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 Amanda Downum’s “The Tenderness of Jackals,” first published in Ellen Datlow’s Lovecraft Unbound anthology in 2009. Spoilers ahead.
The train chases the setting sun, but can’t catch it.
Gabriel watches an express train pull into Hannover Station “as purple dusk gives way to charcoal.” In the whine of the train’s wheels, he hears the wolves.
Soon, the wolves whisper, and Gabriel’s cigarette smoke twists into the shape of a “sharp-jawed head.” A breeze disperses the phantom. Gabriel savors the upper-world air, which “doesn’t reek of the tunnels—musk and meat and thickening tension, the ghouls snapping as often as they spoke and the changelings cowering out of their way.” Ghouls and changelings alike knew the wolves were waiting, but no one wanted to answer their call. At last newcomer Gabriel emerged to placate the wolves.
The bright-lit station teems with students, commuters, tourists, officers, none suitable prey. Gabriel’s tension eases—maybe he won’t have to feed the wolves after all. Then he sees the boy in threadbare jeans, backpack hanging off one thin shoulder. A fall of dark hair can’t hide the sleepless shadows under his eyes. Too far away to smell it, Gabriel imagines the scent of the boy’s nervous sweat, and the ghost-wolves imagine it too. A soldier brushes past the boy, and for Gabriel the station shifts to a darker place, the soldier’s neat modern uniform to one stained and long-outdated. The station’s a between-place, where it’s easy for the “walls” to slip. The station shifts back. The boy exits. Gabriel follows.
The “strays” have always been wolf-prey. It started after WWI, in a Germany defeated and starving. Twenty-four men and boys were lured from the station, promised work or shelter or food or just a kind word. Gabriel understands their desperation—hadn’t desperation first led him to the ghouls? Twenty-four people murdered. Nothing compared to the genocide his Armenian grandparents escaped, or the holocaust of WWII, or the Lebanese civil war Gabriel himself survived. But twenty-four murders sufficed to birth the wolves.
Gabriel finds the boy crumpling an empty cigarette pack. He offers his own; the boy tenses but accepts. His accent is American. His hazel eyes are flecked with gold. The wolves approve.
Gabriel asks the boy’s name—thinking of him as Alec is better than boy or prey. The wolves lurk, unseen by passersby. They don’t care how Gabriel maneuvers to hook Alec; only the “red and messy end” of the hunt interests them.
Their first stop is a kebab stand. Gabriel signals the changeling vendor that Alec isn’t one of them, and so Selim serves the boy “safe meat.” Selim sees the wolves, and glowers unhappily. He doesn’t approve. Well, neither does Gabriel, but the wolves’ hunger has become his.
They leave the crowds behind, pause on a bridge over black water. Good place to dump a body, Alec jokes. Gabriel tells him about Fritz Haarmann, who sold the meat of his twenty-four victims on the black market. Alec reacts with disgust and fascination. It’s a complex emotion Gabriel remembers from bombed-out Beirut, when he first realized the shadows prowling the ruins weren’t soldiers or thieves or even human. It was easy to admire their strength when he was weak, easy to join them when he was alone and starving. As he is now.
Alec begins perceiving Gabriel’s “night-shining eyes, the length of his teeth and thickness of his nails.” He’ll run now, Gabriel thinks, and Gabriel will give chase with the wolves. Instead Alec asks, “What are you?”
A monster, Gabriel replies. A ghul—an eater of the dead, a killer too.
Alec’s palpably afraid, but touches Gabriel’s face with wonder. Gabriel feels he’s looking into the past, into a mirror. Confused, the wolves whine. A woman walking a dog passes below the bridge. He urges Alec to follow her. Instead Alec shows him burn scars and bruises—does Gabriel think kids like him don’t know about monsters, don’t realize there’s no safe place?
Gabriel says he doesn’t want to hurt Alec—they do. And Alec sees the ghost-wolves. Gabriel explains that the wolves are “the ghosts of acts, of madness and hunger and murder.” And they hunger for more. The Hannover ghouls got caught up in their curse when they ate the meat Haarmann sold, knowing its source. Ghoulish law is to eat only gravemeat. Gabriel’s broken it once, killing a soldier in desperation. That’s how the wolves caught him.
And me, Alec says. He’s tired of running. He’d prefer death at Gabriel’s hands. He pulls a butterfly knife and cuts his arm, flings blood-drops towards the seething wolves; further inciting attack, he bolts into a nearby park. Gabriel pursues. The wolves urge him on. He bites, draws blood—is Alec’s grip on his hair self-defense or encouragement? Either way, the boy is sobbing.
With dizzying effort Gabriel draws back. Alec curls up, choking that of all the monsters to meet, he has to meet one not monster enough. Gabriel says he’s a jackal, not a wolf. Ghouls haunt graveyards, eat corpses, skulk in the between-places. They steal children and change them. No, he won’t kill Alec, but he can steal him. It’s all he can offer. Alec looks at him with terrible hope, fear and longing. Then, again feigning unconcern, he asks, “Why didn’t you say so?” The wolves snarl that others will kill for them, Gabriel can’t stop it, can’t atone so easily.
“But I won’t be your killer,” Gabriel whispers, and Alec won’t be their prey. They’ll leave behind the haunted warrens of Hannover, settle elsewhere. It’s not enough, but it’s something.
It’s a life.
What’s Cyclopean: The border between organic and inanimate blurs. The train is sinuous, disgorging passengers; the station has glass and metal guts under stone skin; dusk has bruises.
The Degenerate Dutch: For Gabriel, the ghouls are an imperfect refuge from human-on-human horror: the Armenian genocide that his grandparents escaped, the Holocaust, his own civil war.
Mythos Making: What are all those ghouls doing, when they aren’t lurking beneath the cemeteries of New England?
Libronomicon: No books this week.
Madness Takes Its Toll: The wolves are ghosts of madness and hunger and murder.
Among the well-known carrion-feeders, jackals may be the most physically appealing—compare them to vultures and hyenas and maggots. To us herpetophiles, Komodo dragons are also pretty, but I guess most people would rather cuddle a jackal than the largest of the monitor lizards. Like Komodos, jackals are keen hunters as well as scavengers. That would make both species at least occasional “killers,” as Gabriel admits to being. The difference is that jackals and Komodos aren’t bound by clan law and custom to eat only carrion; they can eat whatever the hell they want and can get hold of. Jackals will eat plants at need. Komodos, most ghoul-like, have been known to dig up human graves and feast on the ripening contents. But jackals win the “tenderness” contest, monogamous pairs being the core of their social structure, which may extend to family groups of grown offspring hanging around to help rear sibling pups until they establish territories of their own. Folklore often represents the jackal as a cunning trickster. The Egyptian god of the afterlife is jackal-headed Anubis.
Anubis is also the patron of lost and helpless souls, a tenderhearted aspect Gabriel shares.
All of which is a roundabout way of admiring the aptness of Downum’s title, which may come across at first as an oxymoron. Jackals, tender? Those mangey followers of more capable predators, like the cowardly Tabaqui to Kipling’s Shere Khan? Those opportunistic sniffers after the dead and dying? Wouldn’t the more straightforward “Tenderness of Ghouls” be as oxymoronic-ironic? Probably, but since the forces antagonistic to Gabriel are represented as wolves, it’s defter to compare him to another canid.
In reality, wolves are as tender as jackals and have more “fans” among animal lovers and advocates. In Western tradition, however, wolves are—wolvish. They’re ferocious and greedy, bloodthirsty and rampaging. They’re big and bad and will blow down your house and eat your grandmother. They’ll chase your sleigh across the frozen tundra or ring your campfire or chill your blood to sludge with their (ever nearer) howling. They’re Dracula’s “children of the night.” Enough said.
Speaking of canids, Lovecraft’s favorite description of ghouls (after or tied with “rubbery”) is that they’re doglike. That’s no commendation from a passionate cat-lover. Underground dogs—dog-mole-human hybrids! Swarming through fetid burrows, gobbling up the anointed remains of 19th-century American poets, and worse of all corrupting the young of pureblood humans! Those are the ghouls Pickman painted, anyhow, who unlike Downum’s ghouls have no qualms about eating freshly killed people—didn’t Pickman represent them leaping through windows to worry the throats of sleepers or lurking in cellars or even attacking subway passengers en masse? Pickman would know, being a changeling himself.
Lovecraft’s Dreamlands ghouls are less horrific than their Bostonian cousins—in fact, they’re the friendliest creatures in the Underworld. Still rubbery and mouldy, still smelly, still doglike, still given to an unmentionable diet, but good allies in a pinch, even sympathetic for those who, like Randolph Carter, have taken time to get to know them and learn their meeping language.
Other writers’ ghouls tend toward one of these Lovecraftian camps. Downum’s ghouls fall between the monstrous and the other-but-relatable. Sure they’re monsters, as Gabriel admits, but there are much worse monsters, many of them human. Think of the perpetrators of the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. Think of people twisted by wars like the 1975 civil conflict in Lebanon. Think of the psychopath in 1918 Hannover who murdered twenty-four and sold their flesh in the black market. Ghouls at least try to avoid killing and have made the prohibition a central precept of their kind. If they sometimes fail, like Gabriel, it’s because they’re only human, sort of.
Humans, in this story at least, are the wolf-makers. What lowers the humans below the ghouls, ethically speaking, is that they’re not even aware of the wolves. Attuned to the between-places, ghouls perceive essential evil and know it for what it is. Sometimes they can even resist it, as Gabriel does. Members of an outcast race, they survive in shadow, but they do survive. What’s more, they take in other outcasts. Once upon a time it was Gabriel whom they “stole”—it seems “adopted” might be a better word in his case.
Adopted is a better word in Alec’s case as well—or whatever still-uncoined word could express the idea of being voluntarily stolen away from a “normal” but intolerable situation into an abnormal existence that’s far from perfect but still preferable.
Why is becoming a ghoul-changeling preferable? Gabriel tells us: because it’s a life, as opposed to Alec’s living death.
And, from the rubbery lips of a ghoul, what an indictment of humanity that is.
He’s got me, Gabriel does. I do think monsters are interesting. Ghosts and ghouls, Deep Ones and Outer Ones, fungous vampires and laughing elder gods and mind-control spores and mind-destroying books. I’m interested in story-shaped monsters: the ones who do horrible things for all-too-comprehensible reasons, or for incomprehensibly alien ones, or because it’s their nature and a thing’s gotta eat (or reproduce, or shape reality in its immediate vicinity, etc. etc. through a universe of potential biological imperatives).
Realistic human monsters are another matter. The fascinations of the true crime drama, the detailed psychology of serial killers and order-following soldiers and order-giving dictators—I mostly find those interesting the way I might be interested in a blight on a vital crop, or a Category 5 hurricane bearing down on my city. But other people read them and watch them in endless profusion—again, Gabriel’s got our number.
And here’s a new type of monster, crossing the boundary: the ghosts not of people but of genocide and murder and pain-driven desperation, reaching out to cause more of it. Interesting, for sure, in all senses of the word.
Ah, but what does monstrousness look like to the monsters? Gabriel’s found refuge from the human monsters among the inhuman, or semi-human: the ghouls that congregate to gnaw on humanity’s dead. But they have a law: no fresh meat. And they’re human enough to have broken it. They may blame the wolf-ghosts, which are certainly there to help things along, but the timeline suggests another motivation. The murders—the original ones, the human killer who sold fresh meat to grave-jackals—got started after World War I, before World War II. That is, right after a period when ghoul-food was plentiful—trenches and fields full of it all across Europe—enough to support the recruitment of any number of changelings, the birth of any number of corpse-born ghoul babies. And then suddenly that flood drops to a trickle, down to the meager meals of ordinary graveyards. The ghouls were hungry.
Much like Gabriel. Much like Alec.
Layers of desperation. Layers of monstrousness. And the titular tenderness of jackals… which is what? Maybe it’s being the kind of monster that scavenges rather than kills—living mementos mori rather than murderers. Maybe it’s being the kind of monster that recruits, that takes in. Lovecraft was terrified of that possibility, and his stories are full of hospitable monsters that welcome outsiders into their communities. The K’n-yan may be fickle hosts, but will at least find you an affection group for a few months. Deep Ones seduce humans and offer a place in their cities to the most prodigal of their children. Mi-Go hold cosmopolitan salons between dimensions. Ghouls are the kindest of all, taking in changelings and wayward goths, and sometimes even wayward dream-questers.
Much like Kipling’s hyenas, ghouls accept a diet we may find horrifying, but it can’t be defilement when they’re simply following their natures. There may even be a weird sacredness to it. Especially if, as here, they’re just human enough that they could choose worse.
And choosing to do better… there are worse, and far more monstrous, ways to make a life.
Next week, a different take on both trains and ghouls in Robert Barbour Johnson’s “Far Below.” You can find it in The Weird.
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.