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 Michael Chabon’s “The God of Dark Laughter,” first published in The New Yorker in April 2009. Spoilers ahead.
“Damn you, Ganz,” I said, though I was not in truth addressing the poor fellow, who, I knew, would not be able to answer my question anytime soon. “What’s a dead clown doing in my woods?”
Edward Satterlee has been district attorney for Pennsylvania’s Yuggogheny County for twelve years, and has seen more than his share of bizarre cases. Today he’s writing about one of the weirdest; his report will also serve as his resignation letter.
Thirteen days after the Entwhistle-Ealing Bros. circus left Ashtown, boys find a dead man clad in purple and orange velour and enormous floppy shoes. Someone had shot the clown, which was unfunny enough, but unfunnier still was how they’d flayed him “from chin to crown and clavicle to clavicle, taking ears, eyelids, lips and scalp in a single grisly flap, like the cupped husk of a peeled orange.” The corpse has no ID, but investigators establish that he’d been living in a nearby cave. Along with camping gear and a revolver, they recover a makeup kit and two odd books: Uber das Finstere Lachen (Concerning Dark Laughter) by Friedrich von Junzt and a small black-bound volume printed in an unknown alphabet.
Satterlee calls the circus manager to ask if he’s missing any clowns. He senses the man lies when he says no. His suspicions are further roused when the manager nervously asks whether the dead man was harmed beyond the gunshot wound, and hangs up abruptly on hearing the answer.
Convinced this killing is “a crime [involving more than] the usual amalgam of stupidity, meanness and singularly poor judgment,” Satterlee pours himself a stiff whiskey. This kind of “inscrutable evil” tends to bring out the worst in irrational imaginations. Satterlee has no tolerance for the irrational, having lived through too much of that with his occult-obsessed mother.
The victim’s campsite reeks of animal musk. Satterlee hikes to the clearing where the body was found, following three sets of footprints: the clown’s, his assailant’s, and a barefooted child’s. The mystery of both musk and “child” is solved when a baboon shows up wearing a conical purple and orange cap. It leaps into Satterlee’s arms, which officers mistake as an attack. To Satterlee’s dismay, they shoot the baboon. They pry from its dead paw a human finger, presumably bitten off while the baboon defended its clown master.
To aid his examination of Finstere Lachen, Satterlee stops at the library for a German-English dictionary. He also researches Friedrich von Junzt, a “notorious adventurer and fake” who nevertheless uncovered important artifacts from the ancient Urartian people.
Home in his study, Satterlee labors through von Junzt’s “overheated” prose. The book describes two still-surviving proto-Urartian cults. The followers of baboon-headed Ye-Heh, the “god of dark or mocking laughter,” saw the universe as a “cosmic hoax, perpetrated by father-god Yrrh for unknowable purposes.” The Ye-Hehists devised a sacred burlesque to mock human aspiration: Their clown-priest would steal the features of someone who’d died in an exalted endeavor and dance in the macabre mask, thus making a travesty of “the noble dead.” Over generations, inbreeding marked them with distended grins and chalk-white skin.
Opposing the Ye-Hehists were the disciples of Ai, God of Unbearable and Ubiquitous Sorrow. Their reaction to Yrrh’s “cosmic hoax” was “permanent wailing.” They also ruthlessly murdered their laughing rivals, believing that when the last Ye-Hehist was gone, Yrrh would return. So it was that Ye-Hehists often hid in traveling circuses, recognized only by their fellow clowns and implacable pursuers.
Satterlee puts the clown’s books under his pillow for protection, and suffers terrible dreams. He observes a man living where “evil seemed to bubble up from the rusty red earth like a black combustible compound of ancient things long dead.” This man hides behind law books and county ordinances as if they could protect his loved ones from the “black geyser.” This man loses his young son to a drunk driver he failed to prosecute earlier; his wife commits suicide, and he takes to furtive drinking. Dream-Satterlee laughs at his dream-self until his head bursts.
Next day he learns someone’s made a mess in a room at the local motel, filling a waste basket with bloody bandages and soaking a pillow with tears. The county coroner reports the dead clown was a hemophiliac, like inbred royalty. In the clown’s makeup kit there’s no white greasepaint, just foundation labeled “Men’s Olive.”
Satterlee’s always relied on reason and skepticism, rejecting his mother’s supernatural explanations for calamity. In truth, they were both blind to the simpler answer that “the world is an ungettable joke.” He wonders if the murdered clown was the last Ye-Hehist, or if the followers of dismal Ai still have work to do.
He suspects that if Yrrh ever does show up to save or destroy His universe, He’ll do it with no godly proclamation but “a single, a terrible guffaw.”
What’s Cyclopean: A cave exhales “cool plutonic breath.” The circus people fear a “coulrophobic madman.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Degenerate clowns, this week. Inbred, degenerate clowns. Coulrophobes may wish to skip this one.
Mythos Making: To the pantheon add Ye-Heh, the god of dark laughter, and Ai, the god of Unbearable and Ubiquitous Sorrow—and daddy Yrrh.
Libronomicon: Friedrich von Junzt is familiar from previous reads as the author of Nameless Cults; here we learn that he’s also the author of Über das Finstere Lachen (About/Over/Above the Dark Laughter)
Madness Takes Its Toll: Satterlee has every intention of setting down the facts of the case without fear of the readers doubting them, or his own sanity.
Sometimes the smallest detail can throw me out of a story. I pass cheerfully suspended over cyclopean chasms of disbelief, but one off-kilter line drops me like Wile E. Coyote. In this case, it’s the finger. The long-nailed finger, that Ganz supposes to be a woman’s until Satterlee points out, with exasperated impatience at the other detective’s denseness, that it can’t possibly be a woman’s since it lacks nail polish.
I CONFESS, IT WAS ME, I KILLED THE CLOWN!!!
Thus are edifices of Holmesian logic collapsed. This is, of course, a Lovecraftian story of a man’s worldview falling apart even as he desperately clings to the pieces—but I don’t think Satterlee’s understanding of women’s manual decorating options was meant to be part of that worldview, and I do think we’re supposed to generally trust his chain of deductions all the way to its horrific conclusion. But I can’t do that, for want of a nail.
The other plot hole, larger and perhaps more persuasive to other people, comes at the end, when the chain of evidence does in fact suggest that a member of one ancient cult murdered a member of another ancient cult. And thence, finally, the logical leap to “The Nine Billion Names of God,” only with more flaying. But clever as that final anticipated guffaw seems, we have many examples in the real world of one group trying to wipe out another. One or both groups often have grandly mythic stories about why this is happening. And never in the history of ever has an attempt at genocide or mass murder had any bearing on the truth of the mythic origin stories of either group.
So it seems quite plausible to me (still contemplating my finger) that some asshole cultist, trying (like many asshole cultists) to immanentize the eschaton, did in fact kill an inbred clown, and that this has no particular implications for the nature of reality.
“Dark Laughter” does fit well as a follow-up to “Nadelman’s God.” Satterlee has a stronger personal stake in his tightly-held worldview than most Lovecraftian narrators, but at the same time seems almost eager to fling himself into the abyss of belief in a universe of cosmic horror. Nadelman’s experience of cosmic-joke unfairness is more distant, a shudder at newspaper headlines, but on the other hand he may have created the joke himself. For him, it’s the god that’s personal rather than reality’s inherent lack of justice.
“Nadelman’s God” is set very firmly in 80s New York City, and the recognizable portrayal grounds the story even while Nadelman himself is a poor observer of the actual people therein. Satterlee at least fancies himself a close observer of humanity, and the narrative seems to think so too… but there’s that finger. That reluctance to question assumptions or offer respect—when it comes to humans at least; baboons get the full share of his mental flexibility. It makes a difference. They’re both unreliable narrators, but in Nadelman’s case I ultimately believe his observation of horror. In the other case, though, I think Satterlee’s been through a hell of a lot of horror, no supernatural component required—but I can’t ultimately trust what he thinks he perceives.
Have we been deep in the theological shed for the past few weeks or what? “Smoke Ghost” and “Nadelman’s God“ and now Michael Chabon’s “The God of Dark Laughter”—a long strange trip indeed, and for me an exhilarating one, as I like little better than pondering the cosmic chicken-and-egg question of who came first, god(s) or mortals intelligent enough to search for some overarching meaning behind their daily travails.
Rather as our Howard invented a fictional alter ego in Randolph Carter, stout defender of genre fiction Chabon has his August Van Zorn (itself the pen name of Albert Vetch, English professor at fictional Coxley College). Chabon’s also-fictional literary scholar Leon Chaim Bach proclaimed Van Zorn “the greatest unknown horror writer of the twentieth century.” In Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys, the narrator notes that Van Zorn wrote scores of pulp stories “in the gothic mode, after the manner of Lovecraft,” except in a “dry, ironic, at times almost whimsical idiom.” For example, one of Van Zorn’s collections is titled “The Abominations of Plunkettsburg,” which I would so read the hell out of based solely on the cognitive disconnect between “abominations” and any burg named for a Plunkett.
For another example of how Chabon demonstrates a dual relish for the “gothic” (abominations!) and “whimsical” (Plunkettsburg!), we need go no further than today’s story. Its setting is a western Pennsylvania county riddled with cave systems, just the sort of place the Mi-Go might favor; appropriate, then, that the county’s named Yuggogheny, an apparent nod to a real Pennsylvania river, the Youghiogheny. Which Mi-Go might also favor, since in the Lenape language Youghiogheny means “a stream flowing in a contrary direction.” DA Satterlee describes Yuggogheny as a “blighted and unfortunate county,” home to such “outrageous and bizarre” cases as the earthquake-initiated collapse of the Neighborsburg Caverns, which killed Colonel Earnshawe and his sister Irene, of whom many strange rumors were whispered. Then there was the Primm affair (too “horrific” to detail) and the panic-stirring advent of the Green Man. And now a baboon-owning doomed clown, and the baboon shot clutching a long-nailed human finger, and a murderer with ninja-like skills who can cry a pillow to saturation, no, actually. You could, too, if you worshipped the God of Unbearable and Ubiquitous Sorrows.
Now we come to the theological stuff! Satterlee, like Leiber’s Wran and Klein’s Nadelman, is a man of extraordinary perception. His takes the form of “hunches”—hunches that are as much a personal curse as a professional asset. One, that a drunkard could conquer his dipsomania, led to a DUI crash that killed Satterlee’s son and drove his wife to suicide. Hence Satterlee’s perfectly positioned to appreciate the complementary cosmos-views of the Ye-Hehists and Ai-ites. The two cults share a father-godhead as evidently without purpose in His creation as Lovecraft’s blind and mindless Azathoth. Where they differ, drastically, is in how one should react to the moral chaos Yrrh has left behind.
We all know the truism regarding the horrors and tragedies of the world: If you don’t laugh, you’ll have to cry. The Ye-Hehists laugh. The Ai-ites cry. The subgods the cults create, their self-reflective avatars for the Divine Indifference, embody their responses to tribulation. And Chabon, dryly wry and whimsical like Van Zorn, gives the subgods onomatopoeic names derived from the typical/ritual vocalizations of their followers: Ye-heh is a chortle, Ai a cry of despair.
After witnessing the destruction wrought by his mother’s mysticism, Satterlee has devoted himself to the thoroughly secular gods of reason, skepticism and human law. It’s testimony to the weirdness tainting Yuggogheny County that the case of the flayed clown is the blow to shatter his defenses—I’d think he could attribute the murder to the insanity of its perpetrator, as nothing blatantly supernatural has occurred to trigger his worldview crisis. Even that long-nailed finger scratching at his study window was just a wind-tossed branch. Right? Right? Or is what matters the fact that Satterlee entertained the notion of the finger, however briefly?
His mother was a fool. He is a fool, and in the fool’s game, Satterlee’s sympathies finally rest with the Ye-Hehists. The universal stage doesn’t host tragic epics, or even melodramas, only farces. If Yrrh returns it will be neither with bang nor whimper but with a guffaw.
Which brings back to mind the Smoke Ghost’s titters and those devastating original lines from Nadelman’s poem:
The ritual works!
For God at last breaks through
A god who smirks and says, “The joke’s on you!”
Ah, and we thought vengeful gods were bad. Instead consensus derived from our recent reads leans towards Creators so indifferent they only guffaw and titter and smirk.
At least Azathoth has the grace to blaspheme and bubble at the center of all infinity, even if it is to the maddening beat of vile drums and monotonous whine of accursed flutes. And I have it on the best authority (Nyarlathotep) that the big A didn’t hire the band for this gig.
Next week we celebrate our 250th Lovecraft Reread post in traditional style, with a film of delightfully unpredictable quality! Join us for The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu, a tale of tainted heritage, cultists, and comic book fans.
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.