Cuckoo's Egg's best known cover, by Michael Whelan
Cuckoo’s Egg

The cuckoo is a bird best known for laying a single egg among the clutch of another species, in order that its chick be raised by the other parents. Cuckoo’s Egg, C.J. Cherryh’s short stand-alone 1985 novel, is about a very similar occurrence. It is a closely-told tale of human and alien interaction set in a vividly imagined—if thinly described–world that is revealed mainly through suggestion and reference instead of direct depiction.

The prolific author of a number of sweeping science fiction series, C.J. Cherryh’s storytelling technique is distinctive. She is known for using a third person subjective point of view so limited it is essentially internal. Cuckoo’s Egg is a striking example of the technique. The text is loaded with parentheticals that transcribe the main characters’ in-the-moment thoughts and reactions as they occur inside the third person POV. Consequently, we experience the narrative not just through their perspectives, but as their private understandings of their world and circumstances.

It’s easy to forget just how much of our own everyday environment we ignore, taking its familiarity for granted. We know what everything is and do not pause to think why it is, or what it looks like. We do not describe to ourselves the chairs we sit in every day. We just sit in them. We do not explain to ourselves the different forms of formal and informal address we use socially. We just use the right one for the situation. We learned all the rules and no longer dwell on them. Cherryh’s writing is like that. Her characters inhabit a familiar world. They are not going to mull over the layout of their own bedrooms for our benefit.

And ultimately, that stripping away of extraneous detail allows us to be fully inside the characters’ minds.

Cuckoo’s Egg is told almost entirely through the two primary characters of Duun and Thorn, alternating only as the explicit needs of the narrative demand. Cherryh does not waste words with lengthy exposition for the audience. She opts for immersion.

The set-up is straightforward, and the story begins without preamble. Duun, by description an alien adult, has just become the caretaker of Thorn, by description a human infant. Except that in Cuckoo’s Egg, it is Thorn who is the alien being. “Shonunin were naked when they were born, but downed in silver that quickly went to dapples and last of all to gray body coat and black on limbs and ears and crest. Duun held the creature on its discarded wrappings, on his knees, and its downless skin was naked and pink as something lately skinned, except for a thatch of nondescript hair atop its skull” (1-2).

The details are fine and intimate, and in their intimacy give an intuitively coherent picture of the race and culture involved: “He held it as if it were a shonun child and washed its eyes with his tongue (they tasted salt and musty). There was nothing he spared himself, no last repugnance he did not overcome. Such was his patience” (9).

Cuckoo's Egg limited edition from Phantasia Press
Cuckoo’s Egg limited edition from Phantasia Press

The Shonunin are a neatly-imagined alien race, although I hesitate to use the word ‘alien’ to describe them. The story told is ultimately theirs, the world it happens on is theirs, and as the sole human character, Thorn is theirs as well, having never known another world or another people. Physiologically and psychologically, the Shonunin are reasonably compatible with humans. They are distinctly humanoid. The environment of their planet is comfortable for human life. Their family structures are not dramatically different. They are a technologically advanced species who have not yet conquered space. While the familiar details of the Shonunin form and culture are the plot device that makes the whole story possible, they also serve to blur the line between human and alien from a reader’s perspective.

Duun raises Thorn in isolation as closely as possible to how he would raise a Shonun child, training him as a hatani (perhaps best explained as a warrior-judge) and protecting him. Although Thorn is aware that he is different from Duun, he is not entirely aware he is another species. That is forced upon him when he accidently bursts into a Shonun settlement: “He spun on his heel and ran. He heard doors slam, more than once. Heard running come towards the fence, heard voices at his back. ‘Gods, it’s him!’ one yelled, and others took it up. ‘It’s that thing—that thing!’” (41).

At times the effect is a little disorienting, to see a member of our own species described by another species in the terms we would use for some strange, half-legendary creature: “(“When you get used to him he’s beautiful,” Sagot said. “Frightening, like some big animal you’ve gotten closer to than you wanted. But you want to watch him move. There’s a fascination to such things, isn’t there?”)” (107). Viewed both as monster and as beast by most of the Shonunin, and a threat to their way of life, Thorn is dehumanized and depersonalized in ways those words don’t quite adequately encompass. It is a slightly unnerving position from which to experience the story, and a slightly uncomfortable way of looking at what we take for granted as humanity and personhood. It is like reading history from another nation’s point of view.

The Grand Master herself, C.J. Cherryh
The Grand Master herself, C.J. Cherryh

The political, scientific, and cultural landscape in which Thorn is raised is complicated and for the vast bulk of the novel only obliquely explained. The backstory and its influence on Shonun civilization is not revealed until the last twenty-odd pages, when Cherryh at last foregoes her usual reserve in an enormous, finally detailed explanation that allows the novel’s conclusion to be both satisfying and loaded with a heady ‘What if?’.

So my conclusion is this: Densely detailed, occasionally inscrutable, emotionally sensitive yet action-packed, Cuckoo’s Egg is, I think, a solid starting point for anyone wishing to sample C.J. Cherryh’s work, and an excellent point to revisit if you already know how good an author she is.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

The charming crew of Red Dwarf
The charming young crew of Red Dwarf

Before the wonder of the interwebs, there was the wonder of public broadcasting—and its heavy reliance on British television series for content. PBS introduced me to the surreal world of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the sarcastic one of Black Adder, and the utterly silly one of the plucky, persistent Red Dwarf.

While less pop-culturally ubiquitous than some other shows I could name (cough*Star Trek*cough), the BBC science fiction series Red Dwarf is a lovably dopey, deep-space, time warping  adventure that originally aired in 1988 and has chugged along (with some intermittent down time) ever since. Fueled by ideas from their 1984 radio sketch series Dave Hollins: Space Cadet, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor created Red Dwarf as a half-hour situation comedy. It is something of an acquired taste, being goofy and jokey rather than going for a cutting wit, but I found it hard not to fall in with the simple fun of it.

The Red Dwarf of the title actually refers not to the star type, but to an enormous mining ship where the show’s action happens. Our story begins some three million years in the future with the awakening from stasis of one Dave Lister (played by Craig Charles), the Red Dwarf’s lowest ranking crewman and possibly the last surviving human. Because of a malfunction in the stasis equipment, Lister managed to ride out a radiation leak that killed (almost) everyone else aboard ship. Chris Barrie plays the aptly named and insufferable hologram Arnold Rimmer (Lister’s former supervisor), who, when alive three million years ago, caused the radioactive disaster that killed the entire crew.

To add to the social mix, Lister’s pregnant cat also managed to escape the disaster, and now her mutated descendant, Cat (Danny John-Jules), is a suave humanoid with excellent taste in clothing and generally feline habits. There is also Kryten (played for the bulk of the series by Robert Llewellyn), a rather neurotic service mechanoid salvaged from another wrecked ship, as well as the Red Dwarf’s senile computer, Holly (played alternately by Norman Lovett and Hattie Hayridge). Lister even gets a love interest, the intermittently dead Kristine Kochanski (played by Clare Grogan and then Chloe Annett), who joins the main Red Dwarf crew from another dimension.

Hard at work
Hard at work

With a set-up like this, it’s no surprise that over the course of the ten aired seasons there were several wacky evolutionary outcomes, a few parallel universes, random visitors, distorted time, assorted slobbishness and priggery, and a great deal of pining for Fiji and Indian food. (Truly, the last episode I recall in any detail involved–surprise!–time travel and leftover chicken vindaloo evolving into a monster.) Fertile comedic ground, that. In addition to its own signature bits, the show referenced and parodied a wide variety of movies, only some of them science fiction. Star Wars, The Terminator, and Blade Runner were all fair game, but so were High Noon, Pride and Prejudice, and Casablanca. With all of humanity dead, someone had to keep the culture alive.

At the height of the show’s popularity in 1992 there was, of course, an attempted American version that tried to copy too much from the original and quickly lost its way (John Laroquette in Fawlty Towers, anyone?). Called Red Dwarf USA (how original), this version never made it beyond two different takes on a pilot episode. Cast and then recast with mainly American actors and retelling the first episode of the original series, the script underwent what became a largely-unused rewrite by Grant and Naylor in an effort to make it, well, funny. Ultimately neither pilot was ever broadcast, and the plan to Americanize Red Dwarf was abandoned.

The show originally ran from 1988 through 1993 then from 1997 through 1999, returned as a miniseries in 2009, and began a new series run in 2012. The first six series were written by the original team of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. Then, in 1995 Grant left the show. While Naylor continued producing the scripts with the contributions of various other writers, Grant’s leaving had a serious impact on the show’s long-term survival. There was a three year gap between series VI and VII, and the BBC declined to continue with a series IX. An animated Christmas special made in 1999, but the series itself did not return until a rather meta, three episode miniseries (IX) was broadcast in 2009. This continued the tradition of convoluted timelines by having the Red Dwarf characters travel backwards to return as characters in a Red Dwarf TV show airing in 2009. Series X aired late in 2012, and series XI expected to air sometime in 2016 and XII in 2017.

The crew of Red Dwarf, still lost in spacetime
The crew of Red Dwarf, still lost in spacetime

Doug Naylor has been working on a film version since 1999, but funding and script issues have prevented it (so far) from happening. However, his creation has still made it past the small screen. Red Dwarf has inspired its share of novels, with two written by the collaborative persona of “Grant Naylor” and another two written individually by Doug Naylor and Rob Grant. It also spawned a magazine called Red Dwarf Smegazine which had its run from 1992 to 1994. Red Dwarf: The Roleplaying Game was released in 2003 to positive reviews. And more recently, an Australian theater group has staged their own versions of selected episodes.

But these are the expected ups and downs of a long-running franchise. So even though the heyday of Red Dwarf  has passed, love for the show goes merrily on. The first ten seasons’ episodes are widely available for sampling, and the interactive official Red Dwarf website is an excellent source for updates, merchandise, convention information, and fan-club links if you chose to dive all the way in. I advise it. They are quite an active community. And they probably have vindaloo.

 

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Spoiler alert.

I hadn’t planned on writing about 10 Cloverfield Lane this week. And even though it looked like it would be good, I hadn’t planned on even seeing it before it made it to cable, content to let it get lost in the lead-up to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and dismiss it as just a sequel to a movie I hadn’t seen.

Boy, am I’m glad I didn’t wait.

Spoilers coming. Big ones.

Only loosely connected to the original Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane was kept very effectively under wraps until its release. The previews strongly suggested a siege-mentality monster movie. But the previews lied. 10 Cloverfield Lane is actually a frightening and finely constructed character study disguised as an alien invasion movie. By the time the explosions and the CGI monsters show up, the best, most fascinating, and most terrifying part of the film is behind us.

An uncomfortable moment at 10 Cloverfield Lane
An uncomfortable moment at 10 Cloverfield Lane

Many well-made action and horror movies rely on strategic overacting from their leads, to allow the human characters to keep up with the loud and boisterous CGI going on all around them. 10 Cloverfield Lane goes the other way—its leads have to underplay their characters. The setting is so narrowly focused and so intimate that emoting would have ruined the admirable amount of tension built into the story.

All the actors were excellent—with a cast of only three, they had to be. They each brought a depth and completeness to their characters that is often given short shrift in favor of moving a plot along. Here, character and plot development moved together.

Mary-Elizabeth Winstead as the POV character, Michelle, does a convincing job of creating a genuinely competent character—there is none of the too often used heroism-from-nowhere showboating, here. Michelle is always shown to be a smart, creative, and capable person (with a single, bluntly explained character flaw), and her attempts to save herself grow directly and believably from there.

As the third-wheel character, Emmet, John Gallagher, Jr. demonstrates an intelligence and sympathy in the role that makes Emmet’s sacrifice more than just a dramatic shock. Emmet may not be as clever as Michelle, but he trusts the case she builds against John Goodman’s prepper, Howard, and is fully committed to their escape.  Emmet is portrayed as a fundamentally decent fellow, long familiar with Howard and so unable to clearly gauge the threat—in Emmet’s experience Howard has always been a little weird, but not really dangerous.

A musical interlude
A musical interlude

And for most of the movie, that seems like it could be true. Or not. The signs point both ways, and interpretation depends greatly on the angle you read them from.

And because of that incredibly nuanced uncertainty, John Goodman owns this movie. Goodman underplays his Howard to devastating effect as a man who has had the opportunity to stew in his own juices too long to recover from the experience. I believed him completely as Howard struggled with his temper and paranoia, his lies and his desire to be loved, his uncomfortable attempts to be polite and proper.  Howard is so frightening because we all know someone kind of like him, a little uneven, a little paranoid, a little absolutist in their thinking, a self-described nice guy who has been screwed over by someone and who still gets mad about it long after anyone else would have let it go.

Puzzles within puzzles at 10 Cloverfield Lane
Puzzles within puzzles at 10 Cloverfield Lane

Goodman’s compelling portrayal of Howard Stambler reminded me in some ways of Heath Ledger’s Joker. There is artistry in it. You know something’s off, but the true scope of the menace, of the madness, is so subtly played that when it is finally laid bare it stings like a slap in the face. There are so many hints to the true danger that could be easily read as mere quirks, but they build inexorably into a shocking scene that, while it is a truly unexpected jump-scare, is not for me the genuine terror. That comes after, when Howard appears at Michelle’s door, shaven, neatly dressed, and ready to be a family. That’s when we get to see how dire the situation is, when Michelle’s fate is laid out clearly before her and the mercy of a straightforward bullet to the head isn’t in it.

10 Cloverfield Lane does stumble at a couple of points, and especially in its conclusion. There are times when the mechanics of the plot are too close to the surface. There is the wrenching acid barrel scene, where Michelle’s inability to act to save Emmet—her declared character flaw–is held up for the audience in case they forgot about it. And having Howard morph into a typical maniac to make Michelle’s final escape attempt more exciting comes across as lazy writing. It is exciting, in a cheap way, but does nothing to add real tension to the danger Michelle faces and quite a bit to take away from the credibility Goodman has established for Howard.

The end is actually a disappointment to me. Having escaped—no, having conquered—Howard’s bunker, Michelle’s impromptu battle with the aliens feels hammered-on to link this movie to the first Cloverfield (as, indeed, it was—the original script was titled The Cellar). By the time we get to the aliens enough has happened already, the audience’s emotions have been thoroughly wrung out, and additional action sequences seem gratuitous.

So in short, I think 10 Cloverfield Lane is a must-see for the superb acting (I’m going to say it now: give John Goodman the Oscar. He’s earned it.), and take or leave the last fifteen minutes as you will. It’s intense and frightening and convoluted enough without them–because an alien invasion has nothing on John Goodman.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Man of Steel, indeed.
Man of Steel, indeed.

Superman may be the Man of Steel, but a Man of Steel does not live by heroism alone. In 1971, before the famous Christopher Reeve movies and the romantic getaway at his Fortress of Solitude, the inimitable Larry Niven (Ringworld, The Man-Kzin Wars, and many productive collaborations) decided to address that crucial facet of Superman’s existence—his sex life, the possible lack thereof, and the implications for his species and for humanity of him having one. The result is the short story “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex”, a snidely hilarious pseudo-clinical discussion of the carnal possibilities that is part speculative lab report, part contemplative essay, and wholly TMI.

Now, I’m not terribly familiar with the minutia of Superman’s legend, but I know that with his current grittier reimagining this might become more relevant than when he was the idealized all-American alien boy. Still. There’s a lot of skin peeled back here. Niven takes the question of interspecies humanoid sex to its neatly argued, logical conclusion in a charming display of reducto ad absurdum. It’s clear he’s having fun playing the little game he’s come up with. And it’s a good game. Let’s start with some of Niven’s ground rules:

Superman, the Man of Steel, showing off
Superman, the Man of Steel, showing off.

“Superman’s sex problems are strictly physiological, and quite real. The purpose of this article is to point out some medical drawbacks to being a kryptonian among human beings, and to suggest possible solutions. The kryptonian humanoid must not be allowed to go the way of the pterodactyl and the passenger pigeon.”

Niven begins with the simple premise that Superman, at the time of his writing thirty-one years old and strappingly healthy, must be lonely for Kryptonian female companionship and a family of his own. His only option is terrestrial. He’s going to go for it. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, on a basic sociological level, there’s this: “A mating between Superman and Lois Lane would feel like sodomy-and would be, of course, by church and common law.”

From there the speculations become a bit more…graphic, as Niven theorizes on the actual physical effects of Kryptonian/Earthling love. The descriptive title Man of Steel takes on some interesting nuances within that context, and Niven deftly illustrates and then rules out the possibility of successful interspecies in-the-flesh romance.

But what of Kal El’s responsibility for carrying on his species? Why not assisted reproduction? That should work!

“All known forms of kryptonian life have superpowers. The same must hold true of living kryptonian sperm…They scatter without regard to what is in their path. They leave curved channels, microscopically small. Presently all will have found their way to the open air.That leaves LL with several million microscopic perforations all leading deep into her abdomen. Most of the channels will intersect one or more loops of intestine.”

Or not.

These superpowers.
A frustrated Man of Steel

The potential damage such potent cells could do is expounded on at some length. And the damage would not be limited to the innards of a human female. These little suckers would shoot through Metropolis like rockets, destabilizing infrastructure and causing war-like devastation as they escape, looking for love: “Metropolis is shaken by tiny sonic booms. Wormholes, charred by meteoric heat, sprout magically in all kinds of things: plate glass, masonry, antique ceramics, electric mixers, wood, household pets, and citizens. Some of the sperm will crack lightspeed. The Metropolis night comes alive with a network of narrow, eerie blue lines of Cherenkov radiation.”

With those difficulties in mind, Niven asks another pertinent question: “Can human breed with kryptonian? Do we even use the same genetic code? On the face of it, LL could more easily breed with an ear of corn than with Kal-El.” Let’s face it, if it is biologically (not just physically) impossible, why go through all the trouble in the first place? But Niven allows the random workings of chance to come into play, here, because after all, life will out. What impediment could utterly separate evolutions pose in the face of that?

Larry Niven
Larry Niven, speculator

So, after a number of broad leaps of logic, and going through a laundry list of bad outcomes and the extreme measures that would be needed to prevent them, Niven finally finds a way for a bouncing baby Kryptonian/human-hybrid to gestate and enter the world. A happy ending, as it were, to a very difficult problem.

“Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” may be best described as an exercise in over-thinking a purely speculative line of reasoning, a letter to Penthouse gone horribly wrong, or an extraordinarily maladapted love story to a comic-book legend. Heck, it could even be described as “Larry Niven vs. Superman”. Whatever you wish to call it, it is laugh-out-loud funny. By all means, read it. But maybe not as a way to get in the mood.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

The Art of Language Invention
The Art of Language Invention

The Art of Language Invention by David J. Peterson is a short, information-packed guide to creating imaginary languages for fun and profit. Peterson is the linguist responsible for multiple alien languages for various television shows, not the least of which is Game of Thrones, with its Dothraki, High Valyrian and other derived languages. Peterson loves what he does, and has a fantastic time in breaking language down into its component parts. Unlike the little-too-cutsey humor of the neuroscientists we encountered in Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep, Peterson leaves any affectations at the door. But that does not prevent him from being very, very funny while trying to explain precise terminology to interested laymen: “Discussing allophony is really the first step toward understanding the systematicity of language. To explain it, let me take a fun topic like werewolves and ruin it by turning it into math” (58). And, as any reader will learn, he really dislikes onions.

Language invention, or conlanging as it is known among its practitioners, requires more than simply making up new words for common ones. That way lies Star Wars. And by that I mean Peterson almost immediately identifies something about Star Wars that has irked me for years: the examples of language there are complete gibberish, a random assortment of sounds with no meaningful relation to each other or to the subtitles. I was inordinately happy, nay, validated, to see Peterson’s criticism of the awkward alien dialogue bits in Return of the Jedi: “How on earth does Leia say the same thing twice and have it mean something different the second time?” (4). Lucas had a number of flaws, and lack of attention to linguistic details was a large one. As Peterson points out, there is always a certain percentage of fans who want to learn the language you have invented, and who will notice sloppy linguistics and let you know, loudly, that they know.

Tolkien's Sindarin language
Tolkien’s Sindarin language

Now, I have also tried my hand at creating languages for my own unrealized epics. Has anyone who has read Tolkien not? There’s something very satisfying about his languages and alphabets that encourages imitation. I had taken it for granted that because Tolkien was a professor of languages, his languages would be good. But I had given no thought to how much work goes into making a language with any depth when it is not something that has evolved organically over thousands of years of interaction. So when Peterson brought up the minor detail that “Tolkien was a language creator before he penned his major works…He understood that language itself is inseparable from the culture that produces it” (10), I knew that this would be more than a simplified approach to conlanging—it would truly be about the art. I was not disappointed.

The Art of Language Invention uses an assortment of both actual and invented languages to demonstrate how that intersection of language and culture actually works. Peterson introduces the idea of language invention with real-world constructed languages—the historical Lingua Ignota and the more recent Esperanto and Volapük—and evaluates the reasons for their success or failure. He provides examples of how he developed certain invented languages—High Valyrian and Dothraki, in particular—based on a few words in the original text and influenced by existing natural languages. He discusses the difficulties in translating from the English-language scripts because of the different linguistic rules that had evolved in the conlangs. He diagrams a few sentences, conjugates a bunch of verbs, shows how parts of speech develop as the need to express certain concepts arises, and how pronunciations change. “English speakers have an unfair advantage when it comes to explaining sound changes since our gloriously appalling spelling system preserves, in many cases, an older state of the language” (163).

Through his lessons Peterson points out a surprising number of nuances and variations in natural language that we take for granted. And it’s not just the grammar and vocabulary—it’s the grammarization and cases, the affixes and inflections. If we stop to think about the elaborate construct that is a natural language, we would go down a deep and wonderful rabbit hole that would let us fall thousands of years into the past.

“Creating a language at any point is an attempt to take a slice out of an eras-long progression” (151). Linguistics and evolutionary biology often use similar terminology, because the mechanisms for both are comparable. New words are normally variations or adaptations of existing words and forms, not inventions from whole cloth. “Grammatical evolution is the most difficult, least described, and most exciting aspect of linguistic evolution…When it comes to historical linguistics and language modeling, this is the final frontier” (184).

David J. Peterson
David J. Peterson, conlanger

The Art of Language Invention is a dense and passionate introduction to the architecture and mechanics of language. The book contains only four chapters: Sounds, Words, Evolution, and The Written Word. Each chapter is a distilled lesson in the basics of linguistics, with heady terminology and a case study to demonstrate. A collection of phrase books at the end feature common pleasantries (from ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to ‘will you marry me?’) in Dothraki, High Valyrian, Shiväisith, and four other languages Peterson created. There is also a brief glossary of the linguistic terms used in the book.

Alas, The Art of Language Invention is too short to do more than whet the appetite of anyone who loves language in all its complicated and mysterious versions. It provides enough technical detail to give a rough familiarity with the subject, and offers extremely stripped-down examples of how the concepts work together to produce specific and nuanced meaning. As David Peterson makes clear, even invented languages are not just a bunch of words: “There are processes we have evidence of, and then there are processes that seem plausible, but for which we have no direct evidence. A conlang itself is an argument for its own plausibility” (197). They are living things that are at their best and most convincing when allowed to develop according to their own strengths and quirks. Kind of like their creators.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

‘The Rats in the Walls”, published in Weird Tales in March, 1924, is one of H.P. Lovecraft’s essentially non-mythos tales (he injects a deity into the proceedings at nearly the last minute), a bit of grim narrative that manages its cosmic horrors without relying on the normal godly oppression. It is short and tightly written, yet still manages to appear deeper and more convoluted than it is due to some very well-placed classical name-dropping. Lovecraft’s racism is in full bloom, here, with frequent references to degenerate early races and an unfortunately named black cat who had to be renamed in subsequent reprints. But Lovecraft, for all his sins, is an inspiration to other artists. One of those is the legendary illustrator Richard Corben (Neverwhere), who was stirred to retell the story as Rat God, a five-issue series from Dark Horse Comics released in 2015 as a single volume.

Let’s compare.

***

Rats in the Walls
Rats in the Walls

Staid and traditional, “The Rats in the Walls” is a fine example of Lovecraft’s style. Lovecraft makes frequent mention of a different set of old gods than he is usually known for, referring to degenerate Roman cults devoted to Cybele, the mother goddess Magna Mater, and to her consort Atys (otherwise known as Attis), an ancient diety of resurrection and rebirth. Their combined worship entailed sacred castration and a priesthood of eunuchs. He attributes the cults to the Romanization of much older worship: “I deduced that Exham Priory stood on the site of a prehistoric temple; a Druidical or ante-Druidical thing which must have been contemporary with Stonehenge. That indescribable rites had been celebrated there, few doubted… there were unpleasant tales of the transference of these rites into the Cybele-worship which the Romans had introduced.” There is only a single late mention of Nylarthotep, but the spell of cosmic dread has been cast.

The description of the above-mentioned Exham Priory, the setting for “The Rats in the Walls”, reads like an inspiration for From Dusk ‘til Dawn’s evil brothel. It had “Gothic towers resting on a Saxon or Romanesque substructure, whose foundation in turn was of a still earlier order or blend of orders—Roman, and even Druidic or native Cymric, if legends speak truly. This foundation was a very singular thing, being merged on one side with the solid limestone of the precipice from whose brink the priory overlooked a desolate valley”. The architecture is fantastic, and physically allows the plunging descent into madness that will come.

Lovecraft’s fondness for cats is on full display here, with Mr. de la Poer bringing nine of them with him to the accursed priory. The cats are the only other creatures besides his tragic hero who can detect the phantom rats, “those fiend-born rats, always questing for new horrors”, that haunt the priory, and also the only creatures instinctively equipped to fight them, phantom or not.

“The Rats in the Walls” is also full of hints, none too subtle, of cannibalism. As he descends into the unknown, Mr. de la Poer finds carvings that describe “the most shocking ritual I have ever known; and told of the diet of the antediluvian cult which the priests of Cybele found and mingled with their own… but it was too much to see familiar English implements in such a place, and to read familiar English graffiti there, some as recent as 1610”. Eventually it becomes blatant (and the renamed cat becomes elevated to hero status) as de la Poer is repossessed by the ancestral madness: “they… found me crouching in the blackness over the plump, half-eaten body of Capt. Norrys, with my own cat leaping and tearing at my throat”. From the first hint of horror to the final grip of madness is a brief, unimpeded drop, simple and deeply effective.

***

Rat God--a little different then Rats in the Walls
Rat God–a little different then Rats in the Walls

Rat God is a different creation. Where H.P. Lovecraft created a short, pointed, and frightening tale in “The Rats in the Walls”, the Richard Corben used the bones of it to construct his own fast-paced, inspired graphic version.

Both written and drawn by Corben, Rat God is a twisted and at times playful reimagining of Lovecraft’s original, streamlined tale. Corben uses some of the original iconography of the story while adding more overt and traditional Lovecraftian references as well as an overlay of Native American folklore. The heroic black cat of “Rats in the Walls” appears as a fortuitous black panther in Rat God.  The main character, one Clark Elwood, swears to Cthulhu and the Old Ones at frequent intervals. Corben models his protagonist after Lovecraft himself, making the young man a tall, gaunt, prissy academic, deeply bigoted and holding himself up as New England aristocracy. But he is still quick to start (and end) a fistfight with the local riff-raff.

In contrast to the haunted pile of the original, Corben sets his version in Lovecraft’s familiar Arkham and its Miskatonic University, and in a town of his own invention, Lame Dog. In typical horror-movie fashion, the town has cut itself off from outsiders, is ruled by an inbred family, harbors a weird, dangerous cult, and is full of warnings about not going into the cemetery. There is a pervasive mood of good-natured teasing  as the reconfigured plot winds its way through and around its source material.

Rat God--horror with humour
Rat God–horror with humour

Corben sprinkles in his usual flashes of jokey humor, some of it verging on slapstick. While hardly the norm for a Lovecraftian tale, it is natural to something from Corben. He infuses sex, miscegenation, mutant rats, and deus ex machina walking corpses into Lovecraft’s classic mix of persistent ancient religion, human sacrifice, and decayed family lines. The result is that Corben’s story is livelier, with plenty of highly stylized nudity and highly imaginative ritual. The panels are full of thick black lines and strong, earthy colours. The overall effect of Corben’s style is one of sweaty physicality, a solid, stolid meatiness where Lovecraft favours suggestion. It brings a far more carnal resolution that Lovecraft would have ever entertained.

It is still unmistakably an affectionate homage.

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Lovecraft’s themes and tropes have long provided fuel for other authors’ work. He encouraged it, after all. The essential elements of “The Rats in the Walls” are recognizable in Rat God, as much as the stories go their different ways with them. Corben’s tale has a vibrancy, an irrepressible energy, that much Lovecraftian-styled fiction avoids. Reading the two works back-to-back, though, it is impossible to miss the dark, measured energy of the original story. That, I think, is what inspires our affection for the old master, and keeps so many of us writing in his image.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.