Rainbringer: Zora Neale Hurston Against The Lovecraftian Mythos
Edward M Erdelac
Ed Erdelac is one of that tiny band of authors who always manages the incredibly difficult feat of both entertaining and informing the reader with their fiction. I always come out of the other side of one of his works both hugely satisfied and far more knowledgeable about a certain topic than before I had started reading. To take just one example: in Andersonville, his occult-tinged American Civil War novel, he provided a gut-wrenching and eye-opening insight into the horrific conditions found within the Confederate-run Prisoner of War camp of the same name, and how a mixture of callous indifference and deliberate policies led to it becoming a death-camp in all but name. Andersonville was an incredible slice of occult horror, but it was also a finely crafted and heavily-researched piece of historical fiction that shed light on a horrific war crime that has been all but forgotten in common memory. Erdelac is brilliant at this particular kind of blending, and as such I looked forward to finding out more about Zora Neale Hurston, the protagonist of his latest collection Rainbringer: Zora Neale Hurston Against The Lovecraftian Mythos. I knew absolutely nothing about Hurston going into the collection, even to the point of assuming she was a fictional character, but it only took a few paragraphs of Erdelac’s fantastic introductory chapter for me to realise just how real Hurston was – and just how much of a larger-than-life character she was as well. She had an absolutely incredible life that seemed to pack a ridiculous amount of events into a relatively short lifespan, and her influence seems to have been felt across innumerable communities and areas of life. Given all of that, and her literary, anthropological and occult experiences during that life, it seemed like she was almost uniquely suited to being integrated into the Lovecraftian Mythos by Erdelac. Spurred on by that absolutely captivating piece of cover art by Jabari Weathers, and a back-cover blurb that promised a collection of eight weird and fantastic stories featuring Hurston, I dived straight into the collection.
It opens with Leaves Floating in a Dream’s Wake, in which Hurston writes a series of letters to a friend, Herbert, in which she describes her delight at living in a Black-majority neighbourhood that reminds her of her childhood in Eatonville (one of the first all-black incorporated towns in the US); her desperate financial straits; as well as her attempts to sell more of her writings. Erdelac gives us a real sense of her character and personality in these early pages; but soon, purely domestic matters soon begin to blend with Hurston suffering from troubled dreams filled with strange and terrifying occult imagery that coincide with an earthquake hitting New York City. When Hurston stumbles out into the street and to a local bar filled with other artists, she discovers that they all experienced the same, shared dream. It leads to Hurston ruminating on the experience and what it may mean, both for her and her artistic colleagues, and makes for a captivating and ethereal introduction to the collection. It’s then followed by Beyond the Black Arcade, which sees Hurston wading through the Bayou swamps on a commission from a wealthy white spiritualist to collect data on Hoodoo practices, only to become embroiled in a search for Yig – supposedly the very snake in the Bible that had tempted humanity and got them banished from the Garden of Evil.
But as she moves through the brackish water of the Bayou in the company of a nephew of a famous Voodoo Queen, it becomes clear that there is far more to Yig than mere Biblical mythology, in an adventure that sees her inducted into the cult of Yig and given the title of Rainbringer, even as she fights for her life against the horrifying Lovecraftian creatures that lurk in the trees and skies – and underneath an ethereal and terrifying lake not of this reality. It’s a fantastic, complex tale that really sets up Hurston as a character with a complex destiny, and makes her a distinctive and engaging protagonist. Seven years later, Ekwensu’s Lullaby sees Hurston and several companions travelling to Georgia, having to contend with racist police officers and the racist culture of the state as they journey into Georgia to meet with, and document, the Gullah – an ex-slave population originally from West Africa who farm plantations in an isolated set of islands. It’s a fascinating plunge into regional dialects and clash of cultures, secular and religious elements blending into unique traditions; plus Hurston finds herself investigating the local mythology, and the strange hunched, mossy-green creature that the locals refuse to discuss with her. Soon Hurston is enmeshed in psychic songs that can hypnotise people, and unsettling local legends involving escaped slaves being taken by an avatar of the Outer Gods lurking in the swamps.
King Yeller is the longest piece in the collection, a novelette that opens with Hurston at a low point in her life, both academically and romantically, and with few funds to her name. A chance meeting with an old theatre acquaintance leads to her involvement in Orson Welles’ career-making production of Voodoo Macbeth, where Hurston finds herself having to simultaneously balance attempts to improve her writing career opportunities; assist Welles in understanding his cast and working with them to produce the play; and also investigate why the lead seems increasingly distracted and targeted by a strange, long-faced man lurking in the background of the cast. Erdelac obviously did his research for this story, because he sweeps us into a detailed, complex and continuously-chaotic atmosphere of a play being developed and rehearsed despite internal discord and external hostility from racist, anti-New Deal critics, and social elites who think the very notion of the play is nonsense. That historical reality is then deftly intertwined with the strange presence of the long-faced man and his interactions with the leads of the play, and the mysterious – and anonymous – Parisian manuscript that suddenly appears and begins to exert an influence over the cast, director – and even Hurston herself. It’s an absolutely enthralling and engaging story, employing lyrical and often poetical language that entertains as well as quietly horrifies, and is undisputedly the jewel of the collection.
Of the remaining stories in the collection, Gods of the Grim Nation appeared in the Golden Goblin Press anthology Dread Shadows in Paradise and was one of the stand-out stories in an already superb collection, which sees Hurston visiting Port-au-Prince to investigate the mysteries of Voodoo amongst the native population. To quote my previous review: “It isn’t long, however, before she is thrown into the heart of a conspiracy and a desperate fight against an Elder God-worshipping cult with links to the highest level of authority. Several things struck me as I read Gods of the Grim Nation: the first was that Erdelac had obviously done his research on the religions found in Port-au-Prince, and particularly Voodoo, because the entire piece is saturated with detail that is used to brilliant effect, both in terms of world-building and plot progression, as well as characterisation. I felt like I was actually becoming knowledgeable about these religions, and as a result the story also felt authentic, at least to an outsider. Secondly, I enjoyed reading a strong female protagonist, especially one who is well-informed about local religion and occultism, but who can also get into a tussle if needed.”
The Shadow in The Chapel of Ease moves the timeline forward to 1940, and Hurston directing a crew to record instances of religious ecstasy, for an anthropological study, only to discover rumours of a secret, forbidden church that practices an Old Religion. Hurston is curious despite her previous experiences, and sets out to find the church. But just what links the church, the preacher known as ‘The Saint’, and Hurston’s former husband, who’s supposedly been reformed of drink and violence by the preacher? This is a particularly atmospheric and unsettling – even chilling – story, one that allows Erdelac to blend in some Quiet Horror alongside the usual Lovecraftian elements , and of all of the collection, it stayed in my mind the longest after reading it. The penultimate tale, Black Woman, White City, transports Hurston to an isolated part of the Honduran jungle in the company of a drunken English gold miner in search of the fabled White City and all the anthropological riches it promised. Soon she’s encountering suspicious natives, eerie occult rituals, and visions of a race of god-apes living within the White City, culminating in a terrifying encounter in the ruins of the city, and a running gun battle against horrifying monsters. The collection closes out with The Deathless Snake, a story that ranges through Hurston’s twilight years in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s; we see her reminisce about her life – literary, romantic, occult and much of her childhood. And then, in a gloriously written and surprisingly emotional ending, she is able to finally achieve that sort of freedom and recognition so cruelly snatched away from her during her life. It’s an absolutely superb ending to the collection, and a fitting tribute to an incredible character – both in fiction and reality.
This has been one of the longest reviews I’ve written on this blog for quite some time – but there’s a very good reason for that. When I first picked up Rainbringer I was under the assumption that this would be no different to any other short story collection that blended historical reality with Lovecraftian elements, albeit by an extremely talented author. But as I read through the introductory chapter and then moved into the stories themselves, it rapidly became clear that this was nothing less than a passion project for Erdelac – something he had poured his heart and soul into during the process of writing the stories. The Zora Neale Hurston that he brings to life in the collection is a deeply fascinating, multi-faceted and flawed character with a vibrant and eclectic personality, a protagonist that Erdelac imbues with such power and intelligence that she grabs you by the scruff of the neck and drags you into her complex and colourful world. Hurston is not always an easy protagonist to follow, despite the verve and wit and power with which she expresses and conducts herself; she confidently and vividly expresses views that are hardly comfortable to read in 2021 – to take just one example, she has incredibly firm views on how the Black population should remain separate from white society; views that are initially bewildering to the reader but obviously deep-rooted and central to her personality, and which colour her life – and the stories Erdelac is telling. There’s also the pervasive and ever-present nature of racism in the USA of the early 20th Century running as a thread through the stories, and it’s to Erdelac’s credit that he presents the plain and unvarnished truth of racism and race relations in the country at that time, where an educated African-American woman like Hurston is an affront to the majority of whites, as well as some of her own race, often forcing her to stop to adopting racist stereotypes to achieve her goals.
Rainbringer is an absolutely incredible achievement, the sign of an author at the very peak of his game as a composer of horror fiction, and it has been an absolute pleasure to read through the collection and share in the passion Erdelac has for Zora Neale Hurston and her world, as well as Erdelac’s unique take on the Lovecraftian Mythos. Hurston can be a challenging protagonist with her views and language, but also hugely rewarding; it’s a difficult balance to pull off, and lesser writers likely could not have achieved it, but Erdelac does so with grace and skill. Rainbringer is another unique, engaging and compulsive read from Erdelac, pulling off a series of stories with a character and narrative angle that I believe only he has the skill and audacity to pull off with complete effectiveness. This is a must-read for anyone interested in high-quality Horror fiction, and the Lovecraftian Mythos, and I intend to be recommending it to everyone I know interested in those subjects.