"In The Black Mill" by Michael Chabon in Lovecraft Unbound ed. Ellen Datlow
As I mentioned on my SF site a couple of weeks ago my wife and I attended a talk at the university by author Michael Chabon. My wife is a fan of Chabon's writing and has read a number of his novels. I have to admit that despite his reputation, among many other awards he has won a Hugo, a Nebula and something called Pulitzer Prize, I had not read anything by him. I enjoyed the talk and I found it interesting that he liked to work with the tropes of genre was well as mainstream literature. Having since read three of his short stories, the steam punk flavoured "The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance" and two Lovecraft inspired tales "The God of Dark Laughter" and “In the Black Mill,” I am impressed with his writing and really enjoyed both HPL stories especially “The God of Dark Laughter”
This the first of two posts will deal with “In the Black Mill”.
the following quotes are taken from
Michael Chabon Attacks Prejudice Against Science Fiction
from Wired 03.07.12
In this interview Chabon discusses the genesis of both stories. “I created this fictional character in the novel Wonder Boys of August Van Zorn, who we’re told is a writer of Lovecraftian horror fiction who had an early influence on the main character of that book, and at some point I just got the idea to try to write an August Van Zorn story.
You know, the pseudonym has always existed as a way to protect the “serious literary writer” from the taint of genre fiction, and that’s how August Van Zorn used it. In the book his real name is Albert Vetch, and he writes under the name of August Van Zorn because he’s a professor of literature, and he has to use a pseudonym for that kind of sordid fare that he’s cranking out, and that pseudonym was there for me as a kind of fig leaf too, to just imagine writing a straight piece of horror fiction that wasn’t “meta” or playing with the tropes of horror fiction in a literary way. I just wanted to write a straight-out story about awful goings-on in this small western Pennsylvania town that turned out to be rooted in some ancient cult of the Elder Ones, just straight ahead Lovecraftian Mythos kind of stuff, and I guess I felt when I did that that I had to protect myself under that pseudonym of August Van Zorn that I had created — it was a double fiction at that point.
And I wrote a story that was called “In the Black Mill,” and when I finished it I thought it came out well. I believe my agent sent it to The New Yorker, who wouldn’t even — I mean, it spent a very brief period of time on the editorial desk there before re-emerging with its dignity somewhat in tatters, and then she sent it to Playboy, to a great fiction editor who used to be at Playboy named Alice Turner, who was a great champion of all kinds of genre writing in the literary context, and she took it and wanted to publish it, but she insisted that I publish it under my own name. And god bless her, because that was right.”
The narrator of “In the Black Mill” is an archaeology graduate student who in 1948 has come to the mill town of Plukettsburg, Pennsylvania to follow up on work done by his department chairman on Native America mound builder sites near the town. Chabon immediately tells we are in a Lovecraftian world. The mounds overlook the Miskahannok River that runs through the Yuggogheny Hills. The chancellor and chairwoman of Plunkettsburg College who is hosting our narrator is a “gaunt old girl”, does that mean witch or crone perhaps, named Carlotta Brown-Jenkin, the deceased founder of the college was Philippa Howard Murrough so we are in good if not subtle hands here.
Two things strike the narrator right away, one is the mill itself “It stood off to the east of town, in a zone of weeds and rust-colored earth, a vast, black box, bristling with spiky chimneys, extending over some five acres or more, dwarfing everything around it. This was, I knew at once, the famous Plunkettsburg Mill. Everything was coming on, and in the half-light its windows winked and flickered with inner fire, and its towering stacks vomited smoke into the autumn twilight. I shuddered, then cried out. So intent had I been on the ghastly black apparition of the mill that I had nearly run my car off the road”(240) here is one of “the dark Satanic Mills” of William Blake made flesh.
The other thing he quickly notices is the number of missing limbs on the town’s male residents. ““The mill has taken a piece of half the men in Plunkettsburg,” Brown-Jenkin said, sounding almost proud.”Yes, it’s terribly dangerous work,” …. “important work.”(242).
The mounds in question were built by the Miskahannock Indians who while they apparently left no religious artifacts, did leave evidence of human sacrifice. While the site has already been heavily excavated the narrator hopes to find artifacts that will support his contention that the Miskahannock did worship some deity or deities and the previous contention that “The deaths had been purposeless: their justification, the cosmic purposeless of life itself.” (250) was wrong. While this archaeological work should be ample for one man the narrator has become obsessed with the mill itself. While both freight trains and trucks visit the mill everyday and most of men not just from Plunkettsburg but also from the neighbouring towns report to the gates for their regular shifts he has been unable to find out what the mill actually produces.
What did I think? Chabon’s initial introduction of so many mythos related names seemed to indicate that this might become more spoof than tale but I was very pleasantly surprised. While I felt it slightly overlong and that some of the revelations could have threatened to be a bit ho hum, Chabon in the last few sentences weaves together all the elements to create a true sense of horror, certainly a greater one that many of the pastiches I have read by less capable writers.
There are a number of reviews of the “The Black Mill”
on the net. I particularly like this one at Ensuring Chapters.
The reviewer mentions his connection with a rusting steel town outside Pittsburgh as one reason it might resonate so much with him. I was born in Windsor, worked in factories during high school and university vacations, and worked in archaeology for some nine years so I can understand the allure of this tale as well. It also, for no really good reason I can name except possibly the factory setting, since nothing else is similar, conjured up one of my favourite Thomas Ligotti stories "The Red Tower" . Be that as it may “In the Black Mill” is one of the better additions to the HPL canon I have read in some time. My next post will look at Chabon’s “The God of Dark Laughter” which I think is even better.