Reading the Weird

Lions Drinking With Jackals: Molly Tanzer’s “Grave-Worms”

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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 cover Molly Tanzer’s “Grave-Worms,” first published in the Joseph Pulver’s 2015 Cassilda’s Song anthology. Spoilers ahead!

“To desire is to live, and to live is to desire.”

Docia Calder—an ambitious mogul with a penchant for making suits look “wholly feminine”—meets Roy Irving at a mayoral fund-raiser where only they oppose a new courthouse statue. What do lions drinking with jackals have to do with Justice? They discuss joint business ventures over dinner at Delmonico’s while the pheromones fly. Yet the restaurant’s emptiness disturbs her. Lately she’s noticed a “strange lethargy” in New York, with few people braving the streets. The pall extends to her enjoyment of Delmonico’s normally excellent fare. Does Roy sense the change?

“Have you found the Yellow Sign?” Roy responds with a shrug. It’s a catchphrase on everyone’s lips. Nobody knows why people say it. To Docia, it feels like “shutting the curtains, locking the door…going to sleep.”

Outside, clouds obscure stars and moon. It strikes Docia that the city lights are stars, the skyscrapers galaxies. But human will made New York, and nothing can break the city’s spirit. A little tipsy, she stumbles. Roy offers to drive her home. “Whose home?” is her careless reply. He laughs like “a living god,” and Docia falls into his arms “without any fear at all.”

So their affair and business partnership begins. “Captains of industry,” they both want “more, always more.” But she’s not thrilled when he asks her to a cocktail party hosted by theater critic Fulvius Elbreth. Elbreth approved the justice statue, and has crazy ideas about how kings would be better for America than corporate-backed politicians. But Roy insists that the cost of doing business is association with disagreeable powerbrokers.

Party-bound, Docia feels the city’s darker than usual. Roy notices nothing amiss. Elbreth’s apartment’s full of “self-proclaimed intellectuals.” The critic is in on every conversation, doling out “pithy bons mots.” Docia overhears him crowning abstraction as the only acceptable form of modern artistic expression. Representational art is “pure arrogance,” Elbreth explains, because nothing is knowable enough to represent. Docia argues. Elbreth glibly twists her words, and she escapes to the balcony. Another woman’s there, smoking. Docia politely nods, then stares at the oddly dim city and cloud-masked sky. When was the last time she saw stars?

“Don’t let them bother you,” the woman says in a “clipped, aristocratic accent.” Her tailored suit and expression of intense determination impress Docia. Docia, the woman says, is a creator. Critics are destroyers—no, less, for they lack will. They’re grave-worms, feasting on what’s already dead.

Though unnerved by the woman’s familiarity, Docia accepts the most delicious cigarette she’s ever smoked. She asks the woman if she senses the gathering darkness. It is darker, the woman says, but as for why: “Have you found the Yellow Sign?”

The woman vanishes as Elbreth comes out to apologize. Though they differ, Docia’s opinions on art intrigue him, and he’d like to invite her to attend a play, one with a “blinkered history” that’s banned in Europe. Docia agrees to the not-date—Elbreth knows she’s seeing “that meathead Irving.”

Docia examines the perfect cigarette butt for a brandmark, and finds a strange golden insignia. She pockets the butt to show to a tobacconist. When Roy hears about Docia’s not-date, he angrily dumps her. She shrugs off the rejection, more interested in the insignia. Have you found the Yellow Sign?

The tobacconist can’t identify the stub mark. Moreover, he doesn’t want to find out what it means, and she should take it away! Docia’s not-date with Elbreth starts out pleasantly. The first act of the play isn’t the diatribe Docia expected, but poetry and action more confounding than alarming. Elbreth, however, emerges for intermission pale and sweaty. Something’s wrong, he says. He has to go; Docia’s willingness to stay makes him flee without hat or coat.

She sits through the remaining acts “riveted, entranced.” The play’s not one of Elbreth’s abstractions, but more real than anything she’s experienced before. She seems to exit the theater alone. The city is silent and dark, but the clouds have dispersed, and the night sky greets her with black stars “brighter than any artificial, earthly light” and uncounted moons. The constellations are foreign, but Docia laughs. She’s “lost her whole life, and… finally found her way.”

The balcony woman appears, leaning on a streetlight, her suit looking like priestly vestments. Did Docia like the play, she asks, the flash of her yellow eyes blinding. Docia thinks so.

“You’re not someone who appreciates uncertainties,” the woman says. Let’s have a cigarette and talk about it. Docia accepts. Content with silence, she exhales smoke through which she sees that the strange gold insignia is “even brighter than the ember.”

What’s Cyclopean: Docia’s fond of straightforward similes: invitations like poisonous snakes, robes crumpled like flowers after a rainstorm, witticisms “as light and frothy as egg white on a Ramos Gin Fizz.” Her first exposure to the sign moves her to less marked metaphors: eyes as “starless pools,” starless skies as “clotted.” The play itself brings her to direct, effusive description: “swirling constellations” and “radiance undreamed.” And then to silence.

The Degenerate Dutch: Roy plays at sexism with Docia, or maybe he’s not playing. “It’s all part of being businessmen—forgive me, business-people.”

Weirdbuilding: We all know the title on that theatrical handbill. And the sign on that cigarette.

Libronomicon: Critic Elbreth, despite his fondness for abstract art, also enjoys political and theatrical classics: he uses a review of Hamlet to advocate for American monarchy. There are probably easier contexts in which to do that, but you do you.

The King in Yellow, meanwhile, reminds Docia of Antigone.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Hearing about the yellow sign, at first, makes Docia feel like “lying down… shutting the curtains… going to sleep.” And it does, indeed, seem to spread a pall of apathy and depression over New York.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Have you seen the yellow sign? And if you’ve seen it, do you have any clue what it means?

In Chambers’s original, the play and the sign bring both madness and their own reality, the ambiguity never resolved. Laws comes down on the “own reality” side, with the play’s readers immanentizing the future of “Repairer of Reputation” into (and then out of) existence. Walters’s “Black Stars on Canvas” makes Carcosa a source of poetic madness and inspiration, while Geist does nothing so linear in translating it to gonzo rock opera. It’s a force of destruction and change, creativity and illusion—and where the emphasis falls among those four depends on the story.

My previous experience with Tanzer was the delightfully decadent Creatures of Will and Temper, so I went into this story expecting lush sensory detail and Walters-ish artistic sacrifices. I got the lush detail, for sure, as Docia appreciates both her appetites and the things that feed them. But she’s no artist: she sees desire as fuel for the ultimate appetite of capitalism. Ironically, given her artistic preferences, those appetites remain abstract. She and Roy are “captains of industry,” “better than kings,” and that’s all we learn of their business efforts. They share a love of good food and a preference for representational art. And at the story’s outset, neither of them has seen the yellow sign.

They’re growing unusual in that ignorance, though. Our first hint about the role of all things yellow is a disturbing change to the City That Never Sleeps. New York grown quieter, duller, starless even by comparison with its usual light pollution, is a worrisome image—the moreso now, having seen how much and how little a pandemic lockdown does to the city’s spirit.

Carcosa takes at least two forms here. First, there’s the gold-sigiled cigarette that leaves all other cigarettes tasting ashen. This seems fully in keeping with the effect on the city: a force for sapping vitality. But maybe it’s more complicated than that. Because the sign’s second form is the play itself. And at least for Docia, the play pulls her into another reality entirely, one with all the passion and pleasure that’s fading from her original world.

So is the sign replacing reality with delusion? Is it vampirizing our world’s energy and light to keep Carcosa alive, or to bring it into being? Is there only one world, experienced differently by those who have and haven’t encountered the transformative power of yellow?

Fulvius Elbreth recognizes the play as dangerous—enough to flee in the teeth of a review deadline. But we already know he’s dubious about realism, preferring abstraction to the lies of meaning. He speaks for the gospel of cosmic horror: that rationality is irrational and human-scale understanding an illusion. Maybe this inocculates him against the play’s parasitic certainty—or maybe it keeps him from appreciating truth when he encounters it.

What about the unnamed harbinger of Carcosa? (I’ll call her Cassilda.) Maybe she’s priming people for the play with her perfect cigarettes. Or maybe she’s spreading her world’s reality through a thousand different yellow-signed experiences, a thousand flavors of fairy food and drink and drug to leave users dissatisfied with everything but the flash of her yellow eyes.

And she’s the one who drops the story’s title. She accuses critics, Elbreth in particular, of being grave-worms who “feast on that which is already dead.” When you think about it, that’s an awfully judgmental way to describe someone who evaluates art. Elbreth is no Pierce, living only to describe fault in the most vicious way possible. Indeed, Docia’s original issue is with the art he likes.

It seems to me that Cassilda’s accusation carries a sinister implication: that the art of this world is “already dead.” That Elbreth is stuck with beautiful things that are only growing dimmer—things that Cassilda herself is working to destroy.

Which means that Carcosa, too, is feasting on the dead. And that for all their pleasure and intensity, the cigarettes and the infamous play are the real grave-worms.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Any worthwhile afterlife must host a coffeehouse frequented by artists of every era and ilk. When the place gets overcrowded, the oddest couples may share tables. There, way in the back, between the rack of coffee-stained newspapers and the shelf of donated books, I’m spotting Robert W. Chambers with –

Ayn Rand?

Yes, Ayn Rand. There’s no mistaking that “sensible, side-parted bob” and those eyes expressive of “intense determination, a single-mindedness of purpose.” The ashtray in front of her is full of stubs, the brandmark of which I can’t make out from the land of the living. And yes, the celestial coffeehouse allows smoking; all the patrons being dead, the management figures what harm can it do.

The ethereal vibrations of Chambers’ and Rand’s interaction must have reached Molly Tanzer, whose “Grave-Worms” resembles a collision between “The King in Yellow” and Atlas Shrugged. That is, what would have happened if Dagney Taggart found heart’s home not in Galt’s Gulch but in Lost Carcosa?

I picked up Randian vibes in Tanzer’s first paragraph, which in describing Docia Calder echoes Rand’s descriptions of both Dagney and The Fountainhead’s Dominique Francon. Roy Irving comes along to represent business tycoon Hank Reardon; later we get Fountainhead’s architectural critic Ellsworth Toohey in theater critic Fulvius Elbreth. Fulvous refers to a range of colors from yellow-brown to tawny to dull orange – a Fulvius cannot rival the real-gold yellow of Balcony-Woman’s cigarette insignia, any more than Ellsworth Toohey can rival Rand’s hypermasculine heroes.

Along with hints from fashion, hairstyles, and the pervasive cigarette puffing, Docia and Roy’s date at Delmonico’s sets the period of the story in the mid-twentieth century, paralleling the “felt” period of Atlas Shrugged; the midcentury incarnation of Delmonico’s was where the elite met to chow down on the signature steaks, Lobster Newberg and Baked Alaska. Thematically more important is the atmospheric similarity of Tanzer and Rand’s New Yorks, languishing in the grip of failing vitality and a general emotional/spiritual malaise. People express their foreboding with catchphrases of unknown origin, though their true meanings will be crucial to the story. Atlas opens with “Who is John Galt?” Roy carelessly throws out the question Docia detests: “Have you found the Yellow Sign?”

Maybe “the Yellow Sign” makes Docia think of “the yellow peril,” that Western fear that the “barbarian hordes” of Asia were poised to destroy the white man’s superior culture. Not that all whites are dependable. In Atlas and “Grave-Worms” a major threat to “our way of living” is the spread of Socialism even in Europe. Docia assumes that Elbreth’s play is banned there for anti-Socialist sentiments that “would offend the delicate sensibilities of those snooty soap-dodgers.”

At the heart of Dagny Taggart’s and Docia’s disgust with modern philosophy is its rejection of reason and its elevation of the subjective over the objective. To accept with Fulvius Elbreth that “only in abstraction can we truly show reality” is a moral as well as an intellectual sin. Maybe Elbreth can slither by (wormlike) by suggesting he applies his principles to Art, not reality. Balcony Woman doesn’t buy it. To her, Docia is Rand’s epitome of humankind, the Creator, the independent thinker and doer for whom justice is fair exchange for value, with money as the “most objective indicator of approval anyone can give another human.” Whereas Elbreth the critic is a lower-case destroyer, a grave-worm able to feast only on what’s dead.

Which implies that to feast on a living thing, Elbreth and kin must first kill it.

Tanzer’s most telling reference to Atlas Shrugged lies in how Docia receives the emblem of upper-case Reality in the form of a cigarette “brandmark.” Searching for John Galt, Dagny Taggart happens upon philosopher Hugh Akston, the last champion of Reason, who’s left academia to run an obscure mountain diner. He gives Dagny the best cigarette she’s ever tasted; later she’ll notice that the stub is branded with a golden dollar sign. Sadly, her tobacconist friend is unable to discover the cigarette’s origin; his sincere opinion is that it comes from nowhere on this Earth! The golden dollar sign turns out to be the emblem of Galt’s Gulch and its inhabitants, the stalwarts of objectivism.

Docia’s mark turns out to be the Yellow Sign, emblem of Carcosa and the King in Yellow. The “King” in “Grave-Worms” takes the curious form of Balcony Woman who, when revealed under black stars and radiant moons, may be Docia idealized, a woman who wears her suit so well it resembles “priest’s vestments or royal robes of state.”

What’s it all mean, this fusion of Chambers and Rand into Tanzer? Who’s John Galt, and how about that Yellow Sign—found it yet? I guess Galt represents the Real on Earth, whereas the Sign leads beyond Earth into an Ultimate Reality in which Docia can finally feel really right and really content and smoke only the really best without health repercussions, forever.

So one of Cassilda’s happier endings?

Is it?

[ETA: This is what I get for avoiding Atlas Shrugged! But put our analyses together, and I think you get a really interesting critique of Randian objectivism. Or just capitalism. –RE]

 

Next week, we continue N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became with the 2nd Interruption and Chapter 4. Maybe Aislyn will meet someone more trustworthy? But probably not trust them…

Ruthanna Emrys’s A Half-Built Garden comes out July 26th. She is also the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. 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, multi-species household 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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