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 Jennifer Brozek’s “Dreams of a Thousand Young,” first published in 2014 in Innsmouth Free Press’s Jazz Age Cthulhu collection. Spoilers ahead.
Helen wanted to look away, but the gleaming altar called to her.
Lady Helen, heiress to the Keeling silk empire, has accompanied her father to the Indian state of Assam. She finds society there “stuffy,” no match for her beloved London. Her friend Lizzy agrees and promises to show her something amazing.
“Something” must’ve been amazing indeed: Helen wakes afterwards aching and naked, with a dead man lying beside her. From his clothing, he’s an Assamese nobleman. He’s handsome too, except for the mess of stab wounds to his belly. Helen can’t remember who he is, how he got there, or what she could have done to end up in such a predicament.
Fortunately, her father’s away on business. Her servants, models of discretion, deal with the body and the authorities. Helen can’t avoid an interview with Special Assistant John Sorin. Her maid Pria tells both of them that Helen left home two evenings before. Pria didn’t worry when her mistress remained absent—Helen often stayed out for days. Ahem, but Sorin doesn’t judge. He’ll follow whatever investigative avenues he must to discover what happened.
Privately Pria tells Helen that she was going to a party “filled with the unknown… Magicians, experts in the occult.” Beyond that, Helen said she was sworn to secrecy. Hoping her friend Lizzy may know more, Helen meets her at the Purple Room restaurant. Lizzy says Hemaraj Kumari invited them both to a party displaying treasures from his recent trip to Egypt. Only Helen went without picking up Lizzy.
Helen has a flash of memory: A handsome Assamese man taking her hand, his gold bracelet with a blood-red gem making her shiver. She returns to the present gasping as something stirs in her lower abdomen. People at other tables stare with inexplicable boldness, as if they know her. She excuses herself and summons her palanquin.
A nun stops her. Sister Grace declares that Helen’s life and immortal soul are in danger! She’s seen toughs replace Helen’s palanquin carrier—wherever they want to take her, it can’t be good. Grace leads Helen into an alley, pursued by the would-be abductors. She pulls a dagger from her robes and engages the abductors like a “whirling terror.” Sorin shows up to help, and they make it to the safety of a church.
Sorin knows the nun, for she’s reported to the Commissioner’s Office a “growing occult evil.” Seeing Grace’s tension, Helen takes away her bloody dagger. She’s disturbed by how natural the weapon feels in her hand.
Grace reveals that Helen went with Hemaraj to the Black Ram Club, not to see Egyptian loot but to take part in a ritual. Grace produces a black iron coin with a strange five-pointed star on one side. Apparently Sorin’s ability to handle it means he’s on the side of the light, so Grace admits to a “divine” vision that Helen’s the “key to stopping the Blackest of Rams from rising.”
When Helen picks up the coin, shocking pain radiates from low in her abdomen. Memory-dream floods her, of following Hemaraj to another world, a cave-realm with ruins and a black stone altar. Hemaraj drags her forward, backed by a crowd of elegant strangers. It’s time for her to fulfill her destiny!
Returning to consciousness, she finds her palm branded with a painless white scar of the five-pointed star. God has blessed her with the Elder Sign, Grace says, a ward against demonic beings seeking to invade our world. She identifies the cave-realm as K’n-yan, a place of horror. Frightened as she is, Helen must try to remember the rest.
Sorin and Helen go to the Black Ram Club to learn more. Its manager falls in a fit when he touches Helen’s star-scar. Avalanching memories hit Helen: a green stone idol in her hand, leering with “promises of dark desires and pain”; herself bound to the black altar; something hovering overhead, reaching.
Sorin hurries her home. Grace is there and promises to protect Helen while Sorin continues his investigation. Helen takes laudanum, but it doesn’t ease her low-belly cramps. Pressing the spot with her branded hand does. She dreams of the cave-realm and feeling at home there, of returning to her bedroom with Hemaraj. She allows his advances, but feels the insult of a mortal wanting to possess her. In retribution, Helen slips Hemaraj’s dagger from his belt and stabs him.
Waking, she hears a commotion. She finds Pria strangling Grace. Pria laughs, a maddened sound. She’ll bring Helen to her true master now.
When Helen slams her scarred palm to Pria’s forehead, Pria falls unconscious. Helen rummages star-coin and dagger from Grace’s robes. Sorin bursts in. He too was attacked. They’ve got to end this tonight, by taking Helen to Pria’s “master.”
The two sneak into the Black Ram. While Sorin deals with attackers, Helen encounters the Egyptian who commanded her abductors. She recalls meeting him at Hemaraj’s party and his name, Ardeth Fehr. Her scar doesn’t faze him. No, Ardeth’s her ally now. He gives her a green stone idol, and his murmur of “Ia! Shub-Niggurath” resonates in her, easing her racked belly. She remembers Ardeth conducting the ritual, remembers a sky full of tentacles and a dozen yellow eyes plumbing her soul. A tentacle touched her, the universes opened. She’s the portal. She’ll birth warriors of a new age, to turn the tide of an immemorial war… It’s good to know her place at last.
Ardeth touches her belly. Helen stabs him for the insubordination. Sorin arrives. Helen smiles at his concerned look, endearing yet pathetic. She kisses, then stabs him: a gift of death before war comes to this world.
Helen turns to a hidden door. On the stairs beyond waits a dark young, cloven-hoofed, mouths slavering, tentacles questing. Helen reassures the kid, then descends the stairs “into the rest of her life.”
What’s Cyclopean: The sky above the altar uncurls huge, glistening black tentacles.
The Degenerate Dutch: Depictions of racism are impressively minimal for a story taking place in a British colony in India—though things like Helen’s father treating servants as decoration make clear that it exists. Given that backdrop, it’s maybe not that surprising that most of the cultists are Indian.
Mythos Making: February is Derlethian Heresy Month—in this week’s selection, the reliable power of the elder sign, and the inability of Shub-Niggurath’s cultists to enter churches. Bonus visit to K’n-yan, a place where sacrificial rituals would normally be the least of your problems.
Libronomicon: Helen could really use a copy of What To Expect When You’re Expecting a Litter of Eldritch Warriors. Instead she gets Egyptian artifacts that hint vaguely at the ritual she’s forgotten.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Pria’s laughter is the sound of madness. There’s also madness in the high priest’s smile.
*Scratchy black-and-white footage shows clean-cut young couples walking down the street, chatting and laughing. The title of the old PSA film shudders over them: DATING THE DARKNESS*
Are you a hotblooded young man? Is there a woman you admire, but don’t feel ready for a long-term relationship with? Are you trying to find the perfect date to express your feelings? Then perhaps you’ve considered bringing her to A RITUAL TO SUMMON DARK POWERS FROM BEYOND REALITY AS WE KNOW IT.
Of course you hear about these things in locker room talk. It probably feels like every boy has taken a beautiful girl through a PORTAL TO OTHER REALMS, there to revel in unspeakable passions before sacrificing his companion to the higher cause of RETURNING THE ELDER GODS TO THEIR FORMER GLORY.
But while these parties may sound like innocent fun, consider the potential costs to your reputation and safety. Even the slightest dalliance with ancient evil may taint your soul irrevocably—but this is a mild risk compared to the dangers of a woman who’s dallied even more closely with those same evils.
Once upon a time, the careful gentleman could bind a well-chosen woman to an altar for unspeakable rites, and suffer only a few qualms in the light of day. Even a woman who survived such rites would be appropriately accepting in the face of her inevitable fate. Sure, occasionally a stalwart hero, unaware of the lady’s reputation, might rescue her at the last minute and leave the poor revelers to deal with a hungry abomination. (Or an abomination suffering from other unsatisfied urges—whatever precautions you’ve taken, be aware that abominations are notoriously indiscriminate among human genders.)
But times change, and these days a woman touched by unholy deities may be all too willing to make active use of that power—and may be as uninterested as the elders themselves in why you exposed her to those powers in the first place. Someone bound to an altar may appear helpless, but once the power of REALMS BEYOND HUMAN IMAGINING courses through her, that altar becomes the most powerful spot in the ritual. Even skilled priests can make this kind of mistake. You’re in the midst of confidently overturning the foundations of reality, when suddenly—the only thing overturned is you.
While every young man would of course prefer his sacrifices heteronormatively risqué, you might well ask whether it’s easier just to put your friends and mentors on that altar. But even though the set-up may not be as romantic, the results can be every bit as devastating.
So be smart—when your friends suggest that TRAVELS BENEATH THE BOWELS OF THE EARTH are the absolute latest thing for an exciting night out, JUST SAY NO.
And young women—of course, you’re not supposed to hear any of this. You’re supposed to be in the next room over, getting the film about how INVOLVEMENT WITH DARK CULTS will attract exactly the wrong sort of boy, ruin your innocence, and leave your reputation in tatters. The small chance of becoming an AVATAR OF THE DARK MOTHER just isn’t worth it. Better take up knitting instead.
Who in the cosmos is Shub-Niggurath? Is It an it, or a he, or a she, or all three (plus other sexes unknown on Earth)? A Black Goat or a Black Ram? A Great Old One or an Outer God? Friend or fiend to humanity? Please, can we at least agree this entity has a Thousand Young? Fine, but what if a “Thousand” is a euphemism for “countless”? What if that’s a Thousand a day, or a millisecond? What if the Thousand Young each has a Thousand Young, and each of those Million GrandYoung has a Thousand Great-GrandYoung? Let’s stop and maintain a few sanity points for later.
Lovecraft first mentions Shub in the famous Necronomicon passage from “The Dunwich Horror”: “Ia! Shub-Niggurath! As a foulness shall ye know Them.” That’s it, the rest is all about Yog-Sothoth. Shub’s next call-out is in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” where It gets the titles “Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young” and “Lord of the Wood.” Male, then, at least in this forest-dwelling avatar?
Shub gets deeper development in the revisions, notably in Lovecraft and Heald’s “Out of the Aeons.” There It is a She, the “Mother-Goddess” with at least two named Young, sons Nug and Yeb. All three of the -Nigguraths in this story are people-friendly, ready to take humanity’s part against the eye-blasting Ghatanothoa. Writing to Willis Conover, Lovecraft throws in more family history: “Yog-Sothoth’s wife is the hellish cloud-like entity Shub-Niggurath, in whose honor nameless cults hold the rite of the Goat with a Thousand Young. By her he has two monstrous offspring—the evil twins Nug and Yeb.” Okay, another vote for She and the Goat. Different take on Nug and Yeb. Monstrous, evil, really? They must have gotten that from Dad, except here Shub Herself is hellish!
I figure Howard is pulling Conover’s leg. He calls Shub Yog’s “wife,” when he knows very well the Outer Gods eschew marriage for random hook-ups amongst Themselves and other open-minded and/or ritually manacled beings.
Brozek’s Lady Helen is both—open-minded and ritually manacled, that is. She’ll be the first to admit, when chosen as star of a ritual, that she’s no innocent. How could she be when she routinely disappears for several nights to, erm, stay with her “companions?” I suspect she only disappears when Daddy’s absent, as Helen implies that her sojourn in Assam was a necessary retreat from the London society she’s made too hot for herself and her family’s reputation. What Daddy doesn’t know, and all that jazz.
Assam society isn’t as stuffy as Helen thinks, at least not amongst the Black Ram’s members. Thus Brozek’s Shub is the Ram, nominally masculine. Around sacrificial ewes, anyway. No ordinary ewe, Helen. She’s the Warrior-Mom of ewes! Woe betide any mortal male who offends once Shub unleashes her Inner High Priestess. So the Forces of Light boast a ninja nun? Wait until you see Helen’s dagger work. So the Elder Ones have a warding Sign? It burns Helen at first, but her scarred flesh then claims it as another weapon in her arsenal.
Speaking of Elder Signs, in this story we re-enter the parallel Mythos of the Derlethian Heresy, last seen in Derleth’s own “Seal of R’lyeh.” Brozek spares us details of the Forever War between Good and Evil by allowing Sister Grace to be knowledgeable but not all-knowing. It’s enough for Grace to convince Helen and Sorin that opening a portal for the Bad Guys would be a Very Bad Thing. As for the Sign itself, that’s the Heresy’s coolest prop, right? Failproof. Except when it’s not.
Grace says she’s used the talisman to banish demons. Helen uses it to overcome human cultists, but it only works on lesser minions like Pria—Ardeth Fehr doesn’t mind the Elder Sign. Nor does Helen, even after she fully transitions to Bride of Shub-Niggurath. I can see her bearing both the Brand of Light and gestating demonic offspring while she wavered between Good and Evil. But when she’s decided, does her star-scar vanish? Does she toss the iron coin she took off Grace’s corpse? Not that I noticed. Maybe her Darkness is so strong she can carry the Elder Sign in mockery of its Makers?
That’s the trouble with magical props. They tend to make things too easy for their users, so to muster suspense, the props must poop out at critical moments. Like my all-time favorite, Hermione’s change purse, in which she can store house-sized tents, but she can’t toss in some freeze-dried camping rations, so the Terrific Trio needn’t starve on grass and dubious mushrooms?
If I continue on to the “Wizards can ex-nihilo create purple sleeping bags that work but can’t conjure edible food,” my brain will snap. Enough said. Beware magical props and too-convenient magical theory! It’s Heresy, I tell you!
Next week, our heroes Frank and Howard have an adventure in Frank Belknap Long’s only slightly self-referential “The Space-Eaters.”
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.