“The Rule of Old Blood” is a satisfying conclusion to the trio of novellas in Ross Smeltzer’s recently published The Mark of the Shadow Grove (2016). (The first two were discussed in previous posts, see also Lovecraft Meets Earth Mother and Cernunnos and Shub-Niggurath). Though each story can stand on its own, the three are artfully linked through recurring imagery, back story and theme. The author’s subject is an ambitious one: illuminating the more horrifying aspects of power struggles between men and women, as well as our hostile relationship with Nature.
Smeltzer suggests that these two conflicts are a reflection of the same underlying decision: whether we interact as partners with the eternal feminine, as embodied in the natural world, or attempt to exploit, dominate and compartmentalize her in a quest to shore up the masculine ego and will to power. The author signals his perspective very early in the book with an arresting dream image of the vagina dentata. A strong feminist and environmentalist sensibility informs all three novellas. Smeltzer succeeds in translating ideas drawn from H.P. Lovecraft—and, in the case of “The Rule of Old Blood”, Clark Ashton Smith—into a work that addresses contemporary fears.
Readers familiar with Clark Ashton Smith’s dark fantasies will find elements in “The Rule of Old Blood” that suggest homage to the visionary creator of Averoigne and Zothique. A love of language and allusion is evident throughout the book, but especially in the last novella. As with the work of Clark Ashton Smith, readers are certain to acquire new vocabulary, a beneficial side effect. Because of Smeltzer’s book, I have acquired the words odalisque—first encountered in a Smith story—caryatid, termagant, scofflaw and my favorite, exenterated. The latter holds a position near an all-time favorite, exsanguinated. Readers will not have to look up these latter two to know they describe something really bad.
Aspiring writers are often exhorted to write short sentences, using the active tense, and avoid obscure, multisyllabic words—that is, to write like Earnest Hemingway. It will take decades to undo this unfortunate advice. Slavish devotion to this rule makes sense if the ambition is only to write product manuals for an audience that reads at a sixth grade level or below. Effective creative writing must be free to make generous use of the full range of vocabulary and grammatical forms available, active and passive voice, short familiar Anglo-Saxon words, and less familiar, foreign sounding terms containing ancient but still powerful connotations. These tools allow for expression of subtle emotions and nuances of thought and memory—ideally disturbing ones, in the context of horror literature.
Smeltzer does not make overuse of obscure terminology, any more than Smith did. Exenterate is the right word to use in the particular context he provides: he describes what a minor character has done to a newspaper—taken it apart and left it much less organized than when he received it. (I now have a word for what my wife accuses me of doing to the Sunday New York Times.) But the metaphor is one of disembowelment and evisceration, which is quite a bit more gruesome than the task might otherwise suggest. Why is this here?
The appearance of exenterate seems to be one of many examples in the text where seemingly unconnected and repeated images subliminally impact the reader’s unconscious. Thomas Ligotti does something similar with language, indirectly building up an image or mood in the corner of the reader’s eye—a suggestion of impending gruesomeness and disaster—with what appear to be incidental, easy to overlook references. Unobservant readers will find themselves growing increasingly disturbed by the material, but not know exactly why. The technique is marvelous when it works, as it does here.
“The Rule Old Blood” is full of such cleverness, as is the whole collection. There are sly allusions to both H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction and events in his life. The Necronomicon appears on one character’s “bookshelf of doom”, alongside the much more treacherous Alibek Codex. At one point the narrator, an investigative reporter named Jim Scordato, channels Lovecraft’s hatred of New York City, and of modernity in general. (The story is set in roughly the same time period—the early 1920s—when Lovecraft experienced his disastrous sojourn there.) Scordato’s boss, a stereotypical, hard driving big city editor, is named Munsey, probably after the Munsey magazines, purveyors of genre fiction that were popular at the time.
The Mark of the Shadow Grove, and “The Rule of Old Blood” in particular, are full of thought provoking ideas and troubling insights. There are interesting passages about class consciousness, labor relations, Freudian psychoanalysis, conventional religion, matrilineal culture, and Greek mythology. There is some inventive Old Testament theology concerning whether devils, lacking souls, can directly impregnate mortal women. (Apparently they can.) It was amusing to read Smeltzer’s critique of psychoanalysis, and by extension, Freud, in a series of vignettes. The lead character, fearful that he is losing his mind and succumbing to a death wish, consults an Austrian doctor named Holzman. Freud’s famous essay The Uncanny—mandatory reading by the way—is referenced to good effect: the concept of “the double”, and entity that is both familiar and unfamiliar, is key to the narrator’s fate. A lot to ponder.
Smeltzer makes frequent use of dream imagery and dream analysis as foreshadowing, and to mediate some of the back story, taking a cue from Lovecraft and other horror writers who have done the same. The old staple of reading a journal—actually two—that contain ever more bizarre content figures in the narrator’s growing awareness of his own doom. There is an echo of Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” (1927), sans the xenophobia but suggestive of subterranean horrors beneath the city’s bright facades. The scenes in which the narrator visits the studio of Virginia Schiaparelli will remind readers of Lovecraft’s story “Pickman’s Model” (1927), though Smeltzer’s touch here is a light one.
“The Rule Old Blood” begins with the lead character being sent by his editor to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy heir and art collector, a gentleman who left behind a journal of strange, incoherent entries. He was last seen on his way to meet the mysterious and alluring Virginia Schiaparelli, an avant-garde artist. She embodies the spirit of a powerful and independent woman, and becomes by far the most interesting and memorable character. Scordato’s growing relationship with this cosmic femme fatale reveals their common history and destiny, and leads them back to their origins—and a terrifying understanding of their true nature. Like many Clark Ashton Smith stories, there is a pleasing symmetry and circularity to Smeltzer’s work. Characters come back to their beginnings, but completely transformed, and also doomed.
The three novellas, set in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, interconnect in interesting historical and thematic ways. The author varies the point of view, alternating between masculine and feminine. At the climax of the third story Smeltzer radically shifts the view one last time for a powerful effect. Collectively, the three stories that comprise The Mark of the Shadow Grove are a masterful updating of the Lovecraftian Mythos, and provide unsettling insights about the nature of gender differences and humanity’s relationship with the natural world.