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 Caitlín Kiernan’s “Love is Forbidden, We Croak and Howl,” first published in Sirenia Digest #78, in 2010; the version reviewed here is from the 2012 Lovecraft’s Monsters anthology edited by Ellen Datlow. Spoilers ahead.
Some would say this is a love story. Alright, let’s settle for that, if only for the sake of convenience.
It’s the year 1920, a not-quite-all-knowing narrator tells us, high summer at the mouth of the Castle Neck River which Lovecraft called the Manuxet. Here the river becomes a “sluggish maze of shallow streams, sloughs, impassable tracts of swamps, dunes, and thickly wooded islands prefacing Essex Bay,” a.k.a. Innsmouth Harbor. The full Hay Moon rises red as “the single eye of any god gazing out across a world to which it means to do mischief.” Most would shiver at the sight, but not the peculiar inhabitants of Innsmouth, who swim to Devil Reef to cavort with “the sorts of beings their slow metamorphoses will one day make of them.” So it has been since Obed Marsh brought from the South Seas “the gospel of Father Dagon and Mother Hydra.”
But Narrator assures us this is no geography or history lesson but rather a sort of love story. Once upon a time, a ghoul fell in love with a daughter of Innsmouth named Elberith Gilman. Elberith is destined to descend to the glories of Y’ha-nthlei, there to wed a Deep One or at least one of the only-partly-human members of the Esoteric Order. Her parents would certainly object to so vile a son-in-law as a ghoul.
The ghoul’s name is unpronounceable in the tongues of men. He lives in moldering tunnels beneath Old Hill Burying Ground, destined for gnawing corpses. If he’s lucky, he may someday find his way to the Dreamlands, where celebrated ghouls dwell above the Vale of Pnath and its carpet of a billion skeletons.
The moon’s still several nights from full when Elberith and her family attend a service in the Hall of Dagon. Elberith gurgles hymns to Dagon and Hydra and Great Cthulhu; her voice is said to be one of the finest in Innsmouth. Afterwards the Gilmans stroll the wharves, enjoying the muddy reek of low tide. Near midnight they return to their dilapidated home, and Elberith prepares for bed.
“Romeo,” meanwhile, has emerged from the World Below and shambled all the way from Ipswich to Innsmouth. The curious ghoul marvels at cobbled streets, power lines, and Georgian houses, with no previous experience to tell him how they’re decayed. Gaslight and candlelight are other wonders—his sole experience has been with darkness and shadows. His people would revile his interest in these things of the World Above, “an offense to the gods who guarded and watched over carrion feeders.”
Under Elberith’s glowing window, the ghoul pauses. He squats and listens to the novel sound of her preparations for bed. When her light goes out, he dares to rise on “hooved and shaggy fetlocked hindlimbs” to gaze through the glass.
Elberith, still awake, hears tapping. It’s too purposeful to be the scrape of elderberry branches, so she rises to investigate. At the window she meets the scarlet eyes of the ghoul, who’s pressed his wet nose to the pane. She almost screams for her father, but the unknown creature gibbers a few words (of wonder at her beauty, though she knows not his language), and she reasons aloud: If the creature meant mischief, surely it would have broken the window and crawled in. The ghoul knows human language no better than she ghoulish, but he catches the absence of fear in her voice and grimaces a ghoul-smile.
The sight of his formidable yellow canines makes Elberith wince. She, however, is “a bold girl, and one given to questionable deductions.” She presses her hand to the glass. The ghoul presses his paw to the glass. Elberith comes to the unlikely conclusion that the creature wants to be friends, that “whatever manner of beast you are, you want nothing more than to dispel a loneliness that has long troubled your heart.”
She opens the window. The ghoul steps back lest he startle her. He’s never seen a living human, not even the gravediggers and mourners other ghouls have glimpsed. The girl’s bulging eyes, thick lips, receding chin, finger-webbing and folded throat skin don’t strike him as ugly. Nor, when they press their hands together, flesh to flesh, does Elberith recoil from his claws or the fungi growing from his skin. His hand is warmer than she expected.
For a long time they hold hands, staring at each other with ever increasing fondness. In the seaport a clock chimes, startling the ghoul. He lopes away through empty lanes to his home mausoleum. Elberith gazes at the moldy stain he’s left on her jaundiced skin until sleepiness sends her back to bed. There she doesn’t dream of undersea realms but of the ghoul, “of his face and the touch of his hand upon her own.”
What’s Cyclopean: There are abyssal depths and bioluminescent terraces, but somehow nothing cyclopean.
The Degenerate Dutch: Innsmouth gentry, with their noses in the air (or maybe in the ocean), have no time for poor ghouls. Most of them, anyway.
Mythos Making: This week’s tale is basically Pickman/Gilman slash, with comments on the geography of the Miskatonic Valley.
Libronomicon: It’s just like Romeo and Juliet.
Madness Takes Its Toll: No one’s mad here, except readers who want more story.
Wait a second—and then what happens? Is my copy of Lovecraft’s Monsters missing most of this story? Apparently not, because a quick web search finds other reviewers similarly frustrated.
And I really do want the rest of this thing. I want my gravedirt-stained Romeo and Hydra-blessed Juliet. I want more clues to the identity of the self-consciously academic narrator, who isn’t actually close enough to the action to know whether Elberith has a fiancé. I want to know why calling this a love story is too sentimental. I want to know what happens on the second night.
And what I actually suspect is that Kiernan wrote this in the throes of frustration at some piece of academic literary criticism, with the goal of frustrating literary critics in turn. (In trying to figure out whether any specific academic activities might have spawned these frustrations, I was reminded that Kiernan is in fact a paleontologist specializing in mososaurs—not actually relevant, but awesome enough to mention anyway.)
And but so anyway. Under the suspicion that I’m being trolled, I plunge into the abyss of literary analysis anyway. If this is a non-sentimental Romeo and Juliet, what happens? We’re told that Elberith’s parents (probably) have other, non-sentimental plans for her engagement. The Shakespeare reference suggests that both families disapprove of their connection, though we don’t actually learn much about Romeo’s family (Montag-ewwww?). One wouldn’t imagine that Deep Ones and ghouls normally have cause for direct conflict, though I can imagine shoggoth tunnels getting in the way of ghoul den-building, not to mention the disappointed hopes raised by Innsmouth’s decoy cemetery.
We’re also told that Elberith is prone to questionable judgments, which is likewise in keeping with the original Shakespeare. Is she going to come up with cunning plans for running away to live with the ghouls? Is she going to try and fake her death? That seems particularly challenging for a Deep One. Is she ever going to learn Ghoulish so the pair can have a proper balcony scene? It is the west, and Elberith is the moon that draws the tide?
Elberith’s name is not, as I originally suspected, Elvish, but a legitimate name that shows up once in the Bible. It is not in the normal course of things used by humans, as it belongs to a deity to whose temple the ruling elite of Shechem flee before being killed (by an enemy who burns down the temple). So, a false refuge. Is the ghoul going to run away from his usual haunts to try and live with her? Is he going to try and play dead? I can see where a non-ghoul in particular would have trouble telling the difference, under all that mold.
Wait—if she plays dead, would Romeo’s relatives try and eat her? Possible, given all that pent-up annoyance at the empty cemetery. Or maybe he tries to eat her, one last chance at longed-for union, and turns out to be allergic to whatever she took, or just to whatever keeps Deep One flesh immortal. Ewwww. Yeah, I’m starting to suspect how this would all get unsentimental in a hurry.
And I still want to read it.
[ETA: Answers ahoy, maybe—the story was first published in Sirenia Digest, “a monthly journal of the weirdly erotic.” I wonder if the Second Night can be found there? Further exploration of forbidden tomes is required.]
Lovecraft is no lover of love, particularly of the romantic variety. I’ve hunted for an exception to this rule among his stories, with scant results. I wouldn’t call any one of Howard’s fictions a romance in the popular sense of the word, that is, a love story. Even romantic subplots are few and trivial and mostly feature in his collaborations. With Zealia Bishop, he managed the really bad love of “Medusa’s Coil,” the doomed conquistador-infatuation of “The Mound’s” T’la-yub, and the ophidiophobia-haunted but otherwise sound marriage of “The Curse of Yig’s” pioneer couple. With Hazel Heald, he produced “The Man of Stone’s” Rose Morris and Arthur Wheeler, whose genuinely sweet love affair detours onto a rocky road when wizard Morris turns them into statuary. With Adolphe de Castro in “The Last Test,” he actually allows lovers Georgina Clarendon and James Dalton a happy ending, following many trials at the hands of her mad scientist brother and his anthroporeptilian henchman.
Of Howard’s solo stories, “The Thing on the Doorstep” hinges the most on coupling, specifically the union of Edward Derby and Asenath Waite. Oh, what a convoluted affair that is, given Edward may be gay and Asenath physically female but spiritually male since she’s really her father Ephraim Waite, who’s commandeered her body and who increasingly commandeers Edward’s, leaving Edward in Asenath’s female shell. Are we confused yet? I think we’re supposed to be, confused and scared by this thing called sex. In all its aspects, attraction and mating and reproduction, it’s just so damned dangerous! Maybe it’s okay for vanilla married couples, if only because necessary to produce the kids who grow up to be our characters. The Wards are perfectly nice and normal, even young Charles Dexter, until the spectre of genealogy darkens their patrician doorstep. Genealogy isn’t kind to “Rats in the Walls” Delapore, either. Genealogy, ultimately, is the record of genes, too often treacherously mixed.
Take the Martenses, driven to underground cannibalism by incest and inbreeding. Take the Jermyns, whose ancestral matriarch was an—ape! Albeit a white one. Take the even more exotically-engendered Wilbur Whateley and twin. Take the ghouls and Deep Ones, inhuman (though roughly bipedal and undeniably sapient) monsters who lust after REAL humans! Ghouls leave “changelings” among people, which start out flaunting their human side, only to decline into shambling dog-faced abominations. Deep Ones exchange treasure for breeding rights with human men and women; the offspring, again, only start out blessed with the human phenotype—the monstrous genotype must prevail in the end.
Know what’s the real horror of such crossbreeding? It’s that such crossbreeding’s even possible, which implies common ancestry and at no great remove. For an Outer God, oh say Yog-Sothoth, to breed with a human, that must take BIG MAGIC. But for a ghoul or Deep One? Evidently not so much, just the usual exchange of gametes.
Know what could be even worse than ghouls or Deep Ones mating with humans? Try ghouls and Deep Ones mating with each other and thus compounding the sins of their forebears! And ghouls and Deep Ones mating (at least potentially) is what Caitlín Kiernan envisions in “Love is Forbidden, We Croak and Howl.” Croak and howl, now I get it. Deep Ones do the former, ghouls the latter. Sounds like a chorus more hellish than the one rising from the Hall of Dagon. Or not. Strange harmonies may intrigue, even delight.
But Kiernan isn’t doing Lovecraft one more horrible by crossing monster with monster, she’s doing him several more ironic. Like many humans, ghouls know little beyond their immediate World and suspect those seeking further knowledge—surely the gods would disapprove! Like many humans, Deep Ones have a strict social hierarchy. On top are “pureblood” Deep Ones, the original children of Dagon and Hydra. Beneath them but still acceptable are hybrid Deep Ones who’ve overcome landbound humanity and returned to the water. I expect hybrids who don’t transition properly are rungs beneath the returned hybrids. A plain old homogeneous human might be semi-tolerable. In a pinch. But a ghoul? My dear, what would great-great-great-et cetera-grandmother say?
Elberith can imagine what she’d say. Though she lives in the prelapsarian heyday of Innsmouth, several years before the events of Lovecraft’s “Shadow Over,” she’s not that naive. Luckily for Unpronounceable Ghoul, she’s a nonconformist, bold and given to questionable deductions. Ghoul shares her boldness, for he’s dared to venture far from his home-tunnels. Even more than Elberith, he’s innocent of expectations as to what an acceptable Other might look like. He’s never seen a living human—maybe they’re supposed to look like Elberith, gill-slits and bulging eyes and all. In any case, he’s so open to novelty that his first perception is that—she’s beautiful. Elberith has to get over her first perception of Ghoul as monster and danger, but she does that quickly and, delightfully, via reason. A monster would have eaten her right off; hence Ghoul isn’t a monster. She’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, anyhow.
And Kiernan gives us the benefit of the doubt by trusting us to finish the lovers’ story. “Love is Forbidden” has an unusual structure—it opens on the evening of the full Hay Moon, at the mouth of the Castle Neck (Manuxet) River, with Omniscient Narrator spinning geographical and historical background. But Elberith and Ghoul meet several nights before the Hay Moon, which presumably makes the “balcony scene” the preface to a Hay Moon climax. Surprisingly, with the end of the “balcony scene” comes the end of the text.
We the readers may now take it forward (back?) to Kiernan’s original “stage setting” and imagine Elberith and Ghoul’s fateful or fatal meeting there. Or we may rest content with the truncation of the play, since the “balcony scene” has already said by rich implication all that Kiernan wanted to say.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is 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.