Blind Read Through; H.P. Lovecraft: The Very Old Folk
“One seldom saw them; but a few times a year they sent down little yellow, squint-eyed messengers (who look like Scythians) to trade with merchants by means of gestures, and every spring and autumn they held the infamous rites on the peaks, their howlings and altar-fires throwing terror into the villages.“
Welcome back for another Blind Read! This week will be in a slightly different format as the story we cover is a unique entry for Lovecraft as well.
The tale is told through the frame of an epistle recalling a dream; and undoubtedly it’s a recollection of a dream that Lovecraft himself had. There isn’t much to the story in and of itself – it tells of a group in a Roman Legion who are investigating a disturbance outside of a town – but the text itself informs us more as to the man and his incorporation of history than anything else.
The story begins with the salutation of the letter, “Dear Melmoth.”
Without a doubt this is a reference to Charles Maturin’s 1820 gothic novel “Melmoth the Wanderer” which centers around a man who sells his soul to the devil in trade for an extra 150 years of life. This is a common theme in Lovecraft – the pursuit of knowledge and the desire for an elongated life to gather such knowledge. Invariably the contract ends up corrupting the soulless character and they end up seeking Eldritch magic to make their lives even longer. In stories such as “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” we have a sample character of Curwen who has a coven of three. These men have done much the same as Malmoth, where they basically have denied their morals so they may live longer. One has to consider that the narrator of this tale, (whom signs in Latin) is indeed a contemporary of Melmoth and has partaken in a similar deal…perhaps directly relating to the circumstances of this story.
The narrator tells us that he thinks the dream which is the basis of this tale is a product of reading the Aeneid on Halloween, “This Virgilian diversion, together with the spectral thoughts incident to All Hallows’ Eve with its Witch-Sabbaths on the hills, produced in me last Monday night a Roman dream of such supernatural clearness and vividness, and such titanic adumbrations of hidden horror, that I verily believe I shall some day employ it in fiction.”
And clear and vivid it was. We have a six page, single paragraph story which details life in a Roman culture. The story is fairly simple, though with a few Lovecraft flourishes, but what I find fascinating about this is how much Lovecraft was enamored with two ancient civilizations. The Romans and the Egyptians.
Nearly every story of his has some kind of connection to one or the other of these societies, and I have to wonder if it’s because of their accumulation of knowledge. These two cultures were known as two of the most learned early dynasties, both with questionable roots hidden beneath their outward collective togetherness, in fact there is a passage here which brings this to light:
I, however, who seemed to be a close friend of Balbutius, had disagreed with him; averring that I had studied deeply in the black forbidden lore, and that I believed the very old folk capable of visiting amongst any nameless doom upon the town, which after all was a Roman settlement and contained a great number of our citizens.
This group was well within the borders of the empire, and yet still they had “mountain folk” who delved into deep forbidden lore. Obviously Lovecraft is speaking about these “very old folk” of the mountains praying to the Outer Gods or at least the Great Old Ones. This idea brings to mind some of the old cults of Crete and I have to wonder if the origination of the idea of the Eldritch Gods came from the Eleusinian Mysteries.
These Mysteries were one of those hidden cults within the Roman legions who were based on an old agrarian Grecian religion who prayed to Persephone. The Mysteries were heady rituals which often prayed directly to Hades and frequently divulged in psychotropic drugs so that members may have a “vision quest” to the underworld and back…the same journey as Persephone.
Yet another reason to believe this comes in the last line, “Of the fate of that cohort no record exists, but the town at least was saved – for encyclopedias tell of the survival of Pompelo to this day, under the modern Spanish name of Pampelona...” Pampelona is known as a flourishing agricultural center and seeing as the Eleusinian Mysteries were based around Ag, one has to wonder…
The central dogma of the mysteries come from a dialog from Homer and echoed in Virgil. Could there be a correlation with Lovecraft reading Virgil then relating these Mysteries to modern day Salem, Mass. and witchdom?
“There were shocking dooms that might be called out of the hills on the Sabbaths; doom which ought not to exist within the territories of the Roman People; and to permit orgies of the kind known to prevail at Sabbaths would be but little in consonance with the customs of those whose forefathers…had executed so many Roman citizens in the practice of Bacchanalia – a matter kept ever in memory…graven upon bronze and set open to every eye.”
Lovecraft would be the one to tell you, as he had such a high, nearly narcissistic view of himself. Much like our narrator here: “That the danger to the town and inhabitants of Pompelo was a real one, I could not from my studies doubt.” He here’s the only one in a Roman Legion who has the knowledge that the “very old folk” in the hills are a danger to the town, and the record he puts forth here is that he is the main reason why the town was saved…not because he could defeat whatever was out there that the very old folk summoned…but because he knew well enough to avoid it.
This strange dichotomy, that Lovecraft was agoraphobic and xenophobic, but still he felt he was the only one that could help people, shines here. The narrator knows that there are strange things in the hills, and the only person with first hand knowledge of what could possibly be there cant deal with it, “Looking for the youth Vercellius, our guide, we found only a crumpled heap weltering in a pool of blood…He had killed himself when the horses screamed.” The legion is faced with what the guide knew to be true:
“And the torches died out altogether, there remained above the stricken and shrieking cohort only the noxious and horrible altar-flames on the towering peaks; hellish and red, and now silhouetting the mad, leaping, and colossal forms of such nameless beasts as had never a Phrygian priest or Campanian grandam whispered of in the wildest of furtive tales.“
This is the hidden allegory of which I’m not even Lovecraft was conscious of. The legion was heading off to confront a group of “very old folk” of unknown origin in the great mountains. The alien ranges fed into Lovecraft’s agoraphobia, and the unknown people, the people who had strange beliefs unknown and off-putting to him, fuel his xenophobia. The physical manifestation of these fears are the creatures which are so massive and aged that they block the stars. This fear of Lovecraft’s is so overwhelming that the terror it brings is Eldritch and Ancient and Unfathomable.
If you have any theories, I’d love to hear them in the comments!
Join me next week as we delve into the mystery “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”
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