Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.
This week, we start on John Connolly’s The Fractured Atlas, first published in 2015 as part of Night Music: Nocturnes Volume II, with Part 1: “The Dread and Fear of Kings.” (We think: Connolly’s website states that an earlier and possibly shorter version appeared as an e-book, but does not provide a link or a date.) Spoilers ahead!
“A hunted man—if he is to survive the ordeal—learns to anticipate the approach of his pursuers, but may also develop a sense for others who are themselves the object of a hunt.”
Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 1590. Henry of Navarre, Protestant heir to the French throne, has been repulsed from his siege of Paris by a Catholic alliance. Couvret, Henry’s legal advisor, takes refuge in an inn while waiting for the ship that will carry him to England. Wary of enemy reprisals, Couvret keeps to his room and his Geneva Bible, but this evening he’s hungry enough for human contact to dine in the common room and discreetly eavesdrop on conversations.
A man of striking pallor and thinness approaches Couvret with a bottle to share. Couvret tries to slip off, but Van Agteren somehow knows his real name; moreover, Couvret recognizes Van Agteren as another hunted man and agrees to listen to his tale.
Van Agteren was clerk to Cornelis Schuyler, famous Dutch scholar. Schuyler’s daughter Eliene was an even more able assistant to her father. The two young people became lovers and hoped Schuyler would eventually approve their marriage, as it would conveniently keep both assistants accessible.
One night a laborer brought Schuyler a book he’d found beneath the foundation of a collapsed house. The heavy tome was bound in a deep red hide, scarred and veined and uncomfortably reminiscent of fresh meat. Odder still, as if its pages were glued together, the book would not open. Schuyler offered the laborer a small payment which the man accepted without haggling. Later he confided to Van Agteren that he’d wanted only to get rid of the book, for it was as warm and pulsing as a living thing. Besides, the laborer connected his discovery with the appearance of a huge man who was apparently following him.
Next morning a wall collapsed on the laborer and killed him. And after staying up to study his new book, Schuyler was missing.
Van Agteren’s tale intrigues Couvret. Van Agteren promises to continue it after relieving himself. Meanwhile, Couvret steps outside. Through falling snow he sees a massive black-clad figure walking away. A boy sweeping the walk claims to see no one, and indeed Couvert spots no footprints in the snow. When he tells Van Agteren about the glimpsed giant, the man looks stricken and says he hasn’t much more time to tell his story.
He’d looked for Schuyler through the town, without success. Back in Schuyler’s study, he studied with Eliene the one page that would open in the laborer’s book. It featured a map of constellations with markings resembling mathematical calculations. The map was the most exquisite illustration Van Agteren had ever seen, but the night sky it depicted was none on earth. Another page fell open, to a “drawing” of Schuyler’s study perfect as a mirrored image.
Van Agteren visited the owner of the collapsed house where the book had been found. The owner knew nothing about it but asked, ominously, about the black-clad man who’d dogged Van Agteren to their meeting–a companion Van Agteren hadn’t noticed.
On his return, Eliene pointed to the newest open page in the book, an anatomical drawing of Schuyler’s face, one half with mouth open in a scream, the other flayed and crawling with hideously clawed insects. The drawing was impossible, intolerable. Van Agteren tried to burn the book, but the stench was like a rotten carcass and he had to snatch the book from the flames. Weighting it with brick, he threw it in a canal.
That night he entered Schuyler’s study to find Eliene floating naked in mid-air before the book. Behind her was an entity seemingly made of black glass encasing gleaming stars; eyes peered from within. Eliene’s body rotated to show her face without eyes, cracks surrounding the empty sockets. An unseen blade slashed patterns into her skin. “Maarten,” Eliene said. “The book contains worlds.” Then the entity exploded, sending black shards through Eliene. Van Agteren shielded his face, but nothing hit him. When he looked again, there was only blood.
He fled, the authorities on his heels, but it’s the black-clad figure who’ll apprehend him before the night is out. It’s like this: If he looks behind, every king sees another king, or king-in-waiting, who threatens him. Only God has no fear of kings—unless God fears the King Below? Otherwise, why wouldn’t He destroy the creature who took Eliene?
Van Agteren will walk out now, and breathe the air while he can. He thanks Couvret for listening. He chose Couvret because he was another hunted man, and another unlucky one.
The next day, Couvret leaves for England. On the last night of his crossing, he dreams the empty berth opposite him belches forth black ink. Waking, he sees its previously intact curtains in tatters, as if torn by gunshot.
He discovers book at the bottom of his trunk. At some point Van Agteren must have passed it on to him. Getting rid of the book didn’t save the apprentice scholar: The one page that opens at Couvret’s touch shows him with mouth agape, spewing flames.
Van Agteren couldn’t destroy the book with fire or water, but Couvret has something he didn’t: faith. He binds his Bible to the book and hides both in a chest he finds in the cargo hold.
When he disembarks in London, no shadow follows him from the ship.
This Week’s Metrics
The Degenerate Dutch: Couvret suggests, sarcastically, that if his old master hasn’t converted to self-serving Catholicism by Christmas, Couvret will “himself become a Jew.” (Note: Henry does indeed historically convert, so Couvret is spared from discovering that becoming a Jew in fact involves a lot of hard work.) Couvret then goes on to complain about the coldness of the Calvinist Dutch.
Libronomicon: I’m not even 100% sure this thing counts as a book. It’s book-shaped, anyway.
I love books. I love stories about books. And I especially love stories about books that contain worlds, even when those worlds aren’t places where I’d like to purchase a vacation home. Especially when those worlds aren’t places where I’d like to purchase a vacation home, even to rent as an Airbnb to all my favorite enemies. I adore me a bad-ass downright evil fictional tome. The only thing sweeter would be a whole library full of bad-ass downright evil fictional tomes, which is why Miskatonic University’s Arcane Archives are on my top-ten list of fictional places to visit. We all know about its copy of the Necronomicon (the 17th-century Spanish edition of Olaus Wormius’s 1228 Latin translation of Abdul Alhazred’s Al Azif.) At the Chief Archivist’s discretion, scholars may peruse this most-storied tome—after signing the standard waivers relieving the University of any liability in the case of post-perusal insanity, of course.
The Chief Archivist has told me, in an uncharacteristically tremulous whisper, that MU does NOT have a copy of the Fractured Atlas, and if it did, which it emphatically DOES NOT, a stack of waivers reaching from here to Mercury wouldn’t induce her to let someone look at it. You try cleaning blood and shards of black glass off the floor, walls and ceiling a few times and see if it doesn’t get old for you, too. She’d sooner assign a kindergarten class The Monster Book of Monsters than deal with the Fractured Atlas. She’d sooner put Unaussprechlichen Kulten and the Pnakotic Manuscripts out in the Free Books to Good Owner box. She’d cheerfully thumb through the second act of The King in Yellow before she’d as much as touch the warm, scarred, veiny, blood-reeking, pulsing hide that binds the Atlas.
At this point, her tremulous whisper trailed off into silence, but she needed to say no more. Endothermy in supposedly inanimate objects, scars and veins, even a little Eau de Sang I can handle, but I draw the line at books that pulse. I don’t like being overly aware of my own heartbeat. I don’t need my reading material to go all tell-tale E. A. Poe on me.
I don’t need any huge shadowy black-clad vitreous figures hanging around my house, either. The coffin-worm dude is plenty, thanks.
But—as long as I don’t actually have to try balancing a palpitating Atlas on my knees, I can greatly enjoy reading about John Connolly’s contribution to the Library of Sinister Literature About Sinister Literature.
The historical setting he chose for Part I is apt. The retreat of Henry of Navarre and his followers from their siege of Paris dates the action in 1590. Not that Martin Luther was the first to complain about abuses in the Catholic Church, but we can credit (or blame) him for starting the century-long flame war that was the Protestant sects versus Rome. Sixteenth-century people were pretty much in agreement that there was a God, but damned if they could agree about how He wanted them to worship Him and how He wanted them to behave. Such uncertainty was a BAD THING. God was the Lord, the universal Sovereign. People knew how much trouble earthly kings could cause if they didn’t get what they wanted. Imagine the wrath of a Heavenly King!
Actually, people did imagine it, and they called it Hell, and because you couldn’t have a land without a prince of some sort, Hell got its Prince of Darkness. All very well if the Devil was simply God’s jailkeeper and principal torturer. But no, like any human ruler, the Devil wanted to increase his dominion. He wasn’t going to let God grab all the souls. Because God had His holy books, the Devil had to have some, too. And so–the Fractured Atlas?
Kings have to watch their backs, Van Akteren says. There are always other kings or king-wannabes fingering the hilts of their daggers, and that includes religious authorities. For God, who can the wannabe be but the Devil? As Van Akteren muses, if the Devil is not a worthy adversary for God, one God dreads and fears as earthly kings dread and fear each other, then God is simply cruel or careless not to thwart the being behind the Atlas.
Take your pick. God is either not omnipotent, or God’s a jerk.
Couvret calls this out as heresy, a dire failure of faith. Maybe he’s got something there, because Van Akteren ends up with molten innards, spewing fire. Whereas Couvret beats the curse of the Atlas through his faith, as embodied in his Geneva Bible, with its Calvinistic bent.
Or is Couvret just lucky to have escaped the fate of others who have handled the Atlas? Maybe the shadowy-glassy keeper of the book isn’t the Devil or a Devil’s minion, but an entity of some other “otherworldly” sort. Maybe the keeper of the Atlas and the Atlas itself are aspects or phases of the same thing. Gatekeepers? Gateways? Alternate reality denizens not unlike Kingfisher’s Them in their curious tinkering with lesser beings, that is, us?
Maybe the Atlas preferred that Dutch chest in which Couvret hid it to Couvret himself, and that was his luck. I guess we’ll have to read on to see where in the world the worlds-containing tome ends up next, won’t we, precious?
Religion can mix oddly with the weird. Religion is—very generally speaking, add caveats and disclaimers to taste—structured to add order and meaning to our understanding of the universe. It may do that through origin stories or detailed moral codes, predictable traditions or promises of purpose, or all of the above. The weird, on the other hand, posits a universe that’s chaotic, incomprehensible, and uncomfortable—or when it veers towards meaning at all, actively malicious. I say this as someone who’s attempted to write a religion based on Lovecraft’s Mythos, but even Aeonists are imposing structure, offering strategies for how mortals and semi-mortals can cope sanely with an indifferent universe. The mix was meant to be odd.
Handled well, a religious character might encounter the weird and have to decide between conflicting worldviews—or maybe even find a way to reconcile them. Handled poorly, the complexities of both religion and wild indifferent universe might be flattened. (Derlethian Heresy stories, I am looking at you.)
Like previous Connolly readings, Fractured Atlas presents its setting as a Christian universe with weird intrusions, and with the open question: What if Evil is stronger than Good? The inverse of the Christian worldview is a terrifying possibility. What if there is no good or evil?, a perhaps more frightening option, seems like less of a risk. In “Mr. Pettinger’s Demon,” the demon’s existence is a prod to faith, far preferable to the uncertainties of World War I. In “Razorshins,” the monster punishes (Jewish) rule-breakers and leaves sorta-honorable (Christian) mobsters alone. (That was uncomfortable, and didn’t make me more thrilled with Couvret’s casual aside about the unlikely circumstances under which he’d convert to Judaism. But I digress.)
And but so anyway. Couvret is fleeing Henry IV’s failure in the French Wars of Religion, on his way to England where he will be totally safe from bloody conflict between Catholics and Protestants, I’m sure. He meets Van Agteren, a Man in an Inn, who tells him about his girlfriend’s periods and also an encounter with a book that definitely belongs in Miskatonic’s restricted section. Said book contains, or provides access to, a power that likes to take people apart and also take photographs. Everyone needs a hobby. The power in question is full of stars and eyes, and I’m resisting making a Starry Wisdom joke right now but let’s call it the Many-Eyed Starry Shutterbug. The MESS vivisects Van Agteren’s girlfriend, then Van Agteren. And then it tries to go after Couvret, but Couvret wraps it up with a Bible so he’s fine.
Which does soften the impact of Van Agteren’s distressed question: Does God fear the Devil, and if not, why doesn’t he destroy the MESS? If faith (and precise Bible packaging technique) can save you from getting vivisected, then the answer is that the Christian deity need not destroy the MESS because the means of salvation are already provided. And so the universe is not uncaring and chaotic after all, but simply hazardous, as amply demonstrated by wars and plagues and all the other multitudinous inconveniences of the late 1500s.
But then, there’s more coming, so perhaps it’s not so simple after all.
Next week, it’s time for a Halloween party (it’s always time for a Halloween party) in Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “A Redress for Andromeda.” 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 available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, weird 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.