“One seldom saw them; but a few times a year they sent down little yellow, squint-eyed messengers (who look like Scythians) to trade with merchants by means of gestures, and every spring and autumn they held the infamous rites on the peaks, their howlings and altar-fires throwing terror into the villages.“
Welcome back for another Blind Read! This week will be in a slightly different format as the story we cover is a unique entry for Lovecraft as well.
The tale is told through the frame of an epistle recalling a dream; and undoubtedly it’s a recollection of a dream that Lovecraft himself had. There isn’t much to the story in and of itself – it tells of a group in a Roman Legion who are investigating a disturbance outside of a town – but the text itself informs us more as to the man and his incorporation of history than anything else.
The story begins with the salutation of the letter, “Dear Melmoth.”
Without a doubt this is a reference to Charles Maturin’s 1820 gothic novel “Melmoth the Wanderer” which centers around a man who sells his soul to the devil in trade for an extra 150 years of life. This is a common theme in Lovecraft – the pursuit of knowledge and the desire for an elongated life to gather such knowledge. Invariably the contract ends up corrupting the soulless character and they end up seeking Eldritch magic to make their lives even longer. In stories such as “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” we have a sample character of Curwen who has a coven of three. These men have done much the same as Malmoth, where they basically have denied their morals so they may live longer. One has to consider that the narrator of this tale, (whom signs in Latin) is indeed a contemporary of Melmoth and has partaken in a similar deal…perhaps directly relating to the circumstances of this story.
The narrator tells us that he thinks the dream which is the basis of this tale is a product of reading the Aeneid on Halloween, “This Virgilian diversion, together with the spectral thoughts incident to All Hallows’ Eve with its Witch-Sabbaths on the hills, produced in me last Monday night a Roman dream of such supernatural clearness and vividness, and such titanic adumbrations of hidden horror, that I verily believe I shall some day employ it in fiction.”
And clear and vivid it was. We have a six page, single paragraph story which details life in a Roman culture. The story is fairly simple, though with a few Lovecraft flourishes, but what I find fascinating about this is how much Lovecraft was enamored with two ancient civilizations. The Romans and the Egyptians.
Nearly every story of his has some kind of connection to one or the other of these societies, and I have to wonder if it’s because of their accumulation of knowledge. These two cultures were known as two of the most learned early dynasties, both with questionable roots hidden beneath their outward collective togetherness, in fact there is a passage here which brings this to light:
I, however, who seemed to be a close friend of Balbutius, had disagreed with him; averring that I had studied deeply in the black forbidden lore, and that I believed the very old folk capable of visiting amongst any nameless doom upon the town, which after all was a Roman settlement and contained a great number of our citizens.
This group was well within the borders of the empire, and yet still they had “mountain folk” who delved into deep forbidden lore. Obviously Lovecraft is speaking about these “very old folk” of the mountains praying to the Outer Gods or at least the Great Old Ones. This idea brings to mind some of the old cults of Crete and I have to wonder if the origination of the idea of the Eldritch Gods came from the Eleusinian Mysteries.
These Mysteries were one of those hidden cults within the Roman legions who were based on an old agrarian Grecian religion who prayed to Persephone. The Mysteries were heady rituals which often prayed directly to Hades and frequently divulged in psychotropic drugs so that members may have a “vision quest” to the underworld and back…the same journey as Persephone.
Yet another reason to believe this comes in the last line, “Of the fate of that cohort no record exists, but the town at least was saved – for encyclopedias tell of the survival of Pompelo to this day, under the modern Spanish name of Pampelona...” Pampelona is known as a flourishing agricultural center and seeing as the Eleusinian Mysteries were based around Ag, one has to wonder…
The central dogma of the mysteries come from a dialog from Homer and echoed in Virgil. Could there be a correlation with Lovecraft reading Virgil then relating these Mysteries to modern day Salem, Mass. and witchdom?
“There were shocking dooms that might be called out of the hills on the Sabbaths; doom which ought not to exist within the territories of the Roman People; and to permit orgies of the kind known to prevail at Sabbaths would be but little in consonance with the customs of those whose forefathers…had executed so many Roman citizens in the practice of Bacchanalia – a matter kept ever in memory…graven upon bronze and set open to every eye.”
Lovecraft would be the one to tell you, as he had such a high, nearly narcissistic view of himself. Much like our narrator here: “That the danger to the town and inhabitants of Pompelo was a real one, I could not from my studies doubt.” He here’s the only one in a Roman Legion who has the knowledge that the “very old folk” in the hills are a danger to the town, and the record he puts forth here is that he is the main reason why the town was saved…not because he could defeat whatever was out there that the very old folk summoned…but because he knew well enough to avoid it.
This strange dichotomy, that Lovecraft was agoraphobic and xenophobic, but still he felt he was the only one that could help people, shines here. The narrator knows that there are strange things in the hills, and the only person with first hand knowledge of what could possibly be there cant deal with it, “Looking for the youth Vercellius, our guide, we found only a crumpled heap weltering in a pool of blood…He had killed himself when the horses screamed.” The legion is faced with what the guide knew to be true:
“And the torches died out altogether, there remained above the stricken and shrieking cohort only the noxious and horrible altar-flames on the towering peaks; hellish and red, and now silhouetting the mad, leaping, and colossal forms of such nameless beasts as had never a Phrygian priest or Campanian grandam whispered of in the wildest of furtive tales.“
This is the hidden allegory of which I’m not even Lovecraft was conscious of. The legion was heading off to confront a group of “very old folk” of unknown origin in the great mountains. The alien ranges fed into Lovecraft’s agoraphobia, and the unknown people, the people who had strange beliefs unknown and off-putting to him, fuel his xenophobia. The physical manifestation of these fears are the creatures which are so massive and aged that they block the stars. This fear of Lovecraft’s is so overwhelming that the terror it brings is Eldritch and Ancient and Unfathomable.
If you have any theories, I’d love to hear them in the comments!
Join me next week as we delve into the mystery “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”
“We spent the rest of the night in the brilliantly lighted study, nervously discussing what we should do next. The discovery that some vault deeper than the deepest known masonry of the Romans underlay this accursed pile – some vault unsuspected by the curious antiquarians of three centuries – would have been sufficient to excite us without any background of the sinister.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we dive down into the depths of Gothic Romanesque castles to find the truth behind The Rats in the Walls. This story is lauded as one of Lovecraft’s best of his first decade of writing, and though the imagery it elicits created one of the absolute best illustrations of Lovecraft’s work to date (in my opinion at least), the story is a bit plodding. It isn’t until the last five pages or so that we really get into the gruesome reality of the story and it’s understandable that it was turned down by so many publications early on (notably rejected by Argosy)… this is one vivid and gory tale.
I contend that the reason it’s said to be the best of his early work is because so much of what he strove to do early on was focus on detail to elucidate setting… in that case this story truly is one of the best he wrote early on. In addition to that factoid, we also have his early theme of family. Specifically revolving around genetic madness. So many of his stories have to do with the narrator slowly realizing that he’s odd, or at least his impulses are, but it’s not really his fault. It’s because there is some kind of hereditary defect which creates a strain of corruption.
This leads me to believe that there must have been something in his own life… some drive or impulse that he (Lovecraft) felt nagging at the back of his skull which he felt was directly a cause of his genes. Or could he have been of the mindset that all humans are inherently good and the only reason someone would turn bad, or even evil, is if they had some kind of genetic interference with their ancestors who in turn passed on the defect? I’m sure there is some Lovecraft scholar out there that knows the answer to this. If you do, leave a comment for discussion!
Anyway, lets get into the text…
We start off with place. The narrator tells us, “On July 16, 1923, I moved into Exham Priory after the last workman had finished his labors.” So the first sentence tells us that there’s some religious undertones to the story. The fact that the narrator is moving into a Priory gives us that immediate understanding of a vast array of history surrounding place…and religion in Lovecraft is rarely good. The reason the place is laid bare is in the next sentence:
“...a tragedy of intensely hideous, though largely unexplained, nature had struck down the master, five of his children, and several servants; and driven forth under a cloud of suspicion and terror the third son, my lineal progenitor and the only survivor of the abhorred line.”
This is our first indication that something is wrong. Why would our narrator call his genetic line abhorred? There’s a bit of contextualization, but we as readers are supposed to pick up that there is something not quite right with the family. However the narrator tells us right up front, “Had I suspected their nature, how gladly I would have left Exham Priory to it’s moss, bats, and cobwebs!”
The narrator gets flack for rebuilding this monument to the past, specifically from the people who live in the nearby town: “When the people could not forgive, perhaps, was that I had come to restore a symbol so abhorrent to them; for, rationally nor not, they viewed Exham Priory as nothing less than a haunt of fiends and werewolves.“
Why werewolves? Lycanthropy, in all of my forays into Lovecraft, has not been a trope that he is prone to focus on. There is primate mating, but no specific virus or disease which causes a person to become an animal. What is it about this, “prehistoric temple, a Druidical or ante-Druidical thing which must have been contemporary with Stonehenge“?
Why had the locals “…represented my ancestors as a race of hereditary daemons beside whom Gilles de Retz and Marquis de Sade would seem veriest tyros, and hinted whisperingly at their responsibility for the occasional disappearances of villagers through several generations“?
Was it because he had an ancestor who “performed nameless ceremonies at the bidding of a Phrygian priest.” or the “young Randolph Delapore of Carfax, who went among the negroes and became a voodoo priest after he returned from the Mexican War” or potentially even “…the hideous tale of Lady Mary de la Poer, who shortly after her marriage to the Earl of Shrewsfield was killed by him and his mother, both of the slayers being absolved and blessed by the priest to whom they confessed what they dared not repeat to the world.“
Well, for the purposes of this story and for the intention of our narrator, (dont forget the lycanthropy thread) it’s probably “…most vivid of all, there was the dramatic epic of the rats – the scampering army of obscene vermin which had burst forth from the castle three months after the tragedy that doomed it to desertion – the lean, filthy, ravenous army which had swept all before it and devoured fowl, cats, dogs, hogs, sheep, and even two hapless human beings before its fury was spent.”
Here we have our explanation more than anything else. The titular rats have made their entrance into the story and they are causing all the havoc. So the priory was burned down. Years later, our narrator rebuilds the house and moves in. Obviously people are not happy, but why? Everything happened so far in the past and the real reason why people disliked his family was because of the rats…well that and the…werewolves.
Shortly after moving in, our narrator immediately finds that something isn’t right with the newly built house. “I told the man there must be some singular odour or emanation from the old stonework, imperceptible to human senses, but affecting the delicate organs of cats even through new woodwork. This I truly believed, and when the fellow suggested the presence of mice or rats, I mentioned that there had been no rats there for three thousand years…“
The narrator’s cat (who’s name I will not repeat here) was pawing at tapestries and walls where nothing presented itself. It was curious to our narrator, but nothing to be alramed about. I will, however, call your attention to the line, “imperceptable to human senses,” and remind you one more time of the strange mention of lycanthropy earlier in the story.
Later that night he has a dream which foreshadows everything else and gives a precursor to the great artwork of Michael Whelan: “I seemed to be looking down from an immense height upon a twilit grotto, knee-deep with filth, where a white-bearded daemon swineheard drove about his staff a flock of fungous, flabby beasts whose appearance filled me with unutterable loathing.“
Strange happenings continue into the next day and eventually our narrator finds a sub-basement. Too scared to proceed alone he calls on a friend, Captain Norrys, and beneath the Roman construction they found a vault:
“The Vault was very deep in the foundations of the priory, and undoubtedly far down on the face of the beetling limestone cliff overlooking the waste valley.”
The quote which opens this essay comes next, with our intrepid explorers trying to figure out what to do. They eventually decide to go through the sub-cellar and go into the vault…where nothing good could ever come.
“There now lay revealed such a horror as would have overwhelmed us had we not been prepared. Through a nearly square opening in the tiled floor, sprawling on the flight of stone steps so prodigiously worn that it was little more than an inclined place at the centre, was a ghastly array of human or semi-human bones. Those which retained their collocation as skeletons shewed attitudes of panic fear, and over all were the marks of rodent gnawing. The skulls denoted nothing short of utter idiocy, cretinism, or primitive semi-apedom.”
What I find truly intriguing about this part of the story is that all of these men are following our narrator down into this pit without any kind of inclination as to what they’re doing. The only person to hear the critters was our narrator (“imperceptible to human senses“), so it must just be the high of the discovery itself that kept them going.
Beyond that we have another mention of “apedom.” This calls back to “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” where, again, one of Jermyn’s ancestors went to the Congo and wed a She-Ape who was considered a demi-god. Arthur Jermyn finds out that his ancestor is a white ape. Could our narrator here have much the same ancestral line? Or could there be a streak of rodent lycanthropy in his past?
Our group keeps going down until we get to this incredible passage. It is here that Lovecraft starts to really pour it on thick:
It was a twilit grotto of enormous height, stretching away farther than any eye could see; a subterraneous world of limitless mystery and horrible suggestion. There were buildings and other architectural remains – in one terrified glace I saw a weird pattern of tumuli, a savage circle of monoliths, a low-domed Roman ruin, a sprawling Saxon pile, and an early English edifice of wood – but all these were dwarfed by the ghoulish spectacle presented by the general surface of the ground. For yards about the steps extended an insane tangle of human bones, or bones at least as human as those on the steps. Like a foamy sea they stretched, some fallen apart, but others wholly or partly articulated as skeletons; these latter invariably in postures of daemoniac frenzy, either fighting off some menace of clutching other forms with cannibal intent.
I’ve been dancing around it, but this has to be the inspiration for the classic Michael Whelan cover. This is the Lovecraft that I had always been looking for as a young man growing up. For me it was always about the imagery and the feel of what he was writing, rather than the actual themes that he was exploiting. I would sit and look at the Michael Whelan covers and marvel at their gothic surrealist nature, but whenever I picked Lovecraft up the language was too daunting for me to overcome.
Now that I’m older and more well read and capable of the mental bandwidth it takes to analyze his language, I felt it was the perfect time to dissect his works, which is why this blog came into being. Hopefully it will give others the ability to enjoy his stories, despite the language, or in some cases, maybe even because of it.
But I digress.
“It was the antechamber of hell, and poor Thornton fainted again when Trask told him that some skeleton things must have descended as quadrupeds through the last twenty or more generations.”
Our narrator had taken his fellows into some hellish nightmare with “prehistoric tumuli” and “skulls which were slightly more human than a gorilla’s…” All this in some massive vault underneath the priory and was so tumescent that “We shall never know what sightless Stygian worlds yawn beyond the little distance we went…“
The group traverses this nightmare realm, built upon centuries of bodies and bones, until the narrator finally hears what he was dreading:
“It was the eldritch scurrying of those fiend-born rats, always questing for new horrors, and determined to lead me on even unto those grinning caverns of earth’s centre where Nyarlathotep, the mad faceless god, howls blindly in the darkness to the piping of two amorphous idiot flute players.”
This is where the theories of the narrative diverge, as no one else in the party sees or hears the rats other than our narrator, who incidentally spouts off some phrase in Gaelic:
“That is what they say I said when they found me in the blackness after three hours; found me crouching in the blackness over the plump, half-eaten body of Capt. Norrys, with my own cat leaping and tearing at my throat.“
Two theories jump out at me as the narrator is put away raving that he didn’t kill Captain Norrys, the rats did. The first is what I like to believe because of all the seeds planted earlier in the story. We had the mention of werewolves, which is merely a reference for us to understand that there is Lycanthropy in the possibility of this story, but instead of it being a werewolf, it’s a wererat.
The second notion is that the narrator is the only one to ever hear the rats in the walls; with the exception of his cat, but I’d contend that the cat was trying to say that something was there in the walls. Some vast power the cat was trying to get to. Cats have power in Lovecraft, just look at “The Cats of Ulthar.”
The unique take on this however, is that the narrator doesn’t take on the appearance of a rat, but the mental capacity of the rat. That’s the power of the lycanthrope here and that’s probably the storm of rats which happened all those years previous. What was built underneath the priory is a temple to the horrible god Nyarlathotep and the people tied to the priory, the people who practiced the rituals and built the horrible vault, were the people inflicted with the curse of the lycanthrope. That’s why so many of the townsfolk are scared of the priory…years ago it was a group of cannibals who imagined they were rats who stormed the village and killed and ate and ravaged. Thus when the narrator discovers the horrible truth, his genetic disposition is to turn feral and become one with the rat…poor Captain Norrys was just in the way as the rodent appetite took hold of the narrator.
We were also given a hint to the cannibalism earlier as well, which could also be considered part of Nyarlathotep’s influence.
The other theory is that everything was normal until they got to the vault and Nyarlathotep’s influence robbed the crew of their senses, but I this theory is all conjecture. The real evidence comes from what I’ve discussed prior and I tend to believe that Lovecraft puts in hints, buried underneath detail, and we just have to dig a bit to get to it.
This story touches on a number of tropes classic to Lovecraft as well. Genetic madness, place triggering memory and sanity, the haunted/possession trope, and architecture which develops a tone for the story. What I love about it (and probably why it’s lauded as his best) is that it puts all these themes together in one place, but doesn’t focus on any individual theme, which just enhances the overall feel of the whole story.
Let me know what you think in the comments! Were there mystical rats? Or was it really our narrator all along?
Join me next week as we dissect “The Very Old Folk”!
“For his part, he was afflicted with a complication of maladies requiring a very exact regimen which included constant cold. Any marked rise in temperature might, if prolonged, affect him fatally; and the frigidity of his habitation – some 55 or 56 degrees Fahrenheit – was maintained by an absorbption system of ammonia cooling, the gasoline engine of whose pumps I had often heard in my own room below.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! I’ve nearly read all of Lovecraft thus far (I think this series will only take me as far as March!) and I’ve seen many of his stories stated as influenced by Edgar Allen Poe; although Lovecraft himself states this story is more a homage to Arthur Machen, Poe bleeds off the page in this tale.
Because of this influence there is much lauding that this is a straight supernatural tale (no mythos involved). While it’s structure is exactly like “The Picture in the House” or “The Music of Erich Zann” (let’s be real, this story is the exact formula that many Lovecraft stories take), it’s hard to actually find the threat of Cosmic horror in this one, and for a casual reader, that thread would be lost. I contend that it’s there, however, as well as the influence of one of the most nefarious characters in all of Lovecraft’s Mythos.
Let’s get started shall we?
The first line, if you’ve read much Lovecraft, makes you roll your eyes:
“You ask me to explain why I am afraid of a draught of cool air; why I shiver more than others upon entering a cold room, and seem nauseated and repelled when the chill of evening creeps through the heat of a mild autumn day.”
It’s a classic entrance to many of his stories, setting us up with what we’re supposed to be expecting while giving a mild redirection of the action and concurrently establishing the unreliable narrator.
The action is pretty straightforward. We have a man who is down on his luck, but at the same time extremely perfidious. He was looking for a place to live, but unable to find anywhere clean enough for him. “It soon developed that I had only a choice between different evils, but after a time I came upon a house in West Fourteenth Street which disgusted me much less than the others I had sampled.”
What I find so interesting and a little ridiculous about this revelation is this narrator cared more for the cleanliness of the place and didn’t seem to mind so much about the loud machines running and a smell coming from the room above him from “an absorption system of ammonia cooling, the gasoline engine of whose pumps I had often heard in my own room below.”
The man in the room above, The Spanish Doctor Munoz, who “…most certainly was a man of birth, cultivation, and discrimination.” but then in the very next paragraph describes Munoz as having a physiognomy with a “Moorish touch.” This is our first clue that something is off about the man (well, at least in Lovecraft’s world). I’ve read enough Lovecraft to know that if we have a man of mysterious background and has a tinge of pigment in his skin, he more than likely some kind of ulterior motives. He is either directly a bad actor, or he’s working with someone who is.
Our narrator goes to visit with him and immediately gets a bad feeling from him: “Nevertheless, as I saw Dr. Munoz in that blast of cool air, I felt a repugnance which nothing in his aspect could justify.” We spend the next few paragraphs discussing Munoz, and how “...repugnance was soon replaced with admiration,” as we learn that Munoz has a strange affliction (which we learn a bit of in the opening quote of this essay). The admiration comes because Munoz, instead of letting his affliction run his life (there is a very good reason which we will find out later), he has designed a spectacular contraption to keep his temperature at 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
The narrator reviews some strange ministrations of which he has seen and been through and marvels at how well Munoz’s method works for him, despite the fact that “He developed strange caprices, acquiring a fondness for exotic spices and Egyptian incense till his room smelled like the vault of a sepulchered Pharaoh in the Valley of the Kings.”
Woah there. Wait a minute, wait just one minute. Here now we have two aspects of this story now relating to the Mythos in general. The first is that Munoz has a bunch of bottles in his apartment, both on tables and hanging, the second was that he developed a taste for Egyptian Incense. We know that Munoz “...talked of death incessantly, but laughed hollowly when such things as burial or funeral arrangements were gently suggested.”
If you remember, in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” the essential “Saltes” of people were kept in bottles which Curwen used to bring them back from the dead and make them slaves. Likewise in “The Terrible Old Man” similar bottles were hung about the old sailors house. Having these bottles is a sure sign that Munoz has had some kind of witchcraft in his past…or he is regularly practicing it.
Then we move onto the Egyptian Incense and which is a sly reference to the most nefarious being in Lovecraft’s oeuvre… Nyarlathotep. A cosmic entity who posed as an Egyptian Pharaoh who was heavily scented with said olfaction.
The majority of the Gods in the Mythos aren’t evil. They are just so all powerful and other-worldy that they tend to drive people insane… or smash them as a human would a bug. Nyarlathotep is different. Nyarlathotep is one of those absolute evil beings who would take over the world given the chance. In fact the prose poem Lovecraft wrote about this being shows just how terrible he really is.. Knowing that, everytime Lovecraft makes this kind of reference…to Egypt, Pharoahs, or spices, it immediately calls back to Nyarlathotep.
So what is Munoz doing? What is his connection? Well, we’re about to find out.
Dr. Munoz’s contraption to keep the room cool and to keep him healthy breaks. Our narrator runs out to find parts to replace it, while he has a young man run for ice to keep Munoz chilled.
The narrator comes back to find “The house was in utter turmoil, and above the shatter of awed voices I heard a man praying in a deep basso. Fiendish things were in the air, and lodgers told over the beads of their rosaries as they caught the odour from beneath the doctor’s closed door.“
The young man who was fetching ice had fled after the second load was brought in. He left screaming. Our narrator enters and finds “A kind of dark, slimy trail led from the open bathroom door to the hall door, and thence the desk, where a terrible little pool had accumulated.”
On the desk is a letter which ends our little tale of horror, but rather than have me describe it, you should read it for yourself:
“The end…is here. No more ice – the man looked and ran away. Warmer every minute, and the tissues can’t last. I fancy you know – what I said about the will and the nerves and the preserved body after the organs ceased to work. It was a good theory, but couldn’t keep up indefinitely. There was a gradual deterioration I had not foreseen. Dr. Torres knew, but the shock killed him. He couldn’t stand what he had to do – he had to get me in a strange, dark place when he minded my letter and nursed me back. And the organs never would work again. It had to be done my way – artificial preservation – for you see I dies that time eighteen years ago.”
Join me next week as we analyze “The Rats in the Walls.”
“As his hammer blows began to fall, the horse outside whinnied in a tone which may have been encouraging and may have been mocking. In either case it would have been appropriate; for the unexpected tenacity of the easy-looking brickwork was surely a sardonic commentary on the vanity of mortal hopes, and the use of a task whose performance deserved every possible stimulus.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re covering a story with all the mental veracity of Ambrose Bierce coupled with the Gothic beauty of Edgar Allan Poe. We have a very supernatural tale (a slight divergence from Lovecraft’s norm) which is perfect for this post because of the overtones matching Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (well, that is as perfect as any Lovecraft tale could be for Christmas!), because of it’s themes of repentance, and the almost anthropomorphizing of the horse in the story.
Well…It’s Christmas! Let’s get started!
Lovecraft let’s you know the tone right from the get go: “Mention a bucolic Yankee setting, a bungling and thick-fibred village undertaker, and a careless mishap in a tomb, and no average reader can be brought to expect more than a hearty albeit grotesque phase of comedy.”
We follow George Birch, the aforementioned undertaker in this tale, but Lovecraft does something unique right from the get go. He describes what happens in the story, holding back only the denouement, letting the reader’s mind run wild.
“It was generally stated that the affliction and shock were results of an unlucky slip whereby Birch had locked himself for nine hours in the receiving tomb of Peck Valley Cemetery, escaping only by crude and disasterous mechanical means; but while this much was undoubtably true, there were other and blacker things which the man used to whisper to me in his drunken delirium toward the last.”
So Birch, get’s locked in a tomb by accident and something happens to him there. Sure. My mind immedaitly turns to tales much like “The Tomb” where we get some of the strange Lovecraftian otherworldliness and I began trying to figure out what type of story I was getting my self into…was it a dreamlands? No, the tone was too straightforward. lovecraft has a tendency to give a slightly whimsical, or mystical cadence to his Dream Lands stories… so this must be a Mythos story… right?
Well the tone of this story is different from even those stories. Much like we saw last week, Lovecraft tends to spend quite a bit of time on setting the scene, because the power in much of the magic in “his world” comes from words and smells and architecture. This story spends pages talking about Birch himself. , “I suppose one should start in the cold December of 1880, when the ground froze and the cemetery delvers found they could dig no more graves till spring… The undertaker grew doubly lethargic in the bitter weather, and seemed to outdo even himself in carelessness.”
So Birch is a poor Scrooge, or Grinch like character. He is “bucolic” and a grouch, but what’s more he’s lazy. “Birch decided that he would begin the next day with little old Matthew Fenner, whose grave was also nearby; but actually postponed the matter for three days…” and adding to his procrastination: “He had, indeed, made that coffin for Matthew Fenner; but had cast it aside at last as too awkward and flimsy, in a fit of curious sentimentality aroused by recalling how kindly and generous the little old man had been to him during his bankruptcy five years before.” so the diminutive Fenner got one of the better coffins, while Asaph Sawyer who was not “a loveable man” got the terrible cast off coffin that Fenner was supposed to have received …all because Birch was just too lazy to build the correct sized coffin for Sawyer.
Fast forward to Birch inside the tomb, we get another indication of his laziness: “For the long-neglected latch was obviously broken, leaving the careless undertaker trapped in the vault, a victim of his own oversight.”
Birch, through his own laziness has become a victim of his own negligence. Here is the first indication of the Scrooge theme, Birch is sowing his own oats. He created a situation where he has now trapped himself because he couldn’t bother with doing a little work. The “Ghosts” of his past are coming back to haunt him here, but this is just the beginning.
He cant get the door opened, so he decides to take the morbid child approach and stack all the caskets in the tomb up like some sort of macabre ladder: And so the prisoner toiled in the twilight, heaving the unresponsive remnants of mortality with little ceremony as his miniature Tower of Babel rose course by course.”
We get the quote which opens the essay where Birch decides that he wants to chizel his way out of an aperture at the apex of his corpse stair, but …”As he remounted the splitting coffins he felt his weight very poignantly; especially when, upon reaching the topmost one, he heard that aggravated crackle which bespeaks the wholesale rending of wood.”
Because of his carelessness in constructing the coffins, he was now standing upon a tower of breaking timber and corpses, until “...no sooner was his full bulk again upon it than the rotting lid gave way, jouncing him two feet down on a surface which even he did not care to imagine.” That line right there gave publishers a pause. Lovecraft very rarely goes for the gross out, focusing instead on much higher end psychological scare tactics. Here he went full “Johnny Got his Gun” (there is a terrible scene where the main character gets caught in barbed wire and falls on and through a rotten and fetid corpse…this scene and story pales in comparison to the horror that Dalton Trumbo creates in that novel) as Birch’s feet go into the corpse of Asaph Sawyer.
This being a Lovecraft tale you would expect something strange to happen, something unexpected, something otherworldly, but this story is the exception to the rule. This story is a straight supernatural tale, and because of it’s difference it comes off all the stronger because of it. The corpse grabs his leg.
“In another moment he knew fear for the first time that night; for struggle as he would, he could not shake clear of the unknown grasp which held his feet in relentless captivity. Horrible pains, as of savage wounds, shot through his calves; and in his mind was a vortex of fright mixed with an unquenchable materialism that suggested splinters, loose nails, or some other attribute of a breaking wooden box.”
I felt the same way. I didn’t believe that Lovecraft would take a flat out supernatural approach, but I am kept on my toes. Birch gets free and runs away, liping along until he gets to ghis doctor. Once inspected and unloads his story off his conscience, Dr. Davis is horrified because he comes to understand exactly what happened.
Birch gave Sawyer Matthew Fenner’s coffin because Fenner’s coffin was poorly made and Sawyer’s coffin was well constructed. Dr. Davis comes to the realization that Fenner is extremely short, whereas Sawyer is extremely tall. Dr. Davis goes to the tomb and finds the corpse and finds the ultimate betrayal of the undertaker…
“The skull turned my stomach, but the other was worse – those ankles cut neraly off to fit Matt Fenner’s cast-aside coffin!”
The final nail in the coffin!
Birch actually cut off Sawyer’s feet to make sure he fit in the coffin and Davis verified that the teeth markes on Birch’s ankle were indeed from the rotten teeth of Sawyer.
To me this is the ghost coming down to show Scrooge the right path. This was the wake up call to stop being lazy and to start doing right by people. Whether you believe that Birch’s foot just happened to land on the corpse’s mouth, or that the corpse animated itself out of anger at it’s slight beyond the grave, this was Birch’s call, much like Scrooge being showed his possible future.
To me the story is perfect for the season (at least as perfect a story as Lovecraft can get), and I hope you all had a blast reading it!
Join me next week as we evaluate “Cold Air”
To me these Post Scripts have started to become a little bit of an inside joke, but truly they are all here just to get one last point across which doesn’t quite fit into the narrative of the essay. Here I would love to talk a little about the anthropomorphosizing of Birch’s horse.
The entire story the horse felt like something Walt Disney would create. The horse was tryign to tell Birch what he was doing was a mistake. You could almost feel the horse rolling it’s eyes at the laxy way Birch held the reigns. To me the horse was the true indicator that we were in a Lovecraft story. Doesn’t make sense does it? Let me explain.
Normally we would have an unreliable narrator teloing us a story. At some point in the story we get information that doesn’t quite add up right, but Lovecraft forcuses so much on subtlety that we wil never get an outright statement from the narrator saying something was off. We just need to infer based upon the surroundings.
In this story everything is fairly normal, except for the horse (a kind of macabre parrallel to The Grinch’s dog Max). The horse gives indication at every stage that Birch isn’t doing the right things with it’s outragous personality.
When Birch finally gets to teh tomb the horse neighs and stamps and paws, and soon leaves Birch to his fate as the man ventures in. It isn’t until this point that the narrator can take leave of reality. It isn’t until the horse leaves that we start to get something far beyond normal, and the horse doesn’t leave until the very end of the story.
In every tale Lovecraft tells he has a gatekeeper or a key-master. If they cause a rift they are a key-master, if they stop a rift from happening they are a gatekeeper. It is these characters, human or not, that keep things normal. In this story we dont know for sure if what happened to Birch was supernatural or not, but what leaves that open for question is that the gatekeeper is gone. It’s once this horse leaves that the crazy happens, and if you’ll notice…all of Lovecraft happens in the shadows when you’ve turned to look at something in the light.
“As I surveyed this quaint apartment, I felt an increase in that aversion first excited by the bleak exterior of the house. Just what it was that I feared or loathed, I could by no means define; but something in the whole atmosphere seemed redolent of unhallowed age, of unpleasant crudeness, and of secrets which should be forgotten.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! With heavy influences from Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft takes this story to a very dark place, creating an almost grim dark form of his predecessor. In addition to it’s extremely dark nature this tale is apparently the first mention of the Miskatonic Valley and potentially even the first glimpse of Arkham as Lovecraft develops the eponymous Lovecraft Country. We also get echoes and seeds of some other stories which would come about later and perhaps the introduction of a different favorite character; but make no mistake; this story is a wonderfully detailed terror.
This story is all about the details which tends to happen in Lovecraft periodically a ten page story about a single event. He tends to elucidate to such a degree as to give the reader a sense of being there. The detail is spectacular which lends to the extremely visceral denouement.
Our narrator begins by telling us of his search, that many searchers (he’s a genealogist) “haunt strange, far places…” like Egypt, “Rhine castles” and “forgotten cities in Asia.” But we find that our narrator has found a newer venue, a place where he can find ancient knowledge and deep lines of genealogy:
“But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.”
You see what I mean by detail? But what I find most interesting about this passage is “a new thrill“. This is Lovecraft stating that you’ll not find the run of the mill horrors here. This is a whole new level of terror. This is an entirely unique horror. This new thrill is Lovecraftian Cosmic horror.
We find the “Most horrible of all sights are the little unpainted wooden houses remote from travelled ways, usually squatted upon some damp, grassy slope or leaning against some gigantic outcropping of rock.” and “In such houses have dwelt generations of strange people, whose like the world has never seen.” who have “dark furtive traits from the prehistoric depths of their cold Northern heritage.“
Here he sets up these people as being human, but slightly separate from the normal, run of the mill, person. We see that, “Erring as all mortals must, they were forced by their rigid code to seek concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed.”
I find it odd that Lovecraft, the wordsmith that he was, chose to use the word “mortals” instead of humans. This seems to indicate to me that there is a shift in breeding and evolution (which makes sense seeing as the narrator is a genealogist), kind of like what happened to Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. These people, for all intents and purposes, are no longer human, but another line of genetics who are merely “mortal.”
Our narrator finds the house he’s looking for. “Honest, wholesome structures do not stare at travelers so slyly and hauntingly, and in my genealogical researches I had encountered legends of a century before which biased me against places of this kind.” never-the-less our narrator approaches and “...instead of trying the door I knocked, feeling as I did a trepidation I could scarcely explain.”
The narrator decides that the house must be occupied, so he enters and we get a grand description of the place adding to the ambience of the narrative, and just before we get the quote that opens this essay we find out that “Most of the houses in this region I had found rich in relics of the past, but here the antiquity was curiously complete; for in all the room I could not discover a single article of definitely post-revolutionary date.”
So if the owner of the building which is still inhabited, is either stuck in the past metaphorically, or they are preternaturally old and are hiding away from the species that they used to be.
While looking around the narrator comes across a book…Pigafetta’s Regnum Congo, which is a real account of a Italian traveler in the Congo region. The narrator flips through the book surprised and terrified at the illustrations which show beings which are half ape alongside others that are normal humans. This is either a call back or a precursor to “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” as in that story we find that a descendant of Arthur goes into the Congo and claims a wife…who turns out to be one of these partially white apelike creatures. In fact throughout Lovecraft we can see indications of these creatures and so far I am undecided as to whether they have a direct correlation to the ancient magics that take place in the alternate universe of Lovecraft, or they are just an accidental creation and have no real stake in anything that’s happening in the overall cosmic reality. It’s an interesting question and I’m sure that I wont ever truly have an answer to it, but I hope to glean a little more insight as I get through the rest of the stories.
While our narrator is reviewing the terrible “...Plate XII, which represented in gruesome detail a butcher’s shop of the cannibal Anziques.” we hear “the unmistakable sound of walking in the room overhead.” and the old tenant of the abode appears, who “seemed abnormally ruddy and less wrinkled than one might expect…But for his horrible unkemptness the man would have been as distinguished-looking as he was impressive.“
The man greets our narrator calmly for someone who just experienced a B and E and the two talk about the book for the majority of the remainder of the story… that is until “The especially bizarre thing was that the artist had made his Africans look like white men – the limbs and quarters hanging on the walls of the shop were ghastly, while the butcher with his axe was hideously incongruous. But my host seemed to relish the view as much as I disliked it.”
Yikes! Could it be there’s a reason the host didn’t balk at seeing a stranger in his house?
A storm brews outside which our narrator doesn’t notice immediately because the intensity of the storm increases as the fervor of the host’s grotesque desires bubble to the surface. As “I listened to the rain, and to the rattling of the bleared, small-paned windows, and marked a rumbling of approaching thunder quite unusual for the season. Once a terrific flash and peal shook the frail house to it’s foundations, but the whisperer (the host) seemed not to notice.”
The tenant is caught in zeal over the depictions of the cannibalism, and in fact soon tells our narrator “Queer haow a cravin’ gits a holt on ye- As ye love the Almighty, young man, don’t tell nobody, but I swar ter Gawd thet picter begun ta make me hungry fer victuals I coudn’t raise nor buy-” and finished by telling our narrator “They say meat makes blood an’ flesh, an’ gives ye new life, so I wondered ef ‘twudn’t make a man live longer an’ longer ef ’twas more the same.“
The storm ravages outside as droplets begin to fall upon the opened book, but we soon come to realize that “rain is not red.” Our narrator looks up and “...beheld just above us on the loose plaster of the ancient ceiling a large irregular spot of wet crimson which seemed to spread even as I viewed it.”
Our narrator has stumbled into the domicile of a cannibal who has been eating people for hundreds of years to keep himself alive, when “a moment later came the titanic thunderbolt of thunderbolts; blasting the accursed house of unutterable secrets and bringing the oblivion which alone saved my mind.”
There is a bit to unravel here and it’s all a little outside the normal realm of Lovecraft. The first aspect is the capitalization of “Gawd” by the host. The general usage of God versus god, is that when the capitalization is used in this context the speaker believes in this higher being, when it isn’t… he doesn’t. By all indications the narrator believes as well. What makes this particularly interesting is that Lovecraft was a notorious atheist, but he still includes divine intervention of the “Thunderbolt” at the end of the story. The whole thing feels more like a really dark Hawthorne tale rather than a Lovecraft story because of these influences. I half wonder if that was the intention because of the detail in the opening salvo of the story. It sounds remarkably similar in tone and description as the openings of “The Scarlet Letter” or “The House of Seven Gables.”
Could there be some latent subconscious religion spattered in here, or is this intentional on Lovecraft’s part?
After working on this project for as long as I have, I’d wager that he was working to emulate, not to infuse religion. That wasn’t something he really even cared to follow through with, and the capitalizations are not there in his other works. The only possible explanation is that the host was speaking of some cosmic being (Azathoth?) as a higher being, not the Roman-Catholic Yahweh.
What do you think?
Join me next week as we cover “In the Vault!”
Post Script: I mentioned in the introduction that there was the possible inclusion of a favorite character? I think there is a distinct possibility that the tenant is the “Terrible Old Man.” We know that at one point the Terrible Old Man came from Arkham or at least passed through it, and there is mention of the works of Cotton Mather of Salem Mass. fame in the house. We also know that the Terrible Old Man was at one point in Salem (possibly during Joseph Curwen’s time there). We also know that the Terrible Old Man is a sea captain who went all across the globe before finally settling down in Kingsport, so it is possible he gained some of this knowledge or info from his time at sea (possibly sailing into the Congo?).
Whether these connections are there or not, this is one of the most fun aspects of this project. Looking for these connections. See you next week!
“Hello. I’m Vincent Price, and you’re invited to my Carnival this evening. So far the ghosts have only murdered seven people. So won’t you come to make it 8? You’ll find creatures beyond imagination, murderers, ghouls, vampires and other…blood sucking things. You’d better hurry, your ticket…expires…at midnight. Your Carnival is at Hubert’s Grove.”
Oscar pulled the phone away from his ear and looked at it, as if its screen would divulge more information.
The call’s number was (000)000-0000, so Oscar didn’t answer. He turned to Olivia.
“What is it babe?”
“I just go this really weird call,” he held the phone out to her. “Listen to the message.” He half thought it was a joke. Olivia loved that horror shit. Oscar didn’t have a clue who Vincent Price was, but he was sure Olivia would. Besides that, every year at Halloween she begged Oscar to take her to Hubert’s Grove. It was one of those places where they build a haunted maze in the woods and then charge a crazy admission price to go in and have idiots in costumes jump out at you.
He realized he made a mistake handing the phone over a second before he did it.
“OH MY GOD WE HAVE TO GO!” Olivia squealed when she finished the message.
“No! That was really Vincent Price’s voice! They must have spliced it from old movies!”
“Babe…” Oscar repeated.
She looked at him, then firmly planted a fist on her hip. “You wanna get lucky tonight, you’re taking me.”
A few minutes later they were in the car on the way to Hubert’s Grove.
The marquee said “Carnival of Souls” and they parked right in front of it. The carnival was desolate and run down. There were no people about and the tarp which encompassed the tents was stained and torn. Dust blew on a hidden zephyr through the central concourse where a solo ticket booth stood. Behind the glass of the booth was an old mechanical Zoltar, which had an abyssal stare and teeth that were just a little too white.
The full moon was the only illumination in the carnival, but it was enough to show the way to through the park. Directly on the other side of the carnival was an old house of horrors dark ride with the title “The Tingler” and a large cutout of Vincent Price’s head under the arched name.
“Oh my God this is spectacular!” Olivia screamed and ran to the Zoltar ticket booth.
“For access to the carnival please place your tickets in the slot below,” the mechanical soothsayer intoned.
“Ah, damn babe, I don’t know about this,” Oscar said. “This thing ‘aint looking like it’s been running for years.”
“Oh stop it, you big baby! I seen the squash festival here last week,” Olivia came back at him.
Oscar looked up to the rusty ferris wheel. “That enough time to build all this stuff?”
“Totally! They build that shit in a few hours. Where are the tickets?” She asked.
“Serious? You were there, we ‘aint got no tickets. We just got that phone call.”
A bright flash came from Zoltar’s eyes that briefly blinded them before Vincent Price’s dulcet tones echoed through its voice box.
“Welcome to your carnival. We accept your ticket,” The voice paused and a loud boom echoed over the grounds followed by a shower of sparks. There was a soft baby’s cry and the rides burst to life. Oscar was sure he could still hear the baby’s lament behind the screeching of rusted gears, but he was distracted by the voice coming from the Ticket Booth.
“Your first tickets are for “The Tingler,” so named because of the parasite in your spine that gives you tingles every time you’re frightened. If you can survive The Tingler you will receive your ticket to the next attraction at the conclusion of the dark ride.”
Two tickets popped out of a metal disc at waist height on the Ticket Booth. The voice laughed a terrifying but familiar guffaw before it faded to the ambiance of the grinding gears and soft baby cry.
“This is so fucking cool,” Olivia said already running toward the haunted house dark ride.
Oscar looked down at his arms and could see goose flesh and hair standing on end.
“Hold up!” He said running after her.
The Tingler had a long ramp with switchbacks leading up to the entrance, where a track carried cars barely large enough for two people to sit in. Olivia jumped in one of the cars and slid to the side gently slapping the seat next to her, beckoning Oscar to join her. Her smile hit each ear. He squeezed in and lowered the safety bar to cover their laps.
“The more scared you are, the larger the Tingler grows,” a voice projected from the car’s speakers behind their head.
The car sped up, then jerkily slowed and slammed a 90 degree turn into the attraction, snapping their heads to the side. Oscar let out a little “uh” as they were suddenly faced with a realistic wax figure on a hydraulic piston shooting out at their car. With a hiss, the piston moved the figure away from the car, revealing how fake the set up was. It was dark inside of the first room, which looked like a laboratory with faint glowing red lights. There were dollar store props, including rubber bats hanging from the ceiling with twine. There were other wax figurines in the room as well, all in various poses of horror but none of them moving. On what looked to be an operating table was a wax figure working on what looked to be a giant rubber centipede.
“Your first experience of the Tingler is past! Don’t let it get too strong or it could take over!” Vincent Price’s voice echoed in their ears.
The car moved slowly through the room before snapping again to the left. A sound track of a scream blasted from the speakers behind their heads and the wax figure of a woman with long nails and sharp teeth jumped out at them. Oscar jumped, but Olivia squealed in delight. The hiss sounded and the hydraulics brought the wax doll back into the shadows.
The next scene had even worse décor. There were more wax dolls in a scene that looked like a scientist fighting off vampire, but the supposed house they were in was just canvas that covered the walls with a painted scene and a jarring green lightbulb which lit the room from the ceiling. Vampires were painted on the canvas to look like they were swarming the painted windows and there was a Paper Mache dog attached to a metal pole moving back and forth as though it was attacking one of the vampires. The wax figures looked fairly realistic, though the running wax was evident. Everything else looked like it was produced for an eight year old’s diorama.
“Oh, come on! This is…ooof!” Oscar started as the car made another sharp turn.
This time he closed his eyes as to not get the jump scare but volume of the scream in the speaker system still made him jump.
This room was another painted canvas, however this one depicted a large Victorian mansion. There was a wax figure with a knife attached to a pneumatic track in the middle of the room. It was moving back and forth so that every time it moved forward it stabbed another wax figure.
“The only way to stop the Tingler from taking over,” the voice echoed behind their heads again, “is to kill the host!”
Oscar rolled his eyes and searched for more fake decorations when he saw something strange. The wax figure getting stabbed was missing one of its eyes and beneath the wax veneer was a real eye, open wide and staring at him. Olivia was laughing beside him.
“Yo, what the fuck?” He said as the car jerked them around another corner.
Another figure jumped out at them, but this one had a knife in its hand. The knife slid into his shoulder and his cry of pain echoed the tinny voice over the speaker.
With a hydraulic hiss the wax figure moved backwards. As it did the figure’s the head slumped.
“Oscar?” Olivia wasn’t laughing anymore.
The figure that jumped out at them wasn’t wax. It was a dead woman with her hands tied together around the knife. She had enough wax coating her that it made her body slightly stiff.
The room they entered was entirely metal illuminated by a red light. A figure hunched over a large cauldron in the corner of the room. It was facing away from them, but it was tall and gaunt and absolutely alive.
“The Tingler gets stronger! We must kill its source before it gets out of control!” The voice echoed behind them. There was a click and a grinding noise coming from the speakers as if a record had completed and continued to spin on its pin.
“Oscar?” Fear laced Olivia’s voice.
Oscar tried to turn to see what made the noise and felt a needle slide into the back of his neck.
“Oww!” Olivia wailed.
Immediately Oscar’s vision blurred.
The figure leaning over the cauldron turned around. It was wearing a melting wax mask and underneath Oscar thought he saw burnt skin.
“Welcome to your carnival,” the figure said. “Where you’ll be an attraction for all eternity.”
The figure pulled a lever and the last thing Oscar saw was a body falling from the ceiling into the cauldron of wax.
I’m taking the week off from the Blind Read series to catch up on work, so I’ll leave you with a Lovecraft inspired story. Here’s a horror short based in the madness of the mind…
The black spot was still there. How many times have I scrubbed that damn thing? It’s always there, in the corner, next to the refrigerator, just above the counter in the kitchen. I used to put my knife block there to cover it. It was a large spot, but there were a lot of knifes in the set. It’s such an embarrassing spot. It makes me feel like people would look at it and think I didn’t clean. I mean, how can I ever have anyone over?
Who am I kidding? It’s not like I know anyone who would come over. Not like I have any friends. I can’t have friends. They might want to come over and then they would see the spot and then they would judge me. I have to get rid of it. Cleaning doesn’t seem to help, so I decide that the best thing that I can do is cut it out. Cut it out of the wall, cut it out of my life.
Ah it worked! I got it out of the wall! I went to the hardware store and I bought a drill and cut the embarrassing stain out of the wall. I bought drywall to cover it up and repainted it. It finally looks like the rest of the wall! I can be a normal person now. I can invite people over, I can have friends. This is the best day of my life!
The best day followed by the worst day. When I woke up today, I found a new spot and it’s larger than the last one. It’s in my living room this time. It’s large and ugly. It looks kind of black, but if you get closer to it, it almost looks brown. Where are these stains coming from? I have to go get the drill.
That one was much harder to get out. It ended up being a much larger hole than I anticipated. I started to cut and red liquid came out from the wall. For a moment I thought it was blood. It can’t be blood. Walls don’t bleed. But the liquid spread the stain. I had to cut out half of the wall. I didn’t have enough dry wall to cover it the spot I cut so I had to go back to the hardware store. The clerks there are friendly. Maybe they could be my friends. Maybe. But I have to get that spot out of the wall first.
It’s gotten worse. There is a human sized spot in my room. It’s deep brown. I’m not fooled by thinking its black anymore. The moment I put the drill to it, blood comes out. I know, I know. It can’t be blood, because walls don’t bleed. But it really seems like it. What’s even stranger is that when I cut, the house seems to groan. You know how old houses shift and they make noises? Creaks, cracks, pops? That’s what happens when I cut. I wish I had a friend who could come over and tell me that it’s just the creaks in the house. That it’s not something more strange. That it’s not blood.
I cut into the wall. I ignore the wall’s cries. I ignore the blood. Behind the drywall is something I can’t ignore though. The house has bones. Bloody bones in the walls. Bones where studs should be.
I got back to the hardware store. I need to get more dry wall. I need to get more paint. I’m so embarrassed though. They are nice to me there. I think they can be friends, but something has changed now. It is as though they know about my house, with its blood and its bones. They ask me why I’m wearing sunglasses and a hat and a large trench coat with the collar turned up. They say it’s good to see me, but I can tell that they’re lying.
I put up the drywall when I got home. I spackled it perfectly, then painted it over. No one would ever guess that there are bones and blood behind the wall.
There’s another spot. Another one! It’s in the shower. The brown spot almost makes it look like the wall is skin. Like it has texture. Like it has movement. I repeat the process. I ignore the groans. I ignore the blood. I ignore the bones. I act like nothing is there. I act like I have a normal house. I act like I’m normal.
There’s a new spot today. I don’t know how they keep appearing. I know how to fix it. I’ve done it so many times before. I know I just need to do it again. This must be what my life is. Just getting rid of these dark spots. Erasing anything that doesn’t seem normal. I will make sure that people think I’m normal.
I grab the drill. I run my hand over the spot. I wonder how I’m going to find the materials to fix the hole I create as I cut out this abnormality. I put the drill to my chest. Once I cut this spot out of me, I’ll be normal. I’ll be able to have friends.
“On the night I arrived I heard strange music from the peaked garret overhead, and the next day asked old Blandot about it. He told me it was an old German voil-player, a strange dumb man who signed his name Erich Zann, and who played evenings in a cheap theatre orchestra; adding that Zann’s desire to play in the night after his return from the theatre was the reason he had chosen this lofty and isolated garret room, whose single gable window was the only point on the street from which one could look over the terminating wall at the declivity and panorama beyond.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! I cannot tell you how excited I am to be discussing this short story! It is without a doubt my most favorite Lovecraft story to date, filled with creepy ambiance (brimming with classic, though augmented, Lovecraftian tropes) and a terrifying climax . This one is not to be missed!
We start, yet again, with our classic unreliable narrator. Everything seems above board with this gentleman except for the fact that he lived in an apartment on a road that he has since been unable to find. We can brush off the absurdism and take that as Lovecraftian madness, or we can take this story at just face value…an entertaining fiction the narrator weaves for us.
“I have examined maps of the city with the greatest care,” the narrator tells us, “yet have never again found the Rue d’Auseil.” We are transported to France, a brand new locale for a Lovecraft story. It’s a nice changeup from our New England home base, because we can now see that these types of events (which we saw on a much broader scale in The Call of Cthulhu) happen around the globe.
The narrator tells us that the French (possibly Parisian) alley “..was always shadowy along that river, as if the smoke of neighboring factories shut out the sun perpetually.” It also stank: “The river was…odorous with evil stenches which I have never smelt elsewhere...” These things in and of themselves are not indicators to anything particularly nefarious. Remember that Lovecraft was writing in the early 20th century and much of the poorer areas of the world had to deal with these types of issues. We were neck deep in an industrial revolution and laws were slim. There were factories which spouted smoke and exhaust with abandon, and rivers were usually run off for toilets. What Lovecraft is doing is just setting up the scene, much like he does in “The Dunwich Horror” by creating a space where the poorer people of the world deal with this kind of degradation that the rich never has to condescend to understand. These types of things just happen with more frequency in the poor areas because the poor doesn’t have any power or recourse to deal with them. So the rich can live in a sunny and perfumed estate, and the poor people have to deal with their smoggy and “odorous” runoff.
The narrator “had never seen another street as narrow and steep as the Rue d’Auseil.” It was “closed off to vehicles, consisting in several places of flights of steps, and ending at the top in a lofty ivied wall.”
The Rue d’Auseil is cut off from the world. It is dirty and difficult to access, but so far we’ve not seen anything really out of the ordinary. Until this sentence:
“The houses were tall, peaked-roofed, incredibly old, and crazily leaning backward, forward and sidewise. Occasionally an opposite pair, both leaning forward, almost met across the street like an arch...”
This is where we get Lovecraftian. Much like in “Dreams in the Witch House” architecture plays a large part in the mythos. Strange, non-Euclidean geometry in structures is an indication that it’s a location for a portal to the outside world. These types of places in Lovecraftian fiction are used as a terminus of power. The off-putting architecture means that magic is stronger in the rue d’Auseil and could potentially be a locus of summoning Elder beings.
After getting the description of the building and finding out that our narrator gains a flat on the fifth floor, we get the quote which opens this essay…our introduction to Erich Zann and what our narrator means when he calls Zann “dumb” is just a sobriquet for mute, a matter of much importance for the denouement of the story.
The narrator gains access to Zann’s apartment by being nice, and Zann plays him some music: “He did not employ the music-rack, but offering no choice and playing from memory, enchanted me for over an hour with strains I had never heard before; strains which must have been of his own devising…They were a kind of fugue, with recurrent passages of the most captivating quality, but to me were notable for the absence of any of the weird notes I had overheard from my room below on other occasions.”
So now we have evidence of not only architecture being odd and off-putting, but now music which is discordant. I was riveted when Lovecraft jumped into this realm. Music is known to open one’s mind, to help with memory, to assist with focus, even to repair parts of the brain. I am, in fact, listening to music right now as I write this. If we consider the power music can hold and that it can be used in conjunction with magic, this opens up whole new worlds within the cosmic horror field! It seems to me that Lovecraft is setting up that Zann is an old man who has experienced too much, and possibly had been part of some Cthulhu cult at one point in his life After reading The Call of Cthulhu we know how pervasive they are). He learned the music from them and is using it in some form or another that deals with these eldritch gods…but more on that soon.
When our narrator inquires about the discordant music, Zann glanced “...toward the lone curtained window, as if fearful of some intruder – a glace doubly absurd, since the garret stood high and inaccessible above all adjacent roofs, this window being the only point on the steep street… from which one could see over the wall at the summit.”
Ah and there it is. We have an alley that has strange non-Euclidean architecture, and a mute man (is he mute? Or has he seen things so terrible because of his “duty” that he can no longer speak? Is it something else?) playing strange, discordant music in a gambrel room which is the only room in the alley that can see over the wall to the city beyond. That window is always curtained. A diligent reader will tell immediately that this is going to be the…summit…of the story. The focus is too heavy on the window to not understand that something will come from that portal to beyond the wall.
Zann leaves with pleasantries, but when our narrator asks him to play some of the strange music he has heard late at night, Zann’s “...bony right hand reached out to stop my mouth and silence…” him. This reinforces the theory that Zann might not really be mute, but a gatekeeper that knows his voice may cause something to come through that curtained portal.
Zann shakes our narrators hand and he leaves as friends, but doesn’t “speak” to the narrator for some few days. Our narrator, intrigued by the man, listens at his door and hears the man’s cello wail.
“It was not that the sounds were hideous, for they were not; but that they held vibrations suggesting nothing on this globe of earth, and that at certain intervals they assumed a symphonic quality which I could hardly conceive as produced by one player.”
The narrator eventually gets in and talks to Zann and gets him to write down his experience. Over an hour the old man writes before the narrator “half fancied I heard a sound myself; though it was not a horrible sound, but rather an exquisitly low and infinitiely distant musical note, suggesting a player in one of the neighboring houses, or in some abode beyond the lofty wall over which I had never been able to look.”
Zann, terrified, “seized his viol (cello), and commenced to rend the night with the wildest playing I had ever heard from his bow save when listening at the barred door.”
and “It was more horrible than anything I had ever overheard, because I could now see the expression on his face, and could realise that this time the motive was stark fear.”
And “In his frenzied strains I could almost see shadowy satyrs and Bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of clouds and smoke and lightning.”
Then “The shutter rattled more loudly, unfastened, and commenced slamming against the window. Then the glass broke shiveringly under the persistent impacts, and the chill wind rushed in, making the candles sputter and rustling the sheets of paper on the table where Zann had begun to write out his horrible secret.”
A gust comes in through the window and Zann plays furiously, his eyes wide and terrified. The narrator looks to the window where he “might see the slope beyond the wall, and the city outspread beneath… but only blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth.”
The cello brays behind him and the candles flicker out leaving them in pitch. The narrator flails, trying to figure out what’s going on and “Suddenly out the blackness the madly sawing bow struck me, and I knew I was close to the player.” but when he finally gets a glimpse of Zann, he reaches out to the madly playing musician and “I felt of the still face, the ice-cold, stiffened, unbreathing face whose glassy eyes bulged uselessly into the void.”
The story comes to a close as our narrator flees the scene.
So what does it all mean? Instantly I think of two things and both make for a spectacular story. The first is that Zann died while doing everything he could to stop whatever eldritch horror was trying to make it’s way through the portal and his body was kept animate by whatever secret drive he had written into the lost note to the narrator (or by whatever task he was given by an otherworldly being).
The second, and the version I like better, is that Zann was dead all along. The narrator is unreliable and insane and imagines the whole thing. He has a psychotic episode and that’s why he is never able to find Rue d’Auseil again. That’s why Zann never spoke. That’s why the papers Zann wrote blew away and the narrator never got to read them. That’s why the room was otherworldly. Zann was a corpse all along and everything else is in the narrators head. This version is just so deliciously creepy that I cant help but to prefer it.
But there is a third possibility. This entire story could have taken place in the dreamlands. The rue d’Auseil is not on any map because it doesn’t exist in the waking world, only in the mysterious dreamlands. It’s also fairly reminiscent to “The Strange High House in the Mist” because, there too, we have a caretaker guarding a house against something evil and huge just outside it.
In any case this is a fast paced, unique tale that’s perfect for anyone looking to get into Lovecraft.
Which version do you prefer?
Join me next week as we discuss “The Picture in the House”!
If anyone knows the truth of this please leave a comment! I researched and tried to find rue d’Auseil and even tried to do a translation, but was unable to uncover anything as to it’s meaning. This may be another indication of Lovecraft intending this to be a dreamland tale, but it could also be him trying to expand his own universe. We spend quite a bit of time in New England, but there are a few tales which we go out into the world and in every locale Lovecraft creates fake cities, or roads, or houses, or geographic features. We know that Lovecraft wanted other writers to take his stories beyond what he created… maybe this was his way of creating a parallel universe that’s very similar to ours, but has these eldritch truths which we cannot see in our world. Maybe he was trying to build out enough to ensure his legacy. To ensure his Yog-Sothothery. What do you think?
“It’s a beautiful place,” I said, looking out over the bow of the ship at the Amazonian jungle as it passed us by. I wasn’t lying. Such an untouched place brought a warmth to my heart, more so than any city ever could.
“It’s a dangerous place, Kay,” My boyfriend David said, “full of deadly creatures, deadly flora, and superstitious and territorial natives.”
“Which is why you brought me along,” Mark said, cocking his rifle and kicking a box of C4 housed under the windows of the boat. “Now hold on, while I dock this thing.”
We were headed to a sacred pool down in the Amazon jungle, following a lead to the find of the century. The missing link. For years my research kept hearing rumors of a fish man in the depths of the jungle, but it wasn’t until Mark and I found the skeletal hand with webbing on a tributary of the Amazon that brought some credence to those rumors.
“Did anyone else find it strange that those natives told us exactly where to look?” Edwin asked. He was our Anthropologist.
“Enough Edwin! We gave them more supplies than they could use in a year! Of course they were going to tell us where to go!” Mark said.
“I’m just saying. Native Amazonian’s historically aren’t too happy to work so well with others,” Edwin concluded.
“The natives are the last thing we have to worry about, Edwin. Let’s get camp set up, it’s starting to get dark. We don’t want to be caught outside with these deadly mosquitoes!” David laughed.
It didn’t take long to build camp, but David was right. The Mosquitoes were horrible. It was so nice to get inside the tent and block out the bugs.
“You hear that Kay? Sounds like laughter,” David said after we had settled down to sleep.
“David, get away from the side,” I cried.
“But I really think I heard laughter. It was strange, kind of gurgling. I’m gonna to take a look,” He said and left the tent. I sat there with my sleeping bag pulled tight under my chin, I mean I know that’s a stupid childish protective safety thing, but I really couldn’t help myself.
I was right to be worried, because after a few minutes I heard him scream.
“David!” I cried and unzipped my tent. I saw a shadow of someone walking by and my skin went cold. There was a strange earthy, wet smell in the air. It was like ozone blended with moss.
“What’s going on?” Mark called. I let out a little yip, embarrassed at my reaction, because he must’ve been the figure I saw.
“David heard laughter and went out to check it out. I heard him scream,” I said.
“Stay with me,” Mark said. He lifted his rifle. “We’ll move to the edge of the water. That way we can’t get surrounded by anything in the woods.”
“What’s going on guys?” Edwin ran up to join us.
“Stay close,” Mark responded. I couldn’t open my mouth. David had better be kidding, but you’d better believe I was going to kill him whether he was or not.
“Woah!” Edwin cried. “Look at this!”
He was bent over something stuck in the muck at the forest edge. Stuck in the ground was an old wooden pendant, petrified by time. It portrayed some strange bipedal fish creature. I turned it in the moonlight when something out of the corner of my eye made me look up.
Mark was standing on the edge of the water line looking past us into the jungle. The something that caught my eye was walking out of the water towards him. The water was black reflecting moonlight making the water look like oil. I thought the figure was David at first, but it was just my mind wishing for something that wasn’t true. The figure opened its arms. It had a huge arm span and its hands were webbed, its skin was scaly, and its neck had gills.
“Look out!” I cried. I was too late. The creature’s arms wrapped around Mark and its nails dug into him. He screamed as the creature bit into his neck from behind. I could see blood as black as the oily Amazon roll down Mark’s body as the creature ripped a piece of his neck free. He collapsed into the water.
“Run!” I cried.
We ran back to the metal safety of the ship. My heart was pounding and I was having trouble getting breath. Did I really just see that? I had to have imagined it, right? But, God the metallic stink of blood surrounded me, I couldn’t focus, I just wanted to be with David. I wanted him to hold me.
When Edwin and I approached the ship, I saw David on the other side of some bushes. My heart soared!
“David!” I cried. “David, get on the ship!”
We turned the corner and my knees gave out beneath me. It wasn’t David. Or rather, it was only part of him. His head was stuck down on a pole that was thrust into the ground. His eyes bugged out of his head, and his tongue lolled. Bugs crawled in and out of his grotesque mouth. I saw a mosquito feeding on one of his bulging eye balls.
I think I cried out. I think I sobbed, but the next thing I knew, Edwin and I were inside the metal boat. Edwin must have put a mop across the handle of the door, blocking us in. Didn’t he see David outside? How did he think a mere mop would stop that thing? Especially with exposed windows?
“Let’s get out of here. We got what we came for,” Edwin said, he was sobbing. Tears and snot running down his face.
“What? What do you mean we got what we came for?” I cried. We didn’t got anything but death!
Edwin held up the idol he found on the beach.
“Get rid of that fucking thing!” I yelled.
“No!” Edwin wailed. “It’s what we were paid for!”
The mop handle cracked as the creature slammed on the other side of the door.
“It’s coming for the idol! Get rid of it!”
Edwin took a few steps back, nearing one of the many windows in the cabin.
“No! Let’s just get the boat moving… ” Edwin said.
The creature’s hands broke through the window and grasped Edwin’s head. Its claws dug into his cheeks and he was momentarily lifted before his skin gave way and the claws tore up and back, ripping skin from his face, piercing his eyes and spraying blood across the room.
I grabbed the idol from Edwin’s dead hands and threw it out the window. I grabbed the broken mop handle in a futile attempt to defend myself.
Then the creature stepped into the room. It smelled of earth and blood and swamp water. It looked like a piranha, if a piranha was six foot tall. Its teeth were razor sharp and its claws were long and dripping with blood. Its green skin shone in the moonlight and it cocked its head to the side like a dog when it saw me.
“I’m leaving. You can go now. I…I won’t cause you any problems,” I called. I took a step back and my foot hit a box. I glanced down. It was the explosives. I knelt down and grabbed a packet of explosives and the detonator. The creature didn’t like that.
It screeched and opened its arms wide. Blood dripped from its hands and its mouth.
My heart was pounding so hard I thought it was going to leap from my chest. The creature took a step toward me and I threw the explosives at it. Its reflexes were incredible. It caught the C4 in the air and immediately turned to look at it.
“Fuck you,” I said, and depressed the button a split second before diving behind a table.
The echo of the explosion resonated in my ears, but somehow I got up and got to the wheel. I thrust the throttle all the way to the maximum. Fuck this place. I was getting out of here.
I managed a glance at the body of the thing. Its arm was completely gone. Disintegrated. Its head was half gone, the rest a toasted black. I had to get the thing off the boat. There was no way I was going to keep going with its corpse there, but I couldn’t think of that right now. I was shaking too bad, I just had to focus on getting out of the jungle.
I heard distant chanting. It got louder and louder and I felt bile rise in my throat. I peered out the window and I saw Amazonians at the shore line. They were dancing and shaking something in the air. The chant was a dissonant sound that made my skin crawl. I squinted at what they held. It was the same as we saw on the beach. The fish idol.
I went back to the wheel when I heard clicking behind me. Nails on metal.
“Thus only a week after his advent to the Stubbs family circle, where he lurked like the vile serpent that he was, he had persuaded the heroine to elope! It was in the night that she went leaving a note for her parents, sniffing the familiar mash for the last time, and kissing the cat goodbye – touching stuff!”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re talking about the satiric and absurdist piece, “Sweet Ermengarde.” This is a literature genre that I’m not super familiar with (at least it’s history), but this story seems to bite off the comedic nature of some of his contemporaries, while calling back to some of those classical authors like Shakespeare, or even further back, Aristophanes.
Calling on Vaudeville, Lovecraft tells a story of Ethyl Ermengarde Stubbs, whom “...her father persuaded her to drop the praenomen after the passage of the 18th Amendment, averring that it made him thirsty by reminding him of ethyl alcohol” This is the beginning of our tale, setting us up to understand what we’re getting ourselves into.
Ermengarde is a “Simple Rustic Maid” who “confessed to sixteen summers, and branded as mendacious all reports to the effect that she was thirty.” and had “light hair which was never dark at the roots except when the local drug store was short on supplies.” This sets our maid up as duplicitous from the start. These examples, of course are not devious in any way, but they give an indication that things are not actually what they seem. If we know anything about Lovecraft we know this will eventually pay off, because he tends to be very exacting in his prose, never leaving the slightest detail to chance.
We soon learn that Ermengarde had two suitors, “‘Squire Hardman, who had a mortgage on the old home (The Stubbs farm), was very rich and elderly.” and “the handsome Jack Manly, whose curly yellow hair had won the sweet Ermengarde’s heart...”
Nearly Dickensian isn’t it? We have the dastardly vaudevillian villain, Hardman (he’s a “hard man” to love…he is a “hard man” with a hard heart, only caring about money and prestige) who could frequently be seen “viciously twirling his moustache and riding crop, and kicking an unquestionably innocent cat who was out strolling (Lovecraft loves cats).” Meanwhile we have the Jack Manly, who was a young heartthrob and was the romantic love interest who frequently whispered secret nothings to Ermengarde. We immediately know we are supposed to root for “Manly” and hate “Hardman” despite the over the top affections Lovecraft writes in to fan the flames of absurdism in the tale.
Then, just to add another nail in the ridiculous coffin, when the first chapter ends Lovecraft puts “Curtain” as a stage direction indicating the end of a scene; though this is very obviously a story and not a play. It’s just yet another call back to the vaudeville stage plays, with their moustache twirling villains and hooks to pull the players from the stage after a gaff.
The second chapter begins with Hardman going after the Stubbs unknown “vein of rich GOLD!” He plans on foreclosing the Stubbs farm unless Ermengarde disavows her “Manly” lover and marries him. Jack, being the man he is (and after his “Tears flowed like white ale“), he decides he is going to go off to the city to gain a fortune and buy the mortgage from Hardman. Queue more over the top PDA.
Hardman, not to be foiled, decides to kidnap Ermengarde only to realize (after deciding she was being too “Difficult” that it would just be easier to foreclose! Why then he could just take the gold! But, in the mean time, a few hunters find the gold and make an attempt to garner sweet Ermengarde’s affections.
And, believe it or not, ANOTHER suitor comes into play, the indominable Algernon Reginald Jones; the perfidious “city chap” who came down to work on the foreclosure which brings up to the quote at the beginning of this essay. That was all pure Lovecraft: all at once vilifying and romanticizing the exit. Pure satire.
But then our resourceful young (well, as long as the hair dye held out) lady finds a love note from another woman in Algernon’s breast pocket! Well I never! She just had to leave that scoundrel behind!
So she heads off and gets lost “Alone in the Great City.” She looks for her “Manly” suitor but fails. She looks for a job and only finds only a “fashionable and depraved cabaret; but our heroine was true to her rustic ideals and refused to work in such a gilded and glittering palace of frivolity – especially since she was offered only $3.00 per week with meals but no board.”
She wanders and finds an ornate bag in the park. Soon after finding that the the owner is a Mrs. Van Itty, a clever play on words and very much a replacement for Havisham of Great Expectations fame. Mrs. Vanity, sorry… Van Itty is so pleased with our heroine that she takes her on as a ward, and then everything begins to come up Millhouse.
Van Itty hires a chauffer who turns out to be the down and out Algernon. remember the note from the woman in his breast pocket? She stole all his land and money from him.
Algernon drives Van Itty and Ermengarde to Hogton (another fun play on setting and words), Ermengarde’s home, and there they find that Manly has become a beggar. Van Itty sees Ermengarde’s mother and realizes that she was a maid who stole Van Itty’s babe from her crib some 28 years previous (“How could she get away with the sixteen-year-old-stuff if she had been stolen twenty-eight years ago?”). So Ermengarde was really Van Itty’s child all along! With this incredible revelation our intrepid heroine decides to take Hardman up on his offer and foreclose on her faux parent’s house and take the vein of gold for herself. Hardman, “The poor dub did…” what she asked and became subservient, and Ermengarde was suddenly the devious rich heiress.
We come to the end of the tale and find there is a bit of a Lovecraftian twist and role reversal going on. Ermengarde is a play on a contemporary Frances Hodgson Burnett’s character in The Little Princess (P. 1905), of the same name. In that story Ermengarde is a “fat child who is not in the least bit clever…” and that’s who we are meant to believe this Ermengarde is (mentally, not physically), but this is Lovecraft and he’s never pleased with leaving things simple so he flips expectations on their head multiple times. Manly becomes a bum. Algernon becomes a pauper. Hardman becomes a cull. Van Itty becomes a loving mother.
Taking an “As You Like It” type of approach, Lovecraft excels in his humor and construction to give us the surprise ending, but he does leave clues along the way.
Her father, the elder Stubbs, is a bootlegger and loves alcohol so much that he has to drop his daughter’s first name, lest he become a lost drunk. Hardman makes poor decisions and cant figure out that he can just foreclose on the property to get the gold until it’s too late. Algernon let’s things happen to him, rather than making things happen for himself. Manly is nothing but a pretty face and curly hair. These are the types of details you must pay attention to in Lovecraft to be informed on where he’s going next, both in this absurdist romp, and the normal horrific fare.
This is not your normal Lovecraft, but it is spectacular and hilarious. If you’re a fan of classic literature the references and the humor will hit you in exactly the right way. This is a must.
Join me next week as we delve into an underground Lovecraft classic “The Music of Erich Zann!”
I have one last reference I wanted to call up. Algernon Reginald Jones (and the whole tale in total) seem to be a call back to the tales of Horatio Alger, the classic rags to riches author. Alger wrote about “Street Boys” who lived the American Dream. They worked hard and worked their way up the ladder to become pillars of their community or leaders in business. Alger(non) was a play on those classic characters, but with the classic Lovecraft twist.
It’s truly amazing the depth and intelligence that Lovecraft writes with. It makes me a bit sad that I started here and not with Lord Dunsany or other contemporaries, because even as I delve deeper, I find that his work is founded on so many others. His ideas are built from the seeds of his predecessors and I feel as though I’ve missed so much by not understanding fully his foundation.
This post has been a bit English Teachery (and I get rid of that idea by using a word like teachery!) but there is so much more enjoyment when you catch the threads and really get into the man’s head!
“I am now, however, resolv’d to unburthen myself of a Secret which I have hitherto kept thro’ Dread of Incredulity; and to impart to the publick a true knowledge of my long years, in order to gratifie their taste for authentick Information of an Age with whose famous Personages I was on familiar Terms.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read!
As you can tell this is not your normal Lovecraft story. In fact I debated on whether I should cover it or not, but in the end I decided that each one of these stories gives a a glimpse at the half occluded mind of Lovecraft and thus informs us, hopefully not falsely, into the theories and connections behind the writing itself.
I’ve seen this story categorized as a “whimsey” and I cant think of a better box to put it in. Whimsey is a sobriquet for anything odd or fanciful.; a product of capricious fancy. This is a story which describes Lovecraft’s likes and dislikes, it is not a story in and of itself (so dont be looking for a recap!)
He tells the story under a pen name of Humphry Littlewit, talk about a capricious reference! He was a man born of little wit, indicating the reader to ready themselves for the sarcastic tone coming. This is just another reiteration to tell us not to take this story too seriously.
What we see from the opening paragraph is Lovecraft calling himself basically an immortal. He was born in 1690, and much of his writing is inspired by this influence: “Tho’ many of my readers have at times observ’d and remark’d a Sort of antique Flow in my Stile of Writing...”
This is probably the most interesting aspect of this story and the only time I’ve seen this in Lovecraft’s writing. The 4th wall. This story is Lovecraft directly telling his audience how he feels about style and the works of others. It’s full of references and I cant even come close to capturing all of them, but it seems to focus quite a bit on “THE LITERARY CLUB“
We go on for pages describing the merits of the writers whom would meet with Samuel Johnson and speak of their admittance to the group. What’s important about this is the way he speaks of these men of science and letters. There is no small amount of derision, masked by sarcasm, for these other writers and historians. This goes right along with the image of Lovecraft where he is full of himself…what some call “stuffy,” while at the same time lauding his appreciation for Johnson. Johnson is considered by some (very obviously by Lovecraft) to be one of the most distinguished writers in history, and by the critique of the other huge names (men like Gibbon, who wrote the preeminent history of Rome) Lovecraft is teasing that he is amongst the greatest who ever lived.
The deeper we dig, however, it actually seems as though Lovecraft is simultaneously venting his frustration over critics while simultaneously giving justifications for his own writing through the lampooning of the other writers.
Lines such as “‘you are mistaken. They who lose their Hold do so from their own Want of Strength; but desiring to conceal their weakness, they attribute the Absense of Success to the first Critick that mentions them.”
Lovecraft was not received well during his lifetime. It wasn’t until August Derleth posthumously published his works that he started to gain traction. Once has to wonder how much of this is Lovecraft voicing his own opinion through another’s lens to get his true feelings out in the open.
This is the penultimate example, other than in the last few lines where he speaks of John Burgoyne and how he never succeeded in his life of letters. The narrator insinuates that, because of his failure in Saratoga during the American Revolution, he “was blackballed by three votes,” ultimately meaning that talent didn’t matter, his life and his failures in public life held him back from being a successful writer.
Lovecraft felt much the same way about himself. It didn’t seem to matter how hard he tried, he projected that those outside factors limited his ability to be successful… much like John Borgoyne. That, coupled with the negative reception of his first few stories (which lets be real, every writer experiences), he “attributed” his failure to that “first critick that mentioned him.”
It goes even further, because “Dr. Johnson was second to no Man in the Pains he took to revise the bad Verses of others...”
Just after this line we have the narrator (Lovecraft) re-writing a poem, to which Johnson tells him “Sir, you have straightened out the Feet, but you have put neither Wit nor Poetry into the lines.” He is after all “Littlewit”.
This may seem like a whole lot of negative to be said about Lovecraft, but I’d contend the exact opposite. These were features of himself that he recognized, and this story in effect, is a lampooning of himself and his “stuffy” nature. He’s here calling out his failures, and doing so in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way.
While this in no means was a great read (if you’re a casual reader ignore it), it really shows his motivations and gives a good insight into his personality. Many contend that Lovecraft didn’t have a sense of humor and was too full of himself, but the story is written in Samuel Johnson’s style-not Lovecraft’s- and he points out his own weaknesses, showing that there are those whom Lovecraft looked up to, and that he was only too aware of his shortcomings. It’s a bit drab of a story, but if you’re interested in learning more about the man then you have to give this one a shot!
Join me next week as we cover another one his Lovecraft’s attempts at humor: “Sweet Ermengarde.”
“Gabe! Oh God please get over here! I don’t know what to do. It’s horrible!”
It was Henry… I hadn’t heard from Henry for quite some time. We were flat mates back in college; the days of too much drinking and too many drugs. We’d grown apart over time, not because of any interpersonal issues, just time and space. He’d become a Chemist and I became a police detective. My policing skills made it all the more disturbing that he was calling me out of the blue.
“Henry, slow down. What’s going on?” I asked.
“My lab. It’s been destroyed and… my assistants… Gabe. They’re dead! Someone killed them!” Henry wailed.
“Call the police Henry, meaning right now. As soon as I get off the phone. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
I grabbed my coat and exited my brownstone. Snow was coming down in droves which always seemed to make it harder to get a cab. When I finally flagged one down, I got in and the world was drowned out by Bruce Springsteen’s new hit blaring over the radio.
The cab made its way across town as slow as molasses, belying the song blaring on the radio. We apparently were not “Born to Run.”
My hackles rose as soon as we pulled up to Henry’s lab. The windows were smashed and the snow beneath them was spattered with red spots. I hoped it wasn’t blood, but as a detective I knew better.
I tossed the cabbie a tenner and knocked on the door to the lab. I checked to make sure my pistol was in its holster under my coat and took out my Moleskine.
The door flew open and Henry stood there looking frantic. His eyes were sunken and his skin was jaundiced. He looked like he hadn’t slept for days. Springsteen echoed behind him in his lab.
“Gabe! Thank God! Get in here! I don’t know what to do!”
“Slow it down Henry, tell me what’s going on,” I said entering the lab. It was a disaster. Broken glass everywhere. The ground was littered with viscous liquid, but what was worse was the bodies. Two people were dead on the ground. I didn’t even need to inspect them, their terrible wounds told me all I needed to know.
A woman had her head turned around backwards, her spine creating strange bluish-purple bulges in her neck where the bone was trying to break free.
A man was lying in a pool of blood with what looked to be a sword sticking out of his back. That must have been what created the blood spatter on the snow outside. I walked to the end of the room to switch off the radio. I couldn’t focus with that music blaring.
“They told me that a man named Edward came here looking for me. Looking for a new formula I’d created,” Henry said.
“Did they see him?” I started, then looked back at my disheveled friend, “wait, did you say they told you?”
“Yes! They told me he came in here and tore the place apart looking for more of my formula and when he couldn’t find it…” Henry trailed off.
“Henry,” I said. “How could they have told you if they were dead when you got there?”
His face looked surprised for a moment, then it twisted somehow. His skin rippled, his hair grew, his eye color changed. He was not the Henry I once knew.
“Oh you are so smart, Gabe!” His voice was not Henry’s. This voice was lower, rockier.
I reached for my pistol but he was faster than light. He was upon me before I could draw the revolver and his sharp teeth dug into my shoulder.
I screamed in agony and threw him away from me.
I managed a glance at him as I fumbled for my Smith and Wesson. What I saw was not human. His nails had grown long and sharp and his joints snapped and twisted into something more bestial. His eyes were bloodshot, matching my blood which covered his mouth and nose.
“Henry,” I cried, pulling the gun and pointing it. “What was in that formula?”
He laughed and sprung. I do not believe in the supernatural, but I swear he covered the fifteen feet between us with a single bound. His nails dug at my shoulders and his teeth snapped at my face. The pistol went off and he squealed like a rat.
I fell backward when he let go and fired another bullet off after him. I swear it hit him. I saw the blood spray off him but he didn’t stop moving.
The lights suddenly went out, plunging the lab into darkness. The only light in the room was the dim illumination of the lamp from the street.
“Henry!” I cried. “Henry, I don’t know what you’ve done, but we can reverse this! Did the formula make you become Edward?”
Laugher echoed through the laboratory. Springsteen came back on the radio.
“Henry! You called for help! I know you called for me to help you get rid of this Edward. Come out and let me help you!” I cried.
He sprang at me from my flank and I felt nails rake across my back.
I screamed and fired my pistol again.
At night, we ride through mansions of glory, in suicide machines…
“Is there an antidote, Henry?” I cried into the darkened room.
…this town rips the bones from your back…
I heard the laughter of the insane in the room.
“You really don’t understand, Gabe,” he laughed.
I could see his eyes reflecting through the darkness.
…it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap…
“The serum wasn’t to help me control the urges.”
…we gotta get out of here…
I lost him. I couldn’t see where he was. I took a deep breath and braced my pistol in both hands.
“You see Gabe,” He began before singing along with The Boss “I gotta find out how it feels. Don’t you want to know how it feels?”
He was suddenly in front of me and I felt his nails claw into me again. I shot my gun, but it was errant. He was gone again before I could respond.
Laughter echoed in the darkness.
…Tramps like us, baby we were born to run…
“Once I took the serum there was no more Henry. There was only Edward,” his laughter echoed inside my head. I was suddenly dizzy. I felt consciousness retreating from me. I looked down to where he scratched me. There was no scratch. I saw a syringe sticking out of me.
…I want to die with you…
“I didn’t call you here to stop Edward,” His gravelly voice said.
…on the streets tonight…
“I called you here to have a partner.”
I felt intense anger. I leaned into the hate. It felt good.
…Tramps like us, baby we were born to run…
“At one time – probably in middle life – he had evidently been grossly fat; but now he was horribly lean, the purple flesh hanging in loose pouches under his bleary eyes and upon his cheeks. Altogether, Old Bugs was not pleasing to look upon.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re digging into the parable of Old Bugs and we’ll talk a little about writing style and contemporaries of Lovecraft.
I started reading this story expecting some kind of dark twist by the end. The title made me pause, because I was worried about some kind of Lovecraftian gross out. I was met with, not a scary tale, but a wonderful parable about the dangers of addiction. Of course this is told through Lovecraft’s lens so it is far more severe than it needs to be, but it’s told to hammer the point across, so take the text with a grain of salt.
Our story begins by describing Sheehan’s Pool Room, “which adorns one of the lesser alleys in the heart of Chicago’s stockyard distcrict, is not a nice place.” Lovecraft describes the air as having “acrid fumes of unnumbered cheap cigars and cigarettes,” which “too seldom know(s) the purifying rays of the sun“
Lovecraft says this pool hall is redolent with “the aroma of strong, wicked whiskey...” and we soon find out that the story takes place in 1950…31 years after the story was written.
Lovecraft vaguely describes the 18th amendment (prohibition) as coming from a “benevolent government” so right away we know that, between the story taking place in Chicago notorious for it’s speakeasys, and speaking of prohibition, that Lovecraft expected that doomed amendment to continue on forever. Lovecraft, you see, was a teetotaler and contended that there was evil inherent in alcohol as well as drugs.
The story evolves beyond Sheehan’s to describe the codger “Old Bugs.” Bugs is a sad excuse for a human (In Lovecraft’s opinion). He begs for drink and drugs in Sheehan’s in exchange for doing menial and disgusting labor. He apparently “epitomised the pathetic soecies known as ‘bum’ or the ‘down-and-outer‘.”
No one seems to know where Old Bugs came from but he often started stories of his past, “exploding into sesquipedalian admonitions and strange oaths…” giving indication that Bugs at some point was formally educated, but soon after his verbose tirades, his “alcohol-enfeebled brain would wander from the subject,” and he would return to his menial cleaning task.
The only break was when Bugs would pull out an old picture of a young woman, apparently an old lover, but invariably he would stuff it back into his pocket and get lost into drink.
Being prohibition, alcohol was illegal and thus Sheehan’s was stuck in a back alley away from prying eyes. To get new business the “pool hall” employed “runners” to garner new clients. One day a runner brought in young Alfred Trever to the hall; “a rich and high-spirited youth who would ‘go the limit’ in anything he undertook.‘”
He was a college boy who at Lawrence just joined the “mock-fraternity” of…wait for it…”Tappa Tappa Keg.” One can feel both sarcasm and the disdain for the drink dripping off the page.
Young Galpin had a young fiancé and a very rigid mother who rails against alcohol. These feelings in Galpin’s mother come from her own fiancé before Galpin’s father. Apparently he was a brilliant young man who was about to take up a professorship at Lawrence, before “Evil habits, dating from a first drink taken years before in woodland seclusion, made themselves manifest in the young professor; and only by a hurried resignation did he escape a nasty persecution for injury to the habits and morals of the pupils under his charge.“
Old Bugs overhears this tale and watches on in silence, cleaning vomit and filth from the bar.
Young Trevor, excited to jump into an unknown arena, orders a whiskey and is about to drink it. Old Bugs meanwhile has pulled out the picture of the young lady. He approaches Trevor and states:
Do not do this thing. I was like you once, and I did it. now I am like – this.
Bugs persists and Sheehan goes to remove him. A scuffle breaks out and Bugs was heard yelling “He shall not drink! He shall not drink!”
They eventually get Bugs out of the bar…excuse me, “pool hall” and Trevor sits down to grab his drink again when he notices the picture Old Bugs’ fawns over on the bar. He is surprised because, “Over the library mantel in his home hung the exact replica of that picture, and all his life he had known and loved the original.
“For the gentle and noble features were those of his own mother.”
Wow what a parable!
I actually found out after reading the story that Lovecraft wrote the tale for a young friend Alfred Galpin, who wanted to get drink before Prohibition started. Lovecraft sent young Galpin the story along with a letter. The letter was asked to be read after the story, and in the letter is said “Now will you be good?”
It’s nice to see more of a human side of Lovecraft, even if he is a little spastic in his affections. Alfred was the name of the youth in the story, Galpin was Old Bugs original name and even Elanor Wing, who was Bug’s love interest and Alfred’s mother, was a friend of Lovecraft in real life. This was a pointed story to get Alfred Galpin (his friend) not to drink, because obviously if he had one sip then obviously he would devolve into an old bum begging for drink in a tavern. Incidentally that’s why this is the only Lovecraft story (of which I’ve read at least) which takes place that far in the future. It’s written that way to make Galpin understand that if he gets lost in the drink then what he has to look forward to is a life as Old Bugs.
Being this close to the holidays, there is no doubt an echo of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with the look into the future and what it could hold if the current path isn’t altered. I would contend however that there is a stronger resemblance to a contemporary across the United States in San Francisco…Ambrose Bierce.
This is exactly a tale that Bierce would tell and it’s told in much the same manner and dialect. Granted Bierce came before Lovecraft (and to tell the truth I haven’t actually heard Lovecraft referencing Bierce), but the tonality is the same. When you take a story like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” which was made into a Twilight Zone episode of the same name, you can almost feel a visceral sensation of morality streaming through the text.
Then when you layer on newer writers of Lovecraftian fictions like Brian Lumley, you can see some of the same moral tones which blend in between Bierce and Lovecraft. Specifically in stories like “Fruiting Bodies” or “The Levee.”
Beyond morality, there is also the twist ending which Bierce was famous for (and sometimes forced through…painfully). Lovecraft tacks on this style of twist ending with some of his short stories very well, but the vast majority are trundling towards an inevitable ending. This story, though obvious, was specifically meant to have a shock ending to elicit a response from his friend, and by extension the audience, which was a divergence from Bierce. Bierce was looking for the shock, for the unexpected. He contended that he was the best writer to ever live because of this, and where he was absolutely a staple of American literature, by no means was he the best and his usage of these kind of tricks may have carried on beyond him, but for writers like Lovecraft, they give a basis of what to do and what not to do when building these kind of stories. Yes the ending was there for a bit of shock value, but the story was also written to be an anvil over the readers head. This story is not subtle in it’s moral, and thus we already know what the ending is going to be when we get there. This makes the shock ending more palatable because the reader can recognize it as a device that’s used sort of tongue in cheek instead of as a desire to shock.
Join me next week as we tackle “A Reminiscence of Dr. Johnson!”
“Dr. Frankenstein’ll be ‘appy,” Louis Grogan said. He was a recent transplant to the states, his cockney accent giving him away. Louis was a young kid when he ran away from home and jumped on a freighter. He didn’t realize he was headed for the America’s until the boat landed in Plymouth. Being so young, naïve, and stupid, He was the perfect specimen for Buddy Charles to exploit.
“Boy, you know it,” Buddy responded, “you grab the head and I’ll grab the feet.”
The night was dark and storm clouds rolled over the graveyard. Buddy liked it when the weather was poor. A little thunder and a little rain made the digging was much easier. Not to mention you could be damn near as loud as you wanted and prying ears wouldn’t hear you. That was the problem with grave robbing. People always called the law.
They lifted the crudely made casket from the earth; cold blue moonlight refracting off the grave dirt. They had a carriage waiting for them with doors akimbo, so once they freed the casket they hoisted it into the carriage and slammed the doors shut. The crack of the carriage doors was echoed a moment afterward with a ripple of thunder.
“Louis, shut yer pie hole. No need to be groaning like that! What, you hurt yourself?” Buddy hissed.
“It wa’nt me, boss,” Louis said.
No, it couldn’t have been Louis. He was much too close. That moan came from a distance.
“Get saddled up, hoss. We’re getting outta here,” Buddy said.
He scanned the graveyard, waiting for the lightning to illuminate the plot; straining to find the origin of that moan.
“We got company, hoss. Out yonder, beyond the Mausoleum. He’s a big ‘un too. Let’s get moving,” Buddy said.
He climbed on the front of the carriage next to Louis and cracked the reigns. The horses neighed and reared and Buddy wondered if their reaction was because of the reigns or the thunder.
“Shit, that was close!” Louis cried.
Buddy cracked the reigns once again, urging the horses to speed.
A large figure stepped out in front of the carriage and grabbed one of the horses by the neck. The force of the figure and the momentum of the horse created an audible crack as the horse’s neck snapped and it collapsed to the ground. The carriage tilted from the mismatched inertia and it flipped on its side. Buddy and Louis were thrown clear from the carriage as it rolled and smashed up against a rock.
Buddy rose to his knees. He shook his head in an effort to clear the haze of shock from the wreck. A large figure stepped over him. Lightning shone dirty boots and overalls covered in grave dirt.
The creature above him moaned. It had bulging muscles beneath the overalls and another crack of lightning illuminated its face. It was a patchwork of brown and pink skin crudely stitched together.
“Do not be afraid of him, Buddy,” a familiar voice echoed over the graveyard.
“Dr. Frankenstein? What’s going on here?” Buddy asked. He was vaguely aware of his bladder releasing. He glanced around and saw Louis was unconscious lying on the ground.
“He’s glorious, isn’t he?” Dr. Frankenstein said. The doctor looked up at the creature and smiled. He approached and caressed its arm. “Such an amazing specimen.”
“What…what is he?” Buddy asked.
“He is my creation!” Frankenstein said.
“What, like a robot?” Buddy asked.
“No! He’s alive!” Dr. Frankenstein cried. “I’ll show you what he can do!”
The doctor whistled and the creature walked over to Louis.
“UUUUUHHHH,” It moaned.
It grabbed Louis by the head and lifted him off the ground before turning Louis around like a rag doll and swinging his body, crushing his head against a rock. The creature groaned and repeatedly swung Louis’ body down. With each subsequent blow Louis’ head flattened until eventually gore and bone splayed like a child’s drawing over the granite. Buddy felt the hot splash of blood and brain spatter across his face.
“Oh, god!” He cried.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Dr. Frankenstein said.
Buddy jumped up and tried to run but the creature was faster. It grabbed his arm and twisted him into an embrace. Its breath reeked of decaying putrescence that made his eyes water.
“I am truly sorry Buddy,” Dr. Frankenstein said. “I just had to make sure you couldn’t escape.”
The creature pinned his arms to his sides and picked him up off the ground. He kicked the creature with all his might and it didn’t even seem to notice.
“You see, I’ve always admired you Buddy. You were never got caught by the police,” Frankenstein opined. He took a few steps toward them. Lightning flashed again, illuminating the grimacing construct of semi-rotten skin.
“That takes a special kind of intelligence. To stay out of jail all of these years, I mean,” The doctor crooned.
The creature leaned Buddy over and pinned him to the ground. He tried to move his arms but the creature’s hands were like iron shackles.
“You see Buddy, this creature is incredibly complex. It has taken years of experimentation. You’ve been able to provide me with some exemplary body parts, always taking care the tissues weren’t too decayed. This is important Buddy, because they need to hold up as I patch them together. But those are just limbs. When I tried to give my creature intelligence the corpse brains never worked. I’ve found that once the body dies the synapses that make the brain work aren’t far behind. I needed a fresh brain. Some new intelligence. That’s what my creature is lacking. The final piece of the puzzle,” Frankenstein said, suddenly brandishing a knife.
“UUUUHHHHH,” the creature moaned, as if to confirm Frankenstein’s statement.
“A brain of its own.”
Frankenstein held the carving knife up to Buddy’s forehead and began to cut.
“Then, driven ahead by curiosity in their captured yacht under Johansen’s command, the men sight a great stone pillar sticking out of the sea, and in S. Latitude 47* 9′, W. Longitude 126* 43′ come upon a coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror – the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, that was built in measureless aeons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This time…I swear…This time we will finish The Call of Cthulhu! There is just far too much memorable and incredibly in depth material here to try and crunch it down, and I didn’t want to have two posts of 10k words a piece. Anyway here we go!
Last week we left off with the conclusion of Legrasse’s story of how he came across the Cthulhu idol and his raid of the cultists in the swamps of Louisiana. This week we start off by getting some connectivity between the two story lines (Wilcox and Legrasse).
Once Legrasse finishes his story, Angell takes the idol which was a remarkable resemblance to the one which Wilcox fabricated from his dreams. Both the narrator and Angell seem to be in denial, believing Wilcox must have somehow heard the story of the Louisiana raid, because Angell’s papers tell us that the idol “…was, no doubt, the giant shape he (Wilcox) had raved of in delirium.”
Our narrator goes to see his Uncle (Angell) who speaks of how the whole ordeal has effected him. “He talked of his dreams in a strangely poetic fashion; making me see with terrible vividness the damp cyclopean city of slimy green stone – whose geometry, he oddly said, was all wrong…”
We find that Wilcox “…had soon forgotten it amidst the mass of his equally weird reading and imagining…” and yet Angell seems to be followed by it. In fact our narrator tells us that “my uncle’s death was far from natural.” and yet still the narrator strives to understand what all of this actually means: “for I felt sure that I was on track for a very real, very secret, and very ancient religion whose discovery would make me an anthropologist of note.”
There are two very interesting themes here if you’ll indulge me. The first being Wilcox’s apparent amnesia. How can it be that someone can experience such a breakdown and not remember much about it? Beyond that, how can there be such a great population across the world which experienced the Call and for that month had similar breakdowns, only to go about their normal lives? The answer? Disassociation.
We humans are excellent at putting things in buckets and adapting. If there’s something that’s a little too big for our minds to wrap around, we are able to put it aside and basically ignore that it ever happened. This is a theme that is so closely tied to madness that I’m surprised that I haven’t seen or heard about it in Lovecraft discussions already. We already know that the mere thought of The Great Old Ones can drive a person insane, but what does that really do to a person? How does that effect our narrative?
It’s disassociation which makes Lovecraft so prominent. How can these cults remain so hidden when they have such reach? How can The Great Old Ones be so influential, but no one knows about them? How can COVID-19 be so prevalent, but we still go about our daily lives? We as humans have an ability to ignore facts if they aren’t in our face, and then when they appear they can drive us to madness. This is the classic “I didn’t think it could happen to me!” syndrome. There’s a reason why people are scared of ghosts and things that go bump in the night, because in the back of their mind there’s the possibility the supernatural could be real. But of course we ignore that…until we are face to face with something we are unable to rationally explain.
The second theme which keeps presenting itself over and over again is character Hubris. Again and again we see these people go down the rabbit hole of chaos and end up paying the price. So what is it that makes them do it? We get the quote right in the text from the narrator, “I was on the track of a very real, very secret, and very ancient religion whose discovery would make me an anthropologist of note.” Our narrator ignores all the signs of danger and actively participates in denial. Why did Wilcox forget about everything and his Uncle conversely get sucked in? Because Wilcox had a momentary lapse of sanity and Angell got old and couldn’t deal with the real life consequences of his pursuits? But of course, our narrator is young and strong, so nothing could possibly effect him the way it did his Uncle…right?
It’s something we see again and again in Lovecraft because it’s so endemic in our personalities as humans. If we want something, we’ll ignore the red flags, even the direct danger, because it’s something you desire. In both life and love this is a universal truth, but the denial of this truth is strong because the ends justify the means. In a relationship you’ll ignore red flags because you want to be with the person. In Hubris, you’ll ignore the dangers because the end result of the pursuit is that ever elusive power.
This pursuit leads our narrator to find a news article from the Sydney Bulletin which describes the freighter ship “Vigilant” who captured a ship with one living man and one dead man. The living man was Gustaf Johansen and his story brings together the reason why so many people went cuckoo that April.
While sailing in the middle of the Ocean on the schooner Emma, the crew came in contact with a yacht Alert, who had a very aggressive crew which attacked the Emma. Damaged, the Emma sinks and a number of the crew die, but the remainder now led by Johansen, boards and kills the crew of the Alert easily, “because of their particularly abhorrent and desperate though rather clumsy mode of fighting.”
“The next day, it appears, they raised and landed on a small island, although none is known to exist in that part of the ocean.” Johansen doesn’t seem to have a memory of what happened but the only survivors on the Emma turned out to be Briden and Johansen himself, with Briden dying of “…no apparent cause, and was probably due to excitement or exposure.”
The narrator comes to a realization. Right about the time Johansen and the crew get to the strange island in the ocean, is right about the time things started going crazy all over the world. To dig even further (Hubris) into this quandary, he decides to go and find Johansen.
Eventually he finds that Johansen has gone back to Oslo, but died shortly after returning. Apparently “Physicians found no adequate cause for the end, and laid it down to heart trouble and a weakened constitution.” If that sounds familiar, that’s because that’s the same thing Angell died of, but still our narrator ignores the signs.
Johansen’s widow gives the narrator Johansen’s journal, and finally we find the terrible truth.
The journey of the Emma started off with a vast earthquake and fast forwarding, after the fight and boarding of the Alert we find that the strange island they found (the quote from the beginning of this essay) is none other than the Nightmare City of R’lyeh, presumably broken free, or arisen from the depths because of the strange earthquake.
Johansen and his crew go aboard this strange island and are immediately ill at ease with its geometry; “He had said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.”
We are met with the strange angles from such stories as Dreams in the Witch House and Sphere’s such as in the stories of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and the Dunwich Horror. We know that these are the calling cards of the Great Old Ones, the architecture of madness which encompasses their culture, things which call Their attention which are too hard for our mere mortal minds to comprehend. For example “suspense lurked leeringly in those crazily elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance shewed concavity after the first shewed convexity.” and “though they could not decide whether it lay flat like a trap-door or slantwise like an outside cellar door.“
The group tried to open the door to no avail, until suddenly the door opened by itself: “In this phantasy of prismatic distortion it moved anomalously in a diagonal way, so that all rules of matter and perspective seemed upset.”
From inside Cthulhu “…actually burst forth like smoke from it’s aeon-long imprisonment, visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away inot the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membranous wings.”
“After vigintillions (which equals 1 with 63 zeros after it) of years Great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight.”
So we know that nine men went aboard that island, but only two got back to the ship. Here’s what happened:
“Three men were swept up by the flabby claws before anybody turned. Parker slipped as the other three were plunging frenziedly over endless vistas of green-crusted rock to the boat, and Johansen swears he was swallowed up by an angle of masonry which shouldn’t have been there; and angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse.”
Briden and Johansen were the only two that made it to the boat, and as they fled “…the Titan thing from the stars slavered and gibbered like Polypheme (more cylops references) cursing the fleeing ship of Odysseus.“
“Briden looked back and went mad…But Johansen had not given out yet.”
“The awful squid-head with writhing feelers came nearly up to the bow-sprit of the sturdy yacht, but Johansen drove on relentlessly.” And Johansen got lucky. He never looked back and never got a full glimpse of Cthulhu as It actually is. It seems as though for that brief moment Cthulhu was in our world, until it ascended back up to the stars, It sent It’s Call to our world. The empaths like Wilcox felt this Call and had a month long descent into madness, because at It’s core, Cthulhu’s essence is chaos. Briden stayed in that spot on the ship and died, not eating nor drinking, scared to death, because just seeing The Great Priest was enough to strip his mind.
Our narrator put the journal in with his notes and the idol into a lock box and set it aside knowing that what he felt while reading it, that strange otherworldliness, the odd feeling that what he was reading was not possible but was possible at the same time, that he vowed never to let that information see the light of day.
He knows that the cults still exists and he knows that one day Cthulhu may return, but R’lyeh was sunken again and so he just has to hope that while he lives the stars wont align to give a path back for the High Priest from the stars.
Join me next week as we read “The Terrible Old Man!”
It is really no wonder that so many of the games that have come out focus so much on this particular Lovecraft story and there are three reasons for this being so.
The first is that we actually get to see Cthulhu, unlike the other Great Old Ones. Sure, we get to see a bit of the Shoggoth, but that’s not nearly the same because they’re just the workers, the slave labor of the Great Old Ones. Because we have a idea of what this creature looks like and has abilities to do, we are able to put it into a gameable scenario.
This story has incredible imagery, but what makes it special is that it’s tied to specific places around the world, so that leads to the second point. Many games follow along with the investigative plotline, which is this story in it’s entirety. You have a narrator who is following clues, through cultists and strange happenings, to find…and hopefully stop…the ultimate horrible ending. The rise of Cthulhu.
Finally Lovecraft has a tried and true style which he uses in many of his tales to bring the reader into the story. It was made famous by Bram Stoker in Dracula, but Lovecraft uses it to perfection. This is the Epistolary model. The best way to make something feel more realistic and more impactful is to show the action as part of a letter or as part of a newspaper. These epistles show first hand experience rather than just a narrator (which in Lovecraft are primarily unreliable) telling us a story. This gives the reader something they can feel they could look it up themselves which gives the narration validity and trustworthiness, especially when dealing with the macabre and otherworldly. It’s no wonder that this style is so popular in spectacular fiction
“There lay Great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults and sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear into dreams of the sensitive and called imperiously to the faithful to come on a pilgrimage of liberation and restoration. All this Johansen did not suspect, but God knows he soon saw enough!”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! I was planning on concluding the illustrious “The Call of Cthulhu” this week, but it turns out I had waaaay to much to say, so we’re going to push the conclusion to next week!
Last week we finished with a few thoughts about Cthulhu himself (itself? herself? theirself?), and the beginning of Detective Legrasse’s story. Remember how he went into the swamps of Louisiana and found a bunch of cultists effecting a ritual around a ring of fire and in the center of that ring was a monolith with a statue of Cthulhu on it’s apex? Well there was a tussle as the police broke up the ritual, “Wild blows were struck, shots were fired, and escapes were made…”
In the end the police captured “forty-seven sullen prisoners” and “The image on the monolith (the idol of Cthulhu)…was carefully removed and carried back by Legrasse.”
Initially the police thought this gathering was just a particularly nefarious voodoo cult. They let their prejudice guide them in their approach because, “Most were seamen, and a sprinkling of negroes and mulattoes, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult. But before many questions were asked, it became manifest that somethign far deeper and older than negro fetichism (sp) was involved.”
The police did everything they could to get more information out of the worshippers beyond that they prayed to “The Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men,” and that “This was a cult,” who “...had always existed and always would exist… until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway.”
The cultists said they were innocent of any killing. All those missing people, all the dead bodies that led the police to execute the raid were denied. The cultists said the ritual “…killing had been done by Black Winged Ones which had come to them from their immemorial meeting-place in the haunted wood.”
This strikes me as incredibly atmospheric. The thought of the old Spanish Moss trees, hanging down over the swampy foggy ground where hidden dark winged aeon old creatures lurk, just tickles my imagination in the best possible way. The description of the raid is short, but the set up is effective enough and then as we continually look back at the events surrounding the raid, it gives you a more and more grotesque point of view of what they actually walked into.
They finally get one of the cultists, “Old Castro,” to give them a bit more information. “There had been aeons when other things ruled on the earth, and They had had great cities. The remains of Them… were still to be found as Cyclopean stones on islands in the Pacific” (this is important later in the story), and “there were arts which could revive Them when the stars had come round again to the right positions in the cycle of eternity.” because “They had, indeed, come themselves from the stars, and brought their images with them.“
That is an interesting statement. “Brought their images with them.” Castro tells us that the Great Old Ones “had shape… but that shape was not made of matter.” Then he gives us the most important and interesting line of the story:
When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live.
Shortly there afterward we get “the much discussed couplet” from the Necronomicon:
That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.
Lets put all this together. We are told that Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones are dead and trapped in their great city of R’lyeh under the Pacific Ocean somewhere, because at some point on ancient history the city sunk. How can They be asleep but dead and have form but no matter?
The Great Old ones are immortal so we know that even though we are told Cthulhu is dead under the ocean, He is also immortal thus he cannot die. We also know that They are from the stars and made from the stars. So then we go back to what Old Castro told us, “They brought their images with them.”
The Great Old Ones came from the stars with form, but those forms were just shells, just fantastic images of what they projected themselves as. What we think of as Cthulhu, dead and sleeping under the ocean is in actuality just a shell. Cthulhu and the Other Great Old Ones ascended back to the stars at some point, and because they are formless (and maybe just concepts?) they left their shells to remain on Earth for the time when they need or want to come back. So that’s why Cthulhu can be both dead and sleeping at the same time. It is just the shell and He can be awoken through a ritual when the stars align, giving Him a causeway to earth.
When reading through Lovecraft the couplet is in many stories, and is something which always confused me. This story made it terribly obvious. Cthulhu is immortal, thus eternal, thus he cannot die; “That is not dead which can eternal lie,” ok that makes sense, but then what does the second part mean? “And with strange aeons even death may die.” Oh. Given time and multiple universes (and dream worlds) even death, the ultimate absolute can die. Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones, are more powerful than what we understand as the ultimate absolute.
Cultists for these types of beings never really made sense to me before. There is certain subset of the anarchists who want to set the world on fire, but Castro describes the resurrection of The Great Old Ones this way:
“The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.“
So I can see how there might be a very small amount of people who could believe that this is the way to go. But the volume of people? That ceremony that Legrasse broke up was hundreds of cultists. They all want to burn the world?
Then while digesting this story and the infamous couplet brought me to a realization. Yes, there are people that want to burn the world, but there are a far higher population which are terrified of death. If the return of the Great Old Ones means that the followers will be granted eternity, than there probably is a huge amount of the population who would be willing to take part, damn the consequences. Death is supposed to be the absolute, but what if it didn’t have to be?
Beyond this the couplet brings up what Lovecraftian horror really means. Cosmic horror is a difficult concept to wrap your mind around and it’s specifically built that way. The couplet gives us a glimpse into what this really means; where we truly stand in the world. I remember showing my wife the reboot of the show “Cosmos” narrated by Neil Degrasse Tyson. When they showed the earth in comparison to the galaxy and then in contrast with the universe, she made me turn it off because it gave her the willies. It was too much for her to understand that our entire world means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. This is the same concept with cosmic horror except more theologically. Death is where we all head, but there are things so far beyond that. Things that are “miles tall” that cannot die. Things which have lived billions of years and will live for billions more.
It’s no wonder Lovecraft was agoraphobic, if he just sat around thinking about these concepts all day.
Join me next week for the conclusion of “The Call of Cthulhu!”
Just a few more thoughts if you’ll indulge me. While reading about the section on the raid I had a conceptual thought about Lovecraft in general. In the story Lovecraft uses a thematic approach that describes the action in a single line, then when recalling the events Legrasse goes into much greater detail. After reading as much Lovecraft as I have, I can say that he did this because he’s not great at writing action, however his strength is in the feel of the piece. Legrasse is able to go far more into detail and flush out his feelings at the time and his disgust with the cultists, but during the raid all he could muster was direct and emotionless fact.
Our human brains work this way. When we look back on a time frame or an event, it almost always comes out more emotional that it was during the event. If it was traumatic, the events are colored much darker when you recall them. If it was inconsequential or happy, the events usually are colored much brighter and happier while recalling them. This is known in psychology terms as the reminiscence bump.
I’ve been reading Lovecraft now for nearly two years. I do a critique and analysis on a story every week (or, as in this case, over multiple weeks). I saw a thread on Twitter asking people what their favorite Lovecraft story was and I couldn’t come up with one. I thought back on nearly every story with fond memories, even though I know for a fact that I didn’t always like the stories that much while I was reading them. That’s the reminiscence bump.
Lovecraft is a master of atmosphere, despite his terrible action sequences and dialog. But atmosphere is what you truly remember when thinking back on a story. How the story made you feel. Individual action sequences and dialog are no longer aren’t what stick in long term memory, so what bubbles to the surface is the atmosphere you experienced while reading. When I think back on Lovecraft’s works I feel almost universal love. That’s a really strange thing to say, because about six months into this project it felt like a slog and I remember feeling bored, but now I cant remember which story I was bored with because I liked them all so much!
The more you read Lovecraft the more you like it. He’s insidious in that way. At first the language is a bit of a barrier, but once it starts to flow, your mind creates and atmosphere and experience greater than you read on the page.
Lewis turned the key in the lock to the main doors and waved off Dr. Whemple. The darkened museum was always his favorite place to be. It was quiet, there were things to be learned from the exhibits, and there were always books.
He’d been looking forward to this week for months. This was the week they brought in the treasures from the Egyptian dig. He’d been following it closely. Dr. Whemple and his associates finally discovered the long lost burial site of Imhotep.
It was all very exciting for Lewis. He didn’t know much about Egypt or its history, but he thought he could use the information. He had another date with Elizabeth on Tuesday and she had even mentioned how much she loved Egyptian history and was excited to hear about the exhibit of the high priest Imhotep coming to their town. He was planning on learning everything there was to know about Imhotep to impress her. She was beautiful and smart and maybe, just maybe, he could trick her into falling in love with him.
He whistled as he opened the door to the curating room. He knew he wasn’t allowed in the room without supervision, Dr. Whemple made sure that no one went into the room without him but what was the harm? Lewis only wanted to get some firsthand experience to show off for Elizabeth.
The room was incredible. It was dusty, sure, but all the artifacts came from Egypt. What else could he expect coming from all that sand?
The first thing he noticed was the sarcophagus. It was stone and had the shape of a man carved into the lid. The carving had crossed arms was holding a flail and maybe a hook. He hoped those things had a name. He would love to regale Elizabeth with that knowledge.
He turned to the table and saw an old parchment underneath a heavy glass. It was in a language he couldn’t understand, but he gave it a shot anyway. The words stumbled over his tongue, but he finished and shrugged. Maybe he could regurgitate that and say it was some kind of prayer to impress Elizabeth. He tried it again.
A moment later a large crash came from behind him. He twisted just as the candles blew out and the room was plunged into darkness.
“Damn,” he said under his breath and patted his uniform until he found a box of matches. He lit one and held it high and blood instantly drained from his face. The lid of the sarcophagus had fallen off and smashed on the ground. That was it. He was going to get fired. There was no way Dr. Whemple would forgive something like this!
Then he heard something move behind him. It almost sounded like someone dragging a sheet over the ground.
He turned and held the match high. He thought he saw movement for a second but the match burned his finger and he dropped it, cursing. He got another match and struck it on the box. The light bloomed and illuminated a figure standing before him. It had old rotten cloth wrapped around it, covering the entirety of its body. It lifted an arm out to him, cloth hanging loose, showing a brown, wrinkled skeletal hand with long twisted and yellowed nails.
Lewis screamed and jumped back, swiping his hand at the thing. His finger caught on a strand of the rotted cloth covering the thing’s face. The cloth pulled free, taking with it a part of the creatures dehydrated skin. The cloth began to unravel as the second match burned Lewis’ finger.
He cursed and fell backwards. He struck another match. It bloomed and he immediately wished it hadn’t. The wrappings had fallen free of the face of the creature. Its skin was rotten and twisted, with intermittent holes, showing bone and blackness of its mouth. The eyeballs were gone, replaced with some kind of beetles crawling in and out of the empty sockets. Its teeth were long and yellow and pointed.
Lewis was sure it laughed at him. He screamed as it grasped his arm with its rotten hand. Its grip was stronger than anything he’d ever felt before and it snapped one of the bones in his forearm.
The creature lifted him up by his ruined arm, bringing him face to face with its horrible rotten visage. Its breath smelt like decay and hot sand. It opened its mouth wider than Lewis thought possible and one of those beetles began to crawl out.
Lewis screamed again and when he opened his mouth, the beetle flew into it. He could feel it crawl down his throat. He tried to scream, but no sound came out. Two more beetles crawled out of the creature’s eyes. They landed on Lewis’ nose and forced their way into his nostrils…
Dr. Whemple stood outside the door, waiting for Lewis to unlock it for him.
“About time Lewis!” Whemple cried as Lewis swung the door wide for him. “My lord man, you look terrible. Maybe you should head home and get some rest!”
Lewis didn’t respond, but Whemple could see a beetle crawl over the back of Lewis’ hand.
“Lewis! Wipe that off! Why, that looked suspiciously like a scarab! You weren’t bitten were you? Those can be terribly poisonous!” Whemple asked.
Lewis pointed behind Whemple into the Museum. The doctor, confused, turned to see what Lewis was pointing at. A large figure limped towards them.
“Who…” Whemple began, but Lewis grabbed him in a bear hug trapping his arms to his sides.
“Lewis! What is the meaning of this!”
The Mummy opened its rotten mouth and a scarab crawled out of it. Whemple screamed.
“It represented a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long narrow wings behind.”
Welcome back for another Blind Read! This week we’re diving into the most classic Lovecraft story in the catalog. Between the board games, the role playing games, and the video games (not to mention the plushies!), Cthulhu and the perennial trope of a detective investigating an eldritch mystery while fighting off evil cultists has burned its way into our culture. This Great Old One was so popular that he took over from Yog-Sothoth, transferring the mythology from Yog-Sothothery to The Cthulhu Mythos.
What I find so fascinating about this tale is that it’s more of a creepy mystery than a horror story. Lovecraft wrote far scarier stories, but with this one he found just the right mold to make it everlasting.
We kick off the story with the best opening paragraph in Lovecraft:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all it’s contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
Much of this opening chapter is written in this theosophist cadence, delivering some of the best writing of Lovecraft’s career. Not only is it beautiful prose, but it also deftly communicates not only the direction the story is going to undertake, but the theory behind the mythos itself. It really is no wonder Cthulhu became the center of Lovecraft’s world (at least in his audience’s point of view).
The actual narrative starts with a realization of our narrator, “That glimpse, like all dread glimpses of truth, flashed out from an accidental piecing together of separated things – in this case an old newspaper item and the notes of a dead professor.” The professor, the narrators grand-uncle George Gammell Angell, was ninety-two years old and happened upon a man (epithet from the original text redacted) whom reminded him of some strange past. Whatever it reminded him of dropped the professor by a heart attack right then.
Angell was a Professor Emeritus of Semitic languages at Brown University, and because of his interests, he had many archaeological artifacts. Upon his death the narrator and the executor of his estate find a strange box. Beyond the barrier of the box there is an odd bas-relief and a number of papers.
The papers have strange hieroglyphics “which only a diseased fancy could conceive.” Our narrator tells us they look like, “...simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature…A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings…“
Well hello Cthulhu.
In case there is any question, we next find a document entitled “Cthulhu Cult” which talks about “Dream and dream work of H.A. Wilcox” and the “Narrative of Inspector John R. Legrasse.” This sets up the rest of the narrative, as the story is cut into three parts. The first focuses on Wilcox’s story, the second on Legrasse, and the third of a strange sea voyage. (Because of the volume of text to unravel here, we’ll only be covering Wilcox and the first half of Legrasse in this essay.)
Wilcox just showed up one day at Angell’s study “bearing the singular clay bas-relief“. Wilcox was a young man who was studying sculpture and was an excitable, anxious youth, in fact he even called himself “Psychically hypersensitive.” He visited Angell many times, seemingly testing the waters to see if Angell would believe his outlandish tale, before finally diving into a larger, very odd story. What struck Angell more than the youth’s frantic nature, was the bas-relief, because “…the conspicuous freshness of the tablet implied kinship with anything but archaeology.“
Wilcox seemly changes over the time he’s dealing with Angell (starting on March 1st and ending on Arpil 2nd). He gets more and more frantic, his claims becoming more and more deliriously strange. Finally Wilcox gives in and tells Angell, “It is new (the bas-relief), indeed, for I made it last night in a dream of strange cities; and dreams are older than brooding Tyre, or the contemplative Sphinx, or garden-girded Babylon.”
Wilcox the sculptor tells a rambling tale which began with a slight earthquake which Wilcox thinks triggered his imagination. He dreamed, “...of great cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror.” He heard “a voice that was not a voice” which said “Cthulhu fhtagn.”
Angell worked more and more with Wilcox to try and get to the bottom of this strange youth’s obsession. To understand where his psychosis came from. As Angell worked with him the words Wilcox repeated most often were “Cthulhu” and “R’lyeh.” He even mentioned of a “...gigantic thing ‘miles high’ which walked or lumbered about.”
Then suddenly, despite the youth getting worse and worse, devolving into a miasma of despair, Wilcox one day was perfectly fine with no trace of anxiety or psychosis.
Angell, perturbed researched and found that many people in New England were acting strangely, much like Wilcox, “...always between March 23rd and April 2nd…” The narrator even gives us more examples of how others went “hysterical“, but still the narrator holds onto rationalism, as though Angell was searching for signs and he saw what he wanted, not the actual truth. It is only when we get to the second chapter of the story that the true cultural cataclysm begins.
That chapter begins with Inspector Legrasse travelling all the way from New Orleans to speak directly with professor Angell and brings with him, “a grotesque, repulsive, and apparently very ancient stone statue whose origin he was at a loss to determine.”
The good inspector came across this fetish when he broke up a supposed voodoo meeting down in Louisiana. The quote at the start of this essay is the description of the idol he confiscated from that cult meeting and is an actual description of Cthulhu himself. All those art pieces you’ve seen online gain their inspiration from the few paragraphs in this story, and I have to say, their depictions are pretty perfect.
Lovecraft does a really interesting thing here. He is famous for not describing the creatures from the cosmic horror arena, but yet he does go to great lengths to describe Cthulhu here. Why would that be? Why would Lovecraft subvert his theme of not describing the horrific creatures in his mythos in this story? Then I came to a realization, but more on that in a bit.
The confiscated idol was researched and was not found to be made of earthly origin and the subject and writings on the fetish, “belonged to something horribly remote and distinct from mankind as we know it…“
Angell collected professors to view the idol and to see if anyone had any kind of insight as to what it was, or what it might mean. Unanimously they were at a loss … except for one man, Professor of Anthropology William Channing Webb. Years before while on an expedition in Greenland Webb came across a native tribe praying to some kind of idol very similar to this fetish. He said they were chanting:
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”
Which roughly translates to: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.“
Excited, Legrasse tells his tale. His precinct knew of a place in the swamps of Louisiana where squatters and voodoo practitioners liked to occupy. They generally stayed clear of the “…black haunted woods where no dweller ventured...” but there were reports of women and children missing in the area, and speculation that a voodoo cult was behind it. They heard there was going to be a big voodoo meeting so Legrasse compiled a force of twenty policemen to head down to the swamps to break up this cult meeting. This group of cultists used the same chant as Professor Webb had heard in Greenland, but something horribly unique happened down in those swamps. In a natural glade, “...leaped and twisted a more indescribable horde of human abnormality than any but a Sime or an Angarola could paint.” These monstrous creatures danced around a “ring-shaped bonfire” which had an eight foot monolith in the center with the Cthulhu statuette on the top.
They captured a few of the cultists only to find that they were praying to their head priest Cthulhu.
What a minute. This took me a minute to compute. Cthulhu is only a priest? This is a creature so powerful and so corruptible that it has the capability of destroying the world… and it’s only a priest to a much higher being?
Then I realized this is what Cosmic Horror is all about. This is why Lovecraft doesn’t describe these beings very often, but that’s what also makes this story so memorable and powerful. We DO get to see Cthulhu here, and his visage is enough to drive men to death. Cthulhu is miles tall, nearly formless, but somehow has form of a terrible amalgamation of things which are at the roots of all fear. Just looking at a idol of him gives people the willies. But when we learn here that Cthulhu is just a mere priest it means that Cthulhu prays to beings which are epically more powerful than he is. It’s like the perspective of the universe seen from your living room. This story really strikes home the fact that we dont matter in the grand scheme of things. That there is so much more to the world than our minds could ever comprehend. Why doesn’t Lovecraft describe his Cosmic Monsters? It would be like trying to describe the scale of the universe to an agoraphobic infant.
This is what the narrator is slowly beginning to realize as he puts together the tale of Wilcox and Legrasse, and we can only wager that Angell guessed at the truth, because when he saw that (epithet redacted) sailor, the man mirrored the Cthulhu cultists so much that it made his heart stop in terror. At this point, we can only guess that, but things get so much deeper, so much more grand that our narrator will come to see the possible impact of what this creature is and the havoc these cultists could wreck upon the world.
Join me next week for the conclusion of “The Call of Cthulhu!”
Trypophobia? “The abnormal feeling of discomfort or revulsion at the sight of clustered holes or bumps?” That’s a real thing and it keeps coming up again and again in Lovecraft. Why do I bring it up here? Well the root of this phobia comes from strange things in nature. The images we see root down into our subconsciousness and inform our conscious mind. Are you scared of spiders? You probably suffer a little from this phobia. Think about their clusters of eyes. If you see a cluster of bumps or holes, your subconscious mind attributes this to a close up of the cluster of a spiders eye, and triggers that fear of spiders. Octopus? Their tentacles have suckers that look like clusters of holes or bumps. Again, this is something rooted into your subconsciousness. When Lovecraft describes Cthulhu as having tentacles, it isn’t the idea of a whip like beard that’s scary, I mean no one is truly scared of tails. It’s the suckers on those tentacles and what they could possibly do to you if they attach is which make the tentacles eerie. Lovecraft is tapping into those deeper fears, the fears of which we dont even realize that we have, which make his writing so effective.
“Original title Al Azif – Azif being the word used by the Arabs to designate that nocturnal sound (made by insects) suppos’d to be the howling of daemons.“
Welcome back for another Blind Read! This week I wanted to review one of the shorter stories because we’ve gone over so many long ones in the past month or two, but I was presented with something altogether different than what I expected.
I thought that since this was deemed a short story in the collection I have that it would actually have a narrative, but this is actually more of a “non-fiction” essay about the etymology and history of the Necronomicon through modern times (or at least the time of Lovecraft’s writing).
We find that the Text was written by “Abdul Alhazred, a mad poet of Sanna, In Yemen,” in 700 A.D. He wrote the book based upon the horrid learnings and all the terrible things he saw and experienced in “The ruins of Babylon and the subterranean secrets of Memphis,” then “spent ten years alone in the great southern desert of Arabia –” which was said “to be inhabited by protective evil spirits and monsters of death.“
Alhazred was called mad, possibly for making an effort to pursue the mysteries of those horrors. In fact it seems as though he got so deep that he was “seized by an invisible monster in broad daylight and devoured horribly before a large number of fright-frozen witnesses.”
We found that “He was only an indifferent Moslem, worshipping unknown entities who he called Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu.” If he was worshipping these two we know from “At the Mountains of Madness,” that their main workers or slaves are the Shoggoth, which we know from “The Dunwich Horror” that those Shoggoth can be invisible and move around our world.
But because this is a history we gloss over this auspicious death and move on. We find that the Al Azif “was secretly translated into Greek by Theodorus Philetas of Constantinople under the title Necronomicon…” and for a century “it impelled certain experiments…” until it was suppressed. Then in 1228, two copies were translated into Latin; “both editions being without identifying marks, and located as to time and place by internal typographical evidence only.”
These texts were banned by Pope Gregory and they went away for hundreds of years, until the Greek copy “has been reported since the burning of certain Salem man’s library in 1692” (Read that as Curwen from “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward“).
Later an English translation was made but never printed, and only the original papers (which are strewn about the world) occasionally come up. The text tells us that there is a Latin translation at the British Museum “under lock and key” and another at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Later editions could be found at the Widener Library in Harvard, Miskatonic University in Arkham, and the library of the University of “Buenos Ayres.”
This all makes sense. These are rare texts and you would imagine that they would be interred in these prestigious places. However, due to human nature, “Numerous other copies probably exist in secret, and a fifteenth-century one is persistently rumoured to form part of the collection of a celebrated American Millionaire. A still vague rumour credits the preservation of a sixteenth-century Greek text in the Salem family of Pickman;”
I hadn’t truly realized how much this little story effected so much literature after the fact. Books like “The Club Dumas” by Arturo Perez Reverte (later made into the movie “The 9th Gate” with Johnny Depp), where we have collectors or antagonists searching out lost pieces of a nefarious book to complete research into a horrible other world. This kind of suspense or horror ties directly into these origins, and even if it isn’t specifically cosmic (“The Club Dumas” was about a Satanic cult) the themes are still there. The theme that we are smaller in the overall scheme of things than we realize. This theme creates anxiety and uneasiness in our minds and enables us to experience an existential dread without even beginning the story. The skill of the writing brings us even deeper because Lovecraft has some truly incredible atmospheric lines.
And one of the best line I’ve read in Lovecraft comes here: Reading leads to terrible consequences.
This line hits on so many levels.
First and foremost, the most obvious, is reading the book can cause a Shoggoth to come out and eat you (Like Alhazred). That would probably be pretty terrible. Yeah. That would suck.
Then there is also the other in-text meaning, of which so many of the characters in Lovecraft end up going crazy or being consumed by their analysis of the book (The irony is not lost on me that I dove straight into Lovecraft and have become consumed by his writing). This is the basis for all of those crazed billionaires seeking out the scattered lost pages of the Necronomicon to understand their larger meaning.
But what I take from this line, more than anything else is Lovecraft’s hidden meaning. It’s a double entendre that only becomes clear the more Lovecraft you read.
Reading leads to terrible consequences.
Yeah that’s a little tongue in cheek. Reading will give you a greater knowledge and show you vistas that you will never be able to experience. On top of that, Lovecraft wasn’t a huge fan of people and he thought most of the populace below him in intelligence quotient. So to him reading will make you more intelligent and bring you to a level above others. Then others will discourage you and disparage you because of your superiority (read nerdiness). Lovecraft believes that reading makes stupid people jealous, because they don’t understand it. What have we learned about human nature from the eyes of Lovecraft? That you try to understand it and it destroys you, or the people that dont understand you will try and destroy you. In either case, Reading leads to terrible consequences.
There is also the factor that the more you read you’ll get to experience places that you will never go. This is even more dangerous for an agoraphobe like Lovecraft because, naturally, he wants to see and experience different worlds and lands. The problem is his mental illness prohibits him from doing so because his anxiety prevails and skews his perspective to animosity. (think about his time living in Red Hook in New York).
So for all of you reading this now, beware… Reading leads to terrible consequences.
There is also a very interesting last line where Lovecraft says that R.W. Chambers derived his idea of The King in Yellow from the fictional Necronomicon. This almost seems like a dig at Chambers, but we have to remember that Lovecraft encouraged other authors to create works within the mythos, and the creation of Hastur, who now has become ubiquitous with Lovecraft was a pretty brilliant addition to the most infamous text in Lovecraft’s oeuvre.
Read along and join me next week in a discussion of “The Call of Cthulhu!”
“Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true.“
Welcome back for another Blind Read! This week we’re diving into Pickman’s Model; a singularly unique Lovecraft story. We get not only the classic Lovecraft tropes; Witchcraft, summons, and people going beyond their ken to gain power or knowledge, but we get some insight into the man himself and his personal tastes (hint, they’re just as weird as his writing is).
We know exactly how the story will end within the first few paragraphs, and yet, this is one of Lovecraft’s finest works (at least in my opinion). The previously mentioned themes of Lovecraft are in the background (though obviously present), and two facets of Lovecraft’s personality come through, the love of New England (specifically Boston) and his love of art. His prose transcends much of his normal exposition because he’s describing, what is in his opinion, high art. He isn’t only trying to create horrors, but he’s lifting up some of his favorite artists and some of his contemporaries. It reads as though he was having a blast writing, which some of the stories he wrote (I’m looking at you Herbert West – Reanimator) feel contrived.
The story is simple. We follow an art curator who had Richard Upton Pickman as a resident in his Art Club, to a gruesome conclusion. He begins the story by telling us “…I cant use the subway or go down into cellars anymore.” and that “Morbid art doesn’t shock me…” We know all of Pickman’s art is morbid because the narrator tells us that the only piece that wasn’t wholly grotesque, the one that people could actually palate, was the piece entitled “Ghoul Feeding” which was hung in the narrators Art Club.
The narrator goes to great pains to explain that “Pickman’s forte was faces.” and how he had “latent instincts” for “the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness.“
To give example the narrator says “…Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh.” because “There’s something those fellows catch – beyond life – that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Dore had it.“
Indeed Dore was lauded as the most iconic realist artists of in his time. His black and white drawings had more depth of character of anything I’ve had ever seen either (I have “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Coleridge, illustrated by Dore and it is everything). His mostly religious vistas brought humanity to his angels and devils. Dore endeavored to show his audience that humanity could be all of these things. We were the angels. We were the devils. We were everything in between. We came to realize, through his art, that WE were better or worse than anything we could actually dream up.
Then our narrator mentions Sime. Sidney Sime was a fantasist and a satirist who relied on his outrageous concepts to elicit emotion. Famously he partnered up with Lord Dunsany (is it any wonder that Lovecraft liked Sime?) to illustrate Dunsany’s “The Gods of Paegana.” Dunsany famously quoted “I tried to account for the Ocean and the Moon. I don’t know whether anyone has ever tried that before.” Dunsany is Lovecraft’s inspiration for stories like Dagon, and with images like “Slid” is it really any wonder?
Art is the centerpiece of this masterful story, but either because Lovecraft is channeling the art or because of it’s inspiration; we get some of the best, most atmospheric writing he’s done. While explaining that Pickman’s relatives were cast out of Salem in 1692 (we’ve heard that one before!), the narrator describes how they treaded through the North End:
“When we did turn, it was to climb through the deserted length of the oldest and dirtiest alley I ever saw in my life, with crumbling – looking gables, broken small – paned windows, and archaic chimneys that stood out half-disintegrated against the moonlit sky. I don’t believe there were three houses in sight that hadn’t been standing in Cotton Mathers time – certainly I glimpsed at least two with an overhang, and once I thought I saw a peaked roof-line of the almost forgotten pre-gambrel type, though antiquarians tell us there are none left in Boston.”
This is a classic Lovecraft technique. We go from some normal vista to an area that is just a little off. Something that shouldn’t be possible. There’s nothing outwardly menacing about the neighborhood the narrator suddenly experiences, but the mention that “antiquarians tell us there are none left…” indicates that we have passed into another world, or we have transcended into an underworld where normal people don’t pass.
The narrator tells us again and again that he is not weak of heart, that he has seen horrible paintings, but “It was the faces…those horrible faces, that leered and slavered out of the canvas with the very breath of life!” He sets us up for the denouement when we finally reach Pickman’s vault.
The vault is filled with paintings; “…the ones he couldn’t paint or even shew in Newbury Street…” The narrator tells us “There was none of the exotic technique you see in Sidney Sime, none of the trans-Saturnian landscapes and lunar fungi that Clark Ashton Smith uses to freeze the blood.” No, these were more hyper realistic than his public “Ghoul Feeding” painting that turned everyone’s blood. It seems that most of these paintings had a backdrop of Copp’s Hill burying ground, which had a number of figures who “…were seldom completely human, but often approached humanity in varying degree.” and “They were usually feeding.”
Our narrator is disgusted, but he allows Pickman to take him into the next area where things get even more atmospheric. We get depictions of art with creatures coming up from cracks and holes in the ground, and strange angles and spaces that should not be possible. Here again, Lovecraft is making an effort to seep into our subconscious without us ever knowing it. There is a very real fear called Trypophobia which states that people are scared of honeycombs or groups of regular holes (I wont scar anyone with pictures…but if you’re curious click here) . To envision hellish creatures coming from these holes is just one more way to make the reader feel ill at ease. It’s an atmospheric addition in which Lovecraft uses to perfection. Likewise his “strange geometry” which we’ve seen before as well. Remember back in “Dream in the Witch House” where the “sorcerer” used the strange geometry of the house to better conjure up horrors? Lovecraft is setting the scene for the climax. Building the tension, making the reader feel… off. The first step is setting the stage that Pickman is somehow odd and descended from witches. The next is heading into a place that even historians say doesn’t exist. The final step is giving the audience a glimpse of strange and off-putting artwork – artwork that’s hard to look at because it shouldn’t be possible. Art work that is too horrible to look at without screaming.
As we digest this, the narrator sees a camera. When asked, Pickman “…told me that he used it in taking scenes for backgrounds...” and our narrator sees a paper crumbled up next to a painting. He makes an effort to unravel it, when he is distracted by Pickman taking him deeper into his studio, so the narrator puts the crumpled paper into his pocket.
When they get into a bricked up room Pickman shows the narrator a work in progress so terrifying that it makes our narrator scream. This, right here, is what’s so wonderful of Lovecraft’s work. He’s painstakingly told us that Pickman had a horrible realism to his work. Then we get possible examples that are close, but not quite as terror inducing as anything Pickman had the ability to exude. We get a few examples of his lesser works as well, just to give the reader some dread as to what is coming – “The Lesson” about dog-like things that are teaching stolen children how to eat like them…”Subway Accident” which portrayed “a flock of vile things…clambering up from some unknown catacomb through a crack in the floor of the Boylston Street subway and attacking a crowd of people on the platform.” – also an unnamed drawing that depicted “a vast cross-section of Beacon Hill, with ant-like armies of the mephitic monsters squeezing themselves through burrows that honeycombed the ground.“
All of this anticipation and then Lovecraft purposely keeps the description of the painting which finally puts the narrator over the edge because Lovecraft knows that whatever we’ve been building in our minds is far more terrifying than anything he could possibly put to page. Lovecraft does this time and again in his work, where he describes just enough to make the psyche of his reader take off and make of what they are reading that much worse.
The scream causes Pickman to start. He produces a revolver and ushers our narrator out of the room. He makes up an excuse that there’s a rat nest in the walls, but when he’s hidden from sight something more devious happens. Our narrator heard, “a sharp grating noise, a shouted gibberish from Pickman, and the deafening discharge of all six chambers of a revolver...”
That ends the narrators adventures with Pickman. He leaves to go home and is terribly off put by the realism of the paintings, the detail Pickman is able to get from the photos he takes for the backgrounds, the realistic faces Pickman is able to create out of nothing. But then, when he gets home, he feels the paper in his pocket. It isn’t a paper at all. It’s a photograph. A photograph of “the monstrous being he was painting on that awful canvas.”
And oh reader, “It was the model he was using – and it’s background was merely the wall of the cellar studio in minute detail…It was a photograph from life.“
Join me next week as we tackle the infamous “History of the Necronomicon!”
There is another painting in Pickman’s vault which gives us and interesting peek into Lovecraft’s social landscape.
A scene in an unknown vault, where scores of beasts crowded about one who held a well-known Boston guide-book and was evidently reading aloud. All were pointing to a certain passage, and every face seemed so distorted with epileptic and reverberant laughter that I almost thought I heard the fiendish echoes. The title of the picture was “Holmes, Lowell, and Longfellow Lie Buried in Mount Auburn.”
This is a seeminly deviant view at first. It’s just demons looking at a…guidebook? But then we get answers when we get the title. Mount Auburn is a well known cemetery in Boston and it’s the main resting place for the Boston Brahmins (nomenclature penned by the doctor and writer Oliver Wendall Holmes…yes the same Holmes).
So why are the demons laughing at the guidebook? Well the Boston Brahmins are heavily associated with the Boston Aristocracy and Anglicism. Two things that Lovecraft railed against.
So what is Lovecraft saying here? The demons have a guidebook. The demons are looking for this place, because they are going to collect the Boston elite and religious, because, to Lovecraft, those two things are worse than being a murderer. The demons, using the guidebook, have finally found their way to the elite to procure thier pound of flesh. Death and the cemetery wont save them.
That right there is what’s so wonderful about Lovecraft. These little gems that you can extract, only if you look close enough, to the overall narrative.
“It is uncommon to fire all six shots of a revolver with great suddenness when one would probably be sufficient, but many things in the life of Herbert West were uncommon.”
Welcome back for another Blind Read! We’re tackling Reanimator this week and yowza, there is a heck of a lot going on here in a story that is absolutely not a typical Lovecraftian story.
Lovecraft was commissioned to write an episodic tale, in which each segment was published subsequently in each issue of the magazine. I have to admit, that after reading the story I did a tiny bit of research into the story, because of how… well… unlike his other stories it was and found that Lovecraft himself called the process of writing for the magazine “manifestly inartistic” because of how the magazine editor wanted it structured. You can feel Lovecraft’s disdain as he writes the story and the further you get into it, there is an aspect of camp that can absolutely be considered Lovecraft’s subtle dig at how much he hated the project. Ironically that bit of camp invigorated film makers from (obviously) Stuart Gordon to Sam Raimi.
But we’ll get to all that soon. Let’s dive in, shall we?
We start the story with a very strange statement which sets up the unreliable narrator right off the bat: “Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror.”
Excuse me, what?
He was your friend in college and… in after life? Is the narrator trying to say that they are friends still after death, or does he just mean that they were friends after college? This is a strange statement because immediately after it we find that West disappears in a “sinister manner.” Lovecraft isn’t one to mince words like this… he tends to be vague, but very precise. So what is our narrator telling us here? Well we wont get the answer to that until the very last sentence of the story.
The narrator states that he can only speak of West in terror because of the “wonder and diabolism of his experiments…” and instantly we understand that West was enamored by the dual nature of life and death. West believes that there could be developed, a method to delay death, or “overcome it artificially” by a “calculated chemical reaction.“
West immersed himself in these experiments during college using his home brew formulas on animals with varying levels of success, but “since the same solution never worked alike on different organic species, he would require human subjects for further and more specialised progress.”
Ridiculed by Miskatonic University staff and students, he is soon told that he cannot continue this line of study by their dean, “the learned and benevolent Dr. Allen Halsey.”
While the narrator describes this rejection from the Dean, we get our first philosophical rumination. “Holding with Haeckel that all life is a chemical and physical process, and that the so-called ‘soul’ is a myth...” (We’ll talk more about Haeckel later) Relying on this thesis West looks for fresh human bodies in an effort to re-animate them. He knows that if the flesh deteriorates too much then the process wont work, so the two men (narrator and West) “followed the local death-notices like ghouls...” and moved out to a farm house for its remoteness. The idea being that they can grave rob and bring the bodies to the house without being seen.
It takes a while, but they finally procure a body with enough freshness so they try the formula. They wait far longer than they think they should and nothing happens. Disappointed, they move into the next room and continue to work, while “…from the pitch black room we had left there burst the most appalling and daemonic succession of cries that either of us had ever heard.”
The two men are so terrified by the ululations and the crashes of destruction coming from that room that they tear from the place and head home, only to hear the next day that the house burned down with nary a glimpse of their reanimated corpse.
And this is all in the first chapter.
There are one or two exceptions, but this first chapter reads like a standard Lovecraftian story. The descriptions, the prose, the tone, it could basically be all out of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but then we move into the second chapter and find the story stalls.
From the first sentence we understand a plague of typhoid has devastated the town, and we rehash the theory behind the freshness of the bodies. We hear again from Dr. Halsey, who tells West in no uncertain terms that he must stop his research.
Then the story devolves for a page or so. From the perspective of the narrator we get into a rant about religion and ethics. He calls the “professor-doctor” type “the product of generations of puritanism...” and “whose worst real vice is timidity” with “…sins like Ptolemaism, Calvinism, anti-Darwinism, anti-Nietzscheism, and every sort of Sabbatarianism and sumptuary legislation.”
The narrator is railing against morals with an almost Ayn Rand fanaticism. You remember the scientist which we mentioned earlier? Haeckel? Without a doubt a brilliant man who created our classifications for families of living creatures (phylum, kingdom, etc,), BUT was a proponent of scientific racism and eugenics. Yeah, you heard that right. The man the narrator (and probably Lovecraft) is lauding as a genius, believes that there are scientific reasons why some races and creeds are better than others and that we should use eugenics to resolve the problem. You want to know who else got his main ideas from this man? Adolph Hitler. Also a German fanatic who was coming into power as this was being written. One has to wonder if the magazine Lovecraft was writing for had “specific leanings” and that’s why these elements are in this story and so prevalent (seriously, like the whole story), as opposed to his other stories. I wont mention it beyond this but there are some horribly racist things stated in the next chapter, worse than anything I’ve read in Lovecraft so far. Suffice it to say that there are some really interesting things in this story with plotting and style (and perhaps, just maybe, Lovecraft was using this hate as a device, but we’ll see that later), but if these themes are triggers IN ANY WAY, never read this story. It’s not even in the top 50% of Lovecraft anyway, and if it weren’t for the 1985 movie, I don’t think this story would have any historical longevity.
Whew! Sorry, had to leave that disclaimer. Anyway…
There’s a wake at the end of this chapter for Dr. Halsey (he died of typhoid) and West and the narrator tie one on, “making a night of it” and are seen later, after midnight, walking home with a third man in their arms. There’s a kerfluffel in West’s boarding room that night and when the landlord comes to investigate, they find West and the narrator bloodied and the window broken.
There’s a trail of blood and “remnants of bodies left behind...” There is even evidence of these bodies being chewed on. The police follow the trail until they find the fiend, who bears a startling resemblance to Dr. Halsey. The beast is captured and put into Arkham Asylum and the two heroes take a breath of relief as the chapter ends. But before it does, we get the first evidence of camp that will carry through to the 1985 movie.
To conclude the chapter West says: “Damn it, it wasn’t quite fresh enough!” Queue slight chuckle and eye roll.
The third chapter begins with the quote from the start of this essay and we spend over half of this chapter re-hashing the previous two. Then West and the narrator, because they are doctors, are asked to oversee an illegal boxing match. One of the pugilists is knocked unconscious and West declares him dead. They take the man and inject him with the formula, hoping that he is recently dead enough for it to work, but the man comes back as a monster, raging at them, and West puts it down with his revolver.
The next chapter is interesting if only because the prose is so simplistic as opposed to the majority of Lovecraft, and the plot so kooky, that it really feels as though Lovecraft is mentally done with the project, as if the only reason he is continuing it is for the money.
Three quarters of the chapter re-hashes the previous ones, until a travelling salesman comes around and “suddenly dies” on West’s porch. West uses the formula on him and when the man re-animates. We understand that West killed him because of his statement when he revives: “Help! Keep off, you cursed little tow-head fiend – keep that damned needle away from me!”
Then suddenly because WWI is going on, West decides he needs to go to the battle front to get fresh body parts to see if he can reanimate them. Some of the most atmospheric writing comes here and there is a bit more waxing poetic on the idea of the soul versus the mechanics of the body, but there isn’t much more to go on. The reader can feel Lovecraft’s disdain for the project bleeding through the text.
Then finally we get the last chapter where we get more re-hashing and a Halloween haunted house moment where one of the reanimated creatures is wearing a wax mask (check the very last quote in this essay). This triggers a campy moment where all the creatures West has reanimated come back and break through a plaster wall. The creatures are apparently angry at West for reanimating them so they “tore him to pieces before my eyes, bearing the fragments away into that subterranean vault of fabulous abominations.”
Servants find the narrator unconscious the next morning with West gone and an “unbroken plaster wall.” The servants state he was either mad or a murderer, and we get the last line which brings it all together: “But I might not be mad if those accursed tomb-legions had not been so silent.”
I sat for quite some time after reading this last line. He might not be mad if they had not been so silent. Meaning that he was mad as a hatter the entire time, and everything that we’ve experienced through his eyes were the ramblings of a potentially very dangerous madman. The perspectives on race, religion, science versus the soul, and all that malarkey that we spiraled into, was really just a madman capable of murder and probably much worse. Lovecraft is saying “nope, that was all from a crazy person, so you shouldn’t actually believe any of it.”
Don’t believe me? Lovecraft left us clues.
Remember the first line we talked about earlier? About how the narrator knows West “After Life?” The narrator tells us all along that West is the one reanimating everyone. West is the one killing people. But if the narrator knows West “after life,” then that means that he has killed West and reanimated him, making the narrator the real monster here, not West. In fact because of the unreliable narrator form, the entire story is subject to speculation, because it was probably the narrator who had been doing all the killing and reanimating all along.
We also know that from the very beginning the that West is missing. But in the last paragraph the narrator tells us that West was torn limb from limb. Throughout the story there are contradictions like this. For example: The narrator is a doctor but he doesn’t understand that Jewish, black, and white people (the only examples he gave) have the same internal organs.
There is also the fact that when they went to war and got to see the battle fields, the narrator, as a doctor felt that “Some of these things made me faint, others have convulsed me with devastating nausea, while others have made me tremble...” Really. You’re a field doctor who has killed creatures you brought back to life, done autopsies, looked at desiccated and chewed on corpses without a second thought… but a battlefield makes you faint. I at first thought this was a failing of the writing, but now because of other evidence I think it was a stylistic, unreliable narrator choice.
Throughout the story the narrator lovingly says that West, is “…a calm, blonde, blue-eyed scientific automaton...”, like, multiple times (I think I counted four times). In this exact same way. Yet we have a character call West a toe-head, a slang debasement for a blonde white person. It was odd at first that there would be a slang word against a white person in this story given the hate speech toward others, but what I realized is that the hate speech all came from the narrator, and the other characters in the story (Dr. Halsey, this salesman for example) didn’t hold these same views and railed against what the narrator thought. Those horrible racist, classist, and bigamous statements were from the perspective was an extremist insane psychotic.
The largest evidence of this? This story is too campy, too simplistic, too direct to be a serious Lovecraft story. I’ve spent the better part of two years reading and analyzing his work and I’ve not come across anything like this story. This was a very specific idea that was written for a very specific audience and he got paid $5 a chapter to do it. I get the feeling that he was asked to make it this direct, so the subversion of expectations was his way of sticking his middle finger to the proprietor and the audience.
Join me and read along as we cover “Pickman’s Model” next week!
I’ve stated that the prose in this story is much more simple than most Lovecraft (admittedly making it more accessible to a larger audience), but there were a few moments of brilliance here and there. My favorite examples are as follows:
“A touch of colour came to cheeks hitherto chalk-white, and spread out under the curiously ample stubble of sandy beard. West, who had his hand on the pulse of the left wrist, suddenly nodded significantly; and almost simultaneously a mist appeared on the mirror inclined above the body’s mouth.“
“In a dark corner of the laboratory, over a queer incubating burner, he kept a large covered vat full of this reptilian cell-matter; which multiplied and grew puffily and hideously.”
“I can still see Herbert West under the sinister electric light as he injected his reanimating solution into the arm of the headless body.”
“His expressionless face was handsome to the point of radiant beauty, but had shocked the superintendent when the hall light fell on it – for it was a wax face with eyes of painted glass.”
“It’s alright Claude, it’s just the wind,” Larry Talbot told his son. Larry was your typical heartthrob. He dressed like Carey Grant and looked like Marlon Brando. Claude was eight going on forty and scared of everything. That was part of the reason Larry brought him out to the woods. He wanted to expand his son’s horizons.
“That sure didn’t sound like no wind, I ever heard of,” Evelyn Ankers said. She was gorgeous, a perfect blonde bombshell, but the only reason she was there in the cabin was to gain notoriety. She had been invited for the weekend, free of charge, if she would only tell her famous Hollywood friends about how wonderful it was up here.
“Max,” Gwen prompted her husband. “Max, would you go out and check on that? Our guests want be comfortable here after all.”
“Of course, mother,” Max responded. Max was an old man with only one leg. His hair was long, stringy, and gray, and his clothes were tattered and torn. He was one of those old men who called their wives mother as a term of endearment.
Max waddled out of the door, rifle in hand, and winked at his guests before closing the door.
“You see Claude? Nothing to worry about!” Larry said.
He got up and walked over to the window, excited to see what the one legged older mountain man could do with that rifle. He cupped his hands around his eyes to cut the glare and pressed his face to the window.
“What do you see out there, Larry?” Evelyn asked. She held her hands prim in her lap, but there was an eager look to her eyes as she stared at Larry.
“Why, it’s just darkness and snow!” Larry turned and winked at Evelyn before turning to his son. “You see Claude? It was just the wind after all!”
Just then the window exploded inward, glass flying into the room. Larry instinctually covered his head as a huge wolf snapped at him, it’s teeth tearing a mouthful from his shoulder.
Larry screamed and twisted. He lashed out with his fist, landing a roundhouse blow to the Wolf’s snout. The snarling beast disappeared out of the window and Larry collapsed onto the ground.
“Everyone get away from the window!” Larry cried, but a moment later a rifle blast echoed through the night.
Claude and Evelyn sat in shock as Larry crawled over to them.
“That must have been Max, shooting the beast. I think we’re safe now, let’s just stay away from the window,” Larry said.
“Dada, I’m scared!” Claude cried.
“Oh my god, are you ok?” Evelyn asked. She hugged him, and held his head to her shoulder. Larry let her.
“I’m alright, it’s just a scratch! Nothing a bandage wouldn’t fix!” Larry said, projecting masculinity.
“You were bit, weren’t you?” Gwen asked. Her thick Romani accent commanded attention.
“Well, yeah. Yeah he did,” Larry responded. A brief moment of panic touched his words, before he caught it and stabilized.
“Then you are beyond help,” Gwen said.
“Dad?” Claude’s voice was small.
“Now you wait just a minute! What do you mean scaring my kid like that?” Larry scolded.
“Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night. May become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright,” Gwen said.
“Now, what in blazes is that supposed to mean?” Larry said. He stood and loomed over Gwen.
“You were bitten by a werewolf Mr. Talbot, and tonight is a full moon,” Gwen said. She held up a bundle of herbs in Larry’s face. He twisted away crying out.
“Uhhh! Those smell terrible! What is that?” Larry cried.
“It is too late for all of you,” Gwen said and threw the bundle out of the window. “You should not have come.”
“Now wait just a minute,” Evelyn cried. “a Werewolf? Why, there’s no such thing!”
“Claude!” Larry cried. He was hunched over, holding his stomach.
“Larry are you alright?” Evelyn asked. She didn’t notice the click of the kitchen door, nor the thwack of the dead lock as it slid into place, as Gwen disappeared.
“Get Claude out of here!” Larry cried and fell to all fours. His fingernails began to grow into sharp points, and he howled in pain as his mouth elongated and new teeth pushed through his gums.
“Dada?” Claude cried.
“Larry?” Evelyn asked, hugging Claude to her.
“It’s too late!” Larry’s voice was more of a growl than speech.
He turned and looked out the window. There above the trees was the moon. Full, bright, and yellow. In the distance a wolf bayed and Larry responded.
He felt joints pop into place, and his tongue flicked out of his snout and licked his chops. He hadn’t eaten in quite some time and there were two morsels right in front of him.