REVIEW: “Down and Out in R’lyeh” by Catherynne M. Valente

Review of Catherynne M. Valente’s, “Down and Out in R’lyeh”, Uncanny Magazine 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Down and Out in R’lyeh” is like A Clockwork Orange with demonic gods in waiting. Catherynne M. Valente has built a story with its own street language of drugs, fashion, and class politics that works just as well as the patter of Anthony Burgess’ novel:

Be me: Moloch! Dank as starlit squidshit, antique in the membrane, maximum yellow fellow! Only five thousand years old, still soggy behind the orifices, belly full of piss and pus and home-brewed, small-batch disdain for all he beholds. Keeps his tentacles proper pompy-doured and his fur 100% goat at all times. Keeps his talons on the sluggish pulse of the nightmare corpse-city that never sleeps…

The language that Moloch (‘not THE Moloch’) uses to narrate this story asks the reader to do a lot of work in order to parse his meaning. He obscures his tale with slang and eldritch references, and so it takes a while to adjust to his way of speaking. However, the meat of his story quickly becomes clear. Moloch is part of a disaffected generation, trapped in a small town, waiting for his elders to yield the field so they can have their go at destroying the human world. In the meantime he, his girlfriend, and his best friend spend their days getting high or ‘mundane’ in a variety of elaborate ways. When that’s not enough they go out looking for trouble with the ‘gloons’ or the poseurs of their world. While they may be supernatural creatures who look and behave so differently to humans there’s a very basic relatability at the heart of this story. It’s a smart and inventive science fiction parody of stories like A Clockwork Orange but it also works as its own entertaining tale of one long hazy night.

“Down and Out in R’leyh” is a story I think I would have got a lot more from if I had read Lovecraft’s original Cthulu stories. However, I did know enough to see that two female characters burning down Cthulu’s house, while he’s inside, could be interpreted as a feminist strike in the heart of Lovecraftian territory. Even without knowing much about Lovecraft’s original stories, I had a lot of fun threading my way through Moloch’s story (even if the imagery is quite deliberately gross which is not usually my thing).