"One of the most tedious human beings I have ever known was my own mother, who, early in my childhood, fell under the spell of Madame Blavatsky and her followers and proceeded to weary my youth and deplete my patrimony with her devotion to that indigestible caseation of balderdash and lies."
The rest of the quotations will be from the same source unless otherwise noted.
I have to say at the outset that I loved this story by Chabon, the short review is please read it. The story is narrated by Edward D. Satterlee the district attorney of Yuggoghey County and is set in the same area of Pennsylvania as the town of Plunkettsburg of "In The Black Mill" fame. As district attorney Satterlee seems to direct the investigation of any complex criminal cases handled by the county detectives. This appears to be a very reasonable arrangement as we learn almost right away.
"The dead man, as I have already mentioned, was attired in a curious suit—the trousers and jacket of threadbare purple velour, the waistcoat bright orange, the whole thing patched with outsized squares of fabric cut from a variety of loudly clashing plaids. It was on account of the patches, along with the victim's cracked and split-soled shoes and a certain undeniable shabbiness in the stuff of the suit, that the primary detective—a man not apt to see deeper than the outermost wrapper of the world (we do not attract, I must confess, the finest police talent in this doleful little corner of western Pennsylvania)—had already figured the victim for a vagrant, albeit one with extraordinarily big feet.
“Those cannot possibly be his real shoes, Ganz, you idiot,” I gently suggested."
Yes the victim is a clown. A dead clown, shot and with the skin of his head removed "Like the cupped husk of a peeled orange"
Wonderful stuff, this immediately reminded me of the many clowns that haunt the works of Thomas Ligotti but here the similarity ends. Ligotti's narrators are most commonly unnamed individuals with no back story and little future. Satterlee is more akin to the hardboiled detectives of pulp fiction, who have seen it all and not liked any of it. Now an alcoholic Satterlee has ceased to bother to hide the bottle of whiskey on his desk behind the photo of his wife and son, he has plenty of backstory all of it tragic. These events and his aversion to the mystical leanings of his mother have left him cynical with a skeptic's view of the universe.
Chabon has created a perfect mythos tale in my opinion. We have dark gods with their requisite cultists, (whose appearance and behaviour are far more, can one say lovingly realized), that the rather perfunctory treatment they normally receive even by Lovecraft himself. We have a lamentably short cameo by a baboon, for a while it seemed we also had a crow but now I think not, haunting dreams, inbreeding, a salt smell, and mysterious books,
"and a couple of odd texts, elderly and tattered: one in German called “Über das Finstere Lachen,” by a man named Friedrich von Junzt, which appeared to be religious or philosophical in nature, and one a small volume bound in black leather and printed in no alphabet known to me, the letters sinuous and furred with wild diacritical marks.
“Pretty heavy reading for a clown,” Ganz said.
“It's not all rubber chickens and hosing each other down with seltzer bottles, Jack.”
“No, sir. Clowns have unsuspected depths.”".
And in this case they will prove to be deep indeed.
The story does not adhere to the cosmicism, of Lovecraft as the possibly of a divine presence is not ruled out but the insignificance of humanity is certainly captured. As well Chabon's language and description beautifully sets the tone of Satterlee lonely rationalist's battle against a universe that appears to be anything but,
"What disheartened me was not that I viewed a crime committed out of the promptings of an evil nature as inherently less liable to solution than the misdeeds of the foolish, the unlucky, or the habitually cruel. On the contrary, evil often expresses itself through refreshingly discernible patterns, through schedules and syllogisms. But the presence of evil, once scented, tends to bring out all that is most irrational and uncontrollable in the public imagination. It is a catalyst for pea-brained theories, gimcrack scholarship, and the credulous cosmologies of hysteria."
We are even offered hints other adventures that Satterlee and Ganz have been involved in, reference is made to the Primm case which reminded me of Robert Bloch's Ludwig Prinn, the author of De Vermis Mysteriis, or Mysteries of the Worm, but maybe it's just me.
Chabon offers an interesting take on the inspiration, genesis and marketing of his two Lovecraft pastiches and I felt it was worthwhile to quote him at some length.
Michael Chabon Attacks Prejudice Against Science Fiction
from Wired 03.07.12
Wired: "You wrote this great Lovecraftian horror story called "The God of Dark Laughter" How did that story come about, and were you surprised to see it appear in The New Yorker?"
Chabon: Well, that was actually sort of my second foray. I created this fictional character in the novel Wonder Boys of August Van Zorn, who we’re told is a writer of Lovecraftian horror fiction who had an early influence on the main character of that book, and at some point I just got the idea to try to write an August Van Zorn story.
You know, the pseudonym has always existed as a way to protect the “serious literary writer” from the taint of genre fiction, and that’s how August Van Zorn used it. In the book his real name is Albert Vetch, and he writes under the name of August Van Zorn because he’s a professor of literature, and he has to use a pseudonym for that kind of sordid fare that he’s cranking out, and that pseudonym was there for me as a kind of fig leaf too, to just imagine writing a straight piece of horror fiction that wasn’t “meta” or playing with the tropes of horror fiction in a literary way. I just wanted to write a straight-out story about awful goings-on in this small western Pennsylvania town that turned out to be rooted in some ancient cult of the Elder Ones, just straight ahead Lovecraftian Mythos kind of stuff, and I guess I felt when I did that that I had to protect myself under that pseudonym of August Van Zorn that I had created — it was a double fiction at that point.
And I wrote a story that was called “In the Black Mill,” and when I finished it I thought it came out well. I believe my agent sent it to The New Yorker, who wouldn’t even — I mean, it spent a very brief period of time on the editorial desk there before re-emerging with its dignity somewhat in tatters, and then she sent it to Playboy, to a great fiction editor who used to be at Playboy named Alice Turner, who was a great champion of all kinds of genre writing in the literary context, and she took it and wanted to publish it, but she insisted that I publish it under my own name. And god bless her, because that was right.
I wrote that story, and if I want to write a piece of Lovecraftian horror fiction, I not only have the freedom to do so, but I also ought to be proud of it, and put my name on it, and let it just go out there along with everything else that I’ve written. So that was published in Playboy, and it got a little bit of attention from the horror fiction crowd, and it got included in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, the Datlow anthology, and that encouraged me.
And so at some point a little idea popped into my head about clowns, and what if clowns really looked that way, and it wasn’t make-up at all. And there’s something really horrifying to me in that thought. I mean, “coulrophobia” has a name because a lot of people think clowns are terrifying and creepy, it’s not just John Wayne Gacy’s fault. There’s something about a clown in the abstract, with the white skin and the red mouth and all that. It’s bizarre anybody could have ever thought it was anything but horrifying, in my opinion.
But in any case, just trying to get at that, and wonder about clowns, and why they look the way they do, and in trying to answer that question, the answer occurred to me in the form of a horror story, and this time I just wrote it without any monkey business about it being by August Van Zorn or any of that, but I set it in the same fictional Van Zornian universe of Plunkettsburg, which is the western Pennsylvania town that he set all his fiction in, as we’re told in Wonder Boys. That was more for my own pleasure, it had nothing to do with wanting to wear a fig leaf of respectability anymore. That time, and maybe it’s proof that something had changed, because my agent sent that one first to The New Yorker, and they took it, and maybe part of the reason for that is because it was a little more thinkable, a little less unacceptable, for them to publish a piece of straight genre fiction, and the fact that they’ve published Stephen King since then suggests that there has been a change."
Chabon is a master of the turn of phase, and I think you can see his experience in screen writing in the dialogue. Possibly (probably) my favourite mythos tale (and obviously I have read many), I have reread it a number of times in the last few weeks and like it more each time.