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 S. L. Harris’s “Into the Eye,” just published in the December 9th, 2019 issue of Strange Horizons. Spoilers ahead—but go read it first!
“The stories of the sounds at the center of the universe are true.”
What secret dock saw the building of the Anastasis, our narrator Sal can only imagine. The ship spreads chrome manta-wings so massive that the crew quarters on its underside look like an afterthought; its dimensional drive is ten times bigger than the one on Sal’s last ship. Anastasis will need all that motive power to reach its destination, no less than the center of the universe, also known as the Maelstrom… or Azathoth.
Meet her crew, small but supremely capable. Captain Moore’s the sole survivor of a research vessel that got closer to the Maelstrom than any other before Azathoth “reached out a finger” and destroyed it. Ten years traveling home in an escape pod gave him time to envision a universe reachable through the Maelstrom, where the Earth was “undrowned in water and blood, where the boundaries between what is and what should never be had not come down.” Opinions vary on whether he also spent the time going mad.
Leh’s a cyborg with blue-lit eyeballs, an insatiable hunger for knowledge, and an imagination that plays constantly with the vast information she already possesses. [RE: In other words, she revels in correlating her mind’s contents. Just caught that!] Jora’s the gunner. She single-handedly held off a Dhole attack on Deneb IV and blasts anything that gets in the Anastasis’s way. Jek’s an engineering savant. He’s also a ghoul, of the Pickman variety.
And Sal? Our narrator piloted the only vessel that escaped the final Godship assault on Earth. To Moore that shows not only remarkable skill, but persistence before the reality that will be necessary when they approach Azathoth. Sal’s lost the family he promised to protect, but Moore lures him from his hideout on Yuggoth with the promise that they’ll find transcendence and peace beyond the Maelstrom’s eye. Moore makes the crewmembers seal oaths in “sign and blood” to stick to his mission.
Near goal, the Anastasis is swarmed by millions of night-gaunts that try to drag it off course. Moore sacrifices their dimensional drive to burn the monsters off—they’ll just rely on Azathoth’s pull to bring them the rest of the way. Set down for repairs on a burned-out world, they discover the ruins of a vast alien library. Its light-box “books” remain intact, and Leh begins assimilating their contents. When she defies Moore’s order to return, he shoots her, then has Jek decapitate the “corpse” and tie Leh’s head into the ship’s computer, turning her into a new command module. Jora’s outraged by what she sees as Leh’s dehumanization. However, Sal believes the cyborg’s loss of affect resulted not from Moore’s attack but from what Leh read in the library—she’s trying to talk down to their level. Maybe it means something that she still bothers.
They relaunch and spiral on toward Azathoth. The piping they’ve been hearing in engine and instrument hum, in crewmate’s voices, in their very breathing, grows louder, a “wild, arrhythmic whippoorwilling.” Then, at last, they see Azathoth.
Or somehow perceive it, for how can one see nothing-in-everything or everything-in-nothing? The ancient Earth cultists sought imperfect metaphors describing Azathoth as a “blind, daemon sultan blaspheming and bubbling, gnawing eternally at the nucleus of the meaningless void.” Sal and Jora fall screaming to the floor. Then one of Jek’s modifications to the ship clicks in, dulling the piping and rendering Azathoth’s instrument-image viewable with “only moderate discomfort.” In the heart of the Maelstrom, Sal sees a vision of Earth as a quiet, kinder place in which his people live again. He just has to steer directly toward that heart, that door.
Whatever Jora saw through the door, she says it was only a mirage. And Sal does glimpse chilling shapes as well. Still, what choice do they have but go forward? Leh speaks up. Integrated with the ship, she’s learned the Anastasis wasn’t designed to transit through the Maelstrom, but to destroy it. How? By acting as a reflector, so that the eye of Azathoth would “gaze on itself and not survive.” And, since Azathoth is the “structuring principle” or “foundational chaos” of the cosmos, if it perishes, so does everything else.
Regardless of the consequences, Moore says, Azathoth must die. Jora aims her rifle at Moore. Jek leaps at her throat. Jora shoots the ghoul but is gravely injured. Moore moves to finish her off, but Leh’s eyes arc blue electricity, disarming him. “Damnation” is the captain’s last word before Jora shoots him.
Now she begs Sal to get the ship out, not to let Moore…
Sal asks Leh if there’s any point to passing through the Maelstrom’s eye, apart from Moore’s revenge. Leh says the eye might be a nexus to other universes. But if the Anastasis passes through, it will destroy Azathoth.
But could Leh modify Sal’s EV suit to mimic Jek’s Azathoth “filters,” plot a trajectory for just Sal to pass through the eye? Yes, though it’s improbable Sal would survive, or discover any comprehensible universe if he did.
Sal’s used to an incomprehensible universe by now.
Leh decides she too will gamble on a new cosmos. So in his modified EV suit, with the cyborg’s head under his arm, Sal leaves the Anastasis to be chewed up by the Maelstrom’s swirling edge. He and Leh dodge nameless abominations and the grasping arms of chaos, to plunge “headfirst through the empty madness at the center of everything, toward the light.”
What’s Cyclopean: The uncomfortable geography of the Anastasis’s landing site includes “peristalsing tunnels.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Jek sees humans as opportunities for applied engineering, combined with ghoulishly epicurean delights. Humans see ghouls as… disturbing.
Mythos Making: It’s true what they say about the piping attendants of Azathoth, at the nuclear center of the universe…
Libronomicon: Leh is deeply distracted by a remarkably distracting library.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Jora thinks Moore is insane—maybe driven that way by the mad piping, maybe just by the desire for revenge.
Orson Scott Card has compared writing short-form and long-form fiction to speaking two related but significantly different languages, say Spanish and Portuguese. The novel is not just a stretched out short story or a series of related shorts, nor is the short story a truncated novel. Card started short and had to learn how to write long. I started long and had to learn how to write short—I’d written several novels before I wrote a single short story (beyond some juvenile tales, and even those were more like chapters than self-contained pieces.) To switch modes took figuring out how the short story works as opposed to the novel, what it offers—and expects from—the reader. Nor is it as simple as, oh, the short focuses on a single incident or a single character or a brief period of time. Many do feature so sharp a focus, but others (to paraphrase Hamlet) manage to bound infinite space in a nutshell. Both types of short, at their best, imply much in little. As a “congenital” novelist, however, I’m most dazzled when a writer packs whole worlds or even whole cosmoses into, oh, around 6000 words.
Which is the length of S. L. Harris’s fantastic “Into the Eye.” He manages to compress a whole anastasis into that narrow compass—we know he didn’t select so unusual a spaceship name at random, right? So what does anastasis mean? A dozen cookies—dinner-plate size ones—to anyone who didn’t have to hit the dictionaries, as I was compelled to do. The Greek root means a rising up or resurrection. In medicine, it means recovery from severe illness, convalescence. Both definitions could be pertinent to Harris’s story, but most telling is what anastasis means to the Christian theologian or the art historian: Jesus’s post-Crucifixion descent into the underworld to redeem all righteous souls, also called the “harrowing of Hell.”
That would make Captain Moore Jesus, or as Harris characterizes him, a prophet who brings salvation to sufferers of demonic (Azathothian) oppression. He promises his crewmates release from the intolerable present into a heaven of past Earth perfected, in his term transcendence. To the Christian, heaven means eternal life. To post-crucified Moore, it means eternal nonexistence, not only for the saved but for EVERYTHING. Our universe has no duality, no benevolent Father God opposed to Satan; it’s rotten to the core, which is Azathoth, nothing worth saving. For one who (like Moore) has seen and understood ultimate evil, there can be a single moral act, to destroy the evil, no matter how big. How EVERYTHING.
Moore’s that awesome-terrifying archetype, the vengeance-obsessed man. For me, confirmed Melvillian, that conjures the paragon of obsession that is Ahab, captain of the Pequod: a comparison, I think, Harris implicitly welcomes.
Both Moore and Ahab have ventured too far, though innocently by their lights. For Moore, the cause was Science; for Ahab, it was Profit via whale oil and ambergris, also the assertion of personal dominance. Personal dominance is also high on Moore’s To-Do list. The world was just fine for them until they ran smack into Something Bigger, which could therefore only be God or Devil, no matter which. The point is, Something Bigger screwed over Ahab and Moore, becoming the embodiment of universal evil and horror. And as such? It. Has. To. Die. No matter if that means sinking the microcosm that is the Pequod or destroying the macrocosmic source that is Azathoth.
Other details link Moore and Ahab. Both earn sympathy via catastrophe and suffering. Ahab loses his leg to Moby Dick and must endure long agony on the voyage home. Moore loses his ship and crew; his voyage home exaggerates Ahab’s, ten years in a virtual coffin space-adrift. Both have long—too long—to amplify their persecutors into Big Evils needing extermination. In pursuing righteous revenge, both make (to their crews) questionable alliances, Ahab with his “dark shadow” harpooneer Fedallah and Moore with the ghoul Zek. Both demand oaths from their crew. Both are finally opposed in their “mad” purposes—first mate Starbuck considers arresting or shooting Ahab, but backs down; Jora does shoot Moore and begs Sal to abandon Moore’s quest. Sal is Harris’s Ishmael, until the end a largely neutral narrator .
One might consider Moore less unreasonable than Ahab, given the scope of Azathoth’s depredations. One might also argue that it’s Azathoth’s minions who depredate—Azathoth Itself, sheer mindless Reality, simply is. If It’s everything evil, It’s also everything good, and both evil and good would die with It. Ultimately neither Moore nor Ahab yield to their “humanities,” which is what Pequod owner Captain Peleg calls Ahab’s gentler side. He has a wife and son at home, as Starbuck reminds him near the end. We don’t know who Moore had at home, but Sal relates his losses, and it’s the restoration of his family he sees through the Maelstrom’s eye. He heeds his “humanities” when he choses crazy hope over despair, as Jora has been heeding her “humanities” in her friendship with Leh, the humane inhuman. I crazily hope Sal and Leh do go into some form of light rather than darkness.
And I crazily love this story, Mr. Harris!
[Note: Anne and I write our commentaries independently. Sometimes that results in very different takes… and sometimes we both find ourselves racing after the same white whale.]
There’s a lot to like about Moby Dick, starting with the extremely shippable narrator and his cannibalistic boyfriend, and taking extended detours through richly cyclopean descriptions of whale innards. But the core of the book is Ahab: a Jonah hunting his whale for revenge, somehow still with prophetic powers at his command despite his deicidal ends. Charismatic, able to convince followers to take risks they’d normally avoid for goals they wouldn’t normally believe possible…
“Failed prophet tries to kill god” is a theme worthy of any great-American-novel attempt, but challenging to pull off—which is probably why Moby Dick riffs aren’t nearly as common as, say, Sherlock Holmes pastiches. But now, having seen how neatly the great novel’s shape fits the grand sweep of both space opera and cosmic horror, I kind of wish there were more such riffs. Or, at the very least, I’m glad this one exists.
So: Moore is our Ahab. Rumor suggests he’s had a previous pass with Azathoth, though whether he’s come away with powers or merely the half-blessing of survival is unclear. Maybe his uncanny certainty and charisma come from that survival, or maybe they’re what allowed it. Or maybe the combination is pure coincidence; this is cosmic horror, after all, not Melville’s world full of meaning and symbolism.
Moore not only out-hubrises the original Ahab, though, but outplans him. Maybe telling people exactly what you plan to do isn’t a great idea, after all—it gives them longer to think better of it. And the lie is especially wise in this case, since convincing even extremely bitter people to destroy the universe is a touch harder than convincing whalers to go after a particularly intransigent whale. There’s also something to be said for gathering a crew of pre-existing lone-survivors-to-tell-the-tale. (Though given the ending, perhaps he outthinks himself after all. Hubris is a dangerous flaw.)
And here we diverge from Moby Dick, because the problem with Azathoth is not finding It so much as surviving It. (As distinct from the White Whale, which raises both finding and surviving issues.) And our crew, at the end/center of everything, discover that perhaps they do have a little love for existence left after all—and maybe, in the face of all reason and the randomness of that existence, a little hope.
I should also mention that the high school English class in which I read Moby Dick was where I learned to turn out high-quality dubious literary analysis on a deadline. I did not, at the time, expect this to be one of my most-often-applied skills from that period, but life is full of surprises.
This is not our first journey into the intersection of cosmic horror and space opera, and much of what we’ve found at that crossroads has been excellent. Both subgenres deal with deep time, the fate of species, and scales both physical and temporal that dwarf human civilization into insignificance. Bring them together, and the tension between adventure and terror can be stretched across a whole galaxy.
Harris is new to me as an author—I think this may in fact be his first publication, though the fact that he shares his name with an established author of lesbian literary romance has not aided me in confirming this. If so, this is a hell of a debut. I’ll be looking out for more of his stuff.
Next week we wish you all a happy Chanukah, merry Christmas, blessed Yule, insightful Winter Tide, and general joy regardless of whatever method you choose to celebrate the Great North American Festival to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder. We’ll return in the new year with a Yithian story, just to remind you that changes of year and decade are mere illusions that humans use to mask the uncaring vastness of time. Join us for “The Amnesiac’s Lament,” from Scott R. Jones’s Shout Kill Revel Repeat collection.
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.