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 Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s “Black Flowers Blossom,” first published in the November/December 2019 issue of Uncanny. Spoilers ahead, but go read it yourself first (not at work, we suggest).
“I do not offer myself freely to just anyone, even if they did save my life from an Outer Creature.”
Our first narrator (call them “Blackburn”) visits an occult detective (call him “OD”) at his 472 Cheyne Walk flat. They’re disguised as the nephew of an artist who died in the White Studio case; they know what happened there, but want to hear the story from the investigator himself.
OD describes his set-up for cleansing the Studio of its “unwelcome presence”: chalked circle rubbed with garlic; signs of the Saaamaaa ritual; and his own invention, the Electric Pentacle. This Defense might have kept him safe from an Immaterial of Darkness, but the thing that manifested, tittering, was a monstrosity of Light, attracted rather than repulsed by the Pentacle’s emanations! Its pearl-white human face grinned malevolently. As it toyed with the Pentacle tubes, OD abandoned his useless wards and drew new ones. Unexpectedly, a soothing presence filled his second circle, and a deep voice uttered the Unknown Last Line of the Saaamaaa Ritual, dispelling the pallid monstrosity.
Blackburn urges OD to continue, knowing he’ll soon realize that Blackburn is the very “ab-natural being of the Sphere Beyond” that saved and then ravished him, body and soul! This will shatter OD’s feeble human mind, a consummation Blackburn anticipates with impatience, oh the delicious horror and panic and madness!
Instead, OD says he recognized Blackburn from the start and would now like to hear what happened between them when OD was “insensate” with pleasure. Blackburn’s taken aback. OD found their interaction pleasurable?
Of course—OD wouldn’t offer himself to just any ab-natural being. And now, might they adjourn to the bedroom? Perhaps they’d better, since tentacles are already spilling from Blackburn’s human disguise….
OD takes over the narration, describing the writhing black cloud that is his visitor’s true form, though it retains some useful human features like hands and mouth. It’s a union no less eldritchly steamy than their first. As OD tries to plumb every mystery of the shifting void enveloping him, he glimpses a dead obsidian city bisected by a pitchy river.
Blackburn forcibly closes OD’s eyes with a tendril. It warns him: it’s impossible he should comprehend even a fraction of itself. Just live as long as he can, and maybe they’ll meet in the next life.
Next narrator up is a small-time gumshoe who once worked for the Continental Agency. He can’t really afford a secretary, but he’s still hired the woman who applied, a looker named, improbably, Blackburn. What’s her story? Well, she lost her man—she ignored her intuitions, and the poor fool burned to ash.
Nice. Naturally Gumshoe starts falling for Blackburn, gifting her with an electric typewriter (which she despises) and red-black spider-lilies (which she approves). One day she warns him that the weird lights in the warehouse he’s staking out may be more dangerous than he anticipates. Later, surrounded by white-robed cultists wielding .38s, he regrets laughing her off. Guns aside, he doesn’t like the symbols they’re chalking around him. Will Blackburn take care of his spider-lilies when he turns up dead?
Instead Blackburn appears in the warehouse, unfazed by the cultists’ panicked bullet-storm, and morphs into a “dark tunnel to another world, punctuated with clusters of black, drooling fangs.” He watches Blackburn slaughter and engulf the cultists. He’s glad to see her look so sated, and he dares the obvious question: Have they met before?
In another life. When they were—intimate. Inevitably now, they fall intimate again. Gumshoe glimpses in Blackburn the black ruins, the polluted river, a massed writhing at the river’s bend. She tentacle-blindfolds his eyes, but admits that the city lies at her heart, a mystery founded on mysteries.
Well, Gumshoe’s a detective. In time, he’ll have the mystery licked. At least, Blackburn responds, she’ll enjoy watching him try.
Next up is the cybernetically augmented Bounty Hunter (BH), waiting in a VR club for her latest informant on the Cult of Light. Meanwhile she works on her side project: A virtuality of a dark city on a dark river. Something’s missing, movement along the river. Eventually she’ll add a whole army of black cats, tails intertwined to make them one mass.
Her informant is a woman in a suit that shifts from solid black to fanged mouths to fractal cats. Call her Blackburn. She gives BH a tip about university students gone missing near the White Studio venue. BH visits the studio and engages in a running battle with cultists. She finds Blackburn bound to a dias, assaulted by a pallid monstrosity. “Instinctively,” BH distracts the monster with a flare, then tries to haul away a Blackburn going to black ooze. In the mess she perceives a white marble city of cheerful people, like some corporate virtuality. She rescues Blackburn from the pale city, and Blackburn then dispatches White Thing and cultists. Then, bounties called in, BH takes Blackburn to her apartment at 472 Chenyuan Terrace.
Years later Blackburn watches BH, their “detective,” tend her real and holographic plants. Sexual hijinks follow, with Blackburn on the receiving end of overwhelming passion this time. The black city inside them enlivens; in a field on the outskirts, midnight flowers sprout.
BH asks Blackburn to glance into the future a bit, to see how her spider-lilies turn out. Blackburn looks, at the same time feeling her internal buds opening, petal by petal. They’ll do fine, she tells BH. She thinks they may bloom soon.
What’s Cyclopean: The occult detective has picked up some vocabulary from Weird Tales, describing an “abominable presence,” “tendrils of atrocious effulgence,” and inevitably a “rugose tentacle.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Surrounded by gun-wielding cultists, it’s somewhat forgivable that the detective describes them speaking “a language with too many aaaa sounds.”
Mythos Making: There are so many tentacles in this story—and under far more pleasant circumstances than Lovecraft (probably) ever dared imagine.
Libronomicon: The Sigsand manuscript strongly advises against certain combinations of the Saaamaaa banishment symbols… but what the hell, let’s try it anyway.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Sanity turns out to be a much less fragile thing than our tentacle monster thinks at first.
I’m going to try to get through this whole post without using the word “monsterfucker,” partly due to vague consideration for our host’s reputation but mostly because I’m writing on the train, and any minute now someone is going to sit next to me. But really, I’m amazed we’ve gone this far in the reread without getting to this point, not counting fraught tension between mages and their copies of the Pnakotic Manuscript.
We’ve encountered the monstrous erotic before, of course. Livia Llewellyn is explicit, dark, and writes what is probably the most squirm-inducing weird sex in the genre today. “Furies From Boras” had a deadly sacrificial orgy and potential answers to the question of exactly how The Goat With a Thousand Young produced those thousand young in the first place. And any number of stories carry a strong implication of carnality, ranging from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “Thing on the Doorstep” to Preemee Mohamed’s “The Adventurer’s Wife” and the rather sweet foursome in Ng Yi-Sheng’s “Xingzhou” But this is the first time we’ve seen absolutely consensual tentacle/human slash on the page in full glory. There is blood and people getting eaten and secrets man was not meant to know, and a romance that I can only call weirdly adorable.
I’m gonna forgive the eldritch abomination the bit where they miss how consensual thing are the first time around. They are an eldritch abomination, after all, and the degree to which they’re completely undone by being wanted is both adorable—I’m going to use that word a lot, apparently, to make up for constraints on the other one—and suggests that they may not have been previously aware of the possibility. Going out on a (tentacular) limb, I’d guess that extradimensional tentacle monsters with cities in their souls don’t get a lot of good relationship modeling in their larval stages.
The city in the monster’s soul is also adorable, particularly the cats in the river. Never mind that considering it too closely might threaten your sanity; this is true of most cities. It’s true of most cats, for that matter. It reminds me of N. K. Jemisin’s New York in “The City Born Great,” even if her city fights tentacle monsters rather than being one itself. Like Prasad’s city it needs care and protection, and comes under attack from (other) extradimensional thingies. Whether you’re parenting cities or taking turns romantically pulling each other off sacrificial altars, you’re getting at something about the complicated relationships that real cities demand, regardless of their ability to get up and move around in the service of fighting gentrification.
Also delightful here is the detective with the fondness for extradimensional tentacles, and the sharp, perfectly observed jumps between voices: from Call of Cthulhu investigator to jaded noir private eye to ShadowRun cyberpunk cyborg who’s maybe a little fuzzy on the distinction between virtual and RL. We talked last week about noir detectives with hearts of gold—this week’s detective is not nearly as cynical as he wants to be, possibly because following your immortal soulmate from life to life tends to smooth out the hopeless edges. Watching him roll cigarettes for his “secretary” is, yes, adorable.
The whole story is a reappropriation of the dangerous, the dark, the unnamable into the service of deep connections strong enough to overcome all fear of the unknown. And I would happily follow the detective and the tentacle monster through several more lives of witty banter and inexplicable ability to touch each other’s thoroughly alien souls.
And I thought “Venice Burning” was a love story, pure and complicated, involving multiple participants and dizzying time shifts! Well, “Venice” was all that. “Black Flowers Blossom” is, if anything, all that and more. Or all that and less, since there are only two lovers involved. Kind of. No, yeah, there are only two, with multiple facets each. Or something like that.
Color me intrigued (a shade hedging between fuchsia and oxblood.) What’s more, what I didn’t expect going into what could arguably be described as sophisticated tentacle porn, color me sincerely moved by the happily-ever-after. (That color’s definitely violet, like Bounty Hunter’s bedspread.)
So, as has become our habit of late, we have a story shortish on word count and long on complexity. We have three stories, in fact, or one in three distinct acts, each set in its own time period and corresponding literary genre. I call that a tour-de-force, I don’t care who you are.
Actually, I do care who you are. Excuse my giddiness. Romance will do that to a person.
The first act of “Black Flowers,” set early in the 20th century, savors of gaslight and hansom cabs and eccentric-genius private investigators, Sherlock Holmes or much more exactly, Thomas Carnacki, William Hope Hodgson’s Ghost-Finder. When Prasad opens with a definitive address for her occult detective, I (sleuth-like) suspected fair play: 427 Cheyne Walk, had to be a reference to some particular occult detective. [ETA: Actually, Carnacki’s address was 472. Wonder if Prasad’s transposition is intentional?] It wasn’t until OD mentioned the Saaamaaa ritual and Sigsand Manuscript and (ah hah!) Electric Pentacle that I recalled Carnacki. Imagine, that old bachelor ravished by an ab-natural being from the Sphere Beyond!
Imagining it is something Prasad does very nicely. The sexual dynamics initially disturb—Blackburn admits that whatever OD “offered,” they believed they were visiting “dread terrors upon his body” and intended to gloat over his plunge into madness. This Blackburn is an Outer Thing to scare Howard’s shorts off with its explicit depravity and appetite for human suffering. EXCEPT—
OD liked it. The whole tentacle thing. Even the black ichor thing. Maybe his obsession with the ab-natural partakes of that repulsion-attraction paradigm we’ve often noted. Maybe meeting Blackburn allowed OD to own his homosexuality, for while Blackburn manifests human-maleish, they are also safely nonhuman and thus nonjudgmental in a way human society of OD’s day cannot be.
On Blackburn’s side, their encounter’s a huge paradigm-shifter. They have viewed themselves as only terror and terrorizer. With OD, they have the first inkling they can also be a terrible beauty, given the right beholder.
In Act Two, Prasad moves into the 1920s, early heyday of Dashiell Hammett and the hard-boiled private eye. Noir style hits us hard and fast; the specific giveaway is that Gumshoe used to work for the Continental Agency. Before there was Sam Spade, there was the otherwise anonymous Continental Op, detective for the San Francisco branch of that agency. So OD is Carnacki, and Gumshoe is Continental Op, and they’re both incarnations of that profoundly curious eternal persona destined to be Blackburn’s soulmate. The OD/Blackburn encounter was probably random, Blackburn popping in to simultaneously thwart their pallid Enemy and torture an inferior sadsack. Blackburn the secretary seeks out Gumshoe in a female manifestation that will work for his current embodiment. They/she are growing, still awkwardly, toward understanding human emotions and establishing a safe connection with a humaniform lover. Poor Carnacki—sounds like Blackburn got too ardent and reduced him to ash. [RE: Nuh-uh. OD perishes in a furnace of white light. Blackburn failed to save them from the Pallid Monstrosity.]
Act Three zooms forward to cyberpunk and a future in which its tropes are real. I’m not sure if Prasad has a specific bounty hunter in mind—I read Gibson’s Neuromancer too long ago to remember if BH comfortably fits the Molly Millions mold. You guys will know any suitable prototype. Anyway, Blackburn has progressed to a point where they can risk vulnerability. Instead of rescuing BH, they allow BH to rescue them, only doable by letting her into their previously guarded Heart-City. Since Blackburn submits to an absolute identity-rape to unlock the city gates, this is a moving act of courage and trust. Should BH fail, I think the White One would eventually finish remodeling Blackburn’s dark core to sterile corporate homogeneity. Or corporate hilarity? Both scary concepts. Either way, Blackburn would die.
BH doesn’t fail. Blackburn doesn’t die but begins to bloom into a creature which can both love and accept the loss of love to time, until time comes around again, the same but different. Perhaps Prasad’s finest achievement in this story is her use of the floral metaphor across her three “acts.” The occult detective perceives his visitor’s “thin black tendrils” as sweeping across him “like the petals of a spider lily in full flower.” Gumshoe gives Blackburn a bouquet of red-black spider lilies. Bounty Hunter grows spider lilies and points them out to Blackburn, wondering how they will fare.
Blackburn, having embraced the metaphor and transplanted it to their Heart-City as a plot of pregnant earth, has already seen buds opening there, so why shouldn’t they also blossom out in Bounty Hunter’s hologarden?
Next week, we meet a more traditionally obsessed investigator in Arthur Machen’s “The Novel of the Black Seal.”
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.