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 Lucy Snyder’s “Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars,” first published in Scott Gable and C. Dombrowski’s Ride the Star Wind anthology of Lovecraftian space opera in 2017. Spoilers ahead.
Simply meeting the blister-eyed gaze of a spawn twists your brains.
Beatrice Munoz boards the warship Apocalypse Treader as a Special Space Operations recruit. Waiting for a briefing, she notices many more recruits than the mission requires—evidently the brass expects a heavy dropout rate. The one recruit she most wants to avoid sits down beside her, a “mountain of Kentucky meat covered in cheesy heavy metal tattoos and badly erased White Power symbols.” He introduces himself as Joe Jorgensen. She growls, “This. Seat. Is. Taken.”
It’s his ink, right? Please let him explain: He’s noticed her glares and wants to preemptively remove any impediment to future teamwork. Beatrice’s experience with Joe’s type includes insults thrown from trucks, an uncle beaten up, a cousin shot. But his promise that he’s changed, that he’ll lay down his life for his comrades of all colors, convinces her to listen. Joe’s father taught him hate, and Joe ate it up until the attack on San Angelo, Texas. Bea knows the name—it was a primary target of the Azathoth spawn, which left nearly 120,000 dead or catatonic. Including Joe’s whole family. After that, he vowed to channel his violent tendencies into protecting all humanity. And Beatrice? Has she ever seen a spawn?
She has, and knows that simply meeting its gaze breaks minds. Usually into madness. More rarely, when the brain’s already deformed, spawn-gaze turns it not more healthy per se but more perceptive, more “connected to the dark matter of the cosmos.” Beatrice knows she’s not the same person who went to the International Lunar Research Station to study the effect of low gravity on plant alkaloids. That person meant to be a botanist like her father, Giacomo Rappaccini Munoz. That person would never have enlisted, as post-spawn Beatrice has.
Beatrice and Joe bump fists, agreed on one thing: The spawn of Azathoth must never reach Earth again.
At the briefing, Lt. Colonel Mercedes Patel tells the recruits they’re embarked on WWIII. She feels obliged to give them a chance to back out; those who continue in special space service will never return to Earth, for fear of contaminating its ecosphere.
This announcement doesn’t shock Beatrice. She always figured they’d attack the spawn with biological weapons. A quarter of the recruits quit. She and Joe successfully undergo batteries of physical and psychological tests. What disturbs Beatrice most is the twelve hours she “loses” during one test—what happened during that time? Joe similarly lost hours. He speculates they were subjected to truth serum, with memory loss a side effect.
One day Beatrice wakes back in her bunk at the International Lunar Research Station. Her smartwatch shows the exact date and time when spawn attacked the moon. It must be a test, a trick. Yet everything looks the same, down to the now-lost photo of her father taped over her desk, admiring his blue-flowering roses. She slips that into a pocket and hurries to the greenhouse and the plants she’s raising, pink oleander and white devil’s weed and purple nightshade, all poisonous but genetically modified to boost their medicinal properties. In her post-spawn nightmares the plants are blasted, blossoms blackened like dead stars. Here, now, they’re fine.
But on the floor is a mass of protoplasm emitting a brain-drilling buzz. Its colors shift prismatically, none earthly. It rises, advances. In nightmare she’d freeze as the spawn devours her with acidic slime. Here, now, she slashes the thing with a cultivator, then flings quicklime. The spawn melts under the corrosive, but it’s managed to sting her with a pseudopod. Soon its invasive cells will melt her into a monster like itself.
Beatrice prefers death to transformation. She stumbles among her plants, swallowing flowers with enough toxins to kill a dozen people. Hallucinations and unconsciousness ensue, but not death. She wakes to find her hands and arms turned greenish-blue. She follows the sound of buzzing to an interrogation room with a one-way mirror.
In the corner is another spawn. Beatrice tries to scream, and coughs out blue-black spores. They cling to the recoiling spawn, raise nodules that burst into seedlings. Roots spread through protoplasm like strangling kudzu, annihilating the abomination.
Only a root-ball remains, toward which Beatrice feels oddly protective. Patel appears in the one-way mirror. Beatrice has passed her final exam. She’s proven that spawn survivors, on second exposure, may develop enhancements unique to their genetic makeup. Now she’ll command her own ship crewed by remote-controlled android drones, as well as one human who can stand up to her poisons.
Beatrice rages at being turned into a bioweapon, but makes the best of it by demanding a greenhouse in which to raise her root-ball. Soon she’s boarding the Flechette, where she’s met by six drones and a tall lieutenant with skin crocodile-rough, charred, seemingly stapled together. Yet she recognizes Joe. How did he survive such injuries?
He didn’t, Joe answers. He’s here anyway.
As he introduces her crew, Beatrice smells his lifeless stink. She’s relieved because her pollen can’t infect dead cells. Like Joe, she can hear every spawn massing among the stars; like Joe, she’s ready to go kill the bastards.
Ready, too, to plant her trees on a thousand planets. Among them, she’ll never be alone.
What’s Cyclopean: Earthly dangers are contrasted with eldritch in their colors: Beatrice’s poisonous flowers are soft pink, white and blue; the spawn are indescribable colors: “…it seems to change shade as it bubbles, but none of its vile hues would be seen on a living Earth creature.”
The Degenerate Dutch: It takes an invasion of inhuman terrors to convince Joe that his fellow humans really are human. He’s covered his swastika tattoo with an American flag, but kept some of his other tattoos as reminders.
Mythos Making: The spawn of Azathoth have discovered the universe’s maximally disturbing reproductive strategy.
Libronomicon: Beatrice’s notes are enough to reconstruct the healing poisons of oleander, devil’s weed, moonflowers, belladonna.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Looking at spawn leads to depression, mania, anxiety, and psychotic breaks. And, sometimes, epiphanies.
This past weekend at Balticon, one of my panels got into a debate about whether an alien threat would finally drive humanity to species-wide cooperation, or whether we’d take it as an excuse for further division. (You, neighbor, seem to have some odd ideas. Are you a Martian sympathizer?) For Lovecraft, it’s clearly the latter: Humanity’s divided into the few who are Right and Civilized, and those scary people over there who are trying to wake Cthulhu. It’s the outside threat that justifies our prejudices and makes our divisions so necessary.
So when Snyder starts out with a neo-Nazi converted by traumatic encounter with eldritch abomination, it’s… pointed. I love the way Snyder handles this: The story remains centered on Beatrice, not Joe’s redemption, while showing very clearly what’s required for such a redemption. He takes responsibility for his past, takes action to atone, and doesn’t demand absolution (or even unearned politeness) from those he would have harmed. He’s willing to do whatever’s needed to defend humanity. All of humanity.
Beatrice has lost different things than Joe has, and is going through a different sort of story. Where he’s learned who’s worth fighting for, she’s become willing to fight. She, like most of those few who survived the spawn, has lost a degree of innocence. Kind of like her namesake (and possible AU ancestress?) Beatrice Rappaccini.
I may have mentioned my love for poisonous women of all sorts, and my frustration with Hawthorne’s conflation of innocence and ignorance—his Beatrice is pure because she knows nothing of botany. Snyder’s Beatrice was getting her doctorate in the healing power of poisons, and her eventual superpowers stem (so to speak) directly from that study. She’s the perfect hybrid of Hawthorne’s Beatrice and Pamela Isley.
And what she does with those powers… backing up, the spawn are creepy as a cordyceps, or a parasitic wasp, one of those delightful organisms that breeds by turning you into itself. They seem particularly vicious about it, too, though they may in fact be every bit as mindless as their… whatever Azathoth is to them. Not only does their touch bring physical transformation, but their gaze brings terror and madness. They’re not just parasites but basilisks, the archetypal Thing Man Wasn’t Meant to Know. They remind me of some of Stross’s monsters, extradimensional invaders who seep in through solving the wrong equation or looking at the wrong diagram. (And note how Beatrice describes her initial glare at Joe: a “basilisk stare.”)
Beatrice turns the threat around, seeding the spawn with invasive Earth life. Instead of a mind-breaking, body-transforming abomination, now you have a root ball that might not look out of place at your local plant nursery. (But please, please don’t take it home and put it in your garden.) So Beatrice’s poisons, meant to be diluted and used to heal mundane afflictions, are now concentrated to heal a threat to the entire planet. But this gets even more circular—the spawn, poison to Earth, are also able to heal with the right combination of dose and victim. Just ask Joe. So… could the transformed spawn root eventually be tinctured into a cure for humanity’s internal ills? I suspect Beatrice will do her best to find out.
There’s apparently a serial following from this story. I don’t think I can resist meeting its gaze.
First, with Priya Sharma’s “Fabulous Beasts,” we had venomous snakes. Now, with Lucy Snyder’s “Blossoms Blackened like Dead Stars,” we have poisonous plants. I’m just having a party here with all my favorite fauna and flora. Add the marriage of “Rappaccini’s Daughter” to the Cthulhu Mythos, plus space marines, and I’m definitely having too much fun. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Quite the opposite—keep ‘em coming, contemporary fabulists!
Snyder is upfront about the tie between her story and Hawthorne’s. The protagonist is named Beatrice, as is Rappaccini’s daughter. The fathers of both Beas are Giacomo Rappaccini, with Snyder giving her dad the nice fillip of a second familial name: Munoz. Who was the died-but-not-dead doctor in Lovecraft’s “Cool Air.” Hawthorne’s and Lovecraft’s doctors both do mad science heavy on the hubris, and pay for it in personal suffering. Snyder’s Joe Jorgensen somehow ends up, like Lovecraft’s Munoz, a high-functioning if grotesque corpse. Hawthorne’s and Snyder’s Beatrices both tend deadly toxic plants, prominent among them one with purple flowers; the end result is they become deadly toxic themselves, hence poignantly isolated from other humans. There are probably interweavings among the three tales I’ve overlooked.
One card Snyder plays that wasn’t even remotely in Hawthorne’s deck is the major arcanum AZATHOTH. Wikipedia tells me Lovecraft made a note in 1919 that Azathoth was “a hideous name.” Aw, Howard, it’s not that bad. Trips off the tongue, in fact, if a bit lispishly. Later the same year, Howard wrote down a story idea about “the far daemon-sultan Azathoth” who sits on a “nighted throne.” Or at least has a nighted throne, even if It doesn’t so much sit as slump, slither, shiver, ooze or quake. Azathoth is chief of the Outer Gods, because ultimate primogeniture, It came First. It’s the primal Primal. Nuclear chaos beyond angled space and the “ordered” universe, where It “blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity!” It’s “boundless!” It “gnaws hungrily,” in “inconceivable, unlighted chambers… amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin, monotonous whine of accursed flutes!” “Nameless paws,” by the way, hold the flute, and “a flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers” encircle Azathoth. Who’s also mindless, and blind, and idiotic, hence the perfect leader (see Ultimate Primogeniture above.)
But what does Azathoth look like? Tough one. Maybe like one of Its spawn, as described so nicely by Snyder? Bubbly and protoplasmic and pseudopodded, with shifting coloration as enigmatic to human visual perception as the Color Out of Space’s. With blistered eyes, or eyes that resemble blisters, either of which could connote blindness. We could quibble that all of us, every species of every geological and cosmic era, are Azathoth’s spawn, since It is the primal Primal. But let’s stick with Snyder’s spawn.
A characteristic they don’t share with Azathoth is mindlessness—hey, they pilot hyperspatial vessels made of crazy-useful ceramic matrixy stuff! I assume, too, that they write the best user’s manuals of all time and space, since humans are able to duplicate their technology in a mere eight years. Instead of annihilating the AzSpawn, we should make peace so Earth companies can hire them as technical writers and instruction sheet artists.
The trouble with making peace with Mythosian creatures is, as always, how beyond our human understanding they are. Mind-blastingly beyond it—one glimpse can leave us comatose, catatonic or at least babblingly insane. Exposed to spawn, the “lucky” ones have only to deal with anxiety, depression, nightmares, despair and suicidal ideation. Perhaps the many “survivors” who commit suicide are the “luckier” ones. Perhaps the “long-term” survivors with the genetic predisposition to morph on second exposure into spawn-killers are not the “luckiest” ones. As Beatrice realizes, a spawn-killer must always be alone, too biohazardous to return to human society.
On the other hand, Beatrice is much luckier than her Hawthornian namesake, another extreme biohazard. She has transformed (transformation again!) into the potential Mother of All Supertoxic Hybrid Botanicals. Let her root-balls and spore-seeds prosper and Bea need never be alone.
Luck is hers in another way. Her newfound buddy Joe can go along on her ship—even though he’s remained basically human, he’s also dead, so even Bea can’t kill him. Sure, he’s charred and stapled, but he’s retained his sense of purpose, and sense of humor.
Now that’s my kind of undead.
Next week, we return to the temptations of the King in Yellow, with Anya Martin’s “Old Tsah-Hov.” You can find it in Cassilda’s Song.
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.