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 Craig Laurance Gidney’s “Sea, Swallow Me,” first published in Ashé Journal in 2006; you can find it more easily in Gidney’s Sea, Swallow Me collection. Spoilers ahead—but we encourage you to go read it first.
“Why should I spare you when you have been looking for me ever since you came here?”
The island hates Jed, or so he thinks. On St. Sebastian, “everywhere you turned, the murdered homosexual saint appeared, like [the Virgin] Mary would in sandwiches and cloud formations.” Churches, of course, feature his image, but so do towels and T-shirts, the Arrow B&B, and the island’s only gay club, The Catamite. Jed has wearied of the resort district with its steel drum bands and fruity cocktails. He likes vacations with “a little bit of bite,” and so explores the neighborhood warned against in the guidebook: La Mer Vert, unofficially known as La Merde.
The shantytown makes him uneasy with its rundown buildings, vicious dogs, and “sullen eyes” watching from the “shade of the silent houses.” His spirits lift when he emerges on a beach with sand “soft as powdered sugar.” He wades into warm water and thinks I am the only imperfect thing here. But he wants to forget his ashen skin, too-thin body, and the “raised continent” of a keloid scar on his face, aftermath of a biking injury.
Singing voices recall him from reverie. Men in white suits and women in white dresses and blue headscarves process down the beach. Children weave among them. The men drag wagons filled with white flowers, note-stuffed bottles, shells, food. Jed can’t understand their dialect, but follows singing along, the melody seeping into his blood “like an infection.”
When the group halts, forming a semi-circle at ocean’s edge, they don’t seem to notice him. They sing, play drums, clap hands, drop offerings into the waves. Suddenly the music stops, and a blue-robed figure steps forward. It’s long-limbed, close-shorn, features eroded by age, a “priest beyond gender.” The priest glances at Jed, then away, and begins preaching in a musical patois. Jed wonders whom this congregation worships—guidebooks mention followers of obeah and Voudun. The congregation chants, and one word stands out: Olokun.
The sound O has always struck Jed as magical, “mystical and mathematical,” and he finds himself chanting along. Olokun’s a name that means sea and sky and sand, “endless and terrifying blue.” Their voices mimic the “tug and pull of the surf and the darker currents.” They stand “on the lip of the ocean” calling for him, or her, or it.
A woman explodes from the semi-circle, staggers, falls. Jed, an EMT, rushes to her side. The priest intervenes: Jed mustn’t touch her, she’s not sick. As Jed clasps her wrist, pain flares in his scar. She jerks and opens eyes without whites, twin ovals of blue. She leaps up and dances, “simultaneously robotic and graceful.” The congregation—and Jed—chant Olokun.
When the priest commands the woman to speak, she stills. She begins to reek of deep ocean. Her scarf falls off to reveal braided hair like a “grove of black coral.” She fixes her eyes on Jed and advances “slowly as a zombie.” His scar tingles with his fear; the woman’s deranged, and he’s an interloper, the “American Black who might as well have been white.” “You,” the woman says in basso profundo. “You are mine.” She takes his hand and leads him unresisting into the sea.
They’re out deep, floating, when the water turns icy. The woman’s eyes lose their uncanny blue. She screams and swims toward shore. Jed cannot follow. The frigid riptide carries him off and under, surely too harsh a punishment for viewing Olokun’s ceremony!
Darkly inspired, Jed says “Olokun” three times. The sea swallows him, but he doesn’t drown, for the salt water satisfies his lungs. Down he drifts, into ever deeper shades of blue, all the way to “Chthonian Indigo,” where he comes to rest before a mountainous edifice of coral, shells and human junk. From it emerges a giant black-skinned man with a fish’s blue-green-gold tail for netherlimbs. Olokun’s green eyes capture Jed and burn him naked. To Jed’s plea of “Spare me,” the god answers, Why spare, when Jed’s been looking for him ever since coming to the island?
And it’s true, all Jed’s visits to the churches, to the grotto of St. Sebastian, entering bars “where male beauty was of paramount importance.” These were “all clandestine prayers to remove the raised blemish on his face.”
Olokun says Jed needn’t remove the “proud flesh,” which marks him with a “map of Guinea.” Nevertheless, in exchange for “something,” Olokun will take away the scar. What something, Jed barely has time to wonder before the sea swallows him again, the man-leviathan grinding in “molars of coral” all Jed’s thoughts of “blond-haired Adonises… blue eyes… brown-haired Jesus, tonsured men of the one God and the whores and virgins.” Jed himself is seared in Olokun’s belly and rejected from Olokun’s anus, along with his mental silt.
He wakes to yellow sand and the feet of black people—his people. He lies on the beach coughing seawater from his lungs while the congregation laughs and claps. Sleep takes him. He wakes again under a blanket, naked. He touches his face, finding smooth skin. He rises, the “serpent sun under the sea” in his heart, whole again.
And the island loves him.
What’s Cyclopean: Beautiful descriptions everywhere: The ocean is a “liquid geode,” while Olokun’s voice is like “hurricane-warped wood.” Jed makes up colors: stygian cerulean and chthonian indigo.
The Degenerate Dutch: Jed seems both to seek ambiguity in gender and find it uncomfortable, referring to an androgynous-seeming priest as “it.” He also refers to Olokun’s worshippers, briefly and in anger, as “stupid savages.” (Both cases seem to reflect some of what he’s rejecting in himself.)
Mythos Making: A man comes to a run-down seaside community, learns new things about himself and his heritage, and is drawn beneath the waves for the ecstatic completion of his discovery.
Libronomicon: When Jed first learns to read, he’s drawn to all those wonderful O-words: owl and opal and Orion.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Jed considers the possibility that he might be hallucinating while drowning; this does not upon reflection turn out to be the case.
“Sea, Swallow Me” recalls to my mind Lovecraft’s “Strange High House in the Mist,” in which outwardly staid academic Thomas Olney visits Kingsport and loses his soul to the gods of the deep seas. Losing his soul may be a good thing, however, since the soul can stay in the Strange High House and sport with naiads and what not, while his body (rather zombie-like) returns to a staid earthly existence. No problem, Lovecraft implies—zombie philosophers can do just fine in academia.
Gidney’s Jed fears that Olokun will demand his soul in exchange for removing his disfiguring facial scar. It remains unclear what Olokun does take, for he only names his price as “this thing.” It’s also unclear what Olokun gives Jed. I stumble toward thinking that the god’s price is Jed’s scar, the “proud flesh” in the shape of Guinea, whereas his boon is the soul—the identity—that Jed lost with his beauty. After his return from the deep, Jed is “whole again.” Or is he whole for the first time? Pre-Olokun, Jed is estranged from both communities to which he wants entrance. As an American Black man, he feels like an interloper among non-American Black people—he might as well be white in comparison. It’s not an estrangement new to his vacation on St. Sebastian, for back home he also viewed a neighboring Ethiopian congregation with an outsider’s awe and envy. Disfigured, he feels excluded from the gay society in which (he believes) “male beauty is of paramount importance.”
The two ideals (of whiteness and masculine attractiveness) intertwine in Jed’s mind, suppressing his “soul.” Consider the thoughts—patterns of belief—that Olokun devours and processes to silt, ocean-bottom mulch. They’re represented by images of “blond-haired Adonises, with muscles of alabaster,” “blue eyes,” “aquiline noses and thin lips,” a “brown-haired Jesus.” Freed of these thoughts, Jed can see Olokun’s worshippers neither as exotic superiors nor “stupid savages” but as his people.
Still, it isn’t until Jed realizes his scar is gone that he feels “whole again,” that he can stand up nude without caring. Maybe his conviction that beauty is paramount hasn’t gone wholly to silt? Or maybe it’s critically altered by his sense that “the serpent sun under the sea” is now in his heart? I’m not sure how to intellectually parse the “serpent sun,” but it’s a compelling image.
Jed doesn’t know who Olokun is, going into his adventure. I didn’t know either. It turns out he figures in the Yoruba religion (and other belief systems of Africa and the African diaspora) as the orisha spirit of wealth, health, prosperity and the bottom of the ocean. He may appear as male or female or as an androgynous being—hence his priest’s androgyny? Not surprisingly, Jed sees Olokun as powerfully and gorgeously male, in spite of his mermanish lack of (visible) genitalia.
So Olokun is “real,” but what about the island of St. Sebastian? The only reference I find to a St. Sebastian in the Caribbean is to the fictional island featured in the 1943 film, “I Walked With a Zombie.” That makes sense. The movie island is home to sugar plantations formerly worked by enslaved Africans. Its population is majority Black, with a small white elite still running the plantations. Voudun is one of the religions on Gidney’s St. Sebastian; voodoo looms large in “I Walked,” as one would expect from the title. A key prop in the movie is an arrow-studded statue of St. Sebastian, once the figurehead of a slave ship; a key image in “Sea, Swallow Me” is the grotto-gracing Sebastian who swoons in “an ecstasy of arrows.” Arrows will do that to sculpted people—look at Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa.”
On the topic of saints, and eroticism, St. Sebastian’s traditional backstory doesn’t mention homosexuality—at least not so shallowly as I’ve researched it. Traditional paintings of Sebastian are another matter. Unlike most martyrs, Sebastian got to die for Jesus twice, because he didn’t quite die the first time. That was when the Emperor Diocletian found out his captain of Praetorian Guards was a secret Christian and had him lashed to a post and shot full of arrows. He pulled through that ordeal, only to be bludgeoned to death later on. Bludgeoning to death isn’t nearly as sexy as being shot with arrows, though, so artists usually depicted Sebastian as a very handsome, very sparsely clad youth looking torn between pain and pleasure by his piercings.
I’m hazarding a guess that Gidney has seen the 1976 historical film (with dialogue in Latin!) called Sebastiane. Its homoeroticism is front and center. Sebastiane himself sublimates his sexual longings in worship of Phoebus Apollo (not Jesus), not good news for all the characters in love with him. A crucial plot point is how Sebastiane angers Diocletian by preventing the strangulation of an Imperial catamite—the sole gay club on Gidney’s St. Sebastian is The Catamite.
All in all, it makes sense for Jed to go to St. Sebastian. Among other duties, St. Sebastian is patron saint of the plague-stricken. Just throwing that out there, in this pandemic era. And don’t forget Olokun, who (among other duties) presides over health.
We need all the divine intervention we can get. Unless, of course, it comes from the King in Yellow or pretty much any Lovecraftian deity.
Craig Gidney is local to me, and we often end up reading together in the general round of DC-area-queer-specfic events. I never know what to expect from one of his pieces, except that it’s going to be good and some flavor of horror-ish: It ranges from magical realist ghost stories about folk art (A Spectral Hue, which I blurbed) to blood-and-guts-and-werewolves. “Sea, Swallow Me” leans toward the former, hanging out with the weird fiction crowd under the “strange things happen in the ocean” banner.
It also fills a niche that I urgently want more of, which is stories about people learning to breathe underwater. With all the Deep One tales we’ve covered, we have yet to get a first-person account of metamorphosis. (And yes, I plan to do something about that myself, one of these days.) Seanan McGuire’s Violet forces that gift on others; Sonya Taaffe’s Anson mourns its lack. But Gidney offers a taste of that moment where fear of drowning transmutes to wonder and glory—if not, in this case, forever.
Or… maybe not so temporary. At least, no more temporary than any ordinary life in the air. What Jed’s gifted isn’t dwelling in wonder and glory underwater, but finding that sense of home and welcome on land, in his body, and with his desires. Only a small part of the transformation is physical: the loss of the scar that Olokun argues was a blessing. Fortunately Olokun is a generous orisha, willing to provide what Jed wants in exchange for the discomfort and distance that he needs to lose. It’s a good trade—and a very different take on coming to terms with your nature than we often see in the weird.
Jed starts off uncomfortable with a lot of things about himself and his world. He comes to Saint Sebastian as a tourist, content neither with the safety of the resort nor the vulnerability of less sheltered areas. The island “hates him.” He dislikes his body: thin, ashy, scarred. (And being uncomfortable with his own blackness, as I read it, goes beyond the simply physical—much of Olokun’s “price” seems to be white ideals of beauty.) I also get a subtler sense of discomfort around gender, or maybe around sexuality. Jed describes the priest as both male and genderless, using the awkward pronoun “it.” He refers to birdlike “feminine” creatures from the original Dark Crystal (all, in fact, male, and you can all thank me for not being distracted by a tangent about muppet gender). Then he meets Olokun—who in myth can appear as either male or female—and perceives the orisha as thoroughly and attractively male. And then, coming back from that experience, the island loves him.
I’m considering, as I try to articulate my interpretations, the value and power of reading a story that wasn’t intended for me. I don’t mean that I shouldn’t have read it, or that I found any barrier to enjoying it—but that it’s about the experience of being black and gay, and of claiming full at-homeness with those things that the world pushes people to alienate even in themselves. And it has the richness, the complexity, that comes from being an offering for people who share that experience. The push toward alienation, that struggle to be at home with oneself, are also part of the experience of being female and queer and Jewish, but the experiences aren’t identical. Which means, I’m sure, that there are things I’m missing or mis-describing, even as I appreciate the commonalities.
Which is, I suppose, appropriate to a tale about filling voids and making connections.
Next week we follow a Miskatonic University archeological expedition—what could possibly go wrong—with Maurice Broaddus’s “The Iron Hut.”
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.