Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft / August Derleth; The Lurker at the Threshold pt. 1
“So, then, Old Billington was ‘feared’ or disliked and everyone connected with him in any way likewise. This additional discovery put Dewart almost into a fever of anticipation; his quest was so different from the usual genealogical adventure that it delighted him; here was mystery, here was something deep, unfathomable, something out of the routine ken; and, fed by this taste of the mystery, Dewart was stirred and stimulated with the excitement of the chase.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we begin down the journey of Derleth’s longest Lovecraftian story along tried and true lines, while delving into what differentiates the two authors.
Once again we begin with a man going back to his ancestral home to restore it. Nearly every single Derleth story has this opening salvo and it just really shows the difference in imaginative capabilities between the two men. We’ll get into writing ability and imagination a bit more later, but to do so I need to introduce you to the story.
Our “Protagonist” is Ambrose Dewart. He’s a British gentleman who has come to the back water of Massachusetts “...towards the strange, lonely Dunwich country beyond Dean’s Corners” to a strange and forbidden place called Billington’s Wood, “and all that property around, including the great house which could not be seen but was none the less there, deep in that wood, on a pleasant knoll, it was said ‘near the tower and the circle of stones.’“
Again, much like in other stories the house was upkept by “a firm of solicitors” because the last of the Billingtons, Alijah and his son Laban, fled the area. No information is given as to why they fled other than the notorious sounds coming from the woods such as “a piping and croaking of frogs” and a “chorus of whippoorwills” but we know from previous stories that the batrachian croaking indicates that Deep Ones are near and the whippoorwill is an indication to deep and dark foreshadowing and warning, and yet as soon as the Billingtons left, the noises stopped.
Ambrose finally gets to the house and notices that it’s devoid of all modernity, “such as electricity…” which might indicate a foreshadowing for something to come ahead, but I believe it’s just Derleth’s effort to show the atmosphere of the place. Another one of those red herrings he’s so apt to do.
It’s mentioned numerous times in the first few pages that this area is full into the “portion of Dunwich country where the Whateleys and the Bishops...” lived which tells us immediately that something is going to happen surrounding Cthulhu, Dagon, or the Deep Ones (Derleth pretty much ignored the Shoggoth which is unfortunate because they are some of the most intense and fearful creatures), because, well, all Derleth has something to do with Cthulhu, Dagon, or the Deep Ones.
But then there’s a very interesting bit of information which arises when Ambrose is searching through the house and finds Laban’s journal. “The child, Laban, who was, Dewert determined, his own grandfather…” Laban is motherless and has a Narragansett Indian named Quamus (or Quamis) as a companion (no doubt a slave or indentured servant, but such is never mentioned). Until one day when Alijah gets angry with them and “has forbidden us to go, on the banks of the stream across from that place where the tower rises. He (Quamus) was on his hands and knees and had his arms raised up, and he was saying in a loud voice words in his own language which I could not understand…but had the sound of Narlato, or Narlatep.”
Ok two things. This book thus far (I’m only covering the first 40 pages of it so we may get to some surprises later!) has a penchant for giving things numerous names and Derleth uses it as a crutch to try and give the reader an inkling of what’s going to happen instead of really delving into the scene and layering in the details for us to find later. This is the first difference between the two authors… Derleth hits you over the head with a hammer, where Lovecraft would sew unease beneath your skin. The second thing is… Oh my god is Derleth separating himself from his safety net!!?? Is Nyarlathotep going to make an appearance in the story!? Or is this just another red herring Derleth is so quick to throw out to distract fans of Lovecraft. There’s no further mention other than the almost throw away of this line with the two misspellings, but I’m am extremely excited if this were to be the case.
Eventually in Laban’s journal there are “great noises” coming from the hills and suddenly Quamus is missing. There isn’t anything of else in the journal, so in an effort to broaden his knowledge, Dewart searches around the house and eventually finds a book called “Of Evill Sorceries done in New-England of Daemons in no Humane Shape.” The Book basically tells us of a Wampanaug Shaman named Misquamacus (does that name seem familiar? It should, it’s Derleth playing again…could it be Laban’s friend and confidant Quamus?) who summoned some kind of “Evill” and “there was no Way to send it back that Thing he summon’d, so ye Wampanaug wise Man had caught and prison’d it where the Ring of Stones had been.”
So obviously what he’s referring to here is the tower on the property and the ring of stones “reminiscent to Stonehenge.” How does one trap an outsider per Derleth’s rules? By placing a flat stone “with ye Elder Sign” on it.
Dewart is interested so he goes to the library and goes through several months of newspapers of both the “Arkham Advertiser” and the “Arkham Gazette.” We get story after story of which we’ve heard over and over again and which don’t particularly add to this tale, but instead are Derleth’s efforts at showing how scary the place is. This is a perfect time to hit on one more facet of the differences between these two writers.
Lovecraft spent much of his pages describing the scenery and atmosphere of the space. This is what conversely makes him a brilliant but difficult author. He’s very dense because he didn’t really care about character development, so each paragraph can span for pages as we get the feel for what’s going on in his story. They are also filled with psychological and philosophical diatribes meant to be the point of the story, but also illicit thought behind the horrors he’d placed in front of us. I’ve recently found something going around social media rounds which (paraphrasing) was that the person who read Lovecraft in their youth would read story after story back to back. They didn’t find each individual story very scary, but they were intrigued by his themes and atmosphere. It’s only a day or so later that those dark corners of your house start to seem menacing as the stories start to get under your skin. Because that’s what Lovecraft does and does so well. He focuses so much on atmosphere and philosophy that he surreptitiously digs down into our subconscious and broadens our way of looking at things.
Derleth, conversely, focuses more on the people and the shock factor. In fact, to prove that point, the vast majority of the stories I started out with Derleth finished the last few paragraphs in italics… because for some reason he thought that would drive home the shock ending that we’d seen coming all along. There is no philosophy in Derleth and there is no real atmosphere (except in The Watcher Out of Time. I really wish he’d gotten a chance to finish that before his death and redeem himself). Derleth instead spends his time giving us back story and red herrings in the shape of Lovecraftian fan offerings. The worst part about this fan service is that they very rarely pan out. I’m excited for the prospect of Nyarlathotep being in this book, but I’m not holding my breath, because that’s what Derleth does. He says hey look at this! You know what it is and I’m going to make you think this story is going to be about something else, but I’m only putting that in the story to distract you from the Deep Ones that will yet again be my antagonists.
This type of background is what we get for page after page. We hear about the Billingtons, about John Druven, a man who jibbed the Billingtons because he saw evidence of evil deeds…and ended up dead for it. There’s even mention of Reverend Ward Phillips (who is the character in the meta-fictional story “The Lamp of Alhazred“) and a letter he received talking about magic happening to both wipe memory and to create a cosmic stir at the “circle of stones.“
After all this information Dewart decides he’s going to go out the tower and the circle of stones and investigate it. He enters the tower and finds a spiral staircase up with a “decoration in the nature of a bas-relief, which he soon saw was a single design repeated as a chain for the entire length of the stair.” This Bas-relief also “appeared on the platform, and he bend to scrutinize it more closely, thus discovering it to be an intricate pattern of concentric circles and radiating lines, which, the more attentively it was gazed at, offered a perplexing maze to the eye in that it seemed at one moment to be of such an appearance, and in the next appeared to change inexplicably.”
He eventually got to the top platform which was hedged in with a large limestone rock, which “It’s decoration, however, did not follow the motif of the bas-relief figures, but was, rather, in the rough shape of a star, in the centre of which there appeared to be a caricature of a single giant eye.“
Oof. Here’s that Elder Sign! Is this where Misquamicus trapped the outsider? Right here in this tower? Man after all of that Dewart must be starting to kind of freak out. All that text which led him here to find that there is a bit of truth to it all. What does he do?
He carves the rock with the Elder Sign out so he can see the land from the top of the tower.
Ok it’s now time to talk about how absolutely and outright STUPID Derleth’s protagonists are.
The worst part is it’s not just stupidity. Carving out the Elder Sign was something Derleth thought had to happen for the storyline to progress (well he did just let out some kind of outsider which I’m really hoping is Nyarlathotep), but there’s no motivation to do so. This happens again and again in Derleth, where the plot drives the characters motives rather than the characters motives driving plot. In past stories like “The Shadow in the Attic” I’d roll my eyes when the main character would stay in a place obviously corrupted for no particular reason, but when Dewart carves out his only protection I actually said out loud, “You Dumbass!” I’m not sure if I was talking about Dewart or Derleth, but with Derleth’s propensity for giving alternatives for names, maybe Dewart is Derleth. Maybe he’s writing about himself!
And that’s where we call it after the first 5th of this novel! Join me next week as we find out what other secrets Billington’s Woods hold, which outsider is released into said woods, and what other stupid things Dewart is going to do while battling that outsider!