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 A.C. Wise’s “Venice Burning,” first published in Jason Andrews’ 2015 anthology Apotheosis: Stories of Survival After the Rise of the Elder Gods. Spoilers ahead.
Behind the bar, where mirrored shelves used to hold bottles of liquor, pendulous nets hold a jumble of perpetually dripping starfish, conch shells, mussels, and clams.
When R’lyeh rose, it rose everywhere, everywhen. If you’re willing to lose part of yourself, you can walk the in-between ways that spiral from past to present to future. Narrator Ara is one of the few willing. In fact, it’s her specialty as a private detective.
Her current client’s a Senator whose son Marco has gone missing. They meet on a Venetian pier in 2015, when R’lyeh is still a shadow beneath the waves, when the Senator still hopes to bargain with the Risen Ones. But Ara knows you can’t bargain with beings that want nothing, and she knows the Senator will die in a drowning church, screaming as something pulls blood through her skin by will alone. Ara pockets a well-stuffed envelope and a photo of Marco, in whose untreated acne she reads a small act of rebellion. The twenty-six-year-old won’t want to be found; she suspects he’s fleeing forward, testing the notion the future’s infinite. Like her, once.
Ara slips into the in-between, a space of shattered light and burning stars. Insubstantial tentacles probe her and take what she can give. She doesn’t know what fare they’ve claimed, only feels the hollow ache of its loss. Her destination is 2071, Harry’s Bar, where people go when they want to disappear. Everything’s for sale there: death, pleasure, escape, even answers. The bartender, gills nictitating, frog-hoarse, admits that Marco’s been there, though he can’t say exactly when.
Outside, the stars are right. The stars have always been right. Ara remembers an intimate encounter in a barn. It’s a memory the keepers of R’lyeh refuse to take from her, no matter how many times she offers.
She walks through the Venice that, like her, has always survived. It burned to ashes, then rose again in marble and glass and metal. After that resurrection came another; its rebuilt walls bleed and writhe in deference to the new order. Venice is an impossible city, impossible to kill.
Ara’s next stop is a restaurant off the Calle Mandola. It’s almost unchanged, except for the sick-green light seeping from the edges of the world. Bathed in a ruby spotlight, Josie sings to the few customers, her voice heartbreak. Once Ara tried to take Josie in-between, but even that brief touch of otherness broke Josie’s mind and brought her tattoos to burning, lashing, twisting life. So much for showing Josie things like the drowned turquoise world off the coast of Mexico, where Ara dove and saw, unafraid, an eye the size of Luxembourg opening beneath her.
So much for their life together.
Josie joins Ara at the bar and asks why she’s there. She was lonely, Ara confesses, which may be honest—Ara doesn’t really know. She does know what Josie meant to her before, but swears she can’t feel it now. Josie says they can’t do anything for each other now, and asks if Ara remembers telling her about Ara’s stepbrother, and the night Ara got her wing-shaped scars. He called her his angel. Josie doesn’t think Ara’s even human, not anymore.
Maybe she’s right, or maybe Ara’s too human. As Josie sings again, Ara remembers the barn. She staggers outside where threads binding past and present catch her, hurl her forward to a waterfront where buildings sway, walls slick and trembling flesh. On the piles of a ghost-pale wharf, Vincenzo paints without eyes. He tore them out long ago. Ara was the one who found him, who held him as he sobbed and laughed that he could still see.
In response to Ara’s request for information, Vincenzo takes up a fresh canvas and paints Venice in flames. The hint’s enough—Ara time-shifts to Venice burning while angles and nubs of stone-not-stone, worn by eons, rise from the canals. Marco wasn’t seeking the end of the world, only the end of his world.
She braves the inferno to find him in Josie’s restaurant, alone at the bar. He lifts a glass, saying he knew his mother would send someone. So, what is she running from? Must be something, or she wouldn’t have chased him so far.
Ara pours herself a drink but doesn’t taste it. She remembers saving her stepbrother Jason from drowning when they were nine and ten. He called her his guardian angel. She remembers the barn, she and Jason in the loft drinking wine they’d smuggled out of their parents’ funeral. Storm hung over them, the end of the world, and she felt weight between her shoulder blades, something waiting to rise. What’s the worst sin you can imagine, she asked Jason. Hurting someone you love and meaning it, he replied.
So that was the sin she had to commit to survive the shifting of the stars, to remain human. She made love to Jason; while he slept afterward, she set the barn afire. Flames traced wings on her back, and she flew away.
Jason, Josie, Vincenzo. Shadow-tendrils strip Ara clean, taking everything but what matters.
Marco lays his hands palms up on the bar, an invitation. Ara can stay with him and burn or keep running, testing her theory the future is infinite. Scars itch above her nascent wings. The wings have always been there, as the stars have always been right. They can carry her to salvation or stay subcutaneous, folded around her like loving arms.
For the moment, she takes Marco’s hands, and they watch Venice burn.
What’s Cyclopean: Josie’s voice is smoke (four times), burnt amber, chocolate so dark it draws blood (and then later, bitter chocolate), rough whiskey, steel wool, and burnt almonds.
The Degenerate Dutch: No particular distinctions among humanity this week, unless we count the distinction between those who’ve accepted their gills and those who hold them off despite the pain.
Mythos Making: Tentacles wind through everything, and the smell of salt. The stars have always been right, and R’lyeh has always been rising.
Libronomicon: Ara’s world is full of tattoos and scars and dark songs, but no books this week.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Even a brief taste of going between is enough to shatter Josie’s fragile mind.
Prefatory note: Like S. L. Harris in “Into the Eye,” A. C. Wise gives us a first person narrator of ambiguous sex. It’s no modern phenomenon for narrators to omit explicitly giving us this information—until recently, it’s not been common for people to introduce themselves by name and gender. Historically, context soon revealed sex. If a character wore a skirt, she was female. If a character had a wife, he was male. Names were another giveaway, if sometimes tricky.
Harris’s “Sal” could be short for Salvatore or Sally. Or Sal’s a last name, likely since the character’s addressed as “Mister Sal.” Not that the “Mister” here means male; Captain Moore, in military fashion, also addresses the female-identifying cyborg as “Mister Leh.” Wise’s “Ara” is extra tricky. It’s a name in Korean, Hindi, Urdu and Japanese, in which it seems to skew female. In Arabic, however, “Ara” is a girl’s and a boy’s name.
That “Eye’s” Sal has a wife no longer means Sal’s a man, but it was my overall impression the character was a “he,” With “Venice’s” Ara, I’m going with “she.” Highly subjective choice. Ara is at minimum bisexual in preference (who knows what plethora of sexes lurk in-between, or what liaisons Ara may have there. What happens in-between stays in-between.) Ara has a braid—yeah, so do lots of guys. Ara holds hands with Marco on their first date—complicated why I imagine this a girl thing, or that Marco wouldn’t offer to hold hands with another guy on short acquaintance. There it is.
Is the expectation that I, because female, will identify Ara as female? Whereas a male reader would identify Ara as male? Do I have to determine the character’s sex at all? Well, I kind of have to in order to build a mental picture. YMMV.
Long preface, that, but for me an interesting topic.
Back to our regularly scheduled Mythosian Apocalypse! Many contemporary writers enjoy thinking about what happens after the unthinkable occurs, which indicates that the unthinkable isn’t these days. Lovecraft himself only hints at the horrors to follow the Dread Return. He allows the Old Ones to poke tentative tentacles into our world, to sneak a few misbegotten spawn among us, but They never get to take over. Go too far, Outer Gods, and some doughty professor is always ready to shove You back into the tenebrous obscurity where You belong! At least for the cosmic moment, which is enough for humanity—and the Yith, who have their choice of cosmic moments. My impression is that Lovecraft’s inner circle and writers of the circles closest concentric shared his hesitation to plunge whole-body into the chill ichor of our extinction. Or near-extinction. Or, perhaps worst of all, our adaptation to the squamous new order.
Not so Harris with his ultimate journey of revenge turned acceptance. Not so Jones with his Deep Dendo survivors-for-a-while. Not so Wise, with her post-Return Earth, where the noir detective proves herself an eternal fictional survivor. As with our last two stories, “Venice” starts midstream but swiftly rewards the reader with a lushly detailed hell of major regime change. There’s no real escape for her humans, or so it initially seems. Ara survives at a price she can’t even tout up accurately. One peek in-between breaks Josie’s mind and turns her own body’s embellishments against her. Artist Vincenzo, unable to bear the sight of his world corrupted, tears out his eyes but (like Ray Milland in X: The Man with X-ray Eyes) must STILL SEE.
Yet Josie still sings, with ecstasy as well as agony. Yet Vincenzo still paints. Yet Ara finds things in-between so beautiful she wants to share them with her best-beloved; yet she has wings that may carry her beyond survival to salvation—can we believe she won’t release Marco’s hands soon enough to escape immolation?
Beyond the premise of humanity-after-the-Rising, these three stories share a certain fatalistic optimism. Survival is possible on some level, and it’s worth fighting for. Harris’s crew-cynic Jora won’t let Moore destroy Azathoth, because, hey, it’s EVERYTHING. Sal dares a trip through the Maelstrom eye; if he survives, at least he’ll BE THERE, whatever THERE is. A writer somewhere in her once-singular consciousness, now hive-mind fractured, Sunset ultimately hosts the Yithian Writer; through multiple mind-jumps, its identity is also fractured, but it still works to preserve the history of all identities through time and space.
And Ara? She doesn’t know whether she’s still human, or ever human, or too much human: the price of survival via in-between, perhaps. Like any noir detective, she claims not to feel. We’re not buying it, Ara. You still feel enough to tell us your story. Some kind of hope and desire still dog you.
To paraphrase the way Salinger’s Buddy Glass describes his tale of two siblings, Ara’s is not an existentially despairing story at all, but “a compound, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated.”
Some apocalypses are universal, with a hint of the personal. Some are personal, with the end of the world merely incidental to one’s own experiences (and perhaps ability to save the dog). This week, we have an apocalypse where personal crises are inextricable from the breakdown of all space-time. If the past and the present are tied together, tentacularly, it becomes that much harder to run away from your memories.
Last week’s apocalypse destroyed selfhood, leaving only its façade. This week’s is less complete. Ara, intuiting that sin is a human concept, has used the deepest one she can think of to protect her personal identity, then done everything she can to lose what she paid for so dearly. Some people drink to forget. Others use time travel.
And the tropes start to add up, and somewhere a couple pages in I realized that this was the most seamless, elegant noir riff it’s been my pleasure to encounter in genre fiction. Most such riffs are blunt instruments: The pseudo-Chandleresque jaded detective who’s seen things, sister, is set upon the plot path by a Dame Who’s Trouble, has a bad-idea flirtation that can only end in mystery-solving tragedy. And then he drinks to forget, but can’t. At best, they’re surfacy and fun and forgettable. Turns out I like this set-up a lot better with worldly-wise bi girls twisting all the tropes a half-turn sideways.
And all the tropes are here, shifted from ordinary oxygen to humidity you might need gills to breathe. The story-starting Dame Who’s Trouble™, in the form of the Senator. We already know things won’t work out well for her, and she doesn’t bother to show up again. The Old Flame, harmed by Ara in an unforgivable error to match her more deliberate unforgivable sin. Ara drinks, but it’s not her addiction and not where she seeks unreachable oblivion. She’s seen things, sister—“I’ve witnessed the twisted images of saints spider-walking up church walls, their mouths open in silent screams. I’ve kissed the greened marble lips of the Mary who wept tears that weren’t blood. I’ve seen Venice in all its guises, peeked behind all its masks, witnessed all its states of decay.”
The King in Yellow doesn’t come up explicitly this week, but Venice has some kinship with Carcosa. Here we get not only the decadence and the masks, but the determined, scarred survival. Apt, and appealing as a smoky-voiced singer wailing all-too-human woes in a darkened club.
This story also provides an eminently satisfying answer to the eternal question of “WTF does Cthulhu want with human sacrifice.” Response: He doesn’t. In fact, atrocity is such a human thing that it protects humanity, an unshakable armor of us-ness that more eldritch appetites can’t break through. That’s an extraordinarily jaded view of human nature, jaded enough to weave the noir genre as deep in the story’s bones as the Lovecraftiana.
The last time I can recall two genres meshing so perfectly, in fact, is another detective story: Neil Gaiman’s masterful “A Study in Emerald.” Like noir, Holmesian pastiche often glosses the tropes without touching the soul. I’ve never been quite as fond of the former as the latter, but Wise has convinced me it might be worth taking another look at the original genre. Though I might poke around and see if any modern writers have more worldly-wise queer private eyes on offer…
Next week, no more ends of the world. Instead, the promised Lovecraftian romance: Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s “Black Flowers Blossom.”
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.