The Lovecraft Reread

Learning to Be Reptilian: Jamaica Kincaid’s “My Mother”

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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 Jamaica Kincaid’s “My Mother,” first published in her 1978 collection, At the Bottom of the River. (You can also find it in The Weird.) Spoilers ahead.

Unnamed narrator (Daughter) wishes her Mother dead and immediately after, seeing Mother’s pain, regrets it. Daughter begs for forgiveness, weeping so copiously her tears drench the earth. Mother takes pity, clasping Daughter’s head so close to her bosom that Daughter suffocates. For an uncountable time, she lies there breathless. When Mother lets her breathe again, Daughter instantly grows bosoms of her own, with a soft place between that can serve as her own comfort-zone. She dams her earlier tears into a thick, black, poisonous pond in which only “unnameable invertebrates” live. She and Mother watch each other carefully across the pond and shower each other only with words and deeds of affection.

Daughter and Mother sit on Mother’s bed in a room with boarded-up windows. Mother lights candles, and their shadows loom over them, with a space between as if to make room for someone else. The shadows grow thick or thin, long or short, fall at every angle, as if controlled by daylight. Mother’s shadow dances while Daughter’s shadow sings. When Mother blows out the candles, Daughter remains on the bed, trying to get a good look at herself.

Mother slathers her skin with a gold-colored oil rendered from the livers of pouch-throated reptiles. Her back grows plates of scales that scatter light; her teeth rearrange themselves into rows that reach back to her long white throat. She sheds her hair and flattens her head so her eyes sit on top, two revolving balls. She divides her feet into “crossroads.” At Mother’s silent instruction, Daughter follows her example. Now she too travels on a white underbelly, tongue darting and flickering. “Look,” Mother says.

Daughter stands by Mother on the seabed, head securely nestled on Mother’s shoulder. She sighs occasionally, wanting Mother to believe her frail, but in fact she feels invincible, no longer a child, not yet a woman. Daughter has just shed blackened skin to reveal her new impregnable carapace. Mother and she wordlessly make an arrangement: Daughter will sigh, and Mother will receive her sighs. A long time passes. Daughter hopes Mother will be permanently cemented to the seabed. When Mother reaches out, Daughter steps aside and roars, then gives a self-pitying whine, for she realizes that as big as she’s grown, Mother will always be bigger. They go to the Garden of Fruits and eat, then depart leaving in their trail (as ever) small worm colonies.

Unwillingly, Daughter crosses the valley with Mother. She sees a grazing lamb who gives them a “cross and miserable” look. Daughter would be cross and miserable, too, she tells Mother, if she had to live in a climate unsuited to her nature. They enter a dark, cold cave. For years, Daughter eats whatever grows under her feet and grows a lens for seeing in darkness, a coat for warmth. Mother one day jokes that Daughter looks as cross and miserable as if she lived in an unsuitable climate. Daughter builds a house without a floor over a deep hole, decorating it to please Mother. She invites Mother to inspect it, standing outside waiting to hear Mother fall into the hole. But Mother walks on the floorless air, reemerging to say the house is excellent. She vanishes. Daughter fills in the hole and burns down the house.

Mother and Daughter have grown enormously tall, but Mother is three times taller than Daughter. Daughter watches Mother reach far out to sea to caress a striped fish, and glows red with anger. Daughter lives alone on an island with eight full moons. She adorns their faces with Mother’s favoring expressions. Eventually she returns to Mother. They live on opposite sides of the black, poisonous pond inhabited by small invertebrates with poisonous lances. Mother treats the invertebrates like relatives they’ve risen above, while Daughter names and cherishes them. Every day she cries, lonely for Mother’s company, but whenever Mother returns home, “incredible and great deeds in her wake,” Daughter’s anger glows red. Worn out at last, Daughter sinks into the only dreamless sleep of her life.

One day, after many parting caresses, Mother sends Daughter off on a boat. Daughter sobs to see Mother’s back turned. She plans to escape from the boat, then realizes it’s encased in a green bottle, as if for mantelpiece display. She sleeps until she reaches a new island. There she sees a woman with feet exactly like her own; she recognizes Mother even with a new face. After a period of polite caution, Mother and Daughter walk, and their steps become as one. They talk, and their voices become one voice. They are in complete union. Daughter feels great peace, unable to tell where each leaves off and the other begins.

They walk through Mother’s house, where every floor crack holds a significant event, like the crippling accident of a girl who defied her father for a lover. Mother and Daughter find the house beautiful and pass through empty rooms waiting for people and things to fill them. Daughter fits perfectly into Mother. They eat from the same bowl, drink from the same cup, sleep on the same pillow. Walking through the rooms, they merge and separate, over and over; soon they’ll enter the final stage of their evolution.

Fishermen come in from the sea with the bountiful catches Mother has provided. Their contentment is a source of Daughter’s contentment. She sits in Mother’s enormous lap, or on a mat woven of Mother’s hair, a hummingbird nesting on her stomach as a sign of fertility. Mother and Daughter live in a bower of imperishable flowers. The sea is silver-blue crisscrossed with darts of light. Warm rain falls on the castor bushes, and a lamb bounds over the pasture. Soft ground welcomes Daughter’s feet. This is the way she and Mother have lived for a long time now.

What’s Cyclopean: There are unnamable invertebrates in the black, poisonous water.

The Degenerate Dutch: Kincaid’s story focuses on much more intimate conflicts than those between groups of humans.

Mythos Making: There’s something mythosian in the strange, squamous and slimy animals twining through the sections: the above-mentioned invertebrates, pouch-throated reptiles (whose livers can be rendered for transformative oil), the small colonies of worms trailing in mother and daughter’s wake. Not to mention the transformations themselves, to reptile and carapaced monster with rows of teeth…

Libronomicon: No books this week.

Madness Takes Its Toll: More anger than madness this week, eyes glowing red.

 

Anne’s Commentary

You could argue that it’s impossible to summarize any literary work so thoroughly as to replace the work itself—reading the Moby-Dick “study guide” doesn’t substitute for nibbling at the White Whale himself until you’ve ingested every morsel from his ivory dome to his ebony flukes. The devilish cetacean is in his details and the details of the fictional world that surrounds him. You could simultaneously argue that the more words in a piece the easier it is to produce a useful summary. By “useful” I mean, a precis that captures the essence of the original while remaining much more concise. General observation: The more words, the less each word needs to matter. Conversely, the fewer words, the more each word needs to matter.

Or I could base my Summary Usefulness (and/or Difficulty) Scale not on word count but on how strongly narrative a piece is, as opposed to how strongly evocative or lyrical. Novels and stories, broadly speaking, are narrative forms. Poems, broadly speaking, are evocative or lyrical forms. However, fiction can be lyrical as hell and poetry downright narrative. Wait, that’s my point, isn’t it? If it were a Gaboon viper, it would have sunk its fangs in my ankle to the bone. Because I’m wearing flip-flops in the deep jungle, not snake gaiters. My duh. I still love you, Gaboon viper.

I don’t think Kincaid’s mother transforms into a Gaboon viper—at least not in the text of the story, though I wouldn’t put it beyond her morphological fluidity. Actually, I’m not sure I would put anything beyond her fluidity. It takes nine sections—or, say, stanzas—for Kincaid to begin to showcase Mother’s adaptability, blending not-necessarily-linear narrative with the lyrical and evocative punch of poetry.

I managed to make the summary of “My Mother” about half as long as the story. That’s pretty long for a short take, but to do the imagery and rhythms of “Mother” absolute justice, I’d have to quote its entirety, which would defeat the purpose of summary, and copyright. Read the thing itself, not my prosaic prose version.

I’m not going to geek out zoologically by guessing the animals into which Mother and Daughter evolve. Okay, one guess, that the transformation brought about by pouch-throated reptile oil is—to a chameleon! Chameleons have pouchy-throats and revolving turret eyes and wide toothy grins (well, supercilious frowns.) White throats and bellies, not so much, but darting tongues? The dartiest! Crossroads-feet? Well, their toes have fused into two-digited mittens. Or they could be iguanas? Anoles? Crocodilians even? Alternatively, they could be like Voldemort’s Nagini, a magic-bred hybrid combining the coolest traits of several species.

In folklore, supernatural hybrids and shapeshifters are often considered monstrous. Are Mother and Daughter monsters? Deities? Both? Mother’s the more goddess-like, ever the greater in dimensions and deeds, ever self-possessed, at turns bountiful and comforting, demanding and domineering, but on the whole a benevolent creator. Daughter can be all sorts of monstrous. She’s a monster of spite, wishing Mother dead to her face. Her tears of “regret” form a poisonous black pond hosting invertebrates horrible enough to earn a favorite Lovecraftian adjective: “unnamable.” Mother loftily ignores the beasties; Daughter cherishes them.

Speaking of beasties, and ambiguity, what are these worms both characters leave in their wakes, soil-enriching earthworms or destructive parasites?

Daughter wishes Mother immobilized, cemented to the seabed. When that doesn’t happen, she tries to murder Mother by precipitating her into a deep, deep hole. So sneakily, too, by luring her into what looks like Mother’s dream-house. Daughter is a monster of envy, burning red at Mother’s marvelous accomplishments and the adulation they earn. I mean, Mother can’t even pet a fish without Daughter resenting her oceanic reach. And Daughter’s a monster of self-pity, constantly bursting into tears, sighs and whines.

Yet—Mother can be so smothering, literally. So touchy-feely. So bossy, making Daughter copy her transformations, sojourn long in inhospitable caves, voyage in a boat in a bottle, talk about confining. She laughs at Daughter’s complaints and aggressions, yet has so captivated Daughter emotionally that when Daughter escapes to her own island, she adorns her eight moons with Mother’s approving expressions.

You know, the usual mother-daughter issues. How are we to interpret the final stage of their shared evolution? At last Daughter and Mother merge, become indistinguishable, which leads to a paradise of abundant fish, muslin skirts, perfectly-acclimated lambs, undying flowers, and warm rain. Mother also has a house full of significant stories.

How significant is it that one of the stories is about a young man’s premature death? That another tells of a girl permanently crippled after defying her parent? That the warm rain of paradise falls on castor bushes? The castor plant is the source of ricin, one of the deadliest botanical toxins.

Pretty flowers, though.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

At last year’s Necronomicon, we kept circling the question of Defining the Weird. Many definitions fell somewhere on the spectrum between two opposing claims. At one end, weird fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction, that, like many other subgenres, is recognizable by a standard set of tropes. If it has starships, it’s space opera; if it has dragons, it’s fantasy; if it has tentacles, it’s Weird. At the other end of the spectrum, weird fiction cannot depend on familiar tropes because the familiar is, by definition, no longer weird. Instead, one must chase the ever-moving bar of whatever’s necessary to achieve a certain effect: disorient the reader, break expectations, and question the cognitive status quo.

For purposes of the Reread, I’m ecumenical about definitions—if someone might call it Weird, I’m happy to cover it here, and I’m open to edge cases because they’re fun to talk about. We’re mapping a large, Dreamland-ish territory, fuzzy boundaries and all. But I have to confess that while I love Cthulhian comfort reads, philosophically I’m drawn to the far end of the spectrum. It’s a compelling argument: Lovecraft put his stamp on the weird precisely because his stuff was different. When we covered “Call of Cthulhu” (lo these many years ago, holy crap this is our 6th birthday), we talked about how startling the story would have been if its contents weren’t now endlessly quoted and plushified. But in the years since, the world has raised the bar on strangeness and alienation, and so should writers.

“My Mother” proves that less familiar stuff from a few years back (1978, in this case) can still startle and discombobulate even the jaded modern reader. Or, at least, me. For a start, it took me a while to figure out what reading protocols I should be using. How should I fill the gaps in what’s said? What sort of implications are reasonable to follow in this world—oh, wait, no, what about this world, and this other one? Eventually I settled on something like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a set of prose portraits/poems with continuity of theme but not setting or plot, with some images echoing or repeating throughout. (Where Anne went with full-on poetic reading protocols, but caught a plot through-line of mother-daughter “evolution.”)

“My Mother” centers on fraught mother-daughter relationships, a litfic theme turned fractally fantastic. Here are mothers who can stop your breath with embraces but then push you away as you grow to self-aware womanhood, mothers who teach transformations whose power you must hide, benevolent god-mothers, god-mothers who constrain your power just by existing and must be trapped or destroyed like titans. Mythic mothers.

I’ve noted often that Lovecraft’s solo stories are extremely short on actual women. For the most part they’re either off-stage, or else secretly not-women. Or—it occurs to me now—they’re goddesses. All Lovecraft’s deities are terrible, but his goddesses are terrible mothers. Most obviously there’s the Goat With a Thousand Young, personification of the fear that Them Over There might outbreed Us Over Here. Yig’s a mother too, as is Hydra. But like all Lovecraft’s gods, they’re meant as Scary Things Worshipped By Other People, so none of them are particularly scary in how they mother, because the intended reader would never identify as one of their children.

Kincaid’s mother-goddess-monsters, though, are possessive and possessed. It’s a different sort of alienation—one of recognizable relationships rather than Scary Things Other People Do. I don’t have a particularly fraught relationship with my own mother, but I’ve had relationships that alternated suffocating intimacy with sudden rejection, mentorship with competition, too much honesty with things you could never say. And seeing that turned up to 11, transformed into monstrous metaphor, is indeed both impressive and disorienting.

 

Next week, we cope with the ongoing heat wave by diving into Alyssa Wong’s “What My Mother Left Me.” You can find it in Ellen Datlow’s The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea.

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.

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