“Fresh Out of Mercy”: The Catastrophic Horror of Nick Mamatas
I don’t recall how I first encountered the writing of Nick Mamatas. I know it happened in 2007, a year that saw me greyed out and dull from a dead-end managerial job. It pleases me to think I may have been at work when it all went down. At work entailed surfing the internet for anything to cut the boredom, which meant vainly hoping that some intersection of my interests would draw from the electronic undermind a gem. A rare enough occurrence, but it happens. And this time it did.
Mamatas had released his Lovecraftian/Beat Generation mashup novel Move Under Ground online that year (under a Creative Commons licence, it had previously seen print in 2004 through Night Shade Books); a random search had pulled up the PDF for me. It didn’t even take me one chapter for the hook to set in my jaw: I had only recently completed a giant Kerouac kick, bottoming out with the bleak apocalypticism of Big Sur, and Move Under Ground tickled that over-sensitized first thought best thought spot mightily. I consumed it in hours, and read it again the next day. From the start of the novel, I could tell that Mamatas got Lovecraft. Not the beasties and the blasphemous books and the bumpf of HPL (though he gets those too), but the deeper themes, the sublime terror of Lovecraft that manifested not so much in the Old Gentleman’s actual writing, but in the thoughts that come to the mind after you read him.
Mamatas is like that, or at least he was in Move Under Ground, which had within its early chapters a scene wherein Kerouac bests a shoggoth by delivering a “soul kiss”, rapidly followed by harrowing imagery of a R’lyeh not rising from some far-off coordinate in the Pacific, but just off the coast of Northern California, calling to its shifting bulk the dead, soulless drones of McCarthy’s America in a steady stream of pale bloated bodies and the accumulated garbage of a young Capitalism. This was a psychic R’lyeh, a principle of consuming madness made real.
Now, the heart of what makes Lovecraft interesting is dead simple, and yet it can be a hard target to hit: the world seems to be a certain way, and then the Way It Actually Is is revealed. TO KNOW is the worst curse in the Lovecraftian universe. Mamatas gets this. His aim is truer than most.
Well, that was then. That was Move Under Ground, at least. And now? Innsmouth Free Press is releasing the collected Lovecraftian fiction of Nick Mamatas, THE NICKRONOMICON. Sadly, the scuttlebutt associated with this book is that this is it, folks, that’s all he wrote. There won’t be any more Lovecraftian work coming from Mamatas after this. Which is a damn shame, especially considering the new novella that was written specifically for the collection, On the Occasion of My Retirement. But we’ll get to that.
Mamatas is fond of the catastrophe, and that fondness is here displayed to great effect. What I mean by catastrophe is more akin to the mathematical theory than any disaster. What I mean by it is this: in Lovecraft’s fiction, the protagonists are in most cases already halfway into the world that will soon be fully revealed to them, either by virtue of their heritage or character or education. They are solitary scholars, recluses and bookworms, half-mad cultists. When the horrors come, as they must, the punch has been telegraphed almost from the first paragraph. Hence the infamous last paragraph of ultimate horror typeset in italics! in a good number of Lovecraft’s stories.
Not so with the stories here. Among the tone poems (And Then, And Then, And Then…), lovingly researched pieces of ephemera (Brattleboro Days, Yuggoth Nights), and deft examinations of Lovecraft the Man and Collection of Awful Foibles (Jitterbuggin’, The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft) are some of the best tales in the genre, by anyone, and they are almost all catastrophic.
There is Wuji, in which a taiji student in late 60s Oakland undertakes a course of unusual martial training in order to help defend his neighbourhood in the middle of a turf war. It’s tricky to speak of the catastrophe in Nick’s stories without wandering into spoiler territory, but I will in this case and only as an example. There is a moment towards the end of Wuji where the narrator reveals itself to the reader. It’s a moment that can turn the entire narrative on its head, an aha! moment of cursed Knowledge. When it happens, it’s jarring, fantastic, and one of the best reasons to read Mamatas, that catastrophic moment when it all careens away to the left. In Wuji, the narrator simply takes over at the critical point: he’s been chatty and conversational throughout (Mamatas is a dab hand at dialogue) and so when the shift to first person happens, it’s smooth. (Well, maybe a spoiler of the narrator’s identity isn’t actually needed, now that I think of it. Go read it yourself!)
The catastrophe hits again in Real People Slash (a brutally funny account of one Socialist’s Lovecraftian enlightenment at the pincers of the Mi-Go), and in Dead Media (again with those Fungi from Yuggoth! but Mamatas has thought these beasties through and delivers a cosmic uppercut in the last paragraphs that’s delightful), and again in And Other Horrors (with Don Webb – a supremely twisty tale of mind-swapping and the implications of the Yith). Orrin Grey, in his clever Introduction to The Nickronomicom, notes that Mamatas has a thing for Lovecraft’s brain-raping critters and isn’t shy about using their own dread tactics, drastically moving perceptions around, both in his characters and in his readers. These shifts are true catastrophes, there’s no preparing for it, he does not telegraph his punches: one moment you’re in a squatter’s riot in Queens and the next you’re instantly freezing to death on the surface of dark Yuggoth. Mamatas is merciless.
It’s a mercilessness that comes to perfect fruition in the final novella here, On the Occasion of My Retirement. Mamatas lets all the tropes come out to play – cursed statuary, antagonistic Miskatonic professors, mind-swapping that shouts out to The Thing on the Doorstep) – but he also throws cutting-edge nanotube tech (VANTABLACK! I admit it: I swooned), predatory sexuality, freaking Kafka, deconstructions of key sentences from Lovecraft’s pen, and a dizzying amount of academic-speak (my wife, who works in Ivory Towers, confirms for me its authenticity) into the mix. The effect is hallucinatory, and again, the catastrophe is there, waiting, when the identity of the narrator, their goals, the very nature of what you’ve been reading, even… shifts. It all shifts horribly. Welcome, Vertigo! Hello, Horror! Following this particular catastrophe, then, comes another joy of reading Mamatas: his skill with a great ending… “And now, administrators and administrated, acolytes and initiated, students and drop-outs, hangers-on and soon-to-be-hanged, my prefatory remarks are over and my keynote lecture shall begin. First slide, please.”
FIRST SLIDE, PLEASE. Every shift and catastrophe experienced through On the Occasion of My Retirement leads to that final sentence, which is itself a fresh catastrophe, another profound shift that waits on the other side of that last period. Which is what Lovecraft, at his best, was all about: inducing thought, triggering fear through the correlating of contents. The real italics come after you put down the book.
Nick Mamatas gets it. And Innsmouth Free Press gets Mamatas. They’ve put together a marvellous book in The Nickronomicon: beautifully set, graced with interior artwork by GMB Chomichuk (pages from a book that don’t look like cheap Simonomicon rip-offs) and a cover by Oliver Wetter. If you enjoy Lovecraft even a little, enough to have grown tired of the rehashed Mythos slurry that passes for “weird fiction” these days, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of The Nickronomicon in your hands, and into the hands of your friends. Highly recommended.
Available for pre-order now from Innsmouth Free Press
Scott R Jones is the author of the short story collections Soft from All the Blood and The Ecdysiasts, as well as the non-fiction When the Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality. His poetry and prose have appeared in Innsmouth Magazine, Cthulhu Haiku II, Broken City Mag, and upcoming in both Summer of Lovecraft and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.