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 Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild,” first published in the June 1984 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Spoilers ahead—but seriously, if you’ve never read this, go read it first. You can find it in The Weird and probably in five other anthologies already on your shelves, or on audio here.
“At this stage, it would eat any flesh except its mother’s.”
Gan’s last night of childhood begins in the Preserve, a Terran enclave set aside by the Tlic government. T’Gatoi is in charge of the Preserve; Gan’s mother Lien says it’s an honor for their families to be linked. His mother and T’Gatoi befriended each other long ago. Having to give one of her children to a Tlic, naturally Lien chose T’Gatoi, and within three minutes of Gan’s birth, T’Gatoi caged him within her many limbs. She’s been part of his life ever since.
T’Gatoi takes care of Gan, and Gan must take care of T’Gatoi. Her political faction has put an end to the days when Terrans were bred like animals for Tlic convenience. T’Gatoi has established the practice of joining Tlic and human families, parceling humans out to the desperate or selling them to the rich, making the Terrans “necessities, status symbols, and an independent people” rather than beasts of… bearing.
This evening, T’Gatoi’s brought two sterile eggs from her sister. Lien shares one with Gan’s siblings. The other’s for Gan alone. Lien must be urged to sip from the egg, although its dreamy intoxication heals and prolongs life. Having submitted, she supplants Gan in T’Gatoi’s velvet-bellied embrace. T’Gatoi stings her toward sleep; fading, Lien whispers, “Do you think I would sell him for eggs? For long life? My son?”
“Not for anything,” T’Gatoi reassures Lien.
Commotion outside interrupts the family party. T’Gatoi whips off her couch, three meters of segmented body. She returns carrying an unconscious young man, Bran Lomas according to his armband and N’Tlic according to T’Gatoi. Gan shrinks from the diagnosis. Older brother Qui’s sent summon the man’s Tlic, T’Khotgif. Qui, who resents the Tlic, won’t be of any other use. Lien and Gan’s sisters retreat to their rooms.
Lomas regains consciousness as T’Gatoi sends Gan out to kill one of his family’s stock animals. He takes the forbidden rifle hidden by his late father and shoots a native achti. He drags it to T’Gatoi, who’s telling Lomas she’ll sting him to sleep once it’s over. After that T’Khotgif will come with healing eggs.
“T’Khotgif!” is the last coherent word Lomas shouts. Gan pins his arms while T’Gatoi’s dextrous claws first bisect the dead achti, then open Lomas’s abdomen. Gan fights nausea but watches as she extracts worms fifteen centimeters long, blind, blood-slimy. They’ve been poisoning Lomas to weaken him before they devour their way out of his body—instead T’Gatoi transfers them into the achti, a substitute host. She’s pleased to find so many grubs, one a vigorous male. “Everything lives inside you Terrans,” she says.
All his life he’s been told this is “a good and necessary thing Tlic and Terran did together.. .a kind of birth.” He’s seen pictures. The reality is so much worse. He wouldn’t have thought anything about T’Gatoi could seem alien to him.
Seeing his distress, T’Gatoi sends him outside. He vomits. A car arrives with a Terran doctor, Qui, and T’Khotgif. T’Khotgif asks after Lomas with concern before going inside. Gan walks off. Qui pursues him. Has Gan learned more than he wants to know? And don’t give him one of T’Gatoi’s looks—Gan’s not her, he’s her property.
Qui confesses he once secretly watched a Tlic and N’Tlic man stranded far from help. Without an animal to which she could transfer her young, the Tlic killed the man and let the emerging grubs eat him. But of course Qui knows that T’Gatoi likes Gan; she’ll be careful with him. Oh, and by the way, has she done it to Gan yet? He’s the right age for implantation—
Gan hits his brother until Qui knocks him down in self-defense. Recovering, he goes home and reloads his father’s rifle. T’Gatoi joins him in the darkened kitchen. She’s sorry Gan had to see Lomas suffer—no one will ask Lomas to do that again.
No one ever asks us, Gan counters. You never asked me.
Coiled on the table, T’Gatoi asks if Gan means to shoot her. Instead he tucks the barrel under his own chin. He doesn’t want to be a host animal, not even hers.
After a long pause, T’Gatoi says that the Tlic don’t see humans as host animals. When the Tlic were declining, their ancestral hosts having evolved to resist the grubs, his people brought them back to health. Gan’s ancestors fled oppression on their homeworld, and survived here because of the Tlic. Would Gan rather die than bear her young? Should she go to his sister, who’ll welcome the connection?
Gan isn’t Qui, willing to sacrifice a sibling. He lowers the rifle but insists on keeping it. She must accept the risk if she really sees him as partner rather than animal.
T’Gatoi concedes. In Gan’s room, she implants him with her first egg. The procedure is painless, even soothing. Gan admits he isn’t submitting only to save his sister. He wants to keep T’Gatoi for himself. And silently he pledges he’ll take care of her, his Tlic.
Aloud, T’Gatoi pledges the same: She’ll take care of him.
What’s Cyclopean: Simple language, direct and unflinching, makes for extremely effective description of parasitic alien breeding practices.
The Degenerate Dutch: The human community among the Tlic is fleeing enslavement or genocide on Earth. On the Tlic world, they’re confined to a reservation with limited civil rights, with one child per family getting “parceled out” to high-ranked Tlic.
Mythos Making: The Tlic echo the common horror trope of something alien using human bodies to breed. Butler handles it a little differently than most.
Libronomicon: No books this week.
Madness Takes Its Toll: No madness this week, just a lot of complex reactions to trauma.
I’ve read “Bloodchild” several times, but it’s been a few years. About halfway through, I recalled that the delay is because I last read it while my wife was in the middle of a difficult surrogate pregnancy, whereupon I promptly added it to a running list of excellent stories that should absolutely not be read under those circumstances. In general, though, my experience is that people potentially capable of gestating often read this story very differently from those who’ve never had to worry about the implications of their own personal uterus. I’ve seen reviews that consider the Tlic-human relationship one of wildly imaginative body horror. A commenter asked a couple of weeks ago whether the Reread really earns our claim to girl cooties, so allow me to say: Gee, imagine if one group of people had power over another group, but also depended on that group to carry their children in blood and pain and at risk of their lives. Imagine if that made questions of consent and love and respect between members of those groups hideously fraught and complex. Wouldn’t that be so weird, and isn’t it lucky that nothing like that happens on Earth.
I’ve been eyeing this story in the Weird table of contents for some time, though, and thinking about how, in addition to being in the Bujoldian “biology and manners” subgenre, it really is (brilliant and deeply subversive) weird fiction. On the simplest level, it takes something familiar, turns it into something alien and frightening, gives us a narrator who sees it as something familiar, and gives him an experience that makes it seem alien and frightening. And then—makes him decide what to do about that newfound fear and alienation. Intentionally or not, Butler highlights the choices behind reactions Lovecraft takes for granted. I don’t know that she was deliberately targeting his un-self-conscious fearfulness—but she was certainly targeting and interrogates the bigotry that assumes one right way to handle fear of the other. One right way to handle the idea that your species, your race, your culture, is not only not the center of existence but doesn’t deserve to be the center of existence.
I’ve discussed Lovecraft’s bigotry often, and pointed out that even his contemporaries thought him extreme. And yet, and yet… let’s also not use Lovecraft to excuse either his contemporaries or ours. From well before Lovecraft’s time through to right now, this week, this month, we have ample evidence that fear is treated very differently depending on your race and privilege. Those with more privilege use fear as an excuse for just about anything up to murder; those with less are enjoined to do nothing about legitimate fear for their lives. Bigots want a world where neither of those things is questioned—where neither is treated as a choice.
Horror often goes along with this idea. It shows us people who instinctively flee the terror whose sight cannot be borne, monsters that are so just not right that you can’t be held responsible for meeting them with violence.
The best moment at last year’s Necronomicon was Craig Laurance Gidney, Victor LaValle, and the rest of the Weird Fiction From the African Diaspora panel discussing the fact that you can’t be shocked that the universe is indifferent to your survival if you already know. And that weird fiction by people of color therefore often starts where most Lovecraft stories conclude. Okay, the universe won’t protect you, there are malevolent entities lurking down every dark drive, no shit. Now what?
Thus with Butler here: We have two groups, both historically traumatized and one with much more political power, wrestling with whether that imbalance leaves any room for respectful, loving relationships. The Tlic outlaw technologies that allow humans to fight back (guns, cars), and sometimes choose the lives of their unborn grubs over human survival, but also seem to be struggling towards the question of how to be an ethical parasite. Humans both gain and lose by their relationships with Tlic—but seem to be struggling towards how to assert equality given their differences and mutual needs. Or at least, Gan and T’Gatoi are struggling for those things.
The Vandermeers’ introduction to “Bloodchild” mentions that Butler was inspired by her fear of botflies. To start from there, and get to a story this nuanced—this romantic and frightening and uncomfortable and thought-provoking—provides a powerful glimpse of what we gain when we don’t privilege fear.
As the introduction to this story in The Weird notes, and as I remember reading elsewhere, Octavia Butler wrote “Bloodchild” as a way to confront her fear of botflies. What’s to fear from botflies? Only that they’ll lay eggs on your skin, which will hatch into larvae that burrow into your flesh and there develop into adult flies, all the time munching away. Worse, they’re sneaky enough to lay eggs on intermediate vectors, like mosquitoes, which will then transport the larvae to your deliciously warm mammalian self.
Okay, that’s disconcerting, as are all parasitic fauna not micro enough for us to go in blissful ignorance. Is it too much to ask of other life forms that they not eat us or feed us to their kids or use us as incubators? Not that we should feel any obligation to return the favor. After all, we are the supreme species, the apex of creation!
The trouble is, botflies act like they’re the apex of creation. In fairness, what choice do they have? They lack the intelligence and empathy that humans can exhibit when they realize that, huh, maybe we aren’t the gilded pinnacle of universal evolution, or at least, there could be other gilded pinnacles on the vasty cathedral of life.
If the pinnacles do nothing but topple each other, the substructure of the cathedral must take damage and weaken, until the whole vasty mess collapses. That metaphor or this: The substructure will hold up fine, all the sturdier for not having to support the damn pinnacles. Either way, the pinnacles will have crumbled.
On Butler’s planet, the indigenous Tlic and refugee Terrans are sapients of apparently equivalent intelligence and technology. The Tlic must have homeworld advantage, but a species-wide reproductive crisis has weakened them: Their native host animals have developed strong resistance to Tlic larvae. The newly arrived Terrans, however, make fantastic hosts, being sizable endotherms with no immunity.
How the Tlic discovered Terrans were prime incubators is a tantalizing bit of backstory Butler leaves to our imaginations. My own imagination conjures desperate Tlic fertiles just giving some juicy-looking alien bipeds a try. Successful experiments would have led to the “domestication” of human stock, which we know happened. We also know some Terrans didn’t “domesticate” without a fight, as tasty and pacifying as those sterile eggs might be. There were shootings, Tlic and N’Tlic blood shed. Rebellion probably simmered a long time before T’Gatoi’s party came up with the Preserve solution and institutionalized the Tlic-Terran relationship from a “parasitic” to a “symbiotic” one.
For the “parasitic” relationship, you might read a “master/slave” or “owner/captive animal” one. For the “symbiotic” relationship, you might read a “partner/partner” one. At some point, the Tlic government and Terran community came to an agreement that the Terrans would have their own “independent” territory, the Preserve, in return for which each Terran family would join with a Tlic family and provide one child to pair with its fertile female.
Is that arrangement a form of marriage or of tribute-payment? That’s the uneasy question at the heart of “Bloodchild.” Maybe symbiosis is natural to the Tlic. That sterile eggs give their consumers both extended life and pleasure suggests the Tlic may use them both among themselves and as their beneficial “contribution” to host animals—later the Terran host partners. If that’s what Terrans really are to them.
Qui doubts it. Gan, shocked by the Lomas incident, begins to. What about Lien? Gan senses a lie in her insistence that it’s an honor to be associated with T’Gatoi. Having already given Gan to T’Gatoi and realizing the Tlic’s marriage to Gan will be “consummated” that night, why does Lien say she wouldn’t sell her son for anything, like, oh, eggs or long life? T’Gatoi agrees that Lien wouldn’t sell him, for any thing. But would Lien give him for a Thing, for love of her old friend, even if it’s a love she must partly regret?
Like mother, like son, then. Gan gives himself to T’Gatoi for love, which is one way to interpret his unwillingness to lose her, great as he now knows the price can be. If T’Gatoi’s concession over the rifle is her sincere acknowledgement that she and Gan are partners, fellow risk-takers, Gan can hope the price isn’t too high.
“Bloodchild” is worthy of all the acclaim it’s won, creating in the still-confined space of a novelette a vivid, self-contained and imaginatively self-perpetuating world. It raises so many questions, furls out so many paths to follow. What was it that drove the Terrans from Earth—who was persecuting this particular group and why? What does it mean to Tlic, to Terran, that Gan’s father “birthed” T’Gatoi? Does that make them siblings of a sort? What’s life like for the sterile sisters in a family? Can the Preserve be preserved, against the pressure of all those desperate and impatient Tlic T’Gatoi must placate? What would Howard have thought of this particular human-alien interaction? Kind of understandable, like the Yith body-hopping thing?
Questions on and on. Isn’t it great?
Next week, Stephen Graham Jones’s “The Spindly Man” invites you to join a book club… with an intense discussion of Stephen King.
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.