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 Keris McDonald’s “Special Needs Child,” first published in The Private Life of Elder Things in 2011. Spoilers ahead.
“Corpses do weird shit but one thing they don’t do, cannot do, is incubate a live baby without blood flow or oxygen for three weeks, while they rot around it.”
Narrator Gina is on the prowl with boyfriend Austin. Once they patrolled Baghdad; these days they’re in the Louisiana State Guard, and their field of operations is hurricane-wracked New Orleans. The pair split up to search a North Ward street for corpses. Gina finds a woman who’s been dead long enough for scavengers to skeletonize her head and arms. Gina’s handled plenty of corpses. What bothers her about this one is the distended belly. Gassy decomposition has swelled it like a balloon, and like a balloon, it may pop, spraying Gina with rotted innards as she wrestles it into a body bag. The solution? Pop it in advance. She punctures the belly. Nothing comes out except—
Except a tiny white hand. The woman was pregnant, but how could her baby have survived three weeks in a dead womb? Yet the baby slowly emerges and drops to the ground alive and kicking. It’s a boy, perfect, with clear green eyes. She scoops him up, and he looks into her face and hiccups a giggle.
Gina carries the miracle infant to Austin and informs him, “It’s our baby.”
They can’t turn the baby over to the authorities. He’ll get lost in the chaos of disaster and bureaucratic screw-ups. Austin’s reluctant but agrees to hit the road with little Preston. He finds a lactating dog to play temporary nurse. Preston takes right to Lady, as they name the dog, latching on to a teat with gusto. He’s a good baby, never crying. Most he does when distressed is give a high-pitched meep.
The family ends up in a Fresno neighborhood where people don’t nose into newcomers’ business. Gina works as a paramedic, orderly, morgue attendant. Austin stays home. He never really takes to Preston. Neither does Lady. It’s weird, given how loving a kid Preston is, always seeking physical contact. He’s healthy, too, despite his pallor and light-sensitive eyes. Those two weaknesses explain why Preston sleeps days and bounces to energetic life at night. Why, he’ll even climb out on the roof and sing wordlessly to the moon. Wordlessly, because Preston doesn’t learn to talk for years. Instead he babbles to himself in a private language. At four, Preston finally catches on to English. His eating habits remain idiosyncratic. He refuses carbs and vegetables, loves bacon. Raw bacon. Lots of kids are fussy eaters.
Gina home-schools Preston. Apart from the documentation problem, she knows other children would tease him. She urges Austin to develop common hobbies with the boy. Austin takes the seven-year-old to shoot rats in a vacant lot—good male bonding activity, right? But Preston’s more interested in a dead raccoon. He has a fascination for roadkill, but lots of kids are morbid that way. What kids don’t normally do is to gobble down bits of well-ripened coon meat. When Gina learns Austin gave Preston a belting, their fight is epic. Two days later, Austin takes off for good.
Gina carries on alone. She takes late shifts at the funeral parlor and brings Preston along—until she catches him chewing blissfully on a corpse’s fingers. Desperate, Gina calls her long-estranged mother and moves home to rural Maine. Grandma isn’t thrilled, but the boy flourishes with miles of forest to wander and animal bones to add to his collection. Gina works in a turkey processing plant and brings home bags of wings and feet.
One snowy day, Gina spots Preston at their mailbox, talking to a strange man: hunched and smelly. The man lopes off when Gina approaches. Preston doesn’t know his name, but the man said he was “a relative” on his father’s side. A few years later, Lady dies. By then Preston’s undergone a growth spurt, putting on bulk, developing a beetling brow and jutting jaws, going bald. He walks with a slouching stoop and runs—surprisingly fast—on calloused, horny-nailed feet. And he smells nasty. But don’t all teenage boys? Or maybe it’s the raw overaged meat he insists on eating? Anyhow, Gina buries Lady in the yard, only to catch Preston digging up the dog. She drags him away, twisting, trying to bite, and locks him in his room while she cremates Lady in a bonfire. Turning, she sees Preston’s escaped to the roof. His howl is wordless, guttural.
Grandma’s been dwindling while Preston grows, and is diagnosed with stomach cancer. Gina quits work to take care of her. On the night Grandma dies, Gina falls asleep at the kitchen table. Hours later she wakes to the sound of bumping in Grandma’s bedroom. She’s galvanized to action by the thought of Preston in the room with the corpse and bounds upstairs to catch her son in the act of—
She screams. Preston snarls, then leaps for the window and the night.
Gina hasn’t seen him since. She sits in the kitchen, drinking whiskey and remembering the sight of Grandma’s bare leg waving grotesquely in the air. A terrible reek seeps down through the ceiling. She doesn’t know how she’ll handle the situation this time. Even so—
She looks forward to the arrival of her grandchild any day now.
What’s Cyclopean: Preston grows from baby teeth to “dentition,” a word that has some impressive connotations under the circumstances.
The Degenerate Dutch: Gina is understandably cynical about the ability of authorities to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. People left dehydrated on bridges, refugees turned back at gunpoint—she’s got no faith left in human nature. Maybe that’s why she’s so open to an experience with inhuman nature.
Mythos Making: Lovecraft never did say much about ghoulish reproductive strategies.
Libronomicon: Gina could use a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Eldritch Abomination.
Madness Takes Its Toll: “You’ll think I’m crazy,” Gina says, justifying her decision to avoid any sort of support network in favor of a road trip with a baby ghoul.
It happens in dreams. It happens in fairy tales. The couple who could never have kids, the child who shows up out of nowhere, a gift from the Powers That Be. Of course, such a gift is unlikely to shape only the family they come to. Those Powers give things—and people—for a reason.
It all looks a bit different in Lovecraft’s universe—but not that much different. It’s an ickier fairy tale, but still: long-desired child pulled from unlikely location, growing inexorably toward his natural destiny. It just happens that this kid is a carrion-eater.
I am not rational about stories of parenthood. Show me parents reacting sensibly to their supernaturally strange child, seeking out books and doctors and support groups to do their very best for their adorable mermaid, shoggoth, or antichrist, and I will adore you (and the child) forever. But the reverse is one of those tropes that frustrate me no matter how well-done they are (and this one is, in fact, very well-done). I was irritated at a formative age by Judith Merril’s “That Only a Mother,” and actual motherhood has not increased my patience. It’s the thing where a mom insists that their child is perfect, while going into deep denial about the ways that perfection is unusual—and thus implying that their maternal love hinges on that denial. Gina makes general mention of worrying about how long it takes Preston to talk, but shies around the actual indications of weirdness. All kids go through phases, right?
It’s clear that at some level she has a clue, and that at some level she just doesn’t want to think too hard about what kind of a kid plops out of a half-eaten corpse, but… ask around, for pity’s sake. Check out the developmental psych section of the Miskatonic library, track down obscure painters in Boston, maybe look online for other people with corpse-babies. Hell, maybe talk to a public school instead of avoiding human contact. You have a kid with unusual eating habits, challenges with language production, light sensitivity, and occasional behavioral problems? They’ve put together IEPs for worse and weirder.
It’s the title. It’s the implication that kids who don’t act normal, don’t look normal, need to be hidden from society rather than having their special needs, y’know, met. It’s the determination that if I found myself with a ghoulish kid, I’d have a backyard full of chickens and a few adult ghouls coming by my place for dinner on a regular basis, and be looking online for how to set healthy boundaries about bringing home roadkill.
Preston honestly seems like a sweet kid, and one who’d do well with a little more socialization and boundary-setting. And I kinda want to see his bone art.
And none of this is really what the story is going for. There are vague hints that ghoul babies shape their parents’ reactions, with pheromones or something, encouraging the isolation. There are definite hints that Gina is refusing to say that anything’s wrong with her kid because her own mom was so eager to tell her what was wrong with her. There’s a lot going on with her relationship with death as a soldier and an emergency responder and a mother and a daughter. A story about parents reacting calmly and sensibly to a ghoul baby would not get at any of this stuff, or do a particularly good job of exploring fraught family dynamics. It would just be more the kind of story that I look for, and less the kind that sends me off on tangential rants about the responsibilities of parenthood.
It’s hard to get cozy with many creations of Lovecraft and his fellow Mythosians. Take the Outer Gods: Nuclear chaos Azathoth; bubble-congeries Yog-Sothoth; Goat-Mom Shub-Niggurath. Nyarlathotep does have charismatic human avatars, but It may switch to the Howler in Darkness or a Three-Lobed Burning Eye. Cthulhu has his fans, but most of us wouldn’t invite him to dinner (unless our worst enemies were the main course, and even then, no telling who’d be dessert). Ithaqua’s so cold. Cthugha’s a fire hazard. Shoggoths mess up the carpets, and nobody wants the Hounds of Tindalos in the dog park. The dwellers in blue-litten K’n-yan look human, but their favorite entertainments leave much to be desired.
The Yith and Mi-Go are middle cases. Rugose cones and gray-pink fungi with crab claws won’t win any Terran beauty contests. Still, each race has its enticements for the curious human. Like to travel to Earth’s infancy and record your story for all time? Team Yith, and all it will cost you is five years of mundane life. Like to roam interdimensional space with its most skillful navigators? Team Mi-Go, as long as you don’t mind a sojourn in a brain-canister. Throw the Elder Things of Antarctica into this category, too. Super-scientists, super-builders, probable creators of Earth life, they were men, damn it. Even Howard says so.
Now we come to Mythosian candidates for cuddlihood, or at least tolerance. Tolerance for MONSTERS?, I hear some gasp. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, for these monsters are our own kin. Come on down, Deep Ones and ghouls! On second thought, you Deep Ones stay in the saltwater section where you’re comfortable. We’ll just deal with the ghouls, given they’re featured in this week’s story.
Ghouls figure prominently in two Lovecraft fictions written between 1926 and 1927. In both, the unnatural history of ghouls is constant: They’re anthropomorphic but with canine visages, rubbery flesh, and half-hoofed feet. They slouch and lope. They meep and howl. They dine on human flesh, usually predeceased. It’s the reactions of the fictions’ narrators that differ. When Thurber (in “Pickman’s Model”) realizes Pickman’s monsters are painted from life, his nerves shatter. He can no longer ride the subway; indeed, his phobia extends to all things underground. In Dream Quest, Randolph Carter may not find ghouls the pleasantest companions, but he’s willing to ally with them. Why, one of Carter’s best friends is a ghoul—painter Pickman, who’s finished his metamorphosis into a dog-thing. And what’s a dog-thing when Carter’s been kidnapped by Moon-beasts, tickled by night-gaunts, and nuzzled by dholes? All Thurber’s had to steel his courage is WWI.
In Dream Quest, the ghouls are necrophages, whereas in “Model” Pickman repeatedly paints them stalking live prey. If Preston’s diet is typical, McDonald’s ghouls are necrophages, but her shocking innovation addresses ghoul reproduction. Lovecraft sidesteps that matter with a fairy tale—ghouls who start off human are changelings, ghouls exchanged for children. How do the stolen human children become ghouls? They must degenerate into them, the cost of eating corpses as their stepparents teach them to do.
That cannibalism makes men monsters, Lovecraft posited in “Lurking Fear.” Its Martenses also practice inbreeding, a sure way to slide down the evolutionary ladder. A third way is to breed with nonhuman species as in “Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “Arthur Jermyn.” Lovecraft only hints at ghoul-human mating, via Pickman’s ghouls who leap through open (bedroom?) windows and lurk leering in cellars. McDonald goes all the way, telling us exactly how ghouls reproduce.
She does it, too, with an impressive blend of in-your-face body horror and subtle implications. The opening birth scene out-icks even Breaking Dawn’s vampire-teeth Caesarean, but in a good way. Gina, a medic in Afghanistan and a Guardswoman post-Katrina, is the perfect narrator to describe in graphic detail what it would be like for a baby to squirm out of a dead woman’s slit belly, only to fall, goo-covered and umbilical cord trailing, into mud and maggots. She’s also the perfect narrator to see beauty and potential cuddliness in such a newborn.
Preston is beautiful and cuddly, though. Clever evolutionary strategy, this hypercuteness in the juvenile ghoul. Gina falls hard and stays fallen through Preston’s escalating oddities, right up to his last transgression. It’s an unthinkable one, too—at least, I’d never thought of it.
I figured the dead woman died pregnant. Gina thinks Preston survived through a miracle. Nope, the kid’s merely the product of postmortem impregnation. Not only do ghouls eat corpses, they mate with them. The details at story’s end illuminate those at its start: how the corpse is propped, lower end up, on the table frame; how its dress is rucked up around its shoulders. Later we get bumping and headboard-rattling in dead Grandma’s bedroom. Gina assumes Preston’s snacking on her. No such luck. Preston’s doing something unthinkable. Unnameable, except by the image that haunts Gina: her mother’s leg and foot “waving grotesquely.” Our fears are confirmed by Gina sitting below a reeking bedroom, expecting her grandchild’s birth.
So this is what little ghouls are made of? Necrophilia, necrogestation, necroparturition?
It makes a certain ghoulish sense. Life from death, that’s nature’s way. Or preternature’s. I wonder if Miskatonic University’s medical school has a department of cross-species obstetrics.
What do you think, Howard?
Next week we go from stories of parents to stories of kids, and get a peek at Jennifer Brozek’s forthcoming YA Lovecraftiana anthology, A Secret Guide to Fighting Elder Gods, with Seanan McGuire’s “Away Game.”
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.