Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft/August Derleth; Witches’ Hollow
“As a result, I became aware of a vaguely disquieting fact; from time to time, Andrew Potter responded to some stimulus beyond the apprehension of my senses, reacting precisely as if someone had called to him, sitting up, growing alert, and wearing the air of someone listening to sounds beyond my own hearing, in same attitude assumed by animals hearing sounds beyond the pitch levels of the human ear.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve into the back woods to the town of Witches’ Hollow and fully uncover an interesting cultural diaspora which seems to fuel both Lovecraft’s imagination as well as Derleth’s. This was also (so far at least!) Derleth’s most unique telling while at the same time adding to Lovecraft’s mythos. We’ll discuss this more later, but I have to say that this was the most enjoyable tale from Derleth, despite it’s faults.
The story starts with a unique twist: “District School Number Seven Stood on the very edge of that wild country which lies west of Arkham.” Believe it or not, in this story we’re following a grade school teacher. We find that “The school district has now been consolidated,” which changed the student body and his “charges added up to twenty-seven.” We even hear some familiar names; “There were Allens and Whateleys and Perkinses, Dunlocks and Abbots and Talbots – and there was Andrew Potter.“
The narrator tells us Andrew Potter “was a large boy for his age, very dark of mien, with haunting eyes and a shock of tousled black hair.” and that “he was in the fifth grade, and it did not take long…to discover that he could easily advance into the seventh of eighth...” right before we get the quote which opens this essay.
Our narrator decides that he needs to go speak to Andrew’s parents and see if he can possibly get them to allow the child to move up in grades because when he speaks to the boy, Andrew tells him “‘What I’m interested in doesn’t matter. It’s what my folks want that counts.”
On the surface level this makes sense and it also brings me to the thematic point I mentioned earlier. Much of Lovecraft and Derleth seem to take place in rural or back woods regions, and because of the poverty level in these areas, there’s quite often an adherence to family and familial ideals over your own best interest. I’ve seen this in real life in the central valley of California, where farming families prefer their children to work with them in the fields picking instead of going to school. If someone from the school gets involved they generally shun that person, because the poverty is so intense that the need for immediate money (picking that day instead of going to school) is more important than some vague promise of a better life in the future… if you don’t work now and spend your time wasting away in a class that doesn’t pertain to your life…then your wasting potential. So this choice both builds the characters and because it’s a horror story, this theme becomes low hanging fruit because all the sudden you can have a family who has nefarious inclinations hiding among the poor.
This also fits in with the theme of the familial bond which occurs so much in Lovecraft’s style of fiction. There are so many stories (The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Ancestor, Arthur Jermyn, The Dunwich Horror, et. all) where an ancestor of the folk in the story got into dark magic and caused a ripple that would effect all generations within his lineage. In this story, we have old Wizard Potter (yes really. I don’t think there’s a connection with the notorious Harry, though some of the darker elements of Rowling’s work may have in a slight way been informed by Lovecraft or Derleth, but ultimately this has to be a coincidence) who is considered “a bad lot.” Derleth ties him to evil magic by saying that he was a cousin to Wizard Whateley (who apparently had quite a big family because he’s now connections in multiple Derleth stories with different cousins) of Dunwich, and the two of them “called something down from the sky, and it lived with him until he died.” Except we know now that whatever he called down, lived beyond old Wizard Potter.
When our industrious teacher goes to confront the Potters he finds that they deny him immediately by telling him that young Andrew will be stopping school as soon as the law allows. Then, while they’re standing there being awkward, something strange happens.
“The moment the father stopped talking, there was a singular harmony of attitude – all four of them seemed to be listening to some inner voice...”
This calls back to an earlier Lovecraft story “The Thing on the Doorstep.” In that tale Asenath, the primary antagonist, was able to project herself into other’s bodies, imposing her mind and suppressing theirs. We also have the idea of the Yith from stories such as “The Shadow out of Space” and “The Shadow out of Time” where they would do the same, take over the body of a host. The Potter family seems to have some kind of telepathic bond where they are either listening to each other, or listening to some higher being which is giving them directions. It goes beyond their own kin as well, however, as we find when our narrator speaks to one of his students about them.
“‘You shouldn’t a told Andrew Potter we talked about him,’ he said with a kind of unhappy resignation.
‘I didn’t, Wilbur.’
‘I know I didn’t. So you must have,’ he said. And then, ‘Six of our cows got killed last night, and the shed where they were was crushed down on ’em.’“
The Potter’s have Telepathy and bore into people’s minds. Derleth is striving to make the connection that these Ancient Ones have plans on Earth, but there is some force keeping them out, so they need to use these strange tools and spells and books to help seem into susceptible human brains. The teacher narrator suspects something more than natural (maybe not wholly supernatural) is going on and decides to head to local Miskatonic University to do some research. There he comes across one of these forbidden texts… The Necronomicon. While he’s reading it a Professor of the University notices him and tells him that he knows about the Potters and he knows what to do with them.
This Professor Keane shows the narrator, “...objects of stone, roughly in the shape of five-pointed stars. He put five of them in my hand.”
Then he tells the narrator the crux of the story and all the events run downhill at breakneck pace towards the climax:
“You must keep one of these at least on your person at all times, and you must keep all thought of the stone and what you are about to do out of your mind. These beings have a telepathic sense – an ability to read your thoughts.” and after discussing them for a moment Keane tells our narrator, “These stones are among the thousands bearing the Sea of R’lyeh which closed the prisons of the Ancient Ones. They are the seals of the Elder Gods.”
Ok so beyond the fact that he directly contradicts Lovecraft here (R’lyeh is the city where Cthulhu sleeps, not a sea) he is single handedly building the legacy of what would hold Lovecraft’s mythos forever entombed in popular culture. He is creating the basis for the gaming community.
If you’ve ever played the board game “Manisions of Madness” or one of the bevy of video games, or even the role playing game “The Call of Cthulhu” you’ve seen all of these elements. The librarian, or professor, who surreptitiously knows more than they should and helps the investigator. The Elder Signs which the narrator uses to hold the Ancient Ones in place, the action packed rollercoaster ending after a slow burn build to find the truth. These are what made Lovecraft truly popular in the last four decades and what continues to build his legacy. Derleth lays the basis for all that gaming culture right here in this story published in 1962.
It also deepens what he would come to call “The Cthulhu Mythos.” These Elder Signs were extremely sparingly used in Lovecraft (I think only twice mentioned) and in Lovecraft their usage wasn’t specifically spelled out as they are here. This is probably the best thing Derleth has done to the legacy of Lovecraft (because in the preceding stories there hasn’t been much), because we have quite a bit of evidence of what these powerful deities are, but before this, there have been no tools in which to battle them. By telling us that these Elder Signs were what was used to imprison them, we now have an inkling that there can be a chance to beat them.
The rest of the story unfolds as you would expect. The narrator builds a wall in his mind, striving to keep it blank so the Potter’s wont know what he’s planning, then tracks them all down and places the stones on them one by one, shunning the outsider whom was “called down from the sky.“
The story, unlike any by Lovecraft, ends with a super happy ending, where the Potter family is returned their humanity and they all remain whole after they move away from the little village of Witches’ Hollow. The narrator decides he wants to forget, or at least not look any further into the mysteries which seemed to surround that family there in that backwoods burg.
It’s a completely different feel from Lovecraft, but it’s fun and adventurous and totally worth the read.
Can Derleth keep it up? Can we move beyond that poor rehashing of Lovecraft’s tales and get into more adventurous stories like this one?
Join me to fid out next week as we try out “The Shadow in the Attic!”