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 Christopher Golden and James A. Moore’s “In Their Presence,” first Aaron J. French’s 2015 The Gods of H.P. Lovecraft anthology. Spoilers ahead.
“They move on wings made of the aether and they sing in a single, communal voice that fills his mind with angry screams.”
Professor Edgar Jacoby and Samuel Harrington are an odd couple brought together by the prospect of mutual gain. Jacoby seeks to map “the unexplored fringes of history and folklore.” Wealthy Harrington seeks more wealth, and fame. Their current venture sees them aboard the whaler Burleson in search of the Eleanor Lockley, sunk high in the Arctic eighty years before. Some say the Lockley succumbed to a violent storm, others to pirates. Whether the culprit was nature or criminals or something less mundane, Jacoby’s determined to uncover it.
Harrington has hired divers willing to plumb the freezing Arctic depths; eager as Jacoby is to plumb the Lockley mystery, his claustrophobia forbids him to don a diving suit and helmet—he can barely endure the tight quarters belowdecks. The divers find the Lockley two hundred feet down. She’s riddled with gaping holes, but they salvage some crates and a steamer trunk.
The crew gathers around as Harrington opens crates and Jacoby snaps photographs. The first crate belches the stench of long-decaying organic matter. Jacoby puzzles over what looks like the claw of a bear-sized lobster. Other crates hold maps and papers rotted to indecipherable sludge. Then there’s a small chest, seemingly carved from ivory and etched with runes even Jacoby doesn’t recognize. It’s far heavier than one would expect.
Inside are four stone carvings etched with more runes. One represents a crouching winged figure, half aquatic, half bat. The second resembles a hooded man, the third a cloudy being of teeth and tongues and eyes, the fourth a “fusion of wings and pincered legs.” Like the chest, these objects are too heavy, and looking at them hurts Jacoby’s eyes. A gray metallic cylinder, cryptically indented at the top and base, completes the trove.
One more thing inhabited the trunk, if their eyes don’t trick them: a light-globule of a color Jacoby can’t name. It slips out, “[seethes] across the metal table, then simply [evaporates] like ice dropped on a hot griddle.” Jacoby’s too slow to photograph it. He’s suddenly overcome with nausea. So, too, are his companions.
Jacoby spends the next two days sweating and feverish and vomiting. Food poisoning? He doubts it—some deep intuition makes him blame the light-globule. Confined to his bunk, he dreams of a starry void vibrant beyond his previous imaginings. A dark planet spawns winged nightmares. One, more solid than the rest, skims the aether beside Jacoby. It has a shelled carapace, many pincered legs, and a head like a bee’s, covered in undulating tendrils. Waking, he staggers out to study the chest and its enigmas. One figure reminds him of the sail-winged creature of his dream. Its stony solidity somehow comforts him, and he sinks into renewed dreams of space-roamers called the Mi-Go.
Jacoby moves through the heavens with them. To his wonder, “gods walk among the stars and hide in the folded darkness of reality and whisper their intoxicating secrets to those who are courageous enough to listen.”
When next he wakes, all hands (still sick) are battling a storm. It damages the Burleson’s propeller. Harrington radios for help. Like the others, Jacoby forces himself to take fluids. He needs to stay alive, to be patient, for they are coming.
One crewmember dies a gray death, skin flaking, muscles and bone crumbling. Jacoby spends his days studying the runes. A yacht called the Ashleigh Michaels finally responds to their distress call. Miskatonic University professor David Ivers has been following their messages and wants to see the artifacts they’ve found. Reluctantly, Harrington agrees.
Ivers sees enough in the “ivory” chest alone and declines to view its contents. Their find has sickened them, he warns, and tainted their ship. They must abandon it for the Michaels, leaving all behind. And illness aside, they are coming. The Mi-Go, that is, aliens possessed of unimaginable technology. MU professor Walter Emerson discovered their artifacts eighty years ago. A disembodied human brain imprisoned in the cylinder helped decipher the runic inscriptions, but then Mi-Go attacked their camp. Only Emerson survived. He was transporting the artifacts home aboard the Eleanor Lockley, along with the corpse of one Mi-Go. Ivers fears the Mi-Go were responsible for the Lockley’s loss and will shortly destroy the Burleson as well.
Harrington and crew agree to leave their ship and treasure. Jacoby insists on staying behind. He yearns to meet the Mi-Go, even if it means death. Alone on board, he discovers that touching the cylinder sharpens his perceptions. He can see the energy that’s “tainted” the ship. He realizes the stone figures are much larger than they appeared to his unaided eyes. Looking at the stars, he views “the same magnificent spectrum of forms he knew in his dreams.” As a young man, he believed in the Christian god; now he wonders if he finally understands His “angels.”
After another storm, the Mi-Go arrive with a hornet-like humming. Their shifting crustacean-insectile appearance strikes Jacoby as loathsome until he again touches the cylinder and sees the “iridescent glory” of his dreams. He begs to go with them into space, though they say he can’t survive without a cylinder’s protection. Jacoby says he’s dying anyway, let him see for a moment what they see.
The Mi-Go consent. Gripped in their claws, listening to the song of their wings and watching the Northern Lights through which they rise extend “into the depths of eternity,” Jacoby weeps. He freezes in the upper atmosphere but doesn’t feel the pain.
For “he was in the presence of angels.”
What’s Cyclopean: Describing the Mi-Go is always kind of challenging. Here, their “bee’s skulls” are covered with “a cluster of flagella that wave and undulate, long tendrils that pulse and convulse like newborn maggots.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Jacoby and Harrington irritate each other as an obnoxious academic and an obnoxious rich dude respectively—and they both irritate the ship’s crew, who disdain their lack of experience with physical labor.
Mythos Making: Heralding the fungi from Yuggoth, we get mysterious statues: Cthulhu, a shoggoth, a Mi-Go self-portrait, and “a sinister, hooded man.” Plus a visitor from Miskatonic University.
Libronomicon: Jacoby is familiar with most known hieroglyphs and archaic languages, but not the puke-inducing runes on the ivory chest.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Every minute on board this ship risks your health, your sanity and your very lives.
Harrington’s mention of Jacques Cousteau should date “In Their Presence” to 1979, three years after Cousteau and an archaeological team headed by Dr. Lazaro Kolonas explored an ancient Roman-era ship first discovered by sponge divers in 1900. The Antikytheros wreck, named after the island off which it sank, appears to have gone down early in the first century BC, carrying a mighty trove of Greek artifacts: bronze and marble statues, jewelry, coins, ceramics, and most intriguingly, a gear-driven bronze device called the Antikytheros mechanism. It looks like something a steampunk character might have dropped while time-traveling. Initially described as an astrolabe, it’s now thought to be the earliest example of an analog computer, invented by the Greeks to predict astronomical positions and eclipses.
Not to throw any shade on Greek genius, but I wonder if the mechanism’s maker was assisted by visitors from Yuggoth. Visitors who had perhaps lost astronomical devices of their own and were making do with what could be cobbled together on site? Visitors who perhaps sank the Antikytheros wreck when its crew added Mi-Go artifacts to their booty? This scenario would tie in nicely with the later fates of the Eleanor Lockley and the Burleson. Golden and Moore’s short story also recalls Bear and Monette’s “Boojum,” in which space pirates bring mysterious cylinders aboard their living vessel, only to have the Mi-Go launch a recovery mission. The “Boojum” Mi-Go don’t destroy the Lavinia Whateley, however; nor do they forget to bring along empty canisters for the collection of fresh brains. Too bad for Professor Jacoby that his Mi-Go neglected this precaution. Or maybe they just didn’t want his brain? Ouch, what an insult, and undeserved too, given Jacoby’s willingness to travel with the Fungi and his relative erudition.
The only erudition Jacoby was lacking was a working knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos. Strange in one devoted to “mapping the unexplored fringes of history and folklore.” If he’d only corresponded with MU’s famous folklorist Albert Wilmarth—Jacoby would then have been able to identify the figures in the “ivory” box as (my reading) Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep or Hastur, Shub-Niggurath and a representative Yuggothian. He would also have known what that cylinder was all about.
I guess Wilmarth could also have told him that the light-globule of indeterminate color (fuchsia, I bet) was BIG BIG TROUBLE. Not that even Wilmarth would likely anticipate the Yuggothians using a Color as a watchdog or treasure-ward. That they do, and that this is what disables the Burleson crew prior to the arrival of Yuggothian artifact-rescuers, is one of the nicest bits of “In Their Presence.”
Yuggothians being in general disinclined to wipe out all life on Earth, maybe they don’t sink artifact-thief ships to hide the artifacts (wouldn’t they retrieve them instead?) but to keep the now ship-embedded Color from contaminating other vessels or eventually running aground on vulnerable shores? Although it’s not reassuring to think of lots of Color-wrecks lolling on the bottom of our oceans. Unless saltwater and/or depths trap Colors? Even in which case, don’t we have to worry about Deep Ones coming across the plague-carriers?
Never mind. I have enough plagues to ruminate on right now.
I read “In Their Presence” thinking its connection to “Shining Trapezohedron” would be the common theme of exploration—specifically explorations that should never have been launched, as there are things mankind had better not know. The connection is actually closer and more interesting. Reverend Bowen and Professor Jacoby share a useful ignorance of the Mythos and so don’t know when to cut and run. They share the same religious background—Bowen is a devout Christian; Jacoby used to be one, before “the war” (WWII, Vietnam?). Angels are beings their imaginations have dwelt upon, and both soon identify Mythosian gods or races with the Christian ideal. Bowen is the more naive, but that suits his stronger and present faith. Jacoby has flashes of seeing the Yuggothians as monstrous, demonic, “disappointing, faded angels.”
Connecting with the cylinder, with a sweeping empathy for its makers, he recovers “the iridescent glory” of the Yuggothians he experienced in dream. He knows as he was known, shedding a former faith for a new reality. That’s the trick, isn’t it? The anthology in which “In Their Presence” debuted is Aaron French’s Gods of H. P. Lovecraft. Arguably Lovecraft created no gods in the theological sense, but rather beings so incomprehensible in their nature or so advanced in their technologies that humans would regard them as gods or the minions of God, that is, angels. Either way, with Lovecraft’s “gods,” in the end there is no need for doubt (that which faith defies without cause.) The protagonist in their tales must invariably face the terrible and/or awe-inspiring truth that Cthulhu and Company exist. Despair at this revelation! Retreat into denial! Or embrace the truth, however fleetingly.
As Jacoby does, and so he gets to fly with the angels. To walk with God in the heavens, like Bowen’s biblical namesake Enoch the Patriarch.
A canister would still have been nice for the Professor, his claustrophobia notwithstanding. Fungi, please, in future please don’t leave Yuggoth without one!
Life in a cosmic horror universe is tough on faith—or easy on it, depending on what, precisely, you have faith in. Maybe you’d rather believe in something terrible than in nothing at all. Maybe you’re one of the downtrodden, who, per Lovecraft, all worship elder gods and have shocking relationships with shoggoths. Maybe you’ve been duped by someone who’s getting more than their fair share out of your worship. But it’s in the bones of the subgenre: So many of Lovecraft’s protagonists, overtly or by implication, lost their belief in the trenches and are now finding it again—often extremely reluctantly.
Jacoby seems like this sort, at first. He lost his faith in “the war”—if this is in fact 1979, then depending on his age that’s either Korea or Vietnam. He’s since devoted his life and his obsession to gathering knowledge. But what he finds, ultimately, isn’t horror—at least not to him. The Mi-Go have always offered great knowledge, at a great price, but it’s a sacrifice Jacoby makes willingly. More than that, he claims his new faith as a rebirth of his old faith, with the Mi-Go not merely learned aliens but angels. That suggests a hunger for something more than knowledge.
Angels are an interesting comparison. Anything that starts encounters with “fear not” is probably no more a comfortable presence than a shoggoth. Nor are their original descriptions less weird than our favorite fungi, and they rival shoggothim for number of eyes. So sure, a “bee’s skull” and writhing tentacles and lobster claws and wings extending into weird dimensions fit right in!
Those weird dimensions are always what intrigues me most about the Mi-Go. They’re Not From Around Here—and yet, here they are, not only communicating with humans but forming community with them. Protective of their secrets or not, understanding of the value of embodied cognition or not, they make much better neighbors than some other extradimensional critters. At the same time, there’s something about them thoroughly beyond mortal ken, or at least human ken. The wings that look so wrong with ordinary vision, and so right with the vision granted by their artifacts, illustrate this wonderfully. “From Beyond” and “Unseen—Unfeared” give us tools to look beyond our own reality (and see horrible things). Golden and Moore’s Mi-Go give tools to see how those realities connect—inspiring horror in some, but awe in others.
Also radiation poisoning, or some eldritch equivalent. But then, that’s a risk with angels too. Normally I’d make a joke about “puke runes” here, or speculate about the elder flu. But that feels a little too on the nose this week.
Back to Cousteau, and the perils of raising treasures from the deep—like faith, this is particularly hazardous in a world of cosmic horror. Anything might be down there: man-eating mermaids, long-drowned kingdoms, frozen horrors… or wonder and glory.
Maybe all of the above.
It’s been a while since we covered a translation; next week we return to Night Voices, Night Journeys, and to the more familiar territory of Innsmouth, for Shibata Yoshiki’s “Love for Who Speaks.”
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.