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Archive for April 29, 2021

Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft/August Derleth; The Gable Window

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:

From a horror/humor iteration of “The Whisperer in Darkness”

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.

Illustration of the Plateau of Leng

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.

From 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.”