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 T.E.D. Klein’s “Nadelman’s God,” first published in the Dark Gods collection in 1985. Spoilers ahead.
All gods yielded before the implacable urgings of habit.
The first witch Nadelman ever met, in an NYC S&M bar where he and future wife Rhoda were slumming, sported a beer belly and a silver pentacle earring. Drawing on his college occult kick, Nadelman conversed with witch Lenny about paganism, Crowley, and Lovecraft. Lenny insists Lovecraft was no fiction writer—you’ve just gotta read between the lines.
Years later, Nadelman realizes the reason the beer-bellied witch scared him was “his certainty that knowledge was concealed to all but him.” Nadelman himself has given up esoterica and made a successful career in advertising. He’s also given up youthful literary ambitions; he now has a wife, a young son, a mortgage, and a Friday-night paramour to worry about.
But back in college, Nadelman wrote “Advent of the Prometheans: A Cantata.” This “paean to some imaginary ‘leprous-featured rival of the Lord’” appeared in the campus literary magazine, where it failed to generate the desired outrage. Lately “Advent” has had an unexpected second-act via the heavy-metal band Jizzmo; name changed to “New God on the Block,” his epic appears on their album Walpurgis Night. That’s where Arlen Huntoon learns about Nadelman and his “god.”
Nadelman’s secretly chuffed to receive Huntoon’s semi-illiterate “fan letter” asking his advice. Huntoon’s creating a minion in the image of Nadelman’s brutal deity, following the “recipe” in Jizzmo’s lyrics. The garbage is no problem, but how’s he to fashion its lipless and lidless face?
After Nadelman writes to Huntoon suggesting a Halloween mask for the minion head, Huntoon latches on, sending more letters, even calling Nadelman at work. Nadelman tries to convince him the god’s mere fiction, but soon Huntoon informs him the invocation worked. He sends photos of a grotesque figure with gangling limbs and pink rubbery head, dancing on his roof. It must be Huntoon in costume, but then, who’s taking the photos? Later Huntoon implies the minion’s left the rooftop. He asks how Nadelman can deny the god, for He knows Nadelman, and He did breathe life into His servant, and oh, Nadelman was wrong about the god being nameless: He’s called the Hungerer.
Nadelman rereads his published poem and finds no reference to a “Hungerer.” However, his handwritten draft includes a scratched-out line naming the god just that! How did Huntoon know? Is that figure he glimpses from his apartment window late at night, head pink and shiny, only a slumped bag of trash? He combs his teenage notebooks, unnerved to find his concept of the malign god even there.
The last straw is crank calls to his home. The caller makes no sound but “the soft, deliberate, liquid stir of mud—mud opening its jaws, yearning to speak words.” Nadelman has to see Huntoon, find out if the man’s a hoaxer or—or if the god’s real. Nadelman rides the train to Long Beach, passing his home town on the way. Memories storm him. Did he create the Hungerer that long-ago day he first wrote the name? Did “Advent” added substance to the god with every line he’d scribbled, fueled by bafflement at the senseless cruelty in the news?
Huntoon’s mother lets him into their garbage-cluttered apartment. Huntoon arrives. He’s been to the dump, getting rid of trash. The thing from the roof, Nadelman assumes. Huntoon’s evasive, especially about his downstairs neighbors the Bravermans, about whom he’s often complained. He hints they’ve decamped because he put a scare in them. As for how he knew the name Hungerer, the god told him. But the minion… would rather take orders from Nadelman.
Nadelman’s glad to escape the reek of Huntoon’s room. He wanders the boardwalk, wondering if he didn’t so much invent the Hungerer as sense a force for which that name seemed appropriate. The cry of a ravening gull recalls a childhood walk along the beach, when he saw in the sky “a vast inhuman shape that grinned and mocked, like a figure gazing down into a fishbowl…”
Another silent call provokes Nadelman into shouting that he wishes Huntoon and his mother “would just get the hell out of my life!” Next day he learns the Huntoons have been murdered, apparently by a “big galoot” seen leaving their building. He receives Huntoon’s last taunting letter: a clipping about an elderly couple, the Bravermans, found slashed to ribbons in a Long Island dump.
Small scares wear away Nadelman’s relief that Huntoon’s gone. Men avoid him in the street. He spots a stinking puddle outside his mistress’s door. He notices a masked figure looking up at his apartment, always gone when he comes out.
The last scare comes while he’s Christmas shopping. In a store window he sees the reflection of a terrible vague-faced figure behind him. Nadelman runs until he gains the shelter of a synagogue, where he sits, determined not to leave until morning. Everything will be all right if he can make it through until the morning.
What’s Cyclopean: College-aged Nadelman obsesses over the right words for his poem: “‘The idol of the abattoir’ had started out life sans alliteration as ‘the idol of the slaughterhouse.’ The ‘god who stinks of carrion’ had debuted more crudely as ‘a god who reeks of rotting meat’; no doubt he’d found ‘carrion’ more poetic and hadn’t been able to come up with a suitable midline rhyme for ‘reeks.’ (Listed in the margin beside it, shamelessly, were beaks, cheeks, leaks, peaks, speaks, shrieks, each one neatly crossed out.)”
The Degenerate Dutch: A certain sort of lower-class person, explains Nadelman, is born with hairy muscular arms, while smart people are born with bad eyesight.
Mythos Making: Nadelman’s read Lovecraft and makes references on a regular basis. The witches at the beginning of the story take him very seriously: “That guy knew a lot more than he was letting on.”
Libronomicon: In college Nadelman spends half a year reading “books on black magic, followed by a dalliance with Swinburne, Huysmans, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, and the rest of their decadent crew, from the exquisite, blood-drenched torments of Lautremont to the batrachian-faced horrors of Lovecraft…”
Then we have Huntoon’s collection: “On the bookshelves Slaves of the Gestapo rubbed shoulders with Psychic Self-Defense. Your Sexual Key to the Tarot lay open on the nightstand, resting on a copy of Symphony of the Lash.” There are a few titles you won’t find on the shelves at Miskatonic.
Madness Takes Its Toll: On the boardwalk, some of the younger faces strike Nadelman as “crazy: vacant of expression, or with a birdlike glint of lunacy in their eyes.”
When we read Fritz Leiber’s “Smoke Ghost,” I mentioned it reminded me of Nadelman’s God. Rereading both stories this week, I’m persuaded that Klein is paying Leiber’s story the compliment of riffing off it in his own anxious decade. All decades are anxious, it seems, and why not, with sooty ghosts and vicious gods eternally present.
Many parallels are transparent. Both Leiber’s Wran and Klein’s Nadelman are advertising executives, comfortably successful, with wives and young sons at home and psychic phenomena in their distant pasts. Both are hounded by creatures compounded of garbage, either metaphorically or actually—in fact, these creatures can look like stuffed trash bags when it suits them to be less mockingly anthropomorphic. To their horror, Wran and Nadelman may be alone in seeing the creatures; to their greater horror, other people can see them too. Wran ends up treating his stalker like a god, vowing to worship it always. Maybe he’s trying to placate the thing, but with its power to turn even timid stenographers into tittering killers, it might as well be his Lord and Master. Nadelman’s stalker isn’t his god but a minion in its image. The minion might as well be his Lord and Master, too, given it can slice people to ribbons—even well-armed ones like Huntoon.
Wran and Nadelman seem like decent guys—though Nadelman cheats on his wife, at least he feels guilty about it. And though neither is out crusading against the evils of the world, they’re achingly aware of them. Wran has always been troubled by “the inevitability of hate and war… the walls of willful misunderstanding that divided one man from another, the eternal vitality of cruelty and ignorance and greed.” Nadelman copied a Mencken quote into his teenage journal: “a Creator whose love for His creatures takes the form of torturing them.” This sums up his observations of life, as glimpsed in newspaper headlines: double suicide of old couple evicted from their apartment, little girl dead because fundamentalist parents refused her medical treatment, all “the fathers stabbed, the mothers raped, the children left to starve.” How could a benevolent god let such things happen? Either They must not exist or They (growing old and feeble) must have been shoved aside by a younger deity.
I’ve been a fan of T. E. D. Klein since I first devoured Dark Gods. He’s unexcelled in creating realistic milieus, the places and times his characters move through, the customs of their little countries, and he does it with a minuteness of detail some might find excessive, but hey, I’m a Bleak House kind of reader. Over these milieus in all their mundanity he then casts a progressive pall, misshapen shadows at first, teasing the corners of the eyes and then gone, readily explained away. They spread, though, inexorable as kudzu; filtered through them, the light turns strange. Poisonous. Protagonists having pursued the truth are destroyed by it, not killed (though that may come later) but knocked out of worldviews long in the making.
In honor of ad men Wran and Nadelman, I’ll paraphrase one of advertising’s most famous catchphrases: A worldview is a terrible thing to lose. Nor, I think, does Nadelman deserve this calamity. Granted he has a lech for women who strike him as “up for anything,” you know, wildly adventurous sex beyond the pale for Rhoda, now she’s past the tight leather pants stage. Granted he can be full of himself, as when he imagines he dresses and smells better than the “holy men” of the world. Granted he wrote that awful Cantata, but he was young enough to think he knew better than his elders and peers, a knight errant hauling the Dragon Truth into the light. The poem was his sophomoric equivalent of a twelve-year-old playing Megadeth full volume in his room, or Jizzmo perhaps.
Except “Advent” did haul Truth into the light. Nadelman’s childhood clairvoyance wasn’t as spectacular as Wran’s, but on one occasion it ripped open a placid summer sky to show him the face of a god. He fears he’s made that deity in the image of the senseless and brutal humanity he deplores, but eventually he decides the god existed before him, he simply described it so well that a true “creep” could create the god’s avatar, walking offal in the image of man who’s in the image of God, and also of his Rival.
It’s poignant Nadelman tries to shake his metaphysical offspring by fleeing into a temple, the kind of place he’s long left behind (and beneath) him. Yet even there he doesn’t know how to pray. Or maybe he does. Maybe though he still clutches his expensive Christmas presents, he’s stumbled on the essential verity underpinning religion, that one must hold out until the morning.
Too bad that after every morning looms another night.
For a few years after college, I used to go to a thing called the Starwood Festival. It was a week of tents and yurts, workshops on all things occult and new age, drums and campfire smoke and remembering to put your clothes back on where Amish neighbors might see you. You could learn about everything from meditation to hallucination; a talk on “Lovecraftian magic” provided a story so alarming that I eventually “borrowed” it for some Miskatonic undergrad wanna-be sorcerers.
Folks like Nadelman or Lenny would go there and get their minds blown by the discovery that it’s possible to add women to your pseudo-impressive list of “in the know” authors. But they wouldn’t go, because being surrounded by hundreds of people in a range of related knows kind of takes the steam out of smugness.
When we covered “Black Man With a Horn,” Anne described T.E.D. Klein as “SFF’s master of the quotidian.” It remains true: The mundanities of Nadelman’s dull job, dull affair, and perfectly decent wife and son contrast dramatically with the possibility that he’s accidentally created an elder god. I admire the effect, but find the mundanities themselves frustrating. It’s not that ad campaigns and affairs are inherently poor material for fiction—I’m trying hard not to be the equivalent of male critics who consider “women’s lit” inherently less meaningful than “men’s lit” (which they are pleased to call literature). No, the quotidian that annoys me here is Nadelman’s lack of insight into any of the people around him, especially the women. Rhoda has no coherent characterization; about Cele we know only that she’s extremely fit and likes sleeping with Nadelman. It makes it harder to empathize with his peril. Add to that his constant low-level miasma of racial fears, and his tendency to boast about how much he knows about “losers” who like to boast about how much they know…
On the other hand, the horror itself is so well done—and I do see how Nadelman’s personality is necessary to its power. Here’s a failed author who never got past the unalloyed id-gleanings of college poetry, or the razor-sharp cynicism of the transition between the just-world fallacy and some realization that one could fight to create justice one’s own self. I imagine being haunted by my own teenaged ruminations, and shudder.
The descriptions of writing ring true as well. “He’d been touched by no divine inspiration; the poem had been a thing of lowly choices, word after word.” No muse-touched trance state is necessary to create a monster.
The other thing I like here—back to the quotidian—is the vividness with which Klein captures someone from a very specific milieu. Nadelman (and for that matter Klein himself) grew up in the same New York neighborhoods as my father, has the same balance of Jewish immersion and assimilated holidays, walks the same Long Beach boardwalk. The mention of Prevention Magazine invoked an instant sense-memory of my grandmother’s apartment in Queens, vivid and disturbing as anything on the page. It’s a bit of representation I found hard to resist—and made it more obvious that Nadelman’s flaws are those of a generation that’s only rarely confronted responsibility for its creations.
One could make a newer horror story out of this: a baby boomer calling up horrors, half-joking and half simply ignorant of the full import of his actions, while everyone else is forced to deal with that import in the garbage-y flesh. “For it meant that he might in some way be the original cause of the very things that had always appalled and horrified him…”
Next week, we continue our deific explorations with Michael Chabon’s “The God of Dark Laughter.” You can find it in The Weird.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is 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.