Nick-You're-Not-The-One

by Arthur B

The Nickronomicon collects just enough of Nick Mamatas' Cthulhu Mythos fiction to establish that I don't like the cut of his jib.
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Back when Shim reviewed Black Wings of Cthulhu, Adrienne gave a recommendation for the work of Nick Mamatas, whose Cthulhu Mythos stories are compiled in the punningly named Nickronomicon from the Innsmouth Free Press. Both Shim and Adrienne were somewhat turned off the collection, however, due to reports that Mamatas's horror is genuinely, well, horrific.

This, naturally, attracted me like a moth to a flame. Unfortunately, no enjoyable burning sensations were forthcoming, the end result feeling more like bumping up against a fluorescent light tube you'd thought was the sun. Let me dust off my wings and give you the lowdown…

To give Mamatas his due, he knows this territory well. He’s the sort of Lovecraft fan who has not only bothered to read the Selected Letters, but actually can mimic their style quite well, which turns out useful in those stories that play the “Lovecraft hit on something real” card (in itself an old standby of post-Lovecraft contributions to the Mythos). At the same time, he also has a fairly rounded view of the man and doesn’t set him above criticism - in particular, Mamatas refuses to deny Lovecraft’s well-documented racism, and appears to hold the (decidedly reasonable) position that The Horror At Red Hook is irredeemable trash.

At the same time, Mamatas has the odd habit of regularly raising the suggestion that Lovecraft was a closeted homosexual, an idea for which the only real evidence I am aware of is his apparent lack of interest in sex in general - which is rather more evidence for asexuality as opposed to anything else - and the fact that he was good friends with a number of gay men (which I guess makes me gay-by-contagion too). Whilst I get that it’s important to reinterpret historical figures to uncover gay figures from the past that a heteronormative academia has disguised or condemned, at the same time I tend to think trying to claim Lovecraft for one team or another is just kind of unhelpful - it’s not like he’s a prize role model, and in the absence of any evidence of actual positive attraction towards men (as opposed to the evidence that Lovecraft just didn’t have much time for women and doesn’t seem to have been keen to initiate sex with Sonia Greene) claiming him as homosexual seems a bit of a jump. To be fair, in context Mamatas seems to be discussing the popular perception (and misconceptions) about Lovecraft, but is “Lovecraft was closeted” really a major part of that perception these days? For that matter, has it ever been?

Another good point Mamatas has a solid grasp of is the idea that many things which may have been frightening to Lovecraft and his readership would not be frightening to modern readers. Going beyond stories like Red Hook or The Street and their reliance on old-timey xenophobia, it’s entirely possible to read the likes of The Whisperer In Darkness and find what the Mi-Go have to offer incredibly tempting - yes, getting your brain stuck in a can would be rather grim, but if that’s your ticket off-planet to exploration beyond the stars there are many who would be tempted by such a bargain.

This is where I begin to find the description of his work as being genuinely horrific begins to ring false, because quite often his stories don’t come across as trying to horrify me. There’s a dearth of scares, no growing sense of dread, nothing like that. More often than not, the stories instead come across more as sly jokes; to be fair, plenty of classic horror stories are also constructed and delivered like a joke, and indeed can constitute jokes in themselves, with the climactic revelation as the punchline and the whole affair constituting gallows humour for a gallows universe; Poe, Campbell and Ligotti alike are masters of this sort of thing. The distinction here is that Mamatas seems to construct these stories as jokes primarily and horror stories as a distant second, if at all. If anything, evoking horror often comes as a third place, behind demonstrating how clever Nick Mamatas is.

See, for instance, Jitterbuggin’, which is based around a (fictional) Lovecraft letter in which he has a prophetic dream of witnessing the multiracial birth of rock and roll and being sickened by it even as he found himself dancing to it; the only person horrified here is Lovecraft himself, though the reader may be disgusted by some of the sentiments Lovecraft expresses.

Or how about the ugly, bitter attack story Mainevermontnewhampshiremass, in which a bunch of thinly-veiled parodies of numerous major modern horror authors are brought together somewhere generically in New England (the vagueness of which state they are in being part of the joke, hence the title), only to be brutally exterminated by an attack of monsters, the sole survivor (by virtue of being too late for the monster attack) being Lovecraft himself? This story seems to be a particularly strident attempt to declare all its targets somehow inferior to Lovecraft, or even to suggest that Lovecraft’s work will outlast the lot of them, but that seems to be both a bold prediction to make (we have nearly 80 years’ worth of hindsight on Lovecraft’s work following his death, we haven’t even the foggiest idea of whether the likes of King or Koontz or whoever will disappear from the bookshelves after they die and stop actively promoting their work or whether they will continue on as a presence) and a shitty attitude for anyone who values the development of the horror genre.

It’s the latter point which I find particularly obnoxious about this story. Even though I don’t have much nice to say about Stephen King’s recent output, to entirely cast him out does more damage to the horror genre than good; as with any other writer, his trash won’t long survive him and his superior works will sustain themselves. (It seems particularly petty to aim such barbs at King when King himself paid his dues with Lovecraft tributes like Jerusalem’s Lot.)

On top of that, Mamatas seems to have particular barbs to cast at the urban fantasy subgenre, as represented by Ophelia Darque, who is primarily described by reference to her breasts and the extent to which she shows them off and puts a lot of energy into flirting with guys in order to get attention and compliments from them without ever actually letting them out of the friend zone. (“As a simultaneous circle jerk and collective cock-block, the scene was both Escheresque and Kafkaesque.”) Writing off a horror subgenre which has found a particular appeal with female writers and readers with a cartoon figure with such misogynistic undertones (the image in question isn’t too far away from the way proto-Gamergaters liked to paint “fake gamer girls” back when that was the geek misogynist complaint du jour) feels particularly gross.

Nor is Mamatas able to muster any coherent reason why Lovecraft should be spared. The recurring motifs and habits of each writers’ products are ruthlessly skewered, but Lovecraft himself doesn’t manage to avoid this fate. It’s almost as though Mamatas is writing off all the rest of the genre because he likes Lovecraft but doesn’t feel like anyone else writing in the field is worthy to be Lovecraft’s successor, merely because he likes Lovecraft’s cliches but doesn’t have time for anyone else’s cliches. Well, sorry to give you the bad news Mamatas, but you’re not the one. If anyone out there is going to really take the horror genre to the outermost limits of the possibilities Lovecraft only hinted at in his fiction… well, sorry, you’re too late. Thomas Ligotti already did the job.

More to the point, it’s entirely possible to construct a Mamatas pastiche from the stories in this collection. Take a smarmy attitude, apply it to some Lovecraftian concept framed as a glib joke that’s meant to make you look clever, sprinkle on a bit of transhumanism and you’re more or less there. If having a personal style that’s familiar and easy to lampoon disqualifies you from writing worthy horror in Mamatas’s eyes, well, the bad news just keeps coming, doesn’t it Nick?

About that transhumanism: several of these stories culminate in the revelation that the protagonist, or protagonists, or a significant proportion of the human race, has attained some sort of posthuman state. (Where this is not self-inflicted, the Mi-Go are usually to blame.) Often this takes the place of the scare of a story, but it doesn't usually work that way - rather than evoking shock at what has become of us, the new existence described seems at once alien enough that it doesn't really feel particularly immediate as a threat, and describes an interesting enough existence that one could potentially get used to it.

The most extreme story of this nature is transhuman from the get-go, with humanity having uploaded its collective minds to a hard drive shot out into space to escape the Old Ones. This is Inky, Blinky, Pinky, Nyarlathotep, named such because a decidedly Pacman-like scenario leads to the ultimate realisation that the occupants of this cyberspace are merely simulacra rather than real people - a point which anyone who understood the transcription process would have already grasped and accepted anyway, so I hardly think it's worth the bother of forcing them to confront it.

This story is particularly hateable for falling into that most execrable category of Mythos pastiches, "Stories in which it turns out the irritatingly sarcastic narrator is actually Nyarlathotep". Nyarlathotep is a regrettable inclusion in the Mythos at the best of times - he's massively overused for one thing, and for another too often he is portrayed on a human scale entirely inappropriate to the order of being he is an ambassador for. Stories which have him narrate exacerbate these problems a hundredfold and should be grounds for being drummed out of the guild.

Mamatas doesn’t indulge in every bad habit common amongst Lovecraftian pastiche-merchants; in particular, he shows a willingness to expand the range of protagonists examined beyond the narrow range of pasty white bibliophiles, academics and antiquarians that litter Lovecraft’s fiction. At the same time, his handling of PoC protagonists is a bit variable; I feel he does quite well in The Man Who Collected Lovecraft (a riff on Robert Bloch’s The Man Who Collected Poe), in which the descendant of one of those miscegenators Lovecraft was always so furious about foils a maniac fan’s attempt to hijack Lovecraft’s very life, but I find myself wanting to solicit second opinions on Wuji, the story of a young Chinese-American man who on the one hand is deeply unimpressed with the way American society in the late 1960s has typecast him, and yet on the other hand ends up going all Super Saiyan after trying out some sweet martial arts moves he read about in the Necronomicon. (Yes, the outcome is as silly as it sounds.)

At the end of the day, I don’t think Mamatas is a bad writer; he’s quite readable, in fact. It’s just that I can’t really get excited about what he chooses to write about, and I especially have trouble with the constant sense I get from his authorial voice that he feels like he’s the smartest guy in the room. Part of this is mere territorial puffing - I’m the smartest guy in the room, as you ought to know full well - but it’s still not an engaging quality in an author. The authorial voice is constantly ringing in one’s ear when one reads, and therefore if it’s unintentionally irritating the reader, that’s a huge problem.

There is one habit of Lovecraft’s which I do wish Mamatas would dip into - namely, a healthy sense of one’s own insignificance. This is something which is hard for transhumanists to swallow, since transhumanism is basically repackaged human exceptionalism and religion, but the willingness to say “What if I’m wrong, and what would it mean if I were wrong?” is not only healthy, but was arguably the key to Lovecraft’s best work.
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at 17:47 on 2017-04-30
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