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 Scott R. Jones’s “The Amnesiac’s Lament,” first published in his 2019 collection Shout, Kill, Revel, Repeat. (Disclaimer: he was kind enough to send us copies, which we appreciated!) Spoilers ahead.
“Ghosts don’t sleep, or wake up. They just are, and that’s all we are. Shells, treading what’s left of the earth on our slow, hopeless missions, camouflaged in the ghosts of our shared past.”
The stars have come right again, the Old Ones have returned, in His house in R’lyeh the Big C has awakened, and three human women are on a mission.
There are a few hundred thousand humans left, with only a thousand awake at any given time. The sleepers shelter in a dozen submontane locations, “laced together in [the] sticky pits of artificial neural tissue” which make up the Deep Dendo. Memories, musings, fantasies, all humanity’s horrors and ecstasies reside in the D-D, which “sifts and flattens and knits and makes connections,” then “burst-casts…cycle after cycle of randomly generated exo-personality, a churning wash of denatured soul-stuff” out to the antenna-implants of the Awakened—not real individuals, but mask-personalities built from those bursts.
Our narrator is randomly designated Sunny Grey Theremin. Maybe something of what she used to be exists, but she’ll never see it again. Maybe at the end of the mission, before she sleeps again and forgets, she’ll feel like herself for a moment. For now, outside the safety of the Voorish Domes, it’s safer to walk in the collective mind. No “singular, relatively sane ego-complex” could survive the nightmares that have reclaimed Earth.
Sunny and her team leave their Himalyan base via Hoffman-Price matter-transfer jump. After a relatively benign encounter with a Nameless Horror (blasted to another dimension before it can suck up Sunny’s essence), they land in the Western Australian desert where humans first unearthed the alien archives. Some whisper it was a mistake not only to correlate our own knowledge but to plunder what the Yith had collected. Maybe it was coincidence, but the stars got right damn quick after mankind messed with Yithian tech. The Hoffman-Price jump system thinned the barriers between worlds, while the recreational use of Tillinghast Resonators may have over-expanded human perception of things previously–mercifully–hidden.
And yet Sunny’s current mission is to recover another Yithian contraption. Fiery crackshot Livid (Liv) Ransom Stormcell and gruff but reliable Damocles (Dam) Muffin Cringe are her teammates. The three have been through a dozen missions together, or not. That’s probably a false memory, as is Sunny’s idea that she’s the analyst and philosopher of the crew. A writer. No, The Writer. In fact, they’re barely people. Sunny’s sense she’s a writer is just another random persona-fragment from the Deep Dendo. But it’s so strong.
The three descend into Yithian library stacks. Empty manuscript cases litter the place. Stray flying polyps may lurk nearby, though most have migrated to a mega-colony in the Sahara Desert. Sunny struggles to recall the right word for the vast ruins around them. Cyclopean. Liv wonders why the Yith kept “hard copies” when they more reliably stored their wisdom in “near-bottomless silos bored into the crust of the planet, silos full of tightly laced, indestructible artificial neural tissue,” same as the human-retroengineered “dreaming-matrix” of the Deep Dendo. The Yith were “fucking show-offs,” Liv mutters. Great Race, her ass. But Sunny believes the Yith were great. To collect so much knowledge. To project their minds to fresh bodies at need. To survive, to keep surviving. What could be greater than that?
Dam herds them down spiraling ramps to a vast well carved with scenes of battle or migration or sex that defy human comprehension. On a pylon rising from its depths is the machine they seek, “a twisted orrery of translucent tubes coiling between flat planes and arcs of alien metal.” The dust of aeons coats it. As the team approaches the machine, Sunny feels odd anticipation, strange joy, impending memory.
Anticipation turns to anxiety as terrible pressure grips her temples. She watches Dam and Liz stroking dust from the machine. Liv whispers that the thing is “beautiful,” oh, “it’s freedom.” Sunny, too, begins automatically caressing its cool surfaces. Bringing it to life. Protection from her Deep Dendo field wavers, and then Sunny Grey Theremin is no more.
Into her body has migrated the Yithian left in the machine when the Great Race time-leapt away from the Flying Polyp threat. For millenia it waited for new intelligence to arise on Earth, intelligence it could monitor and subtly influence. The writer Sunny has become a compatible meat-refuge for it, The Writer, destined to scribble a final Record in margins of some discarded manuscript above. Keeping Records is what the Yith do, although this particular one has sympathy for the humans of the Deep Dendo, stripped of identity, cooling corpses now that Sunny’s team has activated its machine.
It confesses there is nothing “great” about the Great Race. As the stars cycle on, they ever fall to their own hubris or to the return of the Masters, or both. Then, cowards, they flee. They subject themselves to “a greater amnesia with each migration, with each genocidal rape of another species.” Having “overlaid our psyches onto a thousand different mental templates,” who are the Yith now? Hasn’t the Record become twisted and contradictory, stretching Truth thin and brittle? Can the Writer know whether anything it recalls is “something I experienced, or something I read, or dreamed?”
Nevertheless, not knowing itself, the Writer must write. Sleep and forgetfulness will follow, but before then the Writer asks, “You who read me, are you awake? Do you dream? You who read me, do you know what it is you read?”
What’s Cyclopean: The archival complex of Pnakotus is cyclopean. Remember?
The Degenerate Dutch: Most of the more-or-less-surviving humans are women, because males tend to burn out quickly in the Deep Dendo. Despite this, our writer is inexplicably fond of “rape” as a metaphor, used more appropriately in some cases than others.
Mythos Making: Many mythosians are present on post-apocalyptic Earth, from the Yith and flying polyps to “the big C.” Also, humans are in Deep Dendo, a term that will never stop being funny regardless of how serious the situation is.
Libronomicon: Yith are a little obsessed with hard copy records—though we learn here that they also have more efficient forms of storage.
Madness Takes Its Toll: An intact, singular, relatively sane ego-complex shines like a beacon outside the Voorish Domes, attracting nightmares from miles around. And then shortly afterward, it’s no longer a sane ego-complex at all. You have to be, literally, crazy to go outside.
Why are there not more stories about the Yith? They’re the perfect cosmic horror creation: an irresistible agglomeration of attraction and repulsion. They promise legacy and force forgetting, create the universe’s most exciting community of minds while unrepentantly breaking whole civilizations to keep it going. They preserve and destroy. And according to Jones, they survive… until they don’t. Even the “great race” can only cheat entropy for so long. What could be more terrifying than that?
In the general course of things, I’m as suspicious of amnesia stories as I am desirous of Yith stories. This one gets conveniently around my inner cognitive psychologist via a form of amnesia totally unrelated to the standard ways the human brain breaks down. It makes for a particularly disturbing take on the rise of the Great Old Ones. This isn’t the relatively comfortable replacement of one colonial power with another, as in “A Study in Emerald,” nor even a world with minor survivalist havens, as in “The Shallows.” Humans survive only by giving up their selfhood in a self-imposed Matrix. At first it looks like those selves are preserved, a little, in the dreams of the Deep Dendo—but our Yith says no, all that’s left is a fragile hive mind, coming up with fictional individuals for surface expeditions. And, eventually, not even that.
Identity is at the core of “Amnesiac’s Lament” – and more than identity, names. The three-woman exploratory team, brushstroke personalities and algorithmic code names, no real personhood among them. The goal here, presumably, is to make every team of cardboard characters in every B movie seem much creepier for the rest of my life. Thanks, I think. The Elder Gods, too, are referred to only obliquely: we all know who The Big C is, but don’t want to say so aloud.
The only real names we get, in fact, are the creators and content of the fictions that birthed this apocalypse. E. Hoffman Price, weird fiction author and apparent creator of teleportation devices. The Deep Dendo, perennially amusing creation of Machen. Randolph Carter. When fiction has risen to consume the world, is it only the authors who are real? Or, perhaps, the Writers?
And then, of course, the Yith themselves. They get named (when not being rudely referred to as “ancient fungoid mollusk-scholars”)—but their left-behind survivor questions those names. Not truly Great, they confess, but cowards. Experts at running from danger. And as with humanity, the cost of their extended survival is memory itself. The more forms they take on, the more jumps between species and worlds, the less sure they can be of who and what they really are. Even the Archives don’t ultimately live up to their promise.
Not exactly a happy ending, but a properly apocalyptic one. And maybe, much as one might like to imagine that someone is immune to entropy, what the Yith deserve. We all survive, until we don’t.
Maybe there’s a hint of hope in that. After all, if it’s true of the Yith, it must be true of the Old Ones too.
Two consecutive blogs, two thrilling ends of the world as we know it! I think the thematic continuity was unintentional, right, Ruthanna? Or have you some nefarious wizardry in mind, in which the third “stars are right” story in a row will bring about the actual apocalyptic return of the Old Ones? I wouldn’t put it past her, people, what with her ties to a certain amphibious race that worships the Big C. Just saying, no shade intended. Some of my best friends are Deep Ones. Still, ends of the world can be inconvenient, new reality-paradigms to be broken in, you know, ichor stains on that carpet you just had cleaned. [RE: You might have mentioned this theory before you asked whether I’d rather do Machen, whose conlanging abilities I’ve just been mocking, or a third apocalypse story. Let’s say instead that the fictional apocalypses are intended to jinx any real ones that might be in the offing…]
If the world as I know it is about to change, I want advance notice so I can get in a supply of Ichor-Out. Also some instant essence-pudding for when Nameless Horrors unexpectedly drop in. As Scott R. Jones so rightly points out, when Nameless Horrors are hungry, they tend to blather on, neglecting to add spaces between their psychic concept-clusters.
Like S. L. Harris in “Into the Eye,” Jones plunges us straight into the maelstrom of his Mythosian post-apocalypse. The Old Ones have come and seen and conquered. Most of humanity has succumbed to the ensuing mayhem and/or madness. For the most part, survivors cower like rodentia in bunker-burrows, but a doughty few still undertake missions. Interestingly, one of the meanings for “dendo” (as a Japanese word) is “missionary work.” Another meaning, again from the Japanese, is “electric.” A third, from Africa, is the name of an evergreen tree whose wood is also known as Niger ebony. I’m thinking Jones’s Deep Dendo most likely derives from “electric,” since it refers to the artificial neural network in which the last humans sleep and dream. I wouldn’t be surprised if his “Dendo” doesn’t have more complex underpinnings, though. Or more sticky interlacings, as Sunny Theremin might say. Nice writerly turn of phrase, that. Jones turns many himself. It’s another literary virtue he shares with Harris. [RE: I’m not going to stop making fun of Machen, though.]
A third is deftly supplying his maelstrom-caught readers with enough information to keep breathing as they descend into a story that whirls ever denser around them. Sunny’s story isn’t hers alone–she may not even retain any “hers alone,” any “herself.” I think the fact that she can conceive of a lost self hints that this self isn’t altogether gone. Yet I also accept with Sunny that to protect capital-H humanity, waking agents of the race can only be archetypes, mission-specific conglomerations of individual traits and thoughts that have fragmented out of the dreaming majority. The impulsive hothead. The pragmatic soldier. The analyst-philosopher, or Writer.
Without individual selves, though, is there any humanity worth a capital-H? Herein lies tragedy worth an amnesiac’s lament. How ironic is it that we brought the latest return of the Old Ones on ourselves by half-assed appropriation of Yithian technology–the very technology that made the Great Race the supreme memory-keepers of the cosmos!
Or wait, are they? Because we’re given a second lamenting amnesiac in the machine-resident Yith whom Sunny awakens. Jones tackles, and brilliantly, the problem implicit in Lovecraft’s creation. The Yith are incomparable archivists because they and their knowledge can survive anything; their identity centers on this ability, which also powers their genocidal hubris. Yeah, there is that–our ultimate librarians do essentially wipe out whole species by appropriating their bodies for their own precious minds. Oops. Excuse us, innumerable species, but we will preserve your histories after you’re history. We think that’s the moral thing to do, don’t you?
Maybe, maybe, viewed from the most cosmic of distances, yeah. Still, kinda sucks for the appropriated species.
Still, per Jones, it kinda sucks for the Yith, too. Who even are the Yith? Can even they remember their original forms? Academically perhaps, but not viscerally, because as Jones’s Yith concedes, the Great Race has subjected itself to a greater essential amnesia with each migration. Having “overlaid our psyches onto a thousand different mental templates, who of us could truly know what we were? Who we had once been?” And it is only a matter of faith–not knowledge–that the Race’s much-twisted Record is accurate taken from a “higher dimensional perspective,” because Jones’s Yith has lost that perspective.
Who’s ultimately going to read the record, anyway? The Writer closes its part of the Record with a truly plaintive lament: Reader, do you know what you read?
I don’t know if I’d know what I read in the Yithian archives. I do know that I read lots of tasty Lovecraft references in this story, seamlessly integrated into the essence of the text. The one that made me smile widest was how Sunny struggled to remember the right descriptor for Yithian architecture and came up with Cyclopean, of course. Before turning the game over to you guys, I’ve also got to notice how it was the Carter Corp which developed the Silver Key jump tech and the Tillinghast Resonators that “tweaked our species to finally see what was always already around us.”
That the Tillinghast Resonators were widely used recreationally in Jones’s fictional world would have horrified poor Howard. Not that Howard wouldn’t have been sorely tempted to visit himself a Voorish Dome or two.
I’m on my way to the Providence V-Dome now. Come along?
Next week, we are not raising any elder gods, not even one, but we are doing one more story in an apocalyptic vein: A.C. Wise’s “Venice Burning” from Apotheiosis: Stories of Survival After the Rise of the Elder Gods. After that, we promise, we’re switching to Lovecraftian romance.
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.