“As his hammer blows began to fall, the horse outside whinnied in a tone which may have been encouraging and may have been mocking. In either case it would have been appropriate; for the unexpected tenacity of the easy-looking brickwork was surely a sardonic commentary on the vanity of mortal hopes, and the use of a task whose performance deserved every possible stimulus.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re covering a story with all the mental veracity of Ambrose Bierce coupled with the Gothic beauty of Edgar Allan Poe. We have a very supernatural tale (a slight divergence from Lovecraft’s norm) which is perfect for this post because of the overtones matching Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (well, that is as perfect as any Lovecraft tale could be for Christmas!), because of it’s themes of repentance, and the almost anthropomorphizing of the horse in the story.
Well…It’s Christmas! Let’s get started!
Lovecraft let’s you know the tone right from the get go: “Mention a bucolic Yankee setting, a bungling and thick-fibred village undertaker, and a careless mishap in a tomb, and no average reader can be brought to expect more than a hearty albeit grotesque phase of comedy.”
We follow George Birch, the aforementioned undertaker in this tale, but Lovecraft does something unique right from the get go. He describes what happens in the story, holding back only the denouement, letting the reader’s mind run wild.
“It was generally stated that the affliction and shock were results of an unlucky slip whereby Birch had locked himself for nine hours in the receiving tomb of Peck Valley Cemetery, escaping only by crude and disasterous mechanical means; but while this much was undoubtably true, there were other and blacker things which the man used to whisper to me in his drunken delirium toward the last.”
So Birch, get’s locked in a tomb by accident and something happens to him there. Sure. My mind immedaitly turns to tales much like “The Tomb” where we get some of the strange Lovecraftian otherworldliness and I began trying to figure out what type of story I was getting my self into…was it a dreamlands? No, the tone was too straightforward. lovecraft has a tendency to give a slightly whimsical, or mystical cadence to his Dream Lands stories… so this must be a Mythos story… right?
Well the tone of this story is different from even those stories. Much like we saw last week, Lovecraft tends to spend quite a bit of time on setting the scene, because the power in much of the magic in “his world” comes from words and smells and architecture. This story spends pages talking about Birch himself. , “I suppose one should start in the cold December of 1880, when the ground froze and the cemetery delvers found they could dig no more graves till spring… The undertaker grew doubly lethargic in the bitter weather, and seemed to outdo even himself in carelessness.”
So Birch is a poor Scrooge, or Grinch like character. He is “bucolic” and a grouch, but what’s more he’s lazy. “Birch decided that he would begin the next day with little old Matthew Fenner, whose grave was also nearby; but actually postponed the matter for three days…” and adding to his procrastination: “He had, indeed, made that coffin for Matthew Fenner; but had cast it aside at last as too awkward and flimsy, in a fit of curious sentimentality aroused by recalling how kindly and generous the little old man had been to him during his bankruptcy five years before.” so the diminutive Fenner got one of the better coffins, while Asaph Sawyer who was not “a loveable man” got the terrible cast off coffin that Fenner was supposed to have received …all because Birch was just too lazy to build the correct sized coffin for Sawyer.
Fast forward to Birch inside the tomb, we get another indication of his laziness: “For the long-neglected latch was obviously broken, leaving the careless undertaker trapped in the vault, a victim of his own oversight.”
Birch, through his own laziness has become a victim of his own negligence. Here is the first indication of the Scrooge theme, Birch is sowing his own oats. He created a situation where he has now trapped himself because he couldn’t bother with doing a little work. The “Ghosts” of his past are coming back to haunt him here, but this is just the beginning.
He cant get the door opened, so he decides to take the morbid child approach and stack all the caskets in the tomb up like some sort of macabre ladder: And so the prisoner toiled in the twilight, heaving the unresponsive remnants of mortality with little ceremony as his miniature Tower of Babel rose course by course.”
We get the quote which opens the essay where Birch decides that he wants to chizel his way out of an aperture at the apex of his corpse stair, but …”As he remounted the splitting coffins he felt his weight very poignantly; especially when, upon reaching the topmost one, he heard that aggravated crackle which bespeaks the wholesale rending of wood.”
Because of his carelessness in constructing the coffins, he was now standing upon a tower of breaking timber and corpses, until “...no sooner was his full bulk again upon it than the rotting lid gave way, jouncing him two feet down on a surface which even he did not care to imagine.” That line right there gave publishers a pause. Lovecraft very rarely goes for the gross out, focusing instead on much higher end psychological scare tactics. Here he went full “Johnny Got his Gun” (there is a terrible scene where the main character gets caught in barbed wire and falls on and through a rotten and fetid corpse…this scene and story pales in comparison to the horror that Dalton Trumbo creates in that novel) as Birch’s feet go into the corpse of Asaph Sawyer.
This being a Lovecraft tale you would expect something strange to happen, something unexpected, something otherworldly, but this story is the exception to the rule. This story is a straight supernatural tale, and because of it’s difference it comes off all the stronger because of it. The corpse grabs his leg.
“In another moment he knew fear for the first time that night; for struggle as he would, he could not shake clear of the unknown grasp which held his feet in relentless captivity. Horrible pains, as of savage wounds, shot through his calves; and in his mind was a vortex of fright mixed with an unquenchable materialism that suggested splinters, loose nails, or some other attribute of a breaking wooden box.”
I felt the same way. I didn’t believe that Lovecraft would take a flat out supernatural approach, but I am kept on my toes. Birch gets free and runs away, liping along until he gets to ghis doctor. Once inspected and unloads his story off his conscience, Dr. Davis is horrified because he comes to understand exactly what happened.
Birch gave Sawyer Matthew Fenner’s coffin because Fenner’s coffin was poorly made and Sawyer’s coffin was well constructed. Dr. Davis comes to the realization that Fenner is extremely short, whereas Sawyer is extremely tall. Dr. Davis goes to the tomb and finds the corpse and finds the ultimate betrayal of the undertaker…
“The skull turned my stomach, but the other was worse – those ankles cut neraly off to fit Matt Fenner’s cast-aside coffin!”
The final nail in the coffin!
Birch actually cut off Sawyer’s feet to make sure he fit in the coffin and Davis verified that the teeth markes on Birch’s ankle were indeed from the rotten teeth of Sawyer.
To me this is the ghost coming down to show Scrooge the right path. This was the wake up call to stop being lazy and to start doing right by people. Whether you believe that Birch’s foot just happened to land on the corpse’s mouth, or that the corpse animated itself out of anger at it’s slight beyond the grave, this was Birch’s call, much like Scrooge being showed his possible future.
To me the story is perfect for the season (at least as perfect a story as Lovecraft can get), and I hope you all had a blast reading it!
Join me next week as we evaluate “Cold Air”
To me these Post Scripts have started to become a little bit of an inside joke, but truly they are all here just to get one last point across which doesn’t quite fit into the narrative of the essay. Here I would love to talk a little about the anthropomorphosizing of Birch’s horse.
The entire story the horse felt like something Walt Disney would create. The horse was tryign to tell Birch what he was doing was a mistake. You could almost feel the horse rolling it’s eyes at the laxy way Birch held the reigns. To me the horse was the true indicator that we were in a Lovecraft story. Doesn’t make sense does it? Let me explain.
Normally we would have an unreliable narrator teloing us a story. At some point in the story we get information that doesn’t quite add up right, but Lovecraft forcuses so much on subtlety that we wil never get an outright statement from the narrator saying something was off. We just need to infer based upon the surroundings.
In this story everything is fairly normal, except for the horse (a kind of macabre parrallel to The Grinch’s dog Max). The horse gives indication at every stage that Birch isn’t doing the right things with it’s outragous personality.
When Birch finally gets to teh tomb the horse neighs and stamps and paws, and soon leaves Birch to his fate as the man ventures in. It isn’t until this point that the narrator can take leave of reality. It isn’t until the horse leaves that we start to get something far beyond normal, and the horse doesn’t leave until the very end of the story.
In every tale Lovecraft tells he has a gatekeeper or a key-master. If they cause a rift they are a key-master, if they stop a rift from happening they are a gatekeeper. It is these characters, human or not, that keep things normal. In this story we dont know for sure if what happened to Birch was supernatural or not, but what leaves that open for question is that the gatekeeper is gone. It’s once this horse leaves that the crazy happens, and if you’ll notice…all of Lovecraft happens in the shadows when you’ve turned to look at something in the light.
“As I surveyed this quaint apartment, I felt an increase in that aversion first excited by the bleak exterior of the house. Just what it was that I feared or loathed, I could by no means define; but something in the whole atmosphere seemed redolent of unhallowed age, of unpleasant crudeness, and of secrets which should be forgotten.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! With heavy influences from Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft takes this story to a very dark place, creating an almost grim dark form of his predecessor. In addition to it’s extremely dark nature this tale is apparently the first mention of the Miskatonic Valley and potentially even the first glimpse of Arkham as Lovecraft develops the eponymous Lovecraft Country. We also get echoes and seeds of some other stories which would come about later and perhaps the introduction of a different favorite character; but make no mistake; this story is a wonderfully detailed terror.
This story is all about the details which tends to happen in Lovecraft periodically a ten page story about a single event. He tends to elucidate to such a degree as to give the reader a sense of being there. The detail is spectacular which lends to the extremely visceral denouement.
Our narrator begins by telling us of his search, that many searchers (he’s a genealogist) “haunt strange, far places…” like Egypt, “Rhine castles” and “forgotten cities in Asia.” But we find that our narrator has found a newer venue, a place where he can find ancient knowledge and deep lines of genealogy:
“But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.”
You see what I mean by detail? But what I find most interesting about this passage is “a new thrill“. This is Lovecraft stating that you’ll not find the run of the mill horrors here. This is a whole new level of terror. This is an entirely unique horror. This new thrill is Lovecraftian Cosmic horror.
We find the “Most horrible of all sights are the little unpainted wooden houses remote from travelled ways, usually squatted upon some damp, grassy slope or leaning against some gigantic outcropping of rock.” and “In such houses have dwelt generations of strange people, whose like the world has never seen.” who have “dark furtive traits from the prehistoric depths of their cold Northern heritage.“
Here he sets up these people as being human, but slightly separate from the normal, run of the mill, person. We see that, “Erring as all mortals must, they were forced by their rigid code to seek concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed.”
I find it odd that Lovecraft, the wordsmith that he was, chose to use the word “mortals” instead of humans. This seems to indicate to me that there is a shift in breeding and evolution (which makes sense seeing as the narrator is a genealogist), kind of like what happened to Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. These people, for all intents and purposes, are no longer human, but another line of genetics who are merely “mortal.”
Our narrator finds the house he’s looking for. “Honest, wholesome structures do not stare at travelers so slyly and hauntingly, and in my genealogical researches I had encountered legends of a century before which biased me against places of this kind.” never-the-less our narrator approaches and “...instead of trying the door I knocked, feeling as I did a trepidation I could scarcely explain.”
The narrator decides that the house must be occupied, so he enters and we get a grand description of the place adding to the ambience of the narrative, and just before we get the quote that opens this essay we find out that “Most of the houses in this region I had found rich in relics of the past, but here the antiquity was curiously complete; for in all the room I could not discover a single article of definitely post-revolutionary date.”
So if the owner of the building which is still inhabited, is either stuck in the past metaphorically, or they are preternaturally old and are hiding away from the species that they used to be.
While looking around the narrator comes across a book…Pigafetta’s Regnum Congo, which is a real account of a Italian traveler in the Congo region. The narrator flips through the book surprised and terrified at the illustrations which show beings which are half ape alongside others that are normal humans. This is either a call back or a precursor to “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” as in that story we find that a descendant of Arthur goes into the Congo and claims a wife…who turns out to be one of these partially white apelike creatures. In fact throughout Lovecraft we can see indications of these creatures and so far I am undecided as to whether they have a direct correlation to the ancient magics that take place in the alternate universe of Lovecraft, or they are just an accidental creation and have no real stake in anything that’s happening in the overall cosmic reality. It’s an interesting question and I’m sure that I wont ever truly have an answer to it, but I hope to glean a little more insight as I get through the rest of the stories.
While our narrator is reviewing the terrible “...Plate XII, which represented in gruesome detail a butcher’s shop of the cannibal Anziques.” we hear “the unmistakable sound of walking in the room overhead.” and the old tenant of the abode appears, who “seemed abnormally ruddy and less wrinkled than one might expect…But for his horrible unkemptness the man would have been as distinguished-looking as he was impressive.“
The man greets our narrator calmly for someone who just experienced a B and E and the two talk about the book for the majority of the remainder of the story… that is until “The especially bizarre thing was that the artist had made his Africans look like white men – the limbs and quarters hanging on the walls of the shop were ghastly, while the butcher with his axe was hideously incongruous. But my host seemed to relish the view as much as I disliked it.”
Yikes! Could it be there’s a reason the host didn’t balk at seeing a stranger in his house?
A storm brews outside which our narrator doesn’t notice immediately because the intensity of the storm increases as the fervor of the host’s grotesque desires bubble to the surface. As “I listened to the rain, and to the rattling of the bleared, small-paned windows, and marked a rumbling of approaching thunder quite unusual for the season. Once a terrific flash and peal shook the frail house to it’s foundations, but the whisperer (the host) seemed not to notice.”
The tenant is caught in zeal over the depictions of the cannibalism, and in fact soon tells our narrator “Queer haow a cravin’ gits a holt on ye- As ye love the Almighty, young man, don’t tell nobody, but I swar ter Gawd thet picter begun ta make me hungry fer victuals I coudn’t raise nor buy-” and finished by telling our narrator “They say meat makes blood an’ flesh, an’ gives ye new life, so I wondered ef ‘twudn’t make a man live longer an’ longer ef ’twas more the same.“
The storm ravages outside as droplets begin to fall upon the opened book, but we soon come to realize that “rain is not red.” Our narrator looks up and “...beheld just above us on the loose plaster of the ancient ceiling a large irregular spot of wet crimson which seemed to spread even as I viewed it.”
Our narrator has stumbled into the domicile of a cannibal who has been eating people for hundreds of years to keep himself alive, when “a moment later came the titanic thunderbolt of thunderbolts; blasting the accursed house of unutterable secrets and bringing the oblivion which alone saved my mind.”
There is a bit to unravel here and it’s all a little outside the normal realm of Lovecraft. The first aspect is the capitalization of “Gawd” by the host. The general usage of God versus god, is that when the capitalization is used in this context the speaker believes in this higher being, when it isn’t… he doesn’t. By all indications the narrator believes as well. What makes this particularly interesting is that Lovecraft was a notorious atheist, but he still includes divine intervention of the “Thunderbolt” at the end of the story. The whole thing feels more like a really dark Hawthorne tale rather than a Lovecraft story because of these influences. I half wonder if that was the intention because of the detail in the opening salvo of the story. It sounds remarkably similar in tone and description as the openings of “The Scarlet Letter” or “The House of Seven Gables.”
Could there be some latent subconscious religion spattered in here, or is this intentional on Lovecraft’s part?
After working on this project for as long as I have, I’d wager that he was working to emulate, not to infuse religion. That wasn’t something he really even cared to follow through with, and the capitalizations are not there in his other works. The only possible explanation is that the host was speaking of some cosmic being (Azathoth?) as a higher being, not the Roman-Catholic Yahweh.
What do you think?
Join me next week as we cover “In the Vault!”
Post Script: I mentioned in the introduction that there was the possible inclusion of a favorite character? I think there is a distinct possibility that the tenant is the “Terrible Old Man.” We know that at one point the Terrible Old Man came from Arkham or at least passed through it, and there is mention of the works of Cotton Mather of Salem Mass. fame in the house. We also know that the Terrible Old Man was at one point in Salem (possibly during Joseph Curwen’s time there). We also know that the Terrible Old Man is a sea captain who went all across the globe before finally settling down in Kingsport, so it is possible he gained some of this knowledge or info from his time at sea (possibly sailing into the Congo?).
Whether these connections are there or not, this is one of the most fun aspects of this project. Looking for these connections. See you next week!
“Hello. I’m Vincent Price, and you’re invited to my Carnival this evening. So far the ghosts have only murdered seven people. So won’t you come to make it 8? You’ll find creatures beyond imagination, murderers, ghouls, vampires and other…blood sucking things. You’d better hurry, your ticket…expires…at midnight. Your Carnival is at Hubert’s Grove.”
Oscar pulled the phone away from his ear and looked at it, as if its screen would divulge more information.
The call’s number was (000)000-0000, so Oscar didn’t answer. He turned to Olivia.
“What is it babe?”
“I just go this really weird call,” he held the phone out to her. “Listen to the message.” He half thought it was a joke. Olivia loved that horror shit. Oscar didn’t have a clue who Vincent Price was, but he was sure Olivia would. Besides that, every year at Halloween she begged Oscar to take her to Hubert’s Grove. It was one of those places where they build a haunted maze in the woods and then charge a crazy admission price to go in and have idiots in costumes jump out at you.
He realized he made a mistake handing the phone over a second before he did it.
“OH MY GOD WE HAVE TO GO!” Olivia squealed when she finished the message.
“No! That was really Vincent Price’s voice! They must have spliced it from old movies!”
“Babe…” Oscar repeated.
She looked at him, then firmly planted a fist on her hip. “You wanna get lucky tonight, you’re taking me.”
A few minutes later they were in the car on the way to Hubert’s Grove.
The marquee said “Carnival of Souls” and they parked right in front of it. The carnival was desolate and run down. There were no people about and the tarp which encompassed the tents was stained and torn. Dust blew on a hidden zephyr through the central concourse where a solo ticket booth stood. Behind the glass of the booth was an old mechanical Zoltar, which had an abyssal stare and teeth that were just a little too white.
The full moon was the only illumination in the carnival, but it was enough to show the way to through the park. Directly on the other side of the carnival was an old house of horrors dark ride with the title “The Tingler” and a large cutout of Vincent Price’s head under the arched name.
“Oh my God this is spectacular!” Olivia screamed and ran to the Zoltar ticket booth.
“For access to the carnival please place your tickets in the slot below,” the mechanical soothsayer intoned.
“Ah, damn babe, I don’t know about this,” Oscar said. “This thing ‘aint looking like it’s been running for years.”
“Oh stop it, you big baby! I seen the squash festival here last week,” Olivia came back at him.
Oscar looked up to the rusty ferris wheel. “That enough time to build all this stuff?”
“Totally! They build that shit in a few hours. Where are the tickets?” She asked.
“Serious? You were there, we ‘aint got no tickets. We just got that phone call.”
A bright flash came from Zoltar’s eyes that briefly blinded them before Vincent Price’s dulcet tones echoed through its voice box.
“Welcome to your carnival. We accept your ticket,” The voice paused and a loud boom echoed over the grounds followed by a shower of sparks. There was a soft baby’s cry and the rides burst to life. Oscar was sure he could still hear the baby’s lament behind the screeching of rusted gears, but he was distracted by the voice coming from the Ticket Booth.
“Your first tickets are for “The Tingler,” so named because of the parasite in your spine that gives you tingles every time you’re frightened. If you can survive The Tingler you will receive your ticket to the next attraction at the conclusion of the dark ride.”
Two tickets popped out of a metal disc at waist height on the Ticket Booth. The voice laughed a terrifying but familiar guffaw before it faded to the ambiance of the grinding gears and soft baby cry.
“This is so fucking cool,” Olivia said already running toward the haunted house dark ride.
Oscar looked down at his arms and could see goose flesh and hair standing on end.
“Hold up!” He said running after her.
The Tingler had a long ramp with switchbacks leading up to the entrance, where a track carried cars barely large enough for two people to sit in. Olivia jumped in one of the cars and slid to the side gently slapping the seat next to her, beckoning Oscar to join her. Her smile hit each ear. He squeezed in and lowered the safety bar to cover their laps.
“The more scared you are, the larger the Tingler grows,” a voice projected from the car’s speakers behind their head.
The car sped up, then jerkily slowed and slammed a 90 degree turn into the attraction, snapping their heads to the side. Oscar let out a little “uh” as they were suddenly faced with a realistic wax figure on a hydraulic piston shooting out at their car. With a hiss, the piston moved the figure away from the car, revealing how fake the set up was. It was dark inside of the first room, which looked like a laboratory with faint glowing red lights. There were dollar store props, including rubber bats hanging from the ceiling with twine. There were other wax figurines in the room as well, all in various poses of horror but none of them moving. On what looked to be an operating table was a wax figure working on what looked to be a giant rubber centipede.
“Your first experience of the Tingler is past! Don’t let it get too strong or it could take over!” Vincent Price’s voice echoed in their ears.
The car moved slowly through the room before snapping again to the left. A sound track of a scream blasted from the speakers behind their heads and the wax figure of a woman with long nails and sharp teeth jumped out at them. Oscar jumped, but Olivia squealed in delight. The hiss sounded and the hydraulics brought the wax doll back into the shadows.
The next scene had even worse décor. There were more wax dolls in a scene that looked like a scientist fighting off vampire, but the supposed house they were in was just canvas that covered the walls with a painted scene and a jarring green lightbulb which lit the room from the ceiling. Vampires were painted on the canvas to look like they were swarming the painted windows and there was a Paper Mache dog attached to a metal pole moving back and forth as though it was attacking one of the vampires. The wax figures looked fairly realistic, though the running wax was evident. Everything else looked like it was produced for an eight year old’s diorama.
“Oh, come on! This is…ooof!” Oscar started as the car made another sharp turn.
This time he closed his eyes as to not get the jump scare but volume of the scream in the speaker system still made him jump.
This room was another painted canvas, however this one depicted a large Victorian mansion. There was a wax figure with a knife attached to a pneumatic track in the middle of the room. It was moving back and forth so that every time it moved forward it stabbed another wax figure.
“The only way to stop the Tingler from taking over,” the voice echoed behind their heads again, “is to kill the host!”
Oscar rolled his eyes and searched for more fake decorations when he saw something strange. The wax figure getting stabbed was missing one of its eyes and beneath the wax veneer was a real eye, open wide and staring at him. Olivia was laughing beside him.
“Yo, what the fuck?” He said as the car jerked them around another corner.
Another figure jumped out at them, but this one had a knife in its hand. The knife slid into his shoulder and his cry of pain echoed the tinny voice over the speaker.
With a hydraulic hiss the wax figure moved backwards. As it did the figure’s the head slumped.
“Oscar?” Olivia wasn’t laughing anymore.
The figure that jumped out at them wasn’t wax. It was a dead woman with her hands tied together around the knife. She had enough wax coating her that it made her body slightly stiff.
The room they entered was entirely metal illuminated by a red light. A figure hunched over a large cauldron in the corner of the room. It was facing away from them, but it was tall and gaunt and absolutely alive.
“The Tingler gets stronger! We must kill its source before it gets out of control!” The voice echoed behind them. There was a click and a grinding noise coming from the speakers as if a record had completed and continued to spin on its pin.
“Oscar?” Fear laced Olivia’s voice.
Oscar tried to turn to see what made the noise and felt a needle slide into the back of his neck.
“Oww!” Olivia wailed.
Immediately Oscar’s vision blurred.
The figure leaning over the cauldron turned around. It was wearing a melting wax mask and underneath Oscar thought he saw burnt skin.
“Welcome to your carnival,” the figure said. “Where you’ll be an attraction for all eternity.”
The figure pulled a lever and the last thing Oscar saw was a body falling from the ceiling into the cauldron of wax.
I’m taking the week off from the Blind Read series to catch up on work, so I’ll leave you with a Lovecraft inspired story. Here’s a horror short based in the madness of the mind…
The black spot was still there. How many times have I scrubbed that damn thing? It’s always there, in the corner, next to the refrigerator, just above the counter in the kitchen. I used to put my knife block there to cover it. It was a large spot, but there were a lot of knifes in the set. It’s such an embarrassing spot. It makes me feel like people would look at it and think I didn’t clean. I mean, how can I ever have anyone over?
Who am I kidding? It’s not like I know anyone who would come over. Not like I have any friends. I can’t have friends. They might want to come over and then they would see the spot and then they would judge me. I have to get rid of it. Cleaning doesn’t seem to help, so I decide that the best thing that I can do is cut it out. Cut it out of the wall, cut it out of my life.
Ah it worked! I got it out of the wall! I went to the hardware store and I bought a drill and cut the embarrassing stain out of the wall. I bought drywall to cover it up and repainted it. It finally looks like the rest of the wall! I can be a normal person now. I can invite people over, I can have friends. This is the best day of my life!
The best day followed by the worst day. When I woke up today, I found a new spot and it’s larger than the last one. It’s in my living room this time. It’s large and ugly. It looks kind of black, but if you get closer to it, it almost looks brown. Where are these stains coming from? I have to go get the drill.
That one was much harder to get out. It ended up being a much larger hole than I anticipated. I started to cut and red liquid came out from the wall. For a moment I thought it was blood. It can’t be blood. Walls don’t bleed. But the liquid spread the stain. I had to cut out half of the wall. I didn’t have enough dry wall to cover it the spot I cut so I had to go back to the hardware store. The clerks there are friendly. Maybe they could be my friends. Maybe. But I have to get that spot out of the wall first.
It’s gotten worse. There is a human sized spot in my room. It’s deep brown. I’m not fooled by thinking its black anymore. The moment I put the drill to it, blood comes out. I know, I know. It can’t be blood, because walls don’t bleed. But it really seems like it. What’s even stranger is that when I cut, the house seems to groan. You know how old houses shift and they make noises? Creaks, cracks, pops? That’s what happens when I cut. I wish I had a friend who could come over and tell me that it’s just the creaks in the house. That it’s not something more strange. That it’s not blood.
I cut into the wall. I ignore the wall’s cries. I ignore the blood. Behind the drywall is something I can’t ignore though. The house has bones. Bloody bones in the walls. Bones where studs should be.
I got back to the hardware store. I need to get more dry wall. I need to get more paint. I’m so embarrassed though. They are nice to me there. I think they can be friends, but something has changed now. It is as though they know about my house, with its blood and its bones. They ask me why I’m wearing sunglasses and a hat and a large trench coat with the collar turned up. They say it’s good to see me, but I can tell that they’re lying.
I put up the drywall when I got home. I spackled it perfectly, then painted it over. No one would ever guess that there are bones and blood behind the wall.
There’s another spot. Another one! It’s in the shower. The brown spot almost makes it look like the wall is skin. Like it has texture. Like it has movement. I repeat the process. I ignore the groans. I ignore the blood. I ignore the bones. I act like nothing is there. I act like I have a normal house. I act like I’m normal.
There’s a new spot today. I don’t know how they keep appearing. I know how to fix it. I’ve done it so many times before. I know I just need to do it again. This must be what my life is. Just getting rid of these dark spots. Erasing anything that doesn’t seem normal. I will make sure that people think I’m normal.
I grab the drill. I run my hand over the spot. I wonder how I’m going to find the materials to fix the hole I create as I cut out this abnormality. I put the drill to my chest. Once I cut this spot out of me, I’ll be normal. I’ll be able to have friends.
“On the night I arrived I heard strange music from the peaked garret overhead, and the next day asked old Blandot about it. He told me it was an old German voil-player, a strange dumb man who signed his name Erich Zann, and who played evenings in a cheap theatre orchestra; adding that Zann’s desire to play in the night after his return from the theatre was the reason he had chosen this lofty and isolated garret room, whose single gable window was the only point on the street from which one could look over the terminating wall at the declivity and panorama beyond.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! I cannot tell you how excited I am to be discussing this short story! It is without a doubt my most favorite Lovecraft story to date, filled with creepy ambiance (brimming with classic, though augmented, Lovecraftian tropes) and a terrifying climax . This one is not to be missed!
We start, yet again, with our classic unreliable narrator. Everything seems above board with this gentleman except for the fact that he lived in an apartment on a road that he has since been unable to find. We can brush off the absurdism and take that as Lovecraftian madness, or we can take this story at just face value…an entertaining fiction the narrator weaves for us.
“I have examined maps of the city with the greatest care,” the narrator tells us, “yet have never again found the Rue d’Auseil.” We are transported to France, a brand new locale for a Lovecraft story. It’s a nice changeup from our New England home base, because we can now see that these types of events (which we saw on a much broader scale in The Call of Cthulhu) happen around the globe.
The narrator tells us that the French (possibly Parisian) alley “..was always shadowy along that river, as if the smoke of neighboring factories shut out the sun perpetually.” It also stank: “The river was…odorous with evil stenches which I have never smelt elsewhere...” These things in and of themselves are not indicators to anything particularly nefarious. Remember that Lovecraft was writing in the early 20th century and much of the poorer areas of the world had to deal with these types of issues. We were neck deep in an industrial revolution and laws were slim. There were factories which spouted smoke and exhaust with abandon, and rivers were usually run off for toilets. What Lovecraft is doing is just setting up the scene, much like he does in “The Dunwich Horror” by creating a space where the poorer people of the world deal with this kind of degradation that the rich never has to condescend to understand. These types of things just happen with more frequency in the poor areas because the poor doesn’t have any power or recourse to deal with them. So the rich can live in a sunny and perfumed estate, and the poor people have to deal with their smoggy and “odorous” runoff.
The narrator “had never seen another street as narrow and steep as the Rue d’Auseil.” It was “closed off to vehicles, consisting in several places of flights of steps, and ending at the top in a lofty ivied wall.”
The Rue d’Auseil is cut off from the world. It is dirty and difficult to access, but so far we’ve not seen anything really out of the ordinary. Until this sentence:
“The houses were tall, peaked-roofed, incredibly old, and crazily leaning backward, forward and sidewise. Occasionally an opposite pair, both leaning forward, almost met across the street like an arch...”
This is where we get Lovecraftian. Much like in “Dreams in the Witch House” architecture plays a large part in the mythos. Strange, non-Euclidean geometry in structures is an indication that it’s a location for a portal to the outside world. These types of places in Lovecraftian fiction are used as a terminus of power. The off-putting architecture means that magic is stronger in the rue d’Auseil and could potentially be a locus of summoning Elder beings.
After getting the description of the building and finding out that our narrator gains a flat on the fifth floor, we get the quote which opens this essay…our introduction to Erich Zann and what our narrator means when he calls Zann “dumb” is just a sobriquet for mute, a matter of much importance for the denouement of the story.
The narrator gains access to Zann’s apartment by being nice, and Zann plays him some music: “He did not employ the music-rack, but offering no choice and playing from memory, enchanted me for over an hour with strains I had never heard before; strains which must have been of his own devising…They were a kind of fugue, with recurrent passages of the most captivating quality, but to me were notable for the absence of any of the weird notes I had overheard from my room below on other occasions.”
So now we have evidence of not only architecture being odd and off-putting, but now music which is discordant. I was riveted when Lovecraft jumped into this realm. Music is known to open one’s mind, to help with memory, to assist with focus, even to repair parts of the brain. I am, in fact, listening to music right now as I write this. If we consider the power music can hold and that it can be used in conjunction with magic, this opens up whole new worlds within the cosmic horror field! It seems to me that Lovecraft is setting up that Zann is an old man who has experienced too much, and possibly had been part of some Cthulhu cult at one point in his life After reading The Call of Cthulhu we know how pervasive they are). He learned the music from them and is using it in some form or another that deals with these eldritch gods…but more on that soon.
When our narrator inquires about the discordant music, Zann glanced “...toward the lone curtained window, as if fearful of some intruder – a glace doubly absurd, since the garret stood high and inaccessible above all adjacent roofs, this window being the only point on the steep street… from which one could see over the wall at the summit.”
Ah and there it is. We have an alley that has strange non-Euclidean architecture, and a mute man (is he mute? Or has he seen things so terrible because of his “duty” that he can no longer speak? Is it something else?) playing strange, discordant music in a gambrel room which is the only room in the alley that can see over the wall to the city beyond. That window is always curtained. A diligent reader will tell immediately that this is going to be the…summit…of the story. The focus is too heavy on the window to not understand that something will come from that portal to beyond the wall.
Zann leaves with pleasantries, but when our narrator asks him to play some of the strange music he has heard late at night, Zann’s “...bony right hand reached out to stop my mouth and silence…” him. This reinforces the theory that Zann might not really be mute, but a gatekeeper that knows his voice may cause something to come through that curtained portal.
Zann shakes our narrators hand and he leaves as friends, but doesn’t “speak” to the narrator for some few days. Our narrator, intrigued by the man, listens at his door and hears the man’s cello wail.
“It was not that the sounds were hideous, for they were not; but that they held vibrations suggesting nothing on this globe of earth, and that at certain intervals they assumed a symphonic quality which I could hardly conceive as produced by one player.”
The narrator eventually gets in and talks to Zann and gets him to write down his experience. Over an hour the old man writes before the narrator “half fancied I heard a sound myself; though it was not a horrible sound, but rather an exquisitly low and infinitiely distant musical note, suggesting a player in one of the neighboring houses, or in some abode beyond the lofty wall over which I had never been able to look.”
Zann, terrified, “seized his viol (cello), and commenced to rend the night with the wildest playing I had ever heard from his bow save when listening at the barred door.”
and “It was more horrible than anything I had ever overheard, because I could now see the expression on his face, and could realise that this time the motive was stark fear.”
And “In his frenzied strains I could almost see shadowy satyrs and Bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of clouds and smoke and lightning.”
Then “The shutter rattled more loudly, unfastened, and commenced slamming against the window. Then the glass broke shiveringly under the persistent impacts, and the chill wind rushed in, making the candles sputter and rustling the sheets of paper on the table where Zann had begun to write out his horrible secret.”
A gust comes in through the window and Zann plays furiously, his eyes wide and terrified. The narrator looks to the window where he “might see the slope beyond the wall, and the city outspread beneath… but only blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth.”
The cello brays behind him and the candles flicker out leaving them in pitch. The narrator flails, trying to figure out what’s going on and “Suddenly out the blackness the madly sawing bow struck me, and I knew I was close to the player.” but when he finally gets a glimpse of Zann, he reaches out to the madly playing musician and “I felt of the still face, the ice-cold, stiffened, unbreathing face whose glassy eyes bulged uselessly into the void.”
The story comes to a close as our narrator flees the scene.
So what does it all mean? Instantly I think of two things and both make for a spectacular story. The first is that Zann died while doing everything he could to stop whatever eldritch horror was trying to make it’s way through the portal and his body was kept animate by whatever secret drive he had written into the lost note to the narrator (or by whatever task he was given by an otherworldly being).
The second, and the version I like better, is that Zann was dead all along. The narrator is unreliable and insane and imagines the whole thing. He has a psychotic episode and that’s why he is never able to find Rue d’Auseil again. That’s why Zann never spoke. That’s why the papers Zann wrote blew away and the narrator never got to read them. That’s why the room was otherworldly. Zann was a corpse all along and everything else is in the narrators head. This version is just so deliciously creepy that I cant help but to prefer it.
But there is a third possibility. This entire story could have taken place in the dreamlands. The rue d’Auseil is not on any map because it doesn’t exist in the waking world, only in the mysterious dreamlands. It’s also fairly reminiscent to “The Strange High House in the Mist” because, there too, we have a caretaker guarding a house against something evil and huge just outside it.
In any case this is a fast paced, unique tale that’s perfect for anyone looking to get into Lovecraft.
Which version do you prefer?
Join me next week as we discuss “The Picture in the House”!
If anyone knows the truth of this please leave a comment! I researched and tried to find rue d’Auseil and even tried to do a translation, but was unable to uncover anything as to it’s meaning. This may be another indication of Lovecraft intending this to be a dreamland tale, but it could also be him trying to expand his own universe. We spend quite a bit of time in New England, but there are a few tales which we go out into the world and in every locale Lovecraft creates fake cities, or roads, or houses, or geographic features. We know that Lovecraft wanted other writers to take his stories beyond what he created… maybe this was his way of creating a parallel universe that’s very similar to ours, but has these eldritch truths which we cannot see in our world. Maybe he was trying to build out enough to ensure his legacy. To ensure his Yog-Sothothery. What do you think?