Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft; The Dunwich Horror
“Dr. Armitage, associating what he was reading with what he had heard of Dunwich and it’s brooding presences, and of Wilbur Whateley and his dim, hideous aura that stretched from a dubious birth to a cloud of probable matricide, felt a wave of fright as tangible as a draught of the tomb’s cold clamminess.“
Welcome back for another Blind Read! The week we’re diving into one of the creepier, lugubrious, and plodding stories to date – The Dunwich Horror (check pronunciation notes in the post script!).
Lovecraft intersperses some interesting socio-political factors into this, one of his more visceral tales, all the while giving some first hand looks at what some of these cosmic creatures look like – breaking from his standard of building fear by occluding our sight of these terrible creatures. The story is slow developing, but there’s more in this story to build the Mythos than any other story I’ve read from him.
That being said, let’s dive in shall we?
Despite the fact that we divert from Lovecraft’s held tenet of showing his creatures, we begin the story with an old standby, an introductory chapter to set the stage and atmosphere of Dunwich. Lovecraft leans into his overbearing descriptions in an effort to make sure the reader understands the place; “Without knowing why, one hesitates to ask directions from the gnarled, solitary figures spied now and then on crumbling doorsteps or on sloping, rock-strewn meadows…” and “It is not reassuring to see, on a closer glance, that most of the houses are deserted and falling to ruin, and that the broken-steepled church now harbours the one slovenly mercantile establishment of the hamlet.” In fact the town has “…gone far along the path of retrogression…” that “They have come to form a race by themselves, with the well-defined mental and physical stigmata of degeneracy and inbreeding.”
We’re shown a run down shambles of a town with all the quaint elegance of “The Hills Have Eyes.” But that’s what sets this story apart from his other works. Much of Lovecraft has affluent characters, using their influence and money to dive down into these rabbit holes of terror. The Dunwich Horror is the opposite, it has backwater folks living in the abandoned hills of New England experiencing the insidious horror.
The saddest aspect of this comes in the first chapter of the story: “The old gentry, representing the two or three armigerous families which came from Salem in 1692…” and though they “…have kept somewhat above the general level of decay…” they themselves have degenerated. This is not “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” where we get to gallivant around the globe researching and finding clues to the highest peaks of godhood. No. This is the story of the underside. This is the story of people who had the knowledge (they came from Salem, just like Curwen did in that story) of cosmic wonder, and let it degrade into something foul. I’d wager that’s why we get to see a bit of the creature here…Lovecraft wanted to solidify how dirty, how incredibly unclean this place really was.
But that also raises that sociological aspect I mentioned earlier. Throughout this story Lovecraft is disparaging to the townsfolk. Their speech is degraded, their hygiene is terrible (“Dunwich folk have never been remarkable for olfactory immaculateness.“), and their living situations are deplorable. They cant even solve their own problems, they need to get help from the more affluent Arkham people. The whole book almost feels like Lovecraft is saying ‘this is what happens when you live in poverty. You stop caring and you devolve.’ The deceit here is that it doesn’t matter what your fiscal situation is, in Lovecraft, there will always be some fanatic who delves into the unknown and causes unrest.
But I digress. Back to the story!
We are introduced to the Whateley clan, more specifically the “goatish looking” infant Wilbur Whateley, his albino mother Lavinia, and Old Whateley, who are all inbred and have odd looks with no chins. Lavinia gave birth to Wilbur without anyone knowing his parentage, many speculating inbreeding because he was “exceedingly ugly despite his appearance of brilliancy; there being something almost goatish or animalistic about his thick lips, large-pored, yellowish skin, coarse crinkly hair, and oddly elongated ears.“
Wilbur grows at preternatural rates; walking at 8 months, talking at 11 months, reading the tomes of Old Whateley at the age of a year and seven months, and by the time he was four and a half years old he already looked 15.
This is where the slog hits in the story, where page after page goes by with familiar themes and normal Lovecraft happenings. We find sores on Old Whateley and Lavinia, cattle are sent to the house frequently, paid for with gold of an extremely ancient date (who even accepted it as a form of payment?), evidence of vampirism, strange odors no one is able to recognize, and odd rituals on May-eve and All-Hallows up on Sentinel Hill led by Old Whateley amongst strange rock formations and a rock altar. Old Whateley and Wilbur re-build the house, to make the inside space larger, and to give it some of the same strange architecture as can be found on the hill. These are all integral to the story and all instances which come up in Lovecraft again and again.
Then one day Old Whateley dies and tells Wilber, “Open up the gates to Yog-Sothoth with the long chant that ye’ll find on page 751 of the complete edition…“
Wilbur heads to Miskatonic University library to search out The Necronomicon as the Old Whateley’s volume is not complete. He seems to get the information he needs and heads back home. That Halloween there is some kind of kerfluffle and his mother is never seen again.
Dr. Armitage of nearby Arkham hears of Wilbur’s visit and looks over his shoulder at page 751 translated. Here we get more information about the Old Ones than we’ve gotten in nearly all of Lovecraft, and all in one page (It’s so provocative that I’ll set a link here for you to read it, but it’s so long that it will just take up too much space, so you may read it…at your own peril!). That page of the Necronomicon leads directly into the opening quote for this essay.
There is also another interesting connection with other Lovecraft here, and that’s “Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family“, where Wilbur’s movement is considered “Gorilla like” along with his “albino mother,” and if you’ll remember the story a princess was pulled from a temple in the jungle and it was found out that she was basically an albino gorillaesk figure. Could it be that this is what happens to people as they take on aspects of the Old Ones? Did at one point in our evolution, we humans diverted from the cosmic skein while our hominid ancestors were closer to those outer deities? Something to ponder.
Armitage makes a crack that inbreeding could not have caused the physical features displayed by Wilbur, “Shew them Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan and they’ll think it a common Dunwich scandal!” Armitage already knows something is amiss.
Later that year Armitage, along with two fellow compatriots hear a dog howl and smell the horrible odor connected to the cosmos. They find a dog had jumped through the window and killed Wilbur Whateley, though this was not the Wilbur Whateley everyone had known…”...with very man-like hands and head, and the goatish, chinless face had the stamp of the Whateley’s upon it…though it’s chest…had leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator. The back was piebald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes. Below the waist, though, it was the worst; for here all human resemblance left off and sheer phantasy began. The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply…whilst in lieu of a tail there depended a kind of trunk or feeler with purple annular markings…“
Strange things begin to happen in Dunwich and they all seem to surround a large invisible creature who is destroying houses and killing people. Armitage delves into research to figure out how to dispel the creature and comes across the “Dho-Hna” formula and a singular terrible phrase written in Wilbur’s crooked scrawl: “I wonder how I shall look when the earth is cleared and there are no earth beings on it.”
Wilbur obviously began his transformation into some sort of cosmic avatar, whether that be the servant Shoggoth, or something else, he was actively looking to wipe the earth clear of humanity. From everything I’ve read in Lovecraft thus far, this is the first instance where it is absolutely clear the destruction of the human race is the point of the fanatic study. Usually it is just a lust for power or eternal life or knowledge beyond what they should be able to understand.
Dr. Armitage, along with Professor Rice and Dr. Morgan head to Sentinal Hill with a special sprayer which will show the invisible creature (clever if trite plot device). Again we are shown a description. Lovecraft does a fairly good job at this though, because he just throws out a few vague discordant descriptors and lets our mind construct the monstrosity. It is readily apparent that the invisible monster is a Shoggoth. Here it is in clear terms from one of the villagers:
Bigger’n a barn…all made o’ squirmin’ ropes…hull thing sort o’ shaped like a hen’s egg bigger’n anything, with dozens o’ legs like hogsheads that haff shut up when they step…nothin’ solid abaout it – all like jelly, an’ made o’ sep’rit wrigglin’ ropes pushed clost together…great bulgin’ eyes all over it…ten or twenty maouths or trunks a-stickin’ aout all along the sides, big as stovepipes, an’ all a-tossin’ an’ openin’ an’ shuttin’…all grey, with kinder blue or purple rings…an’Gawd in heaven – that haff face on top!…
I find this description particularly interesting, not only because we finally get to see what a Shoggoth looks like (It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter. – description of a Shoggoth from “At the Mountains of Madness”) with a bit more clarity, no the more intriguing thing here is that section about a ‘half face.’
The Shoggoths are the work horses of the Old Ones (Like the actual workers. They tend to whatever the Old Ones need. Do the dirty work as it were.) and this story seems to be indicating that humans can become Shoggoth, and all they need to do is breed with them…
The story concludes with the trio from Arkham banishing the Shoggoth creature to whence it came. This would probably be a satisfactory conclusion, but Lovecraft takes it a step further. In the last paragraph we find the truth of where the creature came from. This entire story, the Whateley’s were building bigger and bigger spaces. It was unclear as to why, just a vague mention by Old Whateley on his death bed: “More space, Willy, more space soon. Yew grows – an’ that grows faster.”
But oh god, the creature had half a face. “That face with the red eyes an’ crinkly albino hair, an’ no chin, like the Whateleys...”
Remember that Wilbur grew at an abnormal pace? This was because of his connection with the cosmic deities. Why would the Shoggoth grow at the same pace? We finally see that this monster was not something Wilbur or his grandpappy summoned. Lavinia gave birth to Wilbur and the no one knew who the father was, well it turns out that the monster “…was his twin brother, but it looked more like the father than he did.”
One only has to wonder…did Old Whateley willingly give up Lavinia to birth cosmic deities?
Join me next week as we jump into Herbert West – Reanimator!
Here’s just a fun rejoinder about the pronunciation of Dunwich.
My brother and his family live in Providence, RI and he is adamant that the real pronunciation of Dunwich is Dunnich. Because RI was a colony they took on the English pronunciation and that’s what is used today (Hence Greenwich village is pronounced Grennich village. What’s interesting in this story is that Lovecraft goes to far lengths to use onomatopoeia to make the speech of the villagers precise to their dialect. He does this to the point that some of it is neigh on impossible to read because he focuses so much on pronunciation to show their destitution. I mention this because there’s one instance where a villager, in dialogue, calls the town Dunwich. Therefore we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that it is the Dunwich Horror, not the Dunnich Horror.