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 Molly Tanzer’s “The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad,” first published in the 2015 anthology, She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles. Spoilers ahead.
“There’s no heaven. There’s no hell. There’s only you, me and this.”
Veronica Waite, fresh from Bible Camp, is starting her junior year at Miskatonic High. She can’t understand why her friend Natalie’s in a bad mood. Just because Natalie had to work all vacation at the First Methodist day care and hasn’t made the varsity cheerleading squad (like Veronica) is no reason for her to get sore. Then Veronica’s cousin Asenath doesn’t get on the bus at her stop. Top student and star flyer on the cheer squad, Asenath wouldn’t miss school unless something were wrong. Veronica’s pastor father and Asenath’s father Ephraim are estranged; all her father will say is that Ephraim’s “chosen his path.” Asenath, on the other hand, is a sweet girl, always friendly and kind.
It turns out Asenath has made it to school, in Ephraim’s BMW. But she’s cut her hair short, donned boyish clothes, and is sucking face with some blue-haired punk girl! Shocked, Veronica asks what gives? Asenath laughs and remarks that Veronica’s filled out nicely over the summer. Now she better run along to class. Then Asenath goes back to sucking face. With another girl! Which is social and spiritual suicide in Veronica’s book.
Things get weirder at cheerleading practice. Coach Van Helder announces Asenath has quit the cheer team but will be taking on another role. Soon after Asenath appears dressed as team mascot, a Roman centurion, which is a BOY’S job! The other cheerleaders mob Asenath as if she were the football captain. Veronica’s is the sole protest, but Ms. Van Helder hushes her. Be nice—Asenath’s having family trouble. That’s for sure: Uncle Ephraim shows up in the bleachers, terribly aged by illness. He makes a scene by laughing maniacally, and Asenath hauls him off.
Veronica tries to do the Christian thing and forgive Asenath, but Asenath keeps making things worse. She shows up each day in masculine garb and becomes the most popular “boy” among the cheerleaders. Other students whisper or shout epithets. Asenath seems to enjoy the attention. Maybe Veronica could ignore it if Asenath’s notoriety didn’t reflect on her. A boy asks Veronica if she’s a “dyke” too. Asenath knocks him to the floor, but it’s Asenath Veronica’s furious at.
Veronica storms off. Asenath follows. When Veronica demands to know what’s happened to her, Asenath replies, “Life happened.” Let Veronica go on saying her little prayers. Asenath knows the truth—she’s “looked into a well of absolute darkness… full to the brim with writhing whispers… A hole full of nothing, absolute nothing.” And the nothing laughed at her. Now she’s determined to live as she pleases. She’s always been this way; she was just afraid to show it. But the things beyond this world don’t care how you behave.
That afternoon, Ephraim interrupts cheering practice again. He staggers at Asenath, crying, “Thief! Give it back—it’s mine!” Asenath shouts back, “Maybe it was, but not anymore!” She wrenches free of her father, who falls with a yelp, and drives off in his car.
Veronica, seeing her uncle as Asenath’s latest victim, helps him home. His crumbling house creeps her out, and she’s not thrilled when Ephraim asks her to read to him from a book he’s hidden under Asenath’s mattress. The book’s as weird as Ephraim: Hieron Aigypton, by Anacharis, “who was born a woman, lived as a man, and died neither.” As she stumbles through strange stanzas, her vision blurs to black, and she finds herself “somewhere that was nowhere, standing at the edge of something that was nothing.” In the hole is “a denser nothing that writhed—and laughed.”
Unlike Asenath, Veronica can’t back away from the pit. She weeps, knowing now that her God is “not what she believed, if He existed at all.” Then the nothingness consumes her.
When she wakes, she’s on the floor looking up at—herself. This Veronica explains that the real Veronica was weaker than her cousin Asenath, who resisted his attempt to take over her body. The little thief, after Ephraim had raised her body for seventeen years—his by right! Then she punished him, trapped him in a body afflicted by stroke. He’d have stayed trapped to the end of his days, if Veronica hadn’t come along.
Real Veronica can barely speak with Ephraim’s leaden jaw and stammering tongue. Asenath comes in. She apologizes to not-Veronica, who sweetly forgives her and then runs home to her “Mommy and Daddy.” Alone with Asenath, real Veronica tries to explain what happened: “Thief… stolen,” but Asenath only tells her to shut up or else. Doesn’t Ephraim know by now what Asenath’s capable of? He better stop drooling and crying, too, or she’ll tell the home care worker he’s too much for a teenage girl to handle.
And anyway, Asenath concludes, “You and I both know you brought this on yourself.”
What’s Cyclopean: Veronica’s a lot more likely to call something “rad” or “gross” than any more Lovecraftian adjectives.
The Degenerate Dutch: Veronica is full of homophobic commentary on Asenath’s girlfriends—plus the occasional comment suggesting that she’s not entirely immune to Asenath’s charms herself.
Mythos Making: Miskatonic’s a high school, and Waites send their kids to Bible Camp. But some things haven’t changed: “The things beyond this world don’t give a shit what you do” is as good a summary of cosmic horror as any more poetic passage.
Libronomicon: If someone asks you to read the Hieron Aigypton aloud to them… maybe just don’t.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Post-stroke aphasia is a remarkably effective way to keep people from complaining about body-snatching attempts.
One thing an alternative take on “The Thing on the Doorstep” should deliver is plenty of gender confusion and sexual politics, and Molly Tanzer fails us neither in this regard nor in the generous pinch of comedy her title promises. A capital-T Thing on a cheerleading squad? What could that be? Sure, Buffy and countless other urban fantasies have prepared us for vampire cheerleaders, witch cheerleaders, zombie cheerleaders, were-whatever cheerleaders. But a Thingly cheerleader in the Lovecraft universe? I can’t see either the Yith or Mi-Go going in for such antic gymnastics. The Outer Gods make due with an oozing band of flute-piping minions. The Mad Ones Under the Earth might employ cheerleaders for their spectacles of torture, the Ghouls for their grave-uprooting competitions, the Deep Ones for their shark races. Shoggoths would make great safety cushions for falling flyers; that is, if they could be trusted to merely bounce the flyers rather than engulf them for lunch.
Hold on. Tanzer has a better idea. Why not involve that other famous Innsmouth clan, the Waites? Yeah, why should the Marshes have all the fun and glory?
Now, just as there are undecayed Whateleys, there are God-fearing Waites. Fearing, that is, the Judeo-Christian God. Veronica Waite belongs to this righteous branch of the family, whereas her Uncle Ephraim belongs to the wizardly branch bound for the abyss. Not Hell, but the more interesting abyss in which the truth of the universe writhes and chortles. Cousin Asenath? She aspires to the former branch while trapped in the latter. Poor little thing. I can see her sneaking off to Veronica’s sensible raised ranch with her dollies. The ones whose plastic faces hadn’t melted away under the lapping of dark familiars. It’s not easy being one of the Evil Waites, at least not until you’ve chucked human decency for starry wisdom. Afterwards, the cosmos is the limit. Want to effectively take over the cheerleading squad while getting to wear the much cooler Centurion costume? Not a problem for reformed Asenath. Nor is retaining her own body, on her own terms.
They’re shocking terms for thoroughly conventional Veronica, who’s stuck with something of the Daniel Upton role here, minus the square-jawed hero’s Pyrrhic victory. She’s no hero at all, in fact, but rather a high school queen of complex character, neither all Mean Girl nor saint. She can be infuriatingly self-centered and clueless regarding others’ feelings; she can be genuinely compassionate, as towards “abused” Uncle Ephraim. She can be sanctimonious and judgmental in her Christian faith, but she’s sincere enough in that faith to suffer when the laughing pit wrenches it from her. The end result for me is that she’s ultimately a sympathetic character, turning Tanzer’s tale from farce to horror at the close.
Even more sympathetic is Asenath, who’s really Asenath in this version.
In Lovecraft’s “Thing,” Daniel Upton is staunchly heteronormative, while Edward Derby’s the ultimate gay stereotype of his author’s day: physically frail, a mama’s boy, precociously artistic, barely able to raise a beard, associated with a dubious crowd whose activities include some scandals that dare not speak their name. It’s not really surprising, then, that Derby should fall for Asenath Waite, a woman (socially acceptable mate) who’s really a man (psychosexually satisfying mate). Derby’s distressed when Ephraim-in-Asenath switches bodies with him, but he doesn’t complain about being stranded in a female form, only at having his male form enact terrifying rituals into which he may suddenly switch back. He also doesn’t like being the wee wifie locked in the library. Maybe if he could have gone out in Asenath’s body, he wouldn’t have minded the interlude? The text doesn’t tell. Ephraim on the other hand is clearly only making do with an “inferior” female body. At least he retains his “masculine” will, which repeatedly overpowers Derby’s.
In Tanzer’s “Thing,” Veronica’s the heteronormative female, and proud of it (fine), and biased against any other form of sexuality (not so fine, but in keeping with her education). Asenath plays heteronormative, sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice feminine to a fault, until the realization that there are no divinity-imposed consequences for human “misbehavior” frees her to be what she always was, a lesbian with a taste for crossdressing. Or, possibly, trans, though I read her more as lesbian. This Asenath is not acting “masculine” because she’s actually a psychic male, that is, possessed by Ephraim—though that’s what Tanzer wants us to think, wink wink, wait for the twist ending.
If anyone’s trans, nice irony, I think it’s Ephraim. Does he come to cheerleading practice to drool over the girls? Yes, but is it because he wants to have the girls or because he wants to be one of them? He studies their moves the way Asenath the flyer would, and so we’re tricked into—ah ha!—that’s Asenath in the old man’s body! Then he calls Asenath a thief, as Asenath-in-Ephraim would be expected to call her father. Trick! This is really Ephraim in a body he never wanted even before his stroke, longing for the body he made and raised as his ideal form, the one whose arm he strokes lovingly.
When Ephraim snatches Veronica’s body, I think he’s got his happy ending, as Asenath has hers. Or happier, since he’s likely gotten over the despair of looking into the abyss. I can see him playing Veronica to perfection, not even bothering to avenge himself on Asenath.
After all, he has the best of both his gender-lives now, the wizardry he learned while a man and the cheers he can lead as a high school queen.
Our reread’s very first story was “The Thing on the Doorstep.” It’s a fascinating, problematic tale, and notable for the complete absence of actual women on-screen. (Most of Lovecraft’s solo stories have no women on-screen. But most of his stories aren’t about ostensibly het marriages that go stunningly badly.) Asenath Waite not only gets cheated out of her body, but out of her voice—she suffers more than Upton, but it’s only Upton’s narrative that we get to hear.
So Asenath is a particularly good choice for She Walks in Shadows, an anthology built around returning female voices to Lovecraft’s stories and settings. Asenath deserves a voice. She deserves, furthermore, to look into the abyss, slap it back, and carpe the diem as the butch dyke she always wanted to be. And why not? In a universe of cosmic horror, one of the few constants is that heterosexual relationships always turn out badly. (Except for last week—but I’m willing to call that a side effect of the Derlethian heresy.)
My enjoyment of butch dyke Asenath was somewhat marred by the niggling worry that she would, in fact, turn out to be Ephraim—a straight (so to speak) retelling of the original rather than a twisted one. My trust in Tanzer as an author kept me going, and was indeed rewarded, but the story spent enough time flirting with the alternative to make me nervous. Fortunately, Asenath’s changes are all her own, as promised, and Ephraim gets his comeuppance (albeit temporarily). And very little opportunity to whine about “inferior female brains.”
Instead, this week’s unpleasant-narrator-who-gets-eaten-by-a-grue is Veronica. Her, I feel bad for. Her pious selfishness seems to have come directly from her own father, and when she actually tries for a good deed, she gets body-snatched by Ephraim. I’m kinda hoping she manages to get her situation across to Asenath, or that Ephraim-as-Veronica fails to resist gloating—but that’s probably too much to hope for.
Besides giving voice to the voiceless, Mythosian authors also enjoy checking out the state of Lovecraft Country in different eras. We’ve had plenty of modern takes, along with Kim Newman’s 40s, Matt Ruff’s 50s, and Bear and Monette’s far future. Tanzer puts us in the suburban Innsmouth of the ’80s. The Buffy echoes are doubtless deliberate, though Sunnydale was blessed with an unusually low rate of self-righteous Bible Camp campers. You’d think that Innsmouth would be similarly immune—but then, I grew up in coastal Massachusetts, in the 80s, and can confirm that a scattering of Chick Tracts does not reduce one’s level of existential dread. Alas, Veronica and her dad fit right into the setting; the Temple of Dagon would just provide a convenient focus for sermonizing.
And there’s something unfortunately timeless, isn’t there, about a man thinking he has a right to a woman’s body. A strong enough right that when she keeps her own body—when she claims it to wear as she pleases, refusing to submit to his will—it must be theft. Ephraim’s sense of entitlement seems all too familiar.
Veronica’s own upbringing, though more ordinary than Asenath’s, has demanded of her just the type of submission that Ephraim demands. It leaves her vulnerable—and that, too, seems all too believable.
Next week, we jump back in time from the ’80s to the ’20s, for Jennifer Brozek’s “Dreams of a Thousand Young.” You can find it in Innsmouth Free Press’s Jazz Age Cthulhu.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. She has several stories, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, available on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” 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.