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 Fiona Maeve Geist’s “Red Stars/White Snow/Black Metal,” first published in Robert S. Wilson’s Ashes and Entropy anthology in 2018. Spoilers ahead, but it’s worth reading on your own.
“So Kelsey grasps the thread and finds herself across the Atlantic, stuffing her hands into the worn-out pockets of her black denim vest—the sharp, white, goetic scrawls metled in alignment by lighter-touched dental floss announcing her arrival: a black sun strangled by the coils of skeletal snakes emblazoned across her back as she lights a cigarette from a black box.”
Journalist Kelsey wakes from troubled dreams in the bathroom of a Moscow hostel, where she pukes empty-stomach bile. If flooding memory serves, what a long strange trip has led her here, to the mirror-pinned note declaring “THE FACTORIES OF RESURRECTION ARE IN OPERATION,” along with geographical coordinates and the warning “Don’t be late.” Soon she’s hurtling out of a city whose “elegant, geometric starkness” encompasses “the ideals of a dead empire.”
Two weeks earlier, editor Leo Carter offers her an assignment perfect for the woman who wrote that expose of the French Black Metal Underground. It was a heady mix of violence, occultism and bands with names like Obscene Sacraments of the Serpentine Liturgy. Leo’s pitch: Somewhere in Europe the “Victory Over the Sun” tour combines death metal with a Russian Futurist “opera” that supposedly does something to audiences. Somehow connected are a New Age Science cult (the Mouth of the Solar Conclave), a mystical neofascist order (the Brotherhood of the Black, Corpulent Sow), and pagan “political lesbians” tattooed with inky-tentacled maggots. All that, plus the usual mix of disaffected metalheads and would-be revolutionaries too.
Kelsey, unable to get assignments since she publicly called her boss on sexual harrassment, can’t refuse. She dons her own metalhead vest and heads for Lisbon. Tips send her to Spain, then to Sarajevo, where she meets a member of the Brotherhood of the Black, Corpulent Sow. He denies they practice black magic, even though they may occasionally “put on robes and retreat to a private chalet to discuss good governance.” She’s chasing a non-story, he says.
Moments after he leaves, a woman drags Kelsey into an alleyway. Sophie Maximenko is there to save Kelsey from “the pigs.” On cue, three guys dash up wearing porcine masks and toting Kalashnikovs. Sophie summarily guns and/or axes them down. That taken care of, she explains her sisterhood is all about “embracing the potential of woman as destroyer.” She and Kelsey can discuss it further next time they meet, in Montenegro.
Along the way, Kelsey hangs with revolutionary youths and helps beat up a Sow-tattooed fascist. Something brutal, it seems, is waking in her.
In Budua, Montenegro, Sophie and Kelsey don yellow gowns to infiltrate a luxuriously decadent Brotherhood lair. A carmine-robed, sow-masked figure promises rich maybe-recruits that the Brotherhood will “purify Europe,” then leads them through skull-lined, torchlit passages. Sophie tells Kelsey to go on alone. Which Kelsey does, following her personal mantra: “the path to truth is beset by danger.”
Danger indeed: Brotherhood guards close in, but someone cuts their throats: a curiously youthful old man in a lab coat who introduces himself as Konstantin Steinsch, a scientist who believes in the energy of the sun to spread the true revolution across the stars. He denounces the Brotherhood (decadent!) and Sophie’s sisterhood (barbarous!) and invites Kelsey to meditate with the Mouth of the Solar Conclave at Gura Humorului in Romania. That is, after she witnesses the Brotherhood’s noisome revels. She lurks long enough to take in “orgiastic violence,” “languid…cruelty,” and “boundless need,” overseen by “an immense pestilential sow riddled with tumors atop a palanquin of human bones.”
In Romania, the Solar Conclave’s meditation center proves a bland mix of New Age thinking and Marxism. In a journal called Hylaea Nul, she learns about Victory over the Sun, a movement of “nihilism too beautiful to comprehend.” On to Moscow, where Sophie extends an offer: Get in her expensive antique car, and catch a ride to the performance Kelsey’s been seeking. Needless to say, Kelsey gets in.
Sophie denounces the fringe science of the Solar Conclave and shows Kelsey their abandoned hinterland complex. There they snort reddish-brown powder Sophie calls “Sol invictus” and join black-clad crowds filing toward a concrete bunker-stage. Members of all factions mingle, revolutionary youths, pig-Brothers, maggot-Sisters and metal-heads. Kelsey even spots snake-sun patches like her own. She takes Ecstasy and wanders. Bands play, their music “an all out aural assault…an execrable tintinnabulation…a dreadful susurrus” that drives the audience to a wanton bacchanalia of violence. The “opera” follows, set against a featureless black backdrop, a “disjointed hokum” of “nightmarish harlequins” acting out “parodic madness.”
Kelsey watches snow go black, sky white, a second blood-red moon rise. The opera backdrop is an “open gate.” Its “tendrils” suck in attendees like “unseeing marionettes.” Atop a ridge, Konstantin looks on. Kelsey turns from him into the “amoral and scandalous throng.” She howls “into the ether and [is] answered from on high.”
Then she wakes in the Moscow hostel.
In Sophie’s car, Kelsey speeds toward—somewhere. Something did happen at the end of the “opera”; there was something “beneath the facade—something immense and occulted, dynamic and intoxicating.” Perhaps “a sequestered divine spark rising up to immolate everything before darkness takes us all.”
She admires the maggot tattoo on her wrist. To whatever end she travels, it will be with abandon, “swept up in a riptide of arcane conflict, propelled by feral hunger to crack the heavens and feast upon the bones.”
What’s Cyclopean: A city of ochre dust and exotic spices, and a city of obsidian night. But “cyclopean is the least of the language. From the first cantankerous, pestilential boar to the last Brobdingnagian inky square, Geist revels in her affair with the thesaurus, dictionary, and any other linguistic tome willing to come along for the ecstatic ride.
The Degenerate Dutch: Lotta Nazis and nationalists drawn to “The Victory Over the Sun” tour.
Mythos Making: A fascist tells Kelsey: “Your problem is: there isn’t a story, there is no deeper meaning, just a surface tension of disorder that will someday be rectified.” Like much of cosmic horror it’s equally a claim that all pattern is an illusion of the human mind, and that there is a real underlying pattern and a terrible one.
Libronomicon: We might just have musical versions of the whole Miskatonic bookshelf this week: Ancient Grudge, Carbonized Victim, Forest of Hate, Kindertotenlieder, Guttural Response, Das Lied von der Erde, and of course the dread opera of “The Victory Over the Sun.”
Madness Takes Its Toll: Watch the wrong metal rock opera, wake up with temporary amnesia and possibly a permanently altered moral outlook.
Once upon a sophomore Contemporary American Literature class, I was obliged to read Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. This novel is not about a weepy parcel of real estate as I was hoping. Instead it details the odyssey of California housewife Oedipa Maas as she tries to unravel the mystery of whether 19th-century postal corporation Trystero still exists as an underground system. She meets many weird people, ponders the significance of a Jacobean revenge drama called The Courier’s Tragedy, and finally attends an auction in which Lot 49, rare postage stamps possibly coveted by Trystero, is about to be “cried.” Got that? I just looked the plot up, since all I actually remember about Crying is the scene in which Oedipa plays strip poker while watching an old movie in which a kid and his grandfather drown in a homemade submarine. Oh, and in the fictional Jacobean drama some bishop is forced to consecrate and eat his own severed toe. His BIG toe. For too long I wondered whether he managed to swallow the toe whole or chewed it up. In First Communion class we were threatened with hellfire if we chewed the Host, so there’s that problem, but does a toe get dispensation?
Never mind. The point is, this week’s story reminded me of Crying. Which is to say that it confuzzled me the first time through; then it grew on me like unholy mistletoe, and I started to get it. Kind of, maybe. It’s a riff on the King in Yellow, I’m told. Some allusions I spot, like the mind-bending play-within-the-fiction, here a Russian Futurist opera. Yeah, that would probably bend my poor mind. The Sow Brothers wear masks, like the King, only I think theirs are really masks. Maybe not at the end of the Victory Over the Sun concert, though, when the Brothers become “bestial.” The Sisters sport maggot tattoos, which bring to mind the maggot-man in Chambers’ “King.” Kelsey and Sophie wear yellow gowns to the Brotherhood ball (you realize this if you know—or look up, like me—that “fulvous” and “xanthous” are shades of yellow.) When Kelsey’s eyes are “opened” by the opera, she looks up into a sky with black stars, like the black stars of Carcosa. Kelsey’s vest ornament includes a black sun, which sigil could mark her as a fitting Queen in lost Carcosa, but not likely a “Queen of Life” as Konstantin imagines her—Kelsey’s ultimate choice of affiliation is with the Maggots of ecstatic destruction.
For sure, Kelsey’s special. Everyone wants her, either dead or on their side. She senses there’s something behind the cultish chaos she’s been sent to document. Something beyond the “hokum” of the Futurist opera. A force of unreason—like the King whose gift is madness?
Anyhow, I passed “Red Stars” on to my friend and sometimes collaborator Carl Kolchak. I wanted to get a journalist’s opinion of the story. Take it, Carl.
CARL: First off, there’s such a thing as TOO MANY CULTISTS. I mean, ONE cult is bad enough. Throw in a bunch of warring factions, each with crap-tons of members, and I’m not taking that assignment. Not unless I can be embedded in a crack platoon of anti-occult stormtroopers.
ME: Are there crack platoons of anti-occult stormtroopers?
CARL: I didn’t mention those. Nope, not me.
ME: What about Kelsey’s journalistic style?
CARL: I applaud her intrepid approach to interviewing and her ability to engage subjects as diverse as aristocratic fascists and scrawny street radicals. However, she should guard against identifying too much with interviewees. You know, like kicking all hell out of drunk aristocratic fascists, just because the scrawny street radicals do. Reportial distance. Also, you could throw a knee out.
ME: And the elephants in the text?
CARL: You mean the semicolons and sentence fragments and general syntactical idiosyncrasies?
ME: Hate to say it, but if there were only that many elephants left in the wild.
CARL: Well, you know, back when I was a cub reporter, my editors only gave me one semicolon per story, carefully sealed in a lead-lined box, for use only when absolutely necessary. I now have a blackmarket source of semicolons, so I could use ‘em like pepper on scrambled eggs, but too much pepper makes the eggs hard to digest. And fragments are like salt, and syntax tricks are like catsup, or sriracha for you hipster diners out there.
ME: And the giraffes in the text?
CARL: Ah, the Baroque vocabulary that makes Lovecraft’s most florid flights read like Raymond Carver? My rule is that you should only make the reader crack their dictionary once or twice per piece. Three times max. But that’s me. I kind of enjoyed the unusual verbiage in this story, like you’d enjoy roaming through a jungle of novel flora and fauna, as long as they didn’t sting or bite you. Tintinnabulation is always fun to spot languidly fanning its fulvous wings in the fantoccini-dusk beneath the Brobdingnagian leaves of a Hosta humani generis.
ME: What Carl just said. I think.
“It’s my take on The King in Yellow,” Geist told me at the con’s end. I’d snuck guiltily out of yet another genre-defining panel discussion, hoping to catch the last set of readings, but two authors had no-showed and the thing had ended early. No drug-warped concerts were involved, but at least we were both jittery from caffeine and sleep deprivation. It’s hardly enough to make for gonzo journalism, but it did put her Entropy and Ashes story at the top of my list for post-con review.
In the rough taxonomy of Things That Count as Weird Fiction, “Red Stars / White Snow / Black Metal” starts out straddling the line between stories that build on Mythosian (and Carcosan) tropes, and stories that seek new ways to shake readers’ sense of stable reality. From that point, however, it doesn’t so much walk the line as do a freestyle dive off the cliff on the reality-shaking side of the border. It keeps one self-aware eye on its origins—which I can only imagine as a single wild night of passion between Robert Chambers, Hunter S. Thompson, and a thesaurus—but it’s plunging at breakneck speed towards some unimaginable fate and all the cyclopeans in the world aren’t enough to map the way in advance.
Kelsey tears through the tissue-thin illusion of civilization in a way that’s all too realistic. Call out your misogynist boss’s harassment too publicly, and suddenly find yourself assailed by fascists. Seems legit, unfortunately. I’m writing this on Monday; I predict that by Wednesday morning some combination of the authoritarian rallies, nihilist man-boys looking to feel strong on someone else’s weakness, 1-percenters with no constraints on their search for power, and bullet-riddled ultraviolence will have grown even more relevant than it was over the weekend. Our jaded world has already read That Play, or maybe listened to it at ear-bleeding volumes, and the repairers of reputations are on the march.
Geist never seeks sympathy for those monsters, though empathy’s offered for the women driven to dances of destruction by the whole sordid mess. We don’t spend one minute of narrative looking out from behind their eyes. Instead we have a guide obsessed with tracking down the truth, no matter what petty hatred originally set her on this particular trail, or the consequences of finding its end. Shades of Professor Dyer, but Kelsey’s is no academic obsession. Her determination is journalistic, heedless of danger to body or soul. And this is Thompson’s gonzo journalism in particular: no safe boundary between observer and observed, drugs beginning to take hold somewhere near Carcosa on the edge of the desert.
“Cyclopean,” I’m convinced, became something of a signature for Lovecraft—not merely a word he thought well-suited for describing alien architecture, but a “Howard was here” unmistakable even on ghost-written stories. In two separate tales he turns it up to 11; Thompson might well approve. Later authors, myself included, throw it into stories as tribute or wry acknowledgment. It shows up twice in “Red Stars,” along with a cacophony of synonyms for familiar colors, the nearly-unspoken yellow very much included.
That’s the other comparison that’s been nibbling at my mind: Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy, with its conspiracies to immanentize the eschaton, psychedelic rituals, eldritch paranoias that make perfect sense in the moment of reading. Caffeine and theobromine are the only mind-altering chemicals in which I generally indulge, but after reading the Trilogy in line at Disneyland I determined that words counted as a mind-altering substance. “Red Stars” is brimming with such words, compressed into short form, and it’s a worthy addition to the list of weirdest weird fiction I’ve read for this column.
Next week, vampiric weirdness from one of Lovecraft’s contemporaries in Everil Worrell’s “The Canal.” [ETA: Noooooo! That link goes to Derleth’s bowdlerized version! Original here: https://archive.org/details/WeirdTalesV10N06192712/page/n69 ]
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.