“Though the majority of these alterations had apparently been made to contribute to Wilbur’s comfort, there was one change which had baffled me at the time that Wilbur had made it, and for which he never offered any explanation; this was the installation in the south wall of his gable room of a great round window of a most curious clouded glass, of which he said only that it was a work of great antiquity, which he had discovered and acquired in the course of his travels in Asia. He referred to it as one time as “the glass from Leng” and at another as “possibly Hyadean in origin,” neither of which enlightened me in the slightest…“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve into Derleth’s most cosmic story yet, while at the same time lamenting his tone and applauding his action.
From the very start “The Gable Window” feels like Derleth stretched to make it much more of a Lovecraft story than it is. His Christianity is just so profound that it pervades the writing in such a way that you instantly know it isn’t Howard Phillips, but at the same time, the text is good enough to make you want to keep reading.
The story starts off with two slaps in the face which are meant to be fan service. About half way down the first paragraph we get this:
“It (the house of the narrator’s cousin, Wilber Akeley) had fallen into disuse after the grandson of the farmer who had built it had left the soil for the seaside city of Kingston, and my cousin bought the estate of that heir disgruntled with the meager living to be made on that sadly depleted land. It was not a calculated move, for the Akeleys did nothing by sudden impulse.”
Instantly I’m annoyed. As we’ve seen from previous stories, Derleth has no qualms with using names and locations of Lovecraft’s to disuse. Akeley is the name of the farmer whom communes with, and takes rides from, strange advanced aliens in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” but this turns out to be ok, because Wilber (later in the story) is a relative of Henry, which instantly ties this story into Lovecraft country. Why then, did Derleth decide to call the seaside town Kingston instead of Kingsport? It cheapens the story, making it seem as though Derleth either tried to make the story his own, or even worse, that he accidentally called the city by the incorrect name. These kind of iniquities keep popping up throughout Derleth’s stories, and it’s no wonder there’s disdain for him using Lovecraft’s name. It’s not the stories themselves, which are entertaining, but that he lends fan service while at the same time not actually continuing the traditions. Kind of like why Fans of Star Wars are so upset with the most recent trilogy of movies.
Getting back to the story, the narrator renovates the house, much like the narrator did in “The Peabody Heritage,” but as we see in the introductory quote to this essay, he doesn’t remove or remodel the glass in the gable window. The Plateau of Leng is popular in Lovecraft literature as both an alien landscape and a space in Antarctica where reality is thin and the ability to dimension hop is strong (foreshadowing alert), seen in such stories as “At The Mountains of Madness” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” and where it seems a strange and dangerous place, it isn’t nefarious at all.
The room is obviously the most used, but “I found myself from the beginning curiously repelled by the gable room, in part certainly because it reminded me so strongly of the living presence of my dead cousin who could never again occupy his favorite corner of the house, in part also because the room was to me unnaturally alien and seemed cold to me, holding me off as by some physical force I could not understand…“
The room is filled with Wilbur’s manuscripts and various books from the nearby Miskatonic University in Arkham, which we know from Lovecraft is one of the few locations which house the fabled Necronomicon.
The narrator hears various noises. “These were of no consequence at first: they began as tiny, almost unnoticed things.” Like what sounded like a cat scratch at the window, or some kind of slapping/slithering sound coming from the window. It didn’t unnerve the narrator until he realized there was no possible was for a cat to touch the window and there was no tree nearby.
Unnerved but nonplussed, the narrator continues his renovations and eventually gets a letter from the executor of the estate stating that all Wilbur’s papers on his research are to be destroyed, the books on certain shelves are to be turned into Miskatonic University, and the glass in the gable window broken.
Interested, the narrator goes to these shelves and finds strange and old books; “The more recent ones among them – and none of these dated beyond 1850 – had been assembled from various places; some had belonged to our fathers’ cousin, Henry Akeley, of Vermont, who had sent them down to Wilbur; some bore the ownership stamps of the Biblotheque Nationale of Paris…”
Here is where I get touchy. There are things like this throughout Derleth and despite the fact that he lauds himself as an incredible writer (without a doubt these stories are fun), he make a plethora of mistakes. This whole story Wilber is our narrator’s cousin. This quote all of the sudden makes him the narrators brother? “…some had belonged to our fathers’ cousin…” The narrator and the cousin couldn’t have the same father or they wouldn’t be cousins. These are the little missteps which happen again and again that directly contradict other details in Derleth’s stories. This is also why I believe that he didn’t mean to misquote Kingsport as Kingston, he just didn’t care to go back through and verify the details. It’s just sloppy writing, and NOT something which Lovecraft would have permitted considering his perfidy.
Moving beyond the irritation, the Biblotheque Nationale of Paris is the second known location of the Necronomicon, and in the very next paragraph we get a small list of books contained within this auspicious home library:
“…they bore such titles as Pnakotic Manuscripts, the R’lyeh Text, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, the Book of Eibon, the Dhol Chants, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan, Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis, the Celaeno Fragments, the Cultes De Goules of the Comte d’Erlette, the Book of Dzyan, a photostat copy of the Necronomicon…“
This is all very exciting because here Derleth infuses some of his own ideas seamlessly into Lovecraft (meaning some of these books are of Derleth’s creation), but then unfortunately in the next sentence he ruins the progress he makes:
“Did it matter whether you call it God and the Devil, or the Elder Gods and the Ancient Ones, Good and Evil or such names as the Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss, the only named Elder God, or these of the Great Old Ones…“
Derleth then goes on to name the Lovecraftian Pantheon which is his strength. He is the one who really clarified the mythos and created it as we know it today, but yes August, it really does matter if you call it God and the Devil.
Lovecraft created a world which was amoral and apathetic. The Ancient Ones and the Elder Gods had their own agendas and humans just tend to get in the way at times, as we strive for more power. In the Lovecraft world the only good and evil was man…and nearly always it was man who was evil. In our apparent struggle for power we are the ones who create menace; these Elder Gods are merely like a giant rock in the road. If we just pass them by we might not even know they’re there, but if we get curious and want to know what they are and accidentally kick them, we break our toe.
Derleth frames his religion overtop of this uncaring world gives good and evil attributes to them. All the sudden these creatures who were never malevolent, just massive (think of yourself walking down the street and accidentally stepping on a bug), are all the sudden a hidden threat bent on killing off or enslaving mankind. The issue is, that kind of creature belies the genius of Lovecraft. If the Elder Gods are evil, then humankind should have been wiped out all together because these Elder Gods are just too powerful. In Derleth’s world, these Elder Gods once ran the universe but are now waiting for some fool to blunder into setting them free, or some cult to summon them back to their glory. In Lovecraft these creatures were unknowable which made the merest glance of them drive a man insane. In Derleth’s stories they become a land dwelling octopus.
There are very few tentacles in Lovecraft. There are many tentacles in Derleth.
And we see them as the narrator goes into the room with the gable window. For the first time he notices there’s a pentagram drawn on the ground. Curious he decides to read off some text:
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgahnagl fhtagn.”
and suddenly the glass becomes a portal and he seems strange baked landscape with odd people he remembers his cousin calling Sand People. Then from a cave:
“…little by little, an incredible monster made it’s appearance – at first a probing tentacle, then another, and presently half a dozen cautiously exploring the caves mouth. And then, from out the darkness of the cavern’s well, an eldritch head shown dimly.”
The creature moves forward to the glass…eventually through the glass and the narrator is terrorized. Yet unlike in Lovecraft where the narrator would lose consciousness only to then delve into a downward spiral of madness, this narrator comes to his senses and wipes the side of the chalked Pentagram, instantly closing the portal. How do we know it worked?
“…I know beyond doubt that what I saw was not the product of my feverish fancy, because nothing could demolish that final damning proof which I found near the shattered glass on the floor of the gable room – the cut tentacle, ten feet in length, which had been caught between dimensions when the door had been shut against that monstrous body to which it belonged, the tentacle no living savant could identify as belonging to any known creature, living or dead, on the face or in the subterrene depths of the earth!“
Despite all the issues I’ve laid out, it’s a very satisfying tale. I point these things out so that the casual reader will know the difference between what the experience is between reading Lovecraft and Derleth. Will these disparities continue?
Let’s find out next week as we read “The Ancestor.”
“For at the base of the wall, behind the baseboard, there lay, among long yellowed papers half gnawed away by mice, yet still bearing on their surfaces the unmistakably cabalistic designs of some bygone day, among wicked implements of death and destruction – short, dagger-like knives rusted by what must surely have been blood – the small skulls and bones of at least three children!“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re unraveling Derleth’s complex love of Lovecraft while trying to understand his religious overtones thrust upon the conversely amoral Lovecraft Universe.
The first note I feel I have to hit is the overarching hope in Derleth’s horror. This is now the third story I’ve read by him and all the while there has been a niggling itch that I just couldn’t reach. These types of stories could have been written by Lovecraft, but there is something so utterly different about them and until now I just couldn’t put my finger on it. The language is slightly different, but for a reader who is only looking for story and isn’t going to dig any deeper, I’m not sure if they would notice a difference. The stories themselves are absolutely horror with fantastic elements, and similar terrifying hopeless situations the protagonists find themselves in. So what is it?
There is a subtle nearly imperceptible change. Lovecraft was depressed and that comes off in his writing style. The characters are dreary, people stuck in cycles of destitution and despair. Nearly every story has an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness.
In Derleth’s stories (thus far at least) the protagonists not only survive, but they aren’t thrust into a horrid spiral of depression and fear. It’s much more light hearted as if they’re stories told by a college buddy over drinks about an escapade, rather than a drunk recounting the horrors that led him to the bottom of the bottle to a bartender in some run down dive.
That’s an extreme statement but the sentiment is real. Lovecraft is serious, his tales have bite and nuance, whereas Derleth’s stories seem to be written more for fun.
That being said, let’s check out what fun can be had in The Peabody Heritage!
It starts out with an immediate reference to the old Lovecraft tales, “I never knew my great-grandfather Asaph Peabody…” If you’ll remember from Lovecraft’s story “In the Vault” there’s a character named Asaph (known for his angry, bucolic disposition) who’s buried in a tomb. There are things that happen in that story which echo this one, and unfortunately I knew within that first sentence what was basically going to happen at the end of this one…but more on that later.
The first chapter is about the protagonist slowly moving back into his ancestral home. It’s a fascinating description which recalls the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA: “The dwelling itself was the product of many generations. It had been built originally in 1787, at first as a simple colonial house, with severe lines, an unfinished second storey, and four impressive pillars at the front. But, in time, this had become the basic part of the house, the heart, as it were. Subsequent generations had altered and added to it-at first by the addition of a floating stairway and a second storey; then by various ells and wings…”
This is a wonderful way to introduce the detective story the tale becomes as the narrator works to renovate this house so that he can live in it. He even finds the family tomb and enters it, curious about his lineage. He finds various cubbies and caskets in the tomb with the names of his family etched upon them, but then he finds Asaph’s disturbed tomb:
“Moreover, it seemed as if someone had lifted or attempted to lift the cover, for one of the hinges was broken, and the other loosened.”
Curious as to what happened he lifted the cover and, “I saw that through some hideous error, he (Asaph) had been buried face downward – I did not want to think, even at so long a time after his death, that the old man might have been buried in a cataleptic state and so suffered a painful death in that cramped, airless space.“
It’s a strange thought with the evidence of the tampered sarcophagus lid to go immediately to the idea he may be buried alive, but seemingly because of this sentiment he flips the skeleton over before putting the lid back on the coffin. Derleth handles this with deft skill because altering the remains is obviously thematically dangerous, but the way it’s written feels almost as if it’s done with a religious reverence instead of a horrible precognition.
The next chapter begins with our narrator dreaming, a theme which continues along though the entire story that connects to a major Lovecraftian concept – dreaming. The question immediately is, what does dreaming mean to Derleth? As we’ve talked about in previous Blind Reads, Lovecraft seems to consider dreaming as travelling or dimension hopping. So many of his stories held the precedent that the “dreamers” like Randolph Carter were actually time travelers who went through gates of consciousness and dimension to instantly find different areas of time and space. Derleth, starts down that road, but then seems to take a different approach here.
After finding what they consider a “priests hole” (a place to hide runaway slaves) in one of the strange void spaces in the house, the narrator, “Though ordinarily not at all given to dreams, I was literally beset by the most grotesque phantasms of sleep, in which I played a passive role and was subjected to all manner of distortions of time and space, sensory illusions, and several frightening glimpses of a shadowy figure in a conical black hat with an equally shadowy creature by his side.“
So initially this seems to indicate that because of the “distortions of time and space” that we might be getting some of that dimensional hopping, but as we get deeper into the tale we find that there is a distinct difference between dreaming and possession.
The protagonist goes into “…a space unaccounted for along the north wall upstairs, in the oldest part of the house” and found “The door to it (was) hidden in the finely-wrought carvings which decorated that entire wall,” and that “…the door which had no knob and worked only by pressure upon one of the carvings.”
I mean who doesn’t want a secret office which has a secret door with a pressure plate lock carved into a cedar relief on a wall? It’s still a dream of mine!
They go into this room and found, “...it’s angles seemed to be awry,” and there “…were curious drawings on the floor.” and all manner of strange texts (including such gems as the Malleus Maleficarum) and news stories of missing children.
Having read through Lovecraft we know instantly that this is a witches room. The odd angles, much like in “Dreams of the Witch House” and other stories, are there because they present a bend in the fabric of reality and make witchcraft easier to practice; spells more potent. The fact that there are stories of missing children lend a malevolence to the room.
Intrigued our narrator continues doing work on the house and begins having more and more prevalent dreams of this Black Man (as in color not race) and his nefarious familiar. The narrator heads to town and finds that the townsfolk are despairing of him, though he tries to be friendly. When he inquires as to their demeanor, he’s told that his family name, Peabody, has a terrible history. His ancestors were thought to have stolen children whom they killed to be used in some kind of witchcraft.
Discouraged, he goes home but finally gets a construction crew to go through that secret wall and renovate the hidden office. Through the construction he dreams of Walpurgis night (which, if you remember from Lovecraft, that’s a night of witchcraft) where he walks through the woods to a Black Mass out in the woods. There’s a group of witches along with his Black Man and large black cat which stands beside him. When the narrator wakens, he finds that his feet and legs are dirty.
Seemingly ignoring this outlandish event, he finds that the crew renovating have fled the house in disgust. When he goes to investigate, he come across the quote at the beginning of this essay. Panicked, he takes the children’s remains and puts them into one of his ancestors coffins. Then to make matters worse, three more children go missing.
And still he dreams. His somnambulant excursions take him back to the Black Mass again and again, and there’s some strange Christian iconography there which was always absent in Lovecraft. We hear of the devils, Balor, Beelzebub, and Sathanus. While Lovecraft went a long way to divest himself from any kind of religious deities, Derleth is leaning into them, seemingly in an effort to add horror from these Christian call backs.
We also find that these Devils are trying to bring him into the fold of their coven and that these nightly excursions are actually happening, they aren’t actual dreams. This is a theme that we’ve seen in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” as well, where an ancestor of a character begins to take over the living relative because they accidentally took part in reviving the ancestor. We get confirmation of this when the narrator goes to the crypt and checks on Asaph’s grave and finds that the bones have begun to grow skin, and there are three bodies of children in the coffin with Asaph’s remains!
And here is that call back from earlier. Remember when I said we’d see how the story ended? in the tale “In the Vault” Asaph was a corpse who came alive and tried to kill one the characters of that tale. Asaph as corpse bit into his leg and tried to make him fall to his death on the stone ground. In this story, the disturbed body is what actually causes the Demon Balor to come back, as turning him over reinstated the machinations of the Devils.
The fact is that the narrator wasn’t dreaming, but because he turned the body over, he allowed Asaph to come into his body and use it to go to the Black Mass. It was possession, not dreaming.
So in the end we have the narrator fighting these forces and wondering, “Who, I wonder, after I am dead, if I am buried as the others were, will turn me over?”
Initially this seems like a dark and twisty ending, but in reality Derleth just leaned into it. Lovecraft would have had the narrator telling us how he went insane, how he fought and did everything he could to stop the coven, and whether he succeeded or not he would have been irrevocably changed. The tone would have been much more desolate.
Here Derleth’s character just gives in and decides he wont fight. That he will just take part of the coven with the Devils and do their bidding. It’s a dark ending, but in a weird way it’s not as dark as Lovecraft would have been, because at least here the narrator has hope that he will live on, though in a twisted way. Lovecraft’s character wouldn’t have wanted to live on, because of the strange and utterly devastating knowledge he had gained.
Will all Derleth be this way? Join me next week with “The Gable Window” to find out!
“I assured him I had never heard of Nahum Wentworth before, though I admitted privately to some curiosity about the object of my host’s preoccupation, insofar as he had been given to reading the Seventh Book of Moses, which was a kind of Bible for the supposed hexes, since it purported to offer all manner of spells, incantations, and charms to those readers who were gullible enough to believe in them.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we tread the back roads beyond the wastrel excuse for a farming town known as Dunwich to find horrors unknown in the magical ether of Lovecraft’s universe.
So I immediately have to print a retraction (but that’s kind of the point of a blind read isn’t it? To conjecture?). Last week I said I expected Derleth to work pretty much exclusively on expanding Lovecraft’s mythos. To clarify the unclear, and to streamline the vague. I said I didn’t think he would write a straight horror story. I’m happy to say that in the very next story, “Wentworth’s Day,” which we’ll be digesting shortly, he’s proved me wrong. There have actually been many stories which are allegedly inspired by Lovecraft (By authors such as Brian Lumley and Robert Bloch), but I’ve never really understood exactly how Lovecraft supposedly inspired them because they never really felt like they truly fit in his world. Weird of course, but not really Lovecraftian. Now I understand. This story, which again is just a straight horror story with only a slant connection to the cosmic (which you’d only catch if you were well versed in Lovecraft), is the direct antecedent to such books as “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”
The story begins as our narrator is driving through the backwoods beyond the previously mentioned Dunwich. There seems to be nothing habitable out there except for “…reclusive dwellers on some broken-down farms.” The narrator even mentions that the area, “Once, long ago, it had the reputation of being a country in which Hexerei – the witch beliefs of superstitious people – was practiced…” and that which we know as readers has the potential for Shoggoth (disappointingly, none appear). I thought this may be a call back, but as we’ll see, there are a few things in this story which are only call backs… they’re only prompts meant to entice the reader to keep going.
Derleth spends some decent time setting the scene as the narrator tells us he gets stuck because the highway was blocked off. He goes on a detour late in the evening, trying to push through and instantly regretting it.
A storm soon blossoms and he passes what seems to be a more habitable property. It’s a house and a barn and “The headlamps’ glow swept the face of the dwelling there…” He sees a mail box with the name “Amos Stark” (which really has no reference lineage, but I mention is because it seems remarkably familiar to a Stephen King story you may be familiar with…). The narrator takes the liberty of parking in the mans barn (how rude is that? I know these stories were written in the 50’s, but imagine the gaul… ‘I’m just going to drive my car into your barn without asking. I’m owed that because this place is so run down, I bet they wont even notice!’ Well, the people of the backwoods New England must be nicer, because when “a wizened old man with a scraggly beard half covering his scrawny neck” came to the door, he didn’t bat an eye, just ushered the narrator into his house.
Then the weird stuff starts to happen and not the weird stuff you’d expect from this kind of horror story. Stark offhandedly says today “is Wentworth’s day. I thought yew might be Nahum.” Now I’m not an expert on New England names from the early 20th Century, but I don’t think Nahum is a popular one, so immediately I’m excited because I’m thinking, “Yes, here’s ‘The Colour out of Space’ character directly in a Derleth tale (Nahum Gardener was the farmer whose family’s misfortune it was to have the meteor land on their property), but then the more I read I realize that it’s just a bad call back, a poorly misplaced fan service. This new character is Nahum Wentworth, not Gardener, and Derleth only named him that to keep readers reading… to keep the references to Lovecraft, no matter how thin, while forging his own path. I understand this predilection but it makes me sad because this story is good, but this erroneous and desperate grab for an audience feels dirty.
After that we get the tale of Stark and Wentworth. Apparently Wentworth was pretty rich and gave Stark a loan. The loan was set to come due this night: “Five years, an’ this is the day, this is Wentworth’s Day.” Wentworth had until midnight, that very night our narrator came knocking to collect on his money… the only problem is… Wentworth is dead. Stark “accidently” shot him in the back of his head:
“‘I fell,’ he muttered, and there followed a sentence or two of inanities. ‘All they was to it.’ And again many indistinguishable words. ‘Went off – quick-like.” Once more a round of meaningless or inaudible words. ‘Didn’t know ’twas aimed at Nahum.'”
So all of that put together seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal right? Well, then we remember that this is an area which historically practices what Derleth calls the Hexerei. Stark shows our narrator (still don’t really know why he’s being so forthwith with our narrator. This seems like a plot convenience, but at the same time, this was backwoods New England in the 50’s, set in the 30’s. Maybe, nay probably, people were a bit more equitable back then) some of Wentworth’s books he had taken and our attention is immediately drawn to The Seventh Book of Moses.
“…the Seventh Book of Moses, which, I soon found, was a curious rigmarole of chants and incantations to such “princes” of the nether world of Aziel, Mephistopheles, Marbuel, Barbuel, Aniquel, and others.”
Yet another reason why we know this is emphatically not Lovecraft (besides the fact that Derleth was actually much better at dialogue). The Seventh Book of Moses is a real historical book which talks of magical and spiritual arts as well as Christian demons and devils and such and is commonly mentioned in occult circles. This is nothing like the Pnakotic Manuscripts or the Necronomicon. It’s a bit disappointing that we aren’t getting more of Lovecraft’s world, because Derleth claimed these stories were actually written by Howard Phillips and only cleaned up by Derleth. Like I said earlier, the stories (so far at least) stand on their own, but to put Lovecraft’s name on it gives the first tinges of stigma against Derleth. I still enjoyed the tale, but for these reasons it feels a bit like a cash grab instead of honest inspiration.
We then get another “Colour out of Space” reference when a Whippoorwill calls. If you recall from that tale, the whippoorwill cries as an omen for ill to come. Shortly there after the deadly call there’s a knock at the door.
Stark goes to answer, but waits the few minutes until after the clock strikes midnight… or at least he thinks he does:
“I heard Stark’s exclamation of triumph. ‘Past midnight!’ He had looked at his clock, and at the same time I looked at my watch. His clock was ten minutes fast.“
And retribution come right quick. Wentworth had come back for Stark.
“Amos Stark was spread on the floor on his back, and sitting astride him was a mouldering skeleton, its bony arms bowed above his throat, it’s fingers at his neck.“
Once the deed is done and Stark is dead the skeleton withdraws, leaving our narrator aghast in horror, and we get our moment of Scary Stories to tell in the Dark:
“For as I bent above Amos Stark, ascertaining that he was indeed dead, I saw sticking into the discolored flesh of his neck the whitened finger bones of a human skeleton, and, even as I looked upon them, the individual bones detached themselves, and went bounding away from the corpse, down the hall, and out into the night to rejoin that ghastly visitor who had come from the grave to keep his appointment with Amos Stark!”
Join me next week as we dive deeper into Derleth with hopeful curiosity in “The Peabody Heritage.”
“The lower or ground floor, however, abounded in evidence of its one time occupant, the surgeon, for one room of it had manifestly served him as a laboratory of some kind, and an adjoining room as a study, for both had the look of having been but recently abandoned in the midst of some inquiry or research, quite as if the occupation of the house by its brief tenant – post mortem Charriere – had not touched upon these rooms.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! We’ve graduated from Lovecraft after reading his entire catalog, and we’re now moving onto works inspired by, and potentially even partially written by, Lovecraft. August Derleth was one of Howard Phillip’s contemporaries and loved his work so much that he published it all years after they originally appeared in magazines like “Weird Tales.” From what I can surmise, Derleth states that much of what he wrote himself was based upon extensive notes he gathered from Lovecraft himself and thus for many years published these under Lovecraft’s name instead of his own.
The Survivor is the first of these stories we’re getting to, and where the atmosphere, tone, and content are accurate and reminiscent of Lovecraft’s works, the writing makes it painfully apparent that this story was written by someone other than Lovecraft himself. Not to say that it’s bad. This is an entertaining story and it’s written well, but the archaic sentence structure and unique verbosity of Lovecraft created the depth of gothic horror present in all of his tales. This story feels more like Derleth is doing his best to imitate Lovecraft all while trying to clarify the mythos and put his own stamp onto it at the same time.
The story begins much like you’d expect; with out narrator recanting a story of something which happened in his past. We get that same “gather around the fireplace” feel but, again, you can tell right from the start that it isn’t Lovecraft writing:
“I had never intended to speak or write again of the Charriere house, once I had fled Providence on that shocking night of discovery – there are memories which every man would seek to suppress, to disbelieve, to wipe out of existence – but I am forced to set down how the narrative of my brief acquaintance with the house on Benefit Street, and my precipitate flight there-from, lest some innocent person be subjected to the indignity by the police in an effort to explain the horrible discovery the police have made at last – that same ghastly horror it was my lot to look upon before any human eye – and what I saw was surely far more terrible that what remained to be seen after all these years, the house having reverted to the city, as I had known it would.”
Wow! What a rambling full paragraph sentence which says absolutely nothing! The story really gets much better from here, but you can tell that Derleth was trying his hardest to do what Lovecraft did so well…create a thesis for the story in the first paragraph, to set the story up for what we should be expecting for the rest of our reading experience, but Derleth rambles here and it halts the suspension of disbelief due to lack of comprehension.
Soon Derleth rights his ship and we find that our protagonist/narrator is an “antiquarian” much like many of the Lovecraftian characters (think Charles Dexter Ward) and is looking for a house to live in for a month so he can continue his work. He is drawn to this house because of it’s old architecture, which delights his antiquarian nature despite having many people telling him the house is cursed.
He moves in finds that it’s the house of a Dr. Cherriere who recently died, but paid the taxes long enough so that one of his “relatives” could come and claim it (Though we already know from the opening paragraph that, that didn’t happen).
The house was built back in 1704 and “Its rooms were irregular – appearing to be either quite large or very small.” There is even a laboratory, which doesn’t surprise our narrator because Cherriere is a doctor, but in this lab there are “strange, almost cabalistic drawings, resembling physiological charts, of various kinds of saurians...”
This was the first moment that gave me pause (at least in terms of mythology). I was expecting a purely Lovecraftian fever dream out of this story, but it turns out that this is the first moment that Derleth decides to add his own spin onto Lovecraft’s mythos. There is evidence of other reptilian creatures and studies throughout the house and in the study the narrator finds, “a sequence of cryptic references to certain mythological creatures, particularly one named ‘Cthulhu,’ and another named ‘Dagon.'”
Obviously Derleth found these two gods and their servants, “The Deep Ones,” the most intriguing (at least as far as this first story is concerned. The evidence is there, however, because where Lovecraft called his mythology Yog-Sothothery, Derleth renamed it “The Cthulhu Mythos”), because this story is firmly rooted around the two of them. The change comes with the advent of the saurian features. The narrator calls the Deep Ones “evidently amphibious creatures living in the depths of the seas.” Which is curious for a number of reasons. The first is that amphibians don’t actually live deep under water as they need oxygen periodically. The second is that Lovecraft’s deep ones were fish creatures, not reptile creatures. So as Derleth is working on clearing up some of the confusion as to what these gods are and where they land in the pantheon, he is also stamping his own predilections on top. I’m in no way detracting from Derleth’s efforts (except for the amphibian living on the bottom of the ocean) because I believe that Lovecraft wanted other authors to take the ideas and run with them (he’s said so a few different times in letters). In fact the only reason Lovecraft is as popular as he is today is because of Derleth’s efforts at clarifying the mythos (and renaming it) for the broad populace. After reading just this first story, I myself have a much clearer understanding of the mythos which is, incidentally, what I was looking for when I started this series in the first place. It’s also why I wanted to keep going and cover Derleth as well. I believe Lovecraft was only looking to create unique and terrifying stories. It doesn’t seem like it was until Derleth took over that it really became a contained “cosmic horror” theme in and of itself.
Speaking of “mythos,” our narrator continues to dig and finds strange books which will be familiar to any reader of Lovecraft: Cultes des Goules, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and The Pnakotic Manuscripts, all mixed in with other strange books of Derleth’s creation. Some of these (like The Saurian Age) will be interesting to see if they come up in future works as well, since it looks like Derleth is making the sea creatures reptilian, rather than the fish people of Innsmouth, potentially in an effort to make the Deep Ones more scary. He’s even moving from the notorious “smell” which we have found in Lovecraft to be a fungoid smell, to now a reptilian smell (full disclosure. I really have no idea what a reptilian smell is…can someone describe that? Is that in any way similar to the moldy smell of fungous?)
While filtering through these he finds that Dr. Cherriere is actually extremely old. There’s evidence of him being born back in the 1600’s! Could this actually be him and not just some ancestor? Could it be that he is actually not dead, and just waiting for the memory of his “death” to die down so he can come back as his own “nephew?” (Of course he is!)
This is where the real horror of the story begins. The narrator hears a break in and follows the sounds to the study:
“I turned on the flashlight, which was directed at the desk I had left…What I saw was incredible, horrible. It was not a man who stood there, but a travesty of a man.“
It was a half reptile, half man. It was Dr. Cherriere. The man who’d spent his life studying the ancient and forbidden knowledge hidden in those terrible books. It’s the classic Lovecraftian theme of the eternal desire to gain forbidden knowledge. Dr. Cherriere had turned himself, through experiments with the saurian nature of Dagon and Cthulhu and the hidden knowledge in the forbidden tomes, into a mockery of a man just to prolong his life.
The story is predictable, but in a weird way that’s comforting. Like I said earlier, this story feels like Derleth’s effort to clarify Lovecraft, and that predictability was necessary because he was giving the reader familiarity (or fan service?) so he could go the extra mile with exposition and explanation of known quantities. In general we know these creatures and those ancient tomes exist in this world…what we don’t know is how they’re interconnected. It almost feels like Derleth’s stories will be an approach of connecting Lovecraft’s world, instead of just writing horror stories.
Let’s find out if that’s the case next week, as we evaluate “Wentworth’s Day!”
If there is any doubt whether this was Lovecraft writing or Derleth, then rest easy. I found the smoking gun! The text should be enough to tell. Though Derleth is a good writer, his style is all together simple when put up next to Lovecraft. Lovecraft uses archaic words that weren’t even still in use back when he was writing in the 20’s and 30’s. He did this to give an “antiquarian” feel for the reader. To bring us all into a different world. Derleth isn’t looking to do that, he’s looking to clarify the universe in which Lovecraft created.
But that isn’t the smoking gun. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Derleth wrote this story and not Lovecraft because of a simple tool. Derleth calls it a flashlight. Lovecraft calls it a torch. There is not one mention of the word flashlight in any of Lovecraft’s stories. This is done on purpose to give the reader that previously mentioned feel. Derleth gives himself away, but really…do we care??
“If that abyss and what it held were real, there is no hope. Then, all too truly, there lies upon this world of man a mocking and incredible shadow out of time. But mercifully, there is no proof that these things are other than fresh phases of my myth-born dreams. I did not bring back the metal case that would have been proof, and so far those subterrene corridors have not been found. If the laws of the universe are kind, they will never be found.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week is all about catharsis as we conclude the final story Howard Phillips wrote by himself, before diving into the handful of stories August Derleth co-wrote (or maybe ghost wrote) with Lovecraft. This was the perfect story to leave for last, as the quote above indicates and sums up the multi-year long project I’ve undertaken. Lovecraft himself was a Shadow out of Time, darkening our doorsteps with new horrors which cannot quite be seen but can be sensed and felt with the weight of eternity, the weight of history, and the weight of mythology.
Lovecraft moved his story beyond pointed philosophical treatises to an all out adventure with a narrative hurtling forward like an out of control semi flying downhill without brakes…and yet there is no grand reveal. Lovecraft does what he always does and lets the atmosphere play the role of terrorizer and he lets you know this right up front: “I cannot hope to give any true idea of the horror and dread contained in such echoes, for it was upon a wholly intangible quality – the sharp sense of pseudo-memory – that such feelings mainly depended.“
The story begins with a letter to our protagonist Professor Peaslee about an archaeological find of some strange stone and architecture in Australia. “They are mostly sandstone and granite, though one is almost certainly made of a queer sort of cement or concrete. They bear evidence of water action, as if this part of the world had been submerged and come up again after long ages – all since these blocks were made and used.”
Immediately we’re drawn back to “The Call of Cthulhu” and the great lost city of the Elder Gods, but more specifically the titular Cthulhu…R’lyeh. In that other story we are presented with a lost city found off the coast of Australia in the Indian Ocean. The city had architecture that was queer and somehow both convex and concave at the same time. The city which was lost to time under the sea. Now, here, in Australia we find evidence that “part of the world had been submerged and come up again after long ages.” We know that this is on landlocked Australia, so it more than likely is not part of R’lyeh, however it is undoubtedly part of that same civilization.
So what does Professor Peaslee do? He gathers a group of scientists, including Professor William Dyer of Miskatonic University. Does that name sound familiar to you? Well that’s because this is the Professor who went on the Antarctic Expedition in “At the Mountains of Madness,” where I personally was introduced to the Shoggoth.
Again, it seems like Lovecraftian synergy that all of these stories come to bear in this last novelette. This series is truly Blind, meaning that I always loved the concepts of Lovecraft, but had never actually read him. I was always daunted by the language, so I’ve started many times, but never followed through. I decided that the only way to keep me honest and finish these stories was to do an academic exercise and deconstruct the stories and look for the narratives. I knew there was a Dream Cycle, I knew there were gothic horror stories, I knew there was the Mythos, but I didn’t know which story was which, so I randomly picked a jumping off point and went into them. Similarly, as I traversed through his oeuvre I didn’t know which story to read, so I chose them based upon length and how much time I had in that given week to be able to honestly read, digest, and compose an essay. The fact that all of these stories are converging (and believe me the denouement of this story feels just like “The Beast in the Cave“) into this single story, my last story, just solidifies my adoration of the process and of the author.
Some of Lovecraft’s best writing comes in the last chapter of this story, and though it doesn’t have the shocking ending that he was truly going for, it brings the feeling of the two different halves of the story together, much like it brings together the true forms of Lovecraft’s writing.
The crew goes on expedition and begins their dig in the Australian Desert. Our narrator felt a “Strange sense of compulsion” and goes off to find a “Cyclopean tunnel” which leads down into the earth. The description is reminiscent of the tunnels in “At the Mountains of Madness” and is in fact the only real depredation I have for this story. We never get to see Dyer do anything, but we know he has first hand knowledge of this architectural structure.
Beyond this there are some excellently written horror scenes, where Peaslee traverses down into the depths of this ancient alien sub-world and has vague memories of seeing the glyphs on the stones. In addition he seems to have knowledge of which way to go to find the evidence he’s looking for. Throughout the whole descent there is a terribly oppressive feeling of anxiety. Peaslee somehow knows that he must remain quiet, he knows that there’re sleeping giants down in the depths and he knows that he must be quick and silent – or he will never return from this venture. Some great creature which, “I thought of that which the Great Race had feared, and of what might still be lurking – be it ever so weak and dying – down there.”
Strange feelings of knowledge and memory keep assaulting Peaslee until he finally finds what he’s looking for. It’s a tome of ancient knowledge:
“At length I tremblingly pulled the book from it’s container and stared fascinatedly at the well-known hieroglyphs on the cover. It seemed to be in prime condition, and the curvilinear letters of the title held me in almost as hypnotized a state as if I could read them. Indeed, I cannot swear that I did not actually read them in some transient and terrible access of abnormal memory.”
He then takes the book and flees, but makes a critical mistake, “Just as I blindly crossed the summit, unprepared for the sudden dip ahead, my feet slipped utterly and I found myself involved in a mangling avalanche of sliding masonry whose cannon-loud uproar split the black cavern air in a deafening series of earth shaking reverberations.”
He had woken the beast, or beasts. “I have a dim picture of myself as flying through the hellish basalt vault of the Elder Things, and hearing that damnable alien sound piping up from the open, unguarded door of limitless nether blacknesses.”
He then comes to a rift which he must traverse, but to jump up is far worse that jumping down. He doesn’t think he can make it, but at the same time he can almost feel the Elder Thing at his heels. The howling and whistling of the demonic metropolis seem to come from all directions, so he decides that there’s no way out. He must jump…but he doesn’t make it:
The I saw the chasm’s edge, leaped frenziedly with every ounce of strength I possessed, and was instantly engulfed in a pandaemoniac vortex of loathsome sound and utter, materially tangible blackness.
While in this state of utter blackness he seems to fall into a dream, “Afterward there were visions of the Cyclopean city of my dreams – not in ruins, but just as I had dreamed of it. I was in my conical, non-human body again, and mingled with crowds of the Great Race and the captive minds who carried books up and down the lofty corridors and vast inclines.“
Sounds familiar? We even get the last line of the story to solidify what’s really happening here: “And yet, when I flashed my torch upon it in that frightful megalithic abyss, I saw that the queerly pigmented letters on the brittle, aeon-browned cellulose pages were not indeed any nameless hieroglyphics of earth’s youth. They were, instead, the letters of our familiar alphabet, spelling out the words of the English language in my own handwriting.“
This dream, this time-lapse, this dimension, is all interconnected. Peaslee spent his five lost years travelling around in the body of one of the Great Race of Yith, and he transposed horrific texts, of which he found in an aeon lost structure of the Elder Ones, buried somewhere underneath the sands of Australia. This proves the interconnectedness of Lovecraft’s universe in such a wonderful way, and is such a spectacular endpoint to his actual writing.
Lovecraft has four different styles. His satirical humor, which are one off stories. His Gothic horror, which are what they sound like, however they do interconnect with his Cosmic horror stories, they just have a more visceral, a more, well, horrific bent. The Mythos stories, or the Cosmic stories, tend to have a much more psychological horror element to them. Finally the Dream Cycle tends to be more adventurous. Those are the styles, but that’s what makes it so good, because with this story it’s readily apparent that all of his tales have some interconnectedness. Everything here happens in Lovecraft Country and Lovecraft Country is his own alternate world where this can all happen!
The Dreamers (like Randolph Carter) are actually dimensional hoppers and there’s a multiverse here in which they traverse time by sidestepping physics and jumping to whatever reality is needed. Whether that’s sailing through the galaxy with Azathoth, or grave robbing with buddies, the dreamers have this special ability to let the horror of the scope of the cosmos wash over them and allow them to experience this amount of cosmic horror thus making those stories more like adventures. Individuals exploring the great wide open. The characters who don’t have the mental capacity to deal with these realities enter the cosmic horror tales, which focus on madness, but in reality we get very few tentacles.
So this makes me wonder where the cultural consciousness came to the idea that Lovecraft had to have some kind of creature with tentacles, since while reading, you can probably count on two hands how many stories actually mention a character viewing a monster, and on one hand where you actually are given a description of what they see.
August Derleth was one of Lovecraft’s friends (and publishers) and he was the one to coin the phrase “Cthulhu Mythos” where Lovecraft preferred to call it Yog-Sothothery. So one has to wonder…was it Derleth that created this monstrous concept of what it was like to be “Lovecraftian?” I’ve never read him, so I’m not sure.
Why don’t we find out?
Join me next week as we read our first August Derleth writing as H.P. Lovecraft, “The Survivor!”