Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft/August Derleth; The Shuttered Room
“That was what his grandfather had meant when he had written ‘you have gone forth into the world and gathered to yourself learning sufficient to permit you to look upon all things with an inquiring mind ridden neither by the superstition of ignorance nor the superstition of science.'”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! Here we have a combined sequel to both “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Dunwich Horror” all at the same time. If you don’t think those stories jive too well together you’d be right; one is about Dagon and the other about Yog-Sothoth. It seems, however, as though Derleth decided that he liked Cthulhu and Dagon (the fishy ones) so much more that he’d focus all of his energies on slowly phasing out of Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothothery and into his own more popular Cthulhu Mythos.
We begin the tale talking about the backwoods of Massachusetts and I was immediately excited: “At dusk, the wild, lonely country guarding the approaches to the village of Dunwich in north central Massachusetts seems more desolate and forbidding than it ever does by day.”
The Dunwich Horror is one of my favorite Lovecraft tales because he packs so much into it and not only is it a wonderful horror tale, but it also expands his mythos in such a wonderful way. The Whatley’s are farming folk and Lavinia Whately, a strange albino woman, becomes pregnant. No one seems to know who the father is, but mad old Whately mentions in passing about some strange theory that she was impregnated by someone named Yog-Sothoth, but that’s just in passing, and he’s crazy anyway, so we move forward. Lavinia gives birth to Wilbur, who is strange in and of himself, he ages prematurely, he’s described as a “dark, goatish infant,” he has an odd musty odor, and under the tutilage of old man Whateley he’s drawn to Arkham to study the Necronomicon. While at Miskatonic University he turns into a beast and dies, but the doctors are curious as to how that’s possible so they head to Dunwich to investigate, only to come across a terrible Shoggoth as it rampages across the country side.
That is as simple an explanation as I can give, but the story is significantly better. In Derleth’s tale the only real connection to Dunwich is the Whately name. Our protagonist is Abner Whately which is confusing because in the original tale we’re led to believe the line of Whately’s died off. We’re given a brief description: “The Whatleys has a curse on ’em…and thar’s what happened on Sentinel Hill that time-Lavinny’s Wilbur” but that isn’t really a connection. We can only assume that there were cousins to the branch that died off in Lovecraft’s tale living somewhere nearby and took over the farmhouse. That new Whatley, Grandfather Luther as named in this new story, had a few children. Our protagonist Abner meets Zebulon, his uncle and speaks of his Aunt Sarah, who their grandfather Luther locked away in her room after she visited…wait for it…Innsmouth.
At the mention of Innsmouth we lose all thread of Dunwich and suddenly the story becomes a sequel to Lovecraft’s doomed “Shadow Over Innsmouth” instead.
You might ask why Sarah decided to go to Innsmouth? Well Derleth hashes that reasoning out in dialog:
“‘What was Aunt Sarah doing in Innsmouth?‘
‘Are there Whatleys there, too?’
‘Not Whatleys. Marshes. Old Obed Marsh that was Pa’s cousin.‘”
If you remember from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” Old Obed Marsh was a sea captain who took a strange island wife whom was not seen much afterward. She was, in fact, one of Dagon’s Deep Ones; a fish creature who worships from the underwater city just off Devil’s reef off the coast of Innsmouth called Y’ha-nthlei. Innsmouth itself was peopled by hybrid Deep Ones, as the people of that coastal town were breeding with the Deep Ones for years.
And that’s what happened to Sarah. She met her cousin Ralsa Marsh and apparently had a tryst. When Grandfather Luther heard of it, he locked her away in her room.
So we’ve been weaving back and forth between stories, but lets focus on what happens in Derleth’s, shall we? The reason Abner arrived at the house is because his Grandfather Luther died and asked him to go there and burn down the mill and everything above it. In his letter, Luther tells Abner “It is my wish that at least the mill section of this house be destroyed. Let it be taken apart, board by board. If anything in it lives, I adjure you solemnly to kill it. No matter how small it may be.”
Then there is a post script, “If I seem to have the sound of madness, pray recall that worse than madness has spawned among the Whatelys. I have stood free of it. It has not been so of all that is mine. There is more stubborn madness in those who are unwilling to believe in what that know not of and deny that such exists, than in those of our blood who have been guilty of terrible practices, and blasphemy against God, and worse.”
If you blink you miss it. Obviously Luther is speaking of his daughter Sarah here. She’s the one touched by madness, because she had an affair with her fishy Deep One cousin, Ralsa. She’s the one whom was locked in the room, presumably with her offspring…locked in there until she died.
But that isn’t what could be missed in that paragraph. Lovecraft was very careful to God out of his works. Actually that’s probably a mis-statement. He didn’t believe in god…or the devil. So Lovecraft’s horror was cosmic, because in his world there wasn’t truly evil, there was only incomprehensible horrors. Derleth, conversely, was very religious and he mentions God in nearly every story I’ve read so far. That’s not necessarily a bad thing…well it is if you’re a Lovecraft fan…but what he seems to be saying here is that because Sarah was “guilty of terrible practices” namely having sex with her cousin, that she was rightly entombed with her spawn. It is meant, I’m sure, to mean that because Ralsa was a Deep One and Sarah’s judgment was so poor that she hooked up with him, that had to be kept safe from herself. The issue seems to be Derleth’s however because he’s the one who made Ralsa her cousin. There’s no precedence for that in Lovecraft, so its almost like it’s Derleth made him a cousin because in his’s eyes, sex with your cousin is the same as being an evil otherworldly creature. Not saying it’s right, but it sure doesn’t warrant a death sentence.
So Abner is there to destroy the room and the mill. He goes about the story working to do this task, and while doing so heads to Sarah’s room. To get rid of the musty smell he “...kicked the shutters out to let in a welcome blast of fresh, damp air.” When he turns to inspect the room he “caught sight of a long-legged frog or toad” vanish behind a bureau. What we come to realize is that Sarah’s and Ralsa’s offspring was full Deep One and apparently in Derleth’s part of this shared universe when Deep Ones don’t eat they become diminutive. Abner’s act of kicking out the shutter, gives the creature a chance to escape. The dead cattle? That’s the escaped Deep One eating and growing to regular size. If you remember from “The Dunwich Horror” this is what the Shoggoth did, so much so that the old man Whatley and Wilbur had to keep rebuilding farmhouses to house it.
But Abner doesn’t realize this at first. It isn’t until Abner heads to the shuttered room late in the story and sees “There, squatting in the midst of the tumbled bedding from the long-abandoned bed, sat a monstrous, leathery skinned creature that was neither frog nor man, one gorged with food, with blood still slavering from it’s batrachian jaws and upon it’s webbed fingers…” with limbs “grown from its bestial body like those of a frog, and tapering off into a man’s hands, save for the webbing between the fingers.“
He throws the lantern at the creature, immolating both it and the room, thus ending the horror.
Derleth tries to include some aspects of “The Dunwich Horror” into this tale, but he makes small changes. The odor which pervades the story is fishy instead of musty, the dead cattle are because a Deep One is on the loose instead of a Shoggoth. He uses tools like this to bring his tale together and separate himself from Lovecraft. He obviously wants things to be more connected with Cthulhu, potentially making that eldritch god a much larger aspect of the whole mythos…but then again he’s stepping on his own toes.
A few weeks ago we covered a few stories, Namely “The Peabody Heritage” and even further back “The Survivor.” In both of these stories the creature whom we can only understand as an aspect of Dagon or Cthulhu, were Saurian, I.E. reptilian. However in this story he seems to be changing that to batrachian, or fishlike, amphibian. Why is he changing up his own rules between stories? Could there be a connector I haven’t seen yet? Could Derleth be trying to connect more of the world and make it cohesive for all his new readers? By the title we have a great read next week to find out!
Join me as we dive into “The Fisherman of Falcon Point!”
Derleth is cherry picking to fulfill the needs of his current tale.(The ancestor, the peabody heritage)