Reading the Weird

The Universe as Unreliable Narrator: John Connolly’s “The Fractured Atlas,” Part 5

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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 continue with John Connolly’s The Fractured Atlas, first published in 2015 as part of Night Music: Nocturnes Volume II, with Part IV, sections IX-XVII: “The Wanderer in Unknown Realms.” Spoilers ahead.

“Every entity that rages against the light is part of it, and is born of it. It is a universe unto itself.”

Soter sits in Maggs’s kitchen, beside Maggs’s mutilated corpse, slipping in and out of his several lives as son, husband, father, soldier, patient. He’s back in France, amidst endless shelling. He sees forty-seven men buried in gray mud at High Wood. In hospital back in England, he learns that German bombers have killed his wife and children. Having lost all previous identities, he’s “a soul adrift.”

He returns to the present to find the lobster creatures turned to dust. No good summoning the police, who’d suspect him of murdering Maggs. No getting rid of Maggs’s body until later that night. Sally (the prostitute downstairs) knocks on Maggs’s door to make sure Soter is all right. Soter says yes, and so is Maggs, just dead drunk. Speaking of drink, Soter accepts Sally’s offer of a whiskey at the neighborhood pub. He pockets the 500 pounds the Dunwidges paid Maggs, which he’ll give to Quayle. He cries off spending the night with Sally. Later he’ll wonder what became of her, when it is too late for them all.

Soter returns to Maggs’s flat. He’s had plenty of reasons lately to question his sanity, but what he finds at the flat makes him truly anxious. Not only is Maggs’s body gone, the flat’s been rearranged, not just the furniture and books (now in neat piles) but the placement of the rooms. From the window, he spots Dunwidge skulking off. He confronts the bookseller and “encourages” some information out of him.

At Dunwidge and Daughter’s, Eliza’s been packing their most precious books for removal to the country. She senses London is no longer safe. Her father has gone out, but the person moving around downstairs isn’t him: he’d have shouted out. Armed with a police baton, she descends to find Soter feeding the blazing fireplace with her books!

Soter stops her outraged attack by displaying a pistol. Dunwidge Senior has already admitted he went to warn Maggs about Soter’s nosiness. He’s also admitted that because of the Atlas, “the world is no longer the same.” Would Eliza care to explain that statement? By way of persuasion, he threatens to inflict further pain on her and her father. More effectively, he tosses another book into the fire.

Persuaded, Eliza talks. The Atlas “is rewriting the world.” Or has already done so. Books are constantly changing the world, after all: active infection carriers, adapting to each “host” reader. Look at what happened to Maggs when he looked inside the Atlas. Something took root in his brain, then gnawed its way out.

Maggs was a book-scout nonpareil. Maulding was a unique collector. It was “a combination of forces, a perfect conjunction of circumstance: it was the book’s opportunity, and it chose to reveal itself.” Moreover, the time was right. Evil calls to evil. Wells’s “war to end war” was instead a war to end worlds. Eliza gave the book to Maulding without looking inside, but she touched its warm and pulsing binding, the hide of no earthly creature. Who wrote the book? The Not-God, no puerile Satan, but a million-headed entity that rages against the light. Its own universe, an Unknown Realm—now taken out of the book, and replacing what our own world once was. Why did Eliza help it? Curiosity, she claims.

For all he’s seen, Soter can’t accept that the Atlas has already substituted its lands for ours. He’ll find and destroy it. Too late, Eliza insists. He should rather kill himself before things worsen. By way of example, she throws herself into the fireplace of burning books.

Soter leaves the shop as flames spread. He’s pursued on his way to Quayle by two monstrous children with the multitudinous black eyes and venomous fangs of spiders. He shoots them and hides their bodies.

At the lawyer’s chambers, he learns from Fawnsley that weeks have passed in what Soter experienced as days, and that the police are after him for murder and arson. Soter threatens the clerk into giving him access to Maulding’s files, from which he extracts plans for Bromdun Hall.

Traveling through an unseasonably hot and agitated London, he sees the grisly aftermath of an omnibus accident caused by an unaccountably narrowed street. Back in Norfolk, he breaks into Bromdun Hall and beds down on the study couch. A scraping on the window turns out to be a needle-fingered, tube-tongued monster; he drives it off with a letter opener.

In the morning he compares the Hall plans to the actual rooms and discovers the study is seven feet shorter than it should be. A hidden lever pops the bookcase to reveal Maulding’s missing occult library and, on a table, the Fractured Atlas. He opens the Atlas—but the sheets are blank. The book has transferred its contents to our world, “like a palimpsest that slowly, surely, overwhelms the original.”

Soter burns the Atlas in the library fireplace, enduring a stench “like decayed flesh finally consigned to the crematorium.” Afterwards he considers whether his horrific experiences were really a seeping of one universe into another, or a fraud perpetrated by the Dunwidges, or all the product of war-engendered insanity.

Quayle, he hopes, can tell him the truth. Unfortunately, no trains are running from London, and the lines of communication are down. To the southwest is a darkness tinged with red, as if from a conflagration; more ominously, the station clock is running in reverse.

Soter returns to Bromdun Hall and closes himself up inside the secret study. From both inside and outside the house, he hears noises like “the splintering of reality.” It is the coming of the Not-God, but Soter has three bullets left. He will wait.

This Week’s Metrics

Libronomicon: Soter threatens Eliza Dunwidge with a gun, and with burning Arthur Edward Waite’s The Book of Ceremonial Magic.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Soter lists moments when he may have suspected he was “going mad”: the evil lobster in the bathtub, the dark entity in the hallway, the loss of time, and then finally the post mortem changes to Maggs’s rooms.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Maybe I wasn’t so far off after all, speculating that the real Fractured Atlas was the uncaring nature of the universe we had with us all along. Minus the “all along” part. What’s scarier than a universe of cosmic horror? A universe that was more-or-less-okay until yesterday, when it slipped irretrievably into a greater evil—and it’s partly your fault. We’ve all been there.

Unless that isn’t what happened at all. Unless Soter, overcome by PTSD and the stress of the hunt, is seeing hallucinatory evil lobsters, and losing track of time because his time sense is failing, and leaving a trail of bodies behind through perfectly mundane means. Admittedly PTSD does not normally lead to murder sprees, but that hasn’t stopped a century of authors from using it as an excuse.

More problematically for this theory, we first met the Atlas and the star-thing in it centuries before Soter’s birth. The lobsters and round-mouthed monsters are new, but the entity itself clearly has existence beyond his perceptions. And then there are the trains.

The Atlas this week reminds me of Chambers’s “The Repairer of Reputations.” There, too, we have an extremely unreliable narrator whose actions may be shaped by a real, terrible book—and whose delusional actions may be helping to make said delusions real. That’s the interpretation taken by Robin Laws’s follow-ups, where those under the influence of The King in Yellow eventually immanentized the dystopia of “Repairer.”

But the suggestion here is that the Atlas only gains this kind of power once humanity proves itself “worthy” of its horrors. World War I becomes—this is Connolly, so you knew we were going to get back to the biblical imagery—an Edenic fall from grace, a second round releasing humanity into a larger, more terrible universe beyond the walls of our already-fallen-but-still-slightly-innocent garden.

So where does Eliza Dunwidge fit? Soter has her as a sort of Eve, with the book as both Serpent and apple, the thing that manipulates and the thing that breaks you when you consume it. But her explanations—unless none of this is what she says at all, the whole section starts with “This, I think, is how it transpired” despite Soter’s direct involvement—don’t entirely match her earlier interactions with Maggs. Maybe she hisses at the scout to “Find me my book” while really intending to “collude” by getting it to another collector. Maybe she throws herself in the fire with no intervention by Soter, unwilling to live with what she’s done. And maybe Soter is full of crap.

Possibly part of the problem here may be that Soter (and I think Connolly) finds “because I was curious to see what would happen” a satisfyingly archetypal answer to the question of “Why destroy the world?” And indeed it’s a common answer in weird fiction, where Miskatonic postdoc after Miskatonic postdoc seeks out answers that they immediately regret. Usually it’s personal, aside from Langan’s Professor and his apocalyptic spiral of too-engrossing literary criticism.

But amid the psychological realism of post-WWI trauma, I find this answer unsatisfying. The “war to end all wars” wasn’t fought for the sake of curiosity. For confused motives and tangled alliances, sure. Following chains of next logical steps all the way into the abyss, yes. But it was less Edenic temptation, and more a failure to foresee the unpleasant consequences of longstanding deals. The brand of innocent corruption attributed to Eliza… doesn’t quite fit.

Maybe the change in what she says about her own motivations is part of the change to the world. Maybe the Eliza of Part II did open her book when she got a chance—and got overwritten by someone who would willingly release it to achieve its grand goals. Someone now struggling to explain her own actions, and left with only the sense that something, everything, has gone very, very wrong.

 

Anne’s Commentary

In Part Two of The Fractured Atlas, Eliza told Maggs it was about time he understood there are books and more-than-books. Unfortunately for him, about time was already too late. What rendered his notebook more-than was the djinn who inhabited it when not engaged in palimpsestic scribbling, graffiti and unasked-for body art. What makes the Atlas a more-than-book is, well, everything. Soter believes that books are passive objects, inanimate, but that’s before he touches the pulse-shivered binding of the Atlas. This tome is unabashedly alive, intelligent, willful and malicious. And it contains worlds. If that’s not super-bibliomorphic, I don’t know what is. The Necronomicon is better behaved! Except, of course, when it assumes its anime-schoolgirl avatar and starts dropping out of thin air onto innocent young men, undies exposed.

The Necronomicon’s undies, that is, not the innocent young man’s. Translated to anime, I bet the Atlas would go commando.

But let’s put that soul-shattering image aside without sharing it with Soter. He is already a “soul adrift,” burdened with the memories of former lives without the anchor of any present identity beyond snoop-for-hire. Funny how souls adrift often turn to private investigation. Maybe that’s because what they truly want is irretrievable, any substitute undefinable. To look for someone else’s something must be a relief.

Classically, the client’s problem becomes the PI’s, the job turned life- or mind- or soul-threatening. Soter stands to lose all three precious possessions, plus his whole world. The Not-God is coming. Eliza Dunwidge can smell book-borne hazards like that and is sure enough of her cosmic prognosis to escape by suicide. (Her self-immolation reminds me of the woman in Fahrenheit 451 who prefers burning with her books to living without them.)

In Part II, Eliza set Maggs to find the Atlas, which she emphatically called “her book.” If for no other reason than its unrivaled rarity, she must have it. For the same reason, Maggs the “scout unlike any other” must prove his prowess by finding it. It’s later that Maulding, relatively new to occultism, joins the hunt. Now, per Eliza, all the forces have combined, all the circumstances come into conjunction, and the Atlas decides to reveal itself and fall into the hands of the one “meant to have it.” Shades of Tolkien’s One Ring, another apocalypse-bringer with deep roots in the trauma of WWI!

Unlike Maggs and Maulding, Eliza knows better than to open the Atlas. Yet by serving as the link between scout and collector, she invites all hell to break loose. Why does she collude with the book? That’s the first and last question, she admits, and hers is the first and last answer. Like the Biblical Eve and the mythical Pandora, Eliza was curious. Let her equivocate and suggest she was “merely serving the will of the Atlas whether [she] knew it or not.” Soter knows that I wanted to see what would happen is “always destined to be the reason for the end of things at the hands of men.”

Curiosity kills the cat, but in this case there’s no satisfaction to bring him back. The world is obliterated at the turn of a page. Most people don’t realize it yet, is all, or they do “down in the dirt of their consciousness” but refuse to acknowledge it. That their reality has been overwritten by the Unknown Realm (the ultimate palimpsest) isn’t just an inconvenient truth; it’s one that “will eat them alive.”

Like the spider-girl and spider-boy would have eaten Soter alive but for his gun. Like the gray wraith at the window would have eaten him alive but for a handy letter opener. Soter’s luck can’t hold, not after burning the Atlas doesn’t reverse the damage done. The Not-God is still coming–Soter can hear Its footsteps and fumblings both inside and outside Maulding’s house. He has three bullets left, two for the monsters and one (we presume) for himself.

Toward the end of Part IV, Soter decides there are three “narratives” to explain what’s been happening to him. The first is that one world is indeed “infecting and corrupting” another. Soter doesn’t want to believe this.

The second narrative is that the Dunwidges have been perpetrating an elaborate fraud. Soter can’t reconcile this idea with the horrors he’s experienced. If he really has experienced them. Because the third narrative–

The third “narrative” is one Soter doesn’t specifically name or describe. It may be the fate he fears most, having teetered on its brink during his postwar hospitalization. Simply enough, he could be floridly delusional. Insane. Actually guilty of murdering Maggs, perhaps the Dunwidges, perhaps two ordinary children not unlike the daughter and son he lost, no monsters.

Before his failed retreat to London, Soter intends to let Quayle decide which narrative is his reality; whatever the consequences, uncertainty is worse. Back in Maulding’s secret library, he accepts the coming of the Not-God as the truth of his world.

His palimpsest world, utterly overwritten.

 

Next week, we’re taking a break due to the uncaring and incomprehensible nature of the universe, and also Ruthanna’s looming copyedits. We’ll be back in two weeks with Fritz Lieber’s classic homage, “To Arkham and the Stars.” You can find several podcast versions online, or read it in prose form in Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos.

Ruthanna EmrysA 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.

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