The text is available on-line. It was collected in the limited hardcover edition of The Imago Sequence and Other Stories but was left out of the softcover and e-book editions.
CORRECTION: Reader Peter Olafson has brought the following information to my attention: "Hour of the Cyclops" IS included in the softcover edition. It is not listed in the table of contents, or the copyright page, but it included after The Imago Sequence, on pages 241-248.
It was first published in Three-Lobed Burning Eye #6, July 2000. This is a semi-annual, on-line speculative fiction magazine edited by writer Andrew S. Fuller. The latest issue (as of January 01, 2015) is #27, published on September 30, 2015.
The title of the journal is explicitly Lovecraftian, taken from the last line of H.P. Lovecraft's short story “The Haunter in the Dark”:
I see it—coming here—hell-wind—titan blur—black wings—Yog-Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye. . . .
We can expect a Lovecraftian (or at least a Cthulhu Mythos) story from such a journal, and that is precisely what Laird Barron delivers in his first published outing.
NOTES ON THE TEXT
ghastly orange symbol
The symbol, which is also “loathsome” and suspiciously akin to a hand gesture, is too vaguely described to be identified conclusively.
Well, next time I'd shoot the Ancient Apothecary first.
If "Ancient Apothecary" is a reference to something specific, I am not aware of it. There is a short piece of Lovecraft juvenilia, "The Alchemist", which is about a 600-year old alchemist, but that seems like a stretch.
The Ancient Apothecary petted his sinister imperial.
array of devices lethal and malign
This is also suggestive of James Bond, the British Secret Service agent created by writer Ian Fleming. The film adaptations and later novels equipped Bond with numerous gadgets.
He hunched, raptor-like, chuckling.
Chuckling (laughing quietly to oneself) is a motif that will reappear frequently in Barron’s stories. I wanted to note its first appearance.
If this is a reference to something specific I am not aware of it.
My phony identification shined betwixt his spicate fingernails.
“Spicate” means spike-shaped. The fingernails, the “oily crescent of his mustache”, the Asian origin (“so long as the Ancient Apothecary confined himself to Asia”), and the long life (if “Ancient Apothecary” is anything more than a nickname) are suggestive of pulp villain Fu Manchu, as depicted in film and novels. His lifespan was unnaturally extended by the use of an elixir of life which he perfected.
they siphoned the blood from my body
Blood is another recurring motif in Barron stories. I’m noting its first appearance in this story.
Yellow Ichor No. Five
If this is a reference to something specific I am not aware of it. There is an offhand reference to an "Emerald Ichor of Life" in the novella X’s For Eyes.
The link between the colour yellow and the protagonist’s patron deity can be noted here briefly.
Drs. Chimera and Sprague
If the names are a reference to something specific I am not aware of it. L. Sprague de Camp is a well-known American writer of science fiction and fantasy.
I was the first agent to use it in the field
The terminology used supports the idea that the protagonist is a James Bond-esque secret agent.
When the stars fall into their proper design I shall render the Virgin, and Lord Cyclops will rear above the gelid sheets of His living tomb. We who revere the Lord of Shadow shall caper upon the squirming mound of our enemies; we shall light the great fires to welcome the Father of Decay as he lumbers forth to bellow cataclysm and ravish the earth!
A reader familiar with Lovecraft will at this juncture understand that “Lord Cyclops” is “great Cthulhu”, or a Cthulhu-analogue. The following two quotes from “The Call of Cthulhu” leave few doubts about this identification.
That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom. Meanwhile the cult, by appropriate rites, must keep alive the memory of those ancient ways and shadow forth the prophecy of their return.
Slowly, amidst the distorted horrors of that indescribable scene, she began to churn the lethal waters; whilst on the masonry of that charnel shore that was not of earth the titan Thing from the stars slavered and gibbered like Polypheme cursing the fleeing ship of Odysseus. Then, bolder than the storied Cyclops, great Cthulhu slid greasily into the water and began to pursue with vast wave-raising strokes of cosmic potency.
Additionally, the architecture and features of Cthulhu’s sunken city are described as “cyclopean” seven times in that short story.
If “Lord of Shadow” and “Father of Decay” are references to something specific, I don’t know it.
did the Church send you? Officious catamites!
A rare mention of a mainstream religion. The reference is vague, but their description as “officious catamites” ( “catamites” are young boys kept by men for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity) brings to mind the sexual abuse cases involving members of the Catholic Church. These began to receive significant media attention in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.
like an imperious rajah in a bad old film.
This gives the reader another model for the Ancient Apothecary. I’m not sufficiently familiar with bad old cinema to make a closer identification.
If Mr. Spot is a reference to something specific, I am not aware of it. There is another Barron character named "Spot" in the cryptic fragment "Snorre & Spot Approach the Fallen Rock".
get back to Central
It is unclear whether this is a formal or informal name for the protagonist’s handlers (or headquarters).
This body had belonged to an Olympic athlete in the prime of his life — a hammer thrower.
“Olympic” is a recurring motif in Barron’s work. The Olympic Peninsula (and the city of Olympia) in Washington State features heavily in his stories, as we will have future occasion to note. Olympic athletes are mentioned here and in The Light is the Darkness. Both refer obliquely to ancient Olympia, home of the original games and a religious center devoted to the worship of Zeus. Greek mythology, and Zeus’ father, the titan Cronus, will be touched upon in future stories.
It may be reaching to see in “hammer throwing” echoes of Thor, a Norse god associated with thunder and lightning, like Zeus. Elements of Norse and Germanic mythology will also be featured in future stories.
Alaska is a vast frontier
Laird Barron, the biographical information in the journal tells us, was born in Palmer, Alaska. Alaska is a setting that he will return to in multiple stories.
Not Meant For the Eyes of Man
In popular culture, Lovecraft is known for the trope that “there are things that we are not meant to know”, that there is knowledge which is dangerous to our well-being. This is derived from the opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu” (emphasis added):
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
an abandoned radar site near White Mountain, a tiny native village eighty miles southeast of Nome.
Both Nome and White Mountain are real places in Alaska. White Mountain is the last of the three mandatory rest stops for teams competing in the Iditarod (an annual long-distance sled dog race), which ends in Nome. Laird Barron competed in the Iditarod in 1991, 1993, and 1994 (finishing in 22nd, 24th, and 25th place respectively). He earned $1,000.00 in prize money in 1991.
There are numerous abandoned radar sites in Alaska. Anvil Mountain 7.5 km from Nome was home to a White Alice installation which was active from 1958-1978. It was demolished in 2011. I was unable to find information about an abandoned site closer to White Mountain.
moving on to Cairo where certain artifacts went missing from the home of an extremely private collector
If this is a reference to something specific, I am not aware of it.
Brazil, where he visited several unmapped temples
If this is a reference to something specific, I am not aware of it. (The popularity of the trope in video games and fiction has made the search for a specific instance very difficult.)
Lets just say I watched where I stepped and made sure shadows were shadows before I moved into them.
Shadows, and the things that can hide in, or be mistaken for, them, occur with regularity in Laird Barron’s stories. I will simply note the first occurrence of the motif here.
he would need a deep dark cavern and the infinite seep of subterranean water
This is the first use of the “caverns or system of caves” motif, which Laird will use in many other stories.
If this is a reference to something specific, I am not aware of it.
Her parents were some kind of genetic scientists; they grew her in a tube
Simply noting the first occurrence of yet another motif, the “genetically engineered child”, which Laird will return to in other stories, including The Light is the Darkness.
double Ph.D. in astrophysics and theology
Astrophysics is the branch of astronomy which uses physics and chemistry to determine the nature of heavenly bodies. Astronomy and physics are two of the more popular disciplines that Laird Barron’s characters study. Significantly, in many stories, those two disciplines serve as the keys to unlock the mysteries of the universe, and allow communication, and communion, with god-like entities. The cultists are frequently scientists. We will return to these ideas in future stories.
The girl decided to take up a sport, full contact karate, no less. She tried out for the Olympic team, went to Melbourne, took the gold.
The Melbourne Olympics were held in 1956. The Sydney Olympics were held in 2000. Karate has never been an Olympic sport. Judo has been an Olympic event since 1964, and Taekwondo since 2000. Given her age at graduation (17), the sequence of events described (graduation then taking up sport), and her current age as given in the story (31), her participation in the Melbourne Olympics would imply that the story is set in 1970 at the latest, while her participating in the Sydney Olympics implies a story set no later than 2014.
Yes, she dated a handsome Olympic hammer thrower,
This is the donor of the body currently occupied by the brain of the protagonist.
A tall, serious boy, pallid as chalk
Presumably the protagonist in an earlier stage of life.
The tunnel let into a weird grotto; thick stalactites oozed above a broad shelf of polished rock; to the left of the rock was a lagoon. It was impossible to discern the scope of the lagoon as it extended into absolute pitch. Big, was my feeling.
An altar was erected near the water’s edge; obsidian plinths bracketed a raised bench of malachite and serpentine, the whole of it scriven with elaborate glyphs and runes.
The scene is reminiscent of the underground cave, lake, pier, and altar under Suydam’s house in Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook”.
unspeakable horned mask he had stolen from Brazil
If this is a reference to something specific, I am not aware of it. Horned masks are found in many African cultures, and African slaves were brought to Brazil by Portuguese colonists. Presumably this mask is connected to the temple mentioned earlier.
He chanted a dirge in his vile tongue
It is unclear what language this would be, or what is vile about it. It is unclear whether this is the same language that was earlier described as “offensive to my ears”.
Invisible to the eye, but not my prickling skin, a presence entered the lagoon.
How the body reacts to extraordinary creatures, places, and events is something that Laird frequently brings to our attention. Tracking these motifs through the stories will be interesting.
“George!” She cried.
No hammer-thrower named George participated in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. George Frenn (US) and Giorgios Georgiadis (Greece) attempted to qualify for the 1972 Munich games. No Georges participated in the Sydney games, or any other Olympic Games since 1956 for that matter.
“Oh my god! What is that?”
It is uncertain what the thing in the Lagoon is supposed to be, although it is implied to be the Cyclops.
I had a nightmare like that once — the kind where you run and run, but your legs won’t move and the monster is right there, right behind you —
While it is played with humorously here, the motif of the “premonitory nightmare” is one that will appear in many future stories. I note here its first appearance.
October in Northern Alaska
The story is set in October. The year is not given, but textual clues inform us that it is post-WWII, post-Melbourne Olympics. That does not narrow it down as much as could be hoped.
It gave me the strength to steer her through a cluster of crumbling Quonset huts and jagged sections of tangled wire.
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.
I flushed with pleasure to witness feral Aldebaran shimmer in the lower firmament.
Rather it was the time of my master, He Who is Not to Be Named, to flow down from the crevices between the stars in icy space and lay claim to this wretched ball of dirt.
This is a long one to untangle. Aldebaran is mentioned by Lovecraft in “Polaris”, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and “The Festival”. Its association with “He Who is Not to Be Named” can be ultimately traced back to the Robert W. Chambers story “The Repairer of Reputations” (from the collection The King in Yellow) where it is mentioned twice in the same breath as Hastur:
When from Carcosa, the Hyades, Hastur, and Aldebaran,
He mentioned the establishment of the Dynasty in Carcosa, the lakes which connected Hastur, Aldebaran and the mystery of the Hyades.
Note that Hastur is implied to be a star or a place, and that the name “Hastur” was borrowed from the Ambrose Bierce story "Haita The Shepherd", in which it is the name of the god of shepherds. The next link in the chain is provided by Lovecraft in “The Whisperer in Darkness”, where the following list of terms is thrown at the reader with no context:
Yuggoth, Great Cthulhu, Tsathoggua, Yog-Sothoth, R’lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Hastur, Yian, Leng, the Lake of Hali, Bethmoora, the Yellow Sign, L’mur-Kathulos, Bran, and the Magnum Innominandum
Yian, Leng, the Lake of Hali, and Bethmoora are places, implying that Hastur is also a place. Magnum Innominandum is latin for “great not-to-be-named”.
August Derleth provides the next link, with stories featuring Hastur the Unspeakable, a monstrous entity with which he tries to harmonize the mythos of Lovecraft with that of Chambers. The Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game has codified the association between the entity Hastur, He Who Is Not To Be Named, Aldebaran, the King in Yellow, and the Yellow Sign, from whence it has drifted into popular culture.
Slitherer of the Stars
If Slitherer of the Stars is a reference to something specific, I am not aware of it.
Ms. Smyth shot me I don’t know how many times.
A reversal of fortunes for our protagonist. He is not the last doomed protagonist that we will be introduced to.
The text is narrated in the first-person by a protagonist about whom we know very little.
The action pulls you along from start to finish, with little time to reflect on what is happening. The protagonist's progression through the lair of the antagonist mirrors our deepening understanding of the situation, and of the protagonist's motives.
The first part of the story presents us with a variety of motifs (secret agent hero; eccentric villain; gadgets; magic symbols, gestures, and phrases; woman captured by villain; villain has a lair and minions; hero infiltrates villain’s lair; hero is captured; villain lectures hero) taken from spy, superhero, and pulp genres. They are presented straight, but light-heartedly..
The genre shifts to horror as progressively stranger and darker elements are introduced, but retains a light touch throughout. There isn’t much emotional investment in either the protagonist, the villain, or the damsel in distress. The stakes, though we are told that they encompass the fate of the world, feel low.
If this story didn't hinge on the reveal that the protagonist is no better than the antagonist -- arguably worse, given the indelicate, and almost certainly consent-less, use of the hammer-thrower's body – Laird might have made Ms. Smyth the protagonist. She is certainly described in much the same terms as the Navarro siblings from The Light is the Darkness.
The “super science” (experimental blood transfusion, autohypnotic suggestion, poison gas capsules, brain transplants, hi-tech gadgets, genetic engineering), magic (symbols, hand gestures, words), and mythological elements, both point to a setting that differs significantly from the everyday world. We will return to this setting, or similar heightened ones, when we explore the novellas The Light is the Darkness and X’s for Eyes.
The notes are incomplete, and mistakes of all kinds may have slipped in. If you have information that could help improve these notes, ideas you would like to share, or motifs you would like to add, please comment below.