Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft/August Derleth; Wentworth’s Day
“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.”