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 finish up John Connolly’s The Fractured Atlas, first published in 2015 as part of Night Music: Nocturnes Volume II, with Part V: “And in Darkness Shall We Dwell.” Spoilers ahead.
“Lionel Maulding never stopped screaming, but he made no noise in that place.”
How strange is the courtyard off Chancery Lane where Quayle has his chambers. Nobody enters unless they have business with Quayle. The surrounding buildings are so narrow, any furniture must have been hauled in by the vicious hooks that protrude from the gables. No one remembers how the houses came to be built in this fashion, or who built them, and the question of their ownership is nebulous.
In Quayle’s close-curtained office, the lawyer meets with Mr. Hassard, a Scotland Yard detective. Quayle remarks that Hassard is a Huguenot name—a Peter Hasaret fled the Low Countries in the 16th century to escape persecution. Hassard admits he’s descended from this refugee and wonders at Quayle’s knowledge of Huguenot history. Quayle explains that the original Quayle had a Huguenot partner named Couvret; to Quayle’s displeasure, Hassard adds that Couvret was murdered, wasn’t he? Disemboweled? Yes, Quayle admits, and yes, the original Quayle was suspected of the crime.
Hassard gets to the point of his visit: the disappearance of Mr. Soter, who left a puzzling manuscript at Bromdun Hall and who is wanted for questioning about five deaths: the Dunwidges, Maggs, and two street children. Quayle denies having heard from Soter. His investigator “was a disturbed man, but a hero once. The war broke him.” As for those “street children,” were they not unusual, almost mutated, and isn’t it true no one has identified them or claimed their bodies?
The children are dead nonetheless, Hassard says. And who breached Soter’s barricades at Maulding House? The police found the front and library doors broken from outside by some implement that left deep scratches in the wood, a rake perhaps. (Unseen, Quayle examines his fingernails.) Of the book Soter supposedly discovered in Maulding’s secret library, The Fractured Atlas, no traces have been found.
Well, says Quayle, books burn.
Does Quayle think Soter was mad? He saw clocks running backwards, and misconstrued derailment-delayed trains as signs of world-spanning catastrophe. Then there was the trouble he caused at General Pulteney’s house. But Quayle remembers a different Soter, a better one.
Do you think Soter’s dead, the detective asks. Quayle phrases his answer carefully: “Soter will not be found alive on this earth.”
Left alone, Quayle closes his chambers and crosses the courtyard to his apartment. He doesn’t check for observers. No need: “he is sensitive to every minor change in his environment… After all, he had been there for a very long time, and before him stretched infinity.”
Quayles’s rooms would seem to take up more space than the building provides. The books in his library are mostly legal tomes, but interspersed are the rarest of occult volumes. One book, its cover and pages charred, lies on a reading stand; slowly but perceptibly, the damage heals. The Fractured Atlas is reconstituting itself.
Quayle unlocks a door set in the shelving, producing with a single turn of his key the sound of many locks unsealing. An intruder would have found a blank wall, but Quayle opens a door to the blackness of space, where Lionel Maulding hangs eternally screaming as an invisible hand slowly flays him raw, restores his skin, flays him again. Quayle feels no pity—the man should have known better than to toy with the Atlas.
Soter hangs beside Maulding. His eyes, ears, mouth and nostrils have been sewn shut with catgut; his arms have been sewn to his sides, his legs stitched together; his consciousness is thus trapped in a hell resembling High Wood, for him the greatest possible torment. Quayle, though not human, feels a qualm for Soter; after all this time “some iota of humanity had infected him.”
Behind the two are hundreds of other figures, “suspended like the husks of insects in a great web.” Quayle no longer remembers the names of the oldest victims or what they did to merit their fate. Deep in the blackness behind them are red veins, cracks in the thin shell of the universe. A massive form presses against the fragile barrier, a being of jointed legs and jaws within jaws and many eyes, to which “entire galaxies appeared only as froth on the surface of a distant lake.” Even Quayle trembles before the Not-God.
Many others, less great or just further away, crowd behind the Not-God, waiting for the rifts to open. It will take time, but time is nothing to them, or to Quayle for that matter. The world has been rewritten. When the Atlas has been restored, it will “commence a new narrative, and the first chapter would tell of the creation of another kind of universe.”
Quayle locks the door and goes to make himself a pot of tea.
This Week’s Metrics
Libronomicon: Quayle has on his shelves “occult volumes of the most unique kind, including books named but never seen, and treatises cursed by the church from the moment their existence became known.” Also a few actual books of law.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Military psychiatrists have examined Soter’s manuscript, coming to all sorts of conclusions except for the (admittedly startling) correct one. Quayle, with more direct insight into the situation, describes him as “disturbed” rather than “mad.” He fails to mention that he’s the one who did the disturbing.
Of the five chapters of Connolly’s Fractured Atlas, I like the last and “quietest” best. It features as point-of-view character the lawyer Quayle, whom Chapter IV painted as an intriguingly canny oddball, but not one qualitatively odder than any of Dickens’s great exemplars of the legal con-game, er, profession. Chapter V adds that qualitative difference, and it’s one for which I’m always a sucker: Quayle is not just figuratively but actually inhuman, an ancient and immortal being dressed in man’s skin for cryptic purposes of his own—or his Master’s. I immediately think of Stephen King’s “The Breathing Method” and “The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands,” which feature an exclusive Manhattan club presided over by a butler more mysterious than any of the weird tales its members tell.
As befits such a creature, Quayle inhabits a little world of his own, imbedded in the human world but subject to extramundane laws. The courtyard off Chancery Lane, as viewed by narrator Soter, is merely queer, not unearthly. The omniscient narrator who opens Chapter V insidiously leads the reader to question the nature—or supernature—of the place. What can be the use of such narrow buildings as brood over the yard? Was it really to haul up furniture that someone graced the gables with “vicious-looking” hooks? Why should the buildings’ owners be so enigmatic, identifiable only as Quayle’s clients?
The focus shifts to Quayle’s point-of-view in the second part of the chapter, which allows the omniscient narrator to drop his coyness. In the classic manner of settings beyond human ken, Quayle’s personal domicile contains rooms exceed the building’s available space. It’s every realtor’s dream, and no mere illusion created by a clever floor plan or judiciously placed mirrors.
Next the bottom drops right out of our reality into Quayle’s. So what if his living room-cum-library looks suspiciously over-spacious. Smack in the middle of it is a burned tome slowly reconstituting itself. Inanimate objects, like books, don’t do that; healing is the province of living organisms. Wait, what did Eliza Dunwidge tell Maggs way back in Chapter II? Oh yeah, some books are more-than-books. Assume that Eliza speaks in metaphors at your own peril.
Impossible square footage and animate books pale beside the ultimate horror of Quayle’s house. Weird literature’s building code seems to require that all occult libraries provide hidden spaces for their most-occultest holdings. Maulding’s library has shelves that open to a narrow sanctum sanctorum. Maulding was a mere human, and an occult dilettante at that. Quayle doesn’t bother to hide the entrance to his sanctum, which is a blatant door set into the bookshelves. Not that he’s entirely incautious—opened by anyone but him, the door would reveal only a blank wall. To truly access the sanctum, Quayle carries a key that opens the locks of a “near-infinite number of doors.” The “key” may be as disguised a reality as the “door,” and as “Quayle” himself.
What’s really real is a “blackness of space” in which Maulding and Soter and hundreds of other humans hang “like the husks of insects in a great web,” only far worse off than a spider’s meals because their torments are eternal, constantly re-enacted. I’m undecided whether Quayle is the “spider” who populated this web or whether he is simply the “spider’s” procurer. Either way, I figure his true form is monstrous enough. It’s masterful how Connolly implies that Quayle was the one who breached Soter’s barricades at Bromdun Hall. Detective Hassard attributes the gouges on the doors to a rake or other tined implement. This prompts Quayle to examine his neatly cut nails, suggesting not only that it was claws that gouged the doors but Quayle’s own claws, as camouflaged under human nails.
Though inhuman, Quayle earns reader sympathy because he has worn his disguise so long that he’s been “infected” by “some iota of humanity.” The “iota” is sufficient for him to feel for Soter the pity he denies Maulding—he can, in human terms, distinguish between the intellectual greed of the one and the sincere if trauma-crippled quest for meaning of the other.
One way of reading the way Quayle “trembles” in the presence of the Not-God is that his iota of humanity causes him to (whoa) quail before it. Another reading would be that he trembles in reverent awe of his Lord-Not-Lord. The two readings aren’t necessarily exclusive.
The Not-God and its lesser fellows, all crowding at interdimensional rifts that will in time open, strongly resemble Lovecraft’s eternally lurking Outer Gods and Elder Ones. Also like Lovecraft’s Return-minded entities, Connolly’s rely on the effects of more-than-books to promote their cause on “our” side of the divide. Such books hold knowledge better not attained by fragile humanity, for once attained that knowledge must rewrite the world. Must rewrite it over and over again, palimpsests over palimpsests, worlds forever with ends and reboots, amen.
Or Not-Amen? And, conversely, does the existence of a Not-God require the existence of a God? Or deny it utterly?
My brain grows as fractured as the Atlas. Such fun!
First thing we do, we kill all the lawyers. Oh, wait, they’re immortal.
So our big reveal is that sure, the Atlas just overwrote reality with something worse, but that’s okay because the previous reality was already an Atlas creation more terrible than what came before, which was already… no, wait, that’s not okay at all. Was there ever an original universe, in this horrible cosmic nesting doll, or did everything from the dawn of things come out of the imagination of the Not-god? Or Not-gods, all crowding behind each other.
I am still not, after all is written, quite clear on what role Quayle plays in all this. Herald, finding new victims and opportunities for the Atlas’s denizen(s)? Symbiotic abomination, getting some necessary nutrient from the Not-god’s depredations? Lawyer? If the Not-god operates under certain rules and restrictions, and has to work around them in order to achieve it’s universe-stacking goals, a lawyer would certainly be useful. And Quayle, in turn, is in a slightly better position than everyone else in what we laughingly choose to call reality. Perhaps he’ll be eaten last?
This does, incidentally, mean that Couvret’s faith didn’t save him after all. He was just being… saved… for a different use, and a later grisly death. Quayle is hard on his associates. Is he the one who first turned bibliophile Maulding onto the occult in the first place, do you suppose? Or did he add him as a client only after he marked himself as a potential Atlas purchaser? Quayle’s satisfaction about Forbes also suggests that he anticipates the heir picking up some of the interests, and perhaps some of the debts, of Maulding’s estate.
It’s interesting (I guess that’s the word) that the hellish fate for each of the book’s victims is individualized to some extent. A lot of it appears to be less personal, and more the sort of experimentation and/or playing with one’s food that Kingfisher’s “they” enjoy. (Actually, “they” appear to be of a related species to the not-gods, with similar appearances when they press against the fragile surface of reality. Ergh, there’s a nervous-making connection.) But then Soter just gets locked in an eternal High Wood flashback. None of the possible implications here are good. Either the Not-god can read minds, and simply finds most people’s nightmares insufficiently interesting to use for customization purposes—or else Quayle was particularly aware of what flavor of suffering would most distress Soter, and provided lawyerly advice to his real client.
In the end, the Fractured Atlas is well-named. Even with all the threads tied together, there are gaps. We’re never getting a full picture or a complete explanation—just enough information to know that fully correlating even more content would be bad. If the universe is constantly being rewritten, the continuity of time itself too fractured to be wholly mapped, then nothing more complete is even possible. Perhaps the idea of continuity is something that exists only in the minds of us readers.
In which case, we should be very careful about what we read.
Next week, we celebrate Halloween with Ray Bradbury’s “The Man Upstairs,” from The October Country.
Ruthanna Emrys’ 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.