Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald,” first published in 2003 in Shadows Over Baker Street (edited by Michael Reeves and John Pelan). Spoilers ahead. We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy.
“She was called Victoria, because she had beaten us in battle, seven hundred years before, and she was called Gloriana, because she was glorious, and she was called the Queen, because the human mouth was not shaped to say her true name. She was huge, huger than I had imagined possible, and she squatted in the shadows staring down at us, without moving.”
Narrator, a retired army major, returns to Albion from Afghanistan, where gods and men are savages unwilling to be ruled by London, Berlin, or Moscow. The Afghan cave-folk tortured Major by offering him to a leech-mouthed thing in an underground lake; the encounter withered his shoulder and shredded his nerves. Once a fearless marksman, he now screams at night. Evicted from his London lodgings, he’s introduced to a possible roommate in the laboratories at St. Bart’s. This fellow, whom Major soon calls “my friend,” quickly deduces his background. He won’t mind screaming if Major won’t mind Friend’s irregular hours, his use of the sitting room for target practice and meeting clients, or the fact that he’s selfish, private, and easily bored.
The two take rooms in Baker Street. Major wonders at the miscellany of Friend’s clients and his uncanny deductive powers. One morning Inspector Lestrade visits. Major sits in on their meeting and learns that Friend is London’s only consulting detective, aiding more traditional investigators who find themselves baffled. He accompanies Friend to a murder scene. Friend has a feeling they’ve fought the good fight together in the past or future, and he trusts Major as he trusts himself.
The victim lies in a cheap bedsit, sliced open, his green blood sprayed everywhere like a gruesome study in emerald. Someone’s used this ichor to write on the wall: RACHE. Lestrade figures that’s a truncated RACHEL, so better look for a woman. Friend disagrees. He’s already noted, of course, that the victim’s of the blood royal—come on, the ichor, the number of limbs, the eyes? Lestrade admits the corpse was Prince Franz Drago of Bohemia, her Majesty Victoria’s nephew. Friend suggests RACHE might be “Revenge” in German, or it might have another meaning—look it up. Friend collects ash from beside the fireplace, and the two leave. Major’s shaken—he’s never seen a Royal before. Well, he’ll soon see a live one, for a Palace carriage awaits them, and some invitations can’t be rejected.
At the Palace, they meet Prince Albert (human), and then the Queen. Seven hundred years ago, she conquered Albion (hence Victoria—the human mouth can’t speak her real name.) Huge, many-limbed, squatting in shadow, she speaks telepathically to Friend. She tells Major he’s to be Friend’s worthy companion. She touches his wounded shoulder, causing first profound pain, then a sense of well-being. This crime must be solved, the Queen says.
At home, Major sees that his frog-white scar is turning pink, healing.
Friend assumes many disguises as he pursues the case. At last he invites Major to accompany him to the theater. The play impresses Major. In “The Great Old Ones Come,” people in a seaside village observe creatures rising from the water. A priest of the Roman God claims the distant shapes are demons and must be destroyed. The hero kills him and all welcome the Old Ones, shadows cast across the stage by magic lantern: Victoria, the Black One of Egypt, the Ancient Goat and Parent of a Thousand who’s emperor of China, the Czar Unanswerable of Russia, He Who Presides over the New World, the White Lady of the Antarctic Fastness, others.
Afterwards Friend goes backstage, impersonating theatrical promoter Henry Camberley. He meets the lead actor, Vernet, and offers him a New World tour. They smoke pipes on it, with Vernet supplying his own black shag as Camberley’s forgotten his tobacco. Vernet says he can’t name the play’s author, a professional man. Camberley asks that this author expand the play, telling how the dominion of the Old Ones has saved humanity from barbarism and darkness. Vernet agrees to sign contracts at Baker Street the next day.
Friend hushes Major’s questions until they’re alone in a cab. He believes Vernet’s the “Tall Man” whose footprints he observed at the murder site, and who left shag ash by its fireplace. The professional author must be “Limping Doctor,” Prince Franz’s executioner—limping as deduced from his footprints, doctor by the neatness of his technique.
After the cab lets them out at Baker Street, the cabby ignores another hailer. Odd, says Friend. The end of his shift, says Major.
Lestrade joins our heroes to await the putative murderers. Instead they receive a note. The writer won’t address Friend as Camberley—he knows Friend’s real name, having corresponded with him about his monograph on the Dynamics of an Asteroid. Friend’s too-new pipe and ignorance of theatrical customs betrayed that he was no shag-smoking promoter. And he shouldn’t have talked freely in that cab he took home.
Writer admits to killing Prince Franz, a half-blood creature. He lured him with promises of a kidnapped convent girl, who in her innocence would go immediately insane at the sight of the prince; Franz would then have the Old One-ish delight of sucking her madness like the ripe flesh from a peach. Writer and his doctor friend are Restorationists. They want to drive off man’s Old One rulers, the ultimate act of sedition! Sating monsters like Franz is too great a price to pay for peace and prosperity.
The murderers will now disappear; don’t bother looking for them. The note’s signed RACHE, an antique term for “hunting dog.”
Lestrade initiates a manhunt, but Friend opines the murderers will lay low, then resume their business. It’s what Friend would do in their place. He’s proven right—though police tentatively identify Doctor as John or James Watson, former military surgeon, the pair aren’t found.
Major consigns his story to a strongbox until all concerned are dead. That day may come soon, given recent events in Russia. He signs off as S____ M____ Major (Retired).
What’s Cyclopean: Nothing, every word in this story is perfect.
The Degenerate Dutch: Even seven hundred years after the Old Ones turn the moon blood-red, England exists in noticeable form. In British fantasy, England tends to be as essential a component of the universe as hydrogen.
Mythos Making: The returned Old Ones include Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, and Cthulhu, as well as several less immediately identifiable entities.
Libronomicon: Oddly for a Gaiman story, books don’t play any notable part in “Study.” There’s a theatrical script, though.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Those of the blood royal feed on madness for their pleasure. It is not the price we pay for peace and prosperity. It is too high for that.