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 Inoue Masahiko’s “Night Voices, Night Journeys,” translated by Edward Lipsett. This version is first published in Asamatsu Ken’s 2002 Night Voices, Night Journeys anthology; the publication date of the original Japanese version is surprisingly difficult to track down—or at least we haven’t managed it. Spoilers ahead.
His fingers, newly elongated, bizarrely entangled one in the others, made his hands like a soft-bodied organism in shape as well as translucency. She felt the touch of countless tiny suckers on her face, but what she felt was not fear.
Unnamed narrator lies on the backseat of her master’s limousine, awash in his beloved jazz, spread out to his touch. He’s far from the first man who has possessed her. Ah, but all “who opened her body lost themselves in obscene pursuits. As if falling into cosmic chaos… [It] was nothing she desired; nothing she could comprehend. Not even her own existence, nor the terrible fate that awaited them.”
Her master’s fingers roam, then freeze. He looks at his hands as if seeing for the first time how the fingers have elongated into translucent, sucker-lined things. She doesn’t fear them. Worse things have crawled over her skin.
They exit the limo beside a canal. The night’s oddly foggy; through the white veil they view the city skyline, skyscrapers and mansions in every style brought in by colonial masters. Shanghai, the Foreigners’ Castle, Paris of the Orient, City of Demons. Her master says he has taken it all, yet now he realizes there are some things he can never win. For him, there is no more time.
He calls narrator by the name he’s given her, his Azia. She doesn’t respond. He collapses, and his chauffeur hurries to his aid.
Back in the limo, her master looks as if he’s already rotting. Soon this particular night journey will end, and another master will claim her. Through the glass partition she studies the chauffeur. Her master calls him Qing Wa, Green Frog, for his face resembles something between a toad and a prehistoric fish. In a seaside town where narrator once lived, many people had such features. Her master then, a Westerner, hosted her current master, who repaid the hospitality by bashing his head in with a candelabra.
They arrive at her master’s luxurious art deco hotel. Tonight’s a very special night, he says. He must go change to formal attire. He’ll return shortly…
She waits in the basement cafe, where a jazz band plays. Someone asks if she wants a drink—not a waiter, for he wears the formal white suit of a playboy. Narrator’s horrified when he asks the band to play “As Time Goes By”—only her master may request that song. Playboy, undaunted, takes her hand and says that once again the modern age sweeps away the old. So he’s the usurper her master feared!
Men with guns surround them. The playboy points and causes them to freeze and bubble at the mouth. One elongates, then flips inside out, spraying narrator with blood. The rest shoot each other as the playboy hurries narrator to her master’s limo. They flee, playboy driving. A car chase ensues, complete with gun fire, spectacular stunts, crashes, explosions, ultimate escape. Playboy asks why narrator seems down—is she sorry to leave the old man, to become the possession of his killer?
Playboy’s wrong, narrator says. She’s the one who killed her master, as she’s cursed to kill all who love her.
Playboy takes narrator to a cinema, where a movie shows the fates of her former masters. The two who owned her at once, sharing her until they fell to something that howled like a monstrous hound. The necromancer decked with leaden lekythos. The young man who tried to liberate her from the iron vault where a Professor had locked her and her kin; a guard dog tore him to death. The Professor hated her, but couldn’t destroy her. She cannot die—though she is burned black, her blood will flush up, her lush skin regenerate. Narrator’s filled with pity for doomed masters, remorse for her crimes. Yet she can’t deny her simultaneous passion for the screams and curses and blood…
On the screen appears her creator, alone in the nighttime desert, shaping her from vermillion sand amid the hum of demoniac insects, poring over the Arabian Nights and crying he’s the Arab Abdul Alhazred. Next come visions of infinite chaos, abysses of terror, eroticism sweeter than death. Why was she created?
Suddenly narrator’s on the cinema stage, applauded by an audience of the flayed. Her fans, the playboy says, the recipients of her saga. He fades away, as does the audience. Qing Wa, who died in the hotel massacre, comes to drive her home.
But she hasn’t left home. The playboy-massacre-car chase-cinema sequence has all been a movie viewed with her master from his opulent bed. His degeneration has accelerated, leaving his fingers barbed tentacles. He caresses her, saying her young playboy must’ve been beautiful.
You still are, she answers, kissing him.
It’s liberation of the corpse he must achieve, he says. His tentacle-fingers course from page to page of her open body. He chants the spells, she pants as the Sacrament of darkness begins.
Eldritch chaos ensues throughout the city, as her master disintegrates like the glass shattering in his bedroom window. She lies open and undefended to the wind. The wind that could be he—no, not yet, but she believes he’ll return.
She listens for nighthawk cries, for insect howls, for the wind’s footsteps. She listens for an eternity… for the night voices of Al Azif.
What’s Cyclopean: Azia’s master’s fingers are “unique,” a claim fleshed out (so to speak) with “colorless,” “incessant,” and “ravenous.” That last adjective may not be metaphorical.
The Degenerate Dutch: Masahiko plays games with cultural tropes and stereotypes: the European-style city half-resurrected by architectural necromancy, “the chaos of Asia” under the European surface, the maybe-not-Arabic Al-Hazred, the orientalist master dressing his possession in Egyptian finery.
Mythos Making: This story doesn’t stop with the obvious Lovecraft shout-outs: Deep cuts include “The Hound” and a possible reference to Pharaohnic fave Nitocris.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Here, the madness of Al-Hazred appears to be at least partially connected with his claim to being Arabic in the first place.
My oh my, how Al Azif has grown up since we covered Kishin Houkou Demonbane back in July 2017! Surely none of us can have forgotten this anime series featuring Mythos tomes personified as pubescent girls who occasionally pilot battlemechs while Doctor West plays a mean electric guitar in the background and bookseller Nya(rlathotep) sports truly impressive breast implants. Demonbane’s Al had violet-pink hair and aqua-blue eyes, wore short frilly dresses and red ribbons, and was as adorable as a kitten on cuteness-steroids. Sophisticated elegance was about the last description I’d apply to her. Whereas it’s about the first description I’d apply to Inoue Masahiko’s personified Necronomicon.
Beyond tome-personification, similarities abound between short story and anime. Mythos tomes have multiple owners as, well, time goes by; Mythos tomes are forever, their readers mortal. Tome masters gain great power. They may fall in love with their tomes, and the personified tomes with them. At the least, sexual tension between the magical partners runs high. Mood (genre) shifts frequently in Demonbane, from Mythosian mysticism to romantic comedy to science fiction mech action. “Night Voices” opens with lyric eroticism, then becomes a multi-genre “movie” blending romance, over-the-top action, art-house surrealism and bloody horror. Actual chibi contribute humor to Demonbane. The “Night Voices” movie includes an implied “chibi” scene in the vault where tomes are housed and where they banter and call each other surprisingly cute nicknames: Nekkie for Necronomicon, Misty for De Vermis Mysteriis.
The difference in final effect between Demonbane and “Night Voices” is, however, profound. I find the anime a romp with scattered serious moments, whereas any “romping” in the story is confined to its internal “film.” Otherwise what Masahiko gives us is erotic horror, and tragedy for all parties concerned in the everlasting history of Al Azif. For “Azia’s” masters, their association never ends well, and that includes her creator Alhazred, shredded in the marketplace by invisible demons. As for Azia, she’s the opposite of the ever-active and assertive Al of Demonbane. Not only does she not understand why she was created and cursed, she’s a helpless bane to her masters, even in human form utterly passive. If she were merely an object, though, she couldn’t be tragic. An object, a plain old book, has no feelings. Azia, a book that has acquired a soul, has exquisite feelings, and a conscience. She does not act, but she does act upon anyone susceptible to her occult allure. In addition, she can’t deny that she responds to passion with passion, thrills to the sacrifices made to win her and the gods she names.
Azia doesn’t want to destroy. She does destroy. Destruction gives her pleasure. That pleasure plunges her into guilt. And no one can tell her why unless he returns—the he who was her creator, who could come again riding a wind freighted with the voices of desert night.
“Night Voices, Night Journeys” is one of those stories that profits hugely from rereading after you’ve figured out its conceit: The woman is the book, the book the woman. Figuratively only? Actually? It’s a case, I think, of You’re the reader, you decide. What’s undeniable is the cleverness of detail, such as how her master holds Azia by the spine. It’s an odd wording when talking about human anatomy, but fits perfectly for a book. Yet both humans and books do have spines.
Particular fun for the Lovecraft connoisseur is picking out the many references to his work. First hint we’re in Mythosian territory is the sea-creature deformation of “Napoleon’s” hands. Curiously Red-Hookian is Azia’s sense that “the chaos of Asia [was] ever ready to well up from the alleys running like cracks through the Western-style castles.” Not that she wouldn’t devoutly wish for such a consummation, since she’s guaranteed a high place at “the gorgeous and sacred banquet of darkness.”
Frog-featured Qing Wa comes from a town of such people, cousins without doubt to Innsmouth’s Deep Ones. Of Azia’s former masters, the movie shows one of those ghoulish comrades who succumbed to “The Hound.” Next appears Joseph Curwen, chemist-necromancer of the Georgian era, and the Puritan, and the early 20th century. Next, Wilbur Whateley, whose mean clothes couldn’t entirely hide his “wild, vital form,” but who was doomed never to see her in the unexpurgated flesh. Her unloving professorial guardian is, I presume, Dr. Armitage; the artist of rare talent, Richard Pickman; the young MD in search of an elixir, Herbert West. Directly after the sequence featuring Alhazred comes one starring the child Lovecraft, who dubbed himself by that name after reading the Arabian Nights. Masahiko pays Howard rich tribute by having Azia acknowledge him as the man whose pen gave her existence, though that’s also a bit of a meta Möbius strip: Which came first, the mad Arab or the mad Rhode Islander?
I guess it doesn’t matter, since Azia-Al Azif-Necronomicon loves all her masters. Minus that tiresomely strait-laced Armitage. He wouldn’t know a hot tome if it personified under his very nose, or fingers, by the Elder Gods!
This week introduces a whole segment of Mythos stories with which I was previously unfamiliar—we’ve covered translations before, but aside from our anniversarial animes we haven’t previously looked at Japanese Lovecraftiana. Clearly an oversight worth correcting! Night Voices, Night Journeys is the first volume of the 4-part Lairs of the Hidden Gods anthology, a cornucopia of first-time-in-English transformations. It’s unfortunately out of print and unavailable in e-book—but if the title story is any indication, it’s well worth the trouble of tracking down. Some books are worth the cost.
Asamatsu Ken, introducing the volume, describes the Mythos as “software” installed on the authorial brain. He talks about playing with the contrast between Derlethian dualities, a human attempt to force meaning on the cosmology, and acceptance of the universe Lovecraft himself described, unimpeded by human maps. It’s as good a description as any I’ve heard of the tension between the demands of cosmic horror and the demands of writing a story that will be meaningful to readers.
“Night Voices, Night Journeys” plays with that fine line, twisting it into gorgeous, non-Euclidean fractals of description. The language is breathtaking, a testament to both Masahiko’s skill and Lipsett’s. It’s up there with Sonya Taaffe’s “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” for poetry braided with story. Lovecraft’s own language was polarizing, but he was absolutely a stylist; on his best days, his sentences could be intoxicating. (On his worst—well, if you say “cyclopean” three times in a row a Yith will come through the mirror and steal your body, but if you say it eleven times the Yith throws up their claws in confusion and looks elsewhere.) Masahiko and Lipsett aren’t trying to imitate the style, but they do manage the intoxication.
Masahiko echoes Lovecraft more subtly through architectural horror: The art deco city, attracted/repulsed by European styles and pre-world-war aesthetics, feeds its master’s urges and is awakened by them as much as the narrator is. It’s a living thing, like Jemisin’s New York—but not a loving thing, no more interested in its master’s survival or success than is the universe itself. It’s “erected by cosmopolitans pursuing their colonial dreams,” a mix of Lovecraft’s nightmares and the nightmares of those who terrified him.
The actual content of the story manages several things that I’d reject in lesser hands. I’m on record as a complete sucker for femmes fatales, but I prefer my femmes more active in their deadliness. The passive narrator works here as an echo of Lovecraft’s own helpless observers of horror, with the attraction and repulsion made overtly erotic.
This is also one of the better done games of Spot the Reference we’ve encountered, happy to play with the reader but never dependent on those references for narrative power. It starts out easy: The chauffeur is obviously from Innsmouth. Then we have the pair from The Hound and Wilbur Whately climbing over the wall to Miskatonic. But the chemist who treats her like an Egyptian queen is who? The Professor—is that Peaslea’s Yith, scribbling in page margins? [ETA: Anne’s probably right about this one, even if I like my answer better.] The cursed artist doesn’t sound like Pickman, is it Frank Marsh? [ETA: I still think I’m right here; Pickman’s not a tome-reader, he just draws on his family connections. So to speak.]
More references are spotted in the room with “others of her line.” “Nekkie” hardly seems like an appropriately respectful nickname—I certainly wouldn’t dare. Who is “Misty” to be on such familiar terms? Could that be Bloch’s De Vermis Mysteriis? The Book of Eibon is easily recognizable, no diminutive there. Finally there’s her author, the dubious origins of “Al Hazred” made overt in his insistence that “I am an Arab” as he clutches a copy of the Thousand and One Nights.
We’ve seen such interactions before, as Anne mentions, in Kishin Houkou Demonbane. I’m torn between being intrigued by the anime’s potential for actual character development, and being seduced by the decadent mood-setting of “Night Voices.” I think maybe… what I want… is a crossover. Speaking of wanting things that could be a very, very bad idea.
Next week, we find more architectural horror and a translation from the Spanish in Jorge Luis Borges’ “There Are More Things.” You can find it in his collection The Book of Sand.
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.