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 III: “Mud.” Spoilers ahead
“As I said before, there’s all kinds of mud, some cleaner than others.”
The unnamed gardener at General William Pulteney’s estate (whom we’ll imaginatively call “Gardener”) knows there are all kinds of mud. City folk think it’s all the same, wet dirt that ruins their shoes. Gardeners call dirt soil. Things grow in soil, flowers, shrubs, weeds. Beautiful things. Frightening things.
Gardener sees that the General’s worn down by the criticism he’s been receiving. It’s Revisionism, the General declares: His critics would change history to suit their own ends, shredding his reputation in the process. With the General’s wife in London (and in no hurry to return home), the General confides in Gardener. Though he might not have confided in Lady Jessie had she been around; Gardener’s always thought them an ill-matched couple.
The General entered the army through the Oxford militia rather than the usual military academies, and so he felt fellow officers looked down on him. In 1915 he was knighted and promoted to lieutenant general. It would be the high point of WWI for him, for soon afterwards came the bloodbaths of Delville Wood and High Wood. The official inquiry would exonerate the General and lay blame on subordinate officers, but libelous whispers persist among “German sympathizers” meaning to undermine England’s morale. The General’s not having it. He’s writing a memoir to set the record straight. It’s titled The Devils in the Woods. The “devils” being the Germans, though the enemy now are people like former soldier Soter, who showed up at the General’s house claiming his friends wouldn’t have died if the General had done his job right.
Shortly after Soter, the mud appears. Its first manifestation consists of footprints tracked into the house as far as the General’s bedroom door, footprints in heavy gray mud that stinks as if “animals had lived and died in it, bleeding and excreting at the last.” The General accuses Gardener but the summer earth is dry and Gardener’s boots are clean. The two search the house together. They find no intruder, though the prints lead inward only, not back out.
That night the General sleeps with his shotgun. Frantic scratching wakes him; when he opens the door, his old cat Tiger hurtles in hissing in fright. The stench of polluted mud has returned. Something moves in the hallway. The General, shotgun in hand, spots a rat bigger than Tiger, pelt mud-caked, belly “swollen with carrion.” It shows no fear; in fact, just before he blows it into “fur and regrets,” the General’s sure it means to lunge at him.
Next day, despite scrubbing and open windows, the whole house is permeated with mud-stink. Gardener disposes of the rat-remnants but notices that the fur and bones appear to have come from many different animals, and where’s all the blood? Someone must be hoaxing the General.
Gardener investigates a pond in the woods to see if the mud’s coming from there. It’s nearly drained, with no signs of footprints. But he detects the mud-stink of the house—unless the stink has clung to himself? Leaving the woods, he meets the General. Told the pond yields no clues, the General turns back. Gardener notes the smell dissipates again away from the pond, but strengthens toward the house.
Gardner must rely on the General’s account for the rest: the man works until after dark on his memoirs, then steps out of his study to slip in mud. The stinking footprints of many different feet traverse every other room in the house. Finger marks smear a photo of his wife. The bathroom sink is stained with dirt and blood. His own bed is besmirched as if a filth-caked someone has lain on it.
The General follows muddy tracks from his front door to the pond. Dank water seeps away as he watches, leaving foul gray mud. A figure made of mud—and something apart from mud—forces itself from the mire, rotting vegetation hooding its head, and yet the General glimpses pale features and clouded eyes that look at him without truly seeing.
More men emerge from the mud—it’s as if “an immensity of bodies [are] being forced up from below, a great eruption of the dead… all with names to whisper, all with stories to tell, a generation of the lost that would give the lie to his every word of self-justification and crack the hollow shell of each excuse.”
Because the General has known, has always known. He kneels and waits to join the dead.
On his knees by the pond is how Gardener finds him next morning, shaking, clothes caked with mud. Supported home, the General babbles that what he saw might not have been men but the memory of them given substance by what was “closest to hand.” He’ll never tell the tale again, nor speak of his “great rebuttal” to critics. Gardener believes he burned his memoirs.
The General dies in 1941. Gardener muses that in the billions of atoms comprising each man may be atoms that once belonged to all the humans who ever lived. Ten million died in the Great War. Could not something of them be retained in the ground, in the mud, “a kind of memory… that can never be dispelled?”
“There are all kinds of mud, you know,” Gardner concludes. “All kinds.”
This Week’s Metrics
Weirdbuilding: Am I the only one who saw that rat and thought, “Brown Jenkins???”
Libronomicon: The General’s memoirs are to be called The Devils in the Woods, a play on the Battle of Delville Wood. I’m not sure that puns are the way to go when trying to defend your reputation against accusations of incompetence on the battlefield, but we already have reason to question the guy’s judgment.
Anne, who’s read this before, is probably going to laugh at me, but I’m beginning to think the notorious Atlas is not a single book. Possibly, it isn’t even a book in any traditional sense.
Certainly the story itself is fractured. In Part I we encountered a thing that looked like a book and was home to an eldritch entity that killed any holder who wasn’t a quick-thinking Christian. The “book” seemed to hold photo-realistic images of things the entity could see from the pages, including its victims. In Part II, we met a book binding a “djinn.” Not nearly so deadly, but its graffiti-like desecration of skin and real books made just as indelible a change. Part III contains no obvious book at all, other than the one the General never writes. The indelible marks come this time from the atoms of the world itself, in response to the mere idea of that book, ugly truth overcoming written lies.
So: are all these books aspects of the same thing? Maybe the Fractured Atlas, contra Eliza Dunwidge’s fond hopes, is found in fragments and facets, a piece of it in every life-altering tome in the Miskatonic Library. Or worse, maybe the “book” consists of all the ugly truths lying under the world’s surface. Something that can only be glimpsed via faith, and against which faith is the only possible protection.
I’m intrigued by this week’s narrator as well. He seems more sympathetic than either of our previous fellows, a real salt-of-the-earth Sam Gamgee type. Except, well, how does he come to work for the General in particular? To keep espaliered apples in line for a high-ranked hero/villain of the Great War whose wife avoids him, with a towering temper and a tendency to fire servants on minimal evidence? Maybe it’s just a job to him, or maybe he’s clinging to the pre-war “not my place to say” order of the British Empire. Or maybe he finds the General’s checkered, uncertain history as fascinating as his nuanced taxonomy of mud types.
Certainly he sticks around even after learning that the estate’s pond can produce armies of vile mud-soldiers at a moment’s notice. Sure, all the world’s atoms may carry the memory of war, but this is the only place he’s actually seen that memory turned animate. His failure to run away screaming suggests an attachment of his own—and we don’t know how he spent the war, do we? [ETA: On second glance, as Gardener tenderly carries the General from the pond with the great man’s head cradled against his chest, maybe the reason he stays is related to the reason Lady Jessie stays away.]
I love the use of smells in this section: the horrible reek of the mud, the rot of the rat, the clove oil that the General uses as a sort of sensory denial. Smell is an uncanny sense, carrying clairvoyant hints of places and events otherwise beyond immediate perception, invoking memories long lost and emotions long buried. It tells us when something is wrong, so far from okay that unthinking flight is the only possible response. It reveals the hidden. Why shouldn’t it occasionally do all those things in a way that goes beyond the general run of volatile chemicals? It’s hard to figure out what a never-before-seen color might look like; a completely unfamiliar and deeply disturbing scent is all too plausible.
Which brings us, perhaps, back to the nature of the Atlas. So far we’ve had three books you can’t read: one associated with stunning images, one with tactile horror, one with scent. That leaves us—if I haven’t followed my logic completely off a cliff—one remaining that produces terrible sounds, and one book you can taste. And when you put them all together… a very interesting, if still fundamentally mysterious, read.
A while back, we read John Connolly’s “Mr. Pettinger’s Daemon,” in which an Army chaplain recalls the trenches of WWI and the horrors that bred in their muddy shallows. One memory that haunts him persistently is of British deserters found in no-man’s-land, feasting as voraciously as trench rats on the corpse of a German soldier. The aftermath of the “Great War” figures again in “Mud,” the third chapter of The Fractured Atlas. There are all kinds of mud, Gardener explains in both the opening sentence and the closing one. Some are benign, if messy. Others—well, he wouldn’t eat anything that grew from them.
Could any mud be worse than that of the trenches, where men were reduced to animals “bleeding and excreting to the last”? Ten million soldiers died in WWI, contributing billions of atoms to the dirt in which they were buried. No wonder Gardener imagines that nightmare soil to retain “a kind of memory of [the dead] that can never be dispelled.” In an upcoming chapter of Atlas, Soter recalls the forty men he watched being interred in a High Wood shell crater. Soter was there to see the carnage and the hasty clean-up. Whereas William Pulteney was not. Safe in a command post, that incompetent General was busy shifting responsibility for the debacle onto subordinates. Blame he could wriggle out of. Guilt, as it turns out, clung to him like trench mud.
It doesn’t seem that Gardener served in WWI. Perhaps he was too young—the exact year of the mud’s assault on the General is unclear; it falls sometime between the armistice of 1918 and 1941, the year of the General’s death. Of Gardener’s education, we know he’s neither a “scientific man” nor an illiterate. His chief narrative qualification (no mean one) is that he retains “a curiosity about the world.” Add the discretion that seems to have made him the General’s confidant. Though Pulteney’s someone who “liked his own company” and who may be “secretly glad” his wife prefers London to home, the General still needs to talk to somebody if his story’s to be told.
That he could have “talked” to himself is an unworkable option. The General knows the truth about what happened in High Wood. He has always known it, which is the club that brings him to his knees at the climax, a self-condemned man. The General’s memoir, his “great rebuttal” of blame, is an in-story first person narrative of the highly unreliable variety, since it’s to be as blatant a lie as those the General told immediately after his “great screw-up.”
It’s possible the General has long managed to quell his guilt by rehearsing excuses until he half-believes them himself. Because Gardener is the General’s dependent, he’s a relatively safe audience for such rehearsals; the General doesn’t consider imposing on a wider public until the “Revisionists” force his pen.
Besides being an “old family servant,” Gardener proves himself a comfortable sounding board by paying no too-pointed attention to the General’s complaints. We first see him absorbing a rant while pruning a wisteria vine and thinking over the advantages of doing so in summer. I can see him occasionally nodding, which would be enough for the General. I doubt he’d want Gardener or any other auditor to be staring him in the face while he spins his tales of outraged woe.
Does Gardener buy the tales? Not fully, I think. He tells Soter that he doesn’t want to hear his accusations, not that Soter is full of crap. Gardener knows which version of the truth it behooves him to believe, even as he pities Soter and anyone else who’s passed through the hell of WWI.
That will include the General, when time and memory catch up with him in the form of some very nasty mud. Time has not rendered the General’s detractors amnestic. Time cannot erase the memory of the dead from the earth into which their substance has passed. The General’s own memories are roused by the threat of Revisionism and, ironically, by his attempt at a redemptive memoir.
More ironically, it may be the General’s memory that creates the mud-footprints, mud-rat and mud-soldiers. While Gardener shepherds him home from the pool in the woods, the General babbles that what rose from its muck may not have been men but “merely the memory of them given form by whatever substance was closest to hand.” Mud, that is.
But mud is also the truest emblem of the “Great War,” and therefore the most suitable vessel for its ghosts. Nor are mud-horrors mere phantoms of the General’s disordered brain. Gardener sees—and smells—them, too. His theory is that memory lingers in soil as a physical entity. Call it atomic memory, the latent energy of which can be stimulated into “a great eruption of the dead” by mental memory, here the General’s.
Whatever the mechanism, a mud-Nemesis has come for Pulteney. And what all this has to do with the stories of Couvret, and Maggs and Eliza, we must remain as patient as mud to fathom.
Next week, we celebrate our 350th post with the 1986 adaptation of From Beyond. Be there or be an incomprehensible extradimensional shape, only mistakeable for a square thanks to the blinkered limitations of your human senses!
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.