Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft/August Derleth; The Ancestor
“There was no question but that my cousin had found some way to tap the stream of memory; he had established beyond doubt that everything that happened to a human being was registered in some compartment of the brain, and that it needed but the proper bridge to it’s place of storage in memory to bring it to consciousness once more.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we travel back into time alongside Derleth’s characters to view a fairly Lovecraftian Tale, which quixotically, doesn’t hold enough of Lovecraft’s themes.
Here’s another tale told in Vermont and (at least as far as I could tell) is absent of any of Derleth’s predilections of adding in little details like names of old characters to get readers excited, but instead holds to the trope of a man in trouble calling on a friend to help them in their research as Lovecraft did in tales such as “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Colour out of Space.”
We begin with a description of the man in need, the narrator’s cousin, Ambrose Perry. He’s apparently an old retired medical doctor whom “went into virtual seclusion at his home, which he had built in the middle of a dense wood, and outfitted with as complete a laboratory as money could buy.”
Ambrose calls on our narrator, a man who’s without a job. Ambrose sends him a letter, “offering me a handsome emolument if I would accept the position of secrecy.” A theme which was not, I believe, intended was the unreliable narrator trope. The narrator is a man who’s probably in his mid to late thirties and jobless without prospect. This tale was written in the fifties, so the idea of a man of that age without prospects generally leads me to the idea that the narrator is a vagrant, and is possible of anything if he thinks it will get him a little further… or possibly to get another fix (more on that later)? The two men are cousins that’s true, but why would the narrator be reached out to first? And why the emphasis on the importance of secrecy? Probably because vagrancy lends itself to being disposable, so it wouldn’t matter the secrets learned, because the narrator was never meant to leave the property. Something to think about as we move throughout the story.
Why was this the first thing that came to my mind? Because when Ambrose answers the door, “he was thin and gaunt; the hale, ruddy man I had last seen almost four years ago had vanished, and in his place stood a mere travesty of his former self.” Ambrose had come across something profound. He either wanted someone who wouldn’t say anything because they understood, or he wanted someone disposable when things got too deep.
Ambrose brings the narrator into confidence and tells him the job is to transpose his notes from shorthand into a narrative, then proceeds to tell our narrator that he’s developed a method of, “a combination of drugs and music, taken at a time when the body is half-starved induces the mood and makes it possible to cast back in time and sharpen all the faculties to such a degree that memory is regained.” The point of this vision quest is to “recapture all my past, down to the most minute nooks and crannies of human memory, and I am now further convinced that, by the same methods, I can extend this perceptive process to hereditary memory and recreate the events of man’s heredity.” He’s even said that he’s recaptured memories from his own time in the womb.
The narrator lives in this strange abode for weeks with his host disappearing for half of every day to do his strange experiments. His only companionship are the Reeds, “man and wife, who were both in their sixties, were subdued. They made little conversation, not only because Mrs. Reed both cooked and served her dinner, but because they were plainly accustomed to carrying on an existence apart from their employer’s…”
Why is the only thing he mentions the fact that she cooks him dinner? Why doesn’t he mention the butlery duties of Mr. Reed? Initially this would seem like it’s an important designation. In fact I wrote in my notes that they were characters to watch. I thought they might be devious, possibly nefarious characters, but they turn out to be just an old couple who have seen too much and decide they just need to put their heads down and do their job. In fact they turn out to be much like The Slydes from “House on Haunted Hill.” They’re atmosphere. They’re not really characters, but a backdrop to give off a creepy vibe.
So the atmosphere is in place and the narrator is curious about what’s going on, until finally Ambrose grows to weak from his food abstinence. He calls the narrator in and we finally get a glimpse. “The atmosphere of the laboratory, ill-lit with but one low red light near to the operating table, was eerie. My cousin looked far more like a corpse than a man under the influence of drugs. Moreover, there was playing in one corner an electric phonograph, so that the low, discordant strains of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps flowed through the room and took possession of it.“
This is an area of prose where Derleth is sound. His writing is simplistic and over-run with contextual errors (not to mention lazy. There’s a part of me that after reading Lovecraft for years and bathing in his beautiful exposition, to be laden with Derleth just outright saying “it was eerie” is a bit troublesome), but he gives off a much more visual contextualization. It’s almost as though because Derleth wrote after TV became popular and Lovecraft didn’t, that his tales are more direct…as though they’re stories meant to read like a show, rather than Lovecraft who was more cerebral. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, but it’s probably not the right time for that.
Getting back to the story, the narrator is now privy to the lab and takes notes of Ambrose going even further back in time, back to before he was born in fact, back to memories that couldn’t possibly be his own and eventually he broke into the strangest of phrases:
“Forest sunk into earth…Great ones fighting, tearing. Run, run… New trees for old. Footprints ten feet across. We live in cave, cold, damp, fire…“
Ambrose thinks he may have gotten somewhere, but strangely, he kicks our narrator out. He locks the door leaving the Reeds and the narrator to wait outside and listen to the odd sounds coming from the laboratory. Ambrose’s dog starts to get upset; “Whereas hitherto he had been a singularly well-behaved dog, now he began to bark often at night, and day by day he whined and moved about the house and yard with an air of alarm.”
They would leave food on a tray outside of the laboratory door, and always when they weren’t looking the food would disappear. The notes became more difficult for the narrator to decipher. “He seemed to have difficulty properly holding a pencil, and his lines were scrawled in large letters over all the sheets of paper without any sense of order, though this was not entirely unexpected in one heavily dosed with drugs.”
But then the music, what Ambrose touted as heavily important for the process, suddenly stopped right about the time, “a pervasive and highly repellent musk, clearly an animal odor, which seemed to emanate from the laboratory.” The narrator also thinks he “...saw some unpleasantly large animal scuttling into the woods.“
The narrator finally gets into the lab and finds what to him looks like “a primal animal’s abode.” With parts of game, obviously caught and devoured strewn about the lab. The lab itself was destroyed, but the door leading to the woods was wide open.
The narrator followed the trail until he came upon Ginger, Ambrose’s dog, with a fresh kill in the woods:
“For the thing that lay below Ginger’s bloody jaws was a sub-human caricature of a man, a hellish parody of primal growth, with horrible malformations of face and body, giving off an all-pervasive and wholly charnel musk – but it was clad in the rags of my cousin’s mouse-colored dressing-gown, and it wore on it’s wrist my cousin’s watch.”
So we come to find that the set up of the story had a Lovecraftian tint; a man searching for knowledge, taking part in obscure or arcane rituals, but the payoff is different than anticipated. He goes back in time and because of the rituals he executed, he gained aspects of his prehistoric ancestors. It’s a shocking ending sure, but Derleth lost quite a bit along the way. There was plenty of drama he could have infused with Ambrose looking like his actual ancestors, much like in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” There’s also the mention of the Great Ones, which didn’t actually pan out.
Ultimately the story reads much like the narrator is…unreliable. I mentioned earlier that the narrator was a confusing personage. Is he a man looking to do the most and just down on his luck? It doesn’t seem so because of all the previous things mentioned, and also his vast knowledge of drugs. There’s a portion of the text where the narrator gives a scientific description of the Marijuana Ambrose “uses.” I’ve seen this in people I know, where they are so enamored with Weed that they get into the scientific aspects of it, sometimes to the detriment of everything else in their lives. Could that be what the narrator was looking for? Easy access to weed?
Even if that is the case, he’s unreliable. What’s more Derleth is unreliable as well and I’m slowly coming to the understanding that there may be a metafictional dichotomy here. Derleth was using Lovecraft’s name to sell his horror fiction and where… yes… he coined the phrase “Cthulhu Mythos” and supposedly expanded Lovecraft’s world, it feels like he’s using key words of Lovecraft to get some of his weirder tales out there.
Derleth himself is unreliable because I keep going into these stories expecting a Lovecraftian payoff, but he pulls the rug out from under us just as we get to the end. Is this how the rest of the experience will go? Fun stories, but not nearly Lovecraftian? Based on the title I think we’re going to find out next week!
Read along as we cover “The Shadow out of Space!”