“Who will search the wide infinities of space to count the universes side by side, each containing its Brahma, its Vishnu, its Shiva? Who can count the Indras in them all—those Indras side by side, who reign at once in all the innumerable worlds?”
—Brahma Vaivarta Purana, ~CE 1500
“I often wonder how it would have been had I run down a different road, or not run at all. In what world would I now live? And I sometimes think that always, whenever I come to a fork, I run down the wrong road, and find myself where Shame lies in wait, and Guilt sets its gin. But I can never retrace my steps and take a different way. That is forever the agony of this life—that it could, so easily, have been a different, better life.”
“Life is illusion. Death is illusion. Exchange them. Do you agree?”
“Professor S. Tharakan was naked. His mouth was black, from soil that he had pushed into it. Not to eat, I believe, but to stop breath. He had not succeeded; biology strives always to exist, despite everything, despite anything … He took his hand from the tree, and pawed again at where his eyes had once been, as if to assure himself that they had indeed been put out. Such noises he made. I did not find his eyes.”
It is the year 1799 in the besieged Kingdom of Mysore, and Patrick Saunders is in hiding. Masquerading as a Spaniard living with his Indian wife Usha and their son, Kuruppan, he spends his days farming a plantation of eucalyptus trees to provide the Kingdom with a vital supply of wood for its siege engines, rockets, and buildings. The armies of the British East India Company have been at war with Tipu Sultan, the ferocious Sultan of Mysore, for several decades. As the cannons of the British and their Portuguese and Hyderabadi allies pound the walls into rubble, and Napoleon’s forces in Egypt remain unable to come to Tipu’s aid, the Sultan’s capital of Seringapatam (Srirangapatna) is about to fall to the “machines of battle.” But Saunders is in a bind: as a British subject, discovery by the Sultan’s authorities will lead to a slow and painful death; but as a deserter from the British Army, capture by the British will mean summary execution. What to do?
Enter Mohan Lal, the Sultan’s dreaded minister: a man “who can never die,” with “skin as delicate and papery as the scum on boiled milk; with frail limbs that spoke of every year of his preternatural life,” with “eyes like black rivets” that “set a chill wherever they rested.” Saunders makes a deal with Lal to move his family and his crop of eucalyptus trees to the safety of the hills of Ooty (Udhagamandalam), but learns too late that his haste and greed have forced his family to pay a high price for his folly, unleashing a chain of misery that echoes down the centuries.
Published in July 2022, Hangdog Souls by India-raised British biochemist-turned-novelist Marc Joan serves up an intricate meditation on time, fate, and multiverse theory rooted in occult Indian spirituality, while also doubling as an entertaining cosmic horror novel adapting the folk culture of South India for fans of the Lovecraftian genre. To someone of South Indian descent raised at the intersection of Indian and Western cultures, it is refreshing to encounter elements of my cultural background expressed with verve, nuance, and inventiveness, without a heavy imprint of colonial moralism, and to have the opportunity to appreciate Lovecraftian-style horror expressed through a culture that has yet to be more widely explored by mainstream speculative fiction and fantasy writers.
Spanning three centuries of early modern Indian history, Hangdog Souls is a collection of loosely-linked stories set in the region between the city of Mysore (Mysuru) and the town of Ooty in southern India, all infused by the unsettling tone and themes laid down by the book’s first story. Haunting, harrowing, and stirring, these stories mark the arrival of a highly original work by a bold new imagination in British-Indian science fiction, capable of weaving elements of cosmic horror, science fiction, and history into prose of both crisp scientific precision and mellifluous aesthetic flow.
From an English priest traumatized by his failure to stop his sister’s murder during the 1857 War of Independence, to a tea plantation owner and his friend setting out on a quest to find a rare black butterfly in 1930s India, to the mysterious demise of a company accountant at the hands of a shady cult amidst the general turmoil and chaos of 1970s India, to an old embalmer recounting a horrific experience embalming headless corpses into the likenesses of gods for a shadowy priest. A large subset of the stories range from creeping horror to penny dreadfuls, where characters find themselves in unknown places, get embroiled in something nasty or spooky, and then run into something worse. Each story has a creeping or cosmic-horror subtext that doesn’t always lead to actual horror, but is often studded with enough allusions to the first story for a cavernous supernatural implication to loom over it.
Then there are other stories in which horror plays little to no role, but the inclusion of which help form thematic links between the collection’s tales. These tales furnish backstories for certain supporting characters that add to the overall pathos and gothic mood, or allow the author the opportunity for social commentary on contemporary India. The son of a poor subsistence farmer being sold to a prosperous cousin as a servant out of economic necessity; to two enterprising but naive young boys spending a year harvesting scorpion venom for sale to a research clinic run by an unscrupulous researcher; to the issue of college suicides; to a macabrely detailed description on preparing a hangman’s noose. The real object of analysis in these stories appears to be the daily horrors inflicted by society upon its members, with allusions to the overt supernaturalism of the first story steadily receding into the background to yield ground to the challenges of life in contemporary India.
But the real pleasures of Hangdog Souls are to be found in the author’s vivid exposition of the natural and human geography of Mysore and Ooty, and in the startling vision of the cosmos formed by the elision of occult Indian philosophy and folk beliefs with quantum physics. The use of visual motifs to foreshadow and evoke allusions that help build second-order context enriches the reader’s interaction with the main story. That principle narrative is then in turn woven together with the threads of language and history to reconcile the ties of fate with alternate realities, occult horrors with generational trauma, and South Indian spirituality with the history of colonialism.
When Saunders accepts Mohan Lal’s help to move his eucalyptus trees from Seringapatam to Ooty, his journey takes him from “the furnace breath of the Indian plains” where “small things provoke in me the most unreasonable rages,” to “the thrilling zephyrs of the Nilgherries (Nilgiris),” where he feels like “more of a man.” Here, the “sinuous, silver-grey ribbon” of a river snaking across “a flat landscape of dun browns, burnt siennas, and pale greens” and “vistas of increasing rurality” marked by “dark great boulders … as though dropped there by a frightened god” leads to “deep valleys, filled with cascading growth,” suffused with “the clean perfume of the trees, the pure light of the mountains” and an “impossible verdancy,” evoking descriptions of a lush and abundant “Orient” found in colonial-era literature. The British convert such raw greenery into “a great, well-tended, much-loved garden, framed by the mighty Ghats and cradled by the gentle Cardamom Hills,” where a blanket of tea and fruit plantations “interspersed with occasional shade trees” give off the impression of “an emerald flock guarded by thin shepherds.” Saunders’ own eucalyptus plantation is “a dark counterpoint for the bright gardens,” “cleansing and invigorating” the air with a “pervasive, unmistakable fragrance.” Viewing his plantation in the Moon’s “ciphers of light,” he feels “shrunk down and dropped into a carefully manicured, magical landscape,” completing his picture of British-ruled India: not just a successful colonization, but an imbuing of the countryside with civilized dignity.
Of course, such remoteness means the caprice of nature is never far away. Dangers hide in plain sight. One character nearly ends his life by plucking the datura plant, which “the Thuggi used … to dope their victims” and whose sap “Rajput women smear … onto their breasts to dispose of baby girls.” Snakes, too, abound. Joki, an accountant, encounters a cobra worshipped by the local community, its eyes “fierce beads of obsidian, entirely black, without discernible sclera or iris or pupil, unremitting and uncompromising; the warrior eyes of a creature that neither sought nor gave quarter, a thing that could stare out a human even from behind the pain of a broken back.” Moreover, the “all-encompassing, deafening, rasping trill” and “relentless,” “grinding call” of millions of “invisible” insects create a feeling of being under constant observation. This feeling of oppression only grows when characters brush up against the occult magic of Mohan Lal, and the landscape seems to turn hostile, foreshadow looming danger. As dusk falls, “the jungle’s chirr ceased, revealing a profound silence; and as if to replace sound with scent, through came tones of jasmine, of liguster and lily, of musk and madder …” The “heavy scent of moonflower … powerful and unmistakeable” begins to feel claustrophobically “rich, heavy, almost nauseating.” As characters navigate the jungle around them, the “white fists” and “pervasive, disturbing scent” of moonflower (like “corpse candles”) impede progress, even as “squadrons” of “biting insects” devour the exposed flesh of their arms and legs. When the moonlight creates a “monochrome world” of “silver and black,” where everything is “spot-lit with disturbing clarity or hidden in deepest darkness,” the scent takes on a new dimension: “something in it of lilies, yes; but lilies placed on a corpse to hide the odours of death.”
The local villagers, in contrast to the normally “milling people” of southern India who “stared unashamedly” and make visitors feel “greeted, stared at, questioned and possibly teased,” are “cautious, almost subdued.” They build unusual dwellings atypical of the style of the local Toda hill communities, engage “in the minimum interactions required by etiquette,” and then disappear “behind the tight-shut doors of their windowless huts,” “scared of what the night brings” from “the black jungle.”
That several of the British characters feel a latent hostility emanating from a mercurial and seemingly menacing land far away from the areas firmly under their control once again recalls the colonial-era exoticism of a seductively dangerous “East” filled with dangers and opportunities—a wild and untamed country that, according to the logic of that era, needed to be tamed, modernized, and profited from as a civilizing service. That Indian characters like Joki, the accountant, can feel like “a foreigner in his own country,” however, is also a comment on Nehruvian India’s English-speaking elites, who in some ways adopted the manners and attitudes of the British and Mughal-era ruling elites who preceded them. While Indian history is presented as a succession of invasions and a free flow of ideas and talent, all absorbed gracefully by the bounteous and abundant land, Mohan Lal and his magic serve as an embodiment of the resistance of some elements of rural Indian culture to foreign cultural imposition. Thus, under Mohan Lal’s influence, the land defends itself by reflecting the inner states of the characters who interact with it, turning their fears against them to bend them to its (and Mohan Lal’s) will.
This is in part helped by the interactions between the Indians and the Europeans being made starker not just by the local geography, but also by cultural isolation. For example, the “savage heat” of this “land of heat and blood” aggravates the “unreasonable tensions” of Europeans, even as their presence as outsiders means the landscape’s alienness only contributes to their sense of remoteness and unease. That the landscape itself seems to be conspiring against them heightens their sense of paranoia, making them susceptible to Mohan Lal’s intrigues; the vastness and diversity of India reminds them that they may never be able to fully conquer and tame it, thus rendering their civilizing mission futile. Their perception of a malleable landscape suffused with the sweet, cloying stench of pervasive death, danger, and temptation, constantly creeping to regain its lost territory, thus becomes a manifestation of their Orientalist attitudes, but also a constant reminder of the pointless nature of their enterprise.
But more broadly, the landscape of Mohan Lal’s power becomes dangerous in proportion to the fear and guilt of its potential victims, making them vulnerable to manipulation and thoughts of suicide. This in fact helps Mohan Lal prolong his unnatural life (more on that later). Moreover, it is a singular reflection of the author’s skill that the sights and sounds of nature are harnessed as motifs to instantly evoke the desired emotional response in the reader. From the initial Eden-like characterization of rural India, the descriptions become darker to indicate that a welcome exterior belies a ready and present lethality to those who insult or try to take advantage of it. By the end of the novel, any reference to moonflowers, eucalyptus, marigolds, or butterflies, amongst others, no matter how innocuous, instantly alerts the reader to the possibility of impending death and danger (like seeing a kettle of vultures circling), even if the characters in the story remain blissfully unaware. To wit, there are about eight other regularly recurring motifs that thread their way through the tales to offer glimpses of themselves to the discerning reader, and which are pulled together masterfully in the final tale to showcase Joan’s command of the English language.
The intricate science fiction of Hangdog Souls, too, cannot be overlooked. After Saunders returns from his expedition to Ooty, Mohan Lal lures him into his observatory: a “metal skeleton” of “iron and copper and brass,” an “arrangement of mirrors and glass globes,” “chains and girders, wheels and cogs,” all brought together by a domed ceiling “pierced by a circular aperture, like a single, giant eye”—a machine whose “innards clanked hollowly; as though an iron giant slowly awoke, or a great key gradually turned in a great lock.” When Mohan Lal’s lackey performs an occult ritual, Saunders experiences a cosmic translocation where the “circle of sky above me took on what I then realised—and know now, with absolute conviction—to be its proper form. Not a disc of stars seen from afar, but a tunnel, a conduit, from which the flow and dance of unknown energies rushed past me and through me as though I were less substantial than air.” In a form of rapture, he glimpses:
… other worlds and other beings … our world in its true place … how insignificant … how manifestly necessary to the balance of existence, were its endless permutations. And when I looked closer, it was as if our world were a tree, and yet each branch and twig and leaf and bud held our world entire—the same and yet different—and the branches did continually grow together and apart and together again—forever and ever! And this tree like the countless others in the countless universes, ever and always nourished by and straining towards the pale ladders of gossamer force that streamed down from the stars, as sure as highways for those that can place their feet thereon … the weaving and interweaving of the many forms of each soul, each form identical and yet different, each an interchangeable thread in a single pattern, a single cloth. I saw my many lives, in all their many possibilities; and in each of my uncountable lives … Why is this existence, in this world, of any import, when it can be exchanged for any one of so many, many others? What value is there in any particular thread? Break this one, break that one; they continue elsewhere, and often in a more pleasing tapestry.
Upon awakening, Saunders realizes that he has been duped into serving as “a bridge between this world and all other future worlds” (the multiverse)—a living conduit through which souls can cross over into alternate realities in the pursuit of happier lives, in exchange for life force that Mohan Lal feeds on. Finding his wife, Usha, murdered, his son sacrificed by Mohan Lal to complete his ritual, his friends dead, and the British and their allies storming the gates of Seringapatam, he makes peace with the fact that he is doomed to an immortal existence until he finds something—in this world or another—that will absolve him of his guilt. Both Saunders and Usha then haunt Ooty for centuries as spectral beings offering the bliss of death and soul transference to those whose shame, guilt, and regret are overwhelming—usually those whom Mohan Lal’s intrigues have driven to suicide. That is, until the late 21st century when a team of quantum researchers at a CERN-like facility in Ooty race against the clock to explore a strange new phenomenon that appears to be supporting traversable energy bridges between alternate realities—bridges formed as alternate realities elide and align based on patterns derived from mathematical and ancient Indian astrological cycles—and find a surprisingly simple way to break Mohan Lal’s stratagems. The cosmology of this novel not only borrows from multiverse theory, but also dovetails with traditional Indian and Hindu concepts of cyclical time observed by many today (including auspicious “Rahukalam” and inauspicious “Yamagandam” periods that recur monthly with mathematical predictability), providing insight into ancient and current ideas about the mathematical order undergirding the garish mess of reality, and validating Mohan Lal’s claim “that numbers do not emanate from the stars, but rule them.”
All in all, Hangdog Souls is an intricate, spectral, and many-layered work of cosmic horror and speculative fiction that is as intellectually stimulating as it is entertaining. A collection of tart and lurid tales that are unsettling and deliciously gothic, it succeeds in the manner of the finest fiction writing—by delivering bursts of insight and a sense of transcendence that linger in the mind long after the final page has been turned.