Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft / August Derleth; The Lurker at the Threshold, pt. 3
“If Richard Billington did indeed call some ‘Thing’ out of the sky at night, what was it? No such ‘Thing’ was known to science, unless it might conceivably be accepted tentatively that something related to the now extinct pterodactyl had still existed two centuries ago.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve deeper into the mythos than any time previous in an effort to shine a light on Derleth’s effort to secure the legacy of Howard Phillips.
This week we head into the second portion of the Novel with the chapter, “Manuscript by Stephen Bates.” Immediately the tone and writing style change to a more intimate first person narrative which is a wonderful fresh look from the denser, vague prose of section one.
We begin this portion with Stephen arriving at Arkham and meeting Dewart, “but the man who met me in Arkham in response to my wire announcing my arrival was cool, cautious, and very much self-contained, making light of his need, and seeking from the very start of my visit to impose a limit of no more than a fortnight upon it…”
Dewart seems possessed compared to the last time we saw him. He’s a model of duality; both apprehensive and expectant, almost like there’s a portion of his subconscious, or a hidden personality, who’s beginning to peak out (Richard Billington?). While Stephen fills us in by drenching us in atmosphere thus both reminding us of what to expect in this creepy county, and to solidify the danger of what he’s getting himself into.
Derleth spends his time at the beginning of this chapter and it’s something to behold. In all of his previous stories (with the exception of the unfinished “The Watchers Out of Time“) Derleth’s writing felt rushed and bored, but any reader can feel the care and attention to bring the story to life here. It’s possible that’s only because this is a novel and the longer form lends to more description, but I feel as though the longer Derleth wrote these stories the more bored he became, because in this section we get descriptions of the house and environs from Stephen’s perspective instead of Dewart, and you can feel the slow degradation into madness Dewart is facing. His behavior is all over the place, so much so that Stephen “Found in my cousin some evidence of primary schizophrenia.“
They go to bed for the night, Dewart intimating that he’d prefer Stephen to just leave, but in the middle of the night Stephen woke “at the sound of a shout.” When he went to investigate he “saw a white-robed figure descending the stairs, and hastened after it.” OK, we’re getting into it already!
It turns out this is Dewart sleep walking (for some reason wearing a white robe?) and he yells out “Iä Shub-Niggurath! Iä Nyarlathotep!” I was really excited because these gods we have not seen since Lovecraft, as Derleth prefers to focus on Dagon and Cthulhu…but it turns out to just be another of Derleth’s redirections. Stephen wakes Dewart, who is startled, but then lets himself be led back to bed. That night, in his sleep, Dewart reiterates all the old Lovecraft hits, “In his house at R’lyeh – in his great house at R’lyeh – he lies not dead, but sleeping...” and “That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death my die.” and others. It feels as though this novel is supposed to be the set up for Derleth’s examination and expansion of Lovecraft’s Mythos. The trouble I’m having with it thus far is he’s bringing in all the different deities, and each one of those Great Old Ones had different styles of followers, so why is Dewart mentioning them all? We’ll get into that.
Stephen is determined to find the answers as well. He wanders the house and finds, “everywhere in this old house brooded a malign and terrible evil, and it was this, surely, which affected my cousin.”
Stephen notices that Dewart sneaks wayward glances at the strange leaden window, so he decides to get a closer look at what fascinates Dewart so completely: “This was an occasional impression of a view or a portrait which appeared without any indication or warning in the window – not as if it were superimposed on it so much as if it grew out of it.” And just like that, Stephen is introduced to the visage of Cthulhu.
He speaks with Dewart about what’s been going on, knowing there’ve been strange happenings and determined to get to the bottom of it and help his cousin out. We get a recap of the genealogy, from Richard to Alijah to Laban, and a recap of the strange happenings in the woods and how Alijah fled with Laban to England to get away from whatever strangeness Richard “Called down.”
The two men head out to the stone circle and tower and find the dried river bed, to which Dewart calls “Misquamicus,” but when Stephen, shocked, presses him as to his meaning, Dewart, “looked at me in return, and his eyes seemed to visibly refocus.” He had no idea what he was doing or saying, seeming possessed by, more than likely, the spirit of Richard Billington.
The issue here is the letter of rules which Alijah laid down. There was a portion which said to not revert or dry up the water, and now they are in a dry river bed. This must seem fairly obvious, but it seems as though the doorway is already opened. Richard, or some entity we assume is Richard has entered into Dewart’s body, and the signal of the Whippoorwill and Frogs are the last sign for the Lurker at the Threshold to appear.
But the reason I highlighted that passage was the fact that Dewart mentioned that they were at the Misquamicus, which seems to indicate that he’s talking about the river that once flowed thorough that region, but he could also be indicating that this is the final resting place for Laban’s friend, the mystic Shaman Wampanaug, Quamis. It was already mentioned that he played a major part in Alijah sealing off the entrance for the Lurker, and that part he plays may indeed be eternal. Given the ability of the Great Old Ones and the Great Race of Yith to control other’s bodies and travel through a multi-verse, I can almost see Quamis being an eternal guardian for our world. Both a horrible damnation and honorable end.
Stephen also makes an interesting assessment while they take a look at the tower. “It was immediately apparent that the design carved along the stairs was in miniature the precise design of the leaded window in the study of my cousin’s house.” We already intimated the connection, but now this solidifies it.
Stephen decides he must head to Miskatonic University to get more information, because he doesn’t believe that researching with Dewart is going to resolve anything. He knows a Dr. Armitage Harper, a bastardization of multiple Lovecraft characters but obviously modeled after Dr. Henry Armitage who was a professor at Miskatonic during the “Dunwich Horror” and helped resolve the Whateley reign of terror, and he goes to Dr. Harper for assistance at the Miskatonic University Library.
Stephen speaks to Dr. Harper for a while trying to figure out what texts he should study to get a better understanding for what is going on, and Harper gives him a number of papers which, “it seemed very probable that the greater portions of the scripts antedated Alijah Billington.”
The manuscript which catches his eye first is like diving into a kiddie pool from a high dive:
“It bore no title on its cover, which was of a particularly smooth leather, and of a texture which suggested human skin; but on the inner sheets, preceding some script which began immediately thereafter, without preamble, appeared the legend: Al Azif – Ye Booke of Ye Arab.”
This is the first mention of the Necronomicon being bound in human flesh, but this Novel (meaning “Lurker”) was obviously much more popular than the majority of Derleth’s other works, because in nearly every iteration since, this is exactly what the Necronomicon is: The book of the dead, a necromantic book with summoning spells to bring outsiders and madness to the world, bound in the flesh of man.
We spend the majority of this section with Stephen in the Library at Miskatonic University reviewing all of these forbidden manuscripts. Obviously this whole portion of the novel is Derleth trying to establish a cohesive narrative for what he wants the mythos to be. Lovecraft never really wanted anything specific, no out and out narrative as to whom the Outer Gods were. It was Derleth who (rightly so) thought it would withstand the terrors of time if there was an organization, or a hierarchy as it were, for readers to follow. He tells us:
“The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces known to us, but between them…” Then he begins to break it down. “Yog-Sothoth knows the gate, for Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and the guardian of the gate.”
Then, “Great Cthulhu is Their cousin, yet can he spy Them only dimly.” because he was, “thrust into ye Neth’rmost Deeps und’r ye Sea, and placed within ye barnacled Tower that is said to rise amidst ye great ruin that is ye Sunken City (R’lyeh), and is seal’d within by ye Elder Sign...”
There is mention of a time when they will return and we learn a small bit about each Great Old One. “Great Cthulhu be fre’d from R’lyeh beneath ye Sea & Him Who Is Not To Be Named (Hastur) shal come from His City which is Carcosa near ye Lake of Hali, & Shub-Niggurath (The Black Goat with a Thousand Young) shal come forth & multiply in his (hers) Hideousness, & Nyarlathotep (The Messenger of the Great Old Ones) shal carry ye word to all the Gr. Old Ones & their Minions, & Cthugha (a Derleth creation…don’t know anything about him!) shal lay His Hand upon all that oppose Him & Destroy, & ye blind idiot, ye noxious Azathoth (Father of the Great Old Ones) shal arise from ye middle of ye World…Ithaqua (the Wendigo, or wind walker) shal walk again, & from ye black-litt’n caverns with ye Earth shal come Tsathoggua (I don’t know much about him because he was created by Clark Ashton Smith).”
Stephen takes a break from his reading and tries to digest everything, but when he gets to the house and walks in front of the window the waning light hits it just right and he sees the Cthulhu head again. He climbs up to the window to get a better look , “But, to my unutterable horror, I looked instead upon a landscape completely alien to me, completely foreign to anything within my experience.” with “amorphous beings which came rapidly towards me with manifestly evil intent, grotesque octopoid representations, and aweful things that flew on great black rubbery wings and dragged repellant claw-like feet.”
Stephen falls away and then decides to go to the tower. Heading out there, winter has already hit and snow has covered the ground. When he gets to the tower he notices something disturbing. “There was first a large indentation in the snow, approximately twelve feet in length by some twenty-five feet across, which had the appearance of some elephantine creature’s pausing there...”
This is remarkable similar to the description of the mark the Shoggoth make in Lovecraft’s novel “At The Mountains of Madness.“
Derleth is pulling out all the tricks and stopping at nothing to get under our skin. We still don’t really know who (which Great Old One) is behind any of this, and I’ve since given up on my hope that Nyarlathotep is going to be the primary antagonist. It seems more likely at this point that the gate is open, and there’s a chance we’re going to meet any and all of the Great Old Ones as they wake from their fitful sleep and resume their reign of terror on humankind.
Whom do you think we’ll see first? Join me next week as we cover the penultimate section and finish off Stephen Bates Manuscript!