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 Connolly’s “Razorshins,” first published in the July-August 2015 issue of Black Static. Spoilers ahead.
“I’ll be wanting an extra bottle from you.”
Narrator relates a story from his grandfather’s bootlegging youth. Tendell Tucker was “a hard man” who transported liquor from Canada via Maine, his native state. He answered to Dan Carroll, partner to the infamous King Solomon, because Tendell “preferred dealing with the Irish to working with the Jews. He never said why. He was just that kind of fella.”
Trouble starts when Bill Sellers, another Carroll operative, steals a shipment from Solomon. Solomon offs Sellers, but remains unappeased. To check out Carroll’s other men he sends a “shadow”: Mordecai Blum, aka “Motke the Mortician.” Squat, neckless and “abominably hirsute,” Blum has no sense of humor and a large capacity for violence; Carroll warns him not to turn his back on the man.
On the ride to Canada, Tendell and Blum barely speak, despite discovering one commonality: Blum never touches booze because it disagrees with his “insides” and Tendell drinks little, having seen what alcoholism did to his abusive father. Borderside they meet three of Tendell’s drivers and Canadian truckers delivering eighty cases of premium whisky. While the others load their Cadillacs, Blum questions the Canadians, making copious notes on previous deliveries. Tendell doesn’t appreciate Blum alienating his contacts or the delay when snow clouds threaten overhead. Sure enough, the convoy isn’t long on the road when a blinding storm settles in.
Tendell advises sheltering with Earl Wallace, who owns a deep-woods homestead and a still of his own. Blum protests paying Wallace a whole case of whisky; Tendell warns they’re in his country, among his people–let him do the dealing. He steps out to tell his drivers the plan; they grumble about “the Jew,” how it would be too bad if something happened to him. Back in his car, Tendell finds that Blum’s aware of the others’ animosity. Blum muses about how the Irish run the police, firemen, councils. The Jews don’t have power like that. Does Tendell play chess? No? A pity. Games are a reflection of reality, chess is war on a board. Right now Solomon and Carroll are jostling for position, the kings. Tendell and Blum are the knights, bishops, rooks. Vulnerable to pawns if careless, but more likely to be taken out by their own sort.
Wallace’s place is accessible only by a narrow unmarked trail. The old man greets them, shotgun in hand. He agrees to hide the convoy in his barn in exchange for the usual case. For tonight he can offer stew, bread, and coffee. Which, he says glaring at Blum, is “damn Christian” of him. Motke Blum, he mutters to Tendell, is no good. Tendell doesn’t argue.
The two-room farmhouse is Spartan, cold in spite of the fire on the hearth. Wallace figures the snowstorm will let up by morning. He adds it’s a full moon tonight, so he’ll need them to leave an extra bottle outside, by the fence. There’s “life in the woods,” see.
Blum’s outraged that superstition should waste more of Solomon’s whisky. Though Tendell offers to stand for the bottle, Wallace insists it be Solomon’s loss. Otherwise, they can get the hell out. Blum rises as if to do so, then punches Wallace to the floor. Tension’s high until Tendell gets the injured Wallace into an armchair and his men bedded down. Blum asks what the deal is with the extra bottle. Tendell says it’s for Razorshins, creature of bootlegger legend. He refuses to say more, though he knows the tales himself. Razorshins is supposedly responsible for scalpings and mutilations if not placated with jugs on the full moon, and credible men claim to have seen its six-toed, spike-heeled footprints in the snow mornings after.
Later, Blum’s “insides” prove susceptible to north country stew, and he heads for the outhouse, ignoring Tendell’s suggestion to reconsider that extra bottle. Wallace tells Tendell to lock the door–doesn’t he hear that Blum’s not alone out there? What Tendell hears is crunching snow, bone clacking on bone. He peers outside. The night’s now windless, but branches move at wood’s edge. Wending through them is a thing like a seven-foot-tall stick insect the color of sour buttercream. It’s nearly fleshless, its long fingers wielding curved talons, its joints and spine bone-spiked. Its head is axe-shaped, its teeth fish-pointy, and it has no visible eyes, only enormous sniffing nostrils.
Go outside, and they’ll all die, Wallace warns. Stay quiet! Tendell still tries to warn Blum by rapping on the window. Blum quits the outhouse, sees the creature’s shadow fall over him. Before he can run, it shears off his right leg at the knee, then stills his screams by scalping him with a swipe of a bone-spur.
The others cower while Razorshins taps window panes and rattles the door. From the barn come noises of destruction; at dawn they find one Cadillac irreparably damaged, though most of the whisky’s salvageable. Blum’s savaged body they bury in the woods. Tendell sees Blum’s hat beside an empty bottle, surrounded by six-toed footprints. He keeps this to himself. When he reports in to Dan Carroll, he tells him he dropped Blum in the city as planned.
Years later, when Carroll’s dying, Tendell tells him the true story of Blum’s disappearance. Carroll believes him and remarks that Blum killed Wallace’s moonshining cousin. Maybe Wallace knew Blum was coming north. Maybe he was more a shaman than they knew and brought down that sudden storm himself. At any rate, Wallace never drank Solomon’s whisky, nor any he distilled himself. Yet he had–a use for it. Everyone—everything–requires payment.
Tendell admits he never went near Wallace’s place again, afterwards. He reckons it may still be in the woods. Doing what, Carroll wonders.
Tendell remembers what Wallace said after Blum’s death, that Razorshins may sometimes forget how much it likes blood. Until something reminds it.
So Tendell tells Carroll, “Waiting. Just waiting.”
What’s Cyclopean: Motke Blum, limited in his metaphors, insists on explaining mob politics via chess even after Tendell admits he doesn’t play.
The Degenerate Dutch: Narrator’s grandfather preferred working with Irish mobsters to Jewish ones. Totally unjustified, aside from the way those pesky Jews just never trust him and occasionally consider killing him. (Though he swears he likes Jews fine—sleeps with Jewish women, after all. Yay?)
Mythos Making: Not so much with the Lovecraftiana, but Castle Rock may be somewhere down that stormy Maine road.
Libronomicon: No books.
Madness Takes Its Toll: No madness either. Extremely rational people, those mobsters.
The thing about using ethnic tropes and prejudices in a story is: if you aren’t careful, it can be extremely distracting. Take “Razorshins,” a story where by all rights I should spend most of my time nervous that people are going to be A) shot, or B) razored by a creepy bone monster in the deep dark woods. In practice I spent most of my time squirming about Motke Blum and whether he was going to get any characterization beyond “Jewish mob thug,” and the fineness of the line between “anti-Semitic characters” and “anti-Semitic story.”
I mean, yes, there really were Jewish mobsters in the ’30s, and some of them were presumably thugs. (Though big-dude-with-no-neck is not exactly one of our common phenotypes. Maybe he was a convert from Innsmouth?) And sure, it would be hard for a mobster named Solomon to resist the “King” moniker if given half an excuse. And people thinking of the folks around them in overly simplistic ethnic terms is all over the literature of a certain period, so it’s legitimately in keeping with dude’s grandfather telling him the story…
And it’s distracting. Because Motke never does get characterization beyond his stereotype, unless the willingness to eat game meat when cold and hungry counts as characterization. (Side note: not strictly kosher if you keep strict kosher—but your rabbi would probably also have something to say about murder, so.) He’s a cardboard villain right up to the point when he gets razored—and indeed he’s the only one at any real risk of razoring, since he both earns it by violating the Rules and then goes outside. Nice and neat, his just desserts, witnesses left with a shiver and a preference for avoiding the Maine woods.
So this is not a horror movie plot like “Antripuu,” despite the similarity of monsters and stuck-in-a-cabin-in-a-storm set-ups. (That similarity being why Anne made the suggestion in the first place.) I think technically it’s an urban legend: a tidier form morally. This is a very tidy story, morally, with even Solomon (in his wisdom) ultimately approving the outcome. Aside from Razorshins having been reminded how tasty blood is…
But there’s a thing I’d rather be distracted by, and I suspect it’s why the story walks this fine line in the first place. Because if you’re encountering horrors in rural Maine, surrounded by manly men who don’t have the most enlightened attitudes toward their fellow human beings, it’s hard not to think of a Certain Author. And if there’s a major off-screen character going by King, well. You can’t help but wonder if the homage is deliberate. When we’ve read King’s stories, my issues have been much the same, even as my appreciation of the scary-thing descriptions have also matched. And Connolly gets at the things that make Maine an excellent locale for horror: the isolation, the liminal mists that blur many kinds of border, the pragmatism that isn’t entirely comfortable with the darkness. For good and ill, I have a feeling that Razorshins is no stranger to the woods around Castle Rock.
Prepping for today’s blog, I took a walk in the deep, dark woods of Seekonk, Massachusetts. Okay, full disclosure, it was in an Audubon refuge called Caratunk, where the woods aren’t all that deep or dark, but I still worked myself into a pleasant anxiety about what might be around the next bend in the trail. What might be creeping up behind me on soundless pads or tiptoe-hooves. What might be lurking in the brush or the branches overhead. Overhead lurking’s an especially nasty trick, because of course you’re watching the ground for rocks and roots–trip and fall, you’re meat. Predator’s delight, an easy kill.
The point is, woods have high-scare potential. You can get lost in them and starve to death. You can slip into a ravine or break a leg in a deadfall. Worse, as Earl Wallace warns, there’s life in the woods. Sure, the trees and plants are alive, but apart from poison ivy or Huorns, they’re not the dangerous life he means. Neither, for that matter, are the bears or wolves, the rabid raccoons or venomous snakes, the mosquitoes or biting flies. He’s talking about the weird fauna. That which ought not to be. The monsters.
We recently met Simon Strantzas’s Antripuu. Connolly’s Razorshins could be his monophyletic cousin or the product of convergent evolution, probably the latter. It makes sense for a woods-dwelling horror to mimic trees the way stick-insects do twigs, and both Antripuu and Razorshins are specifically compared with these camouflaging bugs. Extreme thinness, elongation in effect, is one physical attribute they share; emaciation also links them to the cannibalistic Wendigo. Emaciation can terrify as a sign of dire illness (see our recent Poe and Langan reads.) It can also suggest lean hungering, a ravenous appetite for flesh the lean one lacks. That’s YOUR flesh, foolish hiker.
Curiously, Frank Belknap Long’s Space-Eater manifests as a grotesquely elongated white arm among trees. Maybe the human minds of Long’s heroes impose tree-trunk spindliness on its utterly alien presence because tree-trunk spindliness is one forest monster archetype.
Another archetype is the Beast Man, a fearsome predator gone anthropomorphic. Usually it walks on two feet and has rehinged its forelegs into functional arms while retaining its fangs and claws and fur. Werewolves and werebears are one subcategory. Bigfoot and the Yeti are another. I suppose you could call Razorshins an Insectile/Saurian anthropomorph, but the Beast Man I spot ravening through Connolly’s story is Mordecai Blum.
Protagonist Tendell describes Blum as squat with small heavy-lidded eyes. His head is long, oversized, nearly neckless. Most telling, he’s “abominably hirsute,” all but face and hands covered with “a wiry black pelt.” Tendell knows about the “pelt” because he’s glimpsed Blum shaving in his boxers; otherwise Blum hides the bestial hairiness under his suit. If he didn’t shave, he’d presumably have excessive facial hair, too. In Tendell’s eyes, he must look like a gorilla or chimpanzee, an ape-man. How much Tendell’s anti-Jewish bias factors into his perception of Blum is a valid question; as far as he’s concerned, however, Blum verges on the inhuman, the monstrous.
And monstrous extends to Blum’s behavior. He prowls the moral wilderness of Prohibition doing King Solomon’s dirtiest work. To nickname him the Mortician is generous, since he’s the one who gives morticians business. Even gangsters like to euphemize. He radiates “primitive power.” His “massive hands” flex into fists, his principal tools of negotiation. His temper flashes into vicious violence, driving him to have killed Wallace’s cousin and to injure Wallace. Like any successful predator amongst predators, he’s constantly on guard.
Or like any monster amongst monsters. Blum is paranoid for good reason, as he explains to Tendell with rare but pointed openness when he compares chess (and bootlegging) to “war on a board.” Solomon and Dan Carroll are rivals for kingship, not partners. The pawns like Tendell’s drivers are always first casualties. Blum and Tendell are more powerful pieces, which means they have most to fear from each other. On top of that, Jews start out with less power. The Irish see to that. And Tendell, like the Irish, doesn’t like Jews.
Tendell denies it, but the story’s first paragraph states he prefers not to work with Jews. Why? Narrator shrugs that his grandfather “was just that kind of fella.” And yet Tendell is a relatively decent sort, one of the “good” crooks. When Blum’s in immediate danger, Tendell tries to warn him, even chancing his own safety.
People are monstrously complicated. They’re also the most dangerous beasts in any woods, actual or metaphorical. Razorshins didn’t scare me half as much as the bootleggers–his appearance was a relief after the drawn-out tension between Blum and Tendell, Blum and Tendell’s men, Blum and Earl Wallace. Old Razorshins is a simple soul: Your bottle or your blood, you choose, I’ll wait over here by the outhouse.
Speaking of outhouses. If your cabin in the deep, dark woods doesn’t have indoor plumbing, get yourself a chamberpot. Never venture to the outdoors privy at night. If Razorshins doesn’t get you, the black widow spinning under the toilet seat will, and in a very sensitive place too.
Speaking of insectoid horrors, it turns out they don’t domesticate well. Join us after Thanksgiving break for George R.R. Martin’s “Sandkings.”
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.