This story was Laird's first professional sale. It was bought by Gordon Van Gelder for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It appeared in the September 2001 issue of the magazine (back issue available here).
The story is available online at Nightmare Magazine:
It is also available in an audio version narrated by Stefan Rudnicki:
As you (re-)read "Shiva, Open Your Eye", watch for these Barronisms:
- Whiskey (Scotch)
- Predator toying with prey
- Cycles of predatory activity
- American cars
- Lizard brain
- Fatal fascination
- Decrepitude/agedness masking supernatural power
- Wisdom gained too late
- Shadows behaving strangely
- Toothless mouth
- Kerosene lamp
- Quonset hut
NOTES ON THE STORY
Page numbers refer to the paperback edition.
Of the story, Barron has written:
"I wrote it in the Lovecraft vernacular as a five-finger exercise." (Reddit)
A five-finger exercise is "an activity undertaken for the purpose of skill development". (wiktionary)
the ineffable nature of the cosmos (19)
Ineffable is "incapable of being expressed in words", "indescribable", "unspeakable", or "too great, powerful, beautiful, etc. to be described or expressed" (Merriam-Webster)
It is a very Lovecraftian word: Lovecraft uses it in the stories "He", "Through the Gates of the Silver Key", "The Night Ocean", "Old Bugs", "The Mound", "The Horror in the Burying-Ground", "At the Mountains of Madness", "The Thing in the Doorstep", "The Dunwich Horror", "The Horror in the Museum", "The Last Test", "Under the Pyramids", and "The Dreams in the Witch-House". That it was used in so many collaborations (8 of the 13 works listed) suggests that either he or his co-authors recognized it as a word that signalled "Lovecraftness". His short story "The Unnameable" takes ineffability as its subject matter.
The idea that the nature of the cosmos (the universe) cannot be expressed in human language highlights two sources of horror in Lovecraft and Barron: the first is that the cosmos is beyond our ability to understand - the most we can hope for is to realize the extent of our ignorance; the second is that humanity has no special role or purpose, and that the universe (its inhabitants, and/or its creator, should there be one) is largely or entirely indifferent to our existence.
"Cosmic horror" is a label that has been applied to fiction that explores these sources of horror, including much of Lovecraft's and Laird Barron's work. "Cosmicism" is the term that has been coined for the philosophical underpinnings of the genre.
Funny how the truth always seems to do that when you shine a light on it. (19)
Barron writes elsewhere: "My first pro tale, an homage to Lovecraft called "Shiva, Open Your Eye", clued me into what I was good at and what I was always intended to do as an artist, and that is shine a flashlight into the big old cavern beneath our feet." (Weird Tales 359)
back when I lived on a rambling farm in Eastern Washington. (19)
Eastern Washington is the part of the state east of the Cascade Range of mountains (which include Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens).
Laird lived in Washington State between 1994 and 2011, first in Seattle then in Olympia. During this period he dedicated himself to writing, made his first sales, and wrote the greater part of the stories in his first three collections. Washington state is frequently used as a setting; the Western part far more so than the Eastern.
lumpy from all the abuse he had subjected them to in the military (19)
Mr. Connell's military service, from the textual evidence, was partly or entirely pre-1991 (see later note).
The man wore a big smile under his griseous beard. (19)
Griseous is "streaked or mixed with grey" (Collins dictionary).
He preferred scotch, (19)
Scotch is a type of malted barley whiskey made in Scotland. Whiskey is an alcoholic drink made from fermented grain mash. Bourbon whiskey is made from mash containing at least 51% corn.
In this collection alone, "whiskey" (21), "scotch" (11), and "bourbon" (5) make frequent appearances. So do "Irish coffee", "Jameson", "Blk Label", "Canadian Club", "Crown Royal", "Dewar's", "Wild Turkey", "Johnny Walker Black", and "Jack Daniel's", which are brands of Whiskey of one variety or another.
There are probably appreciable differences between these varieties of whiskey, but from an outsider's perspective it appears that "whiskey and its derivatives" summarizes the drink preference of most Barron characters.
I could have told him all these things and that he was correct in his assumptions, but it did not amuse me to do so. (20)
Cruelty, the deliberate infliction of pain or suffering, can be motivated by a variety of emotions, but I think that "amusement" is generally implied when no specifics are given.
The monsters in Barron's stories are frequently cruel, deriving great amusement from the process of frightening the humans they prey upon.
While a cat toying with its prey is colloquially believed to be cruel, its behaviour is actually motivated by self-preservation: by tiring and therefore weakening their prey, they are better able to avoid injury. It does not engage in the behaviour for entertainment, but because the behaviour is instinctual. Any pleasure it derives is the pleasure of obeying a primal drive. To what extent this is also true of the creatures described by Barron is uncertain. In addition to deriving amusement from their behaviour, it may also serve a more practical purpose. Fear robs people of reason, and causes them to act rashly and impulsively; by depriving its human prey of its most potent weapon, the creatures may be engaging in the cruel behaviour for tactical advantage.
See also On Chuckling.
Winter makes me lazy. It makes me torpid. (20)
The life cycle of the creature is mirrored by the cycle of activity of the commune in "The Imago Sequence".
or ordering the prawns at La Steakhouse. (20)
La Steakhouse appears to be a reference to a particular restaurant, real or fictional, but I was unable to find more information about it. It's also unclear whether "La" is the definite French article, or an abbreviation for Los Angeles or Louisiana.
No restaurants of that name are currently operating in Olympia, Seattle, Spokane, or Portland.
I will note without further comment that Mr. Connell, (arguably) consumed by a predator, was an omnivore.
State of Washington Private Investigator's License (20)
Applying for such a license in 2016 will cost you $200 for an unarmed license and $300 for an armed license. Applications are sent to the Department of Licensing.
You will be required to be at least 18 (unarmed) or 21 years old (armed), be a US citizen or resident alien, have no related criminal convictions, and have a current firearms certificate. You must also pass a state exam. U.S. Veterans may be eligible for partial reimbursement of costs.
Murphy Connell (20)
If Murphy or Connell is a reference to a specific person, I am not aware of it. Both names are of Irish origin.
boy who played football at the University of Washington (20)
The University of Washington was founded in 1861. It has branches in Seattle, Tacoma, and Bothell. All its sports teams, including football, are called the Washington Huskies. The football team plays in Husky Stadium, which is on the Seattle campus.
and a girl that had transferred to Rhode Island to pursue a degree in graphic design (20)
The Rhode Island School of Design, founded in 1877, is "one of the oldest and best-known colleges of art and design in the U.S.".
It is located in Providence, Rhode Island, which is the city in which H.P. Lovecraft was born (1890), lived most of his life, and died (1937). His tombstone (in Providence's Swan Point Cemetery) reads "I am Providence".
owner of a Rottweiler named Heller (20)
Rottweilers are a medium/large size breed of dog.
If the name Heller is a reference to a specific dog or person, I am not aware of it. It is of German origin, and denotes a small medieval coin.
an ancient pack of Pall Malls. (20)
Pall Mall is a brand of cigarettes produced by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
They make an appearance in several other stories, including "Proboscis", "-30-", and The Light is the Darkness.
stationed in the Philippines (20)
U.S military were present in the Philippines from 1898, when they were captured from Spain, until 1991, when they were asked to depart following the expiry of the 50-year lease for its military bases. A new agreement was reached in 2014 for the resumption of U.S. military presence on the islands.
I boiled tea with these hands gnarled unto dead madroña (21)
madroña (Pacific madrone) is a type of evergreen tree native to the western coastal areas of North America, including Washington State.
and efficiently riffled the books and National Geographics on the sagging shelf that I had meant to fix for a while. (21)
National Geographic is the magazine of the National Geographic Society, published monthly since 1888. It is known for its extensive photographs.
those accipitrine eyes (21)
Accipitrine relates to the Accipiter genus of hawks.
smacking my lips over toothless gums (21)
The crone in "Old Virginia" was also toothless, as are some of the apparitions (?) "The Procession of the Black Sloth", another crone in "Bulldozer", the sky in "The Royal Zoo is Closed", the great maw of darkness in "The Imago Sequence".
See discussion below for more on senility/debility in general.
One quick call to the Bureau of Land Management (22)
The Bureau of Land Management is a federal organization in the United States which manages the natural resources and administers public lands.
peripheral logic, as his wife often called it. (22)
"peripheral logic" may be a reference to circuit-board architecture, but I was unable to find information on the subject that I could comprehend.
the hood of the requisite '59 Chevrolet squatting between the barn and the house. (22)
Chevrolet is an American automobile manufacturer, founded in Detroit in 1911, and merged with General Motors in 1917.
I'm unsure which of the models produced in 1959 (Apache, El Camino, Impala, Kingswood, Nomad, Parkwood, etc) is the requisite kind.
The Rough Beast slouching toward Bethlehem of its own accord. (22)
This is a reference to the poem "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats, composed in 1919.
The last two lines of this short (22 line) poem read:
And what rough beast , its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The poem uses apocalyptic Christian imagery to comment on the cyclical (inevitable and predetermined) nature of history.
Scientists claim that there is a scheme to the vicious Tree of Life, (23)
The Tree of Life is a common motif in mythology. The metaphor was also used by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species to represent the unending chain of descent of living things:
"The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree.I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during former years may represent the long succession of extinct species.
As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.”
toss-axes do not ring in the tulgy wood (23)
Nightmare Magazine has "tulgey wood" here instead.
The word is nonsense, coined by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass:
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
"toss-axe" appears to be a reference to an axe used in axe throwing, a sport in which competitors throw axes at a target.
As a famous man once said, there are no accidents 'round here. (23)
This may be a reference to Peter Gabriel's song "Lay Your Hands On Me", from his 1982 album Security.
No luck, no golden chances
No mitigating circumstances now
It's only common sense
There are no accidents round here
indeed, I might fill a pocket book with that pearl of wisdom, (23)
Pocket Books produced the first mass-market pocket-sized paperback books in America in 1939.
The term has become synonymous with inexpensive small-format books.
Fear sweat is distinctive, any predator knows that. (23)
Odour and pheromones are an intraspecies forms of communication: they are use to alert other members of the species of intruders or imminent dangers. The "smell of fear" is real, but it should more properly be called "the smell of danger", and while its use is well documented in insect species, the evidence for mammals, including humans, is not conclusive.
Prey species DO react to the odour of predator species, but no known predators delight in "fear sweat". The fear-response in animals has a behavioural component, and this, rather than the emotional state, is what predators react to.
He came into the barn against the muffled imprecations of his lizard brain. (23)
Imprecations are "curses", "offensive words said in anger" (Merriam Webster).
The lizard brain is the colloquial name given to the part of the mammalian brain which is responsible for instinctual behaviours.
It was included in the model of brain evolution put forth by neuroscientist Paul D. Maclean in the 1960s and later. In this model, the other parts of the brain are the "neocortex" (advanced cognition) and the "limbic brain" (mammalian brain, associated with emotions, nurturing behaviour, reciprocity, etc).
The lizard brain was so-named because its structures were similar to structures thought to be dominant in the brains of birds and reptiles, and were believed to have evolved early in the development of the brain.
The model no longer has wide acceptance among neuroscientists, but it continues to hold public interest because of its simplicity, and because it provides a good first approximation.
Curiosity did not kill the cat all by itself. (23)
A simple expression of a key Barron motif. Humans are curious, and in Barron's fiction those that would prey on us have learned to use this trait to their advantage.
His relentless eyes adjusted by rapid degrees, fastening upon a mass of sea-green tarpaulin gone velvet in the subterranean illume. (23)
Illume appears to be a poetic substitute for "illumination".
This sequestered mass reared above the exposed gulf of loft, nearly brushing the venerable center-beam, unexpressive in its obscured context, though immense and bounded by that gravid force to founding dirt. (24)
Gravid means "pregnant", or "full".
Oh, admittedly it was a shallow rendering of That Which Cannot Be Named; (24)
"That Which Cannot be Named" is a concept commonly associated with Lovecraft, though the specific phrase does not appear in his stories.
In "The Whisperer in Darkness", (another story about a lone investigator visiting a reclusive gentleman who is actually a monstrous entity in disguise), we have its closest approximation:
. . . so from the wells of night to the gulfs of space, and from the gulfs of space to the wells of night, ever the praises of Great Cthulhu, of Tsathoggua, and of Him Who is not to be Named.
Barron's earlier story, "The Hour of the Cyclops", references "He Who is Not to Be Named".
There is a distinction to be made between something that "is not to be named" (taboo) and one "which cannot be named" (ineffable). In his short story "The Unnamable", Lovecraft refers to his fictional counterpart's frequent use of the trope:
I was too fond of ending my stories with sights or sounds which paralysed my heroes’ faculties and left them without courage, words, or associations to tell what they had experienced.
"That Which Cannot Be Named" likewise lies beyond the capacity of the human language to describe or name it, except obliquely.
In my mind, here was the best kind of art—the kind hoarded by rich and jealous collectors in their locked galleries; hidden from the eyes of the heathen masses, waiting to be shared with the ripe few. (24)
Barron explores the motif of occult art hoarded by rich collectors in "The Imago Sequence". The photographs in that story have a powerful transformative effect on "the ripe few".
Came the rustle of polyurethane sloughing from the Face of Creation; a metaphor to frame the abrupt molting bloom of my deep insides. (24)
If the phrase "Face of Creation" is a specific reference, I am not aware of it.
To molt is "to shed hair, feathers, shell, horns, or an outer layer periodically" (Merriam-Webster).
To bloom is "to change, grow, or develop fully" (Merriam-Webster).
Molting, blooming, and metamorphosis are three expressions of the same transformative idea, taken from animals, plants, and insects. In the latter two instances, the transformations are abrupt: from bud to flower, and from pupa to imago.
The supernatural transformation that affects many of Barron's characters is frequently described using one or more of these images.
There, a shadow twisted on the floor; my shadow, but not me any more than a butterfly is the chrysalis whence it emerges. (24)
The majority of butterfly species have a life-cycle with four stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and imago (butterfly). Metamorphosis is the process by which the insect goes through these transformations. See previous note.
The imago stage of the life-cycle lends its name to "The Imago Sequence" (the story and the collection), and will be discussed more fully when we examine the story in detail.
prolongated, splayed at angles, an obliquangular mass of smeared and clotted material, glaucous clay dredged from an old and abiding coomb where earthly veins dangle and fell waters drip as the sculpture dripped, milky-lucent starshine in the cryptic barn, an intumescent hulk rent from the floss of a carnival mirror. (24)
Obliquangular means "having an acute or obtuse (or non-right) angle" according to the Describer's Dictionary (David Grambs).
Glaucous is "of a pale yellow-green color" or "having a powdery or waxy coating that gives a frosted appearance and tends to rub off" (Merriam-Webster).
Coomb is an alternate spelling of combe, "a narrow valley or deep hollow, especially one enclosed on all but one side" (dictionary.com).
Lucent is "marked by clarity or translucence" (Merriam-Webster).
Intumescent is "marked by intumescence", which is "a swollen or enlarged part of a plant or animal" (Merriam-Webster).
I cannot explain, nor must an artist defend his work or elucidate in such a way the reeling audience can fathom, brutes that they are. (24)
As a member of the "reeling audience", I have resisted the urge to ask Laird to elucidate aspects of his work, choosing instead to let the work, the interviews, and the blog posts supply the keys with which to work the locks of his works.
As for my investigator, I like to remember him that way—frozen in a rictus of anguish at wisdom gained too late. (24)
Wisdom gained too late is a recurring theme. The image of Connell "frozen in a rictus of anguish" clearly parallels the fate of Marvin Cortez in "The Imago Sequence".
Imagine that instant as the poor insect falls into the pitcher plant. (24)
See note on pitcher plants in the post on "Old Virginia".
He was an Ice-Age hunter trapped in the gelid bosom of a glacier. (24)
Gelid means "extremely cold" (Merriam-Webster).
The glacier is another recurring image. It reappears in "Hallucigenia", "Proboscis", "The Royal Zoo is Closed", and "The Imago Sequence", in this collection.
Its uses will be explored in a future article.
I suffered the throes of blossoming. (25)
See previous note on "blossoming".
The transformative process is not a pleasant one. Migraines and other physical symptoms are associated with it, as it is hinted here.
It tends to affect my reasoning. (25)
It's a casual mention, but this is in my opinion one of the greater sources of horror in Laird's fiction: the loss of identity. It was touched upon in "Old Virginia", and is examined more vividly in stories in the next collection, such as "The Broadsword".
Fear of losing one's mind, memories, personality, and autonomy is a great source of anxiety and horror in everyday life. It's given monstrous form in this and other stories.
In dreams I swim as I did back when the oceans were warm and empty. (25)
The Earth was formed approximately 4.54 billion years ago (bya), and the oceans formed during the first period of its eon of its history, the Hadean (4.54 bya to 4 bya). The source of Earth's water is not conclusively known, but a great deal of it is now believed to have been in the material that formed the Earth.
The young Sun's output was in this period too low (approx. 70% of its current output) to account for liquid water (0 to 100 degrees C), which is explained instead by the greenhouse effect of an atmosphere heavy with CO2 and water. The temperature of the ocean varies currently from -2 to 35 degrees C at the surface. Early oceans were once posited to have been as warm as 55 to 85 degrees C, but this has been revised to temperatures closer to 40 degrees C in recent studies.
Microscopic life was present as early as 3.8 bya. The first multicellular organisms arose approximately 0.8 bya, and the first large, complex multicellular organisms appeared around 0.58 bya. The first sponges, jellies, corals, and sea anemones show up around 0.55 bya. At which point the ocean ceases to be empty depends on what criteria you are using.
There I am, floating inside a vast membrane, (25)
This membrane prefigures one of the most important elements of the novella The Imago Sequence.
a cigar is just a cigar (25)
A quote attributed to Sigmund Freud, who championed pscyhoanalytic methods which, in the popular version, interpreted anything phallic-shaped as a stand-in phallus.
The oceans have been decimated several times in the last billion years. (25)
Jack Sepkowski and David M. Raup identified five major extinction events in a 1982 paper. More recent statistical work has indicated that, rather than outliers, these events form part of a continuum of large and small extinction events over the course of Earth's history.
and Homo sapiens formicating the earth. (25)
To formicate (from formica, latin for ant) is to crawl or swarm like an ant. The implication here is perhaps that humans will take refuge in underground tunnels to escape the environmental and/or nuclear disasters they will inevitably cause.
A cycle, indeed a cycle, and not a pleasant one if you are cursed with a brain and the wonder of what the cosmic gloaming shall hold for you. (25)
Gloaming is dusk, or twilight, and "cosmic gloaming" here stands in for "death", to my understanding. As story-telling primates, an enduring theme of our stories is the difficulty in reconciling our short, often miserable, animal lives with our sense that there is, or at least ought to be, a grander purpose to our existence. See the discussion for more on this. Also: every religion.
Like the old song, the more things change, the more I stay the same. (25)
It's unclear whether the narrator is referring to the Cinderella song "The More Things Change" or the Bon Jovi one of the same title. Both have choruses which proclaim: "The more things change, the more they stay the same". The Cinderalla song is the older of the two, dating to 1990. The phrase is attributed to French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr ("plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"), who wrote it in 1849. If there is another, older, song to which this might be a reference, I was unable to find it.
When the lizards perished, (26)
Presumably a reference to the Cretaceous-Paleogene event, formerly Cretaceous-Tertiary, which put an end to 70-75% of all species, including all non-avian dinosaurs ("terrible lizards"). It was one of the "big five" identified by Spekowski and Raup (see previous note). While most dinosaurs perished then, the name ("terrible lizards") is misleading since they were a group of reptiles distinct from lizards, many of which survived the extinction event and whose modern descendants (iguanas, monitors, geckos, etc.) are still around.
and later wore the flesh and fur of warm-blooded creatures. (26)
Mammals and birds are the only endothermic groups of creatures currently extant, though there are a few species of fish who are also warm-blooded. The question of whether dinosaurs were endothermic, ectothermic, or some combination of both is still widely debated.
When ice chilled and continents drifted together with dire results, (26)
The theory of plate tectonics is a modern one: first proposed in the early 20th century but only gaining wider acceptance in the 1950s and 1960s. The rigid outer crust of the Earth consists of interlocking plates of rock (thin oceanic lithospheres and thick continental lithospheres) lying on top of a viscous layer of molten rock. On top of these plates we find the liquid oceans and the thin dust of weathered rock which forms the soil on which human life depends.
Convection currents in the mantle cause the plates to move at an imperceptible pace. The plates interact at their boundaries, in somewhat "violent" ways. Plates may move parallel to each other, creating earthquake-prone faults, or away from each other, causing the formation of new oceanic crust. When plates move towards each other, either subduction or collision occurs. In subduction, one plate is buried beneath the other, returning to the mantle. In collision, the plate edges are compressed, folded, and uplifted. Mountain chains result from either subduction (Andes, Rockies, Cascades) or collision (Himalayas, Alps). Volcanism occurs in all plate boundaries.
Both volcanism and the creation of mountains have been implicated as possible causes of major extinction events, including the two largest ones: the Ordovician extinction (447-443 million years ago) and the Great Permian Extinction (252 million years ago).
Long ago in a cave on the side of a famous mountain in the Old World. (26)
I was unable to determine whether the cave and monk are references to a specific location or person.
we smoked psychedelic plants (26)
Entheogenic plants (those used in religious, shamanic, or spiritual contexts which induce psychological or physiological changes) which were smoked in the "Old World" are largely limited to opium and cannabis. Other psychedelic were mostly ingested.
Purple dust and niveous spiral galaxy, a plain of hyaline rock broken by pyrgoidal clusters ringed in fire, temperatures sliding a groove betwixt boiling and freezing. (26)
"niveous" means "ressembling snow" (merriam-webster.com), and "hyaline rock" is rock that is transparent or nearly so. "Pyrgoidal" is "tower-shaped, or in the shape of a prism having at one end a pyramid of the same base" (wordnik.com)
This is presumably a poetic description of a non-terrestrial landscape.
The sweet huff of methane in my bellowing lungs (26)
This is presumably a reference to a planet with an atmosphere containing a large proportion of methane rather than a recreational use of the gas. Atmospheric methane on Earth is (currently) only 1800 parts per billion -- too thin to constitute much of a "huff".
Planets with methane atmospheres have been used in science fiction stories, e.g. in Jack Vance's "The World Between" (1953), and Robert A. Heinlein's novel Starman Jones (1953). Barron grew up with Vance and Heinlein books. [PW_100712] [SCHLK_141023] Whether the idea is derived from these fictional sources, or from other, or non-fictional, sources is not known to me.
They even prayed to terrible Shiva the Destroyer, who slept in his celestial palace. (27)
Shiva is a major deity in Hinduism. He is an ambivalent figure, with both benevolent ("the Benefactor") and fierce aspects ("the Destroyer").
Nail me to a cross, burn me in a fire. A legend will rise up from the ashes. (27)
Crucifixion was a method of capital punishment used principally in antiquity. Infamously, Jesus Christ was crucified by the Romans in Judea, and Barron is perhaps referring to the miraculous works attributed to him.
Execution by burning is another method of capital punishment, widely used. The allusion here is perhaps to witchcraft and heresy trials. The implication is that historical figures, or mythological ones, may have been the protagonist in another guise. This idea is explored at greater length in Laird's novel The Croning.
I vanished myself to the Bering Coast (27)
The Bering Sea is the portion of ocean between Alaska and Russia, and between the Pacific and Arctic oceans. The Bering Coast is therefore the part of Alaska which borders the Bering Sea.
There is an old native ghost town on a stretch of desolate beach. (27)
If this refers to a specific native ghost town I was unable to find it.
Quonset huts with windows shattered or boarded. (27)
Quonset huts are distinctive semi-cylindrical structures (like a barrel half-buried on its side) made of prefabricated corrugated metal. They reappear in a few other stories, including "Hour of the Cyclops" and The Imago Sequence.
moaning through the abandoned FAA towers colored navy gray and rust. (27)
The FAA is the Federal Aviation Administration. This recalls the "abandoned radar site near White Mountain, a tiny native village eighty miles southeast of Nome" from "Hour of the Cyclops".
It may also be that abandoned aviation towers litter the Alaskan landscape.
The shack waits and I light a kerosene lamp and (28)
Kerosene lamps make appearances in many Barron stories.
Scratchy voice from a station in Nome recites the national news (28)
Nome is an Alaskan city on the Bering Coast. The news stories listed off are kept slightly vague, possibly to make it difficult to date the events of the story, which I've nonetheless attempted to do.
the United Nations is bombing some impoverished country into submission, (28)
The United Nations Peacekeeping operations typically have a mandate of enforcing or monitoring peace treaties in war torn regions. In the decade preceding publication of the story, UN operations were deployed to Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, Somalia, Liberia, Rwanda, Uganda, Chad, Libya, Angola, Sierra Leone, El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala, Cambodia, Tajikistan, East Timor, Kosovo, Georgia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovinia, Macedonia, Serbia, Iraq, and Kuwait.
war criminals from Bosnia are apprehended in Peru.(28)
The Bosnian War (1992-1995) is the first firm date that we can attach to the story. If the apprehension described was inspired by a real news event, I was unable to find it.
A satellite orbiting Mars has gone offline, but NASA is quick to reassure the investors that all is routine (28)
The Mars Climate Orbiter was a NASA probe launched in 1998. Communication with the spacecraft was lost in September 1999 as it entered Mars orbit. I could find no other suitable satellite loss in the time period preceding the date of publication and following the Bosnian War. The reference to investors is puzzling, as NASA is a publicly-funded government organization.
in Ethiopia famine is tilling people under by the thousands, (28)
Ethiopia suffered a series of famines in the 1980s which killed over 1 million people. Three consecutive years of drought led to a famine in 1999-2000. Between 10,000 and 100,000 people died.
an explosion caused a plane to crash into the Atlantic, (28)
EgyptAir Flight 990 crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in October 1999. The probably cause was found to be deliberate pilot action. No explosion was reported. SwissAir Flight 111 crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in September 1998. The cause was an in-flight fire. No explosion was reported. I could find no report of a plane crash, with explosion, in the Atlantic for the period 1995-2000.
labor unions are threatening a crippling strike, (28)
If this is a reference to a specific news event from the period 1995-2000, I could not find it.
a bizarre computer virus is hamstringing two major corporations (28)
This may be a reference to the Melissa virus, which in March 1999 caused the Microsoft corporation to stop incoming e-mail and affected other companies, including Intel. On Friday, March 26, 1999, Melissa caused the Microsoft Corporation to shut down incoming e-mail. Intel and other companies also reported being affected.
I close my rheumy eyes and see a tinsel and sequined probe driving out, out beyond the cold chunk of Pluto. (28)
The Earth is on average 150 000 000 km (92 000 000 miles) from the Sun, which is 1 AU (astronomical units). Pluto is between 30 and 50 AU from the Sun.
Pioneer 10 (launched 1972) crossed Pluto's orbit in 1988. It is currently 114 AU from the Sun.
Pioneer 11 (launched 1973) crossed Pluto's orbit in 1991. It is currently 91 AU from the Sun.
Voyager 1 (launched in 1977) crossed Pluto's orbit in 1988. It is now 134 AU from the Sun.
Voyager 2 (launched in 1977) crossed Pluto's orbit in 1991. It is now 110 AU from Sun.
Laird's novella X's for Eyes deals with a probe sent out beyond Pluto's orbit.
I see cabalists hunched over their ciphers, (28)
Cabalists are "students, interpreters, or devotees of the Jewish cabala" (Merriam-Webster). Cabalists seek to discover hidden knowledge through textual and numerological interpretations of Jewish sacred texts.
No monsters there, instead they lurk at school, at church, in his uncle's squamous brain. (28)
The meaning of "squamous" here isn't entirely clear to me. Squamous means scaly or scale-like. It could refer here to squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer which can spread to the brain, but that doesn't seem too likely.
A refulgence that should not be seen begins to seep from the widening fissure. (29)
A refulgence is a radiant light, a brilliance.
In an on-line discussion forum, in response to a question about this story, Laird wrote:
The story is my first pro sale. I wrote it in the Lovecraft vernacular as a five-finger exercise. … "Shiva..." emerged from an idea I had regarding the Old Testament God using Christ as a kind of finger puppet or sensor to interact with humanity. [RD_38v3mp]
Shiva provides an interesting glimpse at the hidden nucleus about which many stories in the collection, and many later stories, orbit. There is an alien intelligence on our planet; a colony of them, perhaps. Its presence here predates all Earthly life, but it comes from outside. It is hidden, occulted. It interacts with humanity mostly through human agents, or agents that take human shape. Whatever else its other goals might be, it sees humans as a source of nourishment and carnal pleasure. This is a rare story which gives us the perspective of one of these agents.
As readers, we are left to piece together the dissociated knowledge presented in these stories, and this gives them a cumulative power that a similar set of disconnected stories lacks. There is a thrill that comes with recognizing that you’re holding a piece of a puzzle, and another when you see how it fits with the others, if you are predisposed to enjoy such things. This emotional charge imbues these stories with a greater sense of import, retrospectively in the case of Shiva, as it is the first published story which touches on this particular “mythos”.
Without the benefit of the other stories, we are left with a slight tale. In the forum post quoted above, he acknowledges that it “is largely devoid of a plot. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction surprised the hell out of me by accepting that piece as they traditionally prize plot and action.”
A reader of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, without the benefit of the other stories, could easily have read Shiva as straight crime story about a delusional serial killer. We’re given no details about the disappearance of the victims, including that of the private investigator, which ostensibly happens before our eyes. The protagonist may be exaggerating his feebleness, and his account may be otherwise unreliable. He raises the possibility himself, only to dismiss it:
Those are dim memories; easy to assume them to be the fabrications of loneliness or delusion. Until you recall these are human frailties. (25)
The story touches on many different aspects of cognition.
There come interludes—a month, a year, centuries or more—and I simply am, untroubled by the questions of purpose. (25)
His comparison of humans to ants is interesting in that regard. Both are creatures with a high degree of social organization who lead frantic lives filled with repetitive tasks. The ant, however, does not question its life. It obeys the dictates of its nature. “Everyone is looking for the answer. They do not want to find the answer, trust me.” Consciousness is both a blessing and curse.
There is little doubt that we primates owe our current position on the planet to our minds. Our cognitive advantage has allowed us survive, then thrive, in a wide range of environments. It allowed us to compete with other predatory animals, many of which could rend our flesh with frightening ease; it allowed us to punch above our weight. It still does.
A characteristic of many of Laird's monsters is their uncanny ability anticipate other character's thoughts, and to reveal information to which they should have no access.
If I desired a thought from a passing mind, I plucked it fresh as sweet fruit from a budding branch. (26)
It’s more than a little distressing to consider a predator which has unfettered access to our thoughts. No details are given as to mechanism, and I think the idea is horrifying precisely because it is incoherent. We need to understand it in order to protect ourselves against it. This predator's methods are beyond our comprehension, and so we cannot help but fall prey to it. It’s a theme that recurs with regularity in Barron’s stories.
The amusement that these predators feel at our pathetic attempts to escape them is perhaps analogous to the amusement one might feel in fooling a child with a simple coin trick.
Despite the access we are given to the protagonist's thoughts, his ultimate nature remains unsettled.
I was a man. And for great periods that is all I was. (26)
That I am a fragment of something much larger is obvious. (27)
The protagonist has a human body, and seems to possess a human mind, at least some of the time. What remains mysterious is whether the old man is merely a mask, the latest disguise of a shape-shifting entity, or whether he truly was once human.
There is a sense of urgency building. Mine, or the Other's? (28)
There is a suggestion that some of the memories to which he has access may not be his. Is this a single individual who has lived through aeons of time, or is he the latest in a series of individuals whose minds have been corrupted, co-opted, and given access to shared memories belonging to the "Other"? Are we dealing with a Tom Mandibole (X’s for Eyes) or a Rueben Hicks (Bulldozer)?
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large…
(H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters II, p. 150)
While putting together The Imago Sequence, I envisioned a mosaic of loosely related, yet thematically reinforcing, stories that would explore humankind's insignificance when contrasted with the immensity of the cosmos. (Laird Barron, “The Laird Barron Sequence: Defining the Undefinable”, Clarkesworld Magazine) [CWM_21]
Barron’s protagonist in Shiva certainly speaks Lovecraft's language. He wastes no time in telling us that humans are merely the latest in a long line of animals eking out a living on this planet, that we are dominant because contingent events have eliminated our predecessors, and that we have no greater purpose than that of nutrient.
When you consider the human lifespan and that of a being with memories that pre-date the formation of the solar system, insignificance is an understatement. The existence of this alien intelligence is hardly necessary to feel a bit of existential vertigo when confronted with the history of life on our planet, or the distances involved in the exploration of our cosmic neighbourhood.
Shiva is ultimately troubling not because it implies that monsters such as “the Mouth” may exist (it goes without saying that this is not likely), but because it implies that we would hardly notice it if they did.
Midway through the story we’re presented with a list of headlines -- events just as timely in 2016 as they were in 2001 when the story was originally published. War, famine, and other disasters, man-made and natural, reinforce the idea that life is sufficiently dreadful, and that humans are sufficiently monstrous to each other, to allow any number of inhuman predators to stalk in our midst undetected. John Langan's excellent "The Wide Carnivorous Sky" makes explicit use of this idea.
We may find the idea of a man-eating monster particularly worrisome, but this can only be because we have grown insensitive to the daily horrors which besiege us. The attention of divine or alien beings, even malevolent ones, would ultimately be reassuring: it would validate our sense that we are beings worthy of attention. It would confirm that we are not alone. The vast cosmic silence with which reality greets us every morning is far less comforting.