“Giraldy is back,” he said. We jumped rotting logs, trampled low bushes, in our haste to reach them. It was Giraldy, but he was barely recognizable: supine on the muddy ground, he was tinged blue and enveloped from head to toe in thick gelatinous slime. Opaque and criss-crossed with white filaments, the glutinous cocoon put me in mind of a frog’s spawn with it’s gelatinous covering, or perhaps a spider’s prey, wrapped for consumption at the creature’s leisure. Inside his filmy wrapping, Giraldy jerked.”
—Lee Murray, “Edward’s Journal”
While Lovecraft’s stories enjoy a variety of settings, from the Arctic mountains to the Australian desert, there is little question that the author himself, and many of his preconceived notions, are quite firmly rooted in the American Northeast. The Old Gent loved his Providence, and indeed, could barely stand it when circumstances forced him to move to New York. While there, he wrote what is arguably his most despised short story, “The Horror at Red Hook,” a story replete with racist stereotypes and the ideals of white supremacy. For that reason, and just because I am interested, I try to seek out Lovecraftian stories set in different cultural contexts to balance out the spate of New England-y horrors. So it was that when author Lee Murray of New Zealand reached out to me with her new collection, I jumped at the chance to take a peek at it. Sadly for me, I did not discover any Cthulhu stories (one might expect that, right, out of New Zealand, so close to R’yleh?), but what I did discover was a story full of more indigenous terrors.
GROTESQUE MONSTER STORIES is Lee Murray‘s debut collection and is published by Things in the Well Australia; it was released in July 2020. It contains eleven stories, including four original to this collection, and two that are specifically Lovecraftian. One of those, “Edward’s Journal” captured my imagination more than the other. It’s set against the backdrop of the New Zealand Wars (1845-1872), which have also been known as the Māori Wars and the Land Wars. Somewhat unsurprisingly, these were about the land grabs of the British Crown and indigenous resistance to the empire’s incursions. The story is structured around a young woman’s reception of her beloved’s war diary and what the pages of that diary contain.
It has been 13 years since Margaret has seen Edward or his journal, and aside from assumptions about his fate, this journal is the first clue she’s had of what befell him. “Margaret, we arrived this morning in New Zealand…we were marched from the creaking timbers of the Castilian to a place called Onehunga, which the locals pronounce Own-nay-hunger…” What follows is a series of pairs, with Margaret (and thus, you, the reader) reviewing Edward’s entries, framed as letters to Margaret, and then her reaction to them. They detail Edward’s company’s exploration of the New Zealand bush and the strange events that begin occurring to them, as well as Edward’s private thoughts. Their explorations hearken back to the grand adventure stories of a bygone era, something I think ole HPL would’ve enjoyed, and are tinged with excitement, danger, and the thrill of conquest.
Two things served to disturb me about these sections. One was the fact that we are not in the bygone era of pulp adventure stories anymore and so I was painfully aware that the thrill of conquest I was feeling came at the expense of Māori lives and land. When I read stuff like this in the original pulps (Howard, et al.) I take it with a grain of salt – all things being located in a particular time and place. (That is a decision I have made as a reader. Not all readers will make the same decision, and that is perfectly understandable.) I believe Murray is messing with us here, successfully making us question the thrills we’re getting from the story and also calling us to question who is the real monster.
The second thing that disturbed me was a writing choice she made in order to tell the story. The journal entries are so detailed, replete with complete dialogues in seemingly perfect recall, that I can’t imagine anyone actually keeping a journal in that way. Interior monologues I would understand, but such a high amount of dialogue (though it seems necessary to drive her plot) in a journal entry actually took me out of the story rather than deeper into it. The rest of the writing is accomplished and sucks you right into Margaret’s world. There are some descriptions towards the end that made me grimace with delightful body-horror shivers.
The Lovecraftian elements are subtle, aside from one journal entry in which Edward recalls seeing a “sea monster” during a storm while aboard the Castilian, that may or may not have been a mythos-type creature, or even real at all. As the New Zealand bush experience grows fatal for Edward’s fated company of British soldiers, a recurring sound induces more and more dread in the men. Murray describes it as a “ululation,” and I immediately thought of the shoggoths of At the Mountains of Madness: “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” But when I ran a search, that sound does not appear in AtMoM at all, and only four times in the Lovecraft canon. Mistake aside, I began thinking about shoggoths and their enslaved relationship to the Elder Gods. This got me thinking about encroaching empires and suffering native populations the world over, especially in the New Zealand context. Like what Victor Lavalle did in “Up From Slavery,” Murray accomplishes here as well by using her unseen monster to turn the tables on the colonizers.
I do have one word of caution. In both the stories I read, “Edward’s Journal,” and “Dead End Town,” there are hints (in the former) of what some may regard as inappropriate sexual attention by an older male towards an underage female, and outright violent rape (in the latter). In both cases, the two persons involved are closer on the family tree than I care for. In the case of “Dead End Town” the use of the term “uncle” may not be familial, but that was unclear enough to me that I bring it up here. In “Edward’s Journal,” Edward and Margaret are first cousins. I am trying not to be ethnocentric and so just be aware your mileage may vary.
And now, I have to speak about the end and that will represent a spoiler, which I don’t like to do, but it is necessary here. So, if you don’t want to read the spoiler, stop reading now knowing that I enjoyed the story and would recommend it, with the caution, to anyone looking for Lovecraftian fiction in non-New England settings or from non-New England authorial perspectives. If you don’t mind spoilers, or have read the story, please click through.
There’s kind of a joke about a stereotypical Lovecraftian ending, and the ending of “Edward’s Journal” may be the most Lovecraftian thing about it, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. While being eaten by the monster, it is unlikely you would journal the event, as Lovecraft had his narrators do in stories like “From Beyond,” and “The Diary of Alonzo Typer.” This ending isn’t quite so bad, with Edward journaling that he hears the ululation growing closer, “Margaret, the ululation. They’re coming.” That’s the last line of the story, and it’s close enough to those other stereotypical endings that it recalls their unintended humor, rendering it ineffective. What frustrated me most was Murray had written a beautiful ending, in melancholic prose, just the paragraph before. If only she had stopped there, this could have been the end to a powerful story about the abuses of colonialism and the soldiers who did the dirty work:
“Speak to me of home, Margaret. I would hear about your day. Is the honeysuckle still in flower? What of your father? How was his sermon last Sunday? Did anyone snore? Of course, I am teasing. I’m sure it was very fine. I’m so very sorry I missed it. Perhaps I will be home for Christmas. That is a blessed thought. But the light will be gone soon, so I will stop my writing now.”
That’s the ending I would have given it, but alas, temptation was heeded instead.
This review was composed while listening to a Spotify playlist of authentic Māori music and chants.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,