my first Michael Shea story, I’m not sure whether he’s having a laugh, but he’s got to be having a laugh, right? Not that his laugh doesn’t send chill shivers down the spine when it hits just the right eldritch pitch. I mean, if your book were titled Mythos Beasts and Where to Find Them, it would only need to contain two words: Sternbrucke Manor. Sternbrucke, minus one umlaut, is German for “star bridge,” which is appropriate, given the window in the upstairs chapel. I wouldn’t be surprised if Monty had a baker’s dozen more interdimensional and/or transcosmic portals lying around the place.
To return to that verging-on-ridiculous plethora of Mythos entities, we’ve got both the Old and Elder Ones. (I wonder if there are also Aged Ones, Geriatric Ones, Superannuated Ones?) For deities active or called upon, we’ve got Cthulhu, Tsathoggua, Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth. No Nyarlathotep or Shub-Niggurath. Maybe They were on vacation together. For minor races/minions: Deep Ones, shoggoths, Hounds of Tindalos, Araknadd, transcosmic “roses” of the Yuggoth race. Why should Monty ever get lonely at Sternbrucke? I’m betting he felt more alone in New York and Los Angeles.
In addition to the Entity overload, there’s a cast of characters that would be right at home in a Roger Corman horror flick, of his “upscale” but still tastily pulpy Poe adaptation variety. You know, starring Vincent Price as the gaunt, bookish Old-World man of late middle-age—hey! Wait a minute! Roger Corman, Roger the producer? Monty, who could certainly be played by—and Bo Beck even drops Mr. Price’s name down in the cellars. Monty, Monty, Monty. You will forever be Vincent in my mind’s eye now, as dear Valerie will be Barbara Steele.
About the revenge motif. Shea’s story, explicitly, launches from Poe’s great payback tale, but it is not a great payback tale. Nor is Poe’s, for that matter, in the usual sense of a sympathetic-because-truly-wronged narrator and an obviously punishment-deserving villain. Poe’s Montresor says that Fortunato has injured and insulted him but never tells how; the reader cannot, therefore, judge whether Fortunato “deserves” to be walled up alive. Probably not, right, or wouldn’t the police be involved? As for Monty’s victims, come on. Only snuff director wannabe Bo is loathsome enough to merit an eldritch fate. Monty is probably lying about Roger wanting to do a “snuff,” so Roger’s main “crime” is producing porn starring Valerie. Natalie’s chief crime is being an annoying know-it-all who doesn’t and who pouts when called on it. Could be the one good call Natalie made was to advise her sister to dump Monty, who (sorry Monty) just wasn’t right for Valerie nor vice-versa. Valerie is Valerie. If Monty ever thought she was more than a toxically narcissistic beauty, he was blind or self-deluding—his fault, not hers. Kamin’s a handsome shell, Valerie’s male counterpart and accessory-of-the-moment, not worth Monty’s ire.
Act your age, Monty! Which is 200 plus, and all those fantastic voyages through space and time! I have no sympathy for you, you whiny old warlock, wasting all that sorcerous energy and all those Entity-summoning points on your paltry revenges. Thinking you’re all so complex with your posturings when it’s Montresor who’s really interesting with his odd little hesitations as the tiers of stone go up one by one. Or to compare you to another warlock, Howard’s Joseph Curwen (who also kept minions under the floor of his subterrane altar chamber), try saving revenge for when people really do you wrong. Like when they lead mobs to your secret lair and get you killed, so you have to lie around dead for a couple hundred years before you can come back and revive them long enough to kill them horribly.
But—the whole Yuggothian rose garden thing was awesome, by far the scariest section of the story for me, and the one that brought home most powerfully (and ironically, given Natalie’s earlier pronouncement) that sex and horror are intimates of old and ever. Oh, how the roses with their impossible colors feel up and grope poor Natalie’s brain! How their blooming kisses devour the blushing flesh!
Red roses are for love, remember, for the next time you go to the florist. Except maybe not so much red roses out of space?
There are so many stories I would have enjoyed reading more than this piece of pettily icky, derivative meta-snuff that earns the Eight Deadly Words from me within the first page, but unforgivably continues for many more pages after that:
- A story from the point of view of a horrible man who seeks some unpleasant goal, only to be eaten by a grue at the last minute—a plot that I prefer only to the version where the horrible man achieves his tediously predictable ends.
- A story in which the warlock’s occult taboo-breaking is set in opposition to his ex-wife’s sexual taboo-breaking, and it turns out that out-of-bounds sex and out-of-bounds death bring equally vast and incomprehensible cosmic power. Livia Llewelyn could write this, and it would be glorious and terrifying.
- A story entirely about cosmic botany beyond the scope of human comprehension. (That does not “feel up” your brain—sorry, but the telepathic equivalent of subway harassment is well within the scope of human comprehension.) Lovecraft could write this and make you glare suspiciously at every garden you passed for weeks.
- A story about cosmic botany with the telepathic equivalent of subway harassment, but made campy beyond the scope of human comprehension. That would be the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors, which I haven’t seen in way too long and could have watched in the time it took me to plod through “Nemo.”
- A story about the Transcosmic Yuggothian Roses, my next band, traveling the cosmos and destroying sanity with their mind-blowing music. Cat Valente basically already wrote this, and if you haven’t read Space Opera you should.
- A story about the poor shoggoth—the only character I found even remotely sympathetic—finally escaping its bonds and heading out to use its shapeshifting powers to film erotic comedies, an idea it got from eating Beck’s brain and deciding to be as different as possible from the twit whose brain gave it indigestion. No one has written this yet.
- Literally any story that contains a moment of surprise or an engaging character.*
I regret my life choices.
*I exaggerate for effect. I was, in fact, briefly startled to learn that Narrator was keeping a shoggoth in his oubliette. As my wife said, “That’s certainly a choice one could make.”
Next week, Ruthanna hopes desperately that an antidote to this week’s story can be found in Dreams From the Witch House, and looks to Amanda Downum’s “Spore” for her salvation.
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.