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 William Browning Spencer’s “The Essayist in the Wilderness,” first published in the May 2002 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and collected in the 2011 anthology New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird. Spoilers ahead.
“I speak of the lonesome song of the crayfish…”
A lottery windfall allows narrator Jonathan and his wife Audrey to quit dreary English professorships at Clayton College and buy a farmhouse on twenty acres of Pennsylvania “wilderness.” They fill the house with books, anticipating orgies of reading. They’ll also write, of course. Audrey starts a memoir.
Jonathan’s Muse remains elusive. His personal history bores him, so memoir’s out; he’s failed at both poetry and novel-writing. So he just reads, “voraciously, ecstatically…expect[ing] to find [his] blushing Muse.”
One night Audrey collapses, having trouble breathing. Jonathan hurries her to local physician Dr. Bath. He’s left in the waiting room; among the usual magazines is Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It so engrosses him he hardly notices Audrey’s return. A spider bit her on the ankle, triggering a severe allergic reaction. Bath’s treated it, but call if she has any problems.
Jonathan slips Mrs. Bath a fiver for the Dillard. Driving home he enthuses that he’s found his genre—he’ll be an essayist, plumbing the natural world for insights. Audrey rolls her eyes. What does Jonathan know about nature? Can he even name three trees? (Of course he can: Juniper, Christmas, mimosa!)
Her sarcasm doesn’t discourage him. He’s sure he can give readers their “money’s worth in reflection.” The nature part, yeah, problem there. He has always perceived the outdoors world as “deadly and erratic.” Speaking of deadly, the couple hires Bob’s Bug and Vermin Blasters to de-pest their farmhouse. The exterminator rants about how bugs “don’t give a goddam if they live or die.” It’s an advantage, in their war with humanity.
Near midnight, Jonathan looks outside to see Bob’s truck rolling away. Great work ethic! He also notices sleeping Audrey’s ankle glowing yellow-green. Next morning he forgets to mention the “infection,” distracted by Audrey shaving her eyebrows. She calls them “superfluous;” he kinda likes it.
He ventures into the his acreage to start writing. He tries the pond, where yellow-green scum and gnats disturb him; he’s startled by a bird breaking cover in the meadow. Nothing about nature interests—it all seems stuck in a repetitive rut! Audrey isn’t, however. She reads aloud from her memoir, as wild in its disjointed narrative as the red mane she’s cropped into a “spiky flag of rebellion.” Surreal style impresses: “I uttered an asymmetrical harmony that generated sadness back to the last falofath.”
Spurred to compete, Jonathan explores further and finds a clearing where a low drone fills the air with a profound sadness. Jonathan traces it to the creek banks where (to him unknown) creatures burrow. He describes them to Clayton biologist Harry Ackermann. Impatient to return to his bridge game, Ackermann cuts him short. They’re aquatic, they have exoskeletons, they’re crayfish. Pleased, Jonathan continues watching, sure he’s found his first essay subject. Listen to how they vibrate! Look how they remove their exoskeletons to reveal white flesh boiling with tiny tentacles! Back home he finds Audrey digging a vegetable garden, her now-shaved head gleaming with sweat. He goes inside to start writing.
Weeks pass in joyful observation. Jonathan describes individuals melding into multi-shaped “mega-crayfish” like giant spiders, dissecting frogs for their brethren before collapsing into organic rubble. He writes: “We human creatures deconstruct the universe and are left in the rubble of our fears, our mortality, our rags of faith.” Deep. Too bad he doesn’t know the science of crayfish behavior, like why when two fight, the loser bursts into flame.
He gets books from the local library. Back home he finds a note from Audrey: She’s gone to San Clemente, where “the quantum actualization of the brood wheel…will bloom.” Please tend her garden until she returns. Jonathan blames his neglect for driving Audrey to “crackpot religion.”
He gets drunk and returns to the creek. There he stumbles over the antenna of a buried truck. Digging, he discovers Bob’s vehicle, with Bob inside, mouth and eye sockets filled with dirt.
Jonathan listens to the crayfish’s exuberant song. He watches them frolic, glowing, through the spray of Bob’s poison canister, crayfish-operated. Then something casts a giant shadow across him, chasing him home. In Audrey’s garden, he spots plants sprouting. They’re blooming, white-and-blue eyeballs, looking surprised to see him.
A “trumpeting roar” makes him look behind. Silhouetted against the moon is a thing with ragged wings, black bulk and tentacles.
Locked in his room, Jonathan cracks his library books. In one he finds a picture of a crayfish. It looks like a tiny lobster. Thanks for the brilliant ID, Ackermann. Something in the attic is making indescribable noises. No wonder Jonathan is sick and disgusted.
What’s more, now his essay is ruined.
What’s Cyclopean: Audrey, bite-inspired, develops a new approach to her “memoir,” “surreal language” that Jonathan guesses might be Latin, or Joycean synthesis. “My brood brother committed the sin of threes and had no smoothness so that I wished he had splintered into hoosith hostoth…”
The Degenerate Dutch: Say what you will about country folk (which is what, dude who lives in rural Pennsylvania?), their work ethic is admirable. Jonathan also questions the “student legend” that a particular dean is lesbian, as “it required thinking of the dean in sexual terms.” We suspect she’d rather he didn’t…
Mythos Making: Whatever that eon-devouring monster is, it seems to fit well into a pantheon with Cthulhu and Azathoth… unless it is Cthulhu. It’s got the wings and tentacles, anyway.
Libronomicon: Many of us can sympathize with the fantasy of winning the lottery and using our wealth to indulge “the unalloyed pleasure of selfish reading.” Selfish reads include: Henry James’s Washington Square, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (containing a Muse!), Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (short on commas!), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, The Flora and Fauna of Western Pennsylvania, and What’s Under That Rock?
Madness Takes Its Toll: What kind of genius do you have to be?
Ah, the indolence of essayists! The perfect profession for a wealthy intellectual of leisure, offering a respite from the droning drudge of deadlines. An excellent calling, this: providing piquant insights and observations, or at least clever-sounding opinions of the nature of humanity.
This sounds only marginally similar to my life, but then, I know I’m writing about eldritch abominations.
I read this story making increasingly strange facial expressions, and then read choice bits aloud to my wife so I could see her facial expressions. (One of the things I do have in common with Jonathan is thinking that everything my wife does is delightful—her facial expressions in response to the absurd particularly so.) I said, “Amazing!” many times in tones which I cannot easily describe. I named trees just to make sure I could.
I have somehow managed to avoid reading Spencer before this week, clearly a mistake. Normally, stupid characters annoy me. But our ex-professor isn’t precisely stupid, I think. He has, however, lived an existence that makes ivory towers look like corner pubs, and turned the Dunning-Krueger effect into the sort of lifestyle for which they put out magazines. He has a complete lack of sense about what sort of things can actually happen, which of course puts him at great risk of experiencing things that can’t happen.
Some people deal with a confusing universe by trying to understand it. Jonathan is one of those who deals by insisting that he does understand it. He clearly knows books—or at least loves reading. And he clearly loves his wife, to the point of taking symptoms of alien infection/invasion as endearing quirks. But he also treats all their interactions, from winning the lottery to hiking in the woods, as opportunities to prove himself right. I would love to read Audrey’s take on whatever’s happening here (even if the asymmetrical harmonies would be less than enlightening).
So what is happening here? I confess myself stupefied. Audrey has an anaphylactic reaction to something that, in retrospect, is probably not a spider. Or a crayfish. She gets a glowy fungal infection, shaves her hair, starts channeling not-crayfish into her not-memoir. If only they’d kept their university internet hookup, they could’ve checked out “bioluminescence” and “comma allergy” on Medline. Or not—I’m not coming up with any useful clues that way. Once we get to the quantum actualization of the brood wheel, the self-dissecting mega-crayfish, and the garden of eyeballs, I’m down to, “Welp, didn’t see that one coming.” Which, I suspect, is just how the ultimate Cthulhu-shaped mega-crayfish want us.
Now is the point in an eldritch essay, I think, when one ought to get philosophical. And part of what I see in this story, beyond opportunities for mad giggling, is in fact philosophy: specifically, options beyond terror for responding to a meaningless universe. Bob the Bug and Vermin Blaster sees a war with things that “don’t care whether they live or die.” Insects or elder gods, same difference. Jonathan finds nature suspicious because it’s dangerous, but when he initially tries to observe it finds its apparent order dull, repetitive, and void of meaning. He becomes fascinated only when he finds something that (unknown to him) violates that order. He asks, “Are we hopelessly self-referential or does the world truly speak to us?” And the answer appears to be both: his self-referentiality blinds him to the world’s true weirdness—but something is sure speaking to, or through, Audrey.
Perhaps the piquant insight, if there’s one to be had at all, is that even if the world were to speak to us, we would be too self-referential, too self-absorbed, too small-minded (as one must be, with a human mind), to handle it usefully. “I am locked in my room now, devising a plan or preparing to devise a plan or, perhaps, simply eating this bag of potato chips and reading,” may be the most honest thing an unreliable narrator has ever told us.
Nothing good comes from city folk lingering overlong in the country, as we saw in Shirley Jackson’s “Summer People.” It’s really overstaying their welcome when they try putting down permanent roots in what they imagine as a bucolic paradise, or at least an effective escape from their city woes. I think of T.E.D. Klein’s novel, The Ceremonies, in which Gothic lit student Jeremy Freirs decides to finish his dissertation on a farm in Gilead, New Jersey, where ancient evil lurks. Then there’s Caitlin Kiernan’s “Red Tree,” whose writer Sarah Crowe rents a house in rural Rhode Island, hoping to resuscitate her flagging Muse. Before Crowe, an anthropologist occupied the house. He committed suicide, as one does when stuck in the middle of nowhere in Rhode Island delving too deeply into local folklore. We know what’s going to hit the fan when Sarah discovers his journal in the basement.
I don’t believe Lovecraft ever rusticated in order to pursue his art; he did, however, like to send his characters afield, there to encounter the unspeakable. As he put it in the opening of “The Picture in the House”:
“ …the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England…”
Or of backwoods Pennsylvania, as in William Browning Spencer’s “Essayist in the Wilderness.” I don’t know why Spencer’s Jonathan and Audrey, lottery-freed from financial constraints, opt to settle there. Jonathan has nothing good to say about the area surrounding Clayton College. It’s inertia, maybe, or Jonathan’s lack of sympathy with nature; he probably figures one twenty acre patch of “wilderness” is the same as any other.
About Jonathan—Spencer intends for the character to come across as a narcissistic academic buffoon and literary pretender, right? I think so. I think we’re supposed to laugh at Jonathan’s cluelessness, and I did often chort the chortle of incredulity. He wore on me, though, as he appears to have worn on Audrey of the frequent eye-rolling and snarking. It’s fitting he won his “freedom” via the lottery, a boon based entirely on chance rather than merit. I bet he got his job at Clayton because the college didn’t have stellar candidates to choose from. I wouldn’t be surprised if Audrey could have gotten a place at a better school, but no better school would take Jonathan. So there, Jonathan, you self-centered twit.
Wow, girl, where’s that bile coming from? It didn’t help Jonathan with me that when Audrey collapsed, his first thought was that she looked like a Victorian heroine in a swoon. Get your head out of the old books, man, this is your anaphylactically shocked wife here! And then the first thing you want to talk about after her recovery is how lucky they ended up in the doc’s office so you could discover your Muse in Dillard! Let’s not go into how little real attention you paid Audrey while she systematically depilliated herself and lapsed into neologistic incoherence, never worrying enough to give old Dr. Bath another call.
Okay, so we went into it. Here’s the BIG problem I have with you, Jonathan: You are so out of touch with the natural (the actual) world that you—a scholar of English—don’t even know how to name things. I betray a prejudice here: Writers in particular should be able to particularize, to see not just a tree or a bird but a paper birch or a bobolink. For a nature essayist, for Mother N’s sake, naming—pinpointing the identity of the thing or creature observed—is mandatory, elementary. To generalize from the specific, you must know the specific. To thrill my reader’s heart, you must name names.
You know it, too, Jonathan. You wish you could describe “melding” with the proper term, only you’re too lazy to do any research. Don’t go blaming Ackermann for misidentifying your creatures—you couldn’t Google “crayfish” for images once you had a name? Also, I bet Ackermann didn’t really have to get back to his bridge game. I bet he was just trying to get rid of you and your tiresome OMG-I-am-first-to-NOTICE-these-things blather. Not that the joke isn’t on someone who hung up on the discovery of a score of biologist-lifetimes.
In his essay draft, Jonathan ponders: “Are we hopelessly self-referential or does the world truly speak to us?” Let him substitute “Am I” for “Are we” and “to me” for “to us,” and he’s dead-on right. By the end of the story, the world is addressing him with the “trumpeting roar” of “the quantum actualization of the brood wheel” in the person of a Mythosian god-manifestation, the world is sprouting “fine multiples” of his wife’s eyes, the world has swallowed Bob and his truck (or perhaps is birthing a replica of them), the world has invaded your attic with the monster equivalent of pig-torturing sailors, and you’re sulking about having to rewrite your essay?
The scariest thing is: ultimately I believe in you, Jonathan, and in your ultimate sulk.
Next week, we celebrate our 300th post with the opening episodes of Lovecraft Country, which we’ve been following eagerly along with, it feels like, half the country. Sometimes the hype is earned!
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.