by Alfred D. Byrd
Trials of the Guardians unites several themes that fascinate me — the Cthulhu Mythos, Kentucky's history, and the Bluegrass's strange topography. In this novella, I've tried to weave these themes into a tapestry that'll please aficionados of the Mythos and introduce new readers to it.
The Mythos needs no explanation to those who share my fascination with it. Those who don't yet share that fascination with me can learn of it best by reading works of the Mythos starting with H. P. Lovecraft's immortal "Call of Cthulhu," in many ways the Mythos' heart. Briefly put, the Mythos proclaims we humans exist but briefly in a tiny corner of a boundless, unending multiverse populated by ancient, alien intelligences that heed us only for how we may transiently benefit them — likely not for our own good. Only a few know of the Mythos' lore; even fewer of those stay sane…
The Mythos is universal and everlasting, but works itself out in forms shaped by the time and place of incidents within it. In my novella, I've explored the Mythos along the Kentucky River in the Bluegrass at the turn of the Twentieth Century, when riverboats are starting to vanish from waterways, and automobiles are starting to drive horse-drawn carriages from highways. Those ignorant of the Mythos proclaim progress that'd draw sneers of disdain from creatures of the Mythos did they deign to notice the boasters.
For my novella, I dealt with two questions the Mythos awakens: how does the earth stay safe from ancient intelligences, and how does the general public stay unaware of them? I answered the questions with "guardians," persons versed in the Mythos and taking on the challenge of using it against the entities it describes. As the guardians use the Mythos without truly understanding it — how can the finite comprehend infinity; how can the temporal grasp eternity? — the Mythos becomes in their hands "magic" worked by "spells." The magic does work — sometimes — at great cost to the guardians.
Traditionally, those aware of the Mythos have been loners, even recluses. Certainly, knowledge of it precludes an orderly social life. Making a virtue of necessity, I've made my guardians loners, too — persons dedicated to a calling setting them apart from the rest of humanity. They might be Knights Templars but that they must keep their very identity secret along with the Mythos. Their calling condemns them to be mistrusted by the very humanity they protect.
I don't specify the exact time in which my guardians operate, but those knowledgeable of history can set it between 1902 and 1910 of our era. Sadly, the guardians must operate in a time of prejudice — though can we say else of our own time? Human prejudices of those who look at the outward appearance, not at the heart, impede the guardians in their work. Theirs is a thankless task, but someone must do it. A cruel calling has determined that it must be they.
Many of the settings in Trials of the Guardians are historical. In particular, the institute of higher learning Paltiel Dunlea visits in hope of help from a fellow guardian is real, presently known as Kentucky State University, a land-grant college and a historically Black university. The name I give the institution in the novella is correct for the novella's timeframe. The fictional character Dr. Junius Breckinridge embodies difficulties a Black man of learning faced at the turn of the Twentieth Century. That he got involved in the Mythos only made his life harder.
Could prejudice extend past humanity's boundaries? At the end of Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth," I get an impression the Deep Ones could tell of themselves a much different story from the one the story's self-centered, impulsive narrator told of them and of their half-human hybrid kinspersons. In the character Kalawea, I give one of the hybrids a chance to tell that story. In respect of the Deep Ones — or of any other strangers we might meet — we may do well to keep in mind a principle my first employer taught me: "When you assume, you make an ass of you and me."
In Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas R. Hofstedter deals with an unpopular principle of science: the limits of knowability. However much we think we know, we may know far less than we think. We may even have no clear idea of how much we don't know. This principle comes into play in Trials of the Guardians, in which Paltiel and his fellow guardians must oppose with the academic equivalent of beads and rattles beings some might call gods. In the face of the Mythos, we're but children watching waves break on the shores of eternity and infinity. Lovecraft spoke best of our limits in the opening paragraphs of "The Call of Cthulhu." If you haven't read it, please do read it; if you have, you don't need me to urge you to read it again.
In Dune, Frank Herbert wrote, "What senses do we lack that we cannot see or hear another world all around us?" Maybe, we lack a sense of otherness. Looking out through the lens of our own experience, we may believe that three dimensions of space and the unidirectional arrow of time are all that exist. Even within these limited dimensions, we may see the stars only as dots of light on a night sky and project ourselves onto them. We may not conceive what beings may move among the stars — what beings may populate other dimensions that transcend ours, yet interact with them. Wanting to believe in ourselves as agents of free will, we reject predestination — but can we escape it? What can we do when beings greater than ourselves arrive in our world unforeseen and use it — and us — for purposes not our own — purposes perhaps inimical to us?
Maybe, we really do need guardians…
You can find Trial of the Guardians on Amazon.com.
You may also enjoy my collection of Cthulhu Mythos short stories, Blue Moon of Cthulhu.