Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft / August Derleth; The Shadow in the Attic
“I never forgot the shadowed house where he lived alone and had someone in – by night – to keep his house for him – the high ceilinged rooms, the attic which no one entered by day and into which no one was permitted, ever, to go with a lamp or light of any kind, the small-paned windows that looked out upon the bushes and trees, the fan-lit doors; it was the kind of house that could not fail to lay its dark magic upon an impressionable young mind, and it did upon mine, filling me with brooding fancies and, sometimes, terrifying dreams, from which I started awake and fled to my mother’s side, and one memorable night lost my way and came upon my great-uncle’s housekeeper, with her strange emotionless, expressionless face – she stared at me and I at her, as across unfathomable gulfs of space, before I turned and sped away, spurred by new fear imposed upon those engendered in dreams.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read with the longest run on sentence quote yet! This week we discover a homage to Derleth’s contemporaries, and a surprising and welcoming new theme as we digest the least Lovecraftian, but probably the creepiest of Derleth’s stories.
The story starts off like so many other’s of Derleth’s, that immediately we’re set up with fatigue. Once again we have a distant uncle who has died and has asked his nephew to come and take care of the estate (the description of the estate is the opening quote of this essay). The first half of the story follows this tried and true arc, but things come off the rails and we get some new trends permeating the text.
It begins in part one of the story, when our narrator moves into the house which has always had a night time maid, but “My great-uncle’s housekeeper had evidently been instructed to continue her duties at least until my occupancy.” The house is Uber clean when our narrator shows up.
Our narrator questions this and goes to the estate lawyer: “If he made arrangements to have it kept clean, there must have been another key.”
All in all the fact that the house is clean is not a big deal, the narrator even suspects that Uriah didn’t tell the housekeeper to stop cleaning so she just kept at it until told otherwise. Setting up an important trend. Adam (the narrator) doesn’t think the woman is smart enough to stop cleaning on her own. Derleth spends so much time on this fact, that we know from the beginning that the housekeeper is going to be a lynchpin to the story.
We also get a divergence from the normal “Shuttered room” trope. The narrator remembers when he was little, his family made a visit to the odd house. He remembers seeing the strange housekeeper which is also in the awesome run on sentence quote at the beginning of this essay, but more importantly he remembers that attic room being off limits to everyone, but now, “There were no other conditions whatsoever, not even a ban on the attic room I had expected to see set down.”
Subverting the theme is one of the biggest reasons why this story works so well. So much in both Lovecraft and Derleth we get the same stories (much, much more so in Derleth) over and over again, so that when we begin the tale, we know pretty much how it’s going to end. These little twists bring about a sorely needed freshness from those other droll tales.
So no ban and it seems like the housekeeper keeps coming to the house. These are the two most important aspects of this story. We’ll see why in a minute.
The story progresses on with the narrator exploring the house and exploring the surrounding town. He tries to get information about why the housekeeper is still coming, or even who she is, but is only met with more questions. No one seems to know who the maid really is. There’s speculation, but there is no name, no description, or even an explanation as to why she comes so late at night.
Then we’re introduced to Rhoda, the narrator’s fiancée. She walks into the house, intending to only stay for the night, but is immediately off put; “‘The whole house disturbs me Adam,’ she said with unaccustomed gravity. ‘Don’t you feel anything wrong?'”
He shrugs it off, thinking that it feels off because his great-uncle had died there and there had been rumors of witchcraft in the past, but he doesn’t feel as though anything were truly wrong. He feels that obviously Rhoda is being sensitive. They have a night together and Rhoda tries to persuade him to leave, but they eventually get ready to go to sleep for the night, and because it’s the fifties and they aren’t married, they head to separate rooms. This is when the story takes a very strange and freaky turn.
“It was sometime after midnight when I was awakened.”
There’s someone in the bed with Adam. He reaches over to feel around in the bed and touches a breast. My first reaction was humor because he seems off put by this and based upon Derleth’s past stories, I anticipated this being Rhoda, possessed, getting into bed with him… but Derleth surprises.
“…the breast I had touched was not Rhoda’s; her breasts were firm, beautifully rounded – and the breast of the woman who lay next to me on my bed was flaccid, large nippled, and old.”
It’s the housekeeper lying naked in the bed next to him. Immediately images of Stanly Kubrick’s version of The Shining flash through my brain and suddenly for the first time in my readings of Derleth, I’m surprised. He’s finally gotten beyond what’s expected, beyond the safe tropes, and into something truly disturbing. And this is just the beginning.
What I expect to be the housekeeper flees the room without confrontation and once Adam gets his wits about him he follows to see just what was going on. When he gets to the hallway “…I heard, drifting down as if from somewhere outside, high up over the house, the wailing and screaming of a woman’s voice, the voice of a woman being punished…”
Could this be Uriah punishing his housekeeper for showing affection, or even desire for Adam? But isn’t Uriah dead?
The next morning Adam and Rhoda meet up for breakfast and it turns out Rhoda saw the housekeeper as well. “‘She seemed to be a young woman – but I had a strange feeling that she wasn’t young at all. Her face was expressionless – fixed. Only her eyes seemed to be alive.'”
Rhoda tries to convince Adam that he should leave with her, but to gain his inheritance all he has to do is stay there for three months. Surly it couldn’t be that bad…could it?
Adam becomes enamored with the idea that the housekeeper stays in the house, so he goes to the only room she could possibly be in…the aforementioned Attic.
When he gets there, the unease in the story increases tenfold… “A single chair stood in the middle of that gabled room, and on it lay a few prosaic objects and one which could not be so described – some woman’s clothing – and a rubber mask – one of that kind which moulds to the features of the wearer.”
This explains why the housekeeper is “expressionless” she’s actually wearing a mask. I was brought back to my formative years when I remember sitting on my parent’s couch with my hands over my face, fingers cracked just enough to see through them, while we watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The author of the book Psycho is based on is Robert Bloch, who was a contemporary of both Lovecraft and Derleth. Obviously Derleth is pulling references from Bloch’s seminal work, but could this be a case of Norman Bates? Is Uriah actually alive, just under the false guise of the housekeeper. Hold tight…it get’s weirder.
Remember the event in the bed from the previous night? It’s the housekeeper, whether Uriah has taken over her mind or not. But where is she? Why are the clothes sitting on a single chair in the attic room? As Adam looks around he finds more:
“I picked up the lamp and held it high. It was then that I saw the shadow, which lay beyond my own, against the wall and sloping ceiling – a monstrous, misshapen, blackened area, as if some vast flame had flared forth and burnt its image into the wood there…it bore a resemblance to a distorted human figure.“
That passage sound remarkably like a radiation shadow, which is a brilliant theme to instill in late sixties fiction, during a growing fear of a nuclear arms race.
Adam turns around and finds on the opposite wall, “an opening no larger than that for a mouse…painted in garish red chalk or oil…(in) a sequence of curious angular lines, which seemed to me completely unlike any geometrical designs with which I was familiar and which were arranged in such a fashion as to make the mousehole seem their precise center.”
Witchcraft. We know from stories such as “Dreams in the Witch House” and “The Music of Erich Zann” that these strange angles are created to make the veil between the worlds of the living and dead…or our dimension and other dimensions…thinner, and more likely able to traverse. With this strange hole in the attic, directly across from the radiation shadow on the opposite wall, we can only assume that some kind of power came through and blasted whomever that was out of this existence.
The story speeds up as Adam researches and tries to figure out what that could possibly be. He finds it in forbidden books Uriah had kept, “I…found myself led from book to book from a discussion of the ‘essence’ or ‘soul’ or ‘lifeforce,’ as it was variously called, through chapters on transmigration and possession, to a dissertation on taking over a new body by driving out the life force within and substituting one’s own essence…“
Ah, we are moving back through the tropes created by Lovecraft which Derleth likes so much! Whether it’s the Yith taking over someone’s body, or it’s Joseph Curwen imposing himself on Charles Dexter Ward, the possession theme stands strong…and it turns out that Adam’s fiancée has a feeling something is wrong. She calls him and again begs him to leave, but now there is a strange reticence to him. He even laughs at her and says “‘I’ve always said women are irrational creatures.'”
That night after getting off the phone, the turning point happens.
“There in the well of glowing darkness behind and a little above me hung the spectral likeness of Great-uncle Uriah Garrison – something as ephemeral as air…”
Adam seems stuck there until the spirit dissipates. He then goes to the study where he sees the Housekeeper cleaning. She turns “and I looked into pools of glowing fire, eyes that were hardly eyes at all but so much more.” He stands there for another moment, lost, until he goes back to the attic and finds that the strange geometric hole in the wall was glowing with blue light, “And the painted lines all around the hole glowed as with a light all their own.”
Soon after Rhoda comes back and knocks on the door, determined to save him and he tells her, “Go away, leave us alone.”
Us? It seems as though the transition has already begun and he is joined in his body with Uriah and the housekeeper. He shuts the door on his fiancée, but she is not to be outdone. Later that night she lights the house on fire, finds a ladder and sets it at the window to Adam’s room and saves him.
There’s a weird dichotomy throughout the story. The word succubus is used a few times throughout, but at the same time Adam is not the hero of the story. There is no hero… in fact there’s a heroine. It’s pretty unheard of in this type of genre fiction at this time (the boys club of cosmic horror) for there to be a female protagonist, but throughout the entire story Rhoda is the one who’s right, Rhoda keeps trying to save Adam who cant save himself, and then at the end, ACTUALLY saves him. So what does that have to do with the Succubus?
The main antagonist in the story is actually the Housekeeper (The Succubus). The strange woman who pulled Uriah’s life force out of him. That’s what keeps her going. We know that’s what happens because we see his spirit, but it was the evil gaze of the housekeeper that pulled Adam away from his own life. He was acting like his normal self until that instance happened. You remember the red herring of the “wails of the woman being punished?” That was probably the housekeeper tormenting Uriah.
The last paragraph begins as such, “Women are fundamentally not rational creatures.” (Yes, he says this again) When I read that line I thought, damn, he’s one sexist dude. Then I thought about it. The main antagonist is a woman. The main heroine is a woman. The man who thinks this sexist thought (Adam), though said through a first person narrative, is taking us back to our first trope we came across in Lovecraft. The unreliable narrator.
Whether Derleth wrote it this way to be subversive, or if he wrote it this way to hide his intentions, this story is about woman empowerment. This is a story where women have power and men have none.
I’m impressed by Derleth for the first time. Now I’m excited to see where he takes us next.
Join me next week as we discover, “The Dark Brotherhood.”