What if H.P. Lovecraft wrote a story about the slow, crushing horror of being socially isolated and pregnant with a child whom you were, at best, indifferent to conceiving? Then you’d have something close to A Compact with a Minor Demon by Kay Chronister. This is both a compliment and a criticism.
A lot of Lovecraft’s stories follow a kind of simple formula of a stranger going to a place and bonding with a local and/or investigating some local architecture. Usually the local turns out to be some sort of cosmic horror monster, or is on the verge of succumbing to a cosmic horror monster. Our Lovecraftian protagonist barely escapes, but is left a nervous wreck and they’re telling us their story for some reason that is always over-justified.
Kay Chronister is a much more technically skilled writer than Lovecraft was. The story is not nearly as over-written as it would have been in Lovecraft’s hands. Chronister understands that we can piece certain things together for ourselves. All the while, she manages to keep a story structure and atmosphere that feel very Lovecraftian.
A pregnant woman travels to a small town with her husband. Her husband is a sociologist who wants to investigate the town’s disproportionately low birthrate. Being a sociologist, he neglects to consider that perhaps there could be some environmental/biological component to this mystery, and doesn’t think twice about taking his pregnant wife to a place that seems very not-conducive to childbearing. To a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail, I suppose.
Another positive divergence from the Lovecraftian template is that the protagonist gets a little character development. We learn that she didn’t want children, where as her husband wants several. She is not pregnant against her will, per se, but she would rather not be pregnant. She is not looking forward to motherhood, and she is very bored in this town. She befriends a woman who comes from a family that is both feared and respected in the town. The family has an old estate that mysteriously survived a fire which claimed the rest of the neighborhood.
As time goes on, our protagonist begins restoring the old house with her friend. Her friend who is now also, mysteriously, pregnant. The protagonist is entranced by the house. She has feelings she can’t quite explain.
After taking what seems like months to interview half a dozen people her husband declares the mystery unsolvable and decides that they can go back to civilization. Immediately. We’ll be gone come the morrow, pack your stuff. He read the script and knows the story is almost over.
Our protagonist decides that it would be wrong to leave without telling her friend goodbye. She visits the house after dark. Something she’s never dared to do in the past. It is then that she learns the secret of the house, the old family, and why the birthrate in this town is so low.
Like a lot of Lovecraft’s stories, there is a good atmosphere and a neat idea that really serve to carry the story. Like a lot of Lovecraft’s stories though, the big reveal falls real flat. I would have really liked it if the story went bigger at the end. Alternatively, if the author would prefer to focus on the more subtle horror of being in an unfulfilling relationship and semi-forced motherhood then I would have liked a little more clarity on exactly how the protagonist felt at the end.
The emotional flatness of the protagonist is where the story loses most of it’s points for me. I’m not sure if it was meant to be a big scary cosmic horror story, or a subtle human story. I like being trusted to figure some things out on my own, but the end feels just a little too underwritten for me.
6 arbitrary stars out of 10 arbitrary stars.
I found this story in Boneyard Soup