In the Black Mill

Unsettling Chapters: In the Black Mill

Sadly, there is a great divide in the literature world, one which I don’t really understand. Having completed an MFA program, I can speak to the snootiness of the literati establishment and its delineation between literary and genre fiction.

Personally, I believe it’s all simply fiction, and if there is any division, it’s between well-written fiction and not-so-well-written fiction.

But rather than rehash this tired debate, I’d like to talk about a writer who obliterates this divide, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. He has explored genre and pulp fiction in his novels The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Final Solution and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and as editor of McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories.

Perhaps his most daring genre work is the short story “In the Black Mill,” an homage to Lovecraft that first appeared in Playboy and later in his collection Werewolves in Their Youth.

For my money, “In the Black Mill” is the greatest Lovecraft-inspired work ever written. However, in full disclosure: I grew up in a rusting steel town outside of Pittsburgh, which is the setting for “In the Black Mill.” Lovecraftian horror set in the Rust Belt of my youth? A forbidden ritual centered on an old steel mill?

Sign me up.

I don’t want to get into specifics, or give away too much, other than to say the pleasure of reading “In the Black Mill” comes from its balance of originality and familiarity. A lot of Lovecraft-inspired fiction comes across as overly referential or derivative. Chabon infuses the old legends with a post-industrial setting, a brilliant ending and a healthy dose of meta-fiction.

But for all the new wrinkles, Chabon links up with Lovecraft via three avenues: thematic connections, stylistic connections and familiar places and names.

First, the thematic connections:

There is a narrator called away from home, in this case an archeologist (Lovecraft was fond of having scholars or heirs travel to strange locales). Upon arrival, he encounters numerous grotesqueries among the local folk: physical deformities, impurity (particularly of food and drink) and increasingly odd and suspicious behavior. All classic Lovecraft devices, particularly his penchant for displacement.

Stylistic connections:

Here, Chabon deviates from his typical style and writes with Lovecraftian grandiosity. See un-Chabon-like phrases such as “…the immemorial accursedness of his drab Pennsylvania hometown” and “…the eldritch moment.” The narrator also pays close attention to setting and description, much like HPL. We come to know the topography of this Rust Belt village as well as we know Arkham, Dunwich and Innsmouth, “that ill-rumoured and evilly shadowed seaport of death and blasphemous abnormality.”

Likewise, Chabon draws a third connection to Lovecraft by utilizing similar places and names. There is the Miskahannock river and valley (what I imagine to be an amalgamation of Lovecraft’s Miskatonic river and valley and “hannock,” a variation of the Delaware Indian word for “stream,” which is a commonly used suffix in Western Pennsylvania, as in Neshannock Township). There are the Yuggogheny Hills (Yog-Sothoth meets the Allegheny) and then characters named Philippa Howard Murrough and August Van Zorn.

Perhaps the greatest commonality between this story and HPL is philosophical. Lovecraft exceled at presenting what appeared to be insurmountable terror, only to reveal at the end that the evil is even greater than at first imagined. It’s not the personal torment that is so horrifying, but scope. The implication that the nightmare has only just begun, and eventually, we will all suffer the narrator’s fate.

This is post-industrial Rust Belt horror at its finest.