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 Jorge Luis Borges’ “There Are More Things,” first published in Spanish in El Libro de Arena (The Book of Sand) in 1975. Our translation is by Andrew Hurley, and first appeared in Collected Fictions in 1998. Spoilers ahead.
Let me explain: In order truly to see a thing, one must first understand it.
Unnamed narrator prefaces his “terrifying adventure” with reminiscences of uncle Edwin Arnett, an engineer who retired to the Argentine town of Turdera near Buenos Aires. There, Arnett hired architect friend Alexander Muir to build a house in outlandish style, all peaked roof, slate tiles, “stingy” windows and square clocktower. There, in his idiosyncratic way, he introduced our young narrator, later a philosopher, to “the lovely perplexities of the discipline.” Arnett himself was a lovely perplexity, for though an agnostic himself, he debated theology with strict Protestant Muir for many enjoyable years. He was interested in the fourth dimension and the “well-thought-out nightmares” of H. G. Wells.
Arnett died while narrator was completing his doctoral studies in Texas. The Red House was sold to a foreigner named Max Preetorius. Preetorius immediately tossed out Arnett’s furniture and books and tried to get Muir to remodel the interior. Muir refused, outraged. At last a Buenos Aires firm undertook the job. For furnishings Preetorius also had to go out of town, to a carpenter called Mariani who worked behind closed doors. The new residents moved in by night. Afterwards the windows were never opened. Arnett’s sheepdog turned up dead one morning, mutilated and decapitated. No one ever saw Preetorius again.
In 1921, narrator returns to Turdera. He’s disturbed by the reports of the altered Red House; “notoriously curious,” he’s determined to look into the matter. He first visits Muir, who admits the altered Red House keeps him from sleeping at night. He’ll tell narrator all, which isn’t much. He starts with a story of how the mayor of Turderas wanted him to design a Catholic chapel. What, was Muir to “commit the abomination of erecting altars for the worship of idols”? Certainly not. And so he couldn’t take Preetorius’s commission to “put up a monstrosity in [the Red House’s] place.” Narrator must understand: “Abomination takes many forms.”
Heading home, narrator meets Daniel Iberra, a “hellion” and teller of apocryphal barroom tales. As they approach the Red House, Iberra turns aside. Why? Well, the other night Iberra saw something near it. Something that spooked his horse. Something that made him duck into another street. What the something was—
But Iberra breaks off, shaking his head and cursing.
Later, narrator dreams he’s examining an engraving of a cypress-circled labyrinth without doors or windows, only narrow vertical slits. Through one he spies a Minotaur, “the monster of a monster,” stretched out dreaming. But of what, or whom? The next evening he walks by the Red House’s locked gate. In the weedy garden, there’s a shallow ditch with trampled banks.
Narrator next visits carpenter Mariani, whose work-creed is “to meet the client’s demands, no matter how outrageous.” He met Preetorius’s demands, but opines the man was “not quite right.” After confiding that no money could get him back to the Red House, Mariani clams up as tight as Muir and Iberra.
Narrator continues to prowl around the Red House. Sometimes he glimpses white light inside. Sometimes he thinks he hears moaning. One evening, a thunderstorm drives him to check the gate, which he finds unlocked along with the front door. Inside, patchy grass has replaced floor tiles. A sweet, nauseating odor prevails. A stone ramp leads to a dining room and library combined into one incomprehensible space littered with—furniture? See, narrator explains: “In order truly to see a thing, one must first understand it. An armchair implies the human body, its joints and members,” but a “savage cannot really perceive the missionary’s Bible; the passenger doesn’t see the same ship’s rigging as the crew.” These “insensate forms” fill him with horror and revulsion.
A ladder to the second floor is less alien, for all its irregularly spaced iron rungs. He climbs into a greater nightmare. Here there’s a “U-shaped piece of furniture like an operating table, very high, with circular openings at the extremes.” Is it a bed, and if so, for what “monstrous anatomy,” from what “secret regions of astronomy or time”?
Narrator feels he’s “intruded, uninvited, into chaos.” He retreats down the ladder. He must get out before the resident monster returns.
His foot’s on the last rung when he hears something “heavy and slow and plural” coming up the stone ramp. Curiosity overcomes fear, and he does not close his eyes.
What’s Cyclopean: Borges is precise in his descriptions; my favorite is the “ruinous room” in the Red House—basically the eldritch terror of an open floor plan.
The Degenerate Dutch: Muir refers to the mysterious Max Preetorius as “that Jewish whelp” and says that “abomination takes many forms.” Muir is a jackass, and the story seems to expect the reader to recognize that.
Mythos Making: No Lovecraftian entities appear, but the story’s form echoes many of Lovecraft’s.
Libronomicon: Our narrator has fond memories of philosophical study with his uncle, notably including Hinton’s treatises on the fourth dimension.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Mariani suggests Preetorius was “not quite right.”
No, wait! You can’t just leave off there! I mean, you can—Borges is three decades dead, and is not going to write the extra three or four pages I want from this story without a great deal of necromantic support and a serendipitous find of essential saltes. But while I can appreciate a story that leaves things to the imagination, I would like a little more suggestion. A little more support for the idea that the Red House’s current inhabitants are something other than a couple of stranded interdimensional tourists trying to have a little comfort at home. The build-up is intriguing; the mere existence of alien furniture leaves something to be desired as a denouement.
Even if narrator gets to see… something? Someone? I’m not being entirely fair to the denouement, since we do get some hint in the fact that the amphisbaena suggests but doesn’t fully capture his later encounter. (For those following along in back, that would be a dragon with an extra head on its tail, born from the blood of Medusa and which, anticlimactically, eats ants. What better way to solve your household pest problems?) But we also know he survives the encounter, and doesn’t seem too horribly perturbed by it. Which makes this particular reader less perturbed, and more curious about these poor aliens living in the middle of a human city, with no decent chairs to be found anywhere outside their own home.
But perhaps this is Borges’ point: that Lovecraft’s protagonists react with catastrophic horror partly because their lives and literature haven’t prepared them for the existence of “more things.” Borges’ narrator is a scholar of philosophy, someone who learned new ways of seeing the universe at a young age, in this very house. His introductions to alternate dimensions and paradoxes were loving and familial, remembered fondly. The not-amphisbaena, then, is an appropriate inheritor of his uncle’s estate, another chapter in expansion of mental boundaries rather than an unreservedly horrific intrusion through the shards of a brittle worldview.
So how does Preetorius figure into all this? Architect Muir calls him a “Jewish whelp,” which naturally put my back up. However, Borges was himself the polar opposite of antisemitic, a non-Jew who loved and promoted Jewish culture throughout his career. That suggests that Muir’s prejudice is intended to give us sympathy with Preetorius rather than (as it would have for Lovecraft) to turn us against him. By extension, that invites sympathy with the strange creatures he appears to have been helping. Imagine these serpentine creatures seeking out an agent, someone who could act on their behalf to find a suitable residence and get it furnished in livable style. There’s a whole extra story there that I’d very much love to read. I’m kind of imagining it in the style of a turn-of-the-century Jewish humorist, Preetorius full of Yiddish expletives as he ponders the demands of a very peculiar customer.
I’m coming around to an appreciation of this story, with its subtle critiques and deconstructions and even subtler Lovecraftian references, a whispered counterpoint to the stories that scream the all-caps names of elder gods. Things like the casual listing of scholarly sources, mirroring the libraries of Lovecraft’s own characters. Or like the exoticized roof of the Red House—not the familiar flat-topped architecture of Buenos Aires, but “a peaked roof of slate tiles.” That’s right, the house is gambreled. At that point, you know the creepy stuff can’t be far behind.
In his Afterword to The Book of Sand, Borges writes:
Fate, which is widely known to be inscrutable, would not leave me in peace until I had perpetrated a posthumous story by Lovecraft, a writer I have always considered an unwitting parodist of Poe. At last I gave in; the lamentable result is titled ‘There Are More Things.’
An unwitting parodist of Poe! Ouch. Or would Howard have smiled, wondering if that fate was better than Borges’ of being a witting Lovecraft parodist, with “lamentable result.” Oh, Jorge, the story’s not lamentable. It’s quite interesting, in fact, and demonstrates more than a superficial grasp of Lovecraft’s themes—his obsessions, if you will, some of which inform Borges’s own work. For instance, the vagaries of time and space, as seen from the limited human perspective; for instance, what marvels or monstrosities might exist outside our everyday perception. Borges’s story is explicitly “To the memory of H. P. Lovecraft,” but his title comes from Hamlet’s observation to his friend: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Presumably, Horatio’s philosophy would not have included a fourth dimension. One “promoter” of that concept is given prominent mention in “There are More Things”: Charles Howard Hinton, British mathematician and author of what he called “scientific romances.” He also coined the term “tesseract,” a fourth-dimensional analogue of a three-dimensional cube. One of Borges’s narrator’s most memorable experiences with his uncle is trying to visualize the fourth dimension via the “prisms and pyramids” they created on the floor of his study. Significantly, narrator’s dream features an engraving in the style of Piranesi, the 18th-century artist celebrated not only for his depictions of Roman architecture but for his collection called Imaginary Prisons. These “caprices” pictured structures cobbled together of architectural elements in distorted, even impossible geometries. Coleridge apparently told Thomas de Quincey that Piranesi’s prisons captured Coleridge’s own fever-delirious visions, what with their plethora of engines and machinery and stairways leading to nowhere but thin air. Think eye and mind overcome by incomprehensible angles and unguessable uses, as are narrator’s by the bespoke “furniture” in his uncle’s former abode.
Uncle Arnett is also said to have been an admirer of H. G. Wells, whose Time Machine helped popularize the concept that time is the fourth Euclidean dimension. Nephew narrator muses that “time—that infinite web of yesterday, today, the future, forever, never—is the only true enigma.”
Okay, I think I’m getting somewhere, in suitably nonlinear fashion. Specifically with time, as in “The Shadow Out of” it, which is the Lovecraft story “There are More Things” recalls to me most strongly. Borges plays with lots of Lovecraftian tropes here: the unnamed narrator, of course; the esteemed relative who departs leaving mysteries for narrator to unravel; multiple interviews that tantalize more than they inform; alienation visited on narrator’s psyche by, yeah, alien stuff, inhuman design; the final devastating vision. On the Unnameable/Indescribable trope, Borges outdoes Lovecraft, as Lovecraft generally does Name and Describe his horrors, either with frantic obliqueness or unflinching scientific detail. None of the informants Borges’s narrator pursues will give him a straight answer about what so disturbs them about the Red House post-Arnett. Narrator gives the reader no straight answer—no answer at all, actually. He sees something, because his eyes are open. Aaaand—Borges closes with that. We, the readers, get to imagine whatever we want, which many will find a slap in the face, a cheat. Huh, dude insults Howard with that Poe remark, then can’t pull off a “posthumous” Lovecraft himself. He’s right about perpetrating a literary crime!
Or he’s giving us a gift? Of solving the riddle of references for ourselves? Of doing our own imagining of the unimaginable sight?
Here’s my solution and imagining. What narrator sees is a—Yith! In full-blown cone-ass shape, not abducted human form! See, there’s a human who buys and sets up the Red House, but not for himself—he vanishes after the work’s done. That’s because Preetorius is a member of the Yithian cult that provides their time-voyagers with pre- and post-jump services. In this case he has to provide his “client” with suitable furnishings—also that ramp and funky ladder. Because cones don’t do stairs, any more than the barrel-torsoed Elder Things do. Ramps as means of vertical locomotion are practically synonymous in Lovecraft with ALIEN MORPHOLOGY. Uncle’s sheepdog gets messily killed (in Yith self-defense) because dogs always HATE LOVECRAFTIAN ALIENS. It’s probably their NAUSEATING SMELL. Uncle’s village is near Buenos Aires, hence an easy trip to the University library and its 17th-century Latin copy of THE NECRONOMICON, which Yith are always wanting to consult. In the Red House garden is a weird shallow ditch with trampled sides; semi-imprisoned Yith need somewhere to pace, right? And TIME, the Yith’s technological-magical specialty, is narrator’s “only true enigma”!
My added twist: The Yith in the Red House is actually UNCLE EDWIN! See, a Yith tried to steal Arnett’s body, the usual way, but something went terribly wrong. Instead of minds switching places, bodies did! The Yith back in time ended up with Arnett’s form, Arnett with the Yith’s! This happened while Arnett was traveling around the “remote frontier of South America” where he supposedly died of an aneurysm. Nope, that story’s a cover-up perpetrated by cultist Preetorius, who now also has to house a Yith-bodied human. Arnett, once apprised of his situation, naturally wants to hide in his own Red House. So Preetorius buys it, makes Arnett’s refuge comfortable for his new exterior, and leaves sheepdog Johnson there at Arnett’s request—but that doesn’t work out well. Arnett’s usually stays in the garden, where he’s paced a trench, but occasionally ventures out to inadvertently scare nightowl villagers. And naturally he doesn’t kill narrator when he catches him trespassing in the Red House—narrator’s his own beloved nephew!
Only trouble is, why would Preetorius throw out Arnett’s books. Maybe he did it before Arnett could protest. But wouldn’t Arnett want replacement books at least, like the latest H. G. Wells? Finally, how to account for the “heavy and slow and plural” sound narrator hears on the ramp? “Plural,” by the way, is the BEST word in the story, so ominous and imagination-provoking.
I don’t know. Maybe Uncle Edwin’s brought a cultist home, or some unspeakable midnight snacks. Or both! If you’re going PLURAL, might as well go PLURAL.
Next week we both continue our exploration of translations and return to The Weird with Mercè Rodoreda’s “The Salamander.”
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.