“You live in a monster’s empire. You’re only upset because you’re not the biggest monster anymore.”Nadia Bulkin, “Truth is Order and Order is Truth”
“Regarding the setting for tales—I try to be as realistic as possible.”
—H.P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, December 29, 1934
Last year I had the pleasure of reading some of the stories contained in the Valancourt BOOK OF WORLD HORROR STORIES, VOL. 1, and remarked that while they were excellent, the preponderance of them were located in Western European cultures. My hope for the forthcoming Vol. 2 is that we get to read more stories from Africa and Asia, whose myriad cultures with which I am vastly less familiar. I was therefore delighted to find this present story, set in the author’s native Indonesia, in BLACK CRANES: TALES OF UNQUIET WOMEN (Omnium Gatherum Media, 2020), which editor Lee Murray sent me for review.
Nadia Bulkin is an accomplished author who has been on my radar screen for years, but for one reason or another, not an author I’d read until now. It was long overdue. What I knew of her proved true in this story; hers is a powerful voice of politically oriented horror. The particular genius of this story is that she brings her voice to bear while retelling Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and, at the same time, she flips it on its head. While “Shadow” is one of my favorite HPL stories, I am not unaware of its xenophobic edges. Much like Ruthanna Emrys did in her novel WINTER TIDE, Bulkin here both humanizes and empowers her version of the Innsmouth residents, centered on her protagonist, the young, Indonesian princess Dhani. In other words, she flips the roles of protagonist and antagonist from the original Innsmouth material while telling a story that is uniquely and wholly her own. In additon to BLACK CRANES, this story can also be found in her own collection, SHE SAID DESTROY, published by Word Horde in 2017.
“My mother’s death had undone me. I’d believed she would live forever. With that rule broken, nothing else seemed real.” Dhani is in line to succeed to the throne of some indeterminate portion of what I would call the Indonesian islands. Her father is already dead, having been killed when he was thrown from his elephant mount. In the political backdrop to the story, there is a power struggle between Dhani’s mother and the country’s Prime Minister, Jaya Megalang, who “had a far stronger voice and reach.” Dripping venom, Dhani says, “Amassing power was not a skill I’d been taught between courtly dance and batik painting.” Her father sired several other progeny by concubines, including the male heirs, Arda and Murti, who Megalang was now trying to use to turn the country against Dhani. But then Dhani’s mother dies of a mysterious illness and just like that Dhani finds herself on the run with a handful of faithful followers while Megalang’s grip on the troubled nation tightens into a choke hold. He had leveled accusations of shamanism and sorcery against Dhani’s mother to the desired end, and continued to do so now against Dhani, but what he could not possibly understand was just how right he was and how badly that positioned him.
Beyond shamanism and petty sorcery, Dhani can trace her family tree back to Father Dagon and Mother Hydra, the mysterious underwater god-like beings worshipped in Lovecraft’s Innsmouth. In that original tale, they are to be feared, loathed, and shunned. Here, Bulkin centers them in the narrative in a story whose feminism is both powerful and authentic. The stakes are high for Dhani and she is not sure she can make it. In the midst of her claiming her identity and power, questions of worthiness almost overwhelm hers, “Every forward step brought me closer to my greatest fear: I would make a terrible queen.” Towards the end of the story a much more cosmic perspective comes into play and Megalang is reduced to an historical footnote.
It is no secret that many writers suffer from imposter syndrome and I have to wonder (if you replaced “queen” with “writer” in the above quote) if some of that isn’t going on here as well. If I can offer any encouragement from my perspective, this is a masterfully written story of feminine empowerment, political striving against the machine, a sort of reverse cosmic horror, and a very welcome entry into the modern Lovecraftian mythos. Bulkin paints with her words and you can see and hear this world unfold around you as you read. Here, writing of a villager Dhani encounters, Bulkin says, “Its voice was too pure for its soggy corpse-skin.” In only ten words, the reader has now heard something, seen something, and felt something unsettling. Or here, as Dhani reflects on her mother, “Once you have looked into her eyes, once her fingers have grazed your scalp, she is hard to shake. She was my mother. I should know.” Again, not only do we see and feel something as a reader, Bulkin couples the unsettling nature of those feelings with an inexorable miasma of familial devotion. The complications of Dhani’s family tree are felt through these and other aching lines of searching, discombobulated emotions. Dhani knows who she is and she is getting comfortable with those facts, though she is perhaps not there yet.
In 1934, H.P. Lovecraft wrote to a Finnish fan, Emil Petaja, answering a question about the source of the settings of his stories. He informed young Petaja that they were based on real towns, but twisted into his own nightmarish visions. Lovecraft wasn’t humble about it either, calling his Kingsport “fabulous.” I suspect he tried to be as realistic as possible because that helps a reader suspend disbelief and get lost in the narrative. Bulkin does the same thing here in “Truth is Order,” making her native country the only possible setting in which to tell this story. This is as much a story about the land as it is one about the characters, and it’s not heard to read in it the pain that must be felt by the people who have lived through decades of colonialism, political unrest, religious strife, and war. None of that is touched on directly in the text, but it’s all right there, like Mother Hydra, just below the surface. Perhaps a comment on privilege is a part of what Bulkin is trying to say: monsters lurk in these depths, and though you the reader may choose to enter at your own risk, she the author, by virtue of her birth, must swim them. I am so glad I finally read a Nadia Bulkin story and I can promise you, it will not be my last.
This review was composed while listening to the Spotify playlist called “Indonesian Traditional Music” compiled by user su_ross.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,