The October Country: Oct. 12th: “The God of Dark Laughter” by Michael Chabon

In celebration of the month of October, I’ll be sharing 31 of my favorite spooky, eerie and creepy stories, one per day. The stories will range over an array of genres: horror, suspense, science fiction, mysteries and dark fantasy.

The October Country

that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…

— Ray Bradbury

October 12:

The God of Dark Laughter by Michael Chabon

Found In:

American Fantastic Tales (edited by Peter Straub)

Opening Line:

Thirteen days after the Entwhistle-Ealing Bros. Circus left Ashtown, beating a long reatreat toward its winter headquarters in Peru, Indiana, two boys out hunting squirrels in the woods along Portwine Road stumbled on a body that was dressed in a mad suit of purple and orange velour.”

There isn’t much that hasn’t already been said about Michael Chabon’s genius. He is a wordsmith extraordinarie, blessed with a fluid control of the language few of us can even imagine. Just look at that first sentence again. Consider the number of clauses, the piling up of detail, the carefully executed adjectives. And consider how it flows: smooth, easy, rolling gently off the tonuge.

Perhaps what hasn’t been noted often enough, though, is Chabon’s facility as a writer of horror. He has penned two tales of terror: In the Black Mill and The God of Dark Laughter, the latter of which is one of the finest and creepiest excursions into the Lovecraft mythos.

What I would give for a whole collection of such stories from Chabon.

The God of Dark Laughter begins with the death of a clown. Not just any death. This poor man was shot, and then the skin from his head was entirely removed (like the cupped husk of a peeled orange, as Chabon puts it). Our narrator is Edward D. Satterlee, the district attorney whose job it is to investigate the crime and perhaps prosecute the perpetrator.

It is clear early on that the Ashtown police are out of their depth. The first officer on the scene, Detective Ganz, is not even aware of what he’s looking at. He calls Satterlee and explains that the dead man is certainly a vagrant, and that he was endowed with incredibly enormous feet.

Those cannot possibly be his real shoes, Ganz, you idiot,” I gently suggested.

Satterlee does his level best to investigate the hideous murder. He calls the Entwhistle-Ealing Bros. Circus, but gets nowhere. They are not, apparently, missing a clown, although the circus manager seems eerily aware of what has likely befallen this particular circus performer.

And there was…forgive me. No…no harm done? To the body? Other than the gunshot wound, I mean to say.”

In short order, it is discovered that the murdered man was living, at least for a short while, in a cave in the hills. Satterlee arrives on the scene, where they find little of interest aside from a very obvious trail of struggle where the killer clearly dragged the clown from the cave and through the underbrush to where the execution occurred.

Chabon gives a creepy nod to Poe by including a baboon in the story, a pet of the dead clown. When Satterlee is confronted by the creature, he is immediately reminded of The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and wonders if the baboon is indeed the murderer.

But it is the books that are found in the cave, not the baboon, that will send Satterlee off in a new direction. One book is written in an indecipherable language, but the other is in German. Satterlee checks out a German-English dictionary with the intent of translating the work, and he searches through various encyclopedias looking for references to the author, one Friedrich von Junzt. Which he finds:

G.’s analysis of the meaning of such ceremonial blades admittedly was aided by the earlier discoveries of Freidrich von Junzt, at the sit of the former Temple of Yrrh, in north central Armenia, among them certain sacrificial artifacts pertaining to the worship of the proto-Urartian deity Ye-Heh, rather grandly (though regrettably without credible evidence) styled ‘the god of dark or mocking laughter’ by the German…”

Satterlee’s eventual translation reveals more about the Ye-Heh worshippers, who viewed existence as a cosmic hoax perpetuated by the father-god Yrrh. Those followers were known for an elaborate rite in which a human head was flayed and the bloody mask was donned by a clown-priest.

But the followers of Ye-Heh had a counterpart, the worshippers of Ai, the God Who Mourns. The worshippers of Ai, apparently, live to hunt and kill the followers of Ye-Heh.

And while Satterlee has a hard time believing any of this, he is struck by one part of his translation concerning the Ye-Hehists:

They have survived, for the most part, by taking on work in travelling circuses. While their existence is known to ordinary members of the circus world, their secret has, by and large, been kept. And in the sideshows they have gone to ground, awaiting the tread outside the wagon, shadow on the tent-flap, the cruel knife that will, in a mockery of their own long-abandoned ritual of mockery, deprive them of the lily-white flesh of their skulls.”

Among his many gifts is Chabon’s ability to capture the dread and hororr lurking in the shadows, the same effect Lovecraft so carefully crafted in his own tales. It is interesting, too, to see these effects executed by such a skilled craftsman of the language. Lovecraft, for all of his talents, does not possess Chabon’s nimbleness and grace for spinning sentences.

Maybe one day, we will see more stories like this from Chabon. If we do, what a joy they will be.

More October Stories

For the month of October, you can download

Tyler Miller’s The Other Side of the Door 

FREE.

In celebration of my favorite month, I’m giving away my collection The Other Side of the Door. These are stories inspired by so many of my favorite writers: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson.

Stories like the award-winning Til Death Do Us, about a man who believes he’s gotten away with his wife’s murder…at least until her severed finger is delivered to him in a box. Somebody knows the truth…

Or another first-place winner: Not Dead, Not Even Past, the story of a small-town sheriff confronted with a string of suicides he can’t explain. Each of the victims share a disturbing trait: no matter how they died, all of them have lungs full of water.

I loved working on these stories, and I truly believe that you’ll enjoy reading them just as much as I enjoyed writing them. Check them out. For the entire month, they’re free. What have you got to lose?

Except a little sleep…

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