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Author Topic: Pseudopod 269: The Burning Servant  (Read 6660 times)
Bdoomed
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« on: February 20, 2012, 03:22:37 PM »

Pseudopod 269: The Burning Servant

By Steven Saus.
Click his name to visit his website. This story was first published as a part of Mike Stackpole’s Chain Story project in August 2010. Steven’s work appears in print in the anthologies Mages & Magic, Timeshares and Hungry For Your Love, and in several magazines both online and off, including On Spec, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and SFWA Bulletin. He has a story in the anthology Westward Weird due out from DAW Books in Spring 2012, and the third book of The Crimson Pact is due out at the end of March 2012. He also provides publishing services and publishes books as Alliteration Ink. The Drabblecast recently did an audio version of his story “Broken”.

Read by Stephanie Morris. Click the link to get infected with SCRIBBLEOMANIA!


“‘Mrs. Freeman,’ Dr. Montegro said, ‘I believe there was a tale in the offering. While your observations of old age are … fascinating… they are not the coin of the realm. So to speak.’ The doctor looked down through his glasses at her. ‘We trade stories here, madam, and your grandson was going to tell one.’

The smile creased her face even further. ‘Why, yes, yes, he was.’ Jonathan tried to guide his grandmother to an armchair, but she waved him off, settling onto a barstool. ‘You fine educated men know of General Sherman, don’t you? The Union commander who burned his way from Atlanta to Savannah?’ Several men nodded; a few, who had betrayed Southern accents earlier in the evening, frowned. Montegro’s hand touched the silver chestpiece of his stethoscope.

Sarah looked up at the paneled ceiling for a moment, then back at the listening men. ‘What you don’t know is that Sherman didn’t do it all himself.’”




Listen to this week's Pseudopod.
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chaoservices
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« Reply #1 on: February 20, 2012, 04:37:42 PM »

More and more the actual episodes of Pseudopod are becoming secondary to the FANTASTIC closing that Mr. Stuart provides. This story is a perfect example of something that slid across my brain like water on wax until Alasdair spoke of his trip to London's financial district. Then, I got chills. Please Mr. Stuart, never ever stop speaking. The world, through your eyes, is astounding.
-Dt
« Last Edit: February 20, 2012, 11:54:49 PM by eytanz » Logged
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« Reply #2 on: February 20, 2012, 08:38:53 PM »

More and more the actual episodes of Pseudopod are becoming secondary to the FANTASTIC closing that Mr. Stuart provides. This story is a perfect example of something that slid across my brain like water on wax until Alasdair spoke of his trip to London's financial district. Then, I got chills. Please Mr. Stuart, never ever stop speaking. The world, through your eyes, is astounding.
-Dt

I actually agree completely.  That was one of the biggest thrills for me when Pseudopod bought my story - that I'd get to hear an Alasdair Stuart outro based on something I'D WRITTEN.  WOOOO!!!!  Then to hear the actual reading of the story... wow.  Just awesome.
« Last Edit: February 20, 2012, 11:55:02 PM by eytanz » Logged

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eytanz
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« Reply #3 on: February 20, 2012, 11:56:12 PM »

May I ask that people do not change the subjects of episode threads? That messes things up for people who use "view recent posts" and may want to avoid spoilers.
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« Reply #4 on: February 21, 2012, 10:17:15 AM »

Pseudopod wouldn't be the same without Alasdair, that's for sure.  This is the first fiction podcast that I started listening to (specifically "The Hay Devils").  I started listening at a point after Alasdair had taken over hosting responsibilities and especially with his hosting it made me think of old-timey radio fiction that my dad was always telling me he listened to on the farm when he was a kid.

Anyway, about the story, I quite enjoyed this one, mostly for the reasons Mr. Saus mentioned in the outro, about taking the cosmic horror of Lovecraft and telling it in a way sympathetic to the people who were villainized in the classic stories.  In the middle I was expecting it to take a cliche turn when our protagonist was asked to save the slaves, and he seemed to imply that she should use her voodoo magic against them, and I was preparing to groan in annoyance.  But I was very happy when it flashed back to the present and she gave her intent listeners some sass about their expectations, and it turned out that it was really the "civilized" men who were raising the demon after all, to fight the Union army.  I really liked that.

And the "moral" at the end was a very fitting one, and one to live by.  Paraphrasing:  "We all have to make sacrifices and compromises, the trick is to make them count."  It reminds me of the core of the ji'e'toh philosophy in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series (there are many things wrong about that series, but that's one of the things I really dug):  basically, you can make whatever choice you want, but you also have to pay for it in the end.  I've found that mindset helpful when I've had to make difficult decisions--every choice has consequences, but it's all about making the best choice you can, and then dealing with the consequences as they arise.
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« Reply #5 on: February 23, 2012, 11:14:55 AM »

I enjoyed the story. I didn't realize it would be Lovecraftian horror until the end. If I had, I might have gone into it with preconceptions.

I especially liked the rustification of the doctor's stethoscope at the end. That little moment that says "everything you just heard and thought might not be true... well, maybe it really DID happen" is one of my favorites in fiction.
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« Reply #6 on: February 23, 2012, 12:45:20 PM »

I especially liked the rustification of the doctor's stethoscope at the end. That little moment that says "everything you just heard and thought might not be true... well, maybe it really DID happen" is one of my favorites in fiction.

When the story first mentioned voodoo I started focusing on the stethoscope because I thought it might have been a medicine bundle or talisman object, but I liked this little demonstration of otherness better and especially the unspoken question it casts on our "heroine".  Did she HAVE the ability to summon a monster and chose not to? Or is the rust some sort of lingering effect?
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« Reply #7 on: February 23, 2012, 04:27:04 PM »

In the middle I was expecting it to take a cliche turn when our protagonist was asked to save the slaves, and he seemed to imply that she should use her voodoo magic against them, and I was preparing to groan in annoyance.  But I was very happy when it flashed back to the present and she gave her intent listeners some sass about their expectations, and it turned out that it was really the "civilized" men who were raising the demon after all, to fight the Union army.  I really liked that.

While writing, I actually slipped into writing that cliche, despite planning not to!  I threw out almost a thousand words when I realized what I'd done.  ::sigh::
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« Reply #8 on: February 24, 2012, 09:33:41 AM »

In the middle I was expecting it to take a cliche turn when our protagonist was asked to save the slaves, and he seemed to imply that she should use her voodoo magic against them, and I was preparing to groan in annoyance.  But I was very happy when it flashed back to the present and she gave her intent listeners some sass about their expectations, and it turned out that it was really the "civilized" men who were raising the demon after all, to fight the Union army.  I really liked that.

While writing, I actually slipped into writing that cliche, despite planning not to!  I threw out almost a thousand words when I realized what I'd done.  ::sigh::

It would certainly be easy to do.  There are so many horror stories based around voodoo curses or Gypsy hexes.  But I'm glad you didn't.  The story would've been forgettable if it had gone that route.  As is, this one's definitely sticking around on my iPod.  Smiley
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« Reply #9 on: February 24, 2012, 09:42:15 AM »

I really loved this one. It was possibly one of my favorite Pseudopods of all time. I loved the framing - the story within a story - and the pacing was perfect. The insertions of the outer story to the inner story managed to balance heightening the tension of latter while using the former to pass on information it would have been hard to express otherwise. I love how the ultimate moral bankruptcy of slavery could be explored without having to make every single slave-owner a mustache-twirling villain AND without making the slaves passive victims (both pitfalls I've seen before). I give this story five out of five zeppelins, burning!

My only nit-pick is that I think the burning servant and its depredations were described in a little too much detail. I would have preferred a more lovecraftian approach, where Jonathan's grandmother only got an impression of heat, light, movement, and malice. The horror had too much form for me, and I think it dismissed too much of the tension when the servant finally appeared, tension that otherwise could have been employed in the last minutes of the story.
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« Reply #10 on: February 26, 2012, 05:14:07 AM »

Great story and excellent narration. I loved the voice for 'my master' (sorry forgot his name) when he was strung up and imploring the protagonist to act.
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Bdoomed
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« Reply #11 on: February 26, 2012, 08:19:46 PM »

Fantastic story and fantastic reading!  I loved the constant clutching of the stethoscope by the doctor, the reassurance of 'science' and 'rationality' in what was an 'unscientific' and 'non-rational' happening.  The rusting of that stethoscope at the end was quite the magnificent finishing touch.

As for EPal's nit-pick, I was driving as I listened to this story, and was somewhat distracted as it described the monster.  I thought of skipping back to hear it again, but decided it didn't matter, and would probably only give me a more Lovecraftian feel if I never knew what it looked like.  I remember something about a long neck and a beak but that's about it.  So mayhaps your complaint is valid!  Smiley

I give this story 4 dead white slaveowners on a cross out of 5, and it's pretty hard to get a white slaveowner onto a cross, you know, so that's really saying something.
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« Reply #12 on: March 04, 2012, 08:20:22 PM »

Wow. I've been a fan of the chain story from the get-go because I'm a member of The Quillians writing group (http://thequillians.com/) which is based on Second Life, and Mike Stackpole is basically our in-world mentor. So we heard about it before it ever went live. Good stuff.

While I loved this story itself, I think this is one of those stories where the reader added a whole dimension of enjoyment just through her skill. I'm becoming a big fan of some of these narrators independently of the stories they read. It makes me want to write a story and submit it just in the hopes that someone like Stephanie Morris might narrate it.
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eytanz
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« Reply #13 on: March 09, 2012, 01:04:29 PM »

I, too, thought that this one was excellent. I did wonder a bit at the ending about how obtuse some of the club members were being about the fact that the servant burned Atlanta - she hinted really broadly at it from the start. I also didn't quite get a Lovecraftian vibe - the monster could fit in with the mythos, but it could also fit in with plenty of descriptions of demons from Christian literature. Especially since I don't recall many Lovecraftian stories where it's possible to contain the summoned creatures by wards like a salt circle. But these are minor nitpicks (and the second one really a nitpick on the story commentary rather than on the story). Overall, I thought it was a well written, powerful tale.
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« Reply #14 on: March 10, 2012, 07:14:38 PM »

That's my favorite kind of Lovecraftian story--the kind where you don't realize it's Lovecraftian until someone points it out.
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Jesse Livingston
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« Reply #15 on: March 10, 2012, 07:25:03 PM »

That's my favorite kind of Lovecraftian story--the kind where you don't realize it's Lovecraftian until someone points it out.

The Sound of Music must be your favorite Lovecraftian movie, then Wink (I mean, I assume you didn't realize it was Lovecraftian until I just pointed it out. Certainly, there are scenes in that movie that invoke unmentionable dread.)

I guess I don't get the point of applying the label "Lovecraftian" if the only thing that it borrows from Lovecraft is the notion that big bag monsters may be hard to physically describe. The writing style is not Lovecraftian, the themes are not Lovecraftian except in a very general sense, the narrator's voice is not Lovecraftian. The concept of a warding circle is definitely not Lovecraftian. The idea that anyone could control or bargain with the supernatural is arguably present in some of Lovecraft's work, but never in as direct a form as here.

I mean, taking this story to be a response to some of the problematic aspects of Lovecraft, certainly. But I don't think this response shares enough with what it is responding to to be called "Lovecraftian".

Compare this to "Black Hill", where the Lovecraftian themes are not spelled out explicitly either but the themes of madness and obsession, and the relationship between humans and the supernatural, are far closer to Lovecraft's work than here.
« Last Edit: March 10, 2012, 07:27:37 PM by eytanz » Logged
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« Reply #16 on: March 10, 2012, 08:09:44 PM »

The Sound of Music must be your favorite Lovecraftian movie, then Wink (I mean, I assume you didn't realize it was Lovecraftian until I just pointed it out. Certainly, there are scenes in that movie that invoke unmentionable dread.)

One does not simply run out of occupied Austria...  Grin

I guess I don't get the point of applying the label "Lovecraftian" if the only thing that it borrows from Lovecraft is the notion that big bag monsters may be hard to physically describe. The writing style is not Lovecraftian, the themes are not Lovecraftian except in a very general sense, the narrator's voice is not Lovecraftian. The concept of a warding circle is definitely not Lovecraftian. The idea that anyone could control or bargain with the supernatural is arguably present in some of Lovecraft's work, but never in as direct a form as here.

I mean, taking this story to be a response to some of the problematic aspects of Lovecraft, certainly. But I don't think this response shares enough with what it is responding to to be called "Lovecraftian".

Logistically, we rarely see the cultists point of view in Lovecraft's own work, and the protagonists are too busy running away (or going mad) to let us see the deals each makes.  But deals are made, with varying levels of efficacy and cost for the cultists.  That said, I think Sarah overstates her own role in "pointing it toward Atlanta" and how much the critter really has in common with her.  You are right that it doesn't share a lot of the Lovecraftian trappings (besides the big critter).   But I think there's something Lovecraftian in the theme.

The key, defining bit of the Mythos for me is the existential dread - that all of humanity is unimportant and ultimately doesn't freaking matter to the bigger forces out there.  That there is no bigger "meaning" or purpose - that it's all futile in the end.  The big critters are just window dressing to illustrate that point.

With that idea in mind, Sarah's actions - and those of Sherman, and those of every slaveowner, of every person who does evil things in the name of what they view as "good" - become even more horrific.  When the only meaning in the universe is the one we give it... well, that makes every act of cruelty all the worse.

Because, if the Mythos is right and there's no purpose, and we're simply unimportant specks of matter, then nothing is justified.  Our sacrifices and compromises never, ever count.

And that really does horrify me.
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« Reply #17 on: March 10, 2012, 10:16:45 PM »

That's my favorite kind of Lovecraftian story--the kind where you don't realize it's Lovecraftian until someone points it out.

The Sound of Music must be your favorite Lovecraftian movie, then Wink (I mean, I assume you didn't realize it was Lovecraftian until I just pointed it out. Certainly, there are scenes in that movie that invoke unmentionable dread.)

Well, it is now! Man, that would be a great reboot: a warm-hearted singing nun goes to live with a stern-but-lovable Cthulhu cultist and teaches him how to have fun. When the Old Ones return, they trick them by putting on a stage show, then escape into space while one of the other nuns steals essential parts from the Old Ones' car... I haven't got it completely figured out yet.


I guess I don't get the point of applying the label "Lovecraftian" if the only thing that it borrows from Lovecraft is the notion that big bag monsters may be hard to physically describe. The writing style is not Lovecraftian, the themes are not Lovecraftian except in a very general sense, the narrator's voice is not Lovecraftian. The concept of a warding circle is definitely not Lovecraftian. The idea that anyone could control or bargain with the supernatural is arguably present in some of Lovecraft's work, but never in as direct a form as here.

I mean, taking this story to be a response to some of the problematic aspects of Lovecraft, certainly. But I don't think this response shares enough with what it is responding to to be called "Lovecraftian".

Compare this to "Black Hill", where the Lovecraftian themes are not spelled out explicitly either but the themes of madness and obsession, and the relationship between humans and the supernatural, are far closer to Lovecraft's work than here.

I think my point (the serious one, not the silly one) was that Lovecraft's stories often have such a rigid formula that it seems boring to replicate it exactly. I actually didn't like "Black Hill" for just that reason; it was too recognizably Lovecraftian. A guy meets an old man who tells him about bad things, he glimpses some monsters, then ends up in the loony bin. Lovecraft already did that, so why do it again? I thought "Black Hill" would have been much better if it had focused on the "world runs on dead things: ain't it spooky" angle.

I liked "The Burning Servant" more because it wasn't a Lovecraft pastiche, it was more of a nod. I totally didn't get the Lovecraft connection until someone (Alasdair?) mentioned it, which means that while the story was happening, I was enjoying it more. Don't get me wrong, I love Lovecraft, but when a story is blatantly Lovecraftian, then I know what to expect, and the expected isn't scary. I much prefer subtle touches I can look back on afterwards and say, "Oh, that was kind of Lovecraftian, wasn't it?"
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« Reply #18 on: March 10, 2012, 10:22:34 PM »


With that idea in mind, Sarah's actions - and those of Sherman, and those of every slaveowner, of every person who does evil things in the name of what they view as "good" - become even more horrific.  When the only meaning in the universe is the one we give it... well, that makes every act of cruelty all the worse.

Well said!

Because, if the Mythos is right and there's no purpose, and we're simply unimportant specks of matter, then nothing is justified.  Our sacrifices and compromises never, ever count.

But it's all a matter of perspective. They do still "count," because "count" is a human word with human implications. Our sacrifices and compromises mean something to other humans, and often make their lives better. It's just the uncaring universe that doesn't... well, care.
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« Reply #19 on: June 05, 2012, 05:14:09 PM »


I guess I don't get the point of applying the label "Lovecraftian" if the only thing that it borrows from Lovecraft is the notion that big bag monsters may be hard to physically describe. The writing style is not Lovecraftian, the themes are not Lovecraftian except in a very general sense, the narrator's voice is not Lovecraftian. The concept of a warding circle is definitely not Lovecraftian. The idea that anyone could control or bargain with the supernatural is arguably present in some of Lovecraft's work, but never in as direct a form as here.

I mean, taking this story to be a response to some of the problematic aspects of Lovecraft, certainly. But I don't think this response shares enough with what it is responding to to be called "Lovecraftian".

Compare this to "Black Hill", where the Lovecraftian themes are not spelled out explicitly either but the themes of madness and obsession, and the relationship between humans and the supernatural, are far closer to Lovecraft's work than here.

I think my point (the serious one, not the silly one) was that Lovecraft's stories often have such a rigid formula that it seems boring to replicate it exactly. I actually didn't like "Black Hill" for just that reason; it was too recognizably Lovecraftian. A guy meets an old man who tells him about bad things, he glimpses some monsters, then ends up in the loony bin. Lovecraft already did that, so why do it again? I thought "Black Hill" would have been much better if it had focused on the "world runs on dead things: ain't it spooky" angle.

I liked "The Burning Servant" more because it wasn't a Lovecraft pastiche, it was more of a nod. I totally didn't get the Lovecraft connection until someone (Alasdair?) mentioned it, which means that while the story was happening, I was enjoying it more. Don't get me wrong, I love Lovecraft, but when a story is blatantly Lovecraftian, then I know what to expect, and the expected isn't scary. I much prefer subtle touches I can look back on afterwards and say, "Oh, that was kind of Lovecraftian, wasn't it?"

A nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat, eh?

I disagree that Lovecraft's formula does not have room for an author to make their own delightful mark. I just finished Jerusalem's Lot by Stephen King, and I was pleasantly reminded why he's considered a paragon of horror. He makes an effective homage to "The Rats in the Walls", while creating a new and unique story. Having consumed all of Lovecraft's oeuvre, and considering that only about a quarter of it is in the top tier of quality, there is a LOT of room for other good stories.

I like how this one flips things like "The Horror at Red Hook" on its head (which, by the way, is NOT in the top tier of quality). The concept nods to Lovecraft, but the style is far more comfortable Southern Gothic.

The only thing that threw me about the story was the pronunciation of Roswell. It's pronounced RAHS-well, not ROSE-well. Otherwise, I was pretty happy with the narration, in particular the differentiation between the tone of the narrator and the tone of the grandmother's storytelling.
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