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 Premee Mohamed’s “Us and Ours,” first published in Jennifer Brozek’s 2019 anthology A Secret Guide to Fighting Elder Gods. Spoilers ahead.
The dancing fire people stepped smoothly over unclaimed corpses, not covering them or moving them out of the way.
Fourteen-year-old Raydeene and her BFF Eli have stolen a Honda Accord and are on the run from their sleepy hometown of Edenderry—but what’s a little rule-breaking at the end of the world? They have more immediate worries, like the monsters crowding the highway and throwing pulsing red tentacles across their path. Ray reluctantly runs over their “legs.” The monsters don’t seem to mind, just as they haven’t seemed to mind every other attack Edenderry residents have launched against them.
Edenderry has its own gods, the old ones of the hill and the green. They might stare in your windows at night, but as long as you leave out offerings and obey the occasional summons, they bestow blessings rather than curses. But there’ve been strange summons recently, and the recipients haven’t disappeared forever like usual but instead returned changed. Their sickness spread to others, who together called up a new god, “its head as high as the sky, below that, nothing but twisting tentacles, hairs, slime, bubbles of muscle and hide.” Its minions followed.
Ray’s abusive father and Eli’s abusive mother refuse to run, figuring help must be on the way. The kids doubt the outside world even knows Edenderry’s under attack. Eli suggests going to get help. It’s their chance to be heroes for once, instead of the skinny nervous boy bullied at school and the big-boned girl taunted for defending him. So they’re going, highway tentacles be damned.
They finally get clear of the monsters, only to nearly collide with a spanking new trailer, stolen by teacher Brenda Boon, old-lady herbalist Codie Arthur—and their new friends. Pete DeGarmo is doing field work for his PhD in occult history. Mr. Kabore is movie-star handsome, dressed in a nice gray suit. He says he’s an Evaluator for an organization that needn’t be named. One of the things he “evaluates” is supernatural disturbances. He believes the new god, which he’ll also not name, is one of the Great Old Ones—entities older than the universe. This one has arisen a dozen times on Earth, to be driven back to “sleep” by witches and allied armies. Now the task will be up to—
Us, says Brenda Boon. Us and our kin. Are Raydeene and Eli in?
Hell yes, Ray says.
Occult student Pete knows how to open a Great Gate that can suck the Old One back in. Mr. Kabore has some company-supplied “raw magic” in the form of three blurrily carved dark lumps. But first they must lure the Old One into the trap. Raydeene volunteers to be “bait.” The others turn down her offer. They’ll need someone more… susceptible. Someone with “an emptiness inside him questing for something to make him complete.” Someone like Eli.
In the woods above town, the group prepares a clearing for the Great Old One’s ousting. Eli and Ray whisper about how they used to hope their impossible parents would get together. A dumb idea, Eli admits, but he just wanted to be family with Ray. Ray says they are family, before she must leave Eli alone in the clearing and hide with their allies.
Monsters swarm through the trees, crowding around Eli. They chant and sway until the Great Old One reappears; as soon as He’s fully in the clearing, Mr. Kabore steps out holding posterboard inked with warding sigils. As he and Codie Arthur deploy the raw magic, the Old One freezes. The air thins, going dark, “emitting a high scream of inflowing air.”
Ray rushes from cover into the monster-surrounded clearing to help terrified Eli escape. Instead they’re both trapped in the tightening circle of minions. Meanwhile Mr. Kabore’s magic runs out, and the Old One breaks free. He bends towards the friends, enormous mouth “filled not with teeth, but with a trillion wriggling things with eyes of their own, eager and bright.”
Ray, near-hopeless, kneels and pray to her local gods of the hill and green. She was born here, has lived here all her life, has paid them respect as best she could. Now she begs their help to drive the invading god from their land.
A fragrant breeze drives off the monsters’ stench. The “small gods of the land” rumble deep in the earth, tunneling upward. Ray and Eli run from the clearing, to meet a force flowing down the wooded hill. It forms itself into a huge stag with star-tipped horns. Knowing this god requires the best offering she can give, Ray surrenders her beloved jean jacket. It’s not enough. Realizing what the gods need, she bares her throat willingly, and feels the antlers slice her throat.
Unexpectedly, she wakes alive. Mr. Kabore tells her what she missed: The small gods rising from the ground like flames to push the Old One through the Gate. With him gone, their wards could kill the minions. The victory was all due to Ray’s life-offering, for which the local gods afterwards made her a “repayment.”
When their allies depart, Ray and Eli return to the stolen Accord. They ought to go back to town, help clean up. Or, Eli suggests, they could have a few adventures first. And so they drive away from Edenderry. They’ll be back one day, probably soon, but “for now there was the empty highway, and half a tank of gas, and trees and sun and light and gods and hope.”
What’s Cyclopean: The invading god smells of sulphur and ozone and “the black-green smell of a rotting carcass,” while the small gods of the land smell of “musk, sap, sweat, blood, spores, the stagnant bottom of the creek, the tartness of rotting oaks.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Eli gets bullied at school for being “skinny and pretty and nervous;” Ray gets the same for having him as her “sissy boyfriend.”
Mythos Making: The “big bad” that shows up is “older than this universe… they live beneath our history and memories, in a space we cannot go.”
Libronomicon: There may not be much money in an occult history PhD, but it’s convenient when you need to draw a bunch of ancient sigils and wards in a hurry.
Madness Takes Its Toll: The people who worship the invading god appear to have learned Cthulhu’s promised lessons about killing and reveling beyond all laws and morals…
Back in January 2018, Premee Mohamed posted one of the most profound Tweets of all space and time, which I quote below:
“SIENTIFIC [wonderfully sic] FACTS:
Millipedes: Adorable, clickyclacky walkers, often shiny, little feathery tickly feet, cute snub nose
Centipedes: Venomous lil motherfuckers, probably poisonous too, eat goddamn bats right out of the air”
To which she appended a video clip of a cave centipede hunting goddamn bats. Yeah, this is just so not right in any sane universe, but then, who says we live in a sane universe? Not Raydeene Willard, not after she has to drive through a gauntlet of Great Old One minions that look like “someone had blown a house centipede up thirty feet tall and glued on a seafood buffet.”
Don’t argue with me. This is the SINGLE MOST TERRIFYING DESCRIPTION OF A MYTHOSIAN CREATURE EVER. As Mohamed knows, centipedes of any species are mind-blowingly awful; as she apparently also knows, the house centipede is the most eldritch of all, with its long long spindly legs that will go right on twitching even after you’ve smashed the bastard to oozing pulp. Plus house centipedes live in YOUR HOUSE, not some safely distant cave or desert like the admittedly bigger ones.
What’s worse than a monster? Easy: A monster in your own house, on your own street, invading your own land, the land of your own local gods. “Us and Ours” had already won me over with its centipede-seafood horrors; it delighted those squeamish creeps out of me with the small old gods of Edenderry, those (delightfully) of the hill and the green, which (eerily yet delightfully) peer in windows at night but are otherwise harmless, even beneficent—so long as you show respect by obeying their rules. It’s not too onerous to put out offerings for them, since they’re satisfied with the best edible you have in the house, be it oil and sage or Oreos. It’s not too painful to refrain from lighting bonfires at night—that’s not only good for the environment, nocturnal conflagrations are notorious for attracting the wrong sort of gods. The centipede-seafood kind.
However, the Edenderry deities are not altogether cuddly. Mohamed hints that those they summon do not return. Then there’s price for assistance they demand from Ray. Sure, you can get a lost dog found with a bowl of bread and milk, but ask them to take on a Great Old One and you’ve got to pay in life’s blood, extracted none too gently.
Ethereal yet lethal stag’s antlers to the throat, that can’t be fun. I wonder, too, what sequelae may follow Ray’s temporary death, for better or worse. The author notes at the back of A Secret Guide to Fighting Elder Gods inform me that Mohamed has other stories set in the Edenderry world: “Willing,” “The Evaluator,” and “Below the Kirk, Below the Hill.” Perhaps the answer lies therein.
Speaking of evaluators, it’s always fun to meet another preternatural-incursions watchdog group. Given the never-ending threat from both homegrown and otherworldly monsters in the Mythos universe, we can’t have too many defenders of the human status quo, can we? Well, not in stories like “Us and Ours,” which proclaims its side in the very title. No sympathy for the devils here; even the cultists are presumably unwilling, victims of a contagious “disease.” The only good gods are the NATIVE ones, by God, not these interlopers from foreign dimensions, older than the universe, for Chrissakes, which shouldn’t be, right? Right? The universe, our universe, should be everything, or else it’s not actually the universe, is it? Come on, the universe is more than enough for us to understand, don’t go putting extrauniversal stuff on the exam. No extraterrestrial stuff, for that matter, which Cthulhu definitely is.
If Mohamed’s “big bad” is Cthulhu. The description roughly fits: mountainous size, tentacles, wings, habit of snoozing between manifestations. There are more Great Old Ones than the Mighty Squidhead, though, and given the enormity of their alienness, all G.O.O.’s might look alike to the Earthling on the street. Not Kabore, of course. He’s a pro. He knows his G.O.O.’s. So well, in fact, he understands the dangers of even naming One before unhardened ears.
Hm, do I veer toward viewing “Us and Ours” as a Terranist tale? Do I stumble toward dividing Mythos stories into two major categories, the xenophobic and the xenophilic? Or maybe there’s also the xeno-neutral? And a full spectrum of complication among them? The other Premee Mohamed story we’ve considered here, “The Adventurer’s Wife,” I’d classify as xenophilic, so an author can swing both ways and through all the gradations in between.
Would it be largely a matter of story focus, here on rough-and-ready teen narrator Raydeene, in “Adventurer’s Wife” on Sima Penhallick, herself the mother of a “monstrous” child? Or in other cases, a matter of authorial worldview? Is an overarching factor our old favorite fear versus awe?
Big questions to ponder at the end of my word allotment, but here’s to Mohamed for leading me to them.
Or summoning me to them, dare I say?
Oops, just did…
Last week’s narrator has a “rotting emptiness” inside, driving him first to seek power, and then to fake it for the supposedly necessary destruction of others like him. Eli suffers from something similar: “puzzle pieces missing inside” from the hatred of his classmates and his own mother, from never finding a place to fit. But his story has very different ideas about what that kind of emptiness is good for, and what others might want to do about it.
Because “The Disciple” is a story about what happens when you surrender to that emptiness, when you and the world decide it’s the most important thing about you. “Us and Ours” is a story about finding things to fill that emptiness—things to defend, things to fight and die for, things to believe in hard enough that they’ll believe back.
On one level, those things are people: Miz Boon and Miz Arthur, Pete, Mr. Kabore… and Eli and Ray themselves, acknowledging the blood of the covenant that’s thicker than the water of the womb (or than any formal recognition of their familial connection they might have gotten by setting up their awful parents). On another level, those things are gods: the old gods of the land that give Edenderry something to make up for its lack of a library and a movie theater. Edenderry has an emptiness, too, and things to fill it.
The small old gods, pushing to fight off more eldritch powers, aren’t exactly comprehensible to humans, nor are they exactly nice. But at least the sacrifices they take feed power that they turn toward the good of their worshippers, even if only in small ways. And when they can take a loan rather than a permanent gift, they seem willing. Contrasted with an invader that not only summons but steals outright, and the little prices for the old gods’ little protection seems like an even better idea.
I have a weakness for communities that take things for granted. Night Vale or Sunnydale, they accept things that seem horrific or absurd to readers—and maybe make us think twice about the sacrifices and costs that we take for granted. This absurdity, done right, is perfect for YA, because it’s an absurdity kids experience constantly. I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in part, because the refusal of Sunnydale’s adults to treat the dangers of their school as real things… well, that’s a thing that happens, even if the dangers in question aren’t demonic principals.
Edenderry’s taking-for-granted is layered: Ray is shocked when the things accepted as normal change. When it isn’t just the “everybody knows” of avoiding open fires at night, but people refusing to treat the rise of a Great Old One as a crisis deserving of real response. It’s not on the evening news; Eli’s mom goes out to the Reddi-Mart.
I love that detail. I love so many details here: smell and touch, shifting between the familiar and the eldritch, sparkly nails chipped by snappish ancient sigils, tire tracks over monsters. If you’ve focused in on the chipped nails, it becomes just as easy to focus on the mouth filled with wriggling things with eyes, or the spectral deer with willow-wisp antlers. Just as easy to believe in those details—and in the empty spaces they have the potential to fill.
Next week we meet another place-specific monster in Fritz Leiber’s “Smoke Ghost.” It’s been collected in many places, but you can find it most easily in The Weird.
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.