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 Adam Gauntlett’s “New Build,” first published in The Private Life of Elder Things in 2011. Spoilers ahead.
The massive coiled hound, its red eyes gleaming, was new to her. It lurked near the tunnel entrance, posed in such a way that it seemed to be staring at the train as it went by.
Maidah, a junior at her London architectural firm, is working on her first solo rebuild, an 1880s Victorian in the gentrifying Hoxton District. She and Mike, boss of the clean-up crew, inspect the property. What would look a wreck to most people smells like money to Maidah, who envisions a trendy restaurant. Mike worries about damp and asbestos. Damp probably, says Maidah, who’s practically memorized the surveyor’s report, asbestos no. What she wants to check is a basement room the surveyor couldn’t access.
The basement’s surprisingly clean and airy. The one rubbish heap obscures the door to the “inaccessible” room, but Maidah and Mike shift it without much trouble and lean into a mystery: a storeroom plastered into the smooth convexity of an egg’s interior, walls featureless except for odd drawings like algebraic equations. Maidah pokes through a pile of old clothing. Monk’s robes? No, too elaborate with their gold threading and pseudo-Egyptian design. There are also silver headbands and a pine-cone-topped staff.
She’s not thrilled. The room screams bad press, fodder for conspiracy nuts and ghost-hunters. Best Mike burn the wizardly paraphernalia and knock out the crazy plasterwork.
Back at her office, Maidah’s visited by firm founder Malcolm Hughes, who’s not only a “lecherous old sod” but a boss who always squirms out of tough situations by blaming others. He asks if she found anything unusual at Angell Street. No, Maidah lies. After Hughes leaves, she calls Mike to make sure he’s seen to the basement room. Mike says yes. But in fact he’s kept the wizardly paraphernalia. He’s always loved mysteries; besides, it might be worth something.
At Angell Street mysteries multiply. A tagger paints a vicious dog by the main entrance, where workers should have caught him in the act. A young woman’s mangled corpse turns up on the building site. Riding to work, Maidah spots a new train tunnel graffito: a massive red-eyed hound.
Turning to the “wilder recesses” of Google, Mike discovers an associate of Aleister Crowley’s once owned the Angell Street house. Nuttall and Crowley established a “temple” there, and a pub called “The Hound”; a photo shows them dressed in priestly robes, Crowley holding the staff from the basement room. Mike’s research identifies the staff as a Thyrsus, a fertility or phallic symbol. At the work site he finds the tagger’s painted another black hound, jaws oozing cobalt acid. More worrying, the second graffito’s right where the dead girl was found. He considers telling the coppers, or Maidah, but decides against it.
Maidah’s dismayed when Hughes takes over the Angell Street project. Why should a senior interest himself in this relatively small affair? Hughes airily tells her she’ll still run the job. Great, she does the hard work, he gets the credit. Head spinning, she notices her bench-mate’s monitor shows the image of a long, lean hound, just before the screen goes blank—in fact, it’s “completely fried.”
Another woman dies on Angell Street, apparently of an animal attack. Mike begins dreaming of a past Angell Street crowded with people he dares not look at, the only sound a hound’s angry baying. A third hound tag appears on the house, lolling an azure tongue between jagged teeth. Maidah inspects the cleaned-up basement room, which now has an acrid stink. Mike tries to show her the third graffito, but it’s vanished. Maidah tells him Nuttall was an architect who got big-money jobs with no great talent. After his death, his papers ended up in the firm’s archives. She agrees to look at them.
Mike reviews weird websites and learns that certain beings live in a fourth dimension, inside time, invisible to us and us invisible to them. Usually. But if someone exploits a planar weakness, the things may penetrate our dimension, see us, and hunt without ceasing. Across the street, he sees a fourth hound graffito, splayed in mid-leap, staring up at his apartment. He frantically scrolls through photos of the “egg” room equations, praying they may afford him protection. Another look outside shows him the hound’s vanished. Moved on.
Maidah pores over the Nuttall archives, amazed at drawings of wildly modernistic buildings she can’t imagine his Edwardian imagination conceiving. No mentions of hounds but many of “Tindalos,” as well as the symbols from the “egg” room.
Hughes surprises her at her snooping. He says he keeps the “more important” Nuttall papers; no one else would be interested in time-vista experiments. Nuttall thought he’d look into the past; instead he glimpsed an alien existence of “impossible, beautiful angles” to which he couldn’t do justice. Hughes aspires to bring “Tindalosian design” to proper life, to erect buildings that will earn the firm unprecedented fame. There is a slight problem with creatures that may pass through breached barriers…
Maidah’s phone rings. Mike cries: Coming out of the wall… the angles in the wall!
Papers report a third “Angell Street animal” victim: a local contractor found dead in his apartment. Meanwhile Hughes has been reassuring Maidah. The Hound may have picked up her scent, but he can keep it at bay. He takes her to the basement room, restored to egg-like convexity, the breach she caused resealed. There she must remain, anglelessly naked, safe even if the Hound looks for nearby breach points. Hughes will supply her needs. Then, danger past, they can discuss her future with the firm—he’s always fancied taking an apprentice.
And, in the far distance, “a dog wailed its hatred at the unfeeling stars.”
What’s Cyclopean: The hounds themselves get the full force of the story’s descriptive passages: “Cobalt, acidic liquid dripped from its mouth, little smoking stains carefully painted at ground level…”
The Degenerate Dutch: The Polish-speaking gaffer who probably understands the health and safety lecture… almost certainly has to be an homage to the Polish immigrant community in Arkham, right?
Mythos Making: There’s still no good way to avoid angles. Especially when the architect of the building you’re working on is against you.
Libronomicon: Modern occult research involves fewer restricted library stacks, and more visits to Ghostquester.co.uk. (No, we haven’t checked that link. We’re genre-savvy.)
Madness Takes Its Toll: The hound has “eyes as crazy as a full moon.”
Looking back, as if through vast vistas of time, I see that Frank Belknap Long’s “Hounds of Tindalos” was the first story we discussed that was neither by Lovecraft nor a Lovecraft collaboration or revision. It also has the distinction of being the first extra-Lovecraftian Mythos tale. Many writers have been inspired to tackle its inutterably vile canines; last December we covered China Miéville’s excellent “Details,” in which the “hounds” do poor humanity one better by appearing in any sort of pattern, whether they have angles or not. Bad dogs!
We’ve assembled quite the fantastic zoo these last few weeks, what with Rodoreda’s salamander and Sharma’s serpents and now Gauntlett’s version of the Hounds. As I’m a herpetophile, neither the salamander nor the snakes scared me. Is there such a thing as a salamander phobia? I suppose so, but Rodoreda’s newt is so harmless and hapless, who could fear it? Only the people who know it’s a shape-shifted witch and who, apparently, don’t think that’s one of the coolest things ever. Sharma’s snakes are also shape-shifted humans, not at all hapless—or harmless. But can anyone but an ophidophobe not applaud her “monsters” as they wreak vengeance on their oppressor and make new lives for themselves?
The Hounds of Tindalos are shape-shifters of a terribly different sort than the salamander-witch and the weresnakes. There is nothing human about them. As their creator Long describes them, they are the seeds of a terrible deed done at the beginning, the concentrated foulness of the universe expressed through angles. In their “native” form, then, they’d be incomprehensible to us—we would have to “translate” them into shapes, morphologies, our human eyes and brains could handle. We would have to create a metaphor for them.
How interesting that the universal metaphor across human-Tindalosian encounters should be the dog. Dogs are our best friends in the animal world, right? Loyalty embodied. Guards of our herds, defenders of our families and homes, assistants in our hunts, finders of our lost and dead, trackers of criminals, pest-banes, guides and helpers to the blind and mobility-challenged, companions. Companions especially, and dearly beloved in that role. My bottom-line contention: Even accounting for cynophobes and the bitten or mauled, “good” dogs far outnumber “bad” dogs in the overall human imagination.
The subgroup of dogs called hounds, now. They have to contend with the verb derived from their hunting prowess. To hound means to pursue relentlessly, to pester, to persecute, to harass. Two common idioms are to hound someone to death or to the grave. Hellhounds feature in mythologies around the world. You ain’t nothin but a hound dog is not a compliment. And hounds per se are not the only hunters in the dog world. All wild canines are predators, in packs their prey would justifiably view as “relentless” and “harassing.” Domesticated dogs gone feral can be an even greater danger to their erstwhile “best friends.” So dogs aren’t all cuddly puppies and faithful pets. It makes sense that when a human encounters a Tindalosian, his mind is boggled by its angularity but does clearly perceive its essential hunger, malice and implacability, hallmarks of the predator that can’t be shaken. Hence he “sees” it as a fierce canine, names it a HOUND.
At least that’s how Halpin Chalmers, Long’s original “seer” of Tindalosians, saw and named the terrors. I guess Long could have styled his conceptions the Tigers of Tindalos, or Grizzlies, or Sharks, or Ferrets. Hound has the advantage, though, of that powerful associated verb. Hound gets my vote if we can’t go with “Sam the World’s Ugliest Dog of Tindalos.” Google Sam if you want to have a true Chalmersian experience.
Concerning Gauntlett’s economically evocative “New Build,” I could dwell on caveats against ever (EVER, EVER!) altering a room that’s been plastered to look like the inside of an egg; however, our readers already know better. Instead, I’ll congratulate him on the notion of Hounds leaving behind “footprints” not in blue stinking protoplasm (not that protoplasm doesn’t rock) but in urban-appropriate graffiti tags of superlative quality if unstable duration. I imagine a Hound acid-seeping its image into a wall from the inside out, or maybe acid-blasting it onto a surface in the energetic burst of its materialization. Either or any way, it seems to deliberately advertise its presence and movements to intended victims. Terror would be just the spicy brine in which a Hound preferred to marinate its victims.
Me, I’m more scared of boss Hughes than Hounds. I don’t think it’s an apprenticeship in architectural design he has in mind for poor Maidah, the lecherous (Crowleian?) sod.
Final, desperate screams really do work better by phone than by scribbled note. That alone would make Gauntlett’s hounds scarier than Long’s originals, which on their own failed to live up to the terror of their premise. The hounds of “New Build” are more overtly canine, at least in the aspect we can perceive, but their relentless hunt is terrifying in the degree to which it manages to mix impersonal fate with a very personal focus.
Impersonal, because the hounds are still a force of nature—all it takes for them to latch on to you is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s the essential injustice of a cosmic horror universe, given something resembling flesh and teeth. Not that the essential injustice of a cosmic horror universe doesn’t often take tangible form, whether it’s hungry colors or hogs.
But once the hounds latch on, it’s personal. They seem to take pleasure in the chase as much as the catching. Almost stalkerish, which makes Hughes’ predatory symbiosis with them even creepier. Is leveraging murderous eldritch abominations to force yourself on a woman and ruin her career worse than the mundane version? Or is this just a reminder that fellow humans can be just as “inhumanly” destructive as creatures born from physics we know not? That they can have perspectives so far from our own that they become deadly, inimical to our very existence?
I swear, one of these weeks we’ll read a story about some human douchebag with symbolic parallels to eldritch abominations, and it won’t be a rehash of current events. This is not that week.
The whole thing is an interesting choice for a male author. Gauntlett doesn’t do a terrible job portraying sexual harassment or showing the parallels with the hounds. There’s none of the salacious titillation that’s the highest-risk failure mode in this type of thing, and a story about the Hounds of Tindalos is inevitably a story about predators who are inescapable. However, I found Maidah’s abrupt loss of agency after Hughes reveals the hounds’ nature frustrating—how easily she appears to accept the explanations of someone she has no reason to trust, how little struggle she puts in other than the one he scripts. I can’t help feeling that most female writers would have given her the gift of that struggle, even if it was necessarily, thematically doomed.
And perhaps other writers, too: Along with last week’s self-rescuing fabulous serpents, I was put in mind of Miéville’s Mrs. Miller, who would have made an excellent mentor to Maidah if she needed to apprentice to someone. Fighting doesn’t always mean winning—but it does mean that once you learn what you’re up against, you do something more than surrender. Hughes gets things all too easy here, and I hope he gets eaten by his ‘collaborators’ very soon after the end of the story. After all, misogynists getting eaten by grues is a longstanding tradition.
Next week, we return to the Shirley Jackson Award shortlist and the fertile ground of the single-author collections: You can find “Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars” in Lucy Snyder’s Garden of Eldritch Delights. (Note: This is the short story, but there’s apparently also a serial novel of the same title expanding from the original.)
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.