“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!
“At the same time, his thoughts took an amazing turn; he was less concerned with the glass and its properties, and more with an ambiguous, ill-defined concept of vast dimensions and spaces beyond the terrestrial scenes familiar to him; and he felt himself being drawn into some vortex of dream and speculation that profoundly disturbed him. It was as if he were falling into a bottomless pit.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we cover Derleth’s most promising, though incomplete, tale and take some time to analyze and speculate on the man’s intentions.
This weeks story is a strange one, but not in a Lovecraftian…or dare I say it, Derlethian way. It’s the longest story in the collection I have (The Watchers out of Time, Carroll & Graf 1991), but it’s also incomplete, and not even in a first draft kind of way. There are grammatical errors in it sure (of which I believe the publisher decided to keep in for purity reasons), but after about 30 pages the story just stops. It apparently was never finished and included in this collection posthumously.
This fact actually makes this a perfect transition because were going to finish up this series by deconstructing “The Lurker at the Threshold” which is one of Derelth’s novels (which he published under Lovecraft’s name), and this story feels more like a novella, or the beginning of a novel, than a short story. Derleth isn’t known for his atmosphere as Lovecraft was, but this novel gives you a great feel for the Dunwich environs in a way that not even Lovecraft established. He takes his time to give the reader a visual of what the country actually looks like. The reader can also tell that this was a story to make an effort to collect all the disparate strands of lineage and place and mythos and tie them all together. I truly get the feeling that this story was supposed to be his Magnum Opus…it’s really a shame he never got a chance to complete it.
Alright, enough waxing…lets get into the story!
The story begins as so many of Derleth’s stories have. Nick Walters is a man living in Surrey, England who received a letter, “couched in rather old-fashioned legal terminology” informing him that he is the recipient of an “Ancestral Property” in Massachusetts backwaters.
We also get a brief description of Walters physiognomy, he has a “wide mouth…curious lobeless ears, or the large pale blue slightly bulging eyes.” This is a dead giveaway that Walters is on the branch of the Marshes and the Whateleys, so when we find out later that the house he inherited is actually the old house of Cyrus Whateley, it’s no surprise.
We’re introduced to the place by Boyle, Walter’s lawyer, who speaks about “Whateley Country” which includes Dunwich. Make no mistake there’s nothing but ridicule and derision as he speaks about the place: “It’ll be like turning into the American past...”
That statement is the transition to a great chapter of Derleth describing place. This is something Lovecraft did so well, and something Derleth just hasn’t spent the time to do thus far in any of his stories. That makes me believe that his novels must be so much better than any of his shorter work, because he slows down and spends the time to bring the reader viscerally into the story.
As Walters drives into the region “many brier-bordered stone walls made their appearance, pressing upon the road; most of these were broken down in places, with field stones scattered along the foot of the walls. The road wound into hills past great old trees, bramble-covered fences, and barren fields and pastures in country that was only sparsely settled.”
I could go on and on with quotes of the section. There’s even a passage where Derleth points out what’s really happening. “He drove slowly.” It’s actually a double entendre because Derleth is talking about Walters driving, but he’s also talking about himself writing. His tales are generally breakneck speed compared to Lovecraft, and this chapter describing place and atmosphere is something so heartachingly absent from his other stories. This meta-fictional phrase feels as though he’s telling us and himself to slow down, so we can get a visual of what this place actually looks and feels like. The payoff is huge. It really does feel like “turning into the American past.”
There are even call backs to his previous stories like “The Horror from the Middle Span” with passages such as: “A quaint covered bridge crossed the river, a relic of that distant past to which the settlement itself obviously belonged.”
This is important because, as I mentioned earlier, it really feels as though Derleth is trying to bring his corner of Lovecraft (namely Dunwich and Innsmouth) together into a cohesive narrative. There are pages and pages with Walters at the library going over genealogy and history of the Whateleys and their cousins. We even get introduced to our favorite grumpy old shop keep, Tobias Whateley, who has shown up in multiple Derleth tales. Always warning foolish “cousins” away from their ancestral estates tended to by the “eddicated” Whateleys (we’ll talk about this more later).
When Walters finally gets to the house there are fun little Easter eggs like, ” Nothing more recent than Dickens stood among the leather-bound tomes, and many of them were in Latin and other languages.” There is even a telescope. But my favorite aspect, and one which you might remember from “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” is the infamous grandfather clock:
“…a curious, obviously hand-carved clock standing almost three feet tall, its face covered with strange designs – of serpentine coils and primitive creatures belonging clearly to some pre-human era, he thought, utterly alien.” which was “intended to tell more than time.“
Walters goes back to get supplies and speak to Tobias who mentioned Increase Brown, who apparently kept up the house, but because the story was never finished, and he isn’t really spoken of again.
We transition to night and get the most supernatural chapter right before the story ends. The night air is filled with strange sounds which seem to come from either “avian or batrachian throats.” but then he noticed that there was something more than that. Out up on a hill (it could it be Sentinel hill where witchcraft was once done?) “He heard voices, which were surely of men crying out…and on the crest of round hill behind Dunwich there was a glow in the now dark heavens, as of a bonfire burning there.”
He decides to ignore this strange fact and goes on studying. He finds a photograph, and within that photo is a carving in the wall with a glass eye which was “strangely clouded.” As he looked closer, “the clouding he had seen was the unmistakable outline of two human faces – the one, of an old man, bearded, looked directly out of the glass; the other, a lean hawklike face, with the skin drawn tight over its bones, looked out from behind the first, his face slightly tilted as if he were deferring to the older man…“
This is obviously supposed to indicate Cyrus and Aberath Whateley. But undeterred by the oddity he decides to research further and heads to the study, where a curious light is glowing. He opens the doors and “he was further surprised to see light flickering in the room as if he had left a lamp burning there...” but in fact “The source of the glow he had seen was the glass eye in the carved triangle above the fireplace.”
He climbs closer and finds some strange Eye of Sauron info…”The carving which framed it was fully as baffling. The eye appeared in what was almost its optical center. The outer frame was a triangular pediment. At first glance, the carving appeared to be classically conventional design. But now, in the light of the lamp Walters held, it bore a disquieting resemblance to a huge octopus-like being, yet unearthly to look upon; in the convex circle of glass lay a huge, central eye, opaque to sight now, but still cloudy with pale light that shifted oddly even now.“
Well hello Cthulhu. It’s like an eye to watch over the place, and to gather any souls necessary for it’s nefarious nature. As he looks into the eye he gets the feeling which is the opening quote of this essay, and the reason I call it the eye of Sauron. It seems to give him a strange compulsion on just the single look. The light goes out and he stands there like Ray from Ghostbusters II looking at Vigo, but eventually he breaks the connection and leaves the room.
He decides he’s going to go back to Springfield in the morning and do more research at the library, but he can’t get over the feeling that the house is somehow occupied with a presence… other than himself.
The final chapter has Walters going to the library and researching more about genealogy. There’s a fascinating section where he finds that a preacher named Hoag talked out against the Whateleys only to go missing, as well as a Reverend Hoadley who did the same thing with the same outcome, yet somehow both of those men had some kind of connection with the Whateleys. He mentions all the last names of the characters he’s used in connection to the area and even goes over Dr. Armitage’s dealings from the original Lovecraft tale “The Dunwich Horror.”
Then right before the end of the story he finds a letter addressed “For Him Who Will Come,”
“Read, that you may know, that you may prepare to wait for Those Who Watch, and fulfill that which is meant to be.”
He’s waiting for those who watch, namely the Ancient Ones. Cthulhu is sleeping and dreaming from his prison in R’lyeh, watching through the golden eye in that carving…and it obviously isn’t the only one. He entraps souls, hence the two previous Whateley’s trapped within the eye… which coincidentally glowed when there was some kind of ritual happening on Sentinel Hill…when the last time we saw that happen Lavinia was pregnant from some Outsider, and a Shoggoth rampaged over the town.
Obviously, since this was published posthumously and not even finished, this was supposed to be Derleth consolidating the pantheon of whom he considered the most important of the Ancient Ones and solidifying his presence in the mythos. Of all the tales, I’ve been the most interested in this one. It’s the most readable (even with it’s grammatical mistakes) and the closest to a Lovecraft tale in feel than anything else he’s written.
It is possible that this closeness is because this tale was meant to be a novel or at least a novella, so maybe his Lovecraftian novel will hold up to the same standards?
Lets find out next week as we begin “The Lurker at the Threshold!”
“He suddenly fixed widening eyes on my companion, his jaw dropped, his hands began to shake; for a moment or two he was frozen into that position; then he shrugged himself up and off the barstool, turned, and in a stumbling run burst out of the building into the street, a long, despairing cry shuddering back through the wintry air.”
Welcome back to another Blind read! This week we break down an entirely trite tale which merely rehashes older material while we conjecture the past’s future of the legacy of Lovecraft.
This story was an immense let down. There was incredible potential for developing something unique and elaborate out of the minute change Derleth layers into the story, but unfortunately he doesn’t do anything with it. We fall back into the same trite patterns which, quite frankly, Lovecraft was leaps and bounds beyond Derleth because of writing ability. Don’t really understand what I mean? Let’s break this down.
The story begins with a bit of promise, though I have to admit I was dreading it a bit when I began. Derleth has a penchant for using Deep Ones as his main antagonists, which is fine, but he doesn’t give them anything beyond what Lovecraft already created. Derleth’s stories of magic, occult, and the strange, were all far more interesting than his Innsmouth based stories.
To start, we are introduced to the focus of the story: “The facts relating to the fate of my friend, the late sculptor, Jeffrey Corey – if indeed “late” is the correct reference…”
Here we have another potentially “unreliable narrator” who is doing the campfire thing and telling us a story. What piqued my interest here was that Corey was a sculptor, that tied with the fact that the title has “clay” in it, made me excited for a possible twist. Derleth even begins taking us to a unique space, but then pulls it back and falls into his old safe trends.
The narrator immediately tells us that Corey’s “distant relatives” are the “reclusive Marshes who still lived in that Massachusetts seaport town (Innsmouth)” and in the next paragraph gives a description of Corey:
“He had very strong blue eyes, and his lantern-jawed face would have stood out in any assemblage of people, not alone for the piercing quality of his gaze, but as much for the rather strange, wattled appearance of the skin back from his jaws, under his ears and down his neck a little way below his ears.”
If you’ve read “The Shadow over Innsmouth” you know what this means. Obed Marsh was a sailor for the East India Company and he took a bride from a remote South Pacific Island. It turns out that the bride was either a Deep One, or a human offspring of a Deep One, so when they came back to Innsmouth, they created “The Order of Dagon” and it was believed they held services to their dark god just off the coast at a place called “Devils Reef.” They did nefarious things until the U.S. Government came and set off depth charges off Devil’s Reef and arrested the Marsh clan.
In Lovecraft this was a unique and creepy tale with some wonderful imagery. We also got a sub-context of paranoia because of the outcome of the story…we understand the government knows more about the goings on in Innsmouth and decides then to snuff it out. Kind of a Big Brother oversight conspiracy theory.
Derleth does his best in the next few pages to recount what happened in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but, rightly so, he doesn’t cover any of the contextualization of what was actually going on there because it doesn’t really pertain to his narrator. This is however where we get the only interesting twist, and incidentally we got the direction I was really hoping the story would go.
The depth charges “set off such turmoil in the depths that a subsequent storm washed ashore all manner of debris, of which a peculiar blue clay came in along the waters edge…”
Using that clay, Corey begins work on a new sculpture he entitles “Sea Goddess.”
Predictable things begin to happen. As he begins the sculpture he gives the “Sea Goddess” webbed toes. When asked why, he tells the narrator, “I don’t really know…The fact is I hadn’t planned to do it. It just happened.” Then when the narrator asks about the “disfiguring marks on the neck…” Corey just laughs it off and says “Perhaps a ‘Sea Goddess’ ought to have gills.” Yeah…Ok Corey.
The narrator tells us that after Corey went missing he found his notebooks which normally held notes about his art, but around this time they became more of a journal of his downfall.
Corey talks about his “Compulsion” to “baptize the Sea Goddess” and he begins to have strange dreams. They start innocuous enough, “A dream of swimming accompanied by shadowy men and women.” Then he has erotic dreams of “a woman, naked, slipped into my bed after I had gone to sleep, and remained there all night.” Scandalous!
There is even an entry which is frankly the most eye rolling thing I’ve read in Derleth. “The dream of swimming again. In the sea-depths. A sort of city far below. Ryeh or R’lyeh? Something named ‘Great Thooloo’?”
That passage gives me a visceral reaction. Now to be fair, if I had read this story first, it may have been gripping, but because I’ve gone through Lovecraft’s entire catalog, it just didn’t hold the same gravity as everything else. To top that off this is probably the first time anyone who’d ever read these stories got a phonetic interpretation of Cthulhu, so that potentially could have been very groundbreaking, but ultimately at this point I can tell you exactly what’s going to happen, line for line, with the rest of the story.
The rest of the story follows as you would expect. The narrator and Corey try to do some research into why Corey keeps having these dreams. They find out a bit more about his distant relatives, until they find the drunk at the bar… you know… the absolute best source for any strange knowledge. They wake him up from his drunken stupor and give him more liquor to get the most trustworthy story. They speak for a while discovering new things for the characters, but nothing new for any reader whom is familiar with the Innsmouth story, until eventually Corey’s scarf falls a bit and we get the opening quote for this essay.
Those “curious corrugations” on Corey’s neck begin to hurt, “it isn’t the pain one associates with stiffness or friction or a bruise. It’s as if the skin were about to break outward…” which happens about the same time as, gasp, The sculpture of the Sea Goddess goes missing! Then shortly there after so does Corey!
The narrator wonders about them, until he is out on a boat and sees a couple of fish creatures swimming together. One which was absolutely female and the other which…gasp… looked just like Corey!
The story comes off as droll and tired. There was really no uniqueness to the tale at all, as even in the last few Derleth stories, he re-uses the same themes and ideas without giving us much of anything new to go off of, or even the atmospheric writing which Lovecraft used.
In one final example of Derleth’s forced writing I give you this passage:
“There was some evidence to show that he had gone down to the Atlantic and walked in – whether with the intention of swimming or of taking his life could not be ascertained. The prints of his bare feet were discovered in what remained of that odd clay thrown up by the sea in February, but there were no returning prints.”
Derleth is full of these little phantasms. There is really no way anyone would be able to identify that “evidence” that Corey walked into the Ocean. This is just Derleth trying to give the reader the impact of what’s going on, but it’s lazy writing. I’ve mentioned it many times before, but this is specifically what I’m talking about. Instead of spending the time to get some really well thought out story lines, Derleth focused more on production. He apparently was famous for saying that he could write a “quality” story every week.
Don’t let me scare you away from him. These stories are fun and unique… if you haven’t read Lovecraft. Derleth is actually like a Lovecraft light. Lovecraft himself has unique and fairly difficult language, but once you’re able to break it all down and digest it, they are some of the most unique and terrifying stories written. Derleth’s language is far more accessible, and if I’d have to recommend a pathway, I’d say to read Derleth first. That will give you a sampling of what you can expect in Lovecraft without a worry about the language. Then when you get to Lovecraft, you can understand how wonderful and dense and unique those stories truly are.
We’re at the end of the short stories. We only have one last short story and one novel to dissect, and the next story is technically “unfinished.” Could that be Derleth’s swan song?
Let’s find out next week as we read “The Watchers Out Of Time!”
“In perhaps three quarters of a mile I came to a great wooden door, barred on the inside. I put down the lamp and lifted the bar. Opening the door, I found myself looking into a tangle of growth that effectively concealed the opening into the tunnel from anyone outside. I pushed through this tangle sufficiently to find myself looking down the hill toward the countryside below, where I could see the Miskatonic some distance away, and a stone bridge across it – but nowhere a dwelling of any kind, only the ruins of what had once been isolated farms.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we tie together some of Lovecraft’s classics while solidifying Derleth’s legacy in the mythos.
We start off our story much the same way as we did in “The Dark Brotherhood,” with a statement. We learn about a document which was found written by one Ambrose Bishop, which turns out the story is the said document:
“The Bishop Manuscript was found by authorities investigating the disappearance of Ambrose Bishop. It was enclosed in a bottle evidently thrown wide into the woods at the rear of the burning house. It is still being held in the office of the sheriff in Arkham, Massachusetts.”
This again is Derleth falling back into his comfortable role. We again know there’s going to be a house burned down. We again are introduced to a disappearance and a mystery. The last few tales have been nice because he’s made a drastic twist towards the end which give us as readers a new experience through his tired tropes. But he has let us down within the pages of this book. Lets find out what he does here, shall we?
The “manuscript” begins as Ambrose approaches his ancestor, Septimus Bishop’s, house. He finds a run down old house, but decides he needs to go into town to get provisions before digging into the old place, so he heads to the general store. There, he speaks to the proprietor Tobias Whateley. They make niceties for a little while until Tobias realizes Ambrose is a Bishop:
“At the mention of the name, Whateley went a shade paler than his normal pallor. Then he made a move to sweep the articles I had brought back from the counter.“
This seems to be an odd thing for a Whateley to do to anyone, knowing what we know about their corrupted family, but, he refuses service to Ambrose. Spurned on by derision Ambrose decides to head to Arkham, to find the local newspaper, The Arkham Advertiser, and try to understand why he was treated in such an abrupt fashion. What did Septimus do?
“Nothing has been heard of Septimus Bishop, who apparently vanished from his home in the country above Dunwich ten days ago. Mr. Bishop was a recluse and a bachelor, to whom the folk of Dunwich were in the habit of ascribing many superstitious abilities, calling him at various times, a ‘healer’ and a ‘warlock.’ Mr. Bishop was a tall, spare man, aged about 57 at the time of his disappearance.“
He also sees an article which gives quite a bit of information regarding a broken down old bridge which leads over the Miskatonic river. It seems as though there was an effort to repair the…middle span…of the bridge years before, even though the bridge is no longer in use.
This is just one of the styles Derleth uses. It’s lazy writing to be sure, because he’s basically just sticking some sort of foreshadowing in the story to lead the reader along. He needed to read more Agatha Christie before he could perfect his red herring work, but it seems as though the only red herrings he’s willing to throw around are to trick the people looking for the Lovecraft connections (I.E. throwing in a Whateley as a good guy), which is incidentally what I’m doing here, so it’s an enjoyable offshoot of the project. I feel like I’m involved in a little mental Tet-a-Tet with Derleth.
Anyway the story progesses and Ambrose finds books about astronomy and astrology and finds a telescope and various other such books. As he keeps digging around he finds a trap door which leads downward into a sub-cellar.
“A brick floor had been erected in it – something very much like an altar, of stone, for one, and benches, also of stone. And on the floor there were those crude drawings similar to the cupola of the house…”
It’s remarkably like the cellar from “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” except for here, there’s a tunnel offshoot which seems to go for miles. Ambrose follows it all the way to the end which you can read in the beginning quote of this essay.
Ambrose heads back to the house deciding to try to dig into some of those letters. Here Derleth endeavors to bring together the mythos in a clunky, and ineffective way. He finds a letter with a title (who titles a letter?):
“In the name of Azathoth, by the sign of the Shining Trapezohedron, all things will be known to you when the Haunter of the Dark is summoned. There must be no light, but He who comes by darkness goes unseen and flees the light. All secrets of Heaven and Hell will be made known.”
The signature is blotched but he thinks it said “Asenath Bowen.”
Ok, a few things here in a sentence which on the surface seems to be loaded with Lovecraftian goodness. In Lovecraft, Azathoth is called the “Blind Idiot God” because he’s so old and so apathetic toward the universe that he’s just a immense immovable force. I imagine he causes madness because he’s so large and strange, that it boggles our puny human minds, kind of like when you sit down to contemplate how massive the universe actually is, it’s almost impossible to comprehend. Another example is trying to imagine what a trillion dollars would look like. It might drive you a little mad knowing it exists.
So Azathoth didn’t bring about the Trapezohedron, which is kind of like the Lament Configuration (or puzzle box) from Hellraiser, so connecting the two of them don’t really make sense. In the story “The Haunter of the Dark” a person needs to gaze upon the the Trapezohedron to gain knowledge of the world…knowledge beyond their own ken, not just the insignia of the talisman.
In addition to that, nothing is gained by summoning The Haunter. The Haunter, I believe, is just Mi-Go, one of the flying creatures from Yuggoth, where incidentally, the Shining Trapezohedron is supposedly created.
So to say that “all will be revealed” is either Derleth lazily adding horror elements, or the absolute worst “here drink the cool-aid” moments ever.
Then we finish off with two famous names in Lovecraft. The first is Asenath, who is a character from “The Thing on the Doorstep” where she uses mind control, telepathy, and astral projection to possess people. Bowen is the name of the archaeologist who discovered the Trapezohedron in “The Haunter in the Dark.”
This is, again, just Derleth throwing out fan service. This is the red herring we spoke of earlier that he’s so bad about creating, because as soon as he mentions Asenath, I believed there was going to be some sort of possession in the story…based upon the few previous paragraphs I think you can tell that there isn’t.
Derleth throws out a number of other names “Great Cthulhu” “Hastur the Un-speakable” “Shub-Niggurath” “Dho formula” even “Wilbur Whately” in the research. This is all Derleth trying to throw us off the trail of what’s really going on, but then he just tells us:
“The bridge was very old, and only the middle span stood, supported by two stone piers, one of them thickened with a large outcropping of concrete, upon which whoever had constructed it had etched a large five-pointed star in the center…”
We saw this a few different places but most recently in “Witches’ Hollow” where the star stones or “Elder Signs” were used to hold outsiders, to imprison them. It is no coincidence that the tunnel from the house exits right in front of the broken bridge with the Elder Sign on it.
But then, in a drastic and totally unforeseen event (wink, wink), there’s a terrible storm that destroys the bridge, and Ambrose finds bones that were hidden…or imprisoned underneath.
He takes the bones to turn into the authorities but when he goes to retrieve them after cleaning up…they’re gone! He has dreams which are realistic and potentially strangely prophetic:
“dreams in which I saw the bones I had brought reassemble themselves into a skeleton – and the skeleton clothe itself in flesh – and the whiplike bones grow into something not of this world that constantly changed shape…”
Ambrose wakes up and is startled to find a man in the house with him. A man “lean of face, saturnine in countenance….” with “a squamous thing with the face of a lovely woman.”
Hello Septimus and Asenath. Brought back to life because the Elder Sign barricading their tomb was destroyed.
Soon after, disappearances began to happen again in Dunwich, and the town got together to go after the risen warlocks. Septimus comes to Ambrose and takes him through the tunnels as the folks from Dunwich burn down the manor. There the manuscript ends, but we find right afterwards the middle span of the bridge was re-built, with an Elder Sign imprinted on it…
The ending of this essay might feel a bit rushed, but that’s how the story goes. We go through the whole thing, methodically describing every detail, until Septimus and Asenath are resurrected…then everything happens in a few paragraphs. It feels as though deadlines were rushing Derleth to get the story out, because it feels like such a lost opportunity to capitalize on. There’s so much wealth of character and history, but as we’ve seen in stories like “Witches’ Hollow” action isn’t one of Derleth’s strong suits, so it’s entirely possible he just didn’t know how to write the ending.
This isn’t one of Derleth’s best. The story is interesting, but it felt like he was bored with it and just wanted it to end. But for us, we’re running out of stories. With only two left where will Derleth take us?
Find out next week as we read “Innsmouth Clay.”
“‘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!”
“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.”
“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!”
“Dr. Gilman kept his own council, but the two who had brought him whispered into one ear after another a singular tale, telling how they had found in the house a great moisture, a wetness clinging to the walls, to the doorknob, even to the bed to which they had lowered Enoch Conger only a short while before hastening for the doctor – and on the floor a line of wet footprints made by feet with webbed toes – a trail that led out of the house and down to the edge of the sea, and all along the way the imprints were deep, as if something heavy had been carried from the house, something as heavy as Enoch.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re treading familiar “waters” as we get a quaint little story, which potentially created echoes throughout literary history.
The Fisherman of Falcon Point is pretty much exactly what you would think it is. It’s a story about a fisherman in the little burg of Falcon Point which is just down the coast from the infamous Innsmouth.
The story begins as a fairy tale: “Along the Massachusetts coats where he lived many things are whispered about Enoch Conger-” Enoch is the main character (I hesitate to say protagonist) of the story, and in this first line we immediately get the understanding that something strange is going on with him; he’s become a legend people tell, but Derleth does a good job in the opening of not indicating if he survived or otherwise, thus increasing our curiosity as a reader. He even goes one step further later down the page: “There he lived until he was seen no more, for none can say he died.”
Our narrator tells us “He was a powerful man, broad in the shoulders, barrel-chested, with long, muscular arms.” Also “…that he talked with the gulls and terns, with the wind and the pounding sea, and with others that could not be seen and were heard only in strange tones like the muted sounds made by great batrachian beasts unknown in the bogs and marshes of the mainland.”
Conger was a loner, a taciturn man who we’re made to believe speaks to animals because he’s so solitary. He only interacts with humans when he heads to the bar after coming in from a fishing excursion; it’s when he’s fishing in the sea just off the coast of Falcon Point and Innsmouth in which he communes with the fishes. Better than sleeping with the fishes I guess!
What’s important about the introduction of the story is the tone and method of telling the tale. Derleth usually takes a bit of a closer 3rd person perspective in his writing, giving us a glimpse into what the character themselves are thinking. This story moves back to a more 3rd omniscient perspective, with slightly more whimsical language. The effect is that instead of this story feeling like a driving short horror, it reads more like a mythology/world building story. It truly feels like you’re sitting around the campfire while Derleth tells you this fantastical tale…
Which is important because the story threads the line based upon what we guess about the area and the established mythology of the area. You never feel as though Conger is in mortal peril, but you know something very strange is about to happen to him.
In fact the tone and style of this story remind me so much of a more recent literary horror novel, “The Fisherman” by John Langan. You can ignore what seems to be the connection between these tales, because what it really is, is the fantastic mythology based around location. “The Fisherman” is highly recommended if you’ve not partaken, but it proves that though Lovecraft created this world, none of his writing had this tone or whimsy. This is purely Derleth creating a legacy.
Anyway back to the story. Conger spends much of his time in his favorite spot fishing, until that spot finally dries up, so he decides to venture out further… out towards Devils Reef in the sea beyond Innsmouth. Once there he “cast his net, and brought up many fishes – and something more-“
That something more is never described, but it spooks Conger enough to immediately leave. He heads back to his favorite bar where he tells his fishy tales, and the aged fishermen there think he’s seen a mermaid. “She was not a mermaid.” Conger responds, but is only met with derision.
“They laughed at him and made many a jest, but he heard them not.” But still he was spooked. He stayed away from Devil’s Reef for years and eventually, “…one night the word was brought to Innsmouth that Enoch Conger had been greviously hurt at his lonley occupation...” where two local fisherman took him back to his home and left him there to find the doctor.
We get the opening quote of this essay next as Enoch is carried away. At this point, based upon what we know about Enoch we can assume one of two things. He either had DNA from Innsmouth in his blood somewhere along the lines because of his penchant to speaking to animals, especially amphibians, or he was in some way marked by the cult of Dagon to be taken.
Years later “the venerable old Jedidiah Harper, patriarch of the coastal fishermen,” swore that he saw a school of fishlike people swimming alongside his boat. The had the look of half amphibian and half man, “they had seemed to be singing a chant to Dagon, a chant of praise, and among them, he swore, he had seen Enoch Conger…“
This raises a dark and fascinating point in which Derleth is playing at. I mentioned back in the Blind Read for “The Shadow out of Space” that Derleth seemed to be playing with body horror, or the idea that someone could be altered physically as well as mentally because of an outside force. In that story it was an Elder Sign on a person. Here we actually have Conger transitioning from a human into a Deep One and it seems as though he was marked early on. Namely his penchant for speaking to animals and then his catching a Deep One in a net. It’s possible that original Deep One he caught did something to him which started the transition, and it was only years later that he began his transformation, but I rather think it was the “injury” he sustained when found by those two fisherman. I think he was more than likely altered in some way, by his own volition or not, and that event caused the transition. He wasn’t actually injured. He was forced to change by some ritual.
We’ve talked about it before: rituals are a cornerstone with the Lovecraft mythos. Much of what goes on in Lovecraft’s original work is actually called (by his own verbiage) witch craft. That hasn’t happened very much so far in Derleth’s tales, but with this story, we may just be turning a corner.
Join me next week as we explore “Witch’s Hollow.”
As an aside, the first few stories in Derleth’s collection had Saurian, or Reptilian creatures who prayed to Dagon. The last few all had Batrachian, or amphibian creatures. Both of these are a bit of a divergence, from the fish men that were the Deep Ones in Lovecraft, but Derleth’s Amphibious creatures are a much closer distinction than the reptilian. I wonder if we’ll ever get a reason for this in the text, though I tend to believe there wont be. It may just be Derleth’s poetic license that he felt he could do whatever he wanted with the legacy, or it’s possible that he didn’t truly understand his friend’s writing before he started himself. In any case, I’m excited to see where we go next!
“That was what his grandfather had meant when he had written ‘you have gone forth into the world and gathered to yourself learning sufficient to permit you to look upon all things with an inquiring mind ridden neither by the superstition of ignorance nor the superstition of science.'”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! Here we have a combined sequel to both “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Dunwich Horror” all at the same time. If you don’t think those stories jive too well together you’d be right; one is about Dagon and the other about Yog-Sothoth. It seems, however, as though Derleth decided that he liked Cthulhu and Dagon (the fishy ones) so much more that he’d focus all of his energies on slowly phasing out of Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothothery and into his own more popular Cthulhu Mythos.
We begin the tale talking about the backwoods of Massachusetts and I was immediately excited: “At dusk, the wild, lonely country guarding the approaches to the village of Dunwich in north central Massachusetts seems more desolate and forbidding than it ever does by day.”
The Dunwich Horror is one of my favorite Lovecraft tales because he packs so much into it and not only is it a wonderful horror tale, but it also expands his mythos in such a wonderful way. The Whatley’s are farming folk and Lavinia Whately, a strange albino woman, becomes pregnant. No one seems to know who the father is, but mad old Whately mentions in passing about some strange theory that she was impregnated by someone named Yog-Sothoth, but that’s just in passing, and he’s crazy anyway, so we move forward. Lavinia gives birth to Wilbur, who is strange in and of himself, he ages prematurely, he’s described as a “dark, goatish infant,” he has an odd musty odor, and under the tutilage of old man Whateley he’s drawn to Arkham to study the Necronomicon. While at Miskatonic University he turns into a beast and dies, but the doctors are curious as to how that’s possible so they head to Dunwich to investigate, only to come across a terrible Shoggoth as it rampages across the country side.
That is as simple an explanation as I can give, but the story is significantly better. In Derleth’s tale the only real connection to Dunwich is the Whately name. Our protagonist is Abner Whately which is confusing because in the original tale we’re led to believe the line of Whately’s died off. We’re given a brief description: “The Whatleys has a curse on ’em…and thar’s what happened on Sentinel Hill that time-Lavinny’s Wilbur” but that isn’t really a connection. We can only assume that there were cousins to the branch that died off in Lovecraft’s tale living somewhere nearby and took over the farmhouse. That new Whatley, Grandfather Luther as named in this new story, had a few children. Our protagonist Abner meets Zebulon, his uncle and speaks of his Aunt Sarah, who their grandfather Luther locked away in her room after she visited…wait for it…Innsmouth.
At the mention of Innsmouth we lose all thread of Dunwich and suddenly the story becomes a sequel to Lovecraft’s doomed “Shadow Over Innsmouth” instead.
You might ask why Sarah decided to go to Innsmouth? Well Derleth hashes that reasoning out in dialog:
“‘What was Aunt Sarah doing in Innsmouth?‘
‘Are there Whatleys there, too?’
‘Not Whatleys. Marshes. Old Obed Marsh that was Pa’s cousin.‘”
If you remember from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” Old Obed Marsh was a sea captain who took a strange island wife whom was not seen much afterward. She was, in fact, one of Dagon’s Deep Ones; a fish creature who worships from the underwater city just off Devil’s reef off the coast of Innsmouth called Y’ha-nthlei. Innsmouth itself was peopled by hybrid Deep Ones, as the people of that coastal town were breeding with the Deep Ones for years.
And that’s what happened to Sarah. She met her cousin Ralsa Marsh and apparently had a tryst. When Grandfather Luther heard of it, he locked her away in her room.
So we’ve been weaving back and forth between stories, but lets focus on what happens in Derleth’s, shall we? The reason Abner arrived at the house is because his Grandfather Luther died and asked him to go there and burn down the mill and everything above it. In his letter, Luther tells Abner “It is my wish that at least the mill section of this house be destroyed. Let it be taken apart, board by board. If anything in it lives, I adjure you solemnly to kill it. No matter how small it may be.”
Then there is a post script, “If I seem to have the sound of madness, pray recall that worse than madness has spawned among the Whatelys. I have stood free of it. It has not been so of all that is mine. There is more stubborn madness in those who are unwilling to believe in what that know not of and deny that such exists, than in those of our blood who have been guilty of terrible practices, and blasphemy against God, and worse.”
If you blink you miss it. Obviously Luther is speaking of his daughter Sarah here. She’s the one touched by madness, because she had an affair with her fishy Deep One cousin, Ralsa. She’s the one whom was locked in the room, presumably with her offspring…locked in there until she died.
But that isn’t what could be missed in that paragraph. Lovecraft was very careful to God out of his works. Actually that’s probably a mis-statement. He didn’t believe in god…or the devil. So Lovecraft’s horror was cosmic, because in his world there wasn’t truly evil, there was only incomprehensible horrors. Derleth, conversely, was very religious and he mentions God in nearly every story I’ve read so far. That’s not necessarily a bad thing…well it is if you’re a Lovecraft fan…but what he seems to be saying here is that because Sarah was “guilty of terrible practices” namely having sex with her cousin, that she was rightly entombed with her spawn. It is meant, I’m sure, to mean that because Ralsa was a Deep One and Sarah’s judgment was so poor that she hooked up with him, that had to be kept safe from herself. The issue seems to be Derleth’s however because he’s the one who made Ralsa her cousin. There’s no precedence for that in Lovecraft, so its almost like it’s Derleth made him a cousin because in his’s eyes, sex with your cousin is the same as being an evil otherworldly creature. Not saying it’s right, but it sure doesn’t warrant a death sentence.
So Abner is there to destroy the room and the mill. He goes about the story working to do this task, and while doing so heads to Sarah’s room. To get rid of the musty smell he “...kicked the shutters out to let in a welcome blast of fresh, damp air.” When he turns to inspect the room he “caught sight of a long-legged frog or toad” vanish behind a bureau. What we come to realize is that Sarah’s and Ralsa’s offspring was full Deep One and apparently in Derleth’s part of this shared universe when Deep Ones don’t eat they become diminutive. Abner’s act of kicking out the shutter, gives the creature a chance to escape. The dead cattle? That’s the escaped Deep One eating and growing to regular size. If you remember from “The Dunwich Horror” this is what the Shoggoth did, so much so that the old man Whatley and Wilbur had to keep rebuilding farmhouses to house it.
But Abner doesn’t realize this at first. It isn’t until Abner heads to the shuttered room late in the story and sees “There, squatting in the midst of the tumbled bedding from the long-abandoned bed, sat a monstrous, leathery skinned creature that was neither frog nor man, one gorged with food, with blood still slavering from it’s batrachian jaws and upon it’s webbed fingers…” with limbs “grown from its bestial body like those of a frog, and tapering off into a man’s hands, save for the webbing between the fingers.“
He throws the lantern at the creature, immolating both it and the room, thus ending the horror.
Derleth tries to include some aspects of “The Dunwich Horror” into this tale, but he makes small changes. The odor which pervades the story is fishy instead of musty, the dead cattle are because a Deep One is on the loose instead of a Shoggoth. He uses tools like this to bring his tale together and separate himself from Lovecraft. He obviously wants things to be more connected with Cthulhu, potentially making that eldritch god a much larger aspect of the whole mythos…but then again he’s stepping on his own toes.
A few weeks ago we covered a few stories, Namely “The Peabody Heritage” and even further back “The Survivor.” In both of these stories the creature whom we can only understand as an aspect of Dagon or Cthulhu, were Saurian, I.E. reptilian. However in this story he seems to be changing that to batrachian, or fishlike, amphibian. Why is he changing up his own rules between stories? Could there be a connector I haven’t seen yet? Could Derleth be trying to connect more of the world and make it cohesive for all his new readers? By the title we have a great read next week to find out!
Join me as we dive into “The Fisherman of Falcon Point!”
Derleth is cherry picking to fulfill the needs of his current tale.(The ancestor, the peabody heritage)
“If it is true that man lives forever on the edge of an abyss, the certainly most men must experience moments of awareness – of a kind of precognition, as it were – when the vast, unplumbed depths which exist forever on the rim of man’s little world become for one cataclysmic moment tangible, when the terrible, boundless well of knowledge of which even the most brilliant man has only tasted, assumes a shadowy being capable of striking the most primal terror into even the stoutest heart.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we trudge through the terribly derivative and bastardizing story, while reconciling memory and looking to the future of Lovecraft Country.
Right from the beginning of this story, I could tell that it was going to be a weak retelling of “The Shadow Out of Time” and unfortunately it was nearly a word for word reconditioning of that odd novella with Derleth putting his own, less sophisticated stamp on it. Derleth tries to clarify what was going on in the original story, but unfortunately the whole thing just leaves a bad taste in your mouth, as he strives to tie some of the mythos together, which don’t seem as though they fit.
It’s ultimately a lazy effort and pretty obviously a money grab. Even the title, replacing Space or Time, is a lazy effort to reimagine. Reading this story almost feels like I’m reading “Lovecraft for Dummies”, which is a massive let down.
There are some interesting connectors though, and that’s what we’ll be focusing on as I give you a Cliffs Notes version of the story.
If you’ve read “The Shadow out of Time” you know what’s going to happen. This story follows Nathaniel Corey who’s our narrator. Corey has a patient, Amos Piper, who had the same kind of strange circumstances of his alliterative counter part Peaslee from “The Shadow out of Time.” They black out for years, loosing that time. They suddenly developed an interest in the occult while they concurrently lose control of their bodily faculties for a period of time. It turns out in both stories that the characters were invaded by one of the Great Race of Yith, a race looking to gather information about every other species in existence. The Yith have the ability to travel through time and space (hence both titles) to do so. Eventually the Yith retract, and the more the narrator digs, they eventually find themselves being invaded.
What Derleth’s version is missing is the philosophical element of Lovecraft’s novelette. In fact it seems like that’s what he’s missing with all of his stories. Lovecraft has popularity because he created incredible atmosphere, but at the same time, his stories were philosophical treatises. Derleth, I’m coming to understand, is basically writing dime store books. He’s actively removing the philosophy from Lovecraft’s ethos and dumbing the stories down to make them more accessible to a wider audience. The jury is still out about how I feel about this, especially because he seems to change small things about the stories which I think curve away from the original intent (more specifically creating a more Christian outlook instead of an apathetic one). The only real philosophizing in this story is the opening quote of this essay, which incidentally is the opening paragraph (or at least most of the opening paragraph) of the story.
That being said Derleth does add a few details to make this world more his own. Some of these add a layer of sub-context which both inform us of Derleth’s process and add a bit to the story. The first of these comes fairly early in the story and had me excited for the prospects:
“The moment I close my eyes, there appear on the retina strange geometrical figures and designs, together with vague lights and even more sinister shapes beyond, as of great creatures past the conception of mankind...”
If we remember from stories such as “Dreams in the Witch House” and even such favorites as “The Call of Cthulhu,” strange geometrical figures and angles play a huge role. In Lovecraft they’re used as a sort of talisman to help magnify the magic being used. Strange angles, conversely, seem to create a fold in space and time where dimension and time hopping becomes possible. Derleth seems to be layering this concept onto people. If we can actually put these designs onto our own figure, can we call forth elder entities into our own bodies? Would they come through us in some kind of body horror, or would they merely take over our minds which seems to be indicated here in this story? It’s a very exciting prospect for what could possibly be coming in later stories.
Derleth also makes use of popular culture as well, grounding the story into a specific timeline. Piper’s episode of transmogrification takes place during a performance of Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter.” Because this reference was so specifically called out it makes me wonder if there’s a specific meaning behind it’s inclusion. “The Letter” is about a woman named Leslie, who is on trial for killing Geoff Hammond, a friend of her husbands. Throughout the play it’s found out that Hammond was in fact Leslie’s lover, who scorned her for another woman. The eponymous letter comes to light and Leslie is eventually acquitted, but she’s not completely innocent. She is guilty of adultery and sees her punishment as the knowledge that she killed the man she truly loved.
On surface level this seems like it doesn’t connect. What could this possibly mean? I contemplated for a few pages until I came across a long quote which begins to reveal a potential deeper meaning:
“The rugose cones which made their present form had been occupied for only a few centuries, and were far from their true form, which was more kin to a shaft of light, for they were a race of free minds, capable of invading any body and displacing the mind which inhabited it. They had occupied Earth until they had become involved in the titanic struggle between the Elder Gods and the Ancient Ones for the dominion of the cosmos, a struggle which, he told me, accounted for the Christian Mythos among mankind, for the simple minds of early men had conceived of their ancestral memories of this struggle as one between elemental Good and elemental Evil.”
There’s a decent amount to unravel here, but I want to add one more quote before we take the deep dive into Derleth’s mind.
“Indeed, if anything, his memory during his illness – once indoctrination had been completed – was infinitely superior to the functioning of that part of his mind before.”
So how does this correlate to “The Letter?” Follow with me here, because we’re getting deep!
Lovecraft made sure to keep religion out of his stories (although I do find an interesting correlation to heaven or hell in “The White Ship“), but it seems as though Derleth is working to incorporate and explain why it’s necessary. Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothothery was mostly apathetic; they were ancient and powerful gods who saw humans as insignificant. They weren’t “evil,” their goal was not to overthrow our society or make us slaves. We are as pointless as little black ants to them. If we annoy them they step on us. If we don’t bother them they generally let us be.
Derleth flat out states that it was a “struggle between elemental Good and elemental Evil.” He’s working to quintessentially change what Lovecraft was striving to do. He’s working to make it his own instead of honoring Howard. He gets away with it, making these tales more popular posthumously than during Lovecraft’s life, but he steals some of the heart of the tale. Derleth is Leslie. He’s ostensibly killed the memory of what Lovecraft was striving for, but he gets away with it, tarnishing the one he admired and loved.
That’s what this story feels like. It’s told well and it’s a interesting story, but only if you haven’t read Lovecraft first. If you had it feels like a tarnishing of the legacy. In Derleth’s effort to make it easier and more accessible, to put meaning behind why the Ancient Ones and the Elder Gods did what they did, makes the story somehow not really worth it. It’s the theory behind “the reveal.” If you have a monster so horrible that a mere glance at it could drive you insane, then you let the imagination come up with it’s image. Derleth, puts a rugose cone head and some tentacles and claws and calls it scary, when in reality, he’s just making it basic.
Let’s see how Derleth moves beyond this next week as we cover one of his most popular stories “The Shuttered Room”
Addendum: I was supposed to publish an essay on “The Shadow out of Space,” but I hit a computer blip. Luckily I’m headed out of town and worked ahead, and had this one ready a week early. Enjoy this one now and come back for “The Shadow out of Space” next week!
“The city on the desert was the Nameless City and the snowy peaks were the Mountains of Madness or perhaps Kadath in the Cold Waste. And he enjoyed keenly bestowing names upon these landscapes, for they came to him with ease, they sprang to his mind as if they had always been lingering on the perimeter of his thoughts, waiting for this moment to come into being.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we relax, awash in a wonderfully metafictional story, which is probably the most enjoyable Derleth tale to date!
I assumed by the title that this story would be about the cannon. The Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred is mentioned in a number of Lovecraft stories as the author of the original Necronomicon. A grimoire discussing the Elder Gods and the spells in which he was privy to. To both summon them, to honor them, and to worship them. He supposedly had an “otherworldly experience” and gained the knowledge of the Elder Gods, enough at least to write the cursed Necronomicon.
Alhazred was not mentioned beyond this capacity (at lest in Lovecraft’s works), but we can infer that he was one of the first “Dreamers” much like Randolph Carter (From such famous stories as “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” “The Statement Of Randoph Carter,” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”), however unlike Carter it seems as though either gaining the knowledge, or the act of writing the Necronomicon is what drove Alhazred “Mad.”
This story doesn’t have anything to do with Alhazred however, but is instead a homage to Howard Phillips himself. The story follows Ward Phillips, “then thirty, and in indifferent health, though this was but a continuation of the sickliness which had so often made his childhood miserable.”
After reading this passage on the first page I assumed Derleth was going to make the character a mirror Howard, but as I got deeper, I realized that Ward Phillips was just a stand in so he wouldn’t have to specifically mention Lovecraft. The story is a love letter to a lost friendship, and it was wonderful to experience. It is actually about Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Derleth goes on to examine the man, “Phillips had become a writer for the pulp magazines, and had eked out a spare living by undertaking in addition the revision of countless almost hopeless manuscripts of prose and verse by writers far more amateur than he...” and “Phillips, who lived in the past, believed that the way to defeat the sense of time was to cling close to unaltered early haunts.” This is just another clue. We know what Derleth’s saying here is true from their correspondence and all such stories such as “The Horror at Red Hook.“
“He often went to a hill, Nentaconhaunt, from the slope of which he could look down on his native city and wait there for the sunset and the enchanting panoramas of the city springing to its life by night, with the steeples and gambrel roofs darkening upon the orange and crimson...”
This hill which the fictional Ward Phillips went to to gain inspiration from, is a real hill in Providence. The description in the above quote obviously lends to the atmosphere of Lovecraft’s stories in general and I wonder if Lovecraft himself spent time on that hill, taking in the evening and letting his imagination soar. Just how many stories obtained their genesis from time on that hill? The Hill’s name strikes me as well. I’m not sure of the etymology, and this isn’t the place to have that discussion anyway, but it seems to me that it enflamed Lovecraft’s dark imagination, perhaps even fueling the creation of such names as the “Necronomicon?”
In any case, Ward Phillips, our illustrious stand in, spends his evenings on the hill, so he spends his nights writing. He’s got a “meager income” so he doesn’t use electric light to write, but instead decides to use an old lamp his Grandfather Whipple left him (If that name sounds familiar you are correct. It is concurrently the name of Howard’s Grandfather, and Captain Abraham Whipple who led a charge against Joseph Curwen in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward). The Lamp of Alhazred.
I immediately thought the lamp was going to summon some kind of Deep One, but I was given a much more pleasant surprise. The lamp created a shadow play upon the walls, something “Ward” sat back and viewed in wonder:
“It seemed to be a scene of the earth when young, one in which the land was still in the process of being formed, a land where great gouts of steam came from fissures and rocks, and the trails of serpentine animals showed plainly in the mud. High overhead flew great beasts that fought and tore, and from an opening in a rock on the edge of the sea, a tremendous animal appendage, resembling a tentacle, uncoiled sinuously and menacingly into the red, wan sunlight of that day, like a creature of some fantastic fiction.“
“Slowly the scene changed,” into what the opening quote describes, and we realize that this story is not a horror story at all, but a homage, or even love song, between one author and his predecessor. There is care as Derleth even describes: “he took time to answer letters from his correspondents, to whom he wrote of his ‘dreams’.” which of course he’s speaking of himself as one of Lovecraft’s correspondents.
Derleth waxes poetic about how many people must have viewed the fantastic themes and scenes which came from the lamp and wonders how many will in the future. It’s at this point, just a page or two from the end, in which we realize he’s now speaking on Lovecraft’s writing. H.P.’s stories are, not just a candle in the dark, but a lamp, illuminating a new way forward for authors. He made it possible to move beyond Gothic horror and try new things. He was the trail-blazer who created a dynasty of such authors as Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard, and informed artists such as Moebius and H.R. Giger.
It’s a fantastic little story and it brought me back to the first day I started this blog series. What it must have been like to be one of his pen pals. To hear of the story ideas, and to bath in the blossoming fungi that became his oeuvre. I can only hope that the rest of the stories in Derleth’s collection live up to the same inspiration!
Join me next week as we look into “The Shuttered Room”
“There was no question but that my cousin had found some way to tap the stream of memory; he had established beyond doubt that everything that happened to a human being was registered in some compartment of the brain, and that it needed but the proper bridge to it’s place of storage in memory to bring it to consciousness once more.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we travel back into time alongside Derleth’s characters to view a fairly Lovecraftian Tale, which quixotically, doesn’t hold enough of Lovecraft’s themes.
Here’s another tale told in Vermont and (at least as far as I could tell) is absent of any of Derleth’s predilections of adding in little details like names of old characters to get readers excited, but instead holds to the trope of a man in trouble calling on a friend to help them in their research as Lovecraft did in tales such as “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Colour out of Space.”
We begin with a description of the man in need, the narrator’s cousin, Ambrose Perry. He’s apparently an old retired medical doctor whom “went into virtual seclusion at his home, which he had built in the middle of a dense wood, and outfitted with as complete a laboratory as money could buy.”
Ambrose calls on our narrator, a man who’s without a job. Ambrose sends him a letter, “offering me a handsome emolument if I would accept the position of secrecy.” A theme which was not, I believe, intended was the unreliable narrator trope. The narrator is a man who’s probably in his mid to late thirties and jobless without prospect. This tale was written in the fifties, so the idea of a man of that age without prospects generally leads me to the idea that the narrator is a vagrant, and is possible of anything if he thinks it will get him a little further… or possibly to get another fix (more on that later)? The two men are cousins that’s true, but why would the narrator be reached out to first? And why the emphasis on the importance of secrecy? Probably because vagrancy lends itself to being disposable, so it wouldn’t matter the secrets learned, because the narrator was never meant to leave the property. Something to think about as we move throughout the story.
Why was this the first thing that came to my mind? Because when Ambrose answers the door, “he was thin and gaunt; the hale, ruddy man I had last seen almost four years ago had vanished, and in his place stood a mere travesty of his former self.” Ambrose had come across something profound. He either wanted someone who wouldn’t say anything because they understood, or he wanted someone disposable when things got too deep.
Ambrose brings the narrator into confidence and tells him the job is to transpose his notes from shorthand into a narrative, then proceeds to tell our narrator that he’s developed a method of, “a combination of drugs and music, taken at a time when the body is half-starved induces the mood and makes it possible to cast back in time and sharpen all the faculties to such a degree that memory is regained.” The point of this vision quest is to “recapture all my past, down to the most minute nooks and crannies of human memory, and I am now further convinced that, by the same methods, I can extend this perceptive process to hereditary memory and recreate the events of man’s heredity.” He’s even said that he’s recaptured memories from his own time in the womb.
The narrator lives in this strange abode for weeks with his host disappearing for half of every day to do his strange experiments. His only companionship are the Reeds, “man and wife, who were both in their sixties, were subdued. They made little conversation, not only because Mrs. Reed both cooked and served her dinner, but because they were plainly accustomed to carrying on an existence apart from their employer’s…”
Why is the only thing he mentions the fact that she cooks him dinner? Why doesn’t he mention the butlery duties of Mr. Reed? Initially this would seem like it’s an important designation. In fact I wrote in my notes that they were characters to watch. I thought they might be devious, possibly nefarious characters, but they turn out to be just an old couple who have seen too much and decide they just need to put their heads down and do their job. In fact they turn out to be much like The Slydes from “House on Haunted Hill.” They’re atmosphere. They’re not really characters, but a backdrop to give off a creepy vibe.
So the atmosphere is in place and the narrator is curious about what’s going on, until finally Ambrose grows to weak from his food abstinence. He calls the narrator in and we finally get a glimpse. “The atmosphere of the laboratory, ill-lit with but one low red light near to the operating table, was eerie. My cousin looked far more like a corpse than a man under the influence of drugs. Moreover, there was playing in one corner an electric phonograph, so that the low, discordant strains of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps flowed through the room and took possession of it.“
This is an area of prose where Derleth is sound. His writing is simplistic and over-run with contextual errors (not to mention lazy. There’s a part of me that after reading Lovecraft for years and bathing in his beautiful exposition, to be laden with Derleth just outright saying “it was eerie” is a bit troublesome), but he gives off a much more visual contextualization. It’s almost as though because Derleth wrote after TV became popular and Lovecraft didn’t, that his tales are more direct…as though they’re stories meant to read like a show, rather than Lovecraft who was more cerebral. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, but it’s probably not the right time for that.
Getting back to the story, the narrator is now privy to the lab and takes notes of Ambrose going even further back in time, back to before he was born in fact, back to memories that couldn’t possibly be his own and eventually he broke into the strangest of phrases:
“Forest sunk into earth…Great ones fighting, tearing. Run, run… New trees for old. Footprints ten feet across. We live in cave, cold, damp, fire…“
Ambrose thinks he may have gotten somewhere, but strangely, he kicks our narrator out. He locks the door leaving the Reeds and the narrator to wait outside and listen to the odd sounds coming from the laboratory. Ambrose’s dog starts to get upset; “Whereas hitherto he had been a singularly well-behaved dog, now he began to bark often at night, and day by day he whined and moved about the house and yard with an air of alarm.”
They would leave food on a tray outside of the laboratory door, and always when they weren’t looking the food would disappear. The notes became more difficult for the narrator to decipher. “He seemed to have difficulty properly holding a pencil, and his lines were scrawled in large letters over all the sheets of paper without any sense of order, though this was not entirely unexpected in one heavily dosed with drugs.”
But then the music, what Ambrose touted as heavily important for the process, suddenly stopped right about the time, “a pervasive and highly repellent musk, clearly an animal odor, which seemed to emanate from the laboratory.” The narrator also thinks he “...saw some unpleasantly large animal scuttling into the woods.“
The narrator finally gets into the lab and finds what to him looks like “a primal animal’s abode.” With parts of game, obviously caught and devoured strewn about the lab. The lab itself was destroyed, but the door leading to the woods was wide open.
The narrator followed the trail until he came upon Ginger, Ambrose’s dog, with a fresh kill in the woods:
“For the thing that lay below Ginger’s bloody jaws was a sub-human caricature of a man, a hellish parody of primal growth, with horrible malformations of face and body, giving off an all-pervasive and wholly charnel musk – but it was clad in the rags of my cousin’s mouse-colored dressing-gown, and it wore on it’s wrist my cousin’s watch.”
So we come to find that the set up of the story had a Lovecraftian tint; a man searching for knowledge, taking part in obscure or arcane rituals, but the payoff is different than anticipated. He goes back in time and because of the rituals he executed, he gained aspects of his prehistoric ancestors. It’s a shocking ending sure, but Derleth lost quite a bit along the way. There was plenty of drama he could have infused with Ambrose looking like his actual ancestors, much like in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” There’s also the mention of the Great Ones, which didn’t actually pan out.
Ultimately the story reads much like the narrator is…unreliable. I mentioned earlier that the narrator was a confusing personage. Is he a man looking to do the most and just down on his luck? It doesn’t seem so because of all the previous things mentioned, and also his vast knowledge of drugs. There’s a portion of the text where the narrator gives a scientific description of the Marijuana Ambrose “uses.” I’ve seen this in people I know, where they are so enamored with Weed that they get into the scientific aspects of it, sometimes to the detriment of everything else in their lives. Could that be what the narrator was looking for? Easy access to weed?
Even if that is the case, he’s unreliable. What’s more Derleth is unreliable as well and I’m slowly coming to the understanding that there may be a metafictional dichotomy here. Derleth was using Lovecraft’s name to sell his horror fiction and where… yes… he coined the phrase “Cthulhu Mythos” and supposedly expanded Lovecraft’s world, it feels like he’s using key words of Lovecraft to get some of his weirder tales out there.
Derleth himself is unreliable because I keep going into these stories expecting a Lovecraftian payoff, but he pulls the rug out from under us just as we get to the end. Is this how the rest of the experience will go? Fun stories, but not nearly Lovecraftian? Based on the title I think we’re going to find out next week!
Read along as we cover “The Shadow out of Space!”
“Though the majority of these alterations had apparently been made to contribute to Wilbur’s comfort, there was one change which had baffled me at the time that Wilbur had made it, and for which he never offered any explanation; this was the installation in the south wall of his gable room of a great round window of a most curious clouded glass, of which he said only that it was a work of great antiquity, which he had discovered and acquired in the course of his travels in Asia. He referred to it as one time as “the glass from Leng” and at another as “possibly Hyadean in origin,” neither of which enlightened me in the slightest…“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve into Derleth’s most cosmic story yet, while at the same time lamenting his tone and applauding his action.
From the very start “The Gable Window” feels like Derleth stretched to make it much more of a Lovecraft story than it is. His Christianity is just so profound that it pervades the writing in such a way that you instantly know it isn’t Howard Phillips, but at the same time, the text is good enough to make you want to keep reading.
The story starts off with two slaps in the face which are meant to be fan service. About half way down the first paragraph we get this:
“It (the house of the narrator’s cousin, Wilber Akeley) had fallen into disuse after the grandson of the farmer who had built it had left the soil for the seaside city of Kingston, and my cousin bought the estate of that heir disgruntled with the meager living to be made on that sadly depleted land. It was not a calculated move, for the Akeleys did nothing by sudden impulse.”
Instantly I’m annoyed. As we’ve seen from previous stories, Derleth has no qualms with using names and locations of Lovecraft’s to disuse. Akeley is the name of the farmer whom communes with, and takes rides from, strange advanced aliens in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” but this turns out to be ok, because Wilber (later in the story) is a relative of Henry, which instantly ties this story into Lovecraft country. Why then, did Derleth decide to call the seaside town Kingston instead of Kingsport? It cheapens the story, making it seem as though Derleth either tried to make the story his own, or even worse, that he accidentally called the city by the incorrect name. These kind of iniquities keep popping up throughout Derleth’s stories, and it’s no wonder there’s disdain for him using Lovecraft’s name. It’s not the stories themselves, which are entertaining, but that he lends fan service while at the same time not actually continuing the traditions. Kind of like why Fans of Star Wars are so upset with the most recent trilogy of movies.
Getting back to the story, the narrator renovates the house, much like the narrator did in “The Peabody Heritage,” but as we see in the introductory quote to this essay, he doesn’t remove or remodel the glass in the gable window. The Plateau of Leng is popular in Lovecraft literature as both an alien landscape and a space in Antarctica where reality is thin and the ability to dimension hop is strong (foreshadowing alert), seen in such stories as “At The Mountains of Madness” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” and where it seems a strange and dangerous place, it isn’t nefarious at all.
The room is obviously the most used, but “I found myself from the beginning curiously repelled by the gable room, in part certainly because it reminded me so strongly of the living presence of my dead cousin who could never again occupy his favorite corner of the house, in part also because the room was to me unnaturally alien and seemed cold to me, holding me off as by some physical force I could not understand…“
The room is filled with Wilbur’s manuscripts and various books from the nearby Miskatonic University in Arkham, which we know from Lovecraft is one of the few locations which house the fabled Necronomicon.
The narrator hears various noises. “These were of no consequence at first: they began as tiny, almost unnoticed things.” Like what sounded like a cat scratch at the window, or some kind of slapping/slithering sound coming from the window. It didn’t unnerve the narrator until he realized there was no possible was for a cat to touch the window and there was no tree nearby.
Unnerved but nonplussed, the narrator continues his renovations and eventually gets a letter from the executor of the estate stating that all Wilbur’s papers on his research are to be destroyed, the books on certain shelves are to be turned into Miskatonic University, and the glass in the gable window broken.
Interested, the narrator goes to these shelves and finds strange and old books; “The more recent ones among them – and none of these dated beyond 1850 – had been assembled from various places; some had belonged to our fathers’ cousin, Henry Akeley, of Vermont, who had sent them down to Wilbur; some bore the ownership stamps of the Biblotheque Nationale of Paris…”
Here is where I get touchy. There are things like this throughout Derleth and despite the fact that he lauds himself as an incredible writer (without a doubt these stories are fun), he make a plethora of mistakes. This whole story Wilber is our narrator’s cousin. This quote all of the sudden makes him the narrators brother? “…some had belonged to our fathers’ cousin…” The narrator and the cousin couldn’t have the same father or they wouldn’t be cousins. These are the little missteps which happen again and again that directly contradict other details in Derleth’s stories. This is also why I believe that he didn’t mean to misquote Kingsport as Kingston, he just didn’t care to go back through and verify the details. It’s just sloppy writing, and NOT something which Lovecraft would have permitted considering his perfidy.
Moving beyond the irritation, the Biblotheque Nationale of Paris is the second known location of the Necronomicon, and in the very next paragraph we get a small list of books contained within this auspicious home library:
“…they bore such titles as Pnakotic Manuscripts, the R’lyeh Text, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, the Book of Eibon, the Dhol Chants, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan, Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis, the Celaeno Fragments, the Cultes De Goules of the Comte d’Erlette, the Book of Dzyan, a photostat copy of the Necronomicon…“
This is all very exciting because here Derleth infuses some of his own ideas seamlessly into Lovecraft (meaning some of these books are of Derleth’s creation), but then unfortunately in the next sentence he ruins the progress he makes:
“Did it matter whether you call it God and the Devil, or the Elder Gods and the Ancient Ones, Good and Evil or such names as the Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss, the only named Elder God, or these of the Great Old Ones…“
Derleth then goes on to name the Lovecraftian Pantheon which is his strength. He is the one who really clarified the mythos and created it as we know it today, but yes August, it really does matter if you call it God and the Devil.
Lovecraft created a world which was amoral and apathetic. The Ancient Ones and the Elder Gods had their own agendas and humans just tend to get in the way at times, as we strive for more power. In the Lovecraft world the only good and evil was man…and nearly always it was man who was evil. In our apparent struggle for power we are the ones who create menace; these Elder Gods are merely like a giant rock in the road. If we just pass them by we might not even know they’re there, but if we get curious and want to know what they are and accidentally kick them, we break our toe.
Derleth frames his religion overtop of this uncaring world gives good and evil attributes to them. All the sudden these creatures who were never malevolent, just massive (think of yourself walking down the street and accidentally stepping on a bug), are all the sudden a hidden threat bent on killing off or enslaving mankind. The issue is, that kind of creature belies the genius of Lovecraft. If the Elder Gods are evil, then humankind should have been wiped out all together because these Elder Gods are just too powerful. In Derleth’s world, these Elder Gods once ran the universe but are now waiting for some fool to blunder into setting them free, or some cult to summon them back to their glory. In Lovecraft these creatures were unknowable which made the merest glance of them drive a man insane. In Derleth’s stories they become a land dwelling octopus.
There are very few tentacles in Lovecraft. There are many tentacles in Derleth.
And we see them as the narrator goes into the room with the gable window. For the first time he notices there’s a pentagram drawn on the ground. Curious he decides to read off some text:
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgahnagl fhtagn.”
and suddenly the glass becomes a portal and he seems strange baked landscape with odd people he remembers his cousin calling Sand People. Then from a cave:
“…little by little, an incredible monster made it’s appearance – at first a probing tentacle, then another, and presently half a dozen cautiously exploring the caves mouth. And then, from out the darkness of the cavern’s well, an eldritch head shown dimly.”
The creature moves forward to the glass…eventually through the glass and the narrator is terrorized. Yet unlike in Lovecraft where the narrator would lose consciousness only to then delve into a downward spiral of madness, this narrator comes to his senses and wipes the side of the chalked Pentagram, instantly closing the portal. How do we know it worked?
“…I know beyond doubt that what I saw was not the product of my feverish fancy, because nothing could demolish that final damning proof which I found near the shattered glass on the floor of the gable room – the cut tentacle, ten feet in length, which had been caught between dimensions when the door had been shut against that monstrous body to which it belonged, the tentacle no living savant could identify as belonging to any known creature, living or dead, on the face or in the subterrene depths of the earth!“
Despite all the issues I’ve laid out, it’s a very satisfying tale. I point these things out so that the casual reader will know the difference between what the experience is between reading Lovecraft and Derleth. Will these disparities continue?
Let’s find out next week as we read “The Ancestor.”
“For at the base of the wall, behind the baseboard, there lay, among long yellowed papers half gnawed away by mice, yet still bearing on their surfaces the unmistakably cabalistic designs of some bygone day, among wicked implements of death and destruction – short, dagger-like knives rusted by what must surely have been blood – the small skulls and bones of at least three children!“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re unraveling Derleth’s complex love of Lovecraft while trying to understand his religious overtones thrust upon the conversely amoral Lovecraft Universe.
The first note I feel I have to hit is the overarching hope in Derleth’s horror. This is now the third story I’ve read by him and all the while there has been a niggling itch that I just couldn’t reach. These types of stories could have been written by Lovecraft, but there is something so utterly different about them and until now I just couldn’t put my finger on it. The language is slightly different, but for a reader who is only looking for story and isn’t going to dig any deeper, I’m not sure if they would notice a difference. The stories themselves are absolutely horror with fantastic elements, and similar terrifying hopeless situations the protagonists find themselves in. So what is it?
There is a subtle nearly imperceptible change. Lovecraft was depressed and that comes off in his writing style. The characters are dreary, people stuck in cycles of destitution and despair. Nearly every story has an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness.
In Derleth’s stories (thus far at least) the protagonists not only survive, but they aren’t thrust into a horrid spiral of depression and fear. It’s much more light hearted as if they’re stories told by a college buddy over drinks about an escapade, rather than a drunk recounting the horrors that led him to the bottom of the bottle to a bartender in some run down dive.
That’s an extreme statement but the sentiment is real. Lovecraft is serious, his tales have bite and nuance, whereas Derleth’s stories seem to be written more for fun.
That being said, let’s check out what fun can be had in The Peabody Heritage!
It starts out with an immediate reference to the old Lovecraft tales, “I never knew my great-grandfather Asaph Peabody…” If you’ll remember from Lovecraft’s story “In the Vault” there’s a character named Asaph (known for his angry, bucolic disposition) who’s buried in a tomb. There are things that happen in that story which echo this one, and unfortunately I knew within that first sentence what was basically going to happen at the end of this one…but more on that later.
The first chapter is about the protagonist slowly moving back into his ancestral home. It’s a fascinating description which recalls the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA: “The dwelling itself was the product of many generations. It had been built originally in 1787, at first as a simple colonial house, with severe lines, an unfinished second storey, and four impressive pillars at the front. But, in time, this had become the basic part of the house, the heart, as it were. Subsequent generations had altered and added to it-at first by the addition of a floating stairway and a second storey; then by various ells and wings…”
This is a wonderful way to introduce the detective story the tale becomes as the narrator works to renovate this house so that he can live in it. He even finds the family tomb and enters it, curious about his lineage. He finds various cubbies and caskets in the tomb with the names of his family etched upon them, but then he finds Asaph’s disturbed tomb:
“Moreover, it seemed as if someone had lifted or attempted to lift the cover, for one of the hinges was broken, and the other loosened.”
Curious as to what happened he lifted the cover and, “I saw that through some hideous error, he (Asaph) had been buried face downward – I did not want to think, even at so long a time after his death, that the old man might have been buried in a cataleptic state and so suffered a painful death in that cramped, airless space.“
It’s a strange thought with the evidence of the tampered sarcophagus lid to go immediately to the idea he may be buried alive, but seemingly because of this sentiment he flips the skeleton over before putting the lid back on the coffin. Derleth handles this with deft skill because altering the remains is obviously thematically dangerous, but the way it’s written feels almost as if it’s done with a religious reverence instead of a horrible precognition.
The next chapter begins with our narrator dreaming, a theme which continues along though the entire story that connects to a major Lovecraftian concept – dreaming. The question immediately is, what does dreaming mean to Derleth? As we’ve talked about in previous Blind Reads, Lovecraft seems to consider dreaming as travelling or dimension hopping. So many of his stories held the precedent that the “dreamers” like Randolph Carter were actually time travelers who went through gates of consciousness and dimension to instantly find different areas of time and space. Derleth, starts down that road, but then seems to take a different approach here.
After finding what they consider a “priests hole” (a place to hide runaway slaves) in one of the strange void spaces in the house, the narrator, “Though ordinarily not at all given to dreams, I was literally beset by the most grotesque phantasms of sleep, in which I played a passive role and was subjected to all manner of distortions of time and space, sensory illusions, and several frightening glimpses of a shadowy figure in a conical black hat with an equally shadowy creature by his side.“
So initially this seems to indicate that because of the “distortions of time and space” that we might be getting some of that dimensional hopping, but as we get deeper into the tale we find that there is a distinct difference between dreaming and possession.
The protagonist goes into “…a space unaccounted for along the north wall upstairs, in the oldest part of the house” and found “The door to it (was) hidden in the finely-wrought carvings which decorated that entire wall,” and that “…the door which had no knob and worked only by pressure upon one of the carvings.”
I mean who doesn’t want a secret office which has a secret door with a pressure plate lock carved into a cedar relief on a wall? It’s still a dream of mine!
They go into this room and found, “...it’s angles seemed to be awry,” and there “…were curious drawings on the floor.” and all manner of strange texts (including such gems as the Malleus Maleficarum) and news stories of missing children.
Having read through Lovecraft we know instantly that this is a witches room. The odd angles, much like in “Dreams of the Witch House” and other stories, are there because they present a bend in the fabric of reality and make witchcraft easier to practice; spells more potent. The fact that there are stories of missing children lend a malevolence to the room.
Intrigued our narrator continues doing work on the house and begins having more and more prevalent dreams of this Black Man (as in color not race) and his nefarious familiar. The narrator heads to town and finds that the townsfolk are despairing of him, though he tries to be friendly. When he inquires as to their demeanor, he’s told that his family name, Peabody, has a terrible history. His ancestors were thought to have stolen children whom they killed to be used in some kind of witchcraft.
Discouraged, he goes home but finally gets a construction crew to go through that secret wall and renovate the hidden office. Through the construction he dreams of Walpurgis night (which, if you remember from Lovecraft, that’s a night of witchcraft) where he walks through the woods to a Black Mass out in the woods. There’s a group of witches along with his Black Man and large black cat which stands beside him. When the narrator wakens, he finds that his feet and legs are dirty.
Seemingly ignoring this outlandish event, he finds that the crew renovating have fled the house in disgust. When he goes to investigate, he come across the quote at the beginning of this essay. Panicked, he takes the children’s remains and puts them into one of his ancestors coffins. Then to make matters worse, three more children go missing.
And still he dreams. His somnambulant excursions take him back to the Black Mass again and again, and there’s some strange Christian iconography there which was always absent in Lovecraft. We hear of the devils, Balor, Beelzebub, and Sathanus. While Lovecraft went a long way to divest himself from any kind of religious deities, Derleth is leaning into them, seemingly in an effort to add horror from these Christian call backs.
We also find that these Devils are trying to bring him into the fold of their coven and that these nightly excursions are actually happening, they aren’t actual dreams. This is a theme that we’ve seen in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” as well, where an ancestor of a character begins to take over the living relative because they accidentally took part in reviving the ancestor. We get confirmation of this when the narrator goes to the crypt and checks on Asaph’s grave and finds that the bones have begun to grow skin, and there are three bodies of children in the coffin with Asaph’s remains!
And here is that call back from earlier. Remember when I said we’d see how the story ended? in the tale “In the Vault” Asaph was a corpse who came alive and tried to kill one the characters of that tale. Asaph as corpse bit into his leg and tried to make him fall to his death on the stone ground. In this story, the disturbed body is what actually causes the Demon Balor to come back, as turning him over reinstated the machinations of the Devils.
The fact is that the narrator wasn’t dreaming, but because he turned the body over, he allowed Asaph to come into his body and use it to go to the Black Mass. It was possession, not dreaming.
So in the end we have the narrator fighting these forces and wondering, “Who, I wonder, after I am dead, if I am buried as the others were, will turn me over?”
Initially this seems like a dark and twisty ending, but in reality Derleth just leaned into it. Lovecraft would have had the narrator telling us how he went insane, how he fought and did everything he could to stop the coven, and whether he succeeded or not he would have been irrevocably changed. The tone would have been much more desolate.
Here Derleth’s character just gives in and decides he wont fight. That he will just take part of the coven with the Devils and do their bidding. It’s a dark ending, but in a weird way it’s not as dark as Lovecraft would have been, because at least here the narrator has hope that he will live on, though in a twisted way. Lovecraft’s character wouldn’t have wanted to live on, because of the strange and utterly devastating knowledge he had gained.
Will all Derleth be this way? Join me next week with “The Gable Window” to find out!
“I assured him I had never heard of Nahum Wentworth before, though I admitted privately to some curiosity about the object of my host’s preoccupation, insofar as he had been given to reading the Seventh Book of Moses, which was a kind of Bible for the supposed hexes, since it purported to offer all manner of spells, incantations, and charms to those readers who were gullible enough to believe in them.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we tread the back roads beyond the wastrel excuse for a farming town known as Dunwich to find horrors unknown in the magical ether of Lovecraft’s universe.
So I immediately have to print a retraction (but that’s kind of the point of a blind read isn’t it? To conjecture?). Last week I said I expected Derleth to work pretty much exclusively on expanding Lovecraft’s mythos. To clarify the unclear, and to streamline the vague. I said I didn’t think he would write a straight horror story. I’m happy to say that in the very next story, “Wentworth’s Day,” which we’ll be digesting shortly, he’s proved me wrong. There have actually been many stories which are allegedly inspired by Lovecraft (By authors such as Brian Lumley and Robert Bloch), but I’ve never really understood exactly how Lovecraft supposedly inspired them because they never really felt like they truly fit in his world. Weird of course, but not really Lovecraftian. Now I understand. This story, which again is just a straight horror story with only a slant connection to the cosmic (which you’d only catch if you were well versed in Lovecraft), is the direct antecedent to such books as “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”
The story begins as our narrator is driving through the backwoods beyond the previously mentioned Dunwich. There seems to be nothing habitable out there except for “…reclusive dwellers on some broken-down farms.” The narrator even mentions that the area, “Once, long ago, it had the reputation of being a country in which Hexerei – the witch beliefs of superstitious people – was practiced…” and that which we know as readers has the potential for Shoggoth (disappointingly, none appear). I thought this may be a call back, but as we’ll see, there are a few things in this story which are only call backs… they’re only prompts meant to entice the reader to keep going.
Derleth spends some decent time setting the scene as the narrator tells us he gets stuck because the highway was blocked off. He goes on a detour late in the evening, trying to push through and instantly regretting it.
A storm soon blossoms and he passes what seems to be a more habitable property. It’s a house and a barn and “The headlamps’ glow swept the face of the dwelling there…” He sees a mail box with the name “Amos Stark” (which really has no reference lineage, but I mention is because it seems remarkably familiar to a Stephen King story you may be familiar with…). The narrator takes the liberty of parking in the mans barn (how rude is that? I know these stories were written in the 50’s, but imagine the gaul… ‘I’m just going to drive my car into your barn without asking. I’m owed that because this place is so run down, I bet they wont even notice!’ Well, the people of the backwoods New England must be nicer, because when “a wizened old man with a scraggly beard half covering his scrawny neck” came to the door, he didn’t bat an eye, just ushered the narrator into his house.
Then the weird stuff starts to happen and not the weird stuff you’d expect from this kind of horror story. Stark offhandedly says today “is Wentworth’s day. I thought yew might be Nahum.” Now I’m not an expert on New England names from the early 20th Century, but I don’t think Nahum is a popular one, so immediately I’m excited because I’m thinking, “Yes, here’s ‘The Colour out of Space’ character directly in a Derleth tale (Nahum Gardener was the farmer whose family’s misfortune it was to have the meteor land on their property), but then the more I read I realize that it’s just a bad call back, a poorly misplaced fan service. This new character is Nahum Wentworth, not Gardener, and Derleth only named him that to keep readers reading… to keep the references to Lovecraft, no matter how thin, while forging his own path. I understand this predilection but it makes me sad because this story is good, but this erroneous and desperate grab for an audience feels dirty.
After that we get the tale of Stark and Wentworth. Apparently Wentworth was pretty rich and gave Stark a loan. The loan was set to come due this night: “Five years, an’ this is the day, this is Wentworth’s Day.” Wentworth had until midnight, that very night our narrator came knocking to collect on his money… the only problem is… Wentworth is dead. Stark “accidently” shot him in the back of his head:
“‘I fell,’ he muttered, and there followed a sentence or two of inanities. ‘All they was to it.’ And again many indistinguishable words. ‘Went off – quick-like.” Once more a round of meaningless or inaudible words. ‘Didn’t know ’twas aimed at Nahum.'”
So all of that put together seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal right? Well, then we remember that this is an area which historically practices what Derleth calls the Hexerei. Stark shows our narrator (still don’t really know why he’s being so forthwith with our narrator. This seems like a plot convenience, but at the same time, this was backwoods New England in the 50’s, set in the 30’s. Maybe, nay probably, people were a bit more equitable back then) some of Wentworth’s books he had taken and our attention is immediately drawn to The Seventh Book of Moses.
“…the Seventh Book of Moses, which, I soon found, was a curious rigmarole of chants and incantations to such “princes” of the nether world of Aziel, Mephistopheles, Marbuel, Barbuel, Aniquel, and others.”
Yet another reason why we know this is emphatically not Lovecraft (besides the fact that Derleth was actually much better at dialogue). The Seventh Book of Moses is a real historical book which talks of magical and spiritual arts as well as Christian demons and devils and such and is commonly mentioned in occult circles. This is nothing like the Pnakotic Manuscripts or the Necronomicon. It’s a bit disappointing that we aren’t getting more of Lovecraft’s world, because Derleth claimed these stories were actually written by Howard Phillips and only cleaned up by Derleth. Like I said earlier, the stories (so far at least) stand on their own, but to put Lovecraft’s name on it gives the first tinges of stigma against Derleth. I still enjoyed the tale, but for these reasons it feels a bit like a cash grab instead of honest inspiration.
We then get another “Colour out of Space” reference when a Whippoorwill calls. If you recall from that tale, the whippoorwill cries as an omen for ill to come. Shortly there after the deadly call there’s a knock at the door.
Stark goes to answer, but waits the few minutes until after the clock strikes midnight… or at least he thinks he does:
“I heard Stark’s exclamation of triumph. ‘Past midnight!’ He had looked at his clock, and at the same time I looked at my watch. His clock was ten minutes fast.“
And retribution come right quick. Wentworth had come back for Stark.
“Amos Stark was spread on the floor on his back, and sitting astride him was a mouldering skeleton, its bony arms bowed above his throat, it’s fingers at his neck.“
Once the deed is done and Stark is dead the skeleton withdraws, leaving our narrator aghast in horror, and we get our moment of Scary Stories to tell in the Dark:
“For as I bent above Amos Stark, ascertaining that he was indeed dead, I saw sticking into the discolored flesh of his neck the whitened finger bones of a human skeleton, and, even as I looked upon them, the individual bones detached themselves, and went bounding away from the corpse, down the hall, and out into the night to rejoin that ghastly visitor who had come from the grave to keep his appointment with Amos Stark!”
Join me next week as we dive deeper into Derleth with hopeful curiosity in “The Peabody Heritage.”
“The lower or ground floor, however, abounded in evidence of its one time occupant, the surgeon, for one room of it had manifestly served him as a laboratory of some kind, and an adjoining room as a study, for both had the look of having been but recently abandoned in the midst of some inquiry or research, quite as if the occupation of the house by its brief tenant – post mortem Charriere – had not touched upon these rooms.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! We’ve graduated from Lovecraft after reading his entire catalog, and we’re now moving onto works inspired by, and potentially even partially written by, Lovecraft. August Derleth was one of Howard Phillip’s contemporaries and loved his work so much that he published it all years after they originally appeared in magazines like “Weird Tales.” From what I can surmise, Derleth states that much of what he wrote himself was based upon extensive notes he gathered from Lovecraft himself and thus for many years published these under Lovecraft’s name instead of his own.
The Survivor is the first of these stories we’re getting to, and where the atmosphere, tone, and content are accurate and reminiscent of Lovecraft’s works, the writing makes it painfully apparent that this story was written by someone other than Lovecraft himself. Not to say that it’s bad. This is an entertaining story and it’s written well, but the archaic sentence structure and unique verbosity of Lovecraft created the depth of gothic horror present in all of his tales. This story feels more like Derleth is doing his best to imitate Lovecraft all while trying to clarify the mythos and put his own stamp onto it at the same time.
The story begins much like you’d expect; with out narrator recanting a story of something which happened in his past. We get that same “gather around the fireplace” feel but, again, you can tell right from the start that it isn’t Lovecraft writing:
“I had never intended to speak or write again of the Charriere house, once I had fled Providence on that shocking night of discovery – there are memories which every man would seek to suppress, to disbelieve, to wipe out of existence – but I am forced to set down how the narrative of my brief acquaintance with the house on Benefit Street, and my precipitate flight there-from, lest some innocent person be subjected to the indignity by the police in an effort to explain the horrible discovery the police have made at last – that same ghastly horror it was my lot to look upon before any human eye – and what I saw was surely far more terrible that what remained to be seen after all these years, the house having reverted to the city, as I had known it would.”
Wow! What a rambling full paragraph sentence which says absolutely nothing! The story really gets much better from here, but you can tell that Derleth was trying his hardest to do what Lovecraft did so well…create a thesis for the story in the first paragraph, to set the story up for what we should be expecting for the rest of our reading experience, but Derleth rambles here and it halts the suspension of disbelief due to lack of comprehension.
Soon Derleth rights his ship and we find that our protagonist/narrator is an “antiquarian” much like many of the Lovecraftian characters (think Charles Dexter Ward) and is looking for a house to live in for a month so he can continue his work. He is drawn to this house because of it’s old architecture, which delights his antiquarian nature despite having many people telling him the house is cursed.
He moves in finds that it’s the house of a Dr. Cherriere who recently died, but paid the taxes long enough so that one of his “relatives” could come and claim it (Though we already know from the opening paragraph that, that didn’t happen).
The house was built back in 1704 and “Its rooms were irregular – appearing to be either quite large or very small.” There is even a laboratory, which doesn’t surprise our narrator because Cherriere is a doctor, but in this lab there are “strange, almost cabalistic drawings, resembling physiological charts, of various kinds of saurians...”
This was the first moment that gave me pause (at least in terms of mythology). I was expecting a purely Lovecraftian fever dream out of this story, but it turns out that this is the first moment that Derleth decides to add his own spin onto Lovecraft’s mythos. There is evidence of other reptilian creatures and studies throughout the house and in the study the narrator finds, “a sequence of cryptic references to certain mythological creatures, particularly one named ‘Cthulhu,’ and another named ‘Dagon.'”
Obviously Derleth found these two gods and their servants, “The Deep Ones,” the most intriguing (at least as far as this first story is concerned. The evidence is there, however, because where Lovecraft called his mythology Yog-Sothothery, Derleth renamed it “The Cthulhu Mythos”), because this story is firmly rooted around the two of them. The change comes with the advent of the saurian features. The narrator calls the Deep Ones “evidently amphibious creatures living in the depths of the seas.” Which is curious for a number of reasons. The first is that amphibians don’t actually live deep under water as they need oxygen periodically. The second is that Lovecraft’s deep ones were fish creatures, not reptile creatures. So as Derleth is working on clearing up some of the confusion as to what these gods are and where they land in the pantheon, he is also stamping his own predilections on top. I’m in no way detracting from Derleth’s efforts (except for the amphibian living on the bottom of the ocean) because I believe that Lovecraft wanted other authors to take the ideas and run with them (he’s said so a few different times in letters). In fact the only reason Lovecraft is as popular as he is today is because of Derleth’s efforts at clarifying the mythos (and renaming it) for the broad populace. After reading just this first story, I myself have a much clearer understanding of the mythos which is, incidentally, what I was looking for when I started this series in the first place. It’s also why I wanted to keep going and cover Derleth as well. I believe Lovecraft was only looking to create unique and terrifying stories. It doesn’t seem like it was until Derleth took over that it really became a contained “cosmic horror” theme in and of itself.
Speaking of “mythos,” our narrator continues to dig and finds strange books which will be familiar to any reader of Lovecraft: Cultes des Goules, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and The Pnakotic Manuscripts, all mixed in with other strange books of Derleth’s creation. Some of these (like The Saurian Age) will be interesting to see if they come up in future works as well, since it looks like Derleth is making the sea creatures reptilian, rather than the fish people of Innsmouth, potentially in an effort to make the Deep Ones more scary. He’s even moving from the notorious “smell” which we have found in Lovecraft to be a fungoid smell, to now a reptilian smell (full disclosure. I really have no idea what a reptilian smell is…can someone describe that? Is that in any way similar to the moldy smell of fungous?)
While filtering through these he finds that Dr. Cherriere is actually extremely old. There’s evidence of him being born back in the 1600’s! Could this actually be him and not just some ancestor? Could it be that he is actually not dead, and just waiting for the memory of his “death” to die down so he can come back as his own “nephew?” (Of course he is!)
This is where the real horror of the story begins. The narrator hears a break in and follows the sounds to the study:
“I turned on the flashlight, which was directed at the desk I had left…What I saw was incredible, horrible. It was not a man who stood there, but a travesty of a man.“
It was a half reptile, half man. It was Dr. Cherriere. The man who’d spent his life studying the ancient and forbidden knowledge hidden in those terrible books. It’s the classic Lovecraftian theme of the eternal desire to gain forbidden knowledge. Dr. Cherriere had turned himself, through experiments with the saurian nature of Dagon and Cthulhu and the hidden knowledge in the forbidden tomes, into a mockery of a man just to prolong his life.
The story is predictable, but in a weird way that’s comforting. Like I said earlier, this story feels like Derleth’s effort to clarify Lovecraft, and that predictability was necessary because he was giving the reader familiarity (or fan service?) so he could go the extra mile with exposition and explanation of known quantities. In general we know these creatures and those ancient tomes exist in this world…what we don’t know is how they’re interconnected. It almost feels like Derleth’s stories will be an approach of connecting Lovecraft’s world, instead of just writing horror stories.
Let’s find out if that’s the case next week, as we evaluate “Wentworth’s Day!”
If there is any doubt whether this was Lovecraft writing or Derleth, then rest easy. I found the smoking gun! The text should be enough to tell. Though Derleth is a good writer, his style is all together simple when put up next to Lovecraft. Lovecraft uses archaic words that weren’t even still in use back when he was writing in the 20’s and 30’s. He did this to give an “antiquarian” feel for the reader. To bring us all into a different world. Derleth isn’t looking to do that, he’s looking to clarify the universe in which Lovecraft created.
But that isn’t the smoking gun. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Derleth wrote this story and not Lovecraft because of a simple tool. Derleth calls it a flashlight. Lovecraft calls it a torch. There is not one mention of the word flashlight in any of Lovecraft’s stories. This is done on purpose to give the reader that previously mentioned feel. Derleth gives himself away, but really…do we care??
“If that abyss and what it held were real, there is no hope. Then, all too truly, there lies upon this world of man a mocking and incredible shadow out of time. But mercifully, there is no proof that these things are other than fresh phases of my myth-born dreams. I did not bring back the metal case that would have been proof, and so far those subterrene corridors have not been found. If the laws of the universe are kind, they will never be found.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week is all about catharsis as we conclude the final story Howard Phillips wrote by himself, before diving into the handful of stories August Derleth co-wrote (or maybe ghost wrote) with Lovecraft. This was the perfect story to leave for last, as the quote above indicates and sums up the multi-year long project I’ve undertaken. Lovecraft himself was a Shadow out of Time, darkening our doorsteps with new horrors which cannot quite be seen but can be sensed and felt with the weight of eternity, the weight of history, and the weight of mythology.
Lovecraft moved his story beyond pointed philosophical treatises to an all out adventure with a narrative hurtling forward like an out of control semi flying downhill without brakes…and yet there is no grand reveal. Lovecraft does what he always does and lets the atmosphere play the role of terrorizer and he lets you know this right up front: “I cannot hope to give any true idea of the horror and dread contained in such echoes, for it was upon a wholly intangible quality – the sharp sense of pseudo-memory – that such feelings mainly depended.“
The story begins with a letter to our protagonist Professor Peaslee about an archaeological find of some strange stone and architecture in Australia. “They are mostly sandstone and granite, though one is almost certainly made of a queer sort of cement or concrete. They bear evidence of water action, as if this part of the world had been submerged and come up again after long ages – all since these blocks were made and used.”
Immediately we’re drawn back to “The Call of Cthulhu” and the great lost city of the Elder Gods, but more specifically the titular Cthulhu…R’lyeh. In that other story we are presented with a lost city found off the coast of Australia in the Indian Ocean. The city had architecture that was queer and somehow both convex and concave at the same time. The city which was lost to time under the sea. Now, here, in Australia we find evidence that “part of the world had been submerged and come up again after long ages.” We know that this is on landlocked Australia, so it more than likely is not part of R’lyeh, however it is undoubtedly part of that same civilization.
So what does Professor Peaslee do? He gathers a group of scientists, including Professor William Dyer of Miskatonic University. Does that name sound familiar to you? Well that’s because this is the Professor who went on the Antarctic Expedition in “At the Mountains of Madness,” where I personally was introduced to the Shoggoth.
Again, it seems like Lovecraftian synergy that all of these stories come to bear in this last novelette. This series is truly Blind, meaning that I always loved the concepts of Lovecraft, but had never actually read him. I was always daunted by the language, so I’ve started many times, but never followed through. I decided that the only way to keep me honest and finish these stories was to do an academic exercise and deconstruct the stories and look for the narratives. I knew there was a Dream Cycle, I knew there were gothic horror stories, I knew there was the Mythos, but I didn’t know which story was which, so I randomly picked a jumping off point and went into them. Similarly, as I traversed through his oeuvre I didn’t know which story to read, so I chose them based upon length and how much time I had in that given week to be able to honestly read, digest, and compose an essay. The fact that all of these stories are converging (and believe me the denouement of this story feels just like “The Beast in the Cave“) into this single story, my last story, just solidifies my adoration of the process and of the author.
Some of Lovecraft’s best writing comes in the last chapter of this story, and though it doesn’t have the shocking ending that he was truly going for, it brings the feeling of the two different halves of the story together, much like it brings together the true forms of Lovecraft’s writing.
The crew goes on expedition and begins their dig in the Australian Desert. Our narrator felt a “Strange sense of compulsion” and goes off to find a “Cyclopean tunnel” which leads down into the earth. The description is reminiscent of the tunnels in “At the Mountains of Madness” and is in fact the only real depredation I have for this story. We never get to see Dyer do anything, but we know he has first hand knowledge of this architectural structure.
Beyond this there are some excellently written horror scenes, where Peaslee traverses down into the depths of this ancient alien sub-world and has vague memories of seeing the glyphs on the stones. In addition he seems to have knowledge of which way to go to find the evidence he’s looking for. Throughout the whole descent there is a terribly oppressive feeling of anxiety. Peaslee somehow knows that he must remain quiet, he knows that there’re sleeping giants down in the depths and he knows that he must be quick and silent – or he will never return from this venture. Some great creature which, “I thought of that which the Great Race had feared, and of what might still be lurking – be it ever so weak and dying – down there.”
Strange feelings of knowledge and memory keep assaulting Peaslee until he finally finds what he’s looking for. It’s a tome of ancient knowledge:
“At length I tremblingly pulled the book from it’s container and stared fascinatedly at the well-known hieroglyphs on the cover. It seemed to be in prime condition, and the curvilinear letters of the title held me in almost as hypnotized a state as if I could read them. Indeed, I cannot swear that I did not actually read them in some transient and terrible access of abnormal memory.”
He then takes the book and flees, but makes a critical mistake, “Just as I blindly crossed the summit, unprepared for the sudden dip ahead, my feet slipped utterly and I found myself involved in a mangling avalanche of sliding masonry whose cannon-loud uproar split the black cavern air in a deafening series of earth shaking reverberations.”
He had woken the beast, or beasts. “I have a dim picture of myself as flying through the hellish basalt vault of the Elder Things, and hearing that damnable alien sound piping up from the open, unguarded door of limitless nether blacknesses.”
He then comes to a rift which he must traverse, but to jump up is far worse that jumping down. He doesn’t think he can make it, but at the same time he can almost feel the Elder Thing at his heels. The howling and whistling of the demonic metropolis seem to come from all directions, so he decides that there’s no way out. He must jump…but he doesn’t make it:
The I saw the chasm’s edge, leaped frenziedly with every ounce of strength I possessed, and was instantly engulfed in a pandaemoniac vortex of loathsome sound and utter, materially tangible blackness.
While in this state of utter blackness he seems to fall into a dream, “Afterward there were visions of the Cyclopean city of my dreams – not in ruins, but just as I had dreamed of it. I was in my conical, non-human body again, and mingled with crowds of the Great Race and the captive minds who carried books up and down the lofty corridors and vast inclines.“
Sounds familiar? We even get the last line of the story to solidify what’s really happening here: “And yet, when I flashed my torch upon it in that frightful megalithic abyss, I saw that the queerly pigmented letters on the brittle, aeon-browned cellulose pages were not indeed any nameless hieroglyphics of earth’s youth. They were, instead, the letters of our familiar alphabet, spelling out the words of the English language in my own handwriting.“
This dream, this time-lapse, this dimension, is all interconnected. Peaslee spent his five lost years travelling around in the body of one of the Great Race of Yith, and he transposed horrific texts, of which he found in an aeon lost structure of the Elder Ones, buried somewhere underneath the sands of Australia. This proves the interconnectedness of Lovecraft’s universe in such a wonderful way, and is such a spectacular endpoint to his actual writing.
Lovecraft has four different styles. His satirical humor, which are one off stories. His Gothic horror, which are what they sound like, however they do interconnect with his Cosmic horror stories, they just have a more visceral, a more, well, horrific bent. The Mythos stories, or the Cosmic stories, tend to have a much more psychological horror element to them. Finally the Dream Cycle tends to be more adventurous. Those are the styles, but that’s what makes it so good, because with this story it’s readily apparent that all of his tales have some interconnectedness. Everything here happens in Lovecraft Country and Lovecraft Country is his own alternate world where this can all happen!
The Dreamers (like Randolph Carter) are actually dimensional hoppers and there’s a multiverse here in which they traverse time by sidestepping physics and jumping to whatever reality is needed. Whether that’s sailing through the galaxy with Azathoth, or grave robbing with buddies, the dreamers have this special ability to let the horror of the scope of the cosmos wash over them and allow them to experience this amount of cosmic horror thus making those stories more like adventures. Individuals exploring the great wide open. The characters who don’t have the mental capacity to deal with these realities enter the cosmic horror tales, which focus on madness, but in reality we get very few tentacles.
So this makes me wonder where the cultural consciousness came to the idea that Lovecraft had to have some kind of creature with tentacles, since while reading, you can probably count on two hands how many stories actually mention a character viewing a monster, and on one hand where you actually are given a description of what they see.
August Derleth was one of Lovecraft’s friends (and publishers) and he was the one to coin the phrase “Cthulhu Mythos” where Lovecraft preferred to call it Yog-Sothothery. So one has to wonder…was it Derleth that created this monstrous concept of what it was like to be “Lovecraftian?” I’ve never read him, so I’m not sure.
Why don’t we find out?
Join me next week as we read our first August Derleth writing as H.P. Lovecraft, “The Survivor!”
“The essence was always the same – a person of keen thoughtfulness seized with a strange secondary life and leading for a greater or lesser period an utterly alien existence typified at first by vocal and bodily awkwardness, and later by a wholesale acquisition of scientific, historic, artistic, and anthropological knowledge; an acquisition carried on with feverish zest and with a wholly abnormal absorptive power.“
Welcome back to another blind read! This week we trek down a mind bogglingly complex philosophical maze of “nightmare and terror,” in addition to connecting a large collection of Lovecraft’s tales as we try to peel back the layers of the first half of the journey of “The Shadow out of Time.”
This novelette is absolutely the most dense of anything I’ve read by Lovecraft and believe me, breaking it all down is a little daunting, but as the text says at the beginning of the story, “If the thing did happen, then man must be prepared to accept notions of the cosmos, and of his own place in the seething vortex of time, whose merest mention is paralysing.”
The plot of the story surrounds our narrator (Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee) who is a professor at Miskatonic University and by his own proclamations, insists that he has always been sound of mind. That is until he gained a “queer amnesia” which lasted for five years. During that timeframe he became obsessed with “occultism and abnormal psychology,” of which he had never had an inkling towards. During this “lost time” he traveled to the Himalayas, to the Arctic, to the Arabian deserts, to Australia, and even the “vast limestone cavern systems of western Virginia.“
Nathaniel asserts that right before his “lost time” happened he felt “...that someone else was trying to get possession of my thoughts.” which brings into play so many of the previous stories in Lovecraft’s collection. Most recently this makes me think of Asenath from “The Thing on the Doorstep” where she would project her mind into other’s bodies. As we get further into the story, we find there is an Alien species which Lovecraft refers to as the “Great Race” which “With suitable mechanical aid a mind would project itself forward in time, feeling its dim, extrasensory way till it approached the desired period. Then, after preliminary trials, it would seize on the best discoverable representative of the highest of that period’s life-forms; entering the organism’s brain and setting up therein its own vibrations while the displaced mind would strike back to the period of the displacer, remaining in the latter’s body till a reverse process was set up.”
This passage echoes the concepts in the story “The Whisperer in Darkness” as maybe a beginning of the transposition process. Remember in that story that they would extract the brain from the body so that the brain could travel to all reaches of the galaxy to gain new knowledge? Their bodies would be cast aside and their brains would be entered into metal tubes which would be sent with the alien race to space to gather knowledge (if you can believe them).
We get even deeper into the mythos as we understand that, “If the mind came from a body whose language the Great Race could not physically reproduce, clever machines would be made, on which the alien speech could be played as on a musical instrument.” Which stands to reason that “The Music Erich Zann” was playing was actually communication to this Great Race and the horror which came from the sight of them: “The Great Race’s members were immense rugose cones ten feet high, and with head and other organs attached to foot-thick, distensible limbs spreading from the apexes.”
So it’s natural to draw the conclusion that it’s this Great Race which has been searching out the history of the universe and transpose themselves into various cultures on planets. They were the influence for Asenath gaining her access to these powers, which also ties them to Dagon and the “Shadow over Innsmouth,” they are an influence on Kingsport with the “Terrible Old Man” and his metal tubes, they influence Arkham as they collect people mechanically and put their brains in tubes. While they enter their subjects bodies they search out as much cosmic knowledge as they can gather from that world, and when they’re done they put the consciousness back into their host’s body. To the host it feels like they are dreaming. We have absolutely heard that before. This story seems to be confirming my suspicion as to what the dreamlands actually are, because right at the beginning of the fourth section Nathaniel tells us, “I continued…to keep a careful record of the outré dreams which crowded upon me so thickly and vividly. Such a record, I argued, was of genuine value as a psychological document. The glimpses still seemed damnably like memories…”
In the Randolph Carter tales (The Silver Key, Through the Gates of the Silver Key, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Unnamable), our protagonist is called a dreamer. With the help of the Necronomicon, he “dreams” and travels around the universe, interacting with various species. He then uses the Silver Key to go beyond consciousness. In fact in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” he even becomes one of these creatures.
The layer that’s added with this story is that even though these travels are thought of as dreaming, the real nature of what’s going on here is that these people are traversing time not consciousness. To solidify this concept there’s even a paragraph right in the middle of the fourth chapter:
There was a mind from the planet we know as Venus, which would live incalculable epochs to come, and one from an outer moon of Jupiter six million years in the past. Of earthly minds there were some from the winged, star-headed, half vegetable race of palaeogean Antarctica; one from the reptile people of the fabled Valusia; three from the furry pre-human Hyperborean worshippers of Tsathoggua; one from the wholly abominable Tcho-Tchos; two from the arachnid denizens of earth’s last age; five from the hardly coleopterous species immediately following mankind, to which the Great Race was some day to transfer it’s keenest minds en masse in the face of horrible peril; and several from different branches of humanity.
He goes on to talk of the various historical figures of both Lovecraftian mythos and human history, inexorably trying them together. It is here (it’s discussed in The Dream Quest-of Unknown Kadath as well) in which Lovecraft tells us in no uncertain terms that Time is not a concept of motion or reality, but that Time itself is an alternative universe, which is why people can actually traverse to and from. It is, in and of itself, a dimension, so to understand time travel we have to understand that it’s a linear thing. You go through a gate into another dimension. A dimension of time. This bypasses the problem of physics because it’s a separate dimension of which the Great Race have perfected (alongside some of the Elder Gods) how to traverse it. The same way that Carter was able to get there through the gate using the silver key, and Wilmarth viewed (albeit in a much more crude fashion) in “The Whisperer in Darkness.”
This story is about discovering something from a different dimension, not a different time period, so when we look at the title, we should see it as “A Shadow from Another Dimension,” though, of course, that isn’t nearly as catchy.
SO we know that the knowledge and witchcraft of transposition came from this Great Race and much of what’s happening in Lovecraft’s devised world centers around these beings. In fact when this story opens we are immediately greeted with the knowledge of Prof. Peaslee finding “fragments of unknown, primordial masonry” in “Western Australia.” Similarly, just off the Western Coast of Australia, in the story “The Call of Cthulhu” we find a “cyclopean city” made with strange, impossible angles with unknown materials (primordial masonry?). We know of this city as R’lyeh, the lost city of the god Cthulhu. Could Peaslee have also found evidence of this lost city?
Find out next week as we conclude “The Shadow out of Time!”
“In the spring of 1847, the little village of Ruralville was thrown into a state of excitement by the landing of a strange Brig is the harbour. It carried no flag, and no name was painted on its side, and everything about it was such as would excite suspicion. It was from Tripoli, Africa, and the captain was named Manuel Ruello. The Excitement increased, however; when John Griggs, (The magnate of the village) suddenly disappeared from his home. This was the night of October 4th – On October 5th the Brig left.“
Welcome to another Blind Read! This week we work to find the threads which link the Mystery of the Graveyard and The Mysterious Ship to Lovecraft’s larger works, all the while uncovering the enigma of his mind and…potentially…how the mythos came into being. Both of these stories have their beginnings firmly in the dime and nickel novels of the time, pulling from their pulpy plots and over the top protagonists.
“The Mystery of the Graveyard” also goes by the alternate title “A Dead Man’s Revenge” and has remarkable plot twists for the length of the story. Agatha Christie could have had a run for her money if Lovecraft made the turn towards mystery instead of the darker pivot towards horror. He even has a hero detective protagonist to rival Hercule Poirot in King John.
The story begins with the funeral of Joseph Burns. Burns gave some very strange and specific requirements during his funeral. He asked the rector, Mr. Dobson, “Before you put my body in the the tomb, drop this ball onto the floor, at a spot marked ‘A.‘” Dobson goes down to the tomb and does so, but never returns. The mystery follows. The second chapter begins as Dobson’s daughter gets a letter from a mysterious Mr. Bell insisting he knows where her father is and extends a demand of a ransom to get him back. Flustered, she goes to the police and asks for King John who is “a famous western detective.”
The story runs around and around as King John strives to find Bell and figure out the mystery of where the rector went until, finally, he finds that the “A” in the tomb is a trap door that activates with pressure. Dobson fell into a sub-tomb and was hidden away there until he finally escaped. After the trial it was found that all along it was a revenge plot against the rector because Joseph Burns and his brother Francis Burns had a vendetta and hired Mr. Bell to trap and hold Dobson.
The story is told in twelve very short chapters…so short that in fact they are each only a few sentences long and every chapter has a title letting the reader know what to expect. This also strikes me as Lovecraft’s way of structuring his thoughts. When we look forward to other works like “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” as a long example and my more recently reviewed “The Thing on the Doorstep” as a shorter example, Lovecraft has a certain structure in his writing in which is easier to elucidate with these stories. In both “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Thing on the Doorstep” Lovecraft breaks his writing up into chapters, but instead of having a single narrative flow, those chapters are almost single distinct stories in and of themselves. For example in both stories the first chapter is about the protagonist of the story (other than the narrator of course). It gives the reader the background and the perspective of the (supposed) “hero” of the story. The second chapter of these stories gives background to the antagonist (Curwen in “Ward” and Asenath in “Doorstep”), then each subsequent chapter has an event which drives the narrative forward. “The Mystery of the Grave-Yard” is the same type of structure, though Lovecraft breaks this down even further, presumably so he can keep the narration on track…a common tool for very young, or beginning writers. Notice how he begins the plotting the same way (Chapter 1 is about the main focal point of the story, Dobson, and chapter two introduces Bell, the main antagonist), and then has each chapter surrounds an individual event. In his later years he does a better job at painting a bigger, more lush picture by expounding on detail and experience. Tone and atmosphere are what Lovecraft is missing in his Juvenilia, but it’s what he perfects later in life and makes him the legend of horror and supernatural that he is. This point is proven even more when we move onto the next story, “The Mysterious Ship.”
This second short is told two different times in the collection I have (I’ve actually gone through a number of different collections, starting off with the Del Rey books. Where the artwork in those books are excellent, the collections themselves aren’t that great. Language was changed and in the process, meaning seems to have changed. I’m currently working of the most recent Barnes and Noble edition which seems to be far superior), the first is an earlier shorter edition and the second is a more fleshed out atmospheric piece, where each chapter is just a few sentences longer and gives a clearer understanding and better atmosphere than the shorter one before it. These two vignettes give a better glimpse of the growth of the writer than nearly anything else I’ve seen. Lovecraft is devoid of the pomposity of literature of someone like Pynchon because Lovecraft’s first love was adventure. He wanted to tell stories that were weird and fun and wild, which led to his unique “serious, but pulpy” tales. He chose his archaic and complex writing style to compliment the wild stories he wanted to tell, not the other way around. It may seem like a small distinction, but it’s an important one.
Back to the adventure! The second story follows the titular ship which you can see in a little bit of detail in the opening quote to this essay (which is in fact the opening chapter of the longer version). It’s about a ship which journeys around and kidnaps people. The Captain and crew are eventually caught and the purloined victims are returned, bringing the story to a nice ending all tied up in a bow. The tale doesn’t have much in the way of satisfaction, but it does show Lovecraft’s love for adventure.
Between the two of these stories you can see the natural divergence of the path in which Lovecraft took. We have the standard horror or cosmic horror element with the Mystery of the Grave-Yard, in that atmosphere and the darker places he normalizes as just standard backdrops for the story…complete with sneaky plotters and nefarious acts. Then we have the adventurous bend we take with The Mysterious Ship, which feels like the beginnings of the dreams lands and such stories as “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” These tales aren’t so much focused on the horror elements as they are on the adventurous journeys the protagonists (well really just Randolph Carter) take.
I kept these Juvenilia for the end because I wanted to have something to call back on while discussing them, and I can’t say how glad I am that I did. To be able to see the growth is tremendous and its always fun to see how a writer that I’ve become this involved in began.
Next week we dive into the last story Lovecraft wrote on his own. It means this series is rapidly coming to an end, but we still have a bunch of the stories which August Derleth wrote with Lovecraft’s notes and I plan on ending this series with Lovecraft’s essay on Horror.
Join me next week as we view the “Shadow out of Time.”
“What he did do was to become an almost fanatical devotee of subterranean magical lore, for which Miskatonic’s library was and is famous. Always a dweller on the surface of phantasy and strangeness, he now delved deep into the actual runes and riddles left by a fabulous past for the guidance or puzzlement of posterity. He read things like the frightful Book of Eibon, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, and the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Abdul Ahlhazred, though he did not tell his parents he had seen them.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re sinking into a story which brings together much of Lovecraft and his themes, while simplifying the language to tell a straightforward horror tale…all while (potentially) creating yet another horror trope!
Lovecraft begins the story, like he does in so many of his stories, by immediately telling us how it will end: “It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.”
This leaves us as readers to ruminate on what the story is to be as we move forward. At the moment in time Lovecraft was writing this could have potentially been a tactic to heighten suspense, but to the modern reader who has seen so many of these themes over and again as authors re-use tropes, it falls a little flat. To start this way, we as readers know exactly how this story ends and unfortunately there aren’t any twists to surprise us.
Stephen King once wrote that (I’m paraphrasing) he goes for the creep out and if that doesn’t work he goes for the jump scare, and if that still doesn’t work he goes for the gross out. Lovecraft recognized that he wasn’t going to get the creep out, and he’s never been much for the surprise scare, so he went straight for the gross out.
Don’t let that detract from the story however because what Lovecraft does along the way is bring the history of his Lovecraft country all together and develop a disturbing little story.
The tale is mainly about Edward Pickman Derby. Sound familiar? That’s because it is. Lovecraft does a strange things with names here. Pickman is the surname of the infamous artists Richard Upton Pickman from “Pickman’s Model.” A man who housed monsters to draw and create fantastical art. In addition to this, the narrator of this story (Daniel Upton) has a child and names him Edward Derby Upton. I thought and thought about this connection. Are these characters connected to Richard Upton Pickman? The more I think about it the less I think that’s the case. I think it’s Lovecraft’s way to show how connected everything in his world is. To show how everything seems to stem from Salem, Mass (many of these characters have family trees which date back to there), or to mysterious travelers from mysterious ships. There is a connectedness in the collective consciousness of the people of Lovecraft Country, which gives credence and horror to the small town trope (all those locals staring at you as you drive through).
Ruminating on this we move onto the second chapter and we learn about Edward’s wife Asenath Waite, “She was a dark, smallish, and very good-looking except for over-protuberant eyes; but something in her expression alienated extremely sensitive people.” We find that she grew up in Innsmouth, the notorious village from “The Shadow over Innsmouth” which worshipped Dagon and bred with the fish-people. We find that she went to Kingsport high school (the slightly less nefarious town from such tales as “The Terrible Old Man” and “The Strange High House in the Mist.”) and had a “odd reputation” before moving on to Miskatonic University where she studied “mediaeval metaphysics” and had some “well-attested cases of her influence over other persons.” Students considered her a hypnotist because, “By gazing peculiarly at a fellow-student she would often give the latter a distinct feeling of exchanged personality – as if the subject were placed momentarily in the magician’s body and able to stare half across the room at her real body, whose eyes blazed and protruded with an alien expression.”
Edward meets young Asenath (who at twenty-three already has crow’s feet at her eyes) and they begin to date. Soon after Edward brings her to meet Daniel who had reservations but, “…I saw at once that his interest was by no means one sided. She eyed him continually with an almost predatory air, and I perceived that their intimacy was beyond untangling.” A month later the couple was married.
They, as a couple, delved into the occult. Asenath had a history of it from her father, Ephraim Waite, who studied the occult before his death in Innsmouth. Everything seemed good for the first year of their marriage, but then “people began talking about the change in Edward Derby.”
“People said he looked too much like his wife, or like old Ephraim Waite himself...” and then after three years of marriage to Asenath, “Edward began to hint openly to me of a certain fear and dissatisfaction.” and “...would talk darkly about the need of ‘saving his identity.‘”
At this point in the story I knew exactly what was happening and if anyone has seen the Nexflix show “Behind Her Eyes” you’ll know the outcome as well. It’s about transposition, and if we know anything about Lovecraft it’s about a man who is looking for extended life to continue on with his power gathering…I.E. Ephraim.
At the beginning of chapter four Edward speaks with Daniel and spouts his entire fears:
Dan – for God’s sake! The pit of shoggoths! Down the six thousand steps…the abomination of abominations…I never would let her take me, and then I found myself there…Ia! Shub-Niggurath!…The shape rose up from the altar, and there were 500 that howled…The Hooded Thing bleated ‘Kamog! Kamog!’ – that was old Ephraim’s secret name in the coven…I was there, where she promised she wouldn’t take me…A minute before I was locked in the library, and then I was there where she had gone with my body – in the place of utter blasphemy, the unholy pit where black realm begins and the watcher guards the gate…I saw a shoggoth – it changed shape…I can’t stand it…I wont stand it…I’ll kill her if she ever send me there again…I’ll kill that entity…her, him, it…I’ll kill it with my own hands!
And there we come to the horrible realization that Edward is actually married to Ephraim! Eww!
In all actuality he is probably married to some older creature who has since invaded Ephraim’s body, although there is a pretty hilarious moment with Ephraim: “Why did he curse that his daughter wasn’t a son?” Because he knew to transpose his mind it would have to be into his offspring, who would have a stronger hold on the otherworldly magics. Then in turn Asenath’s child would be that much stronger; but to have any of that happen, Ephraim would have to find someone to impregnate him while he was in Asenath’s body. I can imagine the curses coming from a crotchety old straight man!
Knowing Lovecraft, this could and should be the end for Edward, but suddenly he is able to somehow “convince” Asenath to go away and leave him alone. He spends a little time with Daniel, by now just a shell of a man, trying to get his life back together and eventually goes back to his home. He’s there for a while before he has a break down, calling Daniel:
“My brain! My brain! God, Dan – it’s tugging – from beyond – knocking – clawing – that she-devil – even now – Ephraim – Kamog! Kamog! – the pit of the shoggoths – Ia Shub Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!...”
He goes into the Arkham Sanitarium and Daniel goes to visit him when Daniel has a terrible realization. Edward is no longer Edward. Kamog has somehow come back to take over. Daniel shoots the form of his best friend…six times…hoping to kill the evil wizard which presides inside him.
The entire time reading this, I was entertained, but wondered where the title came from…that is until we get to the end of the story. A figure appears on Dan’s doorstep. It smells terrible and it’s diminutive. It’s wearing “one of Edward’s overcoats” with “a slouch hat pulled low” and “a black silk muffler concealed the face.” It makes a watery noise and hands Dan a letter from Edward.
In the epistle we find out Asenath “has been dead three months and a half.” Edward killed her by smashing her head in with a candlestick. Then when he was in the sanitarium she worked on “seizing my body and putting me in that corpse of her buried in the cellar.“
Dan faints, but when he comes to he calls the authorities. “What they finally found inside Edward’s oddly assorted clothes was mostly liquescent horror. There were bones, too – and a crushed-in skull. Some dental work positively identified the skull as Asenath’s.”
The thing on the doorstep was Edward, inside of the rotting corpse of Asenath. What makes it so horrible and so…Lovecraftian…is that Kamog has already lived through at least one murder, which means that he may be hovering somewhere above Arkham just waiting to find the next body to inhabit…
Lovecraft went full force into the gross out, but he tried to leave a little creep out at the end…
Join me next week as try to solve “The Mystery of the Grave-Yard” and understand “The Mysterious Ship!”
“The Funeral of alice occupied so much time that John quite forgot about the box – but when they did open it they found it to be a solid gold chunk worth about $10,000 enough to pay for any thing but the death of his sister.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we go even further back in time to discover Lovecraft’s beginnings and tackle concepts of trauma, loss, desire, and adventure in two Juvenilia tales that are anything but polished.
I debated for a while whether I really wanted to cover these after reading them, but in the end I decided to hold my promise. I said I would read as much Lovecraft as I could get my hands on, so I’m holding to my word. The question is, how would I deconstruct these stories? They reminded me of my own work when I was young…and when I mean young I mean ten or eleven (which probably means that Howard was about six when we equate talent). The writing is subpar with grammar errors abounding and the stories themselves are just little ditties which any youth could come up with.
What I eventually found more interesting, however is that instead of taking a look at the story itself, I decided to take apart the themes to get a deeper glimpse into the man and what would eventually make his writing the legend that it became.
The first story “The Little Glass Bottle” seems to be an effort at humor biting off of “Treasure Island” which was published about ten to fifteen years prior to Lovecraft writing this story. It follows a group of sailors who find the titular bottle floating on the sea. The bottle had a letter inside:
Jan 1 1864 I am John Jones who writes this letter my ship is fast sinking with a treasure on board I am where it is marked * on the enclosed chart…dotted lines represent course we took
Enclosed is a drawing of a dotted line through the Indian Ocean just off of Australia. Captain Jones gets so excited that he decides to go after it: “in 4 weeks the(y) reached the place where directed & the divers went down and came up with an iron bottle…“
Inside of the bottle they find a note:
Dec 3 1880 Dear Searcher excuse me for the practical joke I have played on you but it serves you right to find nothing for your foolish act – However I will defray your expenses to & from the place you found your bottle I think it will be $25.0.00 so that amount you will find in an Iron box I know where you found the bottle because I put this bottle here & the iron box & then found a good place to put the second bottle hoping the enclosed money will defray your expenses some I close – Anonymous
They dive down and get the money and we end with a little meta story telling: “...I hardly think that they will ever go to a mysterious place as directed by a mysterious bottle.”
This absolutely has a childish feeling and a fear of taking things too far. So really not much to it. But lets take a deeper look…
From an early age it’s obvious that Lovecraft is fascinated with the Ocean. There must be a correlation in his mind with something important being there, or somewhere in the area surrounding Australia. This, one of his first stories, leads some intrepid adventurers there to discover a treasure which turns out to be a fraud. Many years later in basically the same area, in a tale named “The Call of Cthulhu” some explorers go in search for answers and come across R’lyeh and the Elder God Himself. This is a similar journey in a similar area. A group of men looking for fortune and power and find out they vastly underestimated what they were looking for.
The difference come with age. In this story the person who sent them on the wild goose chase is contrite, a sentiment I don’t think I’ve seen in Lovecraft. We know Howard becomes jaded as he gets older and that absolutely shows through in his stories, because the characters are just too far gone down the rabbit hole to turn back. Here we see that, for Lovecraft himself, it is not yet too far. He hasn’t yet had the heart ache…he hadn’t yet survived the trauma. He still believed that though there is a darker side to humanity, the inherent goodness can come through. That is noticeably absent in the second tale.
“The Secret Cave” is like a Grimm’s Fairy tale. It’s a simple story about a horrible tragedy. It dives into grief in such a complex way, and in so much more of a profound way beyond any of his other stories, that as a reader it feels as though we are getting a glimpse into mental walls he put up to block out the horrors of his life.
The story begins with two young children, John and Alice, getting left alone in their house as their parents go away, presumably on a date. The two children go into the cellar to play, and Alice accidentally does something to cause a wall to cave in. John goes back upstairs and grabs some candles to light their way as they go exploring behind the collapsed wall.
The story takes a strange turn here and the reader gets the feeling that it’s something that’s in John’s head, a fantasy of an adventure prevalent in young children. Here is the disjointed passage:
“…the(y) walked on farther & pretty soon the plastering left off & they were in a cave Little alice was frightened at first but at her brothers assurance that it was “all right” she allayed her fears, soon they came to a small box which John took up & carried within pretty soon they came on a boat in it were two oars he dragged it with difficulty along with him soon they found the passage came to an abrupt stop he pulled the obstacle away & to his dismay water rushed in in torrents...”
Later something occurs to him “…he can shut off the water...”, which he does, but then finds that his sister had drowned. The last paragraph is the opening quote of this essay.
It’s a gruesome little tale, but there is SO much packed into the passage of their “adventure.” It’s here we get the first indication something is off in the story. We go from a normal cellar to a strange, almost other worldly cave, something that fits the adventure theme because it seems like this cave would be right at home on Treasure Island. Why is it mysterious you ask? Because it’s a dry cave…but it has a boat and oars in it as well as a mysterious box that when opened contains a solid gold bar worth $10,000. The cave goes no where, it just dead ends, but John finds an “obstacle” which when removed creates a deluge. Once he saves himself with the edge of the boat the boat is never mentioned again, but suddenly he realizes he can shut off the water.
How could you use a valve to shut off water? Why, you can if there’s a water main!
The whole story is a fabrication. John Lee was going on an adventure in his head, when in reality he was just hanging out in his basement and a wall which held their water heater broke open and flooded the cellar. John was never scared like his little sister, because he knew they were only in the safety of their own basement the whole time.
But still his sister died, which brings me to my next point. Why was John capitalized the whole story and Alice in lower case? Was this some sort of sexism Lovecraft was practicing subconsciously? I really don’t think so.
This story is absolutely part of his early writings. The plotting is truncated and hazy, the grammar is atrocious, the writing is simple, but this story is a clear representation of how Lovecraft dealt with his own grief and how he dealt with the outside world.
The story is told in past tense, but the POV is muddled. It goes from 3rd person omniscient to 3rd person personal pretty fluidly. When the action is taking place, we are inside of John’s head, but when the scene is being described we are looking at the action as a fly on the wall. One gets the feeling that this was an unconscious effort to say that when bad things are happening to us, things become disjointed and too close to really understand what’s happening, it’s only in hindsight when we have a better understanding of what happened. So what does this have to do with the capitalization of Alice?
John goes on an Adventure, and the spoils of that adventure are $10,000, but the cost is his sister’s life. Like the last line says it was a “solid gold chunk worth about $10,000 enough to pay for any thing but the death of his sister.”
Worth any thing. He has come to an early realization that nothing can cover up the grief, and blames himself for causing the death of his sister. There is a feeling to this piece of tremendous sadness and uncontrollable self doubt and self hate. Alice isn’t capitalized in this story because to capitalize her would make her a person. To keep her lower case means she can just be a thing, and maybe, just maybe, that 10K can do something about it.
Join me next week as we take a glimpse at “The Thing on the Doorstep.”
“It was in the house of Dexter, in the northern part of the town near the present intersection of North Main and Olney Streets, on the occasion of Canonchet’s raid of March 30, 1676, during King Phillip’s War; and the astute sachem, recognising it at once as a thing of singular venerableness and dignity, sent it as a symbol of alliance to a faction of the Pequots in Connecticut with whom he was negotiating. On April 4th he was captured by the colonists and soon after executed, but the austere head of Ibid continued on his wanderings.”
Welcome back to a very strange Blind Read! This week we contemplate academia while ruminating on relevance, legacy, and idolatry and wax poetic while following Lovecraft’s lead!
What a odd, curious whimsey this story was. There really isn’t much to it as it’s primarily a brief satire of what Lovecraft deemed academia of the time period… but if we look closely, beyond the gallows humor indicative of the man, and past the analogy he was striving for, we catch some strange influences into his other works. Themes that seeped into popular culture over the years which have not been present in his others works. Theme’s subsumed within a blanket of normalcy. Ok, I’ll stop being coy, let’s get to it!
Like I said, there’s not much to the story (especially the length), but we get the analogy immediatly with the opening sentence:
“The erroneous idea that Ibid is the author of the Lives is so frequently met with, even among those pretending to a degree of culture, that it is worth correcting.”
This is immediately following from an opening quote (“…-as Ibid says in his famous Lives of the Poets.” – From a Student theme.)
We then get a brief glimpse of the history Ibid himself (with some ridiculous speculation on his name which puts together many Ceasar’s and common Roman names together…there may be something to this, but it’s not something I caught: Caius Anicius Magnus Furius Camillus Aemilanus Cornelius Valerius Pompeius Julius Ibidus) before Lovecraft describes how the man’s skull is passed from person to person throughout history. From ancient Rome to Charlemagne, from private citizens to soldiers, from Native Americans to witches. This skull is passed as heirloom, as an art piece, as a magical talisman, and as a curiosity. There are even scenes which recall Hamlet and his famous Yorick scene where he gazes at the skull, nay into the skull, as though there is some deeper meaning or power within it.
So what is the point? Why follow along with a supposed “Learned Man” and then his skull afterward? The quote would seem to indicate that Lovecraft is railing against the stupidity of the uninformed at first. From the matter of a student wrongly using a quote, to Lovecraft ridiculing those who don’t know the truth:
“It should be a matter of general knowledge that Cf. is responsible for this work“
“There is a false report – very commonly reproduced in modern books...”
This seems to be the idea, but then, after we survive a page of brain numbing etymology, we get this sentence: “His full name – long and pompous according to the custom of an age which had lost the trinomial simplicity of classic Roman nomenclature…“
Then we go into a romp of the mans skull through history. Why would the man’s skull, as it outlines in the quote at the beginning of this essay, be “a thing of singular venerableness and dignity” when the only reason it’s available to be handed down is because it was “exhumed and ridiculed by Lombard Duke of Spoleto, who took his skull (after exhuming it) to King Autheris for use as a wassail-bowl.“
It’s because Lovecraft is poking fun at the pompous nature of academia in general. These people are so focused on revering something which was created to use as a drinking vessel, but attribute all means of power to it because of it’s age and the misguided idea of what he wrote.
This threw me for a while as it seems as thought Lovecraft is making fun of himself, after all one of his primary themes which pop up again and again is the idea of gathering knowledge and respect for learning. Is this supposed to be another navel gazing romp? Is Lovecraft saying he isn’t taking himself too seriously so we shouldn’t? Or is he saying that maybe he has taken himself too seriously and should stop? I think it goes deeper than that.
When we think about characters like Curwen in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” they are the ones pursuing these dark powers. They are the ones pursuing the dark underbelly of nature by seeking out these vessels of the outer gods. It’s a theme that I’ve mentioned many times and it’s a theme which comes up again and again in Lovecraft. Characters who seek out knowledge to understand more about the universe.
There’s only one character whom has been able to do this and not paid a terrible price. That’s Randolph Carter. What makes Carter unique is that he didn’t actually strive for the knowledge, rather it was thrust upon him and he adapted and worked with it to better understand his place. Carter’s wasn’t a path of power, but rather of understanding. I think that’s the crux here. Yes, Lovecraft is railing against the pomposity of academia and learning, which he seems to revel in, but instead he’s pushing back against the idea of false knowledge.
Lovecraft is playing with us before we even start reading. Ibid is actually a writing tool. Ibid is an abbreviation of the Latin “ibidem” which means in the same place. When you see the word ibid in a reading list it is referring you to material in a source just mentioned. For example it could be another chapter of a book that has just been referred to. Even with the title Lovecraft is playing with us, as he’s letting us know that he’s mentioned this concept multiple times. He’s referencing back to his previous works. This whole story is merely a reference to prove his thesis in his current (at the time he wrote this) oeuvre.
Anything can be twisted to fit a narrative. The whole point of much of Lovecraft’s cosmic gods is the idea that we’re insignificant in comparison to the beings actually running the show. If you’re striving for power, your talisman will end up being a mug from some smart dead guy, but if you’re goal is respecting and living with that power, then and only then, will you end up with “The Silver Key.“
Join me next week as we delve into some of Lovecraft’s earliest work with “The Little Glass Bottle!”
One last this before you go. There is one last thing which this story brought to my head (pun totally intended). One big visual within Lovecraft’s legacy is the idea of the head sprout. Whether that’s from fungi breaking through the skull (an Example is from “Fruiting Bodies” by Brian Lumley), creatures breaking through (we’ve actually seen this in “The Haunter in the Dark“), or people gaining such “insight” that they literally have thoughts (creatures) as an extension of their skull (think the tokens in the game Bloodborne).
The mere fact that so many of the historical people and the fictional characters in this story thought they could gain power or knowledge from this skull made this correlation immediate in my brain. This is not much of a story, but although this is supposed to be a “Blind Read” (meaning that I’m reading the story for the first time, without knowledge of it), I read this one twice. I feel as though I’m still missing references and innuendo, but if I can leave you with anything that represents Lovecraft to me, I’ll leave you with this image:
“Plodding through the endless downtown streets and the bleak, decayed squares beyond, he came finally upon the ascending avenue of century worn steps, sagging Doric porches, and blear-paned cupolas which he felt must lead up to the long-known, unreachable world beyond the mists.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we are tackling the darkness and entreating to hold a candle to the mystery and banish the Haunter of the Dark!
I had to sit and ruminate for a while on this one to decide whether it was genius, or if there wasn’t much going on. I think this is what happens when people read Lovecraft in succession like this for as long as I have. The connections are the same, the locations just change. We absolutely get the influence of the Mi-Go, much like we had in The Whisperer in Darkness, and some direct contact with the Outer Gods. What I’m finding more and more intriguing with these stories is that there is absolutely a theme of the connectedness of madness and genius. This story though, had a new surprising twist which took me a while to pick up on.
This story, though written later than many of the other stories, seems as though he was trying to tack on his mythos into something a bit more gothic in nature. In essence this is a sequel to a Robert Bloch story (“The Shambler from the Stars” of which I have not read, so feel free to take this critique with a grain of salt. I’m making assumptions based upon what I know of Bloch’s work. Though he does bring in insanity nicely in much of his work. Think “Psycho.”) and we have some amazing imagery and some quintessential Lovecraftian academic themes (I’ll explain later), but when we boil it down to the ending, I initially felt it was phoned in…that is until I thought about his wording. What is a Haunter, really?
Right off the bat we are told the ending, “Cautious investigators will hesitate to challenge the common belief that Robert Blake (read Bloch) was killed by lighting.” and we know immediately that Blake will die from whatever he gets himself into. This also leads into the broader gaming aspect which has made Lovecraft so popular. Being an “Investigator” and endeavoring to reveal what kind of strange death or rare occurrence happened is the corner-stone of the gaming experience, and this story is a good example of how that framework came about. There aren’t really investigator characters in Lovecraft, but there are the curious interlopers and in stories like this the characters go down a rabbit hole which is exactly where the ideas of the game come into play. Things like finding artifacts and texts which lend to further understanding of the Lovecraft universe are probably what sparked the idea for the game in the first place. Which leads me to a wonderful scene in the tale.
“When he did look away, it was to notice a somewhat singular mound of dust in the far corner near the ladder to the steeple. Just why it took his attention he could not tell, but something in it’s contours carried a message to his unconscious mind. ploughing toward it, and brushing aside the hanging cobwebs as he went, he began to discern something grim about it. Hand and handkerchief soon revealed the truth, and Blake gasped with a baffling mixture of emotions. It was a human skeleton, and it must have been there a very long time.“
This tense exposition is a perfect example of the gothic nature of the story, but it’s slow burn displays it’s brilliance. We can feel the environment, the cold stone, the cobwebs, the air thick with dust, and everything there holds meaning. The skeleton uncovered is actually an old reporter from the defunct paper “Providence Telegram,” and a notebook Blake finds on the skeleton holds the history of what transpired to that poor soul.
There is also the oddity of the bones themselves. Yes they’ve been there for years, but there seems to be something strangely nefarious in the dark “The skull was in a very particular state – stained yellow, and with charred aperture in the top as if some powerful acid had eaten through solid bone.” There are even bones with “seemed oddly dissolved at the ends.” What could have possibly eaten through his head? There is even mention of a blackening, like lightning. Strange happenings, and even through the end we don’t get a complete resolution…that is until we dig into the text a bit more.
So what was it that caused this reporters death? Was it shock? Herat attack? Was there some strange electrical charge which did this? Acid? Perhaps we might look to his journal:
“Fr. O’Malley tells of devil-worship with box found in great Egyptian ruins – says they call up something that can’t exist in light. Flees a little light, and banished by strong light. Then has to be summoned again. Probably got this from deathbed confession of Francis X. Feeney, who had join Starry Wisdom in ’49. These people say the Shining Trapezohedron shews them heaven & other worlds, & that the Haunter in the Dark tells them secrets in some way.”
So was this a cultist haven instead of a church? What is the Shining Trapezohedron? What kind of wisdom did the Haunter show them, and who is the Haunter? The layout of the church itself is even curious, “The designs were largely conventional, and his knowledge of obscure symbolism told him much concerning some of the ancient patterns.” and even more strange, “Blake noticed that the cobwebbed cross above the altar was not of the ordinary kind, but resembled the primordial ankh or crux ansata of shadowy Egypt.“
There are even strange texts there in the old chapel area, “a Latin version of the abhorred Necronomicon, the sinister Liber Ivonis, the infamous Cultes des Goules of Comte d’Erlette, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Juntz, and old Ludvig Prinn’s hellish De Vermis Mysteriis. But there were others he had known merely by reputation or not at all – the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the Book of Dzyan, and a crumbling volume in wholly unidentifiable characters yet with certain symbols and diagrams shudderingly recognizable to the occult student.“
Blake continues further up past “Yellowish stains and charred patches (were) found on the ladder to the windowless spire,” where he finds a strange shining stone (The Trapezohedron) and glimpses the vast secrets of the universe within it. He sees beyond Yuggoth (Pluto as we found from “Whisperer in Darkness”), he sees the history of the strange Mi-Go first coming to Antarctica, lost continents lost to the sea (Atlantis? R’lyeh?) all the way through to Egypt…where Nyarlathotep corrupted. But the visions also seemed to call something forth. Something large and winged and darker than the night. Something which lives in darkness and something that, now that he has gazed into the stone, knows about Blake and can see into him as well. Sees him and speaks to him, even after the box with the strange shining stone is closed. The Haunter in the Dark.
Here is Lovecraft bringing in his classic theme of shape to something new and devious. The Shining Trapezohedron immediately makes me think of the puzzle box from Hellraiser, could this be that Lovecraft has created yet ANOTHER trope for the horror genre? Well, whether he did or not, he does bring back his infamous odd angles. If we remember back with “Dreams in the Witch house” (probably the best designation of this theme), Lovecraft uses strange angles and shapes to give off the feeling that something is off. When buildings are convex instead of being concave as in “The Music of Erich Zann” and it gives the reader a feeling that something unnatural is happening, but in “Dream in the Witch House” the odd angles actually create magic. They create a space where our reality has folded into different angles and the spaces between the dream world, the universe, and time, are thin. Something Stephen King would have called a “thinny” in his Dark Tower series. This thin space allows magic to flow into our world, but it also gives us glimpses into worlds beyond our ken, much like this Trapezohedron…or even the puzzle box.
So the “Haunter” who seems to live in the space of the box, now has a view to Blake, but then something terrible (at least for Blake) happens. There is a terrible storm and the power goes out. Because we know the Haunter lives in the dark and fears the light, there is a mounting fear through the remainder of the story, until finally we get to the climax.
Through the dark they find Blake, frozen before his window. There were the familiar burn marks on the top of his head, however the glass of the window was unaffected, also “...a burst of the singular foetor was likewise noticed.” in his room.
“The rigid body sat bolt upright at the desk by the window, and when the intruders saw the glassy, bulging eyes, and the marks of stark, convulsive fright on the twisted features, they turned away in sickened dismay.“
They couldn’t wrap their minds around what could have possibly happened so they said it had to be lighting…lightning that scorched the top of his head, much the same as the journalist in the church spire. There is also that Fetid Odor (yep I meat to capitalize it. There are so many mentions of the “odour” in Lovecraft that I feel as though it’s the outsider calling card. It just deserves something more.) which pervades the room and emanates from the body.
To me there is something far more disgusting going on here.
If we look up the definition of “Haunter” in Webster’s one of the meanings is “To remain persistently; to loiter; stay or linger.” and the story is built upon the premise that Blake saw something of the Haunter in the Trapezohedron and it has come back for him, but that doesn’t really fit with the title.
I think what’s really going on here is the Haunter is a being, or beings, who use the Trapezohedron to traverse time and space, much like the witch did in her strangely angled house, and when Blake gazed upon it the knowledge it gave him was of the universe. But to give that knowledge it implanted, or impregnated, his brain with a thought child. A thought child that grew in the darkness, because what it was used to was the void of space. No, the Haunter didn’t come from outside, the Haunter lingered in Blake’s brain until it grew large enough, by feeding on his psyche. It waited until it was dark enough to extricate itself from his mind and not be damaged by the light. It used the synapses of his brain to create an exit and literally fried an exit hole through his skull. That’s why his head looked like it was hit with lightning. That’s why there’s the strange fetid (read fungoid) odor coming from his head.
We found out in “The Whisperer in Darkness” that the strange smell which is re-occurring in Lovecraft is actually that of a rotten fungous, which is the smell of Yuggoth. And what is a fungous? It’s a parasite. It grows from others nutrients. It’s a passenger. It’s a Haunter.
Join me next week as we dive into another of Lovecraft’s comedic short tales, IBID!
“With the memory of the roadside claw-print fresh in my mind, Akeley’s whispered paragraphs had affected me queerly; and the hints of familiarity with this unknown world of fungous life – forbidden Yuggoth – made my flesh creep more than I cared to own. I was tremendously sorry about Akeley’s illness, but had to confess that his hoarse whisper had a hateful as well as pitiful quality. If only he wouldn’t gloat so about Yuggoth and it’s black secrets!”
Welcome back for another Blind Read! This week we conclude our dive into the strangely fungoid world of the Mi-Go and talk about the last half of The Whisperer in Darkness.
So the first half of the story was our narrator gathering information about what happened to Akeley and the strange other-worldly beings who turned out to be harbingers for the remainder of the tale. In this second half we have the narrator’s (Wilmarth) trip to Vermont and the subsequent confrontation with Akeley.
As we begin this second half Lovecraft infuses a strange feeling of a descent by describing the trip from the city to the “more primitive New England.” We get the visuals of the Industrial revolution with “foreigners and factory smoke, billboards and concrete roads” as we descend and “As I did so it seemed to me that I was likewise turning the calendar back a century.“
This is a lengthy (in page number) traverse through the country on our way to find Akeley’s farm and it actually feels as though this is an intended technique. Lovecraft is giving us time, as readers, to transcend the modernity of which the story had been taking place, and supplanting that with this metaphorical descent into the old and unknown. We even get introduced to a new and unnerving character, one Mr. Noyes, a particularly put together but aloof young man with a faint Bostonian accent whom serves as Wilmarth’s driver. If this seems strange to you you’re not alone, our narrator felt it as well, “Remembering what a hermit Akeley had been, I was a trifle surprised at the ready availability of such a friend” (to come down and pick the narrator up and bring him to the farm). There is the mention of Akeley having “a sudden attack of some asthmatic trouble.” which is curious because throughout this tale, even in the quote which opens this essay, we have mention that these creatures are a fungi. Fungus are a spectacular way to develop asthma or allergic reactions and it seems as though Akeley is having those more and more frequently of late. In fact even a few pages later when our narrator finally gets to the farm he tells us “They were the hellish tracks of the living fungi from Yuggoth.“
Noyes tells our narrator that Akeley would love to see him, but he is in a difficult state. His “Asthma” is so bad that he’s incredibly sick and cannot get up. It’s so bad in fact that he must spend his time recovering in the dark heavily blanketed. Yeah…that’s some gnarly Asthma.
The narrator gets to the room and immediately wants to leave…”Perhaps it was a certain odd odour which I thought I noticed – though I well know how common musty odours are in even the best of old farmhouses.“
I highlight this because throughout this series I have notated many times Lovecraft has mentioned the strange odors and they always revolve around these outer gods or their subservients. I’ve always assumed that there was some kind of sulphuric smell, indicating a connection with the Devil or the underground (in fact if memory serves, there was a single mention of this specific olfactory note), but I wonder if all along it was actually the musty, slightly vegetative rottenness of fungi which these characters have been notating as the funk. If these Yoggothians are parallel or even ubiquitous with great gods such as Azathoth (which this tale seems to indicate), then the strange odors which these characters smell in almost every Lovecraft work is fungus.
This makes Lovecraft’s works powerful on so many levels! Even now, modern science is looking for extraterrestrial life, but so far all that we can find which could exist in the chemicals of our galaxy is but single cell organisms and fungus. Lovecraft is contending that these creatures come from Pluto (read Yuggoth), and though we know that planet is covered in ice, it does not preclude the possibility of fungus. The fact that these ancient creatures are fungous made sentient and have been around since the dawn of time is just so intriguing, when you contrast that with the evolution of mankind beside them.
There is so much of this we could dig into, but I’m going to save that for a later post…anyway, back to the story…
The narrator sits down with Akeley in the dark and they begin to discuss what’s been going on. Akeley jumps right into the hard science:
“Do you know that Einstein is wrong, and that certain objects and forces can move with a velocity greater than that of light? With proper aid I expect to go backward and forward in time, and actually see and feel the earth of remote past and future epochs. You cant imagine the degree to which those beings have carried science. There is nothing they cant do with the mind and body of living organisms. I expect to visit other planets, and even other stars and galaxies. The first trip will be to Yuggoth, the nearest world fully peopled by beings…
Yet I am going there.”
We spend nearly the entire rest of the story going over the logistics of what these outer beings do to gather humans to travel faster than light or time. The problem is our corporeal selves…at least that’s what Akeley was told. They have a specific method of extracting the brain and setting it in a tube. This metal tube is what would make the transition through space and time and thus give the consciousness of an individual being greater knowledge and understanding…all they have to sacrifice is their own body.
Akeley, cloaked in darkness, makes a motion to the tubes in the room and one of them begins to speak to our narrator. The disembodied consciousness describes to Wilmarth of the great expanse which he has seen (the brain in the tube…not Wilmarth) and will soon see again. The knowledge of the larger world and that these fungoid creatures mean us no harm, but that they indeed want to increase our knowledge of the wider world.
They spend the night trying to make our narrator believe that their intentions are honest. That they are not trying to hurt him and all of this begins to make a little sense. The letters from Akeley going from concern, to fear, to understanding, and when you’re reading it (as you can tell from the previous essay I posted last week) you get the distinct feeling that there is something off about the whole scenario. That these creatures are only putting up a front. That Akeley is being tricked and he’s not really going to be able to go off and do these things.
But nothing actually happens. The narrator just goes to sleep and leaves Akeley to converse with the strange brains in the tubes and with Noyes… and when he wakes Akeley is gone. So in the end this doesn’t actually turn out to be a horror story because Akeley gets to go out to the stars and experience the strange like very few humans have ever before.
Let’s back this up shall we?
When the narrator first gets to the farmhouse he notices a strange vibration in the air that immediately makes him feel off, then there was Akeley himself:
“For a moment the closed blinds allowed me to see very little, but then a kind of apologetic hacking or whispering sound drew my attention to a great easy chair in the farther, darker corer of the room. Within it’s shadowy depths I saw the white blur of a man’s face and hands.“
“There was a touch of the pitiful in the limp, lifeless way his leans hands rested in his lap. He had on a loose dressing-gown, and was swathed around the head and high around the neck with a vivid yellow scarf or hood.“
“It was a hard whisper to catch at first, since the grey mustache concealed the moment of his lips, and something in its timbre disturbed me greatly;”
And our narrator was given a coffee: “My first spoonful revealed a faintly unpleasant acrid taste, so that I did not take more.”
The characters also mention the Necronomicon again and again, and as we know from Lovecraft’s previous works this is not a tome of the Other Gods, but instead it’s a tome of necromantic magic that uses (sparsely) the powers of the cosmos.
So then what the devil is going on here? As it turns out the Akeley we meet is not who he says he is. That final letter we get from Akeley is actually not Akeley either, but an impostor and the really terrified letter the narrator received was the last communication Akeley sent before he was taken by these creatures. The form in the shadows…the titular Whisperer…is a creature from beyond, whom is covered up and disguised so that Wilmarth, our narrator, doesn’t notice that it’s not him. The horror doesn’t really come until the last line of the story, when the confusion of the events begins to unfold:
“For the things in the chair, perfect to the last, subtle detail of the microscopic resemblance – or identity – were the face and hands of Henry Wentworth Akeley.“
When we look back at the last phonograph Wilmarth hears, we know that Akeley was taken against his will:
“...brought it on myself…sent back the letters and the record…end on it…taken in…seeing and hearing…damn you…impersonal force, after all…fresh, shiny cylinder…great God…“
Between this recording and the hidden Akeley we know that whomever is at play…possibly the nefarious Nyarlathotep (whose name is uttered in one of the recordings), does not have philanthropy at heart. They are harvesting something. To me, all of these things happening at a farm indicates a brutal and corrupted sense of humor…one that is right at home in Lovecraft.
Join me next week as we seek out the Haunter in the Dark!