Rainbringer: Zora Neale Hurston Against The Lovecraftian Mythos, by Edward M. Erdelac
(Note: I would definitely have bought, read and reviewed this no matter what but I was given an Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for this review, which is the coolest fucking thing that has ever happened to me.)
Ed Erdelac came to my attention first when I was devouring all the Lovecraft Lite I could lay hand to–your Titus Crow, your Atrocity Archives, Meddling Kids, Lovecraft Country, Southern Gods and Ballad of Black Tom–and was also in the grip of a fever for Weird Westerns–The Sixgun Tarot, The Sisters Brothers–when I came across The Merkabah Rider, a four-volume series about a Hasidic gunslinger who fights demons and monsters from his own spiritual milieu and other, older darknesses in the Old West. Religion-as-magic? Angels, Devils and Squid? KABBALAH COWBOY???
Sadly it would be some years before I’d be able to read the Rider’s adventures because they were out of print at the time and didn’t have any e-texts in any dark corner of the internet I could find, but eventually they were reissued on Kindle and my WORLD BEGAN TURNING AGAIN. Shortly thereafter I started following Ed on Twitter and chiming in like a jackass where I didn’t belong and just recently saw his call for advanced readers for his new novel, and I decided to make myself a problem that could only be solved by throwing a Mobi file full of monsters into the marsh and running in the opposite direction.
He was kind enough to oblige, BECAUSE HE KNEW WHAT WAS GOOD FOR HIM.
To my shame, I did not realize that Zora Neale Hurston–famed author, cultural and linguistic anthropologist and moviemadame–was a real person prior to Rainbringer
; I had of course heard of Their Eyes Were Watching God
and, considering my longstanding interest in Hoodoo and Vodun I’ve actually done myself an enormous disservice by neglecting her work, but what can I say: You go to Christian school, you avoid anything that sounds Jesusy afterward; if only I had known. Also, in my defense, the real Zora led a life so sensational and adventurous that one could easily print her actual, sans
-monsters biography as a fictional account and it would both sell out immediately and
be lambasted as wildly unrealistic and exaggerated; the dame Lived, you guys, and honestly ‘fighting squamous intelligences from the darkness behind the stars’ would really only figure in maybe her top five. To this point, and to preserve my own suspension of disbelief, I intentionally didn’t look her up or fact-check any timelines or the appearances of any then-working-artist-now-mythologically-legendary-creators characters; both because I trust Ed to have both done his homework and know when story should supersede historical accuracy and because it would surprise me nothing at all to learn that the real Zora did
work on a play with Orson Welles or hung out with Moms Mabley at the club or was contentious-working-partners with Langston Hughes or was actually inducted into the Mysteries by a Hoodoo Doctor. My favorite books, fiction or otherwise, always provide a starting-point to research into a dozen other topics; I’ll be undertaking an education in Zora’s work among other things, so I’m sure I’ll come to know more about her life and times before too long.
To give the elevator pitch, Rainbringer is a collection of short stories and novellas (Ed’s preferred format) wherein Zora just tries to be allowed to goddamn exist as a black woman who wants to write books in the first half of the 1900s, and is stymied at every turn by racism, misogyny and intellects from Another Place that are so deeply strange and hostile to our layer of reality that the only way they can interact with humans is to use them as finger-puppets that eventually explode from the strain.
One thing he does really well that’s becoming more and more popular among Mythos and Mythos-adjacent authors is to place the various monstros and abominawhatsits and shoggamagoths of Lovecraft’s canon less in their original context of a cold, cruel, amorally random universe and into the framework of Angels, Devils and Squid
; that is to say, roughly, the Good, the Bad, and the So Horrifically Alien That Good And Bad Might As Well Be The Same Thing. The forces with whom Zora is aligned are pretty explicitly those of Abrahamic religion, although the loa
of Vodun and other belief systems are also definitely players on the board with a vested interest in the outcome of the game. This removes the inherent hopelessness and futility of human existence that was central to Lovecraft’s whole deal, and while we can talk about the virtues of anti-nihilism and choosing to fight for something in a world where nothing fundamentally matters, I think it can generally be agreed that 1.) This is more interesting and more fun, and 2.) Fuck HPL, everything he stood for and his dead racist skeleton bones forever. It’s also important to note that like many stories making use of the AD&S framework such as Hellboy
, The Dresden Files
and your various Buffyverse
offerings, Good in Rainbringer doesn’t necessarily mean Nice
, and it is implied with some regularity that the higher levels on any
side in the war are ultimately all mind-shattering nightmares from beyond the places light can reach.
Rainbringer is not just some of the better Lovecraftian fiction out there right now, it’s also a deliciously detailed and intricate look at Zora’s attempt to catalogue and preserve various cultural aspects of black life in America (and beyond) at the time, particularly those inhabitants of the Carolina shores known as the Gullah, and their language, religion and ways of life feature heavily not only in a sort of True Detective way but as part of the story and experience of being black in the United States, which is to say pretty much against one’s will. I’ll be honest: Ed, like myself, is a white dude and I wasn’t immediately sure how comfortable I was reading his take on life as a black woman in the 30’s, especially once the (era-and-context-appropriate) n-words started dropping, but it immediately became clear that he knew what the hell he was talking about and that his understanding was born of a pure, borderline alarming love for Zora Neale Hurston and everything she sought to achieve by existing; Rainbringer is not an excuse to cram a historical domain character into his world of monstros and Very Bad Frogs, it is a love letter and him bringing his skillset to bear as his best way to interact with and honor a creator that clearly means the world to him. It occurred to me while reading that his previous novel Conquer, which appears to basically be Shaft: Monster Hunter in the very best way, was probably something of a dry run for this to make sure he could handle certain elements of telling a black hero’s story right; I haven’t made the time to read Conquer yet (I’M SORRY ED THERE’S A LOT TO READ AND ALWAYS MORE OF IT), but gone is what hesitation I might once have felt about reading the adventures of a literal soul-brother written by a dude as pale as myself. This is 100% not to say “Go ahead and write from the perspective of whatever specific cultural and ethnic group you want with impunity”, ha-ha, no, it is not that, it is to say that if you’re gonna try such a thing, you’d better be as good-hearted about it as Ed Erdelac. To quote him quoting Joe R. Lansdale: We learn about one another by trying to step into one another’s shoes; they may not always fit as well as we would like, but we ought to try walking in them.
As is natural with any collection of stories, the individual reader will gravitate more to some than others; I’m personally always a sucker for Nyarlathotep and references to Judaism and the King in Yellow and cultural and linguistic anthropology, and so I was not disappointed, and even the stories that didn’t feature my specific favorite Mythos beasties or academic disciplines had plenty to surprise me and to recommend them, such as what I’m pretty sure was a reference to KING SOLOMON’S MINES, a book I was fairly certain I was the last person ever to read back in 1999, that caught me completely off guard in the most delightful way.
Bottom line, if you’re a fan of anthropology, black history, montros, and kick-ass women, Rainbringer: Zora Neale Hurston Against The Lovecraftian Mythos is for you. Support one of my favorite authors in supporting of one of his favorite authors at a bafflingly reasonable price. I’ll be buying a copy despite the ARC he was good enough to send me, and recommend you do the same with all haste.
Score: 9/10 Saturday Nights On Sunday Night
I wish I was different, but this feels essential