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 John Langan’s “Technicolor,” first published in Ellen Datlow’s 2009 Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe anthology. Spoilers ahead (but go read the whole creepy thing for yourself).
Darkness, Decay, (the red) death: the sentence personifies them; they’re its trinity, so to speak. And this godhead holds dominion, what the dictionary defines as ‘sovereign authority’ over all.
Unnamed narrator (hereafter Prof) opens his senior seminar on Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” by urging his students to repeat the last line: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” Prof contends that “Masque” relates “the incarnation of one of the persons of this awful trinity.”
Prof and class discuss Prince Prospero’s suite of many colors. The seven rooms run east to west in a visually isolating zigzag, each lit by braziers set outside a pair of facing windows. By the way, has anyone noticed how their classroom has seven windows fronting a gallery between building and parking lot? Prospero’s windows are tinted the colors of each room, blue to purple to green, orange to white to violet; the last room, however, is black with blood-red windows. The students have opined what the color sequence may signify, from simple times of day to stages in life to phases of being—
Student screams interrupt the lecture. Oh, they’ve noticed Prof’s two grad students outside, come to help with a later segment of his presentation. Yes, their white masks might be disconcerting. At least there’s no blood spattered on them. Pay no attention…
Prof projects images on a screen. The first is Matthew Brady’s famous photograph of Poe. The monochrome image suits Poe the man, but Poe’s fiction rightly inspired the saturated hues of Roger Corman’s Technicolor adaptations. Next up is Poe’s child-bride Virginia Clemm—only look closer, it’s really a cleverly doctored photo of Prof’s wife Anna, costumed as Virginia to match Prof’s Halloween-party Poe. By the way, Anna baked those cookies they’re enjoying.
The third portrait, no one recognizes. Prosper Vauglais made a splash in early-nineteenth century Paris, claiming he was one of the few soldiers who returned from Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign. Plus he returned with a twist: On his trek through the wilderness, Vauglais died but kept moving. Eventually he stumbled onto a forest abbey, where he joined a possibly Gnostic fraternity engaged in the “Great Work” of the “Transumption.” Vauglais was called “Brother Red.” Were the others Blue, Purple, Green, etc?
The Gnostics? They believed the physical world was evil, illusory. Knowledge had to center in the self. Transumption? A rhetorical term for a jump back several links in a chain of associations.
What are the grad students up to? Just positioning lamps outside the windows. Now let’s return to Vauglais, leading followers into the Parisian catacombs for a ritual involving seven skulls doused with oil and set aflame. Through mesmerism, Vauglais attempts to make the followers believe they’re summoning a tall man in black robes, corpse-faced, crowned with black flame. The trick doesn’t quite work; soon after, Vauglais disappears, leaving a memoir called “The History of My Adventures in the Russian Wilderness,” known more simply as the Green Book. An English translation eventually made its way to America, where—
Of course: Poe acquired a copy. He spent hours poring over seven images that followed Vauglais’s written account. Lucky class, Prof can share those images! They look like Rorschach blots until—the grad students put color films on the classroom windows, a different one for each “blot,” blue through red. With tinted light, the images transform to a mouth that seems to recede far beyond the screen, an octopus with moving tentacles, shimmering water, snaky coils…
The point is, Poe based “Masque” on the Green Book, but not until 1840 did he discover what Prof’s minions have just conjured, the images within the images. Rereading Vauglais’s memoir, Poe realized what his “Great Work” was. Suppose what we take to be real, the world beyond the self, is only what humanity continuously and unconsciously writes on the blank surface of things? What if one could erase some scribbling, leaving blank paper on which to consciously write? What might one bring into being?
After Virginia’s death, Poe seemed to chase his own dissolution. The alcohol he consumed consumed him. He may also have suffered a brain tumor. In extremity, he began to see the writing beneath “reality.” He decided to rewrite, to bring Virginia back into being. The last “lost” week of his life, holed up in a boarding house, he stared at a brick wall and gradually “erased” it. In that blankness he fashioned Virginia, but he jumbled together the girl, the young wife, the consumptive, the corpse, so what finally emerges is like one of his fictional revenants, “a figure whose black eyes have seen the silent halls of the dead, whose ruined mouth has tasted delicacies unknown this side of the grave.”
Soon after, Poe collapses and dies. He failed because he tried to do the Great Work alone. Even Vauglais took followers into the catacombs to serve as psychic batteries.
Prof won’t repeat Poe’s mistake. As the grad students cast a red-black light over the seventh image, what does the class see? Vauglais named it the Underneath; Prof prefers “Maw” or maybe “Cave,” from which they look out, not in. Now, Vauglais tried mesmerism to bring his “batteries” to the right mental state. Too delicate an operation. A drug would work better, like the one in the cookies Prof claimed his wife baked!
Nor will Prof summon anything so sentimental as a dead wife! He’ll complete the Great Work by incarnating one of “Masque’s” unholy Trinity. Prince Prospero unwittingly incarnated the Red Death; Prof will incarnate Darkness, that which was already old at the moment of creation. His “batteries” needn’t despair. Most won’t survive, for Darkness will need sustenance to establish its illimitable dominion.
Look—in the air—can you see it?
What’s Cyclopean: How did we miss highlighting “illimitable dominion” last time? Langan’s professor makes you say the whole glorious phrase out loud. Go on, try it. We’ll wait…
The Degenerate Dutch: Grad students are mere nameless minions; let us not even discuss the worth of undergrads.
Mythos Making: There are tentacles, of course. Oh yes, and then we have “the powers that our constant, collective writing of the real consigns to abstraction.” And inevitably, with those in place, the Lovecraftian idea that only a shared illusion protects us from the ultimate darkness…
Libronomicon: Le Livre Verte, Prosper Vauglais’s L’Histoire de Mes Aventures dans L’Entendu Russe, has a byzantine history of printings and translations… much like the Necronomicon, come to that.
Madness Takes Its Toll: And Prosper’s book appears to be even worse for mental well-being than The King in Yellow. Even worse for the status quo of reality, too.
If you didn’t put down this week’s story a dozen times to look things up and see if they were real… you’re probably more likely to survive in an occult library than I am. It’s not that “Technicolor” is easy to put down. It’s more that one looks up from it occasionally, suddenly afraid that all these logical chains of connection might be real. The world’s full of such disturbing minutiae: historical figures disappearing into mystery, or moose getting eaten by orcas. Poe’s lost week is real; Prosper Vauglais, so far as my anxious googling can discern, is not. (Which of course allows the subtly on-the-nose Prosper/Proserpine parallel.) Speculations about the cause of Poe’s death have not actually been settled one way or another, though the ideas and evidence that Prof raises are more-or-less accurate.
He does seem like the cool professor at first, doesn’t he? The one who’s always wandering off into digressions more intriguing than the original material, who knows all the most exciting conspiracy theories. It’s the perfect set-up for a monologue in the tradition of Crawford’s “Screaming Skull.” As with Crawford’s narrator, the monologue makes it easy to infer the unheard listeners’ responses, and makes the setting vivid. Unlike Crawford’s narrator, the monologue is less the friendly discussion it first appears, and more Cliff Notes for The King in Yellow. Usually villainous monologues are more dangerous for the villain than for their audience, but here we find an exception.
But then, the monologue is not usually itself the dastardly scheme. Clever, that. Our professor does what he says “Masque” itself, and that key sentence at the end, does: “carries you along through the revelry until you run smack-dab into that tall figure in the funeral clothes.” And a disturbing journey it is, a slow but inevitable unmasking. It’s clear from the point when the minions/grad students show up that something unpleasant is going to happen. And then I started to suspect that the professor’s wife and Virginia Poe had more in common than just looks… but no, he chides, that’s insufficiently imaginative when you have the ability to rewrite reality.
So what’s his motivation, then? Academic frustration might be the pedestrian answer—he certainly doesn’t seem to like his students, gets annoyed when they give answers that diverge from his own. Perhaps he’s a Gnostic—as he describes the heresy, “the physical world was evil, a wellspring of illusions and delusions.” And if Darkness, Decay, and Death are your unholy trinity, the world’s vivid colors are the foremost of those illusions. The titular mention of technicolor is telling—color that’s deliberate deception, created consciously rather than in unknowing collaboration.
And perhaps beyond any philosophy, someone has shown him Vauglais’s “terrible joy” before. He has to have learned all this somewhere, right? And the Green Book, looked at properly, seems to do the same work as this monologue. We’ve seen plenty of books and revelations that can drive you mad—a personal catastrophe—but this one goes rather beyond that. Once you become an opening (a mouth, a cave) for things that can rewrite reality, the catastrophe is no longer yours alone.
Langan’s managed to make literary analysis creepy. Something to bear in mind the next time you consider taking a humanities class. Or… perhaps… reading a blog series that teases meaning and pattern out of a semi-random set of short stories?
I have fond memories of senior seminars, especially the one in which we read Beowulf in all its West Saxon glory, each student standing in turn to proclaim a dozen lines with all the bardish orotundity he or she could summon. We were helped along by the strong tea and stronger mead our professor brewed. He also provided us with delicious apple bread. I don’t think he laced any of these refreshments with mind-altering drugs, nor do I recall witnessing the incarnation of any Dane-munching monsters or their moms. But who knows? As I said, the mead packed a kick when quaffed in sufficient quantity.
Himself a professor, John Langan puts “Technicolor’s” readers front row off-center in his doomed classroom—the narrative structure is a deft take on first person point-of-view in which we have no access to the narrator’s thoughts, emotions or perceptions beyond what we can infer from his words. Another way of describing it could be as a transcript of Prof’s lecture, up to the point when the transcriptionist looks into the air, sees the incarnation of Darkness, and decides to stop keystroking because End of the World as We Know It, no further documentation needed. It’s vital that we don’t get more than Prof’s words; otherwise, we’d realize too soon what he’s up to, wouldn’t we, and we’d high-tail it out of that seven-windowed classroom for the local student drinking hole, or Paranormal Police station.
No doubt, by story’s end, that Prof is a hell of an unreliable educator. I’ll bet he’s one of the most popular members of the faculty, though, one whose classes are always full. He’s deploys just the right blend of erudition, imagination, enthusiasm and snark to enthrall a lecture hall. He’s not above the astute pop culture reference, as to Roger Corman’s Poe films. He can temper his self-assuredness with self-deprecation, as when he admits he’s no Latin scholar. And while you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of his put-downs, you probably enjoy seeing someone else take the whip-snap, like the student who gets told to put down his hand re identification of the Vauglais portrait—he, Prof snips, certainly doesn’t have the answer, the annoying know-it-all.
Plus Prof brings home-made cookies to class. Too bad they’re the last cookies the class members will eat, since either they’re about to be eaten themselves or there ain’t no cookies in the grim dominion of Darkness made flesh. Damn you, sneaky Prof!
Speaking of sneaky, you guys who’ve read “Technicolor,” did Professor Langan fool you with his painstakingly detailed history of Prosper Vauglais? I’ll confess first: I Googled Vauglais and was shamefaced yet amused when all references led back to “Technicolor.” Masterful literary inventions, that Vauglais and his Green Book and his Gnostic fraternity with its Great Work of erasing our world of illusion. Sweet concept that Poe based his bloody fable on the cryptic ravings of a mesmerist charlatan—sweeter still if Poe based it on the cryptic ravings of an actual walking corpse. What could be more sumptuously Poesque?
My hand shoots up. Here are three more sumptuously Poesque things, Professor! One, how Fate or demonic providence led Poe to the Green Book in the first place. Two, the gimmick of a water-glass rainbow revealing to Poe the true significance of Vauglais’s “inkblots.” Three, that Poe uses the “Vauglais technique” not to remold all reality but to restore the only bit of it he’s come to care for, the beloved ideal, Virginia his Ligeia. Oh, wait, Professor, here’s Three-A! It’s Poesque to the nth degree that Langan’s Poe is no more successful than any of Poe’s protagonists at reviving in embraceable form a dead (or deadish) ideal. Langan’s Prof suggests Poe fails with Virginia because his brain’s so drug-addled and cancer-riddled that it mish-mashes memories of the poor girl into a grisly, shroud-draped horror like Madeline Usher. Also Poe neglected to gather a sufficient array of human batteries to boost his own will.
Prof, on the other hand, has the battery thing down. So what if it means he has to poison a couple dozen students, perhaps unto the grave—it’s for a noble cause! Or it’s for nothing, if Prof is as deluded in his efforts as Poe was in his necromancy.
I had a notion reading “Technicolor” that Prof might do more than cosplay Poe. What if he is Poe, rewritten as immortal via the Vauglais method? What if “Anna” is the rewritten-as-alive Virginia? A rereading made me wonder instead whether Prof is Prosper Vauglais, dead but still pretty high-functioning, hence functionally immortal. It makes sense. After Vauglais sojourned in Tahiti, where Gauguin heard of a strange white man who vanished into the island’s interior, he might have moved on to a cozy college town in the United States. Or to a succession of cozy college towns, slowly preparing for the ritual that would complete his Great Work.
That is not dead that can eternal teach ENG 410: Poe, American Gothic, and with strange semesters, even death may die, or get tenure.
Next week, John Connolly’s “Razor Shins” takes us back into the darkness of the woods…
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.