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 David Barr Kirtley’s “The Disciple,” first published in the Summer 2002 issue of Weird Tales. Spoilers ahead–trigger warning for cruelty to animals.
“I’ve lost things in my life, so many things, but I’ve gained something too—this rotting emptiness inside me, and I can use it. I swear I can use it.”
Professor Carlton Brose is evil, and nameless narrator adores him as only a freshman can. Brose teaches at a university in Massachusetts, but people have heard of him as far away as narrator’s “dear old Carolina,” if (like narrator) they have a habit of joining cults. Narrator’s friend there tells him Brose is “the real deal.” Every spring Brose enrolls a dozen students into his special program, and they get power—before going away. Perhaps to places not of this world.
Narrator scoffs. Why would someone so awesome work at all, and what school would have him? More pertinent, why isn’t friend studying with Brose? Friend admits Brose wouldn’t have him, said he had no talent. Isn’t that final proof he’s no fraud, turning down a potential dupe?
Narrator travels to Massachusetts and hangs around Brose’s office until the man emerges. His eyes are the color of tombstones, and shadows darken in his wake. Instantly smitten, narrator enrolls in the university. When he finally meets with Brose, Narrator says he’ll do anything to get into the program; though he has no power yet, the rotting emptiness inside him has to be good for something.
All right, Brose’ll get the application form. While he’s gone, narrator examines a statue on Brose’s shelf. It resembles a man’s head with a beard and body of tentacles. Trying to pick it up, he finds it far heavier than its size warrants. Brose returns with a shoe box. Inside is the “application form,” a small white mouse. Narrator can “fill out” the “application” by drowning the mouse in a fish tank, which he does. He gains admission.
Thirteen students, mostly male, meet in an old house at the edge of campus. In a basement classroom, they have their first lesson. Brose crucifies a cat, staunches its wounds while it howls, then explains they must learn to bind their wills to another’s. Pain can point the way in, but the greater things they aspire to connect with have never felt pain. He turns to narrator and commands: “Make it bleed again.”
Narrator longs to prove himself, but whispers that he doesn’t know how. Another student doesn’t need even to look at the cat to make its paws spurt blood. Turns out he’ll be narrator’s roommate in the isolated house–his name is Adrian, and he declares he’s not in the program to make friends but to make Brose notice him. Narrator counters that Adrian may have done well with the cat, but there’s more to magic. Adrian asks wryly if he should try something bigger, then makes narrator’s nose bleed.
It’s an omen for what’s to come. Adrian’s soon Brose’s favorite, while narrator earns only the master’s indifference. Narrator notices the other faculty view Brose and his students with fear and hostility. Yet they make no effort to shut Brose’s program down.
As semester’s end approaches, Brose grows agitated. The students must work harder, so they can bind themselves to “the impossible mind of the Traveler on Oceans of Night, the Stepper Across the Stars.” Only by becoming His disciples can they journey with Him to the places He dreams into reality. Brose exhibits his black statue. Narrator notices tiny human figures among its tentacles–if the scale’s true, the Traveler must tower to mountainous heights.
Narrator starts dreaming of alien cities. One night he wakes to see Adrian on the floor, staring in terror. Adrian wails: “His boundlessness reaches across the void to poison our dreams.” The Traveler is coming.
And, narrator concludes, how much worthier of veneration is this entity than Brose! Never mind the professor’s indifference; surely he can learn to impress the Traveler.
On binding night, Brose leads his students into the woods bearing his black statue. The air crackles with magic. The statue sucks shadows from under their feet and into itself as they make their way to an ancient shrine overgrown with rotting ferns. A wind rises that seems to shriek with pain. Shadows leap from beneath the trees to block the starlight.
The Traveler appears, stretching to infinity, far away yet near. The students collapse and weep without shame. Brose screams for them to bind to Him. Adrian rises first, face ecstatic. He lifts from the earth, as do all but narrator, until they circle the Traveler like flies. But Narrator looks at Brose and sees the same indifference he reads on the otherworldly visage of the Traveler. He hides until the Traveler’s stepped away, toward another dreamed world. Brose says he’s failed the binding. Narrator attacks his teacher—Brose lied, promising he’d make them the Traveler’s disciples when they could be no more to Him than fleas on a rat on a great vessel, when they’re now only “frozen forms twirling slowly in an endless dance among the stars.”
Brose makes narrator’s eyes bleed, clearly meaning to kill him. Instead, narrator drives the fallen Traveler statue through Brose’s forehead.
Now narrator’s the one handing mice to applicants—the only one who can take Brose’s place. The university may hate the program, but it knows somebody must deal with those who’ve “latched onto darkness, or [who] might.”
Harmless wannabees narrator rejects. The rest he’ll eventually lead to the Traveler’s embrace, but in the meantime they’re enthralled, eager for his attention.
They adore him.
What’s Cyclopean: Brose’s eyes are the color of a tombstone, and flies swirl around him in formation. That’s how you know he’s legit.
The Degenerate Dutch: People who start their first year of college with misanthropic tendencies and a predilection for nihilism clearly need to be filtered out of the school with the greatest possible force. (Or possibly they just need a few years away from home—but we’ll never find out.)
Mythos Making: For your delectation, a new contribution to the Mythosian Pantheon: the Traveler on Ocean of Night, the Stepper Across the Stars.
Libronomicon: Perhaps Brose’s students should be more suspicious about the fact that, at a school that keeps a copy of the Necronomicon, his class doesn’t involve so much as a mimeographed reading packet.
Madness Takes Its Toll: The ritual to summon the Traveler brings “a maddening sense of dislocation, a nightmare cacophony of unbearable sensations.”
As anyone who’s read my stories can probably tell, I’m a bit of a cynic about academia. Sure, the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake is noble, but, in practice, the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake is mixed with the pursuit of knowledge for ego’s sake. There are old men who use tenure like a weapon, guarding gates they once passed through with ease, and there are people who assume those gates are worth passing through simply because they’re heavily guarded. There are toxic assumptions about the sacrifices that must be required to prove your devotion, and people and institutions all too willing to accept those sacrifices.
How much worse must these academic sinkholes grow at a place like Miskatonic, where the knowledge studied includes whole majors man wasn’t meant to know?
Important things to bear in mind when investing in a program of study:
- There is, and will always be, life outside of your university. Not only the strange inhuman minds that dwell beyond the stars, but, like, alternate career paths and relationships that deserve attention even when they distract from your studies.
- The major that attracts you to a school may not be the one you stick with. Don’t focus too hard on one topic during freshman year, even if you feel confident about what you want to do.
- Some professors are never going to be satisfied. Others just enjoy poking holes in students’ egos. Those guys make terrible advisors.
- If a class—let’s call it Study Hard Be Evil 101—uses the agonizing deaths of small fuzzy animals to make abstract points about the nature of reality, that’s what add/drop week is for.
- If a class—let’s call it Study Hard Be Evil 101—starts by training you to “bind your will to that of another,” make sure you’ve taken enough grammar and literature to recognize how different that is from “binding another’s will to yours,” and consider dropping the course even if add/drop week is over.
So I have opinions about Brose. He is a walking red flag, surrounded by the buzzing of infinite flies that wreathe his figure waving their own tiny little red flags. Presumably narrator, having played and won the Game of Tenured Chairs, has now inherited this flag collection. Perhaps he ought to reconsider his life choices.
I also have opinions about this version of Miskatonic. I do kind of follow their logic—if you tend to attract baby Voldemorts, there’s a temptation to sacrifice them to ancient powers in their first semester, before they can do any damage. I absolutely believe a school would do this. (I did say I was cynical.) I would, however, like to shake them and point out that aspiring teenage dark lords often benefit from therapy and a well-rounded set of humanities requirements. That is, potentially, an alternative to a class that encourages their worst tendencies and then sends them buzzing after an elder god. Perhaps we could put together a committee to consider our options. (Not that anyone would join it, given how little Service counts for during the tenure process.)
It’s enough to make one wonder if David Barr Kirtley, with this excellent contribution to both cosmic horror and realistic academic fiction, isn’t perhaps a bit of a cynic himself.
Well, Toto, this week’s nameless narrator is obviously not in North Carolina anymore, but is his Massachusetts university our own beloved Miskatonic? I’d say yes, because what other institution of higher learning would support Professor Brose’s program? I’d say no because MU is in the middle of downtown Arkham, with no extensive woods like Kirtley’s Arboretum in the immediate vicinity of campus. But my no could be getting over-picky about fictional topography, and the Bay State is big enough for more than one university with weird curricula.
The other burning Mythos question is: Who’s this Traveler on Oceans of Night and Stepper Across the Stars? Two fine sobriquets, by the way, arguably not grandiose enough for an Outer God but suitable to the chief of a Great Race, like Cthulhu. The Traveler has a tentacle-beard on a sorta anthropoid head; however, Cthulhu has a much more complex body than He, no mere tangle of additional tentacles. The Traveler has a habit of sweeping human worshippers into the ultimate cold of space, as Ithaqua does its captives; however, Ithaqua’s “companions” survive after a cannibalistic fashion, while the Traveler’s appear to freeze to death, oops. My guess: The Traveler is Kirtley’s own addition to the Mythos pantheon, perhaps a cousin of the Great Squid’s, for the Squid has many relations across time and the void.
All that written (because Mythosian quibbling’s fun), “Disciple’s” central concerns are ethical ones—we learn that from the story’s attention-seizing first sentence, “Professor Carlton Brose was evil, and I adored him as only a freshman can.” Wait a minute, what’s this about adoring evil, and are the young and impressionable particularly prone to such adoration? Darkness has an intrinsic glamour, its own aesthetics founded on contrast to the light. Dig deeper, and there’s the primal definition of evil as the rejection of established order. “Disciple’s” narrator joins cults in rebellion against the society that has (for reasons unstated) rejected him. I sense he acts out of more than a jejune delight in defiance, for he’s suffered losses that have left a “rotting emptiness” inside him. Rotting emptiness! Terrible words for a terrible void narrator can’t hope to fill, which he can only use as a force in itself, a negative potential that Brose recognizes, for it’s the foundation of his own faith.
However, faith may be too strong a term for what Brose lives on. Significantly, the expression narrator comes to recognize as Brose’s default is indifference. It’s the same indifference narrator sees in the face of the Traveler, whose most telling feature is His utterly empty eyes. Perhaps they’re empty because they only reflect the emptiness beyond the stars—whatever marvelous visions or dreams lie behind the Traveler’s eyes, they don’t radiate them. As for Brose, he has no visions or dreams to share. Narrator, initially adoring, as taken as any initiate with Brose’s shadow-tricks, eventually realizes his idol’s a small man, with no lofty ambitions moral or immoral, content to be the big fish in a small pond and willing to do anything to stay that way.
In narrator, Brose may see himself as a younger man, still hungry for big power. In Brose, narrator first sees his ideal self and then his deeply compromised future. Brose, it turns out, isn’t worth adulation. The Traveler may be a “great vessel,” but cares as much for human worship as a great vessel could care for a rat stowed away in its hold, or a flea stowed away on the rat. Looking at the faceless horror of Brose’s statue-crushed skull, narrator understands that the Traveler is “blind to the pain of this sad world.”
It remains for narrator to blind himself to the world’s pain, to grow as indifferent as Brose. That way he can become the University’s new policeman and executioner; that way he can stuff his inner emptiness with the emptiness of adoration he knows his “meager powers” don’t deserve.
Emptiness plus emptiness equals—you can do the math.
As for the moral calculus carried out by the University, tacitly endorsing a program that kills off its entire student roster every spring semester, there’s a good Ethics 101 topic for you. Granted everyone in the program’s a mouse-killer at the least. Granted it’s a bad idea in Lovecraft territory to suffer evil wizards to live. Granted the University has the moral grace to hate the program. Isn’t it still setting up a Starry Void Chamber of one to deal with the problem? Isn’t its executioner’s chief balm still the stroking of his vanity?
And isn’t the Traveler still getting “fed”?
School’s out for summer, so it’s time for a road trip. Join us for Premee Mohamed’s “Us and Ours”; you can find it in the Secret Guide to Fighting Elder Gods.
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.