Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…
I think it’s remiss to talk about H.P. Lovecraft without dealing with the incredibly racist elephant in the room right from the get-go. Howard Lovecraft was an incredibly racist elephant. And not in the “Oh, you’ve got to understand, it was a different time back then… ” sort of way: he was pretty damned racist even for a turn-of-the-century New England WASP, and he got only a very little bit less racist as the culture around him evolved. And this doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t enjoy his stories anyway, but you’ve really got to take into account, when you’re enjoying his depictions of the madness-inducing experience of the uncanny from encountering eldritch beings from beyond the stars whose nature is so utterly alien as to inflict permanent damage on the minds of men, that the reaction his characters have to squid-faced aliens is basically the same reaction that Howard himself had to the notion of interracial marriage. Or ladyparts. I’ve always kinda wanted to see a modern take on Cthulhu mythos where modern people encounter elder gods and are expecting to be driven mad by the revelation, but turn out to be totally fine, because they’re modern, progressive people, and it turns out that the eldritch horrors were only so scary to traditional Lovecraftian heroes because they were backward racists with body-anxiety issues.
Don Webb addresses the elephant right up front in To Mars and Providence. At least, I hope that’s what he’s doing. I live in 2017 so I’m not sure any more when I see someone present over-the-top racism in an asshole character whether the author is trying to mock their racist views or celebrate them. Also, speaking, as we recently were, of “The French Disease”, that first paragraph also dates these events to, “Exactly twenty-nine days after his father had died of general paresis—that is to say, syphilis.” If you’re keeping score, that sets the story in 1898, when The War of the Worlds was published, rather than the 1900 date most often used for the setting. The very first paragraph of this outing posits that young Howard was drawn to make a personal investigation of the Martian cylinder that lands on Federal Hill in Providence, Rhode Island because the eight-year-old was, “A gentleman of pure Yankee stock, and the true chalk-white Nordic type.” Webb’s young Lovecraft is kind of an asshole. You know who he reminds me of? Artemis Fowl, in the first book of the series. Only, a version of Artemis who isn’t really as intelligent and hypercompetent as he thinks he is.
Young Howard sneaks off on his bicycle to see the Martians in person, and witnesses the opening of their cylinder from the bell-tower of the adjacent church. He sees a Martian, “whose terrible three-lobed pupils spoke of the being’s nonTerran evolution,” and promptly faints when the Martian pulls out a “lightning” weapon to subdue the crowd.
He wakes up three days later in his own bed, tended to by his mother, who seems to have gone a bit peculiar in the face of the invasion. “There was something in his mother’s eyes that wasn’t right. Perhaps the ‘Martian’ invasion had unhinged her highly strung nervous system.” She explains that after killing the rest of the onlookers, the Martians had taken the unconscious Lovecraft into their ship, and then left him there when they set out to join up with the occupants of a second cylinder. “I suppose it thought you were one of their own,” his mother speculates, “You are a very ugly child, Howard, people cannot bear to look upon your awful face.” I feel like maybe if he hadn’t gone into writing, Howard would have ended up running the Bates Motel.
By the time Howard is awake, Providence is largely abandoned, with only himself and his mother remaining behind, “Until Grandfather Whipple comes for us.” Howard recognizes that his mother’s hopes are unjustified (and catches the implication that his aunts are dead), as the Martians would surely have destroyed rail, road and telecommunications infrastructure. Through his telescope, he sees a tripod (the only glimpse we get of them in this story) place a small golden box in the bell-tower, and feels himself drawn to return to the landing site.
So he drugs his mother, because he’s an asshole. Digs out grandpa’s sleeping pills and doses her malted milk at dinner. When he gets to the church, he finds that someone’s set up a table and chair, “That would exactly fit an eight-year-old boy.” There, he finds a crystal trapezohedron, which means that the Martians are clearly an expansion pack for The Sims. He intuits the crystal to be a communication device of some sort and picks it up.
Howard is visited by a “colour out of space”, which suggests that he might be a Martian himself: Martians skilled at telepathy had astrally projected themselves to Earth heard of the invasion as spies in human form. Some of those spies had been, “Enchanted by the revelations received in human flesh,” and forgotten their true nature. His consciousness was to be transported to Mars, where his “true mental form” would be given a physical manifestation.
Lovecraft concludes that he must, obviously, indeed be Martian, since that would justify his sense of smug superiority over the rest of mankind and how gross he thinks us meatsacks are. Besides, a human mind probably couldn’t activate the trapezohedron. On the way to Mars, the color shows him a highlight reel of Martian history: originally from another star system, the “Martians” had come to the solar system eons earlier and colonized both Mars and Earth. The Earth colony, in Antarctica, had failed and been lost as the climate had changed, but on Mars, they’d built up a major civilization. They’d cured aging, engineered their brains to remove all emotions except fear (Which they considered necessary for survival), eliminated all disease, and cultivated, “Those intellectual and aesthetic pursuits which could sustain an interest that would span the strange eons through which they would live.” They met and established trade with a fungoid race that lived on an unnamed planet at the edge of the solar system, became tremendously wealthy, gave up sex, and eventually settled in for a long, steady decline as their civilization became complacent and decadent.
And that would have been that for the Martians, except that they had been doing some excavation under Syrtis Major, and happened to discover the remains of an even more ancient and more powerful civilization, who, their friends the fungi eventually told them, but maybe should have mentioned earlier, had sealed themselves away in a death-like sleep until the proper conjunction of planets caused them to awaken and reclaim their ancient home.
The basic facts here are all pretty solid Cthulhu Mythos sort of stuff and very Lovecraft, but the actual delivery seems, I don’t know, a little bit on the Doctor Who side, you know? It’s certainly Lovecraft-Weird, but the horror is a little more “teatime”. And the whole bit about the Martians re-engineering themselves as sexless, emotionless immortals is basically the backstory of the Cybermen. Hm, I wonder what a Doctor Who mashup with War of the Worlds would be like, he said as though he did not already know the answer.
The Martians spend a while going mad from the revelation, blowing shit up and generally trying to destroy anything that reminded them of the sleeping elder gods. But eventually, they get their act together and decide that the best course of action is to just book it to Earth before the cosmic horrors wake up.
Howard eventually materializes in his semi-material mental body on the red planet, and gets to take in the epic scale of Martian architecture, the mathematical precision of Martian music, and the rooms full of tentacled brains working advanced machinery, but just as he approaches his presumed bretheren, all the Martians flee in panic. Across the hall, he sees why: one of those elder gods, a being with a “ghoullike face and star-destroying eyes”, is approaching from the opposite direction. Determined to buy time for his fellow Martians to escape, Howard charges at it, meaning to at least slow it down, and I hope you’ve guessed what happens next:
But soon came the shock that sent his mind hurtling back to Earth, a revelation about the nature of the elder gods and the time and form of their return. This shock deprived Howard of all clear memories of this adventure; indeed years later he was one of the skeptics who maintained that the Earth had not been invaded at all—for when he reached out toward the eldritch figure of the elder god, his hand had encountered a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.
Boo-yeah. Very Twilight Zone. And yet, of course, it’s also very Lovecraft. It is, in fact, the exact same twist as the Lovecraft story The Outsider. This is another story, like Paris Conquers All that’s building up to a punchline. It’s a more traditional punchline, maybe not so clever, but with a pleasing familiarity to it.
“Pleasing familiarity” is the best phrase I can think of to describe this story overall, really. The twist is obvious enough that it doesn’t feel at all like a cheat, but the path it takes in getting you there keeps it from being too obvious. I know I said that Blue Period would have worked better as an episode of Night Gallery, but this one is the one story that really cries out to be introduced by Rod Serling.
This is a fairly short story, clocking in at about nine pages. With only half the page count of the preceding story, it moves along at a brisk clip, replacing padding and name-dropping with just enough setup and exposition to establish Young Howard as the sort of child we’d like to see an unpleasant ironic twist ending to happen to.
Which is not to say that it isn’t chock full of Lovecraft references for the savvy fan. The ending twist, we’ve already mentioned, is a direct lift from The Outsider. The story’s name is structured similarly to To Arkham and the Stars. Armitage, the man who retrieves Howard from the Martian cylinder after he faints is named for a character in The Dunwich Horror. A trapezohedron appears in The Haunter of the Dark. The Colour Out Of Space is the title of another Lovecraft story. The “fungoid race” is meant to evoke the Mi-Go, while the Martians themselves are clearly supposed to be Elder Things, with the older race as the Great Old Ones. And that’s just what I picked up on from reading one paperback of Lovecraft stories I found in my parents’ attic while looking for dad’s old Playboys.
We’re clearly into the territory of secret histories again, imagining that a real encounter with aliens was the inspiration for the Cthulhu Mythos. Tossing in the notion at the end that some people, Howard among them, would later deny the invasion had ever happened reads as an attempt to bring history back onto the rails, justifying the idea that this could be a secret history in the real world. It’s another point on which the story has a bit of a Doctor Who feel, particularly Philip Hinchcliffe era Doctor Who (Even if the time Who came closest to Cthulhu mythos was technically under his successor, Grahame Williams), and that might be why I like this story so much. It’s about Lovecraft, and it’s a Mythos story, but it’s not really trying to be a story by Lovecraft. Lovecraft-inspired, but not Lovecraft-imitating. That’s good, at least to me, since, as you can probably guess from me saying this about most of the writers so far, I like Lovecraft’s ideas way better than I like his prose. I won’t say he’s my least favorite Mythos author, just because hopping on some other writer’s mythos is a popular idea for cheap hacks, in addition to all the genuinely good writers who’ve done it. I mean, also Lovecraft was a giant sexist, racist asshole, so if this were aping his style, it wouldn’t have depicted young Howard, age 8, as an insufferable douche. I enjoy the irony of having H.P. Lovecraft secretly be a vagina-faced monstrosity from beyond space and time of the sort that would have terrified him nearly as much as an adorable mixed-race Disney Starlet, instead of the “true chalk-white Nordic” he holds as ideal.
This story is also rare in that it’s more aware of its placement an anthology. Lovecraft reads the newspaper and finds references to Martian action not just in London, but also Paris, St. Louis and Texas. And the back-cover of the hardback edition is depicting a reference to the story, showing Martian tripods excavating the lost colony in Antarctica.
Also, the more I say “Lovecraft”, the more it feels like I ought to be writing about a couples-oriented sex shop.
- War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is available from amazon.