The Shortest Swamp Thing Saga: Sara Omer’s “Marshman”

Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.

This week, we cover Sara Omer’s “Marshman,” first published in The Dark in March 2024. Spoilers ahead!


“You’re not going to call this creature mothman, at least not until the check to your institution clears and the documentary producer has you seated comfortably in a greenroom.”

You (a cryptozoologist) have been summoned from your university to a “sprawl of swampland” called Sumpit. Deep in the marsh is a dried-up bog in which peat extractors found a well-preserved body of baffling morphology. Archaeologists have recovered additional bodies both ancient and recent. Initially they called in an entomologist. That speaks to just how anomalous the first body is.

From the Sumpit welcome center, you and other expedition members board a swamp boat and head out over murky water into the falling night. One passenger totes a pack bulging with climbing gear. Another shoulders a rifle. Usually you travel with a docuseries camera crew and “special guests”: psychic mediums and “superstitious fanatic conspiracy theorists, the kind who think the government covers up all things supernatural.” For you, though, cryptozoology is “a social science, a study in human psychology, history, and local cultures instead of the occult.”

Your destination is a relatively dry clearing beside the target bog. It’s overhung with Spanish moss; tiki torches reveal an unnerving number of tarp-covered bodies and a moldering shack before which federal investigators mutter into walkie-talkies. An archaeologist wants to tell you how ancient cultures used the conserving properties of peat bogs for burial grounds, but you’re more interested in the shack. From the darkness beyond its broken door, a hum seems to emanate, an alluring song that’s probably an artifact of your exhaustion. You’re told the building’s abandoned, but the sleeping bags and litter suggest recent visitors.

The archaeologists show you the original body, a humanoid creature with chitinous wings and exoskeleton, wide-set bugging eyes, and a beak instead of a nose. You think of the Carboniferous millipedes as big as cars, and the Permian dragonflies with three-foot wingspans. The wings of this “mothman” are even larger. The next body is covered with matted fur and has dangling limbs  like an orangutan’s. What’ll be next, a werewolf, a cloven-hoofed devil? You’d conclude that some psychopath is pulling a hoax, except that some of the bog-pickled corpses have been lab-dated to thousands of years old. When you bring up the recent disappearance of a “beauty pageant runner-up” visiting Sumpit, an archaeologist scoffs that none of the bodies could be hers.

You could identify the bodies, or you could say sorry, evidence inconclusive (though that would be a lie) and do the tourist thing in a quaint town nearby, trying to forget about what might have ruled the swamp a few centuries back. Instead you ask about the shack. The pit, the portal, a gate, you’re told. A “carved-out cavern” discovered under a mildewy dresser. Spelunkers in climbing harnesses and helmets are already heading there to explore. You should go, you think. You should go with them, you say, your voice sounding disconnected. In case they find something down there…

Maybe you should have asked more questions, like who built the shack over the pit; what could have been the relationship between humans and cryptids; how old was that oldest body again; how many people go missing in Sumpit every year. Instead you follow the spelunkers into “an abyssal portal in the damp earth,” where a siren hum murmurs an invitation…

The cable lowering you snaps ten minutes into your descent and you “sink into that place where monsters with too many eyes live, slinking out from their subterranean cities only to seek bridegrooms and vittles and honor their dead.”

* * *

The narrator now reveals themself to be a forensic pathologist, examining the gnawed bones that were all the authorities finally recovered of you—and speculating about your final hours. Did you ever find that missing Miss Peach Blossom contestant? Can’t tell much from the photos you took down there in the dark. By the way, the cryptids didn’t have their servants bury you in the bog. They just tossed you and your smashed camera out, like garbage.

The government has tried to cover up the marshman incident by filling in the pit—you should get a kick out of that, given your skepticism about conspiracy theories. The trouble with Sumpit is that every time the government seals a cavern with soil and gravel, the marshmen excavate another one, someplace else in the swamp.

What’s Cyclopean: Bog gas gives the illusion of mountain peaks of “Olympic proportions.”

Libronomicon: You wonder if these bodies come from some prankster working “Victor Frankenstein style”.

Mythos Making: All the rumored cryptids, or at least the bipedal ones, live in cosmopolitan harmony together under the earth. What do they do when they aren’t kidnapping and killing humans?

Anne’s Commentary

Wetlands begin to trend here on Reading the Weird—a couple posts back we discussed Liz Williams’s “The Hide,” set in Somersetshire, England. This week, based on the featured flora and fauna, we visit an unspecified state in the US South. Omer lives in “the woods outside of Atlanta” and the missing pageant contestant hoped to be Miss Peach Blossom, so her setting might be Georgia. Apart from my personal preference for always knowing where in the world is Anne M. Pillsworth, the exact location isn’t crucial. Swamps, marshes, bogs and bayous pop up (or more accurately, sink down) in all but the most arid landscapes, and a good thing, too. These mucky places provide refuges for rich biotas and veritable cauldrons for evolution.

We may not particularly like what has come out of those cauldrons. Mosquitoes, gnats, biting flies, leeches, and ticks are all the vampires I ever need to meet in the watery-woodsy places. Add cryptids, and you’re in for real fun, as long as you’re just curled up in front of a monsters-among-us “reality” show and not slogging through their natural habitats without a script or field-tested anomaly repellent. Speaking of repellents, here’s a PSA from our own intrepid reporter on the cryptid beat, Carl Kolchak:

“While Beastie-Be-Gone, Inc. claims that its monster repellent is truly polyvalent, don’t bet on it. I’ve found that only the Cryptilator line of repellents approved by Miskatonic University Laboratories are at all effective, and then only if you know exactly what category of monster you’re going to encounter. Sure, you can stuff your backpack with a can each of AntiFurry, AntiReptilian, AntiArthropod, and AntiAquatic Cryptilators, but try fishing out the right one while you’re on the run in the pitch dark. As for anti-cosmic-horror repellents, they’re so targeted to each species (and even sub-sub-species!), you’d need a moving van to carry them all, and even then, without precisely chanted potentiator-incantations, your ass will likely be grass.”

Thank you, Carl.

Carl adds that the cryptozoologist in Omer’s forensics report was probably doomed from the start because CONSPIRACY! He declined to go into detail about his suspicions (because CONSPIRACY!), but he did whisper these portentous words into my ear: CHECK THE SECOND PERSON NARRATION.

Say no more, Carl. As soon as I saw that Omer was using the second person, my own CONSPIRACY!-detecting radar pinged. Of all the points of view, second person is the sneakiest. To start with, what’s the point of choosing the second over the first or third persons? Some contend that the second person drops the reader right into the story, as in YOU, hey YOU, READER-PERSON, you’re here and experiencing this! This is YOUR story, kid, not quite Choose-Your-Own-Path because you’re not doing the choosing, but still….

I’ve never bought simplistic immediacy arguments for second person, in the sense that the reader really accepts they’re the YOU character and participating in the story. Take “Marshman”: I know I’m not a cryptozoologist, well, not a professional with university creds, anyhow. I also know I’m not currently in Sumpit but sprawled at home, Kindle in hand, Monsters-Among-Us TV playing companionably in the background. Never mind that I would never approach a potential Mothman without my trusty AntiArthropod Cryptilator in one hand, my SemiAnthropomorphic Extermination Booster in the other.

Often the actual narrator of a second person piece is an above-the-stage omniscient addressing the reader as “you” to draw them in. This presupposes the omniscient narrator has the puppet-master power to so thoroughly manipulate the reader’s sensibilities and emotions that they believe themself the one-YOU-fits-all protagonist.

I, admittedly, put a cynical slant on the technique.

For me, a neater take on second person is one featuring a third person limited narrator rather than an omniscient one. That is, there’s a character in the story who is either observing another character’s actions (thinking of the other character as you) or speculating about another character’s past, present, or future actions (again, thinking of them as you rather than Tom, Dick or Harriet, as the case might be.)

An especially nice trick is to couch a first person narrative in second person prose. I call this mode first person once removed. An example is Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City, in which the protagonist has plentiful psychological reasons for distancing himself from his past excesses. It’s not I who did those things back in 1980s NYC, it was you, the person I am no longer.

My first read-through of “Marshman,” I figured Omer was using this first person once removed variation, with the cryptozoologist writing in the second person to achieve distance from whatever trauma they suffered in Sumpit. But the end of the story reveals that it’s not the cryptozoologist who’s telling their story. It’s the forensic pathologist who’s studying the cryptozoologist’s “gnawed over bones” and who has written the preceding narrative by way of interrogating the deceased about their final hours. Is this the pathologist’s standard approach to the job or—

Or is it something more sinister, suggesting a CONSPIRACY! is afoot in Sumpit? This pathologist knows way too much about the autopsy subject, and way too much about Sumpit’s secret attractions. They know the extent of the cryptozoologist’s skepticism about cryptids and conspiracy theories, and are rather too amused when the cryptozoologist is proven wrong. They know what awaited the cryptozoologist at the bottom of the pit: a “place where monsters with too many eyes live, slinking out from their subterranean cities only to seek bridegrooms and vittles and honor their dead.” Poor cryptozoologist, who rated becoming just vittles, not a consort or object of post-mortem veneration. Happy cryptozoologist, maybe, never to learn how often the government has had to fill in Sumpit hellholes, only to have the marshmen excavate new ones.

We’ll have to leave that appalling truth for Carl to root out. Last I heard from him, he asked me to send a few dozen pairs of socks and boxer shorts to an Atlanta post office box—mud, swamp slime,  and mildew are rough on a gentleman’s unmentionables, it seems.

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Cryptids are fascinating—but also a category so fuzzy that it raises the question of why we treat it as a category at all. They’re creatures (usually animals, though cryptobotany is its own underrated field) that are rumored but not clearly demonstrated to exist. How long do you have to search before that failure-to-find makes a cryptid? We needn’t ask how long before a species exits the category the other way, into the realm of the definitively imaginary: the field is in part defined by the tenacity of its practitioners.

Nor are they entirely unjustified in their optimism. Cornucopias of new species are discovered every year—here’s a recent batch from the ocean off New Zealand. Medieval bestiaries mixed plausible descriptions of dragons with dubious descriptions of camels. Eighteenth century British zoologists thought the platypus was a hoax, though of course Australian aborigines knew better. Coelacanths were long-extinct until they weren’t. Why not Mothman, Mkole-Mbembe, or a whole species of one-to-a-remote-lake plesiosaurs?

As a child, I was fascinated by the liminality of these creatures, the sense that they weren’t merely unproven but somehow transgressive. They weren’t supposed to exist, and seeing one would force you to update your model of the world in some painful and frightening way. Mothman particularly kept me up at night: what if I looked out the window and saw him hovering there, eyes glowing? If he wanted to traipse around in the woods without being noticed, that would be one thing, but why look in human windows other than to provide malign revelation? (That watching humans in brightly lit rooms might fascinate mothmen and owls alike did not occur to me.) And meeting his eyes, that would be the equivalent of inviting a vampire across the threshold, permitting all sorts of intrusion that would remain impossible if I just. Didn’t. See. I kept my shades closed tight.

Child-me would doubtless fascinate Omer’s second-person cryptozoologist. After all, they’re more interested in the psychology of belief than in the cryptids themselves, albeit willing to say whatever it takes to earn a paycheck on TV. The TV shows, presumably, also allow an opportunity for up-close study of the other “special” guests.

(As a side note, I initially took it as a symptom of this greater interest in humans than cryptids that our cryptozoologist didn’t blink at an alligator near a peat bog: I’m familiar with peat bogs as a cool northern phenomenon, and cypress knees and Spanish moss and gators as the province of my beloved Gulf Coast swamps. But apparently peat bogs hidden amid southern wetlands are really a thing—oday I learned! End of digression—we were talking about Mothman.)

The idea that cryptids aren’t merely undiscovered, but violate our comfortable ideas about what ought to exist, feeds into much weird fiction. What’s Cthulhu, after all, if not the ultimate cryptid, able to munch on any coelacanth or megalodon that swims into range? Mira Grant’s Rolling in the Deep follows some tv-loving cryptozoologists into an unlooked-for encounter, rather grander in scale than Omer’s. Lovecraft and Bishop’s Mound people are known mostly through local rumor, and occasionally abscond with surface-dwellers who get too close. Gnoles peer through peepholes and do unspeakable things to unfortunate thieves. Even the Nameless City raises the specter of the thing you thought was safely gone that isn’t, quite.

All these stories focus on one species, living among its own. I’m intrigued by Omer’s more diverse community of Marshmen—have they all fled underground to escape human unbelief, or just human miners and hunters and documentary photographers? Or do their depredations on visitors, which are sure to attract more unwelcome attention, indicate that they lurk largely in service of their predation?

And what else do they do with their time? I hope that between trying to discourage peat mining, the mothman-bigfoot families get to sit around in their cozy underground dens, telling creepy stories about surface-dwelling naked apes—and that those stories keep teenaged mothmen up after their bedtimes, trying to avoid looking through the peepholes lest they meet… something’s… eyes.

Next week, the Crossroads beckon in chapters 31-32 of Max Gladstone’s Last Exit. icon-paragraph-end

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top