Alex Jeffers’ A Man Not of Canaan is an interesting story for me on a number of levels. It is a queer, kinky Lovecraftian story set in the Bronze Age Aegean, among the community of Thira at the time of the eruption; as such, it ought to be something I really enjoy. Instead, it has layers and layers of problems, rather than good execution; some are problems of research, some of presentation of alternative sexuality.
The story is the discovery by our nameless narrator that the man whom he has treated as his lover and who has introduced him to what we would call BDSM is also a Lovecraftian mage going by the name Nuh. Jeffers draws directly on the traditional Lovecraft mythos with the cry of the alien monsters Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” and introduces an almost Ickeian race of humanoid crocodiles (worshipped by proto-Arabs, naturally) to build his horrific universe of uncaring beings; and he zooms out on the world to show us that the effects of human habitation are “scabs on the earth’s flesh… that would heal and slough off and leave no mark” (despite, even then, the clear effects of human habitation on the environment).
So, the problems – perhaps unsurprisingly – start with the degree to which Jeffers’ story hangs on a Gravesian model of the Aegean Bronze Age. Mother worship is likely true, and the trading cultures almost certain, but the lack of wars claimed in the story is unattested and based on an absence of evidence, not actual evidence of absence. Furthermore, the bull-dancing and the nature of social structures are drawn from equally early attempts to understand the Minoan civilisation, and feel more like the writing of treasure-hunters than of serious scholars. We’re even treated to our nameless narrator’s horror at the idea that the world is a gloe, despite attestations of that going back millenia, and despite it being a necessary part of the knowledge of a seafarer – indeed, Jeffers’ explanation of why the narrator finds it uncomfortable is exactly why seafarers knew the world was a globe: the horizon.
That’s without getting in to the ritual by which young men are kidnapped and married to older men as a rite of passage – notably, with no apparent choice in how those men are selected; A Man Not of Canaan completely refuses to problematise this and embraces it as a full-blown societal good, rather than rape; the narrator relates being
carried away at midnight from my mother’s house… made drunk on unwatered wine… made [to] swear awful oaths, and wed… to my father’s youngest, handsomest, merriest friend. And then… my first beloved carried me into the croft and on soft sheepskins fucked me very soundly, made me a man. As has always been done among my people.
That leads onto the problem with the portrayal of BDSM in the story. A central tenet of modern kink culture is Safe, Sane and Consensual – SSC. That means all parties must be in their right minds (so not drunk, drugged, etc), informed about what’s happening, must agree to the boundaries of what will happen in a scene, and it must be safe (the limits of safety are pretty flexible, though). Instead, A Man Not of Canaan presents a scene in which the narrator seems to this reader not in his right mind:
It was not clear in my mind… Frequently I was overwhelmed by dizzy blackness
This is part of a passage in which the narrator doesn’t really understand what’s happening, is going beyond what he’s done before without any discussion, and doesn’t actually appear to consent; but again, none of this is problematised, even if it is also not heavily portrayed in an erotic light. Indeed, this scene is part of a magical ritual to allow Nuh to assume another form and travel; thus BDSM becomes not sex, but a dark magical rite. The subsequent part of the story, which describes our narrator’s lovers (including prostitutes) “horrified by the practices of love that would soothe me”, only cements this imperssion of BDSM as Other, dark and strange.
Having said that, A Man Not of Canaan does have its good points. The writing style is a smoother Lovecraft, with the personality and immediacy of his works but without the stilted prose; and the level of description, especially of the horrors encountered, is brilliant, as they’re conveyed in their horrific amorphousness and mutability. The descriptions throughout are beautiful and evocative of the far-off past, even where they strike even a half-serious scholar as outdated or outright inaccurate.
A Man Not of Canaan is one of those stories where the technical achievements are so at odds with the contents it is hard to assess; but in this case, the content is so poorly researched, and so offensive, that it wins out, and this story just ends up bad, sadly.