Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including Bullettime and the forthcoming Love is the Law. His short fiction has appeared, or soon will, in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Weird Tales, Tor.com, and the anthologies Lovecraft’s Monsters and Best American Mystery Stories. Among other things, Mamatas is highly regarded for his work in Lovecraftian fiction, including the Bram Stoker Award-nominated story “The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft” (co-written with Tim Pratt). A comprehensive collection of his Lovecraftian stories, The Nickronomicon, is forthcoming from Innsmouth Free Press in 2014.
The following excerpt is taken from Mamatas’s debut novel Move Under Ground (2004), a unique and compelling mashup of Lovecraftian horror and Beat Generation writers and themes. The narrator is Jack Kerouac, perhaps the most famous Beat of all, and the story is his cross-country quest to save 1960s America from Cthulhu and his dark forces. Move Under Ground freely blends the Great Old Ones, the sunken city of R’lyeh, mugwumps, a guns akimbo William Burroughs, and many other things into a seamless narrative that both innovates Lovecraftian fiction and serves as a telling commentary on the Beats (especially Kerouac) and mid-20th century America. The following excerpt takes place shortly after Kerouac arrives in San Francisco to take stock of the situation and see what kinds of allies he can find. Suffice it to say, things have turned grim… – The Editors
Slider art © Aeron Alfrey
I was in the john, my head leaning against the cool tile. I had a good night’s sleep on a hard wooden table, but the hangover was still outboxing an evening of rest and sweet camaraderie. I had a mind to call Memere, long distance even, or at least sit down and write her a letter when I heard a disembodied voice calling my name. Jack, Jack it said, an echoed whisper in the small room at first, then it got louder Jack! and happier, a ghost glad to haunt me. I turned, zipped up my pants and looked around quickly for a heatwave apparition or a pink elephant, but saw nothing but grimy tile, myself (that startled me, a flash of my hair in a warped mirror looked like a shoggoth to my bleary eyes), and the firmly shut door.
Jack! The sound was coming from the floor. I looked into the small drain stamped into the floor and saw the glint of glasses. “It’s Allen!” Allen said and then he giggled, “Hahahaha, fancy meeting you here.” I blushed, then frowned; Allen liked flaunting it sometimes. I reached down, stuck a finger in one of the holes in the drain and lifted the drain cover up. “Just reliving some old glory,” Allen said, offering me a toothy woodchuck smile. “Come on in, the water’s fine! Hahahaha!” His beard was dry.
“How am I supposed to fit down the drain?” I was still a little woozy. Reality had been giving me the silent treatment for months now, since my breakdown, and the unblinking stare of the Great Old One had done away with the rest of what I thought of as the present actual now. I put my foot against the drain, but Allen smacked my shoe away. “Oh Jack, you’re such a card! Hahaha, just go to the closet in the hall and lift the grate. C’mon, we’re all down here now. I’ll meet you.” And he walked out of sight, but I could still hear him under the door, walking out of the space under the bathroom. The hallway had a closet, the closet had a grate, and under the grate was Allen, in tweed jacket and baggy pants.
“Hey Little Tramp,” I said, “I’m coming down.” He moved out of the way, I leapt down and hit the concrete of the tunnel a little harder than I thought (it wasn’t even remotely wet, that’s why I didn’t hear Allen splashing around beneath me) and hugged Allen. He smiled, hahahahaed one more time, stuck his flashlight under his chin for the scary camper look and then put his fingers to his lips. “Have you been outside,” he asked softly, and I told him I hadn’t. Had I seen the Beast in the sky – the tentacles, snaky scales, the deep burning eyes? Oh yes, under the full moon and everything, “All the hipsters can see him,” he said. “Squares can’t, and that’s the trouble. That’s why we have to move under ground now,” Allen told me, and he led me on. There was a downward slope, and the smell of old wet mulch. It was a sewer, but smaller and hotter than I’d always thought sewers would be like. And after we walked a few yards and went down the slope, the walls were old brick and the supports fancy arches.
“Pre-quake sewers,” Allen told me. “There’s not one system, but dozens, all messed up, running into one another, or into walls of petrified shit. A lot of the tunnels are collapsed, but in North Beach, most of them are okay and connect to all the streets.”
“What do you know of Cthulhu?” I asked and he laughed again. “Ahahahaha, I always called it cthew-loo. He’s on the money.” With that he dug into his pants pocket and pulled out a bill, then shined his flashlight on it. The dead president faded away under the light, replaced with the hideous tentacled head of the Great God, and in an alien font, one barely English, I could see his name carved into the depths of the flat bill. And Cthulhu turned to me, his tentacles dripping off the cameo frame and the borders of the money to reach out to me.
“Where did you get your pronunciation?” Spontaneous enlightenment in a honeybee’s buzz, I told him, and then repeated the inhuman name; it was only the second time I’d said it aloud, and realized how weird it was, like my diaphragm had rolled up like a blind and started flapping around. And that was just the syllable with the K in it! Allen tried it and choked on his tongue; I patted his back hard. “Not for the poet’s lips, I guess,” he said, then he waved the flashlight in my face. I don’t think he ever liked my poetry. He shoved the money back into his pocket. That worried me.
Allen led me through a circuitous route under the city. The sewers were a wide shimmy, back and forth and stupid corners built around god-knows-what; and we danced under the whole town it seemed, but at times I wondered if we just weren’t walking a dark spiral under North Beach. Even under ground, I could smell the Pacific after a while, when the tunnel began to cool. Allen stopped me in front of a ladder.
“Up up and away,” Allen said, “oh hahaha, wait ’til you see the town proper. There are lots of access holes, lots of manholes,” he said with an obnoxious wink ” ’round here, so if you run into any mugwumps, you can dive rather than take a dive. Oh Jack, hahahaha, it is great to have you back!” He doused the torch and gave me a hug, and slipped a small crowbar into my hand, “For the sewers. The old sewers, the ones you want, have a sort of trap ezoid-shaped manhole. Don’t bother with the main sewers, nothing but trouble and shit down there.”
“Can’t you just tell me what’s going on?” I asked him and he winked like a trickster and started shuffling backwards down the tunnel. “Would you believe me?” he called out, hollow-voiced and echoing. He was right. I want to see everything for myself, travel every excessive road and collect a smile from every girl and a story from every tramp I see. So I climbed the ladder and gave the sewer covering a shove, then snaked through the portal and into the street by the piers. There was only a drizzle of traffic, which was insane. Where were the stevedores walking off to the bars or walking off their afternoon drunks? The trucks, filled up like a baby with stuffed cheeks, nowhere at all. White-shirted cultists with mandible faces were wispy like ghosts and then it struck me that I could see the bugfaced ones about me, but to one another they were just old pal Harry or Tim the deadbeat who never chipped in for the office Christmas party. Life is drenched with spirit. It rains spirit, we couldn’t live without it. But there wasn’t a cloud in the sky (just those terrible flailing tentacles and burning eyes covering the dome of the world, so clear, so incredible, why couldn’t they see?) and this block anyway was full of walking statues, mockery of men.
I spent the better part of the afternoon picking through a few neighborhoods. It was like in San Santos, the bums and tramps and beatnik kids seemed to have souls, some of them were even aware that the mugwumps had taken over so much of the rest of the town. And families, some of the families were all right. Fat Italian mothers and their screaming kids had souls, there was life in flabby biceps, housedresses and great breasts dipping over open windowsills, and in the kiddly shrieks of joy and pain. Some of the Negroes had souls too, old ones embedded in well-worn faces, or in the swirl of strutting shoulders, but I was surprised how many were in the cult too. I saw a storefront church crammed with black cultists, their skin slick with scum and scales, mumbling instead of whooping it up, blood on their hands from palm cuts, puddling on the floor. They didn’t notice me. To them, I was the one who was out of step, the fly in the rot too small to even buzz and annoy.
I even pushed open the door and they didn’t turn – they would have had it been two weeks ago and a big white man just showed up for a little religion. I walked up and down the small aisle and they ignored me, too busy muttering into the thick books they held open before them. I tried reading over the shoulder of an old woman, the kind of old soul who has a straw hat for every day of the week, but when I looked down at the page, I didn’t see words, or even paper. Just a swirling vortex, geometric designs with angles so irregular and rays so strange that I saw the flatness of the page give way into some swirling alien depths. I heard a distant scream, plaintive like a baby just learning fear. Then I realized it was me. So did the preacher.
“Brothers and sisters,” he said, his voice a tinny echo in the little store. “We must welcome a lost sheep to the fold.” And as one the congregation turned towards me and smiled, eyes warm and soulful again. Welcoming rather than starving. For a moment, I was tempted. I could tell they didn’t know me, these fine folks didn’t keep up with fine literature or the papers and I’d bet most of them didn’t even have a television set. Here even an old Beat Frenchie Buddhist Catholic writer drunk with girl problems could blend in, take his place, be forged anew in the flame of distant Star-Gods and be made moral and clean again. The air was still for a long moment, so still even the flies in the room hovered silently, staring at me with bulbous red eyes.
The preacher raised his codex high (pages flopped and shifted, unbound to the leathery folder they were in) and said again, “There comes a time when every man finds himself at a dusty crossroads. On his journey down this lonely road, he is given a choice. A choice to wallow in the filth of the world, to traffic in mud and excrement, or he can take the golden road!”
“The golden road!” the congregation said as one. My limbs were heavy like iron.
“The golden road! The left fork on the road of the billion worlds. Our human nature is sinful but we can transcend it. We can bind ourselves to a higher power, escape our flesh and blood by making ourselves one with something greater, a destiny among the stars!”
Moving and me were having a bit of trouble getting it together. Fingers and toes were numb and tingling, I couldn’t flex my pectorals or even breathe too deeply the fecund air. My diaphragm was pulled tighter than Navy bedding, but at least I wasn’t screaming anymore. Light poured in from the storefront’s windows, the horrible white light of the dead god now awoke.
“Great Jehovah, God of the Hebrews, even he is from a world beyond worlds. Yahweh, Adonai, most highest and beloved, God and the son of God, our Maker and Unmaker, He is an alien!”
Little steps. My eyes. One eye anyway, the left. I could move that. Blink, I could blink, and the sound of lid meeting lid and then rolling away like old lovers exhausted after a winter’s night love saved my life. Blink blink, I blinked. The old woman looked into my eyes, her pupils dilated, but I blinked her away. The call and response, “Gods dead and older than time!” “Older than time!” I blinked that away too, reveling in the song of tiny watery squeaking from my eyelids. My jaw, I could loosen it. I could turn my head, turn it away from this peering congregation of men and women, all short and scaly and sweating, all leaning towards me eagerly, waiting for my soul to surrender the self to the mass. I could turn my head to the windows at the back of the church and I did.
Neal drove by, in an old convertible, top down, some guy in the passenger seat, and a bunch of shovels and rakes rattling away on the thin backseat. I ran out the door, ignored the dozen howling screams behind me and cut to the corner. Neal had the traffic lights with him though and took off through the intersection. I made it to the corner just in time for a bus to pull up and block my view. I looked up through the windows and saw the lunchtime crowd peering back at me, eyes starving, and teeth clenched. All walking dead, sallow and gray as Auschwitz. Some of them were already beetle-faced, but most just had telltale fleshy points on their jowls or cheekbones, or strange wispy phalanges hanging from their chins. Given to the depths, but not yet fully gotten. I cut in front of the idling bus, ran across the street and screamed for Neal, but he was down a steep hill already. The accordion roof over the car’s round rear bounced and jiggled, the shovels rattled, then the car turned a tight left and was gone. I looked up to the sky to weep to heaven, but then saw the watery translucence of dead Cthulhu’s haunted face and turned my head to the ground, tired and whipped.
I prowled around town for a while afterwards, looking for one of the entrances to the old sewer systems. It took a long time; I had to avoid any block with an office building or a post office – the mugwumps (that’s what Allen called them, from Bill’s book, I remembered now – damn, I should have read it) were in force there. Not that they cared. Not that they were looking for me like I was a secret agent with a bum full of microfilm in the middle of Nazi Germany, and they were all golden Aryans in armbands and jackboots, ready to stop at nothing just to grab me, chain me to a wall, and extinguish their thin and foreign cigarettes on my chest until I told them what they wanted. I wasn’t a threat. Neal might have been though – is that why he was cutting out of town? Off to bury a body in the desert, or dig a tunnel to a sweet freedom underground and away from the blasphemous sky. Or just on the road, carrying garden tools for no good reason to anyone but Neal, looking to get back to Denver or New York. I nearly cried at the thought of missing him, and bit my lip hard, ’til my mouth filled with tired blood. A police cruiser rolled on by, its driver no longer even close to human – it was a great mantis in blue, hunched over the wheel as uncomfortably as a lamppost might be. He … it didn’t turn to me. With its black helmet eyes, it didn’t need to. I shoved my hands into my pockets and hunched my shoulders, as conspicuous as a little kid swiping his first comic book, and walked in a random direction, eyes lowered. When I found an old sewer grating, I slipped the little crowbar Allen gave me from my pocket, forced open the portal, and slid down into the warm dark.
A bit of setting sun poured in through sewer grates here and there, and walls of lichen that glowed an eerie green were nearly painted down some tunnels, but mostly I had little more than the cherry of cigarette or a flaming bit of newspaper to guide my way, and there wasn’t much of a way I needed guiding to. These old nineteenth-century century tunnels made my choices for me; one wall was collapsed, another tunnel was so full of stink that I’d need a hillbilly wedding full of wine just to take the first step into it. Only a couple of others were in better shape and well traveled: butcher paper, fresh ciggy butts, pulp and stag rags, and lots of empty bottles. It was easy enough to pick my way back over to underbelly of North Beach. I heard some bizarre and whirling vocalizations echoing through the tunnel, a girly, queeny ululation. I pulled the small crowbar from my pants again and held it like a knife, and extinguished my cigarette against the sole of my boot.
I crouched and pushed myself up against the curved wall of the tunnel and walked, heel first and quiet, like a serial reel Indian, ready to push the tip of the iron right into the throat of whatever shambling horror or mad flailing beast was whimpering and gulping air ahead of me. I was steel run through with veins of hot courage. I didn’t need to see a thing, I could smell the horror ahead of me, hear skin rasping against jellied muscle and tar-thick blood. Even the tiny hairs on my arm were standing up and aquiver, like whiskers, antennae. With every step the grip on my crowbar got tighter, I’d loosen my grip and fall off the world. I breathed through my teeth, huffing, my tongue drying. I was The Shadow, the pulp hero I’d read as a kid. He’d lurk in the dark, with ancient Eastern powers granting him the ability to cloud men’s minds, and then he’d spring forth, blasting away with his guns, righting wrongs, getting the girl, and with a mighty, echoing laugh, rejoice, victorious!
Then I remembered that I’d never actually killed anybody before. For all the drinking and train-hopping and mix-ups in school and in the Navy, I’d never really done much more than get into a half-fun shoving match with a drunk. Even when I was a security guard, I never bothered to load my gun. It was a grace. I didn’t swallow the pain; I never nursed the old childhood rages at being messed with for speaking joual with Memere (the kids would surround me, quack like ducks, then run their fingers over their lips – that’s what they heard they said). Broken hearts, I mended them with the tiny hands of the girl next door, or one the next county over. I drank with Negroes one day, and nodded through boisterous laughing jokes with Klansmen the next. I embraced all of them, the women, the old men, little kids playing secret games, America was mine. Resistance makes the spirits real, I remembered the teaching now. Embrace the madness with no attachment, something that is both the hardest and easiest thing in the world. I did it with a sigh and then slumped down to meditate in a little puddle. The yelps and oohoohoohing carried on deep in the dancing black spiral of the tunnel system while I sought the no-self.
Massachusetts. Winter. So cold, like the weather was frozen in my little bird bones and just radiated outward from my marrow, to permeate my skin, freeze my clothes stiff, and to steam my breath. I don’t remember the snow crunching under my boots, because it never did. I was a light boy, a slim little lad, and snow only crunches in books. The true memory, the real Ti Jean never heard any such thing. He heard, I heard, my lungs in me, breathing hard, expanding and deflating like leather billows. The quacking boys are gone now, into the trees. Every tree hides someone, I decided, right then and there. Some were evil and hiding in wait, or from justice itself. Other trees, the peculiar ones with split trunks or weird leaves, or with sheathes of ivy wrapping, those are where the good people hid. Some from evil, some laying in wait, ready to spring forth with candy or advice or fists of iron, ready to face down the bad boys on behalf of young cats with runny noses like me.
I looked around the field – I’d wandered over the hill and was just out of sight of my house. Memere would be worried. I turned back to the small grove of trees, some good and some evil. I ran towards them, toes suddenly awake and stinging in my wet boots, ready to take cover behind a tree, to decide once and for all who I’d be. Behind a fir, my soul went to the devil, behind a maple, to the angels. I ran so fast, faster than I ever had, ready to take a cosmic side, so excited to be running that I just ran through the grove and forgot to hide behind a tree entirely. I plopped down to my knees, half from the exertion of running so hard in my winter coat and scarf, half from the joy of getting wet and kneeling if I darn well wanted to. I stayed there for a while, watching the white snow turn gray but for the tiniest icy star twinkles as the sun went down. For a long time, until I was darn good and ready, I stayed out in the field, and just as twilight painted the sky, I got up and went home.
Memere wasn’t angry when I got home so late, with my pants soaked and then chilled over (I even walked into the living room stiff legged, to show off). Gerard, my brother, had just died. She told me the fever took him and we said nothing. I didn’t cry, because I was afraid the tears would freeze on my cheeks. I was seven.
And that memory, that milestone of the self, I lived it again sitting on a puddle in the middle of a haunted sewer, lived every forgotten tear and chilly leaf, then typed it up on the Underwood in my mind, cranked the paper out of the carriage, crumpled it up into a little ball, and then threw it away. A fiction, memory coated with details from books and the demands of drama. That’s me, Jack Duloz, Jack The Louse. Away.
And without self I stood up, my butt soaked with black sewer water, and walked again towards the huffing and yelping and mad gangster giggling (“heh heh heh heh heh.” Edward G. Robinson discovers bennies) with open hands and an open heart.
The purple rose of dusk dimmed the light from the sewer gratings over my head as I turned the final corner and saw Allen. In the splash light of a fallen flashlight, he was buggering some young man, the cat bent over and his curls shaking with each of Allen’s thrusts. They were both making the noises, girly and squeaking like old shoes. I’d never quite gotten the etiquette on interrupting homosexual sodomy before, so I just walked up to the pair, looked Allen in his (squinting, ecstatic) eyes and asked just what the hell was going on.
“The” he said, then huffed. “Whole.” Another huff. “City.” Two thrusts, the boy with the curls grunted, “is – ”
“Okay! Stop and just tell me! Send the boy away!” I turned my back on the pair. I heard some shuffling, bumping and zipping up, then footfalls scrambling away up a ringing ladder. I turned back to see Allen there, licking his fingers and dabbing his thick eyebrows, “Really Jack, I’m sorry. You know, I have a problem. A compulsion, it’s like a disease, a sickness in me. I can feel it squirming around my spine.”
“Not you. Them,” I told him, glancing up towards the ceiling, towards The City. I would as soon forget the whole nasty business.
Allen shrugged. “You saw it didn’t you? The faces, empty or insectoid. They can’t see it. A couple of … friends, have even been institutionalized for insisting that they see the mugwumps. The more straitlaced a person is, the greater the transformation, the deeper they bow to the Dark Dreamer,” he said, and bowed low himself, his hands fluttering.
I opened my mouth to say something, to just tell Allen to shut the hell up already and tell me where Neal was going, but he interjected, “It is actually pretty amazing, who hasn’t fallen to the Cult of Utter Normalcy, really. The local state assemblyman is a good guy. Must be the time he puts in brainstorming with his constituents down at the – ”
“Stop,” I said, almost angry, almost full of attachment and desire, but then I smiled. “I understand. So, you’re going to hold down the fort here?”
“Spread the madness! Larry’s out of town, so is Neal. After he got out of the joint, he … changed. I mean, the man’s still fine, still crazy. He just got old.” Allen slumped down onto his haunches, “We all got old, man. All except you. He’s off to Nevada to go open a gas station.” Allen nearly spit, “Damn, he wants to support his kids. The rugrats he calls ‘em! Rugrats, Jack!” I let Neal’s rugrats wash over me, then took a step and walked past Allen.
“Nevada. Sodom in the American desert. Gas and hot air. What’s the lure, the filthy lucre? I mean, Neal, damn, he can’t have gone straight,” Allen said behind me. “Jack?” I turned and looked at him, hunched over like a bridge troll, his marionette string shadows playing on the curved wall behind him. His flashlight was burning orange and weak now, like the dimming light of the world. I knew he wasn’t going to be moving tonight. Maybe he had a pocketful of pills to keep him up and frantic in the dark, maybe he’d sleep in his own piss or jerk it all night ’til he was bleeding, just to keep from joining the mass of maggots topside on the rotten flesh of town.
“You need any money?” he asked. The tainted money. The cursed money that the Lord’s own rats had thankfully chewed to pieces before I stepped on the road again. Money chained Neal to the road, to a pipe dream leading to a roadside filling station in Nevada when he was needed here to fend off the inky darkness.
“No, I own the entire world already,” I told him, and I reached into my pocket and tossed him the little crowbar he’d lent me before. I took to the nearby ladder, pushed the manhole cover open with my head and shoulder, then slipped out on the dark and slick streets again. Like the back of a beached whale, nice and slick and curving towards the depths. Ah, it was just another hill in a damn town full of them, but without a lick of traffic. A century of Mother Earth flexing her black and fiery muscles to throw this town off her back hadn’t been enough of a hint, so she called in Bigger Brother for reinforcements, and The City just wasn’t big enough for the three of us. I looked up again, looked up at the moon, a flaming silver half-lidded eye. He was a big one, the kind of fat schoolyard bully who likes pulling legs off spiders just because little round nubs are more interesting looking than graceful stilt-legs. I stood there for a long time, my neck craned upwards in a staring contest. Tentacles thick as buildings shifted in and out of the fog, pouring from Cthulhu’s chin and stretching out from the sea, brushing the tops of buildings and then reaching out all across this gray land. Go East young man, catch me if you can. But oh I can. My heart was a metronome; I’d sweated out the Benzedrine in Big Sur and calmed my nerves with the tart juice of the juniper berry in sweet, decayed Frisco. The last good bite of rotten fruit. I’d left the ghost of old Gerard in the underworld, along with sick Allen and his last pair of stained slacks. I put out a thumb and by the force of Buddha’s palm, a truck stopped for me. Without a word I stepped up and slid into the cab, slammed the door behind me and we drove off, into the depths of America.