The Lovecraft Reread

Jobs From Hell Would Be An Improvement: David Liss’s “The Doors that Never Close and the Doors that Are Always Open”

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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 Liss’s “The Doors that Never Close and the Doors that Are Always Open,” first published in 2015 in Aaron J French’s The Gods of H. P. Lovecraft anthology. Spoilers ahead.

“It is devastation,” Jacks told him. “The devouring of worlds. Things that have abstract value or don’t yet exist or are entirely unnecessary being bought and sold and bet on or against. It is ritual.”

Summary

Artur Magnusson despises Wall Street, but he also needs a job badly. So when his previously tepid employment agency waxes enthusiastic about CapitalBank, he goes for an interview. Things start unpropitiously: He has trouble finding the building; the security guard locks him in an imposingly secure lobby. Then his interviewer appears, and things get downright weird. Kevin Jacks stands over six feet six, even slouched, and looks more like a seedy academic than a financier. His shaggy white hair gives him a goatish appearance; worse, he smells like a goat.

High in the skyscraper, in a windowless room that feels more like a basement, Jacks asks impertinent questions about Artur’s Icelandic descent. He then asks for Artur’s honest opinion of CapitalBank. Through with niceties, Artur says that it exploits markets with no regard for consequences to ordinary people. Like a dragon on its hoard, it can only enrich itself through destruction. Jacks approves the answer. He asks next why Artur left Columbia’s history department. Artur’s advisor Amanda Thanton disappeared without warning, and no other professor was interested in his thesis. No problem for CapitalBank, though. Jacks offers Artur a research job at $325,000 plus rent-free on-site quarters. Artur can study whatever he likes. However, what would “make these old walls reverberate with delight” would be for Artur to continue his dissertation.

Artur can’t say no, but uneasily remembers his association with Amanda Thanton. She encouraged him to write his dissertation on 19th century efforts to find K’n-yan, a subterranean realm supposed to exist beneath Oklahoma. He developed a fascination for his topic and an attraction to Amanda, though it disturbed him that she was more interested in actually locating K’n-yan than in its historical context. They could go there together, through the doors that never close, the doors that are always open. Once Amanda announced, as if in a trance, that she felt her there, the black goat of a thousand young; she’s heard her name: Shub-Niggurath. That name’s stuck in Artur’s mind. Maybe because it was almost the last thing Amanda said before her disappearance.

Jacks shows Artur the corporate archives, a three-story high wilderness of shelving. His quarters are a spacious though windowless suite, impeccably furnished in Victorian style and complete with a housekeeper: Mirja Tiborsdottir. Finally Artur meets CEO Howard Ostentower, celebrated for making a killing in mortgage-backed securities, then denouncing the inevitable “unmaking” of the financial boom. His prediction came true, and the media touted him as the “wise prophet” of Wall Street.

Artur’s distaste for finance grows as they pass through an open workspace filled with expensively suited but childishly exuberant young bankers. Jacks remarks their tradings are ritual, “devastation… the devouring of worlds.” Ostentower himself comes across as an ordinary middle-aged man. Artur asks why CapitalBank’s interested in K’n-yan. Ostentower eerily echoes Amanda in saying the firm’s interest lies in never-closed, always-open doors.

Artur moves in and explores the archives, which consist largely of personal papers, sources ranging from 19th-century clerics to Apollo-era astronauts. Mystical tomes include the Necronomicon and the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan. Amanda Thanton’s papers are listed in the card catalog, but missing from the shelf. Antsy, Artur asks Mirja how to leave the CapitalBank building. He must ask Jacks, she says, but why go out? Everything he needs is here. Probing Mirja, Artur mentions the “doors” and the name Shub—

Before he can finish, Mirja whispers, “To say her name is to know her. Don’t.”

Later that night Mirja joins him in bed, explaining she’s also here for “the making of comfort.” But her face is wet with tears. Artur rejects her offer, asks if she’s a prisoner. She denies it, pretends to kiss his ear while actually whispering that she saw her once, and it was like “watching everything become nothing. Everything made empty.”

Next morning Jacks escorts Artur to celebrate the “new moon” with Ostentower. En route, Artur demands to know why he can’t leave the building. Jacks says it’s the usual “adjustment period” for new employees. In the medieval-looking “chapel” Ostentower tells Artur that he’s an important part of the ceremony. He’s heard her name and so must make a sacrifice—not of life but of being. He must live cut off from the world, searching for what cannot be found.

And what if Artur doesn’t want to stay?

He has no choice in the matter, Ostentower says, for CapitalBank has a big mergers and acquisitions deal on the table and “cannot afford her displeasure.”

He leads Artur into a huge cavern-like chamber crowded with suited men and women. At its far end Artur glimpses another suited woman, with a shaggy black head and exposed, leaking breasts. That vision morphs to one of “emptiness and devouring and swirling, like worlds slamming into worlds… pulling one another… toward their mutual doom.” Shub-Niggurath, he whispers. Terror and delight and wonder rush through him. He feels her blessings, and blood leaks from his eyes. A cool welcoming hand slips into his, and he knows it is Amanda’s. They’ve walked through a door that has always been there.

And, finally, he knows that CapitalBank’s mergers deal is going to be an amazing success.

What’s Cyclopean: Jacks’s smell is “animalistic and wild, like wet fur and rotten wood and clumps of moist dung moldering in a barn.”

The Degenerate Dutch: Icelandic ancestry makes you extra-tasty. This is precisely the sort of thing that led to laws forbidding questions about ethnic origin in job interviews.

Mythos Making: Artur’s unfinished dissertation focuses on the role of K’n-yan obsession in the context of the Second Great Awakening. Is there anyone here who doesn’t want to read this immediately?

Libronomicon: The archives of CapitalBank contain more copies of the Necronomicon than Lovecraft would admit existed anywhere, and that’s the least of their collection. Notably, they have a large number of personal journals… that end mid-sentence. Aaah the window?

Madness Takes Its Toll: Jacks accuses Artur of going insane, merely for mentioning that he’s being kept prisoner in a place he can’t get out of.

 

Anne’s Commentary

And subbing this week for Anne, who’s celebrating the Fourth, shovel in hand, in—of all places—the Oklahoma wilderness, is ever-doughty journalist of the Weird, Carl Kolchak. Nobody ever invites him to barbecues anyway.

People disappear all the time, especially in cities like New York. Actually, they disappear at a higher rate per capita in Arkham, but New York does pretty well for itself. People have also been known to mysteriously leave Columbia University, again not at the same rate as they mysteriously leave Miskatonic University. Still, it happens, and when it happens, a certain unnameable contact of mine at Columbia drops me a line about it.

So it was I learned about Professor Amanda Thanton and her one-time doctoral student Artur Magnusson. Most colleagues assumed they’d made tracks together to Oklahoma, there to hunt for their ridiculous obsession, the subterranean realm of blue-litten K’n-Yan. My contact, however, believed they had fallen into worse hands than those of the Mad Ones Under the Earth, infamous mutilators of hapless human flesh and minds. My contact believed they had both gone for interviews. Interviews of the permanent variety. Interviews at—

CapitalBank.

Everyone knows the beaming visage and booming voice of Mr. Howard Ostentower, Prophet of Wall Street and Chief Executive Officer of the above-named institution. What very few know is who, or should I write what, is actually in charge at CapitalBank. Yes, I should write what, because I am one of those very few.

In fact, I am one of the very few among the very few who would dare seek his own interview at CapitalBank. In additional fact, I’m the only one of the very very few. Maybe that’s why Mr. Kevin Jacks agreed to meet with me. He must get lonely, with the paucity of press applications he receives.

What with that and his decidedly odd choice in aftershave lotion. Eau de Chèvre takes some getting used to. Luckily I’ve been on the nostril end of many eldritch stenches in my time, and Jacks comes in low on that particular “Scoville Scale.”

Not so his boss (and his boss Ostentower’s boss), to whom Jacks handed me off before we got much past our hellos. The She-Goat Herself granted me an audience in Her corner office overlooking Ultimate Chaos—actually a digital facsimile of the same, but still impressive. She was wearing Chanel Grand Extrait with her Bottega Veneta suit, but there’s no Extrait Grand enough to cover the foulness by which we will know Them. The shaggy black goat’s head was another giveaway, as were the several pairs of breasts exuding milk no human baby should ever drink. I mean, look what happened to Jacks.

Shub-N: So, Mr. Kolchak, how can CapitalBank help you today?

Me: Well, Ms. Mother-of-All-Mothers [flattery never hurts when dealing with Outer Gods], a source tells me your organization has made away with Professor Amanda Thanton and Mr. Artur Magnusson. [Subtlety, on the other hand, is wasted.]

Shub-N: ‘Made away’ is an odd term for hiring at more than competitive compensation.

Me: But it’s a damn good one for forcing people to negate their very beings in the vain pursuit of that which can never be found. New York State labor laws forbid that, you know.

Shub-N: [nickering] Are you sure this particular ‘what’ can never be found?

Me: What, K’n-yan? No such place.

Shub-N: Ah, Carl. You know better than to say that.

Me: [Uh-oh.]

Shub-N: In fact, perhaps it’s you we ought to hire for the K’n-Yan project. Your research skills are widely known among Us. And could be deeply appreciated.

Me: Don’t try to change the subject, Ms. Mother. But—my own skills could be appreciated to the tune of what?

Shub-N: Riches.

Me: [indicating my clothing] Do I look like I care about material things?

Shub-N: Your every lust satisfied?

Me: Exclusive rights to authorized biographies of all you Outer guys?

Shub-N: Done.

Me: Hello, boss.

Later that day, at an impromptu office party, I met Thanton and Magnusson. Apart from their hollow-eyed stares of soullessness, they looked great. Nice suits, too, and I’m told budding horns are in this season.

Case closed. Story told.

[Just kidding. I know even guaranteed Pulitzers aren’t worth a mind blown to meta-existential despair by knowledge not meant to be known, like the childhood foibles of an Azathoth or Nyarlathotep. I carried on the charade just long enough to get into that office party and grab Thanton and Magnusson, supposedly for a photo shoot. A few years at the Miskatonic Valley Sanitarium for the Mythos-Afflicted should fix them up. Or not, but at least I tried.

Now the story is told. Kolchak out. You’re welcome.]

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

You know what’s legitimately terrifying? Late-stage capitalism. I mean, here we sit, surrounded on every side by cyclopean entities with inhuman motivations and goals entirely orthogonal to our own well-being. They reshape our minds and bodies to meet their needs. They shower gifts with one hand and disrupt everything that makes life worth living with the other dozen. Most people depend on their illusory beneficence for the very stuff of survival, and try to ignore the regularity with which they swallow people whole.

I discourage my kids from singing advertising jingles for much the same reason I discourage them from reading eldritch tomes aloud without proper warding sigils.

The Mythos really does map conveniently to any handy apocalypse, and Liss’s map is all too plausible. Maybe the architects of financial ruin just conveniently forget that bubbles exist every time they find a clever way to turn a profit. Or maybe the ruin is part of the point. Devastation as ritual. You may be against all that, but you also need a paycheck, right? And who really reads all the fine print in a contract, anyway?

Honestly, when I’m taking a break from being creeped out by megacorporations, it’s that casual violation of the social contract that’s the scariest thing in the story. If you think about it, people have a million opportunities to lock you in a room with no way to get out. Hotels. Hosts. Employers. But we depend on the non-evil-ness of strangers—and in general, this is justified. Think of all the people who have not locked you up for their convenience. And then recall the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and consider how hard we’ve had to fight to add corporations to the list of entities that you can mostly count on to follow this norm. Horror is full of people locking inconvenient relatives in attics, but surprisingly short on major financial corporations imprisoning their employees. It’s a weird oversight.

Sorry, I really did mean to take a break from being creeped out by megacorporations. Let’s try again. How about those K’n-yan? Speaking of people who don’t know how to treat guests. Lovecraft and Bishop’s “The Mound” is a morass of anglocentric anthropology and body horror and squick, so can’t-look-away disturbing that I had to incorporate the “mad ones under the earth” into my own work and put an expatriate K’n-yan in 1940s New York. All my attraction-repulsion to Lovecraft comes out in full force for these weirdos, and I kind of like the idea of that obsession being common enough to lead to dissertations. “There, people who were not like us lived in ways we could not imagine, but in ways that would open our imaginations, enlighten us, and very likely destroy us.”

I’m not entirely decided about whether any actual K’n-yan appear in “Doors.” On the one hand, no obvious torture arenas or sculpting other people’s bodies for amusement. On the other hand, there’s that thing where the upper stories of CapitalBank feel like they’re deep underground. Does one of the titular doors lead to the K’n-yan’s own realm, providing new worshippers for their mother goddess? They have a history of “industrial democracy,” after all, leading inexorably to their use of human descendants as literal cattle; they might find a modern corporation kind of homey. Is Ostentower secretly K’n-yan? What about Jacks—K’n-yan, or one of the thousand goaty young?

Anyway, next time you hear someone talking in corporate buzzwords, you’ll know what tongue they’re translated from. Ïa, the mergers and acquisitions team!

 

Next week, Ng Yi-Sheng’s “Xingzhou” gives us eldritch invasion in a city of stars. Thanks to Archival researcher David Cercone for the recommendation, and for providing copies of the elusive “Nadelman’s God,” which is now in the queue. (We’re extremely confident that he checked them out properly, rather than quietly “borrowing” them from under the Yith’s non-noses.)

This week, Ruthanna will be at Readercon in Boston. Rumor has it that her new short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, will also be there.

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.

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