Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft / August Derleth; The Dark Brotherhood
“‘That is good,’ he said. ‘Because if you will permit my brothers and me to call on you at your home on Angell Street, we may be able to convince you that there is life in space – not in the shape of men, but life, and life possessing a far greater intelligence than that of your most intelligent man.‘”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve into the strange world of The Dark Brotherhood, and where the concept intially seems trite, if you can hang out until the end we get a unique and fun divergence!
The story begins with a strange excerpt which could be part of a police report or part of a newspaper clipping, but Derleth doesn’t tell us which it is. What it does do is give us a sneak peek of what to expect in the coming story…”It is probable that the facts in regard to the mysterious destruction by fire of an abandoned house on a knoll along the shore of the Seekonk in a little habited district between the Washington and Red Bridges will never be known.”
Obviously we’re going to figure it out! There is mention of a Rose Dexter involved with a Arthur Phillips somehow in connection to this fire. Through my previous wanderings I’ve found that Arthur Phillips is a name Derleth uses instead of using Howard’s real name, so immediately I’m ready for two things. I think this story will be slightly meta, like “The Lamp of Alhazred” because Derleth is using the Phillips pseudonym and also that Rose (Rose Dexter? Like Charles Dexter Ward?) will again be the heroine much like Rhoda was in “The Shadow in the Attic.” If you remember from that story, Rhoda set fire to the house and rescued Adam. Let’s see how right I am!
Derleth begins with his best opening yet: “The nocturnal streets of any city along the Eastern Seaboard afford the nightwalker many a glimpse of the strange and terrible, the macabre and outré, for darkness draws from the crevices and crannies, the attic rooms and cellar hideaways of the city those human beings who, for obscure reasons lost in the past, choose to keep the day in their grey niches – the misshapen, the lonely, the sick, the very old, the haunted, and those lost souls who are forever seeking their identities under cover of night, which is beneficent for them as the cold light of day can never be.“
Little do we know that this is what the story is all about…hiding your identity in the shadows of night.
What the narrator is describing is the walks that both he and Rose would go on at night. What makes that night a particularly interesting walk is they came across a stranger:
“He was dressed almost uniformly in sombre black, save for his white shirt and flowing Windsor tie he affected. His clothing was unpressed, as if it had been worn for a long time without having been attended to, but it was not unclean, as far as I could see. His brow was high, almost dome-like; under it his dark eyes looked out hauntingly, and his face narrowed to his small blunt chin. His hair, too, was longer than most men of my generation wore it...”
The man gives his name as Mr. Allan and by his conversation, just a little off. He is terse and pithy. He is intelligent, but emotionally distant. That in and of itself isn’t that bad, but he keeps looking at Rose where the sense is “…his interest was other than amorous.” which is an important distinction to remember later. His interest this night is the cemetery which they show him and then take their leave. It is only when they’re walking away that Rose mentions what she saw as obvious…”‘He looks like Edgar Allan Poe.'”
Ignoring the fact that they’re in Providence and the cemetery they take the impostor to is supposedly Poe’s burial ground (he was interred in Baltimore), we take this as one more of Derleth’s little artistic allowances. It seems rather odd, but nothing beyond that.
The story continues for a while with Arthur meeting up with Mr. Allen night after night, while at the same time across town Rose seems to meet up with him as well. There’s speculation that there are sightings of even more of these men…all looking exactly like Edgar Allan Poe and all going by the name of Mr. Allan. Immediately I was brought back to the Jack Finney classic, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We know Derleth loves his cosmic connection, and we know in that story, pods came down from space and they created exact replicas of people, but with a hive mind instead of their own mind. That classic was published in 1955 so Derleth pulling from that inspiration makes total sense, especially as we move into the next portion of the story.
Arthur is curious and he eventually takes one of the Mr. Allan’s up on their offer (which is the quote to open this essay) and when the two men get to the house they are met with seven Mr. Allans:
“‘Our intention Mr. Phillips,’ explained their spokesman – whom I took to be the gentleman I had encountered on Benefit Street – ‘is to produce for you certain impressions of extra-terrestrial life. All that is necessary for you to do is relax and to be receptive.'”
Arthur agrees and they begin a chant which begins to change the reality around him. Suddenly he is viewing an “extra-terrestrial scene” with figures which are, “enormous, iridescent, rugose cones, rising from a base almost ten feet wide to a height of over ten feet...” Ah. I should have guessed. The Great Race of Yith.
We’ve seen them in so many of Derleth’s stories that it shouldn’t surprise me here, but it does. Quite frankly at this point in the story I was pretty disappointed because I was hoping for a new and unique perspective. This feels like Derleth is falling back into his old tricks. This is one of the longer stories thus far from Derleth, and to get this far in and find out that we’re going back over old material, especially with the unique, although rather droll tale he’d been telling thus far, made me put the book down for a while. Was this just going to be another retelling of whom the Yith are? Why layer on Poe?
Despite my disappointment I had to find out, so I picked it back up.
Arthur can’t let what he saw go. It freaked him out and he left, but there was just something a little off about the scene he witnessed, so he decided the next night he would go back and get to the bottom of things. He goes back into the house, careful to be quiet and sneaks upstairs. There he finds some strange “glass encased slab” which he approaches and finds a clone of Poe inside. But that’s not the strange part…there is something else in the case.
“But when at last I looked upon that which lay upon the likeness of Poe, I almost cried out in fearful surprise, for it was, in miniature, a precise reproduction of one of the rugose cones I had seen only last night in the hallucination induced in my home on Angell Street! And the sinuous movement of the tentacles on it’s head – or what I took to be its head – was indisputable evidence that it was alive!”
So between this smaller being in the tube with Poe and the fact that we know these creature speak telepathically, I believe Derleth is actually (again!) changing what we know of as the Cthulhu Mythos and expanding it out into the broader world. What do I mean? This smaller being, with obvious nefarious intentions, sounds to me exactly like an Illithid of Dungeons & Dragons fame. Those creatures first came to light in the role playing modules in the mid to late seventies, which was about ten years after the publication of this story, so Derleth seems to be moving beyond the impassive elder deities and creating these off shoot races which are so much more popular in modern culture. The new description of the smaller body and what it does for the rest of the story matches pretty perfectly with this concept, as well as the idea of the impostors next door we experience in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Arthur flees the scene and finds out that Rose was invited into the house as well. He pleads with her not to go, but she eventually does and Arthur chases after her. He gets there just in time to see something terrible in the glass cases:
“For in the one that lit the room with its violently pulsating and agitated violet radiation lay Rose Dexter, fully clothed, and certainly under hypnosis – and on top of her lay, greatly elongated and with tentacles flailing madly, the rugose cone-like figure I had last seen shrunken on the likeness of Poe. And in the connected case adjacent to it – I can hardly bear to set it down even now – lay, identical in every detail, a perfect duplicate of Rose!”
They are body snatchers! Arthur freaks out and burns the house down, like we saw in that opening report. He grabs Rose and runs to safety…but then in the next few days he begins to worry. Did he save the right Rose? Did he get the pod Rose or the real Rose?
We are left with a News Story to end the tale:
“LOCAL GIRL SLAYS ATTACKER
Rose Dexter…last night fought off and killed a young man she charged with attacking her…Her attacker was identified as an acquaintance, Arthur Phillips...”
And there our story ends.
This was probably the most Lovecraftian ending of any of the Derleth stories and the most like Invasion of the Body Snatchers because the bad guys won. There wasn’t the happier ending that Derleth has been so known for, but rather a unease which permeates the history of the tale.
It also turns out I was wrong on both levels. This story was strictly a male led story unlike “The Shadow in the Attic” and it wasn’t meta at all, but instead much more a product of it’s era and a story to inform the future generations.
Is that what Derleth’s legacy will be? Let’s find out more next week as we gaze on “The Horror From the Middle Span!”