Review: “Lord of the Land”, Gene Wolfe, 1990.
This week’s weird fiction is from Gene Wolfe and, unlike the few other works I’ve read by him, relatively straight forward. (I’m not much of a Wolfe fan.)
Evidently, after its first appearance in Lovecraft’s Legacy, edited by Robert E. Weinberg and Martin H. Greenberg, it had an afterword that I’m told, by the LibraryThing group, was rather apologetic for writing a Lovecraft pastiche. Here the main Lovecraft inspiration is his collaboration with Harry Houdini “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”. And we’ve got tentacles and a concluding science fiction rationale.
Wolfe doesn’t have any nested tales here. He almost has an unreliable narrator, but there’s a reason for his false detail.
That narrator – and narrator only for a story that he tells the protagonist Dr. Samuel Cooper, a folklorist, and often called “the Nebraskan” in the story – is the elder Thacker. (Incidentally, I suspect Wolfe is having some fun in alluding to the film The Virginian with Gary Cooper, but, no, nothing else of that story is used unless there’s a Colonel Lightfoot in the novel or movie since there’s one here.)
Thacker tells Cooper of an odd story from his youth when three boys shot an old mule and then engaged in a shooting competition using all the crows that showed up for targets. In the gathering darkness and to better his score, one of the boys, Creech, shoots a strange figure “like to a man, only crooked-legged an’ wry neck … an’ a mouth full of worms”.
Creech disappears and the elder Thacker calls the strange figure a “soul-sucker”.
Cooper hears the story as a guest in the Thacker household where he’s collecting folklore, and they invite him to dinner and to stay the night.
Afterwards, paging through his folklore journals, he comes across a reference to An-uat, an Egyptian god, the “Lord of the Land” and “Opener to the North”, who rounds up the dead who don’t want to get on Ra’s boat for their judgement by Osiris. Elements of it remind him of the soul-sucker he heard about, and it’s here that explicit reference is made to the Houdini-Lovecraft story.
Joining the Thackers as they watch tv, and seeing the younger Thacker for the first time, Cooper picks up a strange atmosphere of fear in the house. When he retires to take a bath, the attractive and young Sarah Thacker tries to seduce him and suggests they run away in the night. Cooper refuses, but he hears strange noises, sees a shadowy figure behind him, and, in what I think the most effective part of the story, visions of ancient Egypt, a necropolis, and a jackal.
And the end (with spoilers)
The younger Thacker turns out to be a soul-sucker. The elder Thacker has been hinting at it. It is Sarah’s reason for seeking escape.
The soul-sucker tries to take Cooper and is killed by the elder Thacker. We get an origin story of it as sort of an extraterrestrial, cuttlefish-like parasite (thus providing Lovecraftian tentacles – though tentacles actually don’t show up very often at all in Lovecraft, popular perception notwithstanding) that came from the stars (and it offers knowledge to Cooper) that was consumed by a jackal and then eventually lived in humans.
But, at story’s end, Sarah does not escape. She is infected by the parasite.
I won’t say it’s a great piece of Lovecraftian fiction. It’s the second time I’ve read it, and I remember nothing of it from my 2006 reading, but perhaps it will stick in my mind more the second time around.