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 IV, sections I-VIII: “The Wanderer in Unknown Realms.” Spoilers ahead.
Soter, General Pulteney’s accuser from last chapter, has returned to London to meet with the lawyer Quayle, who employs him as a private investigator. One of Quayle’s ancestors formed a partnership with the Huguenot refugee Couvret. Couvret eventually sank into alcoholism and became a liability to his partner; Quayle believes his ancestor may have arranged Couvret’s robbery and murder. Proud family history!
Quayle introduces Soter to Sebastian Forbes, nephew of his client Lionel Maulding. Maulding has gone missing. As Forbes is Maulding’s heir, he’s anxious to ascertain whether he’s alive or dead. Although Soter angers Forbes by badmouthing Pulteney, he gets the job.
Soter goes to stay at Maulding’s estate, slowly decaying Bromdun Hall. Maulding lived in only a few rooms, his housekeeper Mrs. Gissing explains. The rest hold his book collection. Left with a twisted leg by childhood polio, Maulding rarely left home; his books brought the world to him. There are volumes in every major language and on every subject. By Maulding’s bed Soter finds two oddities, an alchemical lexicon and Agrippa’s Three Books on Occult Philosophy.
Mrs. Gissing returns to her own home every night, leaving Soter alone in the Hall. He doesn’t object to the arrangement. He combs through Maulding’s papers. In the months before his disappearance, Maulding began dealing with two new booksellers: Steaford’s, a specialist in scientific literature; and Dunwidge and Daughter, with whose assistance he’s been assembling a working occult collection. Oddly, apart from the books over Maulding’s bed, Soter can’t find the Dunwidge and Daughter acquisitions. He telegrams Quayle asking him to locate the booksellers.
That night a lobster-earwig thing invades his bathtub. Then he dreams of the High Wood massacre, with the tanks turning into poison-spitting insectile monsters. He wakes(?) in the dark hall, where a greater darkness resolves into a hunched entity with a face of many-angled glass shards. Soter flings a poker, shattering it. Concussive force knocks him to the floor. Before passing out, he sees the entity collapse into “a hole…briefly ripped in the fabric of space and time.” He sees unknown constellations, a black sun, a dead world, and “the face of Lionel Maulding howling into the void.”
Neither Mrs. Gissing nor Willox the groundskeeper can throw light on the night’s horrors, though Willox admits he sometimes looks over his shoulder when he’s alone in the Hall. “It’s the way of such places,” he says. “They wear their history heavily.” Quayle’s clerk Fawnsley sends a telegram: Dunwich and Daughter’s shop is somewhere in King’s Road, Chelsea. More urgently, 10,000 pounds was mysteriously withdrawn from Maulding’s funds within the last month!
What could Maulding have wanted to spend that much money on? The obvious answer: A book.
A Steaford’s bookseller surmises Maulding’s purchases that he was interested in the nature of reality and the possibility of a multiverse. His elderly associate gives Soter the address for Dunwidge and Daughter but warns that they’re occultists who sell “old books. Nasty books. Not science at all.” Bad sorts, the daughter most of all—Soter should stay away from ‘em!
Soter stops at Quayle’s. Fawnsley scolds him for taking so long to report; according to his calendar, it’s been a week since Soter went to Bromdun Hall. According to Soter’s sense of time, however, he’s only been on assignment one day!
At Dunwidge and Daughter, Dunwidge can’t—or won’t—tell Soter much about Maulding’s purchases. After some verbal sparring, daughter Eliza reveals that Maulding was after a book so rare it might not even exist: The Atlas of Unknown Realms, supposed to contain maps of universes beyond our own. Unfortunately, the firm has never been able to locate it. Would this book command 10,000 pounds? That sum, Eliza replies, might even buy a soul.
Other occult booksellers are unable to tell Soter more about the Atlas. He takes the senior bookseller at Steaford’s to tea and learns that if anyone could find such a fabulous tome it would be Maggs the Maggot, a notorious book scout who lives somewhere on Princelet Street. Soter sniffs out Maggs’s address. There he meets a prostitute who directs him to Flat 9 and warns him that Maggs carries a knife. She also confirms that Maulding visited Maggs a week or two before.
No one answers Soter’s knock. He picks the lock and finds a space crammed with books, smelling of unwashed clothes but newly painted (though the demonic graphiti from Chapter 2 shows through). Maggs is at the kitchen table, recently dead. His eyes are gone, as if hot pokers were thrust through them. Before him is 500 pounds in an envelope from Dunwidge and Daughter.
Something scuttles behind Soter—another lobster-earwig creature. He stabs it to death with a broom handle, examines the corpse, finds Maggs’s eyeball clenched in its jaws. The creature must have burrowed out of Maggs’s skull through an eye socket. And since Maggs’ has two empty sockets… where’s the second lobster-earwig?
He searches the flat, wondering if Maggs found the Atlas. If so, was he searching on behalf of Dunwidge and Daughter, the 500 pounds his finder’s fee? Or did Maggs lure Maulding to his flat, get paid for the Atlas, then kill his customer? Speculation ceases when the second lobster-earwig emerges from Maggs’s mouth.
He attacks it so violently the broom handle shatters, along with Maggs’s teeth. The creature tries to retreat into its victim’s innards, but Soter repeatedly forces the broken handle into Maggs’s throat until his head and the creature are one gory ruin.
And then Soter weeps.
This week’s metrics
Libronomicon: So many titles this week, as Soter explores Maulding’s library and tries to reconstruct the man’s life and disappearance from his reading. He probably didn’t get eaten by The Art of Drawing Spirits in Crystals, but you never know.
Weirdbuilding: Soter’s description of how the mind protects itself from terrible events, seeking rational explanations to avoid madness, echoes Lovecraft’s comments about the mind’s contents and the correlation thereof.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Soter has spent time in Craiglockhart, the military psychiatric hospital, and has reason to be anxious at the prospect of further traumatic experiences.
“The Wanderer in Unknown Realms” is by far the longest of Fractured Atlas’s five chapters, long enough for us to have subdivided it into two blog posts. A substantial part of its length is attributable to the positively Dickensian opening set (like some of Dickens’s most memorable scenes) in the actual and metaphorical tangle of Chancery, notorious lair of the legal profession and source of much ruin and heartache for those who seek justice there. If advancing his plot was all Connolly had wanted from this subchapter, it could have been cut by a half or even three-quarters: Plop Soter down in Quayle’s inner sanctum, introduce him to Forbes, describe Soter’s assignment of finding Lionel Maulding—preferably alive, per Quayle if not prospective heir Forbes—and send Soter on his way to Maulding’s manor. Do we need the very particular mention of Quayle’s clerk Fawnsley or his client Forbes? Do we need the very detailed description of Quayle’s chambers? Do we need for Forbes and Soter to butt heads about General Pulteney?
To echo Lear’s cri de coeur, reckon not the need! Or, more to the point, reckon the need from a broader perspective. “Wanderer” brings together at last the principals of the preceding chapters, Couvret and Maggs and Pulteney, with the Huguenot and General getting cursory mentions and no physical presence. Maggs appears in person, but only as a corpse. Soter, briefly referenced in “Mud,” takes center stage with an immediacy and depth unapproached by the other characters. Couvret and Maggs’s stories are narrated in third person. Pulteney’s story is narrated in first person, but by his gardener, hence one person removed. Soter tells his own story. A keen observer, he gives the reader richly detailed descriptions of where he goes and whom he sees and what he thinks about them. He can resort to defensive cynicism, but his hard facade is permeable. A wounded and lonely man, he can at his best sympathize with people similarly wounded and lonely; at his worst, he can be brutal or despairing, which are brother states of mind. In introspection he is self-honest, and so a reliable narrator. A tediously verbose narrator, some might find. I’m fond of verbose narrators, myself, if they have something to spill words words words on.
Soter has something to talk about: the so-called Great War. WWI has also been called the “war to end all wars.” The phrase had its origin in articles written by H. G. Wells at the start of the conflict and later collected in his book, The War That Will End War. What was originally an optimistic expression soon became (and has largely stayed) sardonic. Like wars in general, WWI might have thrown open the gates to the Four Horsemen, but it didn’t bring about total apocalypse. The world limped on after 1918 and amassed more wealth and lives to throw at what Archie Bunker liked to call “WWII, the Big One!” Soter won’t live to see the Big One, but he doesn’t need to. Like so many of his generation, he carries war inside him, always and everywhere. His special hell was the bit of the many-tined Somme Offensive that raged at High Wood, leaving the little forest so artillery-blasted that all that remained were stumps, shell craters, and corpses. Too many corpses—the real-life Pulteney, Major-General Charles Barter, was relieved of command for “wanton waste of men.” Also like Pulteney, he was later knighted for his performance.
Soter lived through High Wood. He lived through the loss of his wife and two children to a German air raid. He lived, more or less, functioning well enough to do Quayle’s dirty work. What may be keeping him on the right side of the line between sanity and madness is the belief he’s experienced the worst that can happen to him. And then what happens? The Fractured Atlas, is what. To the horrors of this world, he’s forced to add the horrors of other spheres. The ultimate mind-wrecker? There are doors between the worlds. Things can crawl through. You can fall, or be dragged, through. Or your brain can be seeded with monsters that eventually eat their way out through your eye sockets.
Wells also wrote The War of the Worlds. It was first serialized in 1897, published as a book in 1898. Soter could have read it and cheered the defeat of the Martians by “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.” Bacteria, that is. An H1N1 virus killed a lot of Britain’s enemies during WWII, but the bug killed a lot of the Allies, too. So far the shard-faced entity and lobster-earwigs are immune to Earth microbes, though not to pokers and broom handles.
How many dissipation-explosions of rift-phantoms can you survive? How many lobster-earwigs can you stab to death in the throats of their victims, until the two ruined fleshes are indistinguishable?
We leave Soter collapsed and weeping with a score of one entity and two lob-wigs. What toll of mental laceration the other side has inflicted we’ve yet to find out.
Whew! Suddenly we’re tying everything together, and our sections have sub-sections. I kind of wish we’d divided this bit into quarters rather than halves, because there’s a lot to unpack. But here we go. Things we learn this week:
- Faith will only get you so far. Or at least it will only get Couvret so far: saved from murder-by-book, but not murder-by-annoyed-lawyer. This seems like probably a good tradeoff.
- The international chain of Jewish-run bad-idea magic shops has room for a deeply-unpopular itinerant book scout. (Or I assume that’s the implication of Maggs living near the synagogue and the people who go to the synagogue knowing where to find him.) Thanks, I guess. Maggs also escapes murder-by-book only to run into what appears to be murder-by-extradimensional-lobster. This seems like probably a bad tradeoff.
- The General is probably lucky to have gotten off as lightly as he did.
- My theory from last chapter, that the real Fractured Atlas is the enemies we made along the way, is probably wrong. Or at least, Eliza Dunwidge thinks it’s a real book with either one or zero copies available.
- In fact, given Soter’s glimpse of Maulding, it may be the book we met in Chapter 1 after all.
- Speaking of Eliza Dunwidge, it’s apparently not possible to have a female villain without describing the precise degree of feminine attractiveness that survives her villainousness, and the precise impact that her unpleasant attributes have on said femininity. Or at least, it’s not possible for Soter. I note that neither Mrs. Gissing nor the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold get multi-page descriptions of why Soter isn’t into them, really he isn’t.
As all the threads finally tie together—as all the fractured pieces start to line up?—the story seems to be settling into a recognizable shape. Although the Weird has plenty of roots well before the turn of the 20th Century, there’s a long tradition of marking World War I as the point where comforting illusions break down en mass, and of veterans of that war encountering supernatural horrors as an almost-logical extension of the more mundane terrors of the conflict. Soter has something in common with the narrators of “Dagon” or “The Temple.” Modern authors often connect the eldritch with more recent crises and threats, so it’s interesting to see someone go back to this foundational trauma.
Soter’s experience is not merely with WWI being generally horrible, but with the General’s specific failure and betrayal at High Wood. We still don’t know the details—Soter says he wasn’t there, but whether this was active abandonment of station, or conveniently making bad decisions from a safe distance, is unclear. I’m curious if, and how, this will be mirrored by his eventual confrontation with the Atlas. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing where leadership failures apply.
More to unpack next time. Here’s hoping what’s in the package is not more eyeballs.
Next week, Sarah Peploe’s “UNDR” is a pretty effective argument against choosing a hotel just because it’s cheap. You can find it in Chthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth.
Ruthanna Emrys’s A Half-Built Garden comes out in July 2022. She is also 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.