“But at this time it was all horribly real, and nothing can ever efface the memory of those nighted crypts, those titan arcades, and those half-formed shapes of hell that strode gigantically in silence holding half-eaten things whose still surviving portions screamed for mercy or laughed with madness.”
Wow, what a wild ride this story was. This was probably the scariest and most classic horror of any H.P. Lovecraft that I’ve read up to date.
As the story begins we are introduced to detective Thomas F. Malone who is on extended medical leave for trauma. The first portion of the story describes how he’s living and dealing with this trauma, of which we are still ignorant.
The second portion of the story covers Red Hook. We get a call back to HE, as there is a similar tenement structure our narrator experienced there. This story also takes place in New York, which is absolutely unique for Lovecraft. It does not hold the same atmosphere as much of his work, but from the start of this story the tone has a much darker and sinister feel. The basis in New York gives Lovecraft the ability to explore different themes than the usual fantasy/cosmic horror that he frames in New England.
The third portion of the story is the introduction to Malone’s quarry, Robert Suydam. “Suydam was a lettered recluse of an ancient Dutch family,” and he purchased a space in the run down, twisting alleyways of Red Hook. After a strange trip to Europe, Suydam began to deteriorate. His personal hygiene took a hit, he lost friends, and “When he spoke it was to babble of unlimited powers almost within his grasp, and to repeat with knowing leers such mystical words or names as ‘Sephiroth’, ‘Ashmodai’ and Samael’.” And there it is. We have three demons from the Kabbalah and Christian religions. The text has gone beyond the normal Lovecraft, no longer in the world of the cosmic horror. We are no longer in the dreamlands (though there is a little bit of dream stuff to come), we have now crossed over into religious horror. To me this raised my hackles. I find this subject matter far more terrifying that anything I have yet come by within Lovecraft’s oeuvre.
The fourth section of the story delves into the police work. Trying to uncover just what strange dealings that Suydam has been up to. They raid his home, which is empty, and they come across blasphemous art work and things that Malone simply “did not like”. They also found an inscription:
O friend and companion of night, thou who rejoices in the baying of dogs and spilt blood, who wanderest in the midst of shades among the tombs, who longest for blood and bringest terror to mortals, Gorgo, Mormo, thousand-faced moon, look favourably on our sacrifices!
I had no idea what this meant. Though obviously a atmospheric quote, I believed it had deeper meaning. Lovecraft infuses lots of Greek mythology and heritage within his work. There is a certain amount of admiration he obviously felt for the culture and the artwork. He loves the idea of marble structures and busts and even includes some of that iconography in this story as well. So when I came across this quote, it was no surprise to me that it was about Hecate, the Greek Goddess of the underworld, ghosts, and magic. This story was not going to deal with cosmic horror, it was going to deal with something closer to home. It was about Hell.
The next short section of the story tells of a journey Suydam takes across the sea, where he dies. He instructs that his body be conveyed to the bearer of the note provided.
Then we move into the Horror. Malone goes to Red Hook and investigates, noticing a melee. He goes to allay the fight and finds strange sounds and smells while all the participants of the battle flee. Malone suspects something nefarious behind a large door, so he takes a stool and breaks the door open, “whence poured a howling tumult of ice-cold wind with all the stenches of the bottomless pit, and whence reached a sucking force not of earth or heaven, which, coiling sentiently about the paralysed detective, dragged him through the aperture and down unmeasured spaces filled with whispers and wails, and gusts of mocking laughter.“
Malone is sucked into Hell. He experiences some truly horrific scenes, perfect for any fan of this type of fiction, and much more evocative than anything I’ve experienced from Lovecraft. We see Suydam giving himself over to a demon, finally getting what he was after, and becoming one with hell.
The final section explains how the mysterious group brought Suydam’s body back to that experience and how Malone could hear that same refrain from some “hag” speaking to young children about Hecate. The knowledge of the fate of Suydam and that whatever devious magic caused it is still alive and well in Red Hook is what truly throws Malone over the edge.
When I think of Lovecraft I don’t generally think “disturbing”, but I have to say that this one was up there. That penultimate chapter covering Malone’s experiences in Hell were truly unsettling.
What do you think?
“And because mere walls and windows must soon drive to madness a man who dreams and reads much, the dweller in that room used night after night to lean out and peer aloft to glimpse some fragments of things beyond the waking world and the greyness of tall cities.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! We’re going to be tackling a fragment from later in Lovecraft’s career, that gives indication for the expansion of the Dream Lands and his pantheon of gods. This short was thought to be the beginnings of a novel that never truly came to fruition, and instead became what we know as “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”https://seanmmcbride.com/2018/05/11/blind-read-through-h-p-lovecraft-the-dream-quest-of-unknown-kadath-pt-1/ (check out my Blind read of that story here). Azathoth is mentioned in a few other stories as well, but is basically known as the chaos at the center of the universe. A god of gods, something that the narrator of “The Dream Quest” knows that if he views Azathoth straight on, he will lose his sanity. A quavering mass of teeth and eyes and malevolence. He is also known as the Dream God. Some think that Azathoth creates dreams, or at least created the dream lands. He is, however, ignorant of this. Also known as the Blind Ignorant god, Azathoth himself is not actually malevolent in his intentions. He may be a force of chaos, but he is not truly evil. He’s just dreaming and moving through existence, but because he is beyond the understanding of humans, a view of Azathoth means a view of the entirety of the universe, which is too much for a mere moral to withstand. Thus madness.
This short was the first time in the oeuvre of Lovecraft that we get to hear of Azathoth and there is one really interesting mention. Opiates.
Lovecraft was rumored to either use Opium or some such subsidiary, and some say that many of his stories were opium dreams. I prefer to believe that he may have dabbled early on and had some crazy visions. This led him to believe that Opium may be a drug to alter existence. Lovecraft at his core was a terrified man. I don’t believe by the indications of his writing that he would give himself over to an addiction of a drug this powerful; he’d be too scared to lose himself. He was a well known recluse and a well known bigot. These things developed (of course he must have had an early life redolent with them), out of fear of the unknown. If you’re scared of something, you’re going to vilify it, instead of trying to understand it.
I believe this is why he wrote about the subject matter that he did. Writing about fears and horrors was an outlet for him. He was unable to deal with these types of fears in real life, so he fought them in his dreams and with his pen. Fears do not always have to be about monsters.
The loss of innocence was big for him. He believed that the world had moved on, and the drive for the 9 to 5 (or at this time in our history, more like 7-9) took something away from you. Took away part of your soul.
“It is enough to know that he dwelt in a city of high walls where sterile twilight reigned, and that he toiled all day among shadow and turmoil, coming home at evening to a room whose one window opened not on the fields and groves but on a dim court where others windows stared in despair.”
Lovecraft lived in a world of fantasy. As we saw in “He” https://seanmmcbride.com/2020/05/08/blind-read-through-h-p-lovecraft-he/ Lovecraft’s narrator hates New York because it has lost its whimsy. Lost it’s fantasy, and become a “city with high walls where sterile twilight reigned”. Twilight, the mystery and magic of it, is sterile there. He believed that to have emotion, to have a reason, you needed that fantasy, and that’s what he gained from New England. He was scared of the loss of innocence. He was scared of losing his fantasy. His fear of the sterility of life in the city is what drove him to such excess in his fiction.
Many of Lovecraft’s stories are about the search for this lost innocence. The search for this lost magic. What Lovecraft realized from his own isolation, was that the search could be a fine line. The creation of the Outer Gods, was an example of going too far in the wrong direction. As in “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” the journey is the key. If you become too incessant about uncovering the whole truth, you’ll find that there is horror there. The horror may just be that there is no point. The horror may just be, that if you get to the answer you were desperate for, you find that you are only in a …”dim court where other windows stared in despair.”
They key to avoiding this? Live in your dreams. Live your dreams.
…”and for days not counted in men’s calendars the tides of far spheres bore him gently to join the dreams for which he longed; the dreams that men have lost.”
I’d love to hear what you think!
Join me next week for another Blind Read!
“For a full three seconds I could glimpse that pandemoniac sight, and in those seconds I saw a vista which will ever afterward torment me in dreams.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! I had to take the series on hiatus for a little while for work reasons, but we’re back and I’m determined to finish with the rest of H.P. Lovecraft!
This is the story He, written in 1925 at the height of his “fame” (it’s in quotation marks because Lovecraft was not popular while he was alive. The majority of his fame came from August Derleth, continuing on his legacy after he died). Despite his vast vistas explored in such stories as At the Mountains of Madness, this, for me, was his most atmospheric piece. It is also his first work in a city that takes place outside of New England.
We follow our intrepid narrator who is excited to go to New York. It is a place he’s heard a lot about and has read about extensively, and he has an expectation in his head. An image of New York of yesteryear. He imagines walking through the boroughs and seeing the history first hand. He wants to be inspired by the muse of New York, by the poetry of the city. When he gets there he is disappointed because the world has moved on. New York is, well, new. Buildings are built up, there is no nostalgia. There is only the bustle of the city, the history is dead and gone.
Our narrator goes into a depression, desperate to leave the city, but decides to take one more excursion. He tries to go as deep into the heart of the city as he can, escaping down alleyways, and travelling through slums. He soon becomes lost and meets up with a strange man. The man takes him even further into the depths of the city and they end up in a room the man (the titular He) leads them to. The man knows what our narrator is looking for. The man becomes the muse.
The room is decorated as an 18th century library, and the man takes our narrator to a window with a yellow curtain (I cant help but think of the short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman The Yellow Wallpaper) . He peels the curtain aside and shows the narrator various vistas. They start off small and verdant field, followed by cities. Our narrator asks the man if he can take him further. The man, properly egged on, uses his magic to take them to a far off place…but something goes wrong. The man takes in too much of the other world energy and it instantly transforms him into a blubbering creature, eventually nothing but a ball with eyes and arms. Our narrator flees, and lives to tell the story.
This is the story of Lovecraft getting the most out of a difficult situation. Lovecraft was a homebody, nearly a hermit. I truly believe that when he went to New York (which I’m sure he did), he had much the same experience. He went for the nostalgia, he went for the muse, he went to write poetry, but instead found a cinderblock and steel city, devoid of the wonder he craved. This story was his effort to extract that wonder. The world had moved on from him and his mythos, so he needed to create a character to bring that back. He wanted a way to bring that wonder back to New York.
But New York had already moved on. The narrator accepted it, as Lovecraft had. So this elegiac tale was about dreams. He dreamed that there was someone strong enough to take him backwards. Take him back through the nostalgia. No one, however is strong enough to take him forward. No one can withstand the steady, unrelenting march of time. not even this incredibly old magician. He too succumbed to time, and was reduced to nothing more than a ball with eyes. Something that had no power, except to watch as the world moved on.
I’d love to hear what you think!
Join me next week as we do a blind read of The Horror At Red Hook!
Quarantine has been a strange thing. I keep telling myself that it isn’t that bad. I get to stay home, I get to read, I get to write. All the things that I have wanted time to do, and sneak minutes here and there, in between spending time with my family and work. I’ve been more productive in my writing that I have at any point in my life. I’ve gotten more done around the house than I ever thought possible. I’ve read more books so far in quarantine than I have in some years. All of these things should make me happy, right? They should make me feel fulfilled, because they hang over me as things I want to do while I’m doing other things. Now I’m actually doing them, and I feel as though it’s not enough. I need to get more done. I’m being too lazy when I decide to slow down and watch a television show. That’s 43 minutes that could have been used on something else. Something more productive. I only have so long in quarantine after all. Things seem to be coming to a close here. This forced “vacation” is almost done. Will I be happy with myself when I do go back to work? Will I be happy when I know that I have to sneak a few minutes here and there for these things that I’ve been able to do freely for going on two months?
Years ago I started collecting John Steinbeck novels. Not just buying them at Barnes and Noble, but actually seeking out First Editions and unique printings. He is my favorite author, you see, and I want to be able to look at my book shelf and feel the nostalgia. I want to look upon those unique covers and have the stories rush back to me. I find that having those unique covers delivers this feeling, much more so than the standard Penguin Classics black monochrome delivery. Sure those look good an a shelf. They’re good for OCD, because they’re all the same size. All the same color. They’re easy on the eyes. But something gets lost in the translation. They begin to blend. They become a concept. They are Steinbeck on a shelf, but they lose all personality. They lose their individuality.
A few days ago I picked up my first edition of “The Moon is Down”, which was first published in 1942. I put on gloves because I didn’t want to damage the pages. I felt strange doing this. I was in my home. It was my book. Why was I wearing gloves to read a book in my home? I was sure I could be careful enough with it that I wouldn’t damage it. So I took the gloves off and started to read. It was freeing in a way that I couldn’t describe.
But there was still that need to get stuff done. I had something I wanted to savor, and I could only think of what I wanted to read next. I felt an overwhelming melancholy because I realized that I wasn’t enjoying it like I should. Much like I was gulping down my expensive coffee that I carefully spend twenty five minutes every morning making, because I just needed the caffeine. I was missing something.
Yesterday I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I sat in my reading chair and I had The Moon is Down open in front of me, but I couldn’t focus on it. I took a deep sigh, reveling in the strange feeling of shame I was feeling, and I caught a familiar scent. It was the book. The indescribable scent of an old book. Remember that the book I was reading was published in 1942. The book in my hands was 78 years old. Something happens to books as they age that gives them a familiar scent. A scent that every book lover craves. I know there is a science behind it, and I can wager why, but I’ve never wanted to, because something about that scent elicits mystery. It elicits fantasy and memory. It represents hope.
I leaned in and took a deep breath, taking in the memory of the first time I found a Steinbeck book in the corner of a used book store in Seattle. I remember seeing a brownish/crimson cover. The title was “The Pearl”. The book was battered, but it was a price I could afford. I bought it.
I took another deep breath. It made me think of the Cemetery of Forgotten books, a mysterious library from my favorite book “The Shadow of the Wind”.
I took another deep breath and I thought about searching through old used book stores for copies of John Steinbeck books with my fiancee (now wife), as favors for attendees of our wedding.
I felt pressure release from the back of my head with every inhale. I felt my eyes relax. I felt my brain let go of some of those desires to just get stuff done.
To me, it was a figurative “stop and smell the roses” moment. But I don’t care about flowers. I care about books and emotion. This was the first time in quarantine that I let myself enjoy what I was doing.
Dont mis-understand. The point is not to say that I stopped working. The point is not to say “watch more tv and relax”. The point is to enjoy the work. The point is to have fun with what you are doing. The point is the journey, not the output. The point is, in 78 years someone will read a book and take a deep breath and be taken to a place of wonder. If I can enjoy what I’m doing, maybe. Just maybe. That deep breath can come from something that I have created. And I can give that solace, and nostalgia, and mystery, and fantasy, and hope, that I find now.