“As a result, I became aware of a vaguely disquieting fact; from time to time, Andrew Potter responded to some stimulus beyond the apprehension of my senses, reacting precisely as if someone had called to him, sitting up, growing alert, and wearing the air of someone listening to sounds beyond my own hearing, in same attitude assumed by animals hearing sounds beyond the pitch levels of the human ear.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve into the back woods to the town of Witches’ Hollow and fully uncover an interesting cultural diaspora which seems to fuel both Lovecraft’s imagination as well as Derleth’s. This was also (so far at least!) Derleth’s most unique telling while at the same time adding to Lovecraft’s mythos. We’ll discuss this more later, but I have to say that this was the most enjoyable tale from Derleth, despite it’s faults.
The story starts with a unique twist: “District School Number Seven Stood on the very edge of that wild country which lies west of Arkham.” Believe it or not, in this story we’re following a grade school teacher. We find that “The school district has now been consolidated,” which changed the student body and his “charges added up to twenty-seven.” We even hear some familiar names; “There were Allens and Whateleys and Perkinses, Dunlocks and Abbots and Talbots – and there was Andrew Potter.“
The narrator tells us Andrew Potter “was a large boy for his age, very dark of mien, with haunting eyes and a shock of tousled black hair.” and that “he was in the fifth grade, and it did not take long…to discover that he could easily advance into the seventh of eighth...” right before we get the quote which opens this essay.
Our narrator decides that he needs to go speak to Andrew’s parents and see if he can possibly get them to allow the child to move up in grades because when he speaks to the boy, Andrew tells him “‘What I’m interested in doesn’t matter. It’s what my folks want that counts.”
On the surface level this makes sense and it also brings me to the thematic point I mentioned earlier. Much of Lovecraft and Derleth seem to take place in rural or back woods regions, and because of the poverty level in these areas, there’s quite often an adherence to family and familial ideals over your own best interest. I’ve seen this in real life in the central valley of California, where farming families prefer their children to work with them in the fields picking instead of going to school. If someone from the school gets involved they generally shun that person, because the poverty is so intense that the need for immediate money (picking that day instead of going to school) is more important than some vague promise of a better life in the future… if you don’t work now and spend your time wasting away in a class that doesn’t pertain to your life…then your wasting potential. So this choice both builds the characters and because it’s a horror story, this theme becomes low hanging fruit because all the sudden you can have a family who has nefarious inclinations hiding among the poor.
This also fits in with the theme of the familial bond which occurs so much in Lovecraft’s style of fiction. There are so many stories (The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Ancestor, Arthur Jermyn, The Dunwich Horror, et. all) where an ancestor of the folk in the story got into dark magic and caused a ripple that would effect all generations within his lineage. In this story, we have old Wizard Potter (yes really. I don’t think there’s a connection with the notorious Harry, though some of the darker elements of Rowling’s work may have in a slight way been informed by Lovecraft or Derleth, but ultimately this has to be a coincidence) who is considered “a bad lot.” Derleth ties him to evil magic by saying that he was a cousin to Wizard Whateley (who apparently had quite a big family because he’s now connections in multiple Derleth stories with different cousins) of Dunwich, and the two of them “called something down from the sky, and it lived with him until he died.” Except we know now that whatever he called down, lived beyond old Wizard Potter.
When our industrious teacher goes to confront the Potters he finds that they deny him immediately by telling him that young Andrew will be stopping school as soon as the law allows. Then, while they’re standing there being awkward, something strange happens.
“The moment the father stopped talking, there was a singular harmony of attitude – all four of them seemed to be listening to some inner voice...”
This calls back to an earlier Lovecraft story “The Thing on the Doorstep.” In that tale Asenath, the primary antagonist, was able to project herself into other’s bodies, imposing her mind and suppressing theirs. We also have the idea of the Yith from stories such as “The Shadow out of Space” and “The Shadow out of Time” where they would do the same, take over the body of a host. The Potter family seems to have some kind of telepathic bond where they are either listening to each other, or listening to some higher being which is giving them directions. It goes beyond their own kin as well, however, as we find when our narrator speaks to one of his students about them.
“‘You shouldn’t a told Andrew Potter we talked about him,’ he said with a kind of unhappy resignation.
‘I didn’t, Wilbur.’
‘I know I didn’t. So you must have,’ he said. And then, ‘Six of our cows got killed last night, and the shed where they were was crushed down on ’em.’“
The Potter’s have Telepathy and bore into people’s minds. Derleth is striving to make the connection that these Ancient Ones have plans on Earth, but there is some force keeping them out, so they need to use these strange tools and spells and books to help seem into susceptible human brains. The teacher narrator suspects something more than natural (maybe not wholly supernatural) is going on and decides to head to local Miskatonic University to do some research. There he comes across one of these forbidden texts… The Necronomicon. While he’s reading it a Professor of the University notices him and tells him that he knows about the Potters and he knows what to do with them.
This Professor Keane shows the narrator, “...objects of stone, roughly in the shape of five-pointed stars. He put five of them in my hand.”
Then he tells the narrator the crux of the story and all the events run downhill at breakneck pace towards the climax:
“You must keep one of these at least on your person at all times, and you must keep all thought of the stone and what you are about to do out of your mind. These beings have a telepathic sense – an ability to read your thoughts.” and after discussing them for a moment Keane tells our narrator, “These stones are among the thousands bearing the Sea of R’lyeh which closed the prisons of the Ancient Ones. They are the seals of the Elder Gods.”
Ok so beyond the fact that he directly contradicts Lovecraft here (R’lyeh is the city where Cthulhu sleeps, not a sea) he is single handedly building the legacy of what would hold Lovecraft’s mythos forever entombed in popular culture. He is creating the basis for the gaming community.
If you’ve ever played the board game “Manisions of Madness” or one of the bevy of video games, or even the role playing game “The Call of Cthulhu” you’ve seen all of these elements. The librarian, or professor, who surreptitiously knows more than they should and helps the investigator. The Elder Signs which the narrator uses to hold the Ancient Ones in place, the action packed rollercoaster ending after a slow burn build to find the truth. These are what made Lovecraft truly popular in the last four decades and what continues to build his legacy. Derleth lays the basis for all that gaming culture right here in this story published in 1962.
It also deepens what he would come to call “The Cthulhu Mythos.” These Elder Signs were extremely sparingly used in Lovecraft (I think only twice mentioned) and in Lovecraft their usage wasn’t specifically spelled out as they are here. This is probably the best thing Derleth has done to the legacy of Lovecraft (because in the preceding stories there hasn’t been much), because we have quite a bit of evidence of what these powerful deities are, but before this, there have been no tools in which to battle them. By telling us that these Elder Signs were what was used to imprison them, we now have an inkling that there can be a chance to beat them.
The rest of the story unfolds as you would expect. The narrator builds a wall in his mind, striving to keep it blank so the Potter’s wont know what he’s planning, then tracks them all down and places the stones on them one by one, shunning the outsider whom was “called down from the sky.“
The story, unlike any by Lovecraft, ends with a super happy ending, where the Potter family is returned their humanity and they all remain whole after they move away from the little village of Witches’ Hollow. The narrator decides he wants to forget, or at least not look any further into the mysteries which seemed to surround that family there in that backwoods burg.
It’s a completely different feel from Lovecraft, but it’s fun and adventurous and totally worth the read.
Can Derleth keep it up? Can we move beyond that poor rehashing of Lovecraft’s tales and get into more adventurous stories like this one?
Join me to fid out next week as we try out “The Shadow in the Attic!”
“Dr. Gilman kept his own council, but the two who had brought him whispered into one ear after another a singular tale, telling how they had found in the house a great moisture, a wetness clinging to the walls, to the doorknob, even to the bed to which they had lowered Enoch Conger only a short while before hastening for the doctor – and on the floor a line of wet footprints made by feet with webbed toes – a trail that led out of the house and down to the edge of the sea, and all along the way the imprints were deep, as if something heavy had been carried from the house, something as heavy as Enoch.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re treading familiar “waters” as we get a quaint little story, which potentially created echoes throughout literary history.
The Fisherman of Falcon Point is pretty much exactly what you would think it is. It’s a story about a fisherman in the little burg of Falcon Point which is just down the coast from the infamous Innsmouth.
The story begins as a fairy tale: “Along the Massachusetts coats where he lived many things are whispered about Enoch Conger-” Enoch is the main character (I hesitate to say protagonist) of the story, and in this first line we immediately get the understanding that something strange is going on with him; he’s become a legend people tell, but Derleth does a good job in the opening of not indicating if he survived or otherwise, thus increasing our curiosity as a reader. He even goes one step further later down the page: “There he lived until he was seen no more, for none can say he died.”
Our narrator tells us “He was a powerful man, broad in the shoulders, barrel-chested, with long, muscular arms.” Also “…that he talked with the gulls and terns, with the wind and the pounding sea, and with others that could not be seen and were heard only in strange tones like the muted sounds made by great batrachian beasts unknown in the bogs and marshes of the mainland.”
Conger was a loner, a taciturn man who we’re made to believe speaks to animals because he’s so solitary. He only interacts with humans when he heads to the bar after coming in from a fishing excursion; it’s when he’s fishing in the sea just off the coast of Falcon Point and Innsmouth in which he communes with the fishes. Better than sleeping with the fishes I guess!
What’s important about the introduction of the story is the tone and method of telling the tale. Derleth usually takes a bit of a closer 3rd person perspective in his writing, giving us a glimpse into what the character themselves are thinking. This story moves back to a more 3rd omniscient perspective, with slightly more whimsical language. The effect is that instead of this story feeling like a driving short horror, it reads more like a mythology/world building story. It truly feels like you’re sitting around the campfire while Derleth tells you this fantastical tale…
Which is important because the story threads the line based upon what we guess about the area and the established mythology of the area. You never feel as though Conger is in mortal peril, but you know something very strange is about to happen to him.
In fact the tone and style of this story remind me so much of a more recent literary horror novel, “The Fisherman” by John Langan. You can ignore what seems to be the connection between these tales, because what it really is, is the fantastic mythology based around location. “The Fisherman” is highly recommended if you’ve not partaken, but it proves that though Lovecraft created this world, none of his writing had this tone or whimsy. This is purely Derleth creating a legacy.
Anyway back to the story. Conger spends much of his time in his favorite spot fishing, until that spot finally dries up, so he decides to venture out further… out towards Devils Reef in the sea beyond Innsmouth. Once there he “cast his net, and brought up many fishes – and something more-“
That something more is never described, but it spooks Conger enough to immediately leave. He heads back to his favorite bar where he tells his fishy tales, and the aged fishermen there think he’s seen a mermaid. “She was not a mermaid.” Conger responds, but is only met with derision.
“They laughed at him and made many a jest, but he heard them not.” But still he was spooked. He stayed away from Devil’s Reef for years and eventually, “…one night the word was brought to Innsmouth that Enoch Conger had been greviously hurt at his lonley occupation...” where two local fisherman took him back to his home and left him there to find the doctor.
We get the opening quote of this essay next as Enoch is carried away. At this point, based upon what we know about Enoch we can assume one of two things. He either had DNA from Innsmouth in his blood somewhere along the lines because of his penchant to speaking to animals, especially amphibians, or he was in some way marked by the cult of Dagon to be taken.
Years later “the venerable old Jedidiah Harper, patriarch of the coastal fishermen,” swore that he saw a school of fishlike people swimming alongside his boat. The had the look of half amphibian and half man, “they had seemed to be singing a chant to Dagon, a chant of praise, and among them, he swore, he had seen Enoch Conger…“
This raises a dark and fascinating point in which Derleth is playing at. I mentioned back in the Blind Read for “The Shadow out of Space” that Derleth seemed to be playing with body horror, or the idea that someone could be altered physically as well as mentally because of an outside force. In that story it was an Elder Sign on a person. Here we actually have Conger transitioning from a human into a Deep One and it seems as though he was marked early on. Namely his penchant for speaking to animals and then his catching a Deep One in a net. It’s possible that original Deep One he caught did something to him which started the transition, and it was only years later that he began his transformation, but I rather think it was the “injury” he sustained when found by those two fisherman. I think he was more than likely altered in some way, by his own volition or not, and that event caused the transition. He wasn’t actually injured. He was forced to change by some ritual.
We’ve talked about it before: rituals are a cornerstone with the Lovecraft mythos. Much of what goes on in Lovecraft’s original work is actually called (by his own verbiage) witch craft. That hasn’t happened very much so far in Derleth’s tales, but with this story, we may just be turning a corner.
Join me next week as we explore “Witch’s Hollow.”
As an aside, the first few stories in Derleth’s collection had Saurian, or Reptilian creatures who prayed to Dagon. The last few all had Batrachian, or amphibian creatures. Both of these are a bit of a divergence, from the fish men that were the Deep Ones in Lovecraft, but Derleth’s Amphibious creatures are a much closer distinction than the reptilian. I wonder if we’ll ever get a reason for this in the text, though I tend to believe there wont be. It may just be Derleth’s poetic license that he felt he could do whatever he wanted with the legacy, or it’s possible that he didn’t truly understand his friend’s writing before he started himself. In any case, I’m excited to see where we go next!
“That was what his grandfather had meant when he had written ‘you have gone forth into the world and gathered to yourself learning sufficient to permit you to look upon all things with an inquiring mind ridden neither by the superstition of ignorance nor the superstition of science.'”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! Here we have a combined sequel to both “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Dunwich Horror” all at the same time. If you don’t think those stories jive too well together you’d be right; one is about Dagon and the other about Yog-Sothoth. It seems, however, as though Derleth decided that he liked Cthulhu and Dagon (the fishy ones) so much more that he’d focus all of his energies on slowly phasing out of Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothothery and into his own more popular Cthulhu Mythos.
We begin the tale talking about the backwoods of Massachusetts and I was immediately excited: “At dusk, the wild, lonely country guarding the approaches to the village of Dunwich in north central Massachusetts seems more desolate and forbidding than it ever does by day.”
The Dunwich Horror is one of my favorite Lovecraft tales because he packs so much into it and not only is it a wonderful horror tale, but it also expands his mythos in such a wonderful way. The Whatley’s are farming folk and Lavinia Whately, a strange albino woman, becomes pregnant. No one seems to know who the father is, but mad old Whately mentions in passing about some strange theory that she was impregnated by someone named Yog-Sothoth, but that’s just in passing, and he’s crazy anyway, so we move forward. Lavinia gives birth to Wilbur, who is strange in and of himself, he ages prematurely, he’s described as a “dark, goatish infant,” he has an odd musty odor, and under the tutilage of old man Whateley he’s drawn to Arkham to study the Necronomicon. While at Miskatonic University he turns into a beast and dies, but the doctors are curious as to how that’s possible so they head to Dunwich to investigate, only to come across a terrible Shoggoth as it rampages across the country side.
That is as simple an explanation as I can give, but the story is significantly better. In Derleth’s tale the only real connection to Dunwich is the Whately name. Our protagonist is Abner Whately which is confusing because in the original tale we’re led to believe the line of Whately’s died off. We’re given a brief description: “The Whatleys has a curse on ’em…and thar’s what happened on Sentinel Hill that time-Lavinny’s Wilbur” but that isn’t really a connection. We can only assume that there were cousins to the branch that died off in Lovecraft’s tale living somewhere nearby and took over the farmhouse. That new Whatley, Grandfather Luther as named in this new story, had a few children. Our protagonist Abner meets Zebulon, his uncle and speaks of his Aunt Sarah, who their grandfather Luther locked away in her room after she visited…wait for it…Innsmouth.
At the mention of Innsmouth we lose all thread of Dunwich and suddenly the story becomes a sequel to Lovecraft’s doomed “Shadow Over Innsmouth” instead.
You might ask why Sarah decided to go to Innsmouth? Well Derleth hashes that reasoning out in dialog:
“‘What was Aunt Sarah doing in Innsmouth?‘
‘Are there Whatleys there, too?’
‘Not Whatleys. Marshes. Old Obed Marsh that was Pa’s cousin.‘”
If you remember from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” Old Obed Marsh was a sea captain who took a strange island wife whom was not seen much afterward. She was, in fact, one of Dagon’s Deep Ones; a fish creature who worships from the underwater city just off Devil’s reef off the coast of Innsmouth called Y’ha-nthlei. Innsmouth itself was peopled by hybrid Deep Ones, as the people of that coastal town were breeding with the Deep Ones for years.
And that’s what happened to Sarah. She met her cousin Ralsa Marsh and apparently had a tryst. When Grandfather Luther heard of it, he locked her away in her room.
So we’ve been weaving back and forth between stories, but lets focus on what happens in Derleth’s, shall we? The reason Abner arrived at the house is because his Grandfather Luther died and asked him to go there and burn down the mill and everything above it. In his letter, Luther tells Abner “It is my wish that at least the mill section of this house be destroyed. Let it be taken apart, board by board. If anything in it lives, I adjure you solemnly to kill it. No matter how small it may be.”
Then there is a post script, “If I seem to have the sound of madness, pray recall that worse than madness has spawned among the Whatelys. I have stood free of it. It has not been so of all that is mine. There is more stubborn madness in those who are unwilling to believe in what that know not of and deny that such exists, than in those of our blood who have been guilty of terrible practices, and blasphemy against God, and worse.”
If you blink you miss it. Obviously Luther is speaking of his daughter Sarah here. She’s the one touched by madness, because she had an affair with her fishy Deep One cousin, Ralsa. She’s the one whom was locked in the room, presumably with her offspring…locked in there until she died.
But that isn’t what could be missed in that paragraph. Lovecraft was very careful to God out of his works. Actually that’s probably a mis-statement. He didn’t believe in god…or the devil. So Lovecraft’s horror was cosmic, because in his world there wasn’t truly evil, there was only incomprehensible horrors. Derleth, conversely, was very religious and he mentions God in nearly every story I’ve read so far. That’s not necessarily a bad thing…well it is if you’re a Lovecraft fan…but what he seems to be saying here is that because Sarah was “guilty of terrible practices” namely having sex with her cousin, that she was rightly entombed with her spawn. It is meant, I’m sure, to mean that because Ralsa was a Deep One and Sarah’s judgment was so poor that she hooked up with him, that had to be kept safe from herself. The issue seems to be Derleth’s however because he’s the one who made Ralsa her cousin. There’s no precedence for that in Lovecraft, so its almost like it’s Derleth made him a cousin because in his’s eyes, sex with your cousin is the same as being an evil otherworldly creature. Not saying it’s right, but it sure doesn’t warrant a death sentence.
So Abner is there to destroy the room and the mill. He goes about the story working to do this task, and while doing so heads to Sarah’s room. To get rid of the musty smell he “...kicked the shutters out to let in a welcome blast of fresh, damp air.” When he turns to inspect the room he “caught sight of a long-legged frog or toad” vanish behind a bureau. What we come to realize is that Sarah’s and Ralsa’s offspring was full Deep One and apparently in Derleth’s part of this shared universe when Deep Ones don’t eat they become diminutive. Abner’s act of kicking out the shutter, gives the creature a chance to escape. The dead cattle? That’s the escaped Deep One eating and growing to regular size. If you remember from “The Dunwich Horror” this is what the Shoggoth did, so much so that the old man Whatley and Wilbur had to keep rebuilding farmhouses to house it.
But Abner doesn’t realize this at first. It isn’t until Abner heads to the shuttered room late in the story and sees “There, squatting in the midst of the tumbled bedding from the long-abandoned bed, sat a monstrous, leathery skinned creature that was neither frog nor man, one gorged with food, with blood still slavering from it’s batrachian jaws and upon it’s webbed fingers…” with limbs “grown from its bestial body like those of a frog, and tapering off into a man’s hands, save for the webbing between the fingers.“
He throws the lantern at the creature, immolating both it and the room, thus ending the horror.
Derleth tries to include some aspects of “The Dunwich Horror” into this tale, but he makes small changes. The odor which pervades the story is fishy instead of musty, the dead cattle are because a Deep One is on the loose instead of a Shoggoth. He uses tools like this to bring his tale together and separate himself from Lovecraft. He obviously wants things to be more connected with Cthulhu, potentially making that eldritch god a much larger aspect of the whole mythos…but then again he’s stepping on his own toes.
A few weeks ago we covered a few stories, Namely “The Peabody Heritage” and even further back “The Survivor.” In both of these stories the creature whom we can only understand as an aspect of Dagon or Cthulhu, were Saurian, I.E. reptilian. However in this story he seems to be changing that to batrachian, or fishlike, amphibian. Why is he changing up his own rules between stories? Could there be a connector I haven’t seen yet? Could Derleth be trying to connect more of the world and make it cohesive for all his new readers? By the title we have a great read next week to find out!
Join me as we dive into “The Fisherman of Falcon Point!”
Derleth is cherry picking to fulfill the needs of his current tale.(The ancestor, the peabody heritage)
“If it is true that man lives forever on the edge of an abyss, the certainly most men must experience moments of awareness – of a kind of precognition, as it were – when the vast, unplumbed depths which exist forever on the rim of man’s little world become for one cataclysmic moment tangible, when the terrible, boundless well of knowledge of which even the most brilliant man has only tasted, assumes a shadowy being capable of striking the most primal terror into even the stoutest heart.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we trudge through the terribly derivative and bastardizing story, while reconciling memory and looking to the future of Lovecraft Country.
Right from the beginning of this story, I could tell that it was going to be a weak retelling of “The Shadow Out of Time” and unfortunately it was nearly a word for word reconditioning of that odd novella with Derleth putting his own, less sophisticated stamp on it. Derleth tries to clarify what was going on in the original story, but unfortunately the whole thing just leaves a bad taste in your mouth, as he strives to tie some of the mythos together, which don’t seem as though they fit.
It’s ultimately a lazy effort and pretty obviously a money grab. Even the title, replacing Space or Time, is a lazy effort to reimagine. Reading this story almost feels like I’m reading “Lovecraft for Dummies”, which is a massive let down.
There are some interesting connectors though, and that’s what we’ll be focusing on as I give you a Cliffs Notes version of the story.
If you’ve read “The Shadow out of Time” you know what’s going to happen. This story follows Nathaniel Corey who’s our narrator. Corey has a patient, Amos Piper, who had the same kind of strange circumstances of his alliterative counter part Peaslee from “The Shadow out of Time.” They black out for years, loosing that time. They suddenly developed an interest in the occult while they concurrently lose control of their bodily faculties for a period of time. It turns out in both stories that the characters were invaded by one of the Great Race of Yith, a race looking to gather information about every other species in existence. The Yith have the ability to travel through time and space (hence both titles) to do so. Eventually the Yith retract, and the more the narrator digs, they eventually find themselves being invaded.
What Derleth’s version is missing is the philosophical element of Lovecraft’s novelette. In fact it seems like that’s what he’s missing with all of his stories. Lovecraft has popularity because he created incredible atmosphere, but at the same time, his stories were philosophical treatises. Derleth, I’m coming to understand, is basically writing dime store books. He’s actively removing the philosophy from Lovecraft’s ethos and dumbing the stories down to make them more accessible to a wider audience. The jury is still out about how I feel about this, especially because he seems to change small things about the stories which I think curve away from the original intent (more specifically creating a more Christian outlook instead of an apathetic one). The only real philosophizing in this story is the opening quote of this essay, which incidentally is the opening paragraph (or at least most of the opening paragraph) of the story.
That being said Derleth does add a few details to make this world more his own. Some of these add a layer of sub-context which both inform us of Derleth’s process and add a bit to the story. The first of these comes fairly early in the story and had me excited for the prospects:
“The moment I close my eyes, there appear on the retina strange geometrical figures and designs, together with vague lights and even more sinister shapes beyond, as of great creatures past the conception of mankind...”
If we remember from stories such as “Dreams in the Witch House” and even such favorites as “The Call of Cthulhu,” strange geometrical figures and angles play a huge role. In Lovecraft they’re used as a sort of talisman to help magnify the magic being used. Strange angles, conversely, seem to create a fold in space and time where dimension and time hopping becomes possible. Derleth seems to be layering this concept onto people. If we can actually put these designs onto our own figure, can we call forth elder entities into our own bodies? Would they come through us in some kind of body horror, or would they merely take over our minds which seems to be indicated here in this story? It’s a very exciting prospect for what could possibly be coming in later stories.
Derleth also makes use of popular culture as well, grounding the story into a specific timeline. Piper’s episode of transmogrification takes place during a performance of Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter.” Because this reference was so specifically called out it makes me wonder if there’s a specific meaning behind it’s inclusion. “The Letter” is about a woman named Leslie, who is on trial for killing Geoff Hammond, a friend of her husbands. Throughout the play it’s found out that Hammond was in fact Leslie’s lover, who scorned her for another woman. The eponymous letter comes to light and Leslie is eventually acquitted, but she’s not completely innocent. She is guilty of adultery and sees her punishment as the knowledge that she killed the man she truly loved.
On surface level this seems like it doesn’t connect. What could this possibly mean? I contemplated for a few pages until I came across a long quote which begins to reveal a potential deeper meaning:
“The rugose cones which made their present form had been occupied for only a few centuries, and were far from their true form, which was more kin to a shaft of light, for they were a race of free minds, capable of invading any body and displacing the mind which inhabited it. They had occupied Earth until they had become involved in the titanic struggle between the Elder Gods and the Ancient Ones for the dominion of the cosmos, a struggle which, he told me, accounted for the Christian Mythos among mankind, for the simple minds of early men had conceived of their ancestral memories of this struggle as one between elemental Good and elemental Evil.”
There’s a decent amount to unravel here, but I want to add one more quote before we take the deep dive into Derleth’s mind.
“Indeed, if anything, his memory during his illness – once indoctrination had been completed – was infinitely superior to the functioning of that part of his mind before.”
So how does this correlate to “The Letter?” Follow with me here, because we’re getting deep!
Lovecraft made sure to keep religion out of his stories (although I do find an interesting correlation to heaven or hell in “The White Ship“), but it seems as though Derleth is working to incorporate and explain why it’s necessary. Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothothery was mostly apathetic; they were ancient and powerful gods who saw humans as insignificant. They weren’t “evil,” their goal was not to overthrow our society or make us slaves. We are as pointless as little black ants to them. If we annoy them they step on us. If we don’t bother them they generally let us be.
Derleth flat out states that it was a “struggle between elemental Good and elemental Evil.” He’s working to quintessentially change what Lovecraft was striving to do. He’s working to make it his own instead of honoring Howard. He gets away with it, making these tales more popular posthumously than during Lovecraft’s life, but he steals some of the heart of the tale. Derleth is Leslie. He’s ostensibly killed the memory of what Lovecraft was striving for, but he gets away with it, tarnishing the one he admired and loved.
That’s what this story feels like. It’s told well and it’s a interesting story, but only if you haven’t read Lovecraft first. If you had it feels like a tarnishing of the legacy. In Derleth’s effort to make it easier and more accessible, to put meaning behind why the Ancient Ones and the Elder Gods did what they did, makes the story somehow not really worth it. It’s the theory behind “the reveal.” If you have a monster so horrible that a mere glance at it could drive you insane, then you let the imagination come up with it’s image. Derleth, puts a rugose cone head and some tentacles and claws and calls it scary, when in reality, he’s just making it basic.
Let’s see how Derleth moves beyond this next week as we cover one of his most popular stories “The Shuttered Room”
Addendum: I was supposed to publish an essay on “The Shadow out of Space,” but I hit a computer blip. Luckily I’m headed out of town and worked ahead, and had this one ready a week early. Enjoy this one now and come back for “The Shadow out of Space” next week!
“The city on the desert was the Nameless City and the snowy peaks were the Mountains of Madness or perhaps Kadath in the Cold Waste. And he enjoyed keenly bestowing names upon these landscapes, for they came to him with ease, they sprang to his mind as if they had always been lingering on the perimeter of his thoughts, waiting for this moment to come into being.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we relax, awash in a wonderfully metafictional story, which is probably the most enjoyable Derleth tale to date!
I assumed by the title that this story would be about the cannon. The Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred is mentioned in a number of Lovecraft stories as the author of the original Necronomicon. A grimoire discussing the Elder Gods and the spells in which he was privy to. To both summon them, to honor them, and to worship them. He supposedly had an “otherworldly experience” and gained the knowledge of the Elder Gods, enough at least to write the cursed Necronomicon.
Alhazred was not mentioned beyond this capacity (at lest in Lovecraft’s works), but we can infer that he was one of the first “Dreamers” much like Randolph Carter (From such famous stories as “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” “The Statement Of Randoph Carter,” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”), however unlike Carter it seems as though either gaining the knowledge, or the act of writing the Necronomicon is what drove Alhazred “Mad.”
This story doesn’t have anything to do with Alhazred however, but is instead a homage to Howard Phillips himself. The story follows Ward Phillips, “then thirty, and in indifferent health, though this was but a continuation of the sickliness which had so often made his childhood miserable.”
After reading this passage on the first page I assumed Derleth was going to make the character a mirror Howard, but as I got deeper, I realized that Ward Phillips was just a stand in so he wouldn’t have to specifically mention Lovecraft. The story is a love letter to a lost friendship, and it was wonderful to experience. It is actually about Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Derleth goes on to examine the man, “Phillips had become a writer for the pulp magazines, and had eked out a spare living by undertaking in addition the revision of countless almost hopeless manuscripts of prose and verse by writers far more amateur than he...” and “Phillips, who lived in the past, believed that the way to defeat the sense of time was to cling close to unaltered early haunts.” This is just another clue. We know what Derleth’s saying here is true from their correspondence and all such stories such as “The Horror at Red Hook.“
“He often went to a hill, Nentaconhaunt, from the slope of which he could look down on his native city and wait there for the sunset and the enchanting panoramas of the city springing to its life by night, with the steeples and gambrel roofs darkening upon the orange and crimson...”
This hill which the fictional Ward Phillips went to to gain inspiration from, is a real hill in Providence. The description in the above quote obviously lends to the atmosphere of Lovecraft’s stories in general and I wonder if Lovecraft himself spent time on that hill, taking in the evening and letting his imagination soar. Just how many stories obtained their genesis from time on that hill? The Hill’s name strikes me as well. I’m not sure of the etymology, and this isn’t the place to have that discussion anyway, but it seems to me that it enflamed Lovecraft’s dark imagination, perhaps even fueling the creation of such names as the “Necronomicon?”
In any case, Ward Phillips, our illustrious stand in, spends his evenings on the hill, so he spends his nights writing. He’s got a “meager income” so he doesn’t use electric light to write, but instead decides to use an old lamp his Grandfather Whipple left him (If that name sounds familiar you are correct. It is concurrently the name of Howard’s Grandfather, and Captain Abraham Whipple who led a charge against Joseph Curwen in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward). The Lamp of Alhazred.
I immediately thought the lamp was going to summon some kind of Deep One, but I was given a much more pleasant surprise. The lamp created a shadow play upon the walls, something “Ward” sat back and viewed in wonder:
“It seemed to be a scene of the earth when young, one in which the land was still in the process of being formed, a land where great gouts of steam came from fissures and rocks, and the trails of serpentine animals showed plainly in the mud. High overhead flew great beasts that fought and tore, and from an opening in a rock on the edge of the sea, a tremendous animal appendage, resembling a tentacle, uncoiled sinuously and menacingly into the red, wan sunlight of that day, like a creature of some fantastic fiction.“
“Slowly the scene changed,” into what the opening quote describes, and we realize that this story is not a horror story at all, but a homage, or even love song, between one author and his predecessor. There is care as Derleth even describes: “he took time to answer letters from his correspondents, to whom he wrote of his ‘dreams’.” which of course he’s speaking of himself as one of Lovecraft’s correspondents.
Derleth waxes poetic about how many people must have viewed the fantastic themes and scenes which came from the lamp and wonders how many will in the future. It’s at this point, just a page or two from the end, in which we realize he’s now speaking on Lovecraft’s writing. H.P.’s stories are, not just a candle in the dark, but a lamp, illuminating a new way forward for authors. He made it possible to move beyond Gothic horror and try new things. He was the trail-blazer who created a dynasty of such authors as Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard, and informed artists such as Moebius and H.R. Giger.
It’s a fantastic little story and it brought me back to the first day I started this blog series. What it must have been like to be one of his pen pals. To hear of the story ideas, and to bath in the blossoming fungi that became his oeuvre. I can only hope that the rest of the stories in Derleth’s collection live up to the same inspiration!
Join me next week as we look into “The Shuttered Room”
“There was no question but that my cousin had found some way to tap the stream of memory; he had established beyond doubt that everything that happened to a human being was registered in some compartment of the brain, and that it needed but the proper bridge to it’s place of storage in memory to bring it to consciousness once more.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we travel back into time alongside Derleth’s characters to view a fairly Lovecraftian Tale, which quixotically, doesn’t hold enough of Lovecraft’s themes.
Here’s another tale told in Vermont and (at least as far as I could tell) is absent of any of Derleth’s predilections of adding in little details like names of old characters to get readers excited, but instead holds to the trope of a man in trouble calling on a friend to help them in their research as Lovecraft did in tales such as “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Colour out of Space.”
We begin with a description of the man in need, the narrator’s cousin, Ambrose Perry. He’s apparently an old retired medical doctor whom “went into virtual seclusion at his home, which he had built in the middle of a dense wood, and outfitted with as complete a laboratory as money could buy.”
Ambrose calls on our narrator, a man who’s without a job. Ambrose sends him a letter, “offering me a handsome emolument if I would accept the position of secrecy.” A theme which was not, I believe, intended was the unreliable narrator trope. The narrator is a man who’s probably in his mid to late thirties and jobless without prospect. This tale was written in the fifties, so the idea of a man of that age without prospects generally leads me to the idea that the narrator is a vagrant, and is possible of anything if he thinks it will get him a little further… or possibly to get another fix (more on that later)? The two men are cousins that’s true, but why would the narrator be reached out to first? And why the emphasis on the importance of secrecy? Probably because vagrancy lends itself to being disposable, so it wouldn’t matter the secrets learned, because the narrator was never meant to leave the property. Something to think about as we move throughout the story.
Why was this the first thing that came to my mind? Because when Ambrose answers the door, “he was thin and gaunt; the hale, ruddy man I had last seen almost four years ago had vanished, and in his place stood a mere travesty of his former self.” Ambrose had come across something profound. He either wanted someone who wouldn’t say anything because they understood, or he wanted someone disposable when things got too deep.
Ambrose brings the narrator into confidence and tells him the job is to transpose his notes from shorthand into a narrative, then proceeds to tell our narrator that he’s developed a method of, “a combination of drugs and music, taken at a time when the body is half-starved induces the mood and makes it possible to cast back in time and sharpen all the faculties to such a degree that memory is regained.” The point of this vision quest is to “recapture all my past, down to the most minute nooks and crannies of human memory, and I am now further convinced that, by the same methods, I can extend this perceptive process to hereditary memory and recreate the events of man’s heredity.” He’s even said that he’s recaptured memories from his own time in the womb.
The narrator lives in this strange abode for weeks with his host disappearing for half of every day to do his strange experiments. His only companionship are the Reeds, “man and wife, who were both in their sixties, were subdued. They made little conversation, not only because Mrs. Reed both cooked and served her dinner, but because they were plainly accustomed to carrying on an existence apart from their employer’s…”
Why is the only thing he mentions the fact that she cooks him dinner? Why doesn’t he mention the butlery duties of Mr. Reed? Initially this would seem like it’s an important designation. In fact I wrote in my notes that they were characters to watch. I thought they might be devious, possibly nefarious characters, but they turn out to be just an old couple who have seen too much and decide they just need to put their heads down and do their job. In fact they turn out to be much like The Slydes from “House on Haunted Hill.” They’re atmosphere. They’re not really characters, but a backdrop to give off a creepy vibe.
So the atmosphere is in place and the narrator is curious about what’s going on, until finally Ambrose grows to weak from his food abstinence. He calls the narrator in and we finally get a glimpse. “The atmosphere of the laboratory, ill-lit with but one low red light near to the operating table, was eerie. My cousin looked far more like a corpse than a man under the influence of drugs. Moreover, there was playing in one corner an electric phonograph, so that the low, discordant strains of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps flowed through the room and took possession of it.“
This is an area of prose where Derleth is sound. His writing is simplistic and over-run with contextual errors (not to mention lazy. There’s a part of me that after reading Lovecraft for years and bathing in his beautiful exposition, to be laden with Derleth just outright saying “it was eerie” is a bit troublesome), but he gives off a much more visual contextualization. It’s almost as though because Derleth wrote after TV became popular and Lovecraft didn’t, that his tales are more direct…as though they’re stories meant to read like a show, rather than Lovecraft who was more cerebral. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, but it’s probably not the right time for that.
Getting back to the story, the narrator is now privy to the lab and takes notes of Ambrose going even further back in time, back to before he was born in fact, back to memories that couldn’t possibly be his own and eventually he broke into the strangest of phrases:
“Forest sunk into earth…Great ones fighting, tearing. Run, run… New trees for old. Footprints ten feet across. We live in cave, cold, damp, fire…“
Ambrose thinks he may have gotten somewhere, but strangely, he kicks our narrator out. He locks the door leaving the Reeds and the narrator to wait outside and listen to the odd sounds coming from the laboratory. Ambrose’s dog starts to get upset; “Whereas hitherto he had been a singularly well-behaved dog, now he began to bark often at night, and day by day he whined and moved about the house and yard with an air of alarm.”
They would leave food on a tray outside of the laboratory door, and always when they weren’t looking the food would disappear. The notes became more difficult for the narrator to decipher. “He seemed to have difficulty properly holding a pencil, and his lines were scrawled in large letters over all the sheets of paper without any sense of order, though this was not entirely unexpected in one heavily dosed with drugs.”
But then the music, what Ambrose touted as heavily important for the process, suddenly stopped right about the time, “a pervasive and highly repellent musk, clearly an animal odor, which seemed to emanate from the laboratory.” The narrator also thinks he “...saw some unpleasantly large animal scuttling into the woods.“
The narrator finally gets into the lab and finds what to him looks like “a primal animal’s abode.” With parts of game, obviously caught and devoured strewn about the lab. The lab itself was destroyed, but the door leading to the woods was wide open.
The narrator followed the trail until he came upon Ginger, Ambrose’s dog, with a fresh kill in the woods:
“For the thing that lay below Ginger’s bloody jaws was a sub-human caricature of a man, a hellish parody of primal growth, with horrible malformations of face and body, giving off an all-pervasive and wholly charnel musk – but it was clad in the rags of my cousin’s mouse-colored dressing-gown, and it wore on it’s wrist my cousin’s watch.”
So we come to find that the set up of the story had a Lovecraftian tint; a man searching for knowledge, taking part in obscure or arcane rituals, but the payoff is different than anticipated. He goes back in time and because of the rituals he executed, he gained aspects of his prehistoric ancestors. It’s a shocking ending sure, but Derleth lost quite a bit along the way. There was plenty of drama he could have infused with Ambrose looking like his actual ancestors, much like in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” There’s also the mention of the Great Ones, which didn’t actually pan out.
Ultimately the story reads much like the narrator is…unreliable. I mentioned earlier that the narrator was a confusing personage. Is he a man looking to do the most and just down on his luck? It doesn’t seem so because of all the previous things mentioned, and also his vast knowledge of drugs. There’s a portion of the text where the narrator gives a scientific description of the Marijuana Ambrose “uses.” I’ve seen this in people I know, where they are so enamored with Weed that they get into the scientific aspects of it, sometimes to the detriment of everything else in their lives. Could that be what the narrator was looking for? Easy access to weed?
Even if that is the case, he’s unreliable. What’s more Derleth is unreliable as well and I’m slowly coming to the understanding that there may be a metafictional dichotomy here. Derleth was using Lovecraft’s name to sell his horror fiction and where… yes… he coined the phrase “Cthulhu Mythos” and supposedly expanded Lovecraft’s world, it feels like he’s using key words of Lovecraft to get some of his weirder tales out there.
Derleth himself is unreliable because I keep going into these stories expecting a Lovecraftian payoff, but he pulls the rug out from under us just as we get to the end. Is this how the rest of the experience will go? Fun stories, but not nearly Lovecraftian? Based on the title I think we’re going to find out next week!
Read along as we cover “The Shadow out of Space!”
“Though the majority of these alterations had apparently been made to contribute to Wilbur’s comfort, there was one change which had baffled me at the time that Wilbur had made it, and for which he never offered any explanation; this was the installation in the south wall of his gable room of a great round window of a most curious clouded glass, of which he said only that it was a work of great antiquity, which he had discovered and acquired in the course of his travels in Asia. He referred to it as one time as “the glass from Leng” and at another as “possibly Hyadean in origin,” neither of which enlightened me in the slightest…“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve into Derleth’s most cosmic story yet, while at the same time lamenting his tone and applauding his action.
From the very start “The Gable Window” feels like Derleth stretched to make it much more of a Lovecraft story than it is. His Christianity is just so profound that it pervades the writing in such a way that you instantly know it isn’t Howard Phillips, but at the same time, the text is good enough to make you want to keep reading.
The story starts off with two slaps in the face which are meant to be fan service. About half way down the first paragraph we get this:
“It (the house of the narrator’s cousin, Wilber Akeley) had fallen into disuse after the grandson of the farmer who had built it had left the soil for the seaside city of Kingston, and my cousin bought the estate of that heir disgruntled with the meager living to be made on that sadly depleted land. It was not a calculated move, for the Akeleys did nothing by sudden impulse.”
Instantly I’m annoyed. As we’ve seen from previous stories, Derleth has no qualms with using names and locations of Lovecraft’s to disuse. Akeley is the name of the farmer whom communes with, and takes rides from, strange advanced aliens in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” but this turns out to be ok, because Wilber (later in the story) is a relative of Henry, which instantly ties this story into Lovecraft country. Why then, did Derleth decide to call the seaside town Kingston instead of Kingsport? It cheapens the story, making it seem as though Derleth either tried to make the story his own, or even worse, that he accidentally called the city by the incorrect name. These kind of iniquities keep popping up throughout Derleth’s stories, and it’s no wonder there’s disdain for him using Lovecraft’s name. It’s not the stories themselves, which are entertaining, but that he lends fan service while at the same time not actually continuing the traditions. Kind of like why Fans of Star Wars are so upset with the most recent trilogy of movies.
Getting back to the story, the narrator renovates the house, much like the narrator did in “The Peabody Heritage,” but as we see in the introductory quote to this essay, he doesn’t remove or remodel the glass in the gable window. The Plateau of Leng is popular in Lovecraft literature as both an alien landscape and a space in Antarctica where reality is thin and the ability to dimension hop is strong (foreshadowing alert), seen in such stories as “At The Mountains of Madness” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” and where it seems a strange and dangerous place, it isn’t nefarious at all.
The room is obviously the most used, but “I found myself from the beginning curiously repelled by the gable room, in part certainly because it reminded me so strongly of the living presence of my dead cousin who could never again occupy his favorite corner of the house, in part also because the room was to me unnaturally alien and seemed cold to me, holding me off as by some physical force I could not understand…“
The room is filled with Wilbur’s manuscripts and various books from the nearby Miskatonic University in Arkham, which we know from Lovecraft is one of the few locations which house the fabled Necronomicon.
The narrator hears various noises. “These were of no consequence at first: they began as tiny, almost unnoticed things.” Like what sounded like a cat scratch at the window, or some kind of slapping/slithering sound coming from the window. It didn’t unnerve the narrator until he realized there was no possible was for a cat to touch the window and there was no tree nearby.
Unnerved but nonplussed, the narrator continues his renovations and eventually gets a letter from the executor of the estate stating that all Wilbur’s papers on his research are to be destroyed, the books on certain shelves are to be turned into Miskatonic University, and the glass in the gable window broken.
Interested, the narrator goes to these shelves and finds strange and old books; “The more recent ones among them – and none of these dated beyond 1850 – had been assembled from various places; some had belonged to our fathers’ cousin, Henry Akeley, of Vermont, who had sent them down to Wilbur; some bore the ownership stamps of the Biblotheque Nationale of Paris…”
Here is where I get touchy. There are things like this throughout Derleth and despite the fact that he lauds himself as an incredible writer (without a doubt these stories are fun), he make a plethora of mistakes. This whole story Wilber is our narrator’s cousin. This quote all of the sudden makes him the narrators brother? “…some had belonged to our fathers’ cousin…” The narrator and the cousin couldn’t have the same father or they wouldn’t be cousins. These are the little missteps which happen again and again that directly contradict other details in Derleth’s stories. This is also why I believe that he didn’t mean to misquote Kingsport as Kingston, he just didn’t care to go back through and verify the details. It’s just sloppy writing, and NOT something which Lovecraft would have permitted considering his perfidy.
Moving beyond the irritation, the Biblotheque Nationale of Paris is the second known location of the Necronomicon, and in the very next paragraph we get a small list of books contained within this auspicious home library:
“…they bore such titles as Pnakotic Manuscripts, the R’lyeh Text, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, the Book of Eibon, the Dhol Chants, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan, Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis, the Celaeno Fragments, the Cultes De Goules of the Comte d’Erlette, the Book of Dzyan, a photostat copy of the Necronomicon…“
This is all very exciting because here Derleth infuses some of his own ideas seamlessly into Lovecraft (meaning some of these books are of Derleth’s creation), but then unfortunately in the next sentence he ruins the progress he makes:
“Did it matter whether you call it God and the Devil, or the Elder Gods and the Ancient Ones, Good and Evil or such names as the Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss, the only named Elder God, or these of the Great Old Ones…“
Derleth then goes on to name the Lovecraftian Pantheon which is his strength. He is the one who really clarified the mythos and created it as we know it today, but yes August, it really does matter if you call it God and the Devil.
Lovecraft created a world which was amoral and apathetic. The Ancient Ones and the Elder Gods had their own agendas and humans just tend to get in the way at times, as we strive for more power. In the Lovecraft world the only good and evil was man…and nearly always it was man who was evil. In our apparent struggle for power we are the ones who create menace; these Elder Gods are merely like a giant rock in the road. If we just pass them by we might not even know they’re there, but if we get curious and want to know what they are and accidentally kick them, we break our toe.
Derleth frames his religion overtop of this uncaring world gives good and evil attributes to them. All the sudden these creatures who were never malevolent, just massive (think of yourself walking down the street and accidentally stepping on a bug), are all the sudden a hidden threat bent on killing off or enslaving mankind. The issue is, that kind of creature belies the genius of Lovecraft. If the Elder Gods are evil, then humankind should have been wiped out all together because these Elder Gods are just too powerful. In Derleth’s world, these Elder Gods once ran the universe but are now waiting for some fool to blunder into setting them free, or some cult to summon them back to their glory. In Lovecraft these creatures were unknowable which made the merest glance of them drive a man insane. In Derleth’s stories they become a land dwelling octopus.
There are very few tentacles in Lovecraft. There are many tentacles in Derleth.
And we see them as the narrator goes into the room with the gable window. For the first time he notices there’s a pentagram drawn on the ground. Curious he decides to read off some text:
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgahnagl fhtagn.”
and suddenly the glass becomes a portal and he seems strange baked landscape with odd people he remembers his cousin calling Sand People. Then from a cave:
“…little by little, an incredible monster made it’s appearance – at first a probing tentacle, then another, and presently half a dozen cautiously exploring the caves mouth. And then, from out the darkness of the cavern’s well, an eldritch head shown dimly.”
The creature moves forward to the glass…eventually through the glass and the narrator is terrorized. Yet unlike in Lovecraft where the narrator would lose consciousness only to then delve into a downward spiral of madness, this narrator comes to his senses and wipes the side of the chalked Pentagram, instantly closing the portal. How do we know it worked?
“…I know beyond doubt that what I saw was not the product of my feverish fancy, because nothing could demolish that final damning proof which I found near the shattered glass on the floor of the gable room – the cut tentacle, ten feet in length, which had been caught between dimensions when the door had been shut against that monstrous body to which it belonged, the tentacle no living savant could identify as belonging to any known creature, living or dead, on the face or in the subterrene depths of the earth!“
Despite all the issues I’ve laid out, it’s a very satisfying tale. I point these things out so that the casual reader will know the difference between what the experience is between reading Lovecraft and Derleth. Will these disparities continue?
Let’s find out next week as we read “The Ancestor.”
“For at the base of the wall, behind the baseboard, there lay, among long yellowed papers half gnawed away by mice, yet still bearing on their surfaces the unmistakably cabalistic designs of some bygone day, among wicked implements of death and destruction – short, dagger-like knives rusted by what must surely have been blood – the small skulls and bones of at least three children!“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re unraveling Derleth’s complex love of Lovecraft while trying to understand his religious overtones thrust upon the conversely amoral Lovecraft Universe.
The first note I feel I have to hit is the overarching hope in Derleth’s horror. This is now the third story I’ve read by him and all the while there has been a niggling itch that I just couldn’t reach. These types of stories could have been written by Lovecraft, but there is something so utterly different about them and until now I just couldn’t put my finger on it. The language is slightly different, but for a reader who is only looking for story and isn’t going to dig any deeper, I’m not sure if they would notice a difference. The stories themselves are absolutely horror with fantastic elements, and similar terrifying hopeless situations the protagonists find themselves in. So what is it?
There is a subtle nearly imperceptible change. Lovecraft was depressed and that comes off in his writing style. The characters are dreary, people stuck in cycles of destitution and despair. Nearly every story has an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness.
In Derleth’s stories (thus far at least) the protagonists not only survive, but they aren’t thrust into a horrid spiral of depression and fear. It’s much more light hearted as if they’re stories told by a college buddy over drinks about an escapade, rather than a drunk recounting the horrors that led him to the bottom of the bottle to a bartender in some run down dive.
That’s an extreme statement but the sentiment is real. Lovecraft is serious, his tales have bite and nuance, whereas Derleth’s stories seem to be written more for fun.
That being said, let’s check out what fun can be had in The Peabody Heritage!
It starts out with an immediate reference to the old Lovecraft tales, “I never knew my great-grandfather Asaph Peabody…” If you’ll remember from Lovecraft’s story “In the Vault” there’s a character named Asaph (known for his angry, bucolic disposition) who’s buried in a tomb. There are things that happen in that story which echo this one, and unfortunately I knew within that first sentence what was basically going to happen at the end of this one…but more on that later.
The first chapter is about the protagonist slowly moving back into his ancestral home. It’s a fascinating description which recalls the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA: “The dwelling itself was the product of many generations. It had been built originally in 1787, at first as a simple colonial house, with severe lines, an unfinished second storey, and four impressive pillars at the front. But, in time, this had become the basic part of the house, the heart, as it were. Subsequent generations had altered and added to it-at first by the addition of a floating stairway and a second storey; then by various ells and wings…”
This is a wonderful way to introduce the detective story the tale becomes as the narrator works to renovate this house so that he can live in it. He even finds the family tomb and enters it, curious about his lineage. He finds various cubbies and caskets in the tomb with the names of his family etched upon them, but then he finds Asaph’s disturbed tomb:
“Moreover, it seemed as if someone had lifted or attempted to lift the cover, for one of the hinges was broken, and the other loosened.”
Curious as to what happened he lifted the cover and, “I saw that through some hideous error, he (Asaph) had been buried face downward – I did not want to think, even at so long a time after his death, that the old man might have been buried in a cataleptic state and so suffered a painful death in that cramped, airless space.“
It’s a strange thought with the evidence of the tampered sarcophagus lid to go immediately to the idea he may be buried alive, but seemingly because of this sentiment he flips the skeleton over before putting the lid back on the coffin. Derleth handles this with deft skill because altering the remains is obviously thematically dangerous, but the way it’s written feels almost as if it’s done with a religious reverence instead of a horrible precognition.
The next chapter begins with our narrator dreaming, a theme which continues along though the entire story that connects to a major Lovecraftian concept – dreaming. The question immediately is, what does dreaming mean to Derleth? As we’ve talked about in previous Blind Reads, Lovecraft seems to consider dreaming as travelling or dimension hopping. So many of his stories held the precedent that the “dreamers” like Randolph Carter were actually time travelers who went through gates of consciousness and dimension to instantly find different areas of time and space. Derleth, starts down that road, but then seems to take a different approach here.
After finding what they consider a “priests hole” (a place to hide runaway slaves) in one of the strange void spaces in the house, the narrator, “Though ordinarily not at all given to dreams, I was literally beset by the most grotesque phantasms of sleep, in which I played a passive role and was subjected to all manner of distortions of time and space, sensory illusions, and several frightening glimpses of a shadowy figure in a conical black hat with an equally shadowy creature by his side.“
So initially this seems to indicate that because of the “distortions of time and space” that we might be getting some of that dimensional hopping, but as we get deeper into the tale we find that there is a distinct difference between dreaming and possession.
The protagonist goes into “…a space unaccounted for along the north wall upstairs, in the oldest part of the house” and found “The door to it (was) hidden in the finely-wrought carvings which decorated that entire wall,” and that “…the door which had no knob and worked only by pressure upon one of the carvings.”
I mean who doesn’t want a secret office which has a secret door with a pressure plate lock carved into a cedar relief on a wall? It’s still a dream of mine!
They go into this room and found, “...it’s angles seemed to be awry,” and there “…were curious drawings on the floor.” and all manner of strange texts (including such gems as the Malleus Maleficarum) and news stories of missing children.
Having read through Lovecraft we know instantly that this is a witches room. The odd angles, much like in “Dreams of the Witch House” and other stories, are there because they present a bend in the fabric of reality and make witchcraft easier to practice; spells more potent. The fact that there are stories of missing children lend a malevolence to the room.
Intrigued our narrator continues doing work on the house and begins having more and more prevalent dreams of this Black Man (as in color not race) and his nefarious familiar. The narrator heads to town and finds that the townsfolk are despairing of him, though he tries to be friendly. When he inquires as to their demeanor, he’s told that his family name, Peabody, has a terrible history. His ancestors were thought to have stolen children whom they killed to be used in some kind of witchcraft.
Discouraged, he goes home but finally gets a construction crew to go through that secret wall and renovate the hidden office. Through the construction he dreams of Walpurgis night (which, if you remember from Lovecraft, that’s a night of witchcraft) where he walks through the woods to a Black Mass out in the woods. There’s a group of witches along with his Black Man and large black cat which stands beside him. When the narrator wakens, he finds that his feet and legs are dirty.
Seemingly ignoring this outlandish event, he finds that the crew renovating have fled the house in disgust. When he goes to investigate, he come across the quote at the beginning of this essay. Panicked, he takes the children’s remains and puts them into one of his ancestors coffins. Then to make matters worse, three more children go missing.
And still he dreams. His somnambulant excursions take him back to the Black Mass again and again, and there’s some strange Christian iconography there which was always absent in Lovecraft. We hear of the devils, Balor, Beelzebub, and Sathanus. While Lovecraft went a long way to divest himself from any kind of religious deities, Derleth is leaning into them, seemingly in an effort to add horror from these Christian call backs.
We also find that these Devils are trying to bring him into the fold of their coven and that these nightly excursions are actually happening, they aren’t actual dreams. This is a theme that we’ve seen in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” as well, where an ancestor of a character begins to take over the living relative because they accidentally took part in reviving the ancestor. We get confirmation of this when the narrator goes to the crypt and checks on Asaph’s grave and finds that the bones have begun to grow skin, and there are three bodies of children in the coffin with Asaph’s remains!
And here is that call back from earlier. Remember when I said we’d see how the story ended? in the tale “In the Vault” Asaph was a corpse who came alive and tried to kill one the characters of that tale. Asaph as corpse bit into his leg and tried to make him fall to his death on the stone ground. In this story, the disturbed body is what actually causes the Demon Balor to come back, as turning him over reinstated the machinations of the Devils.
The fact is that the narrator wasn’t dreaming, but because he turned the body over, he allowed Asaph to come into his body and use it to go to the Black Mass. It was possession, not dreaming.
So in the end we have the narrator fighting these forces and wondering, “Who, I wonder, after I am dead, if I am buried as the others were, will turn me over?”
Initially this seems like a dark and twisty ending, but in reality Derleth just leaned into it. Lovecraft would have had the narrator telling us how he went insane, how he fought and did everything he could to stop the coven, and whether he succeeded or not he would have been irrevocably changed. The tone would have been much more desolate.
Here Derleth’s character just gives in and decides he wont fight. That he will just take part of the coven with the Devils and do their bidding. It’s a dark ending, but in a weird way it’s not as dark as Lovecraft would have been, because at least here the narrator has hope that he will live on, though in a twisted way. Lovecraft’s character wouldn’t have wanted to live on, because of the strange and utterly devastating knowledge he had gained.
Will all Derleth be this way? Join me next week with “The Gable Window” to find out!
“I assured him I had never heard of Nahum Wentworth before, though I admitted privately to some curiosity about the object of my host’s preoccupation, insofar as he had been given to reading the Seventh Book of Moses, which was a kind of Bible for the supposed hexes, since it purported to offer all manner of spells, incantations, and charms to those readers who were gullible enough to believe in them.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we tread the back roads beyond the wastrel excuse for a farming town known as Dunwich to find horrors unknown in the magical ether of Lovecraft’s universe.
So I immediately have to print a retraction (but that’s kind of the point of a blind read isn’t it? To conjecture?). Last week I said I expected Derleth to work pretty much exclusively on expanding Lovecraft’s mythos. To clarify the unclear, and to streamline the vague. I said I didn’t think he would write a straight horror story. I’m happy to say that in the very next story, “Wentworth’s Day,” which we’ll be digesting shortly, he’s proved me wrong. There have actually been many stories which are allegedly inspired by Lovecraft (By authors such as Brian Lumley and Robert Bloch), but I’ve never really understood exactly how Lovecraft supposedly inspired them because they never really felt like they truly fit in his world. Weird of course, but not really Lovecraftian. Now I understand. This story, which again is just a straight horror story with only a slant connection to the cosmic (which you’d only catch if you were well versed in Lovecraft), is the direct antecedent to such books as “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”
The story begins as our narrator is driving through the backwoods beyond the previously mentioned Dunwich. There seems to be nothing habitable out there except for “…reclusive dwellers on some broken-down farms.” The narrator even mentions that the area, “Once, long ago, it had the reputation of being a country in which Hexerei – the witch beliefs of superstitious people – was practiced…” and that which we know as readers has the potential for Shoggoth (disappointingly, none appear). I thought this may be a call back, but as we’ll see, there are a few things in this story which are only call backs… they’re only prompts meant to entice the reader to keep going.
Derleth spends some decent time setting the scene as the narrator tells us he gets stuck because the highway was blocked off. He goes on a detour late in the evening, trying to push through and instantly regretting it.
A storm soon blossoms and he passes what seems to be a more habitable property. It’s a house and a barn and “The headlamps’ glow swept the face of the dwelling there…” He sees a mail box with the name “Amos Stark” (which really has no reference lineage, but I mention is because it seems remarkably familiar to a Stephen King story you may be familiar with…). The narrator takes the liberty of parking in the mans barn (how rude is that? I know these stories were written in the 50’s, but imagine the gaul… ‘I’m just going to drive my car into your barn without asking. I’m owed that because this place is so run down, I bet they wont even notice!’ Well, the people of the backwoods New England must be nicer, because when “a wizened old man with a scraggly beard half covering his scrawny neck” came to the door, he didn’t bat an eye, just ushered the narrator into his house.
Then the weird stuff starts to happen and not the weird stuff you’d expect from this kind of horror story. Stark offhandedly says today “is Wentworth’s day. I thought yew might be Nahum.” Now I’m not an expert on New England names from the early 20th Century, but I don’t think Nahum is a popular one, so immediately I’m excited because I’m thinking, “Yes, here’s ‘The Colour out of Space’ character directly in a Derleth tale (Nahum Gardener was the farmer whose family’s misfortune it was to have the meteor land on their property), but then the more I read I realize that it’s just a bad call back, a poorly misplaced fan service. This new character is Nahum Wentworth, not Gardener, and Derleth only named him that to keep readers reading… to keep the references to Lovecraft, no matter how thin, while forging his own path. I understand this predilection but it makes me sad because this story is good, but this erroneous and desperate grab for an audience feels dirty.
After that we get the tale of Stark and Wentworth. Apparently Wentworth was pretty rich and gave Stark a loan. The loan was set to come due this night: “Five years, an’ this is the day, this is Wentworth’s Day.” Wentworth had until midnight, that very night our narrator came knocking to collect on his money… the only problem is… Wentworth is dead. Stark “accidently” shot him in the back of his head:
“‘I fell,’ he muttered, and there followed a sentence or two of inanities. ‘All they was to it.’ And again many indistinguishable words. ‘Went off – quick-like.” Once more a round of meaningless or inaudible words. ‘Didn’t know ’twas aimed at Nahum.'”
So all of that put together seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal right? Well, then we remember that this is an area which historically practices what Derleth calls the Hexerei. Stark shows our narrator (still don’t really know why he’s being so forthwith with our narrator. This seems like a plot convenience, but at the same time, this was backwoods New England in the 50’s, set in the 30’s. Maybe, nay probably, people were a bit more equitable back then) some of Wentworth’s books he had taken and our attention is immediately drawn to The Seventh Book of Moses.
“…the Seventh Book of Moses, which, I soon found, was a curious rigmarole of chants and incantations to such “princes” of the nether world of Aziel, Mephistopheles, Marbuel, Barbuel, Aniquel, and others.”
Yet another reason why we know this is emphatically not Lovecraft (besides the fact that Derleth was actually much better at dialogue). The Seventh Book of Moses is a real historical book which talks of magical and spiritual arts as well as Christian demons and devils and such and is commonly mentioned in occult circles. This is nothing like the Pnakotic Manuscripts or the Necronomicon. It’s a bit disappointing that we aren’t getting more of Lovecraft’s world, because Derleth claimed these stories were actually written by Howard Phillips and only cleaned up by Derleth. Like I said earlier, the stories (so far at least) stand on their own, but to put Lovecraft’s name on it gives the first tinges of stigma against Derleth. I still enjoyed the tale, but for these reasons it feels a bit like a cash grab instead of honest inspiration.
We then get another “Colour out of Space” reference when a Whippoorwill calls. If you recall from that tale, the whippoorwill cries as an omen for ill to come. Shortly there after the deadly call there’s a knock at the door.
Stark goes to answer, but waits the few minutes until after the clock strikes midnight… or at least he thinks he does:
“I heard Stark’s exclamation of triumph. ‘Past midnight!’ He had looked at his clock, and at the same time I looked at my watch. His clock was ten minutes fast.“
And retribution come right quick. Wentworth had come back for Stark.
“Amos Stark was spread on the floor on his back, and sitting astride him was a mouldering skeleton, its bony arms bowed above his throat, it’s fingers at his neck.“
Once the deed is done and Stark is dead the skeleton withdraws, leaving our narrator aghast in horror, and we get our moment of Scary Stories to tell in the Dark:
“For as I bent above Amos Stark, ascertaining that he was indeed dead, I saw sticking into the discolored flesh of his neck the whitened finger bones of a human skeleton, and, even as I looked upon them, the individual bones detached themselves, and went bounding away from the corpse, down the hall, and out into the night to rejoin that ghastly visitor who had come from the grave to keep his appointment with Amos Stark!”
Join me next week as we dive deeper into Derleth with hopeful curiosity in “The Peabody Heritage.”
“The lower or ground floor, however, abounded in evidence of its one time occupant, the surgeon, for one room of it had manifestly served him as a laboratory of some kind, and an adjoining room as a study, for both had the look of having been but recently abandoned in the midst of some inquiry or research, quite as if the occupation of the house by its brief tenant – post mortem Charriere – had not touched upon these rooms.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! We’ve graduated from Lovecraft after reading his entire catalog, and we’re now moving onto works inspired by, and potentially even partially written by, Lovecraft. August Derleth was one of Howard Phillip’s contemporaries and loved his work so much that he published it all years after they originally appeared in magazines like “Weird Tales.” From what I can surmise, Derleth states that much of what he wrote himself was based upon extensive notes he gathered from Lovecraft himself and thus for many years published these under Lovecraft’s name instead of his own.
The Survivor is the first of these stories we’re getting to, and where the atmosphere, tone, and content are accurate and reminiscent of Lovecraft’s works, the writing makes it painfully apparent that this story was written by someone other than Lovecraft himself. Not to say that it’s bad. This is an entertaining story and it’s written well, but the archaic sentence structure and unique verbosity of Lovecraft created the depth of gothic horror present in all of his tales. This story feels more like Derleth is doing his best to imitate Lovecraft all while trying to clarify the mythos and put his own stamp onto it at the same time.
The story begins much like you’d expect; with out narrator recanting a story of something which happened in his past. We get that same “gather around the fireplace” feel but, again, you can tell right from the start that it isn’t Lovecraft writing:
“I had never intended to speak or write again of the Charriere house, once I had fled Providence on that shocking night of discovery – there are memories which every man would seek to suppress, to disbelieve, to wipe out of existence – but I am forced to set down how the narrative of my brief acquaintance with the house on Benefit Street, and my precipitate flight there-from, lest some innocent person be subjected to the indignity by the police in an effort to explain the horrible discovery the police have made at last – that same ghastly horror it was my lot to look upon before any human eye – and what I saw was surely far more terrible that what remained to be seen after all these years, the house having reverted to the city, as I had known it would.”
Wow! What a rambling full paragraph sentence which says absolutely nothing! The story really gets much better from here, but you can tell that Derleth was trying his hardest to do what Lovecraft did so well…create a thesis for the story in the first paragraph, to set the story up for what we should be expecting for the rest of our reading experience, but Derleth rambles here and it halts the suspension of disbelief due to lack of comprehension.
Soon Derleth rights his ship and we find that our protagonist/narrator is an “antiquarian” much like many of the Lovecraftian characters (think Charles Dexter Ward) and is looking for a house to live in for a month so he can continue his work. He is drawn to this house because of it’s old architecture, which delights his antiquarian nature despite having many people telling him the house is cursed.
He moves in finds that it’s the house of a Dr. Cherriere who recently died, but paid the taxes long enough so that one of his “relatives” could come and claim it (Though we already know from the opening paragraph that, that didn’t happen).
The house was built back in 1704 and “Its rooms were irregular – appearing to be either quite large or very small.” There is even a laboratory, which doesn’t surprise our narrator because Cherriere is a doctor, but in this lab there are “strange, almost cabalistic drawings, resembling physiological charts, of various kinds of saurians...”
This was the first moment that gave me pause (at least in terms of mythology). I was expecting a purely Lovecraftian fever dream out of this story, but it turns out that this is the first moment that Derleth decides to add his own spin onto Lovecraft’s mythos. There is evidence of other reptilian creatures and studies throughout the house and in the study the narrator finds, “a sequence of cryptic references to certain mythological creatures, particularly one named ‘Cthulhu,’ and another named ‘Dagon.'”
Obviously Derleth found these two gods and their servants, “The Deep Ones,” the most intriguing (at least as far as this first story is concerned. The evidence is there, however, because where Lovecraft called his mythology Yog-Sothothery, Derleth renamed it “The Cthulhu Mythos”), because this story is firmly rooted around the two of them. The change comes with the advent of the saurian features. The narrator calls the Deep Ones “evidently amphibious creatures living in the depths of the seas.” Which is curious for a number of reasons. The first is that amphibians don’t actually live deep under water as they need oxygen periodically. The second is that Lovecraft’s deep ones were fish creatures, not reptile creatures. So as Derleth is working on clearing up some of the confusion as to what these gods are and where they land in the pantheon, he is also stamping his own predilections on top. I’m in no way detracting from Derleth’s efforts (except for the amphibian living on the bottom of the ocean) because I believe that Lovecraft wanted other authors to take the ideas and run with them (he’s said so a few different times in letters). In fact the only reason Lovecraft is as popular as he is today is because of Derleth’s efforts at clarifying the mythos (and renaming it) for the broad populace. After reading just this first story, I myself have a much clearer understanding of the mythos which is, incidentally, what I was looking for when I started this series in the first place. It’s also why I wanted to keep going and cover Derleth as well. I believe Lovecraft was only looking to create unique and terrifying stories. It doesn’t seem like it was until Derleth took over that it really became a contained “cosmic horror” theme in and of itself.
Speaking of “mythos,” our narrator continues to dig and finds strange books which will be familiar to any reader of Lovecraft: Cultes des Goules, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and The Pnakotic Manuscripts, all mixed in with other strange books of Derleth’s creation. Some of these (like The Saurian Age) will be interesting to see if they come up in future works as well, since it looks like Derleth is making the sea creatures reptilian, rather than the fish people of Innsmouth, potentially in an effort to make the Deep Ones more scary. He’s even moving from the notorious “smell” which we have found in Lovecraft to be a fungoid smell, to now a reptilian smell (full disclosure. I really have no idea what a reptilian smell is…can someone describe that? Is that in any way similar to the moldy smell of fungous?)
While filtering through these he finds that Dr. Cherriere is actually extremely old. There’s evidence of him being born back in the 1600’s! Could this actually be him and not just some ancestor? Could it be that he is actually not dead, and just waiting for the memory of his “death” to die down so he can come back as his own “nephew?” (Of course he is!)
This is where the real horror of the story begins. The narrator hears a break in and follows the sounds to the study:
“I turned on the flashlight, which was directed at the desk I had left…What I saw was incredible, horrible. It was not a man who stood there, but a travesty of a man.“
It was a half reptile, half man. It was Dr. Cherriere. The man who’d spent his life studying the ancient and forbidden knowledge hidden in those terrible books. It’s the classic Lovecraftian theme of the eternal desire to gain forbidden knowledge. Dr. Cherriere had turned himself, through experiments with the saurian nature of Dagon and Cthulhu and the hidden knowledge in the forbidden tomes, into a mockery of a man just to prolong his life.
The story is predictable, but in a weird way that’s comforting. Like I said earlier, this story feels like Derleth’s effort to clarify Lovecraft, and that predictability was necessary because he was giving the reader familiarity (or fan service?) so he could go the extra mile with exposition and explanation of known quantities. In general we know these creatures and those ancient tomes exist in this world…what we don’t know is how they’re interconnected. It almost feels like Derleth’s stories will be an approach of connecting Lovecraft’s world, instead of just writing horror stories.
Let’s find out if that’s the case next week, as we evaluate “Wentworth’s Day!”
If there is any doubt whether this was Lovecraft writing or Derleth, then rest easy. I found the smoking gun! The text should be enough to tell. Though Derleth is a good writer, his style is all together simple when put up next to Lovecraft. Lovecraft uses archaic words that weren’t even still in use back when he was writing in the 20’s and 30’s. He did this to give an “antiquarian” feel for the reader. To bring us all into a different world. Derleth isn’t looking to do that, he’s looking to clarify the universe in which Lovecraft created.
But that isn’t the smoking gun. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Derleth wrote this story and not Lovecraft because of a simple tool. Derleth calls it a flashlight. Lovecraft calls it a torch. There is not one mention of the word flashlight in any of Lovecraft’s stories. This is done on purpose to give the reader that previously mentioned feel. Derleth gives himself away, but really…do we care??
“If that abyss and what it held were real, there is no hope. Then, all too truly, there lies upon this world of man a mocking and incredible shadow out of time. But mercifully, there is no proof that these things are other than fresh phases of my myth-born dreams. I did not bring back the metal case that would have been proof, and so far those subterrene corridors have not been found. If the laws of the universe are kind, they will never be found.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week is all about catharsis as we conclude the final story Howard Phillips wrote by himself, before diving into the handful of stories August Derleth co-wrote (or maybe ghost wrote) with Lovecraft. This was the perfect story to leave for last, as the quote above indicates and sums up the multi-year long project I’ve undertaken. Lovecraft himself was a Shadow out of Time, darkening our doorsteps with new horrors which cannot quite be seen but can be sensed and felt with the weight of eternity, the weight of history, and the weight of mythology.
Lovecraft moved his story beyond pointed philosophical treatises to an all out adventure with a narrative hurtling forward like an out of control semi flying downhill without brakes…and yet there is no grand reveal. Lovecraft does what he always does and lets the atmosphere play the role of terrorizer and he lets you know this right up front: “I cannot hope to give any true idea of the horror and dread contained in such echoes, for it was upon a wholly intangible quality – the sharp sense of pseudo-memory – that such feelings mainly depended.“
The story begins with a letter to our protagonist Professor Peaslee about an archaeological find of some strange stone and architecture in Australia. “They are mostly sandstone and granite, though one is almost certainly made of a queer sort of cement or concrete. They bear evidence of water action, as if this part of the world had been submerged and come up again after long ages – all since these blocks were made and used.”
Immediately we’re drawn back to “The Call of Cthulhu” and the great lost city of the Elder Gods, but more specifically the titular Cthulhu…R’lyeh. In that other story we are presented with a lost city found off the coast of Australia in the Indian Ocean. The city had architecture that was queer and somehow both convex and concave at the same time. The city which was lost to time under the sea. Now, here, in Australia we find evidence that “part of the world had been submerged and come up again after long ages.” We know that this is on landlocked Australia, so it more than likely is not part of R’lyeh, however it is undoubtedly part of that same civilization.
So what does Professor Peaslee do? He gathers a group of scientists, including Professor William Dyer of Miskatonic University. Does that name sound familiar to you? Well that’s because this is the Professor who went on the Antarctic Expedition in “At the Mountains of Madness,” where I personally was introduced to the Shoggoth.
Again, it seems like Lovecraftian synergy that all of these stories come to bear in this last novelette. This series is truly Blind, meaning that I always loved the concepts of Lovecraft, but had never actually read him. I was always daunted by the language, so I’ve started many times, but never followed through. I decided that the only way to keep me honest and finish these stories was to do an academic exercise and deconstruct the stories and look for the narratives. I knew there was a Dream Cycle, I knew there were gothic horror stories, I knew there was the Mythos, but I didn’t know which story was which, so I randomly picked a jumping off point and went into them. Similarly, as I traversed through his oeuvre I didn’t know which story to read, so I chose them based upon length and how much time I had in that given week to be able to honestly read, digest, and compose an essay. The fact that all of these stories are converging (and believe me the denouement of this story feels just like “The Beast in the Cave“) into this single story, my last story, just solidifies my adoration of the process and of the author.
Some of Lovecraft’s best writing comes in the last chapter of this story, and though it doesn’t have the shocking ending that he was truly going for, it brings the feeling of the two different halves of the story together, much like it brings together the true forms of Lovecraft’s writing.
The crew goes on expedition and begins their dig in the Australian Desert. Our narrator felt a “Strange sense of compulsion” and goes off to find a “Cyclopean tunnel” which leads down into the earth. The description is reminiscent of the tunnels in “At the Mountains of Madness” and is in fact the only real depredation I have for this story. We never get to see Dyer do anything, but we know he has first hand knowledge of this architectural structure.
Beyond this there are some excellently written horror scenes, where Peaslee traverses down into the depths of this ancient alien sub-world and has vague memories of seeing the glyphs on the stones. In addition he seems to have knowledge of which way to go to find the evidence he’s looking for. Throughout the whole descent there is a terribly oppressive feeling of anxiety. Peaslee somehow knows that he must remain quiet, he knows that there’re sleeping giants down in the depths and he knows that he must be quick and silent – or he will never return from this venture. Some great creature which, “I thought of that which the Great Race had feared, and of what might still be lurking – be it ever so weak and dying – down there.”
Strange feelings of knowledge and memory keep assaulting Peaslee until he finally finds what he’s looking for. It’s a tome of ancient knowledge:
“At length I tremblingly pulled the book from it’s container and stared fascinatedly at the well-known hieroglyphs on the cover. It seemed to be in prime condition, and the curvilinear letters of the title held me in almost as hypnotized a state as if I could read them. Indeed, I cannot swear that I did not actually read them in some transient and terrible access of abnormal memory.”
He then takes the book and flees, but makes a critical mistake, “Just as I blindly crossed the summit, unprepared for the sudden dip ahead, my feet slipped utterly and I found myself involved in a mangling avalanche of sliding masonry whose cannon-loud uproar split the black cavern air in a deafening series of earth shaking reverberations.”
He had woken the beast, or beasts. “I have a dim picture of myself as flying through the hellish basalt vault of the Elder Things, and hearing that damnable alien sound piping up from the open, unguarded door of limitless nether blacknesses.”
He then comes to a rift which he must traverse, but to jump up is far worse that jumping down. He doesn’t think he can make it, but at the same time he can almost feel the Elder Thing at his heels. The howling and whistling of the demonic metropolis seem to come from all directions, so he decides that there’s no way out. He must jump…but he doesn’t make it:
The I saw the chasm’s edge, leaped frenziedly with every ounce of strength I possessed, and was instantly engulfed in a pandaemoniac vortex of loathsome sound and utter, materially tangible blackness.
While in this state of utter blackness he seems to fall into a dream, “Afterward there were visions of the Cyclopean city of my dreams – not in ruins, but just as I had dreamed of it. I was in my conical, non-human body again, and mingled with crowds of the Great Race and the captive minds who carried books up and down the lofty corridors and vast inclines.“
Sounds familiar? We even get the last line of the story to solidify what’s really happening here: “And yet, when I flashed my torch upon it in that frightful megalithic abyss, I saw that the queerly pigmented letters on the brittle, aeon-browned cellulose pages were not indeed any nameless hieroglyphics of earth’s youth. They were, instead, the letters of our familiar alphabet, spelling out the words of the English language in my own handwriting.“
This dream, this time-lapse, this dimension, is all interconnected. Peaslee spent his five lost years travelling around in the body of one of the Great Race of Yith, and he transposed horrific texts, of which he found in an aeon lost structure of the Elder Ones, buried somewhere underneath the sands of Australia. This proves the interconnectedness of Lovecraft’s universe in such a wonderful way, and is such a spectacular endpoint to his actual writing.
Lovecraft has four different styles. His satirical humor, which are one off stories. His Gothic horror, which are what they sound like, however they do interconnect with his Cosmic horror stories, they just have a more visceral, a more, well, horrific bent. The Mythos stories, or the Cosmic stories, tend to have a much more psychological horror element to them. Finally the Dream Cycle tends to be more adventurous. Those are the styles, but that’s what makes it so good, because with this story it’s readily apparent that all of his tales have some interconnectedness. Everything here happens in Lovecraft Country and Lovecraft Country is his own alternate world where this can all happen!
The Dreamers (like Randolph Carter) are actually dimensional hoppers and there’s a multiverse here in which they traverse time by sidestepping physics and jumping to whatever reality is needed. Whether that’s sailing through the galaxy with Azathoth, or grave robbing with buddies, the dreamers have this special ability to let the horror of the scope of the cosmos wash over them and allow them to experience this amount of cosmic horror thus making those stories more like adventures. Individuals exploring the great wide open. The characters who don’t have the mental capacity to deal with these realities enter the cosmic horror tales, which focus on madness, but in reality we get very few tentacles.
So this makes me wonder where the cultural consciousness came to the idea that Lovecraft had to have some kind of creature with tentacles, since while reading, you can probably count on two hands how many stories actually mention a character viewing a monster, and on one hand where you actually are given a description of what they see.
August Derleth was one of Lovecraft’s friends (and publishers) and he was the one to coin the phrase “Cthulhu Mythos” where Lovecraft preferred to call it Yog-Sothothery. So one has to wonder…was it Derleth that created this monstrous concept of what it was like to be “Lovecraftian?” I’ve never read him, so I’m not sure.
Why don’t we find out?
Join me next week as we read our first August Derleth writing as H.P. Lovecraft, “The Survivor!”
“The essence was always the same – a person of keen thoughtfulness seized with a strange secondary life and leading for a greater or lesser period an utterly alien existence typified at first by vocal and bodily awkwardness, and later by a wholesale acquisition of scientific, historic, artistic, and anthropological knowledge; an acquisition carried on with feverish zest and with a wholly abnormal absorptive power.“
Welcome back to another blind read! This week we trek down a mind bogglingly complex philosophical maze of “nightmare and terror,” in addition to connecting a large collection of Lovecraft’s tales as we try to peel back the layers of the first half of the journey of “The Shadow out of Time.”
This novelette is absolutely the most dense of anything I’ve read by Lovecraft and believe me, breaking it all down is a little daunting, but as the text says at the beginning of the story, “If the thing did happen, then man must be prepared to accept notions of the cosmos, and of his own place in the seething vortex of time, whose merest mention is paralysing.”
The plot of the story surrounds our narrator (Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee) who is a professor at Miskatonic University and by his own proclamations, insists that he has always been sound of mind. That is until he gained a “queer amnesia” which lasted for five years. During that timeframe he became obsessed with “occultism and abnormal psychology,” of which he had never had an inkling towards. During this “lost time” he traveled to the Himalayas, to the Arctic, to the Arabian deserts, to Australia, and even the “vast limestone cavern systems of western Virginia.“
Nathaniel asserts that right before his “lost time” happened he felt “...that someone else was trying to get possession of my thoughts.” which brings into play so many of the previous stories in Lovecraft’s collection. Most recently this makes me think of Asenath from “The Thing on the Doorstep” where she would project her mind into other’s bodies. As we get further into the story, we find there is an Alien species which Lovecraft refers to as the “Great Race” which “With suitable mechanical aid a mind would project itself forward in time, feeling its dim, extrasensory way till it approached the desired period. Then, after preliminary trials, it would seize on the best discoverable representative of the highest of that period’s life-forms; entering the organism’s brain and setting up therein its own vibrations while the displaced mind would strike back to the period of the displacer, remaining in the latter’s body till a reverse process was set up.”
This passage echoes the concepts in the story “The Whisperer in Darkness” as maybe a beginning of the transposition process. Remember in that story that they would extract the brain from the body so that the brain could travel to all reaches of the galaxy to gain new knowledge? Their bodies would be cast aside and their brains would be entered into metal tubes which would be sent with the alien race to space to gather knowledge (if you can believe them).
We get even deeper into the mythos as we understand that, “If the mind came from a body whose language the Great Race could not physically reproduce, clever machines would be made, on which the alien speech could be played as on a musical instrument.” Which stands to reason that “The Music Erich Zann” was playing was actually communication to this Great Race and the horror which came from the sight of them: “The Great Race’s members were immense rugose cones ten feet high, and with head and other organs attached to foot-thick, distensible limbs spreading from the apexes.”
So it’s natural to draw the conclusion that it’s this Great Race which has been searching out the history of the universe and transpose themselves into various cultures on planets. They were the influence for Asenath gaining her access to these powers, which also ties them to Dagon and the “Shadow over Innsmouth,” they are an influence on Kingsport with the “Terrible Old Man” and his metal tubes, they influence Arkham as they collect people mechanically and put their brains in tubes. While they enter their subjects bodies they search out as much cosmic knowledge as they can gather from that world, and when they’re done they put the consciousness back into their host’s body. To the host it feels like they are dreaming. We have absolutely heard that before. This story seems to be confirming my suspicion as to what the dreamlands actually are, because right at the beginning of the fourth section Nathaniel tells us, “I continued…to keep a careful record of the outré dreams which crowded upon me so thickly and vividly. Such a record, I argued, was of genuine value as a psychological document. The glimpses still seemed damnably like memories…”
In the Randolph Carter tales (The Silver Key, Through the Gates of the Silver Key, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Unnamable), our protagonist is called a dreamer. With the help of the Necronomicon, he “dreams” and travels around the universe, interacting with various species. He then uses the Silver Key to go beyond consciousness. In fact in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” he even becomes one of these creatures.
The layer that’s added with this story is that even though these travels are thought of as dreaming, the real nature of what’s going on here is that these people are traversing time not consciousness. To solidify this concept there’s even a paragraph right in the middle of the fourth chapter:
There was a mind from the planet we know as Venus, which would live incalculable epochs to come, and one from an outer moon of Jupiter six million years in the past. Of earthly minds there were some from the winged, star-headed, half vegetable race of palaeogean Antarctica; one from the reptile people of the fabled Valusia; three from the furry pre-human Hyperborean worshippers of Tsathoggua; one from the wholly abominable Tcho-Tchos; two from the arachnid denizens of earth’s last age; five from the hardly coleopterous species immediately following mankind, to which the Great Race was some day to transfer it’s keenest minds en masse in the face of horrible peril; and several from different branches of humanity.
He goes on to talk of the various historical figures of both Lovecraftian mythos and human history, inexorably trying them together. It is here (it’s discussed in The Dream Quest-of Unknown Kadath as well) in which Lovecraft tells us in no uncertain terms that Time is not a concept of motion or reality, but that Time itself is an alternative universe, which is why people can actually traverse to and from. It is, in and of itself, a dimension, so to understand time travel we have to understand that it’s a linear thing. You go through a gate into another dimension. A dimension of time. This bypasses the problem of physics because it’s a separate dimension of which the Great Race have perfected (alongside some of the Elder Gods) how to traverse it. The same way that Carter was able to get there through the gate using the silver key, and Wilmarth viewed (albeit in a much more crude fashion) in “The Whisperer in Darkness.”
This story is about discovering something from a different dimension, not a different time period, so when we look at the title, we should see it as “A Shadow from Another Dimension,” though, of course, that isn’t nearly as catchy.
SO we know that the knowledge and witchcraft of transposition came from this Great Race and much of what’s happening in Lovecraft’s devised world centers around these beings. In fact when this story opens we are immediately greeted with the knowledge of Prof. Peaslee finding “fragments of unknown, primordial masonry” in “Western Australia.” Similarly, just off the Western Coast of Australia, in the story “The Call of Cthulhu” we find a “cyclopean city” made with strange, impossible angles with unknown materials (primordial masonry?). We know of this city as R’lyeh, the lost city of the god Cthulhu. Could Peaslee have also found evidence of this lost city?
Find out next week as we conclude “The Shadow out of Time!”
“In the spring of 1847, the little village of Ruralville was thrown into a state of excitement by the landing of a strange Brig is the harbour. It carried no flag, and no name was painted on its side, and everything about it was such as would excite suspicion. It was from Tripoli, Africa, and the captain was named Manuel Ruello. The Excitement increased, however; when John Griggs, (The magnate of the village) suddenly disappeared from his home. This was the night of October 4th – On October 5th the Brig left.“
Welcome to another Blind Read! This week we work to find the threads which link the Mystery of the Graveyard and The Mysterious Ship to Lovecraft’s larger works, all the while uncovering the enigma of his mind and…potentially…how the mythos came into being. Both of these stories have their beginnings firmly in the dime and nickel novels of the time, pulling from their pulpy plots and over the top protagonists.
“The Mystery of the Graveyard” also goes by the alternate title “A Dead Man’s Revenge” and has remarkable plot twists for the length of the story. Agatha Christie could have had a run for her money if Lovecraft made the turn towards mystery instead of the darker pivot towards horror. He even has a hero detective protagonist to rival Hercule Poirot in King John.
The story begins with the funeral of Joseph Burns. Burns gave some very strange and specific requirements during his funeral. He asked the rector, Mr. Dobson, “Before you put my body in the the tomb, drop this ball onto the floor, at a spot marked ‘A.‘” Dobson goes down to the tomb and does so, but never returns. The mystery follows. The second chapter begins as Dobson’s daughter gets a letter from a mysterious Mr. Bell insisting he knows where her father is and extends a demand of a ransom to get him back. Flustered, she goes to the police and asks for King John who is “a famous western detective.”
The story runs around and around as King John strives to find Bell and figure out the mystery of where the rector went until, finally, he finds that the “A” in the tomb is a trap door that activates with pressure. Dobson fell into a sub-tomb and was hidden away there until he finally escaped. After the trial it was found that all along it was a revenge plot against the rector because Joseph Burns and his brother Francis Burns had a vendetta and hired Mr. Bell to trap and hold Dobson.
The story is told in twelve very short chapters…so short that in fact they are each only a few sentences long and every chapter has a title letting the reader know what to expect. This also strikes me as Lovecraft’s way of structuring his thoughts. When we look forward to other works like “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” as a long example and my more recently reviewed “The Thing on the Doorstep” as a shorter example, Lovecraft has a certain structure in his writing in which is easier to elucidate with these stories. In both “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Thing on the Doorstep” Lovecraft breaks his writing up into chapters, but instead of having a single narrative flow, those chapters are almost single distinct stories in and of themselves. For example in both stories the first chapter is about the protagonist of the story (other than the narrator of course). It gives the reader the background and the perspective of the (supposed) “hero” of the story. The second chapter of these stories gives background to the antagonist (Curwen in “Ward” and Asenath in “Doorstep”), then each subsequent chapter has an event which drives the narrative forward. “The Mystery of the Grave-Yard” is the same type of structure, though Lovecraft breaks this down even further, presumably so he can keep the narration on track…a common tool for very young, or beginning writers. Notice how he begins the plotting the same way (Chapter 1 is about the main focal point of the story, Dobson, and chapter two introduces Bell, the main antagonist), and then has each chapter surrounds an individual event. In his later years he does a better job at painting a bigger, more lush picture by expounding on detail and experience. Tone and atmosphere are what Lovecraft is missing in his Juvenilia, but it’s what he perfects later in life and makes him the legend of horror and supernatural that he is. This point is proven even more when we move onto the next story, “The Mysterious Ship.”
This second short is told two different times in the collection I have (I’ve actually gone through a number of different collections, starting off with the Del Rey books. Where the artwork in those books are excellent, the collections themselves aren’t that great. Language was changed and in the process, meaning seems to have changed. I’m currently working of the most recent Barnes and Noble edition which seems to be far superior), the first is an earlier shorter edition and the second is a more fleshed out atmospheric piece, where each chapter is just a few sentences longer and gives a clearer understanding and better atmosphere than the shorter one before it. These two vignettes give a better glimpse of the growth of the writer than nearly anything else I’ve seen. Lovecraft is devoid of the pomposity of literature of someone like Pynchon because Lovecraft’s first love was adventure. He wanted to tell stories that were weird and fun and wild, which led to his unique “serious, but pulpy” tales. He chose his archaic and complex writing style to compliment the wild stories he wanted to tell, not the other way around. It may seem like a small distinction, but it’s an important one.
Back to the adventure! The second story follows the titular ship which you can see in a little bit of detail in the opening quote to this essay (which is in fact the opening chapter of the longer version). It’s about a ship which journeys around and kidnaps people. The Captain and crew are eventually caught and the purloined victims are returned, bringing the story to a nice ending all tied up in a bow. The tale doesn’t have much in the way of satisfaction, but it does show Lovecraft’s love for adventure.
Between the two of these stories you can see the natural divergence of the path in which Lovecraft took. We have the standard horror or cosmic horror element with the Mystery of the Grave-Yard, in that atmosphere and the darker places he normalizes as just standard backdrops for the story…complete with sneaky plotters and nefarious acts. Then we have the adventurous bend we take with The Mysterious Ship, which feels like the beginnings of the dreams lands and such stories as “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” These tales aren’t so much focused on the horror elements as they are on the adventurous journeys the protagonists (well really just Randolph Carter) take.
I kept these Juvenilia for the end because I wanted to have something to call back on while discussing them, and I can’t say how glad I am that I did. To be able to see the growth is tremendous and its always fun to see how a writer that I’ve become this involved in began.
Next week we dive into the last story Lovecraft wrote on his own. It means this series is rapidly coming to an end, but we still have a bunch of the stories which August Derleth wrote with Lovecraft’s notes and I plan on ending this series with Lovecraft’s essay on Horror.
Join me next week as we view the “Shadow out of Time.”
“What he did do was to become an almost fanatical devotee of subterranean magical lore, for which Miskatonic’s library was and is famous. Always a dweller on the surface of phantasy and strangeness, he now delved deep into the actual runes and riddles left by a fabulous past for the guidance or puzzlement of posterity. He read things like the frightful Book of Eibon, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, and the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Abdul Ahlhazred, though he did not tell his parents he had seen them.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re sinking into a story which brings together much of Lovecraft and his themes, while simplifying the language to tell a straightforward horror tale…all while (potentially) creating yet another horror trope!
Lovecraft begins the story, like he does in so many of his stories, by immediately telling us how it will end: “It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.”
This leaves us as readers to ruminate on what the story is to be as we move forward. At the moment in time Lovecraft was writing this could have potentially been a tactic to heighten suspense, but to the modern reader who has seen so many of these themes over and again as authors re-use tropes, it falls a little flat. To start this way, we as readers know exactly how this story ends and unfortunately there aren’t any twists to surprise us.
Stephen King once wrote that (I’m paraphrasing) he goes for the creep out and if that doesn’t work he goes for the jump scare, and if that still doesn’t work he goes for the gross out. Lovecraft recognized that he wasn’t going to get the creep out, and he’s never been much for the surprise scare, so he went straight for the gross out.
Don’t let that detract from the story however because what Lovecraft does along the way is bring the history of his Lovecraft country all together and develop a disturbing little story.
The tale is mainly about Edward Pickman Derby. Sound familiar? That’s because it is. Lovecraft does a strange things with names here. Pickman is the surname of the infamous artists Richard Upton Pickman from “Pickman’s Model.” A man who housed monsters to draw and create fantastical art. In addition to this, the narrator of this story (Daniel Upton) has a child and names him Edward Derby Upton. I thought and thought about this connection. Are these characters connected to Richard Upton Pickman? The more I think about it the less I think that’s the case. I think it’s Lovecraft’s way to show how connected everything in his world is. To show how everything seems to stem from Salem, Mass (many of these characters have family trees which date back to there), or to mysterious travelers from mysterious ships. There is a connectedness in the collective consciousness of the people of Lovecraft Country, which gives credence and horror to the small town trope (all those locals staring at you as you drive through).
Ruminating on this we move onto the second chapter and we learn about Edward’s wife Asenath Waite, “She was a dark, smallish, and very good-looking except for over-protuberant eyes; but something in her expression alienated extremely sensitive people.” We find that she grew up in Innsmouth, the notorious village from “The Shadow over Innsmouth” which worshipped Dagon and bred with the fish-people. We find that she went to Kingsport high school (the slightly less nefarious town from such tales as “The Terrible Old Man” and “The Strange High House in the Mist.”) and had a “odd reputation” before moving on to Miskatonic University where she studied “mediaeval metaphysics” and had some “well-attested cases of her influence over other persons.” Students considered her a hypnotist because, “By gazing peculiarly at a fellow-student she would often give the latter a distinct feeling of exchanged personality – as if the subject were placed momentarily in the magician’s body and able to stare half across the room at her real body, whose eyes blazed and protruded with an alien expression.”
Edward meets young Asenath (who at twenty-three already has crow’s feet at her eyes) and they begin to date. Soon after Edward brings her to meet Daniel who had reservations but, “…I saw at once that his interest was by no means one sided. She eyed him continually with an almost predatory air, and I perceived that their intimacy was beyond untangling.” A month later the couple was married.
They, as a couple, delved into the occult. Asenath had a history of it from her father, Ephraim Waite, who studied the occult before his death in Innsmouth. Everything seemed good for the first year of their marriage, but then “people began talking about the change in Edward Derby.”
“People said he looked too much like his wife, or like old Ephraim Waite himself...” and then after three years of marriage to Asenath, “Edward began to hint openly to me of a certain fear and dissatisfaction.” and “...would talk darkly about the need of ‘saving his identity.‘”
At this point in the story I knew exactly what was happening and if anyone has seen the Nexflix show “Behind Her Eyes” you’ll know the outcome as well. It’s about transposition, and if we know anything about Lovecraft it’s about a man who is looking for extended life to continue on with his power gathering…I.E. Ephraim.
At the beginning of chapter four Edward speaks with Daniel and spouts his entire fears:
Dan – for God’s sake! The pit of shoggoths! Down the six thousand steps…the abomination of abominations…I never would let her take me, and then I found myself there…Ia! Shub-Niggurath!…The shape rose up from the altar, and there were 500 that howled…The Hooded Thing bleated ‘Kamog! Kamog!’ – that was old Ephraim’s secret name in the coven…I was there, where she promised she wouldn’t take me…A minute before I was locked in the library, and then I was there where she had gone with my body – in the place of utter blasphemy, the unholy pit where black realm begins and the watcher guards the gate…I saw a shoggoth – it changed shape…I can’t stand it…I wont stand it…I’ll kill her if she ever send me there again…I’ll kill that entity…her, him, it…I’ll kill it with my own hands!
And there we come to the horrible realization that Edward is actually married to Ephraim! Eww!
In all actuality he is probably married to some older creature who has since invaded Ephraim’s body, although there is a pretty hilarious moment with Ephraim: “Why did he curse that his daughter wasn’t a son?” Because he knew to transpose his mind it would have to be into his offspring, who would have a stronger hold on the otherworldly magics. Then in turn Asenath’s child would be that much stronger; but to have any of that happen, Ephraim would have to find someone to impregnate him while he was in Asenath’s body. I can imagine the curses coming from a crotchety old straight man!
Knowing Lovecraft, this could and should be the end for Edward, but suddenly he is able to somehow “convince” Asenath to go away and leave him alone. He spends a little time with Daniel, by now just a shell of a man, trying to get his life back together and eventually goes back to his home. He’s there for a while before he has a break down, calling Daniel:
“My brain! My brain! God, Dan – it’s tugging – from beyond – knocking – clawing – that she-devil – even now – Ephraim – Kamog! Kamog! – the pit of the shoggoths – Ia Shub Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!...”
He goes into the Arkham Sanitarium and Daniel goes to visit him when Daniel has a terrible realization. Edward is no longer Edward. Kamog has somehow come back to take over. Daniel shoots the form of his best friend…six times…hoping to kill the evil wizard which presides inside him.
The entire time reading this, I was entertained, but wondered where the title came from…that is until we get to the end of the story. A figure appears on Dan’s doorstep. It smells terrible and it’s diminutive. It’s wearing “one of Edward’s overcoats” with “a slouch hat pulled low” and “a black silk muffler concealed the face.” It makes a watery noise and hands Dan a letter from Edward.
In the epistle we find out Asenath “has been dead three months and a half.” Edward killed her by smashing her head in with a candlestick. Then when he was in the sanitarium she worked on “seizing my body and putting me in that corpse of her buried in the cellar.“
Dan faints, but when he comes to he calls the authorities. “What they finally found inside Edward’s oddly assorted clothes was mostly liquescent horror. There were bones, too – and a crushed-in skull. Some dental work positively identified the skull as Asenath’s.”
The thing on the doorstep was Edward, inside of the rotting corpse of Asenath. What makes it so horrible and so…Lovecraftian…is that Kamog has already lived through at least one murder, which means that he may be hovering somewhere above Arkham just waiting to find the next body to inhabit…
Lovecraft went full force into the gross out, but he tried to leave a little creep out at the end…
Join me next week as try to solve “The Mystery of the Grave-Yard” and understand “The Mysterious Ship!”
“The Funeral of alice occupied so much time that John quite forgot about the box – but when they did open it they found it to be a solid gold chunk worth about $10,000 enough to pay for any thing but the death of his sister.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we go even further back in time to discover Lovecraft’s beginnings and tackle concepts of trauma, loss, desire, and adventure in two Juvenilia tales that are anything but polished.
I debated for a while whether I really wanted to cover these after reading them, but in the end I decided to hold my promise. I said I would read as much Lovecraft as I could get my hands on, so I’m holding to my word. The question is, how would I deconstruct these stories? They reminded me of my own work when I was young…and when I mean young I mean ten or eleven (which probably means that Howard was about six when we equate talent). The writing is subpar with grammar errors abounding and the stories themselves are just little ditties which any youth could come up with.
What I eventually found more interesting, however is that instead of taking a look at the story itself, I decided to take apart the themes to get a deeper glimpse into the man and what would eventually make his writing the legend that it became.
The first story “The Little Glass Bottle” seems to be an effort at humor biting off of “Treasure Island” which was published about ten to fifteen years prior to Lovecraft writing this story. It follows a group of sailors who find the titular bottle floating on the sea. The bottle had a letter inside:
Jan 1 1864 I am John Jones who writes this letter my ship is fast sinking with a treasure on board I am where it is marked * on the enclosed chart…dotted lines represent course we took
Enclosed is a drawing of a dotted line through the Indian Ocean just off of Australia. Captain Jones gets so excited that he decides to go after it: “in 4 weeks the(y) reached the place where directed & the divers went down and came up with an iron bottle…“
Inside of the bottle they find a note:
Dec 3 1880 Dear Searcher excuse me for the practical joke I have played on you but it serves you right to find nothing for your foolish act – However I will defray your expenses to & from the place you found your bottle I think it will be $25.0.00 so that amount you will find in an Iron box I know where you found the bottle because I put this bottle here & the iron box & then found a good place to put the second bottle hoping the enclosed money will defray your expenses some I close – Anonymous
They dive down and get the money and we end with a little meta story telling: “...I hardly think that they will ever go to a mysterious place as directed by a mysterious bottle.”
This absolutely has a childish feeling and a fear of taking things too far. So really not much to it. But lets take a deeper look…
From an early age it’s obvious that Lovecraft is fascinated with the Ocean. There must be a correlation in his mind with something important being there, or somewhere in the area surrounding Australia. This, one of his first stories, leads some intrepid adventurers there to discover a treasure which turns out to be a fraud. Many years later in basically the same area, in a tale named “The Call of Cthulhu” some explorers go in search for answers and come across R’lyeh and the Elder God Himself. This is a similar journey in a similar area. A group of men looking for fortune and power and find out they vastly underestimated what they were looking for.
The difference come with age. In this story the person who sent them on the wild goose chase is contrite, a sentiment I don’t think I’ve seen in Lovecraft. We know Howard becomes jaded as he gets older and that absolutely shows through in his stories, because the characters are just too far gone down the rabbit hole to turn back. Here we see that, for Lovecraft himself, it is not yet too far. He hasn’t yet had the heart ache…he hadn’t yet survived the trauma. He still believed that though there is a darker side to humanity, the inherent goodness can come through. That is noticeably absent in the second tale.
“The Secret Cave” is like a Grimm’s Fairy tale. It’s a simple story about a horrible tragedy. It dives into grief in such a complex way, and in so much more of a profound way beyond any of his other stories, that as a reader it feels as though we are getting a glimpse into mental walls he put up to block out the horrors of his life.
The story begins with two young children, John and Alice, getting left alone in their house as their parents go away, presumably on a date. The two children go into the cellar to play, and Alice accidentally does something to cause a wall to cave in. John goes back upstairs and grabs some candles to light their way as they go exploring behind the collapsed wall.
The story takes a strange turn here and the reader gets the feeling that it’s something that’s in John’s head, a fantasy of an adventure prevalent in young children. Here is the disjointed passage:
“…the(y) walked on farther & pretty soon the plastering left off & they were in a cave Little alice was frightened at first but at her brothers assurance that it was “all right” she allayed her fears, soon they came to a small box which John took up & carried within pretty soon they came on a boat in it were two oars he dragged it with difficulty along with him soon they found the passage came to an abrupt stop he pulled the obstacle away & to his dismay water rushed in in torrents...”
Later something occurs to him “…he can shut off the water...”, which he does, but then finds that his sister had drowned. The last paragraph is the opening quote of this essay.
It’s a gruesome little tale, but there is SO much packed into the passage of their “adventure.” It’s here we get the first indication something is off in the story. We go from a normal cellar to a strange, almost other worldly cave, something that fits the adventure theme because it seems like this cave would be right at home on Treasure Island. Why is it mysterious you ask? Because it’s a dry cave…but it has a boat and oars in it as well as a mysterious box that when opened contains a solid gold bar worth $10,000. The cave goes no where, it just dead ends, but John finds an “obstacle” which when removed creates a deluge. Once he saves himself with the edge of the boat the boat is never mentioned again, but suddenly he realizes he can shut off the water.
How could you use a valve to shut off water? Why, you can if there’s a water main!
The whole story is a fabrication. John Lee was going on an adventure in his head, when in reality he was just hanging out in his basement and a wall which held their water heater broke open and flooded the cellar. John was never scared like his little sister, because he knew they were only in the safety of their own basement the whole time.
But still his sister died, which brings me to my next point. Why was John capitalized the whole story and Alice in lower case? Was this some sort of sexism Lovecraft was practicing subconsciously? I really don’t think so.
This story is absolutely part of his early writings. The plotting is truncated and hazy, the grammar is atrocious, the writing is simple, but this story is a clear representation of how Lovecraft dealt with his own grief and how he dealt with the outside world.
The story is told in past tense, but the POV is muddled. It goes from 3rd person omniscient to 3rd person personal pretty fluidly. When the action is taking place, we are inside of John’s head, but when the scene is being described we are looking at the action as a fly on the wall. One gets the feeling that this was an unconscious effort to say that when bad things are happening to us, things become disjointed and too close to really understand what’s happening, it’s only in hindsight when we have a better understanding of what happened. So what does this have to do with the capitalization of Alice?
John goes on an Adventure, and the spoils of that adventure are $10,000, but the cost is his sister’s life. Like the last line says it was a “solid gold chunk worth about $10,000 enough to pay for any thing but the death of his sister.”
Worth any thing. He has come to an early realization that nothing can cover up the grief, and blames himself for causing the death of his sister. There is a feeling to this piece of tremendous sadness and uncontrollable self doubt and self hate. Alice isn’t capitalized in this story because to capitalize her would make her a person. To keep her lower case means she can just be a thing, and maybe, just maybe, that 10K can do something about it.
Join me next week as we take a glimpse at “The Thing on the Doorstep.”
“It was in the house of Dexter, in the northern part of the town near the present intersection of North Main and Olney Streets, on the occasion of Canonchet’s raid of March 30, 1676, during King Phillip’s War; and the astute sachem, recognising it at once as a thing of singular venerableness and dignity, sent it as a symbol of alliance to a faction of the Pequots in Connecticut with whom he was negotiating. On April 4th he was captured by the colonists and soon after executed, but the austere head of Ibid continued on his wanderings.”
Welcome back to a very strange Blind Read! This week we contemplate academia while ruminating on relevance, legacy, and idolatry and wax poetic while following Lovecraft’s lead!
What a odd, curious whimsey this story was. There really isn’t much to it as it’s primarily a brief satire of what Lovecraft deemed academia of the time period… but if we look closely, beyond the gallows humor indicative of the man, and past the analogy he was striving for, we catch some strange influences into his other works. Themes that seeped into popular culture over the years which have not been present in his others works. Theme’s subsumed within a blanket of normalcy. Ok, I’ll stop being coy, let’s get to it!
Like I said, there’s not much to the story (especially the length), but we get the analogy immediatly with the opening sentence:
“The erroneous idea that Ibid is the author of the Lives is so frequently met with, even among those pretending to a degree of culture, that it is worth correcting.”
This is immediately following from an opening quote (“…-as Ibid says in his famous Lives of the Poets.” – From a Student theme.)
We then get a brief glimpse of the history Ibid himself (with some ridiculous speculation on his name which puts together many Ceasar’s and common Roman names together…there may be something to this, but it’s not something I caught: Caius Anicius Magnus Furius Camillus Aemilanus Cornelius Valerius Pompeius Julius Ibidus) before Lovecraft describes how the man’s skull is passed from person to person throughout history. From ancient Rome to Charlemagne, from private citizens to soldiers, from Native Americans to witches. This skull is passed as heirloom, as an art piece, as a magical talisman, and as a curiosity. There are even scenes which recall Hamlet and his famous Yorick scene where he gazes at the skull, nay into the skull, as though there is some deeper meaning or power within it.
So what is the point? Why follow along with a supposed “Learned Man” and then his skull afterward? The quote would seem to indicate that Lovecraft is railing against the stupidity of the uninformed at first. From the matter of a student wrongly using a quote, to Lovecraft ridiculing those who don’t know the truth:
“It should be a matter of general knowledge that Cf. is responsible for this work“
“There is a false report – very commonly reproduced in modern books...”
This seems to be the idea, but then, after we survive a page of brain numbing etymology, we get this sentence: “His full name – long and pompous according to the custom of an age which had lost the trinomial simplicity of classic Roman nomenclature…“
Then we go into a romp of the mans skull through history. Why would the man’s skull, as it outlines in the quote at the beginning of this essay, be “a thing of singular venerableness and dignity” when the only reason it’s available to be handed down is because it was “exhumed and ridiculed by Lombard Duke of Spoleto, who took his skull (after exhuming it) to King Autheris for use as a wassail-bowl.“
It’s because Lovecraft is poking fun at the pompous nature of academia in general. These people are so focused on revering something which was created to use as a drinking vessel, but attribute all means of power to it because of it’s age and the misguided idea of what he wrote.
This threw me for a while as it seems as thought Lovecraft is making fun of himself, after all one of his primary themes which pop up again and again is the idea of gathering knowledge and respect for learning. Is this supposed to be another navel gazing romp? Is Lovecraft saying he isn’t taking himself too seriously so we shouldn’t? Or is he saying that maybe he has taken himself too seriously and should stop? I think it goes deeper than that.
When we think about characters like Curwen in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” they are the ones pursuing these dark powers. They are the ones pursuing the dark underbelly of nature by seeking out these vessels of the outer gods. It’s a theme that I’ve mentioned many times and it’s a theme which comes up again and again in Lovecraft. Characters who seek out knowledge to understand more about the universe.
There’s only one character whom has been able to do this and not paid a terrible price. That’s Randolph Carter. What makes Carter unique is that he didn’t actually strive for the knowledge, rather it was thrust upon him and he adapted and worked with it to better understand his place. Carter’s wasn’t a path of power, but rather of understanding. I think that’s the crux here. Yes, Lovecraft is railing against the pomposity of academia and learning, which he seems to revel in, but instead he’s pushing back against the idea of false knowledge.
Lovecraft is playing with us before we even start reading. Ibid is actually a writing tool. Ibid is an abbreviation of the Latin “ibidem” which means in the same place. When you see the word ibid in a reading list it is referring you to material in a source just mentioned. For example it could be another chapter of a book that has just been referred to. Even with the title Lovecraft is playing with us, as he’s letting us know that he’s mentioned this concept multiple times. He’s referencing back to his previous works. This whole story is merely a reference to prove his thesis in his current (at the time he wrote this) oeuvre.
Anything can be twisted to fit a narrative. The whole point of much of Lovecraft’s cosmic gods is the idea that we’re insignificant in comparison to the beings actually running the show. If you’re striving for power, your talisman will end up being a mug from some smart dead guy, but if you’re goal is respecting and living with that power, then and only then, will you end up with “The Silver Key.“
Join me next week as we delve into some of Lovecraft’s earliest work with “The Little Glass Bottle!”
One last this before you go. There is one last thing which this story brought to my head (pun totally intended). One big visual within Lovecraft’s legacy is the idea of the head sprout. Whether that’s from fungi breaking through the skull (an Example is from “Fruiting Bodies” by Brian Lumley), creatures breaking through (we’ve actually seen this in “The Haunter in the Dark“), or people gaining such “insight” that they literally have thoughts (creatures) as an extension of their skull (think the tokens in the game Bloodborne).
The mere fact that so many of the historical people and the fictional characters in this story thought they could gain power or knowledge from this skull made this correlation immediate in my brain. This is not much of a story, but although this is supposed to be a “Blind Read” (meaning that I’m reading the story for the first time, without knowledge of it), I read this one twice. I feel as though I’m still missing references and innuendo, but if I can leave you with anything that represents Lovecraft to me, I’ll leave you with this image:
“Plodding through the endless downtown streets and the bleak, decayed squares beyond, he came finally upon the ascending avenue of century worn steps, sagging Doric porches, and blear-paned cupolas which he felt must lead up to the long-known, unreachable world beyond the mists.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we are tackling the darkness and entreating to hold a candle to the mystery and banish the Haunter of the Dark!
I had to sit and ruminate for a while on this one to decide whether it was genius, or if there wasn’t much going on. I think this is what happens when people read Lovecraft in succession like this for as long as I have. The connections are the same, the locations just change. We absolutely get the influence of the Mi-Go, much like we had in The Whisperer in Darkness, and some direct contact with the Outer Gods. What I’m finding more and more intriguing with these stories is that there is absolutely a theme of the connectedness of madness and genius. This story though, had a new surprising twist which took me a while to pick up on.
This story, though written later than many of the other stories, seems as though he was trying to tack on his mythos into something a bit more gothic in nature. In essence this is a sequel to a Robert Bloch story (“The Shambler from the Stars” of which I have not read, so feel free to take this critique with a grain of salt. I’m making assumptions based upon what I know of Bloch’s work. Though he does bring in insanity nicely in much of his work. Think “Psycho.”) and we have some amazing imagery and some quintessential Lovecraftian academic themes (I’ll explain later), but when we boil it down to the ending, I initially felt it was phoned in…that is until I thought about his wording. What is a Haunter, really?
Right off the bat we are told the ending, “Cautious investigators will hesitate to challenge the common belief that Robert Blake (read Bloch) was killed by lighting.” and we know immediately that Blake will die from whatever he gets himself into. This also leads into the broader gaming aspect which has made Lovecraft so popular. Being an “Investigator” and endeavoring to reveal what kind of strange death or rare occurrence happened is the corner-stone of the gaming experience, and this story is a good example of how that framework came about. There aren’t really investigator characters in Lovecraft, but there are the curious interlopers and in stories like this the characters go down a rabbit hole which is exactly where the ideas of the game come into play. Things like finding artifacts and texts which lend to further understanding of the Lovecraft universe are probably what sparked the idea for the game in the first place. Which leads me to a wonderful scene in the tale.
“When he did look away, it was to notice a somewhat singular mound of dust in the far corner near the ladder to the steeple. Just why it took his attention he could not tell, but something in it’s contours carried a message to his unconscious mind. ploughing toward it, and brushing aside the hanging cobwebs as he went, he began to discern something grim about it. Hand and handkerchief soon revealed the truth, and Blake gasped with a baffling mixture of emotions. It was a human skeleton, and it must have been there a very long time.“
This tense exposition is a perfect example of the gothic nature of the story, but it’s slow burn displays it’s brilliance. We can feel the environment, the cold stone, the cobwebs, the air thick with dust, and everything there holds meaning. The skeleton uncovered is actually an old reporter from the defunct paper “Providence Telegram,” and a notebook Blake finds on the skeleton holds the history of what transpired to that poor soul.
There is also the oddity of the bones themselves. Yes they’ve been there for years, but there seems to be something strangely nefarious in the dark “The skull was in a very particular state – stained yellow, and with charred aperture in the top as if some powerful acid had eaten through solid bone.” There are even bones with “seemed oddly dissolved at the ends.” What could have possibly eaten through his head? There is even mention of a blackening, like lightning. Strange happenings, and even through the end we don’t get a complete resolution…that is until we dig into the text a bit more.
So what was it that caused this reporters death? Was it shock? Herat attack? Was there some strange electrical charge which did this? Acid? Perhaps we might look to his journal:
“Fr. O’Malley tells of devil-worship with box found in great Egyptian ruins – says they call up something that can’t exist in light. Flees a little light, and banished by strong light. Then has to be summoned again. Probably got this from deathbed confession of Francis X. Feeney, who had join Starry Wisdom in ’49. These people say the Shining Trapezohedron shews them heaven & other worlds, & that the Haunter in the Dark tells them secrets in some way.”
So was this a cultist haven instead of a church? What is the Shining Trapezohedron? What kind of wisdom did the Haunter show them, and who is the Haunter? The layout of the church itself is even curious, “The designs were largely conventional, and his knowledge of obscure symbolism told him much concerning some of the ancient patterns.” and even more strange, “Blake noticed that the cobwebbed cross above the altar was not of the ordinary kind, but resembled the primordial ankh or crux ansata of shadowy Egypt.“
There are even strange texts there in the old chapel area, “a Latin version of the abhorred Necronomicon, the sinister Liber Ivonis, the infamous Cultes des Goules of Comte d’Erlette, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Juntz, and old Ludvig Prinn’s hellish De Vermis Mysteriis. But there were others he had known merely by reputation or not at all – the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the Book of Dzyan, and a crumbling volume in wholly unidentifiable characters yet with certain symbols and diagrams shudderingly recognizable to the occult student.“
Blake continues further up past “Yellowish stains and charred patches (were) found on the ladder to the windowless spire,” where he finds a strange shining stone (The Trapezohedron) and glimpses the vast secrets of the universe within it. He sees beyond Yuggoth (Pluto as we found from “Whisperer in Darkness”), he sees the history of the strange Mi-Go first coming to Antarctica, lost continents lost to the sea (Atlantis? R’lyeh?) all the way through to Egypt…where Nyarlathotep corrupted. But the visions also seemed to call something forth. Something large and winged and darker than the night. Something which lives in darkness and something that, now that he has gazed into the stone, knows about Blake and can see into him as well. Sees him and speaks to him, even after the box with the strange shining stone is closed. The Haunter in the Dark.
Here is Lovecraft bringing in his classic theme of shape to something new and devious. The Shining Trapezohedron immediately makes me think of the puzzle box from Hellraiser, could this be that Lovecraft has created yet ANOTHER trope for the horror genre? Well, whether he did or not, he does bring back his infamous odd angles. If we remember back with “Dreams in the Witch house” (probably the best designation of this theme), Lovecraft uses strange angles and shapes to give off the feeling that something is off. When buildings are convex instead of being concave as in “The Music of Erich Zann” and it gives the reader a feeling that something unnatural is happening, but in “Dream in the Witch House” the odd angles actually create magic. They create a space where our reality has folded into different angles and the spaces between the dream world, the universe, and time, are thin. Something Stephen King would have called a “thinny” in his Dark Tower series. This thin space allows magic to flow into our world, but it also gives us glimpses into worlds beyond our ken, much like this Trapezohedron…or even the puzzle box.
So the “Haunter” who seems to live in the space of the box, now has a view to Blake, but then something terrible (at least for Blake) happens. There is a terrible storm and the power goes out. Because we know the Haunter lives in the dark and fears the light, there is a mounting fear through the remainder of the story, until finally we get to the climax.
Through the dark they find Blake, frozen before his window. There were the familiar burn marks on the top of his head, however the glass of the window was unaffected, also “...a burst of the singular foetor was likewise noticed.” in his room.
“The rigid body sat bolt upright at the desk by the window, and when the intruders saw the glassy, bulging eyes, and the marks of stark, convulsive fright on the twisted features, they turned away in sickened dismay.“
They couldn’t wrap their minds around what could have possibly happened so they said it had to be lighting…lightning that scorched the top of his head, much the same as the journalist in the church spire. There is also that Fetid Odor (yep I meat to capitalize it. There are so many mentions of the “odour” in Lovecraft that I feel as though it’s the outsider calling card. It just deserves something more.) which pervades the room and emanates from the body.
To me there is something far more disgusting going on here.
If we look up the definition of “Haunter” in Webster’s one of the meanings is “To remain persistently; to loiter; stay or linger.” and the story is built upon the premise that Blake saw something of the Haunter in the Trapezohedron and it has come back for him, but that doesn’t really fit with the title.
I think what’s really going on here is the Haunter is a being, or beings, who use the Trapezohedron to traverse time and space, much like the witch did in her strangely angled house, and when Blake gazed upon it the knowledge it gave him was of the universe. But to give that knowledge it implanted, or impregnated, his brain with a thought child. A thought child that grew in the darkness, because what it was used to was the void of space. No, the Haunter didn’t come from outside, the Haunter lingered in Blake’s brain until it grew large enough, by feeding on his psyche. It waited until it was dark enough to extricate itself from his mind and not be damaged by the light. It used the synapses of his brain to create an exit and literally fried an exit hole through his skull. That’s why his head looked like it was hit with lightning. That’s why there’s the strange fetid (read fungoid) odor coming from his head.
We found out in “The Whisperer in Darkness” that the strange smell which is re-occurring in Lovecraft is actually that of a rotten fungous, which is the smell of Yuggoth. And what is a fungous? It’s a parasite. It grows from others nutrients. It’s a passenger. It’s a Haunter.
Join me next week as we dive into another of Lovecraft’s comedic short tales, IBID!
“With the memory of the roadside claw-print fresh in my mind, Akeley’s whispered paragraphs had affected me queerly; and the hints of familiarity with this unknown world of fungous life – forbidden Yuggoth – made my flesh creep more than I cared to own. I was tremendously sorry about Akeley’s illness, but had to confess that his hoarse whisper had a hateful as well as pitiful quality. If only he wouldn’t gloat so about Yuggoth and it’s black secrets!”
Welcome back for another Blind Read! This week we conclude our dive into the strangely fungoid world of the Mi-Go and talk about the last half of The Whisperer in Darkness.
So the first half of the story was our narrator gathering information about what happened to Akeley and the strange other-worldly beings who turned out to be harbingers for the remainder of the tale. In this second half we have the narrator’s (Wilmarth) trip to Vermont and the subsequent confrontation with Akeley.
As we begin this second half Lovecraft infuses a strange feeling of a descent by describing the trip from the city to the “more primitive New England.” We get the visuals of the Industrial revolution with “foreigners and factory smoke, billboards and concrete roads” as we descend and “As I did so it seemed to me that I was likewise turning the calendar back a century.“
This is a lengthy (in page number) traverse through the country on our way to find Akeley’s farm and it actually feels as though this is an intended technique. Lovecraft is giving us time, as readers, to transcend the modernity of which the story had been taking place, and supplanting that with this metaphorical descent into the old and unknown. We even get introduced to a new and unnerving character, one Mr. Noyes, a particularly put together but aloof young man with a faint Bostonian accent whom serves as Wilmarth’s driver. If this seems strange to you you’re not alone, our narrator felt it as well, “Remembering what a hermit Akeley had been, I was a trifle surprised at the ready availability of such a friend” (to come down and pick the narrator up and bring him to the farm). There is the mention of Akeley having “a sudden attack of some asthmatic trouble.” which is curious because throughout this tale, even in the quote which opens this essay, we have mention that these creatures are a fungi. Fungus are a spectacular way to develop asthma or allergic reactions and it seems as though Akeley is having those more and more frequently of late. In fact even a few pages later when our narrator finally gets to the farm he tells us “They were the hellish tracks of the living fungi from Yuggoth.“
Noyes tells our narrator that Akeley would love to see him, but he is in a difficult state. His “Asthma” is so bad that he’s incredibly sick and cannot get up. It’s so bad in fact that he must spend his time recovering in the dark heavily blanketed. Yeah…that’s some gnarly Asthma.
The narrator gets to the room and immediately wants to leave…”Perhaps it was a certain odd odour which I thought I noticed – though I well know how common musty odours are in even the best of old farmhouses.“
I highlight this because throughout this series I have notated many times Lovecraft has mentioned the strange odors and they always revolve around these outer gods or their subservients. I’ve always assumed that there was some kind of sulphuric smell, indicating a connection with the Devil or the underground (in fact if memory serves, there was a single mention of this specific olfactory note), but I wonder if all along it was actually the musty, slightly vegetative rottenness of fungi which these characters have been notating as the funk. If these Yoggothians are parallel or even ubiquitous with great gods such as Azathoth (which this tale seems to indicate), then the strange odors which these characters smell in almost every Lovecraft work is fungus.
This makes Lovecraft’s works powerful on so many levels! Even now, modern science is looking for extraterrestrial life, but so far all that we can find which could exist in the chemicals of our galaxy is but single cell organisms and fungus. Lovecraft is contending that these creatures come from Pluto (read Yuggoth), and though we know that planet is covered in ice, it does not preclude the possibility of fungus. The fact that these ancient creatures are fungous made sentient and have been around since the dawn of time is just so intriguing, when you contrast that with the evolution of mankind beside them.
There is so much of this we could dig into, but I’m going to save that for a later post…anyway, back to the story…
The narrator sits down with Akeley in the dark and they begin to discuss what’s been going on. Akeley jumps right into the hard science:
“Do you know that Einstein is wrong, and that certain objects and forces can move with a velocity greater than that of light? With proper aid I expect to go backward and forward in time, and actually see and feel the earth of remote past and future epochs. You cant imagine the degree to which those beings have carried science. There is nothing they cant do with the mind and body of living organisms. I expect to visit other planets, and even other stars and galaxies. The first trip will be to Yuggoth, the nearest world fully peopled by beings…
Yet I am going there.”
We spend nearly the entire rest of the story going over the logistics of what these outer beings do to gather humans to travel faster than light or time. The problem is our corporeal selves…at least that’s what Akeley was told. They have a specific method of extracting the brain and setting it in a tube. This metal tube is what would make the transition through space and time and thus give the consciousness of an individual being greater knowledge and understanding…all they have to sacrifice is their own body.
Akeley, cloaked in darkness, makes a motion to the tubes in the room and one of them begins to speak to our narrator. The disembodied consciousness describes to Wilmarth of the great expanse which he has seen (the brain in the tube…not Wilmarth) and will soon see again. The knowledge of the larger world and that these fungoid creatures mean us no harm, but that they indeed want to increase our knowledge of the wider world.
They spend the night trying to make our narrator believe that their intentions are honest. That they are not trying to hurt him and all of this begins to make a little sense. The letters from Akeley going from concern, to fear, to understanding, and when you’re reading it (as you can tell from the previous essay I posted last week) you get the distinct feeling that there is something off about the whole scenario. That these creatures are only putting up a front. That Akeley is being tricked and he’s not really going to be able to go off and do these things.
But nothing actually happens. The narrator just goes to sleep and leaves Akeley to converse with the strange brains in the tubes and with Noyes… and when he wakes Akeley is gone. So in the end this doesn’t actually turn out to be a horror story because Akeley gets to go out to the stars and experience the strange like very few humans have ever before.
Let’s back this up shall we?
When the narrator first gets to the farmhouse he notices a strange vibration in the air that immediately makes him feel off, then there was Akeley himself:
“For a moment the closed blinds allowed me to see very little, but then a kind of apologetic hacking or whispering sound drew my attention to a great easy chair in the farther, darker corer of the room. Within it’s shadowy depths I saw the white blur of a man’s face and hands.“
“There was a touch of the pitiful in the limp, lifeless way his leans hands rested in his lap. He had on a loose dressing-gown, and was swathed around the head and high around the neck with a vivid yellow scarf or hood.“
“It was a hard whisper to catch at first, since the grey mustache concealed the moment of his lips, and something in its timbre disturbed me greatly;”
And our narrator was given a coffee: “My first spoonful revealed a faintly unpleasant acrid taste, so that I did not take more.”
The characters also mention the Necronomicon again and again, and as we know from Lovecraft’s previous works this is not a tome of the Other Gods, but instead it’s a tome of necromantic magic that uses (sparsely) the powers of the cosmos.
So then what the devil is going on here? As it turns out the Akeley we meet is not who he says he is. That final letter we get from Akeley is actually not Akeley either, but an impostor and the really terrified letter the narrator received was the last communication Akeley sent before he was taken by these creatures. The form in the shadows…the titular Whisperer…is a creature from beyond, whom is covered up and disguised so that Wilmarth, our narrator, doesn’t notice that it’s not him. The horror doesn’t really come until the last line of the story, when the confusion of the events begins to unfold:
“For the things in the chair, perfect to the last, subtle detail of the microscopic resemblance – or identity – were the face and hands of Henry Wentworth Akeley.“
When we look back at the last phonograph Wilmarth hears, we know that Akeley was taken against his will:
“...brought it on myself…sent back the letters and the record…end on it…taken in…seeing and hearing…damn you…impersonal force, after all…fresh, shiny cylinder…great God…“
Between this recording and the hidden Akeley we know that whomever is at play…possibly the nefarious Nyarlathotep (whose name is uttered in one of the recordings), does not have philanthropy at heart. They are harvesting something. To me, all of these things happening at a farm indicates a brutal and corrupted sense of humor…one that is right at home in Lovecraft.
Join me next week as we seek out the Haunter in the Dark!
“The unknown things, Akeley wrote in a script grown pitifully tremulous, had begun to close in on him with a wholly new degree of determination. The nocturnal barking of the dogs whenever the moon was dim or absent was hideous now, and there had been attempts to molest him on the lonely roads he had to traverse by day.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re diving into the new strange world of the Vermont Backwoods as our narrator strives to solve the mystery of one Henry Akeley. We get glimpses of Cosmic horror, the dream lands, and a brand new call back to a horror trope (the one appearing here, I’m pretty sure Lovecraft probably created!) as we descend in this world and strain to hear the Whisperer in Darkness.
Lovecraft begins this story with an enigma; “Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end.”
It’s a strange way to begin a short story because it leads the reader to infer that the narrator didn’t actually see anything throughout the story…so how is there a story to even tell? This can be a daunting assignment as we look at the sheer length of the tale but as we peel back Lovecraft’s language, we begin to see that he didn’t “see” anything, but that doesn’t preclude audible horror and given the title of this story, I think the denouement is going to be quite the romp. Besides which fact that this is what Lovecraft does best. He beats around the bush, deftly hiding from his audience what’s really going on, because the very nature of his horror would be ruined by the descriptors. In this story, we do in fact get a description, but it’s of dead creatures who may or not be real and the corpses disappear before any inspection can take place…that only makes it that much more terrifying when the encounters begin.
We start the story with the classical skeptical narrator (who very well could be unreliable. We’ll get t that later), who has heard a number of strange happenings in the woods surrounding his friend Akeley’s house. The folk tales speak of, “…pinkish things about five feet long; with crustaceous bodies bearing vast pairs of dorsal fins or membranous wings and several sets of articulated limbs, and with a sort of convoluted ellipsoid, covered with multitudes of very short antennae, where a head would normally be.”
So here we get our first glimpse of some freaky Lovecraftian stuff, but our narrator defers; “It was my conclusion that such witnesses – in every case naïve and simple backwoods folk – had glimpsed the battered and bloated bodies of human beings or farm animals in the whirling currents; and had allowed the half-remembered folklore to invest these pitiful objects with fantastic attributes.”
Although our disparaging narrator disavows the local folk on prejudice alone, he does dive into the mythology of the area. We hear how these backwoods folk have adapted to them, “the common name applied to them was ‘those ones,’ or ‘the old ones,’…” so we already know there’s some validity to these destitute whom the narrator disparages. They have knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos. It does makes sense because these are the type of people who distrust outsiders, whom take care of themselves; so if something like this were to become a regular occurrence, then having it happen in this type of locale with these types of people make the most sense because they wont be going outside of their bubble to talk about it.
We also learn that the Native Americans had stories about these strange creatures as well. “They talked with their heads, which changed colour in difference ways to mean different things.”
Then to cap off everything the narrator ties in that he’s heard about a Nepalese Abominable Snow-Men species, whom they call the Mi-Go (Which I believe were also referenced in “At the Mountains of Madness“). This is where the story turns from the normal garden variety horror to an aspect of the Mythos.
The Farmer who disappeared (Akeley) whom our narrator is searching for, has knowledge of forbidden tomes. He knows about the Necronomicon and in one of his letters he even states, “the Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu cycles – which were hinted at in the Necronomicon.”
These things are so outside of our everyday reality that our narrator continuously dis-believes his erstwhile friend and contends that it must just be natural phenomena. The claw prints outside of his house, the strange whisperings he hears in the darkness, the strange corpses of creatures he cannot explain. He disavows the claims because the corpses soon disappear and Akeley has a neighboring crotchety old farmer by the name of Brown who he holds accountable for all the other occurrences.
But the more and more our narrator looks into these night occurrences, the more and more he delves into the mythos: “I found myself faced by names and terms that I had heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connections – Yuggoth, Great Cthulhu, Tsathoggua, Yog-Sothoth, R’lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Hastur, Yian, Leng, the Lake of Hali, Bethmoora, the Yellow Sign, L’Mur-Kathulos, Bran, and the Magnum Innominandium – and was drawn back through nameless aeons and inconceivable dimensions to worlds of elder, outer entity at which the crazed author of the Necronomicon had only guessed in the vaguest way.”
The first half of this tale is an expansion of the mythos in general, and we finally get an understanding of where the outer gods call home.
With the knowledge we have of what the universe looks like, this revelation is a little lack luster, but if you think back to what we understood of the universe in 1919 and imagine what it must have been like for people when scientists said they discovered a “new planet beyond Neptune” and then Lovecraft included that new dwarf planet into his mythos? The fear that might have been invoked, especially when the planet was given the name of the god of the underworld…Pluto. Lovecraft put his stamp on it. Pluto is where these strange, alien, creatures came from (though the mythos name for it is Yuggoth). The Mi-Go, who worship Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath (the goat with a thousand young and the mother of many gods of the mythos), who bow to Hastur, and do the bidding of Nyarlathotep, call Pluto home.
We also know the grand daddy of the mythos, Azathoth, also wanders blindly around the vacuum of space. One with the limited knowledge of how large the Universe was at the time, can only assume that Azathoth must have been wandering just past Pluto. Thus when Randolph Carter went sailing in his Dream-Quest and came into contact with Azathoth, he was wandering beyond the icy mountainous ranges of Pluto and it’s Mi-Go inhabitants.
This is just another nail in the coffin of belief that the dream-lands and the real world are fluid. The dream lands are more like a parallel universe, where there are gates between our world and the worlds of the Outer Gods. So few humans have experienced it, but many of the creatures of that dream realm have breached the barrier and have come over to our world. Our narrator even feels this as he tells us “My own zeal for the unknown flared up to meet his, and I felt myself touched by the contagion of the morbid barrier-breaking.”
So now we have set the stage. We know that our narrator will not “see” anything throughout this story, so we can only hope to garner inference (are the claw marks part of Shub-Niggurath’s thousand young? Is it a coincidence that Satan is considered goat like, while Shub-Niggurath is the mother of goats?) from the correspondence that Akeley sends our intrepid narrator…which brings us to our next point.
It feels like Lovecraft has created a new horror trope in this story which I’m sure has not existed before this point. The reason I’m sure is because of the availability of technology…and that is the trope of “found footage.”
As we progress through the story Akeley tells our narrator of various things which have transpired around him which we have already mentioned – the whisperings in the dark, the claw marks, the Mi-Go corpses (which incidentally disappear and fade back into the dreamlands) – and he goes through the normal progression of a character in a Lovecraft story…he suspects and is scared, he becomes terrified and pleads for help, he suddenly turns this around and says he was mistaken and he is in no danger, then he disappears. This is a theme which Lovecraft has instituted in many of his stories (take “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” for example), but the layer he adds into this tale is a recording phonograph and a Dictaphone.
We get passages like this:
(A CULTIVATED MALE VOICE)
…is the Lord of the Woods, even to…and the gifts of the men of Leng…so from the wells of night to the gulfs of space, and from the gulfs of space to the wells of night, ever the praises of Great Cthulhu, of Tsathoggua, and of Him Who is not to be Named. Ever Their praises, and abundance to the Black Goat of the Woods. Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!
(A BUZZING IMITATION OF HUMAN SPEECH)
Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!
The narrator spends time cultivating what it must have been like to listen to this passage, and though we are jaded now, at the time this was a unique and never before seen tool. Lovecraft was able to give an audible, visceral take on what it must have been like for this man to be sitting in a darkened room, listening to a scratchy Dictaphone espousing these words in barely human tones.
“To this hour I shudder retrospectively when I think of how it struck me, prepared though I was by Akeley’s accounts.”
I leave you with that slight feeling of unease. The feeling that you are being watched by some unseen Whisperer of ancient horrors. Watched by a group of alien creatures who’s motivations are unknown. Watched.
“There seemed to be an awful, immemorial linkage in several definite stages betwixt man and nameless infinity. The blasphemies which appeared on earth, it was hinted, came from the dark planet Yuggoth, at the rim of the solar system; but this was itself merely the populous outpost of a frightful interstellar race whose ultimate source must lie far outside even the Einsteinian space-time continuum or greatest known cosmos.”
Join me next week as we conclude “The Whisperer in Darkness”
“What happened then is scarcely to be described in words. It is full of those paradoxes, contradictions, and anomolies which have no place in waking life, but which fill our more fantastic dreams, and are taken as matters of course till we return to our narrow, rigid, objective world of limited causation and tri-dimensional logic.”
Welcome back to another mind bending Blind Read! We’ve learned about Randolph Carter in the past, including the indominable Silver Key, but this time we traverse through the doorway this magical talisman produces. Lets dive into a treatise on traversing space, time, dimension, and existence as we traverse through the gates of the Silver Key.
The opening few chapters is basically a rehash of the stories “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” “The Silver Key” and “The Statement of Randolph Carter.” The story is unique in it’s narration because most of Lovecraft is told from the perspective of a single narrator, but this story begins omniscient and doesn’t more into narration until Swami Chandraputra directly relates the events surrounding Randolph Carter.
“In a vast room hung with strangely figured arras and carpeted with Bokhara rugs of impressive age and workmanship four men were sitting around a document-strown table.” These four men were Etienne-Laurent de Marigny (Later to be a mainstay in Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow Series), the aforementioned Swami, Ward Phillips, and Ernest B. Apinwall, whom is an executor of Carter’s estate and is trying to sell it all off.
Apinwall tells the other three his goal is selling off the Carter estate, because Carter himself has been gone nearly four years and it’s time to move on. The Swami objects and tells the group he has proof that Carter is alive and needs to make sure that Aspinwall doesn’t sell anything. Once we have the abridgement of Carter’s history we jump right into new territory with the quote which opens this essay.
The actual story is too complicated and intricate to tell in short form here, heck, Lovecraft could barely get it out in long form of the story itself, but the basics are that just beyond where Carter had already gone using the Silver Key, there are more gates, and these gates had only been transcended by a few mortals…ever. Carter traversed these gates and gained an understanding far deeper than any human could ever comprehend.
The story covers what we consider to be Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, so we’re not dealing with a horror story as it is, but something that goes so much farther than that. Serendipity comes to mind because I’ve recently been following Marvel and all that they have been working through, with perceptions of thought and reality and multiverse, which makes reading this story at this time seem so very apt. We’ll dig into what I’m talking about in a moment here, but first I would like to discuss the perception of gods and Gods in Lovecraft.
To open it up, I’d like to give you some straight text from this story:
Carter guessed what they were, whence they came, and Whom they served; and guessed, too, the price of their service. But he was still content, for at one mighty venture he was to learn all. Damnation, he reflected, is but a word bandied about by those whose blindness leads them to condemn all who can see, even with a single eye. He wondered at the vast conceit of those who had babbled of the malignant Ancient Ones, as if They could pause from their ever lasting dreams to wreak wrath upon mankind. As well, he thought, might a mammoth pause to visit frantic vengeance on an angleworm. Now the whole assemblage on the vaguely hexagonal pillars was greeting him with a gesture of those oddly carven scepters, and radiating a message which he understood…
There is a whole lot of theology and thought packed into that one little paragraph!
The first portion is the concept of damnation. If you’ve been following along with this blog then you know Lovecraft didn’t adhere to any specific religion; in the sense that the dogma of the church just didn’t make any kind of rational sense to him. This paragraph is the perfect example of that. People who are either willfully ignorant, or just plain blind to reality as Lovecraft saw it, didn’t understand that if there was a God or gods, then they really dont care about you. Rationally it doesn’t make sense for a supreme being to care about lesser beings, thus indicating that these “gods” were mammoths and we were angleworms. Because these beings dont really care about us, then damnation itself must be a construct of religion to keep people in line. Religion, like governance, is about control and comfort. Humans crave structure despite how we act and react sometimes, and to know that there is a heaven and a hell makes people more at ease. If they go to church on Sunday and say their prayers by night, they wont become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright. Damnation (at least what this story is trying to convey) is a construct of the mind, and for Carter, it isn’t until he breaks the barrier held in check by the Silver Key that he comes to this realization. He moves beyond one universe into multiple and lives countless lives and endless consciousness’ all at once; giving him a greater understanding than that of even the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred and his ravings in the Necronomicon. Damnation is a state of mind, not a place.
To piggy back on that we have the conception of the gods in Lovecraft’s mythos. It has been played around with in stories such as “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, but not elucidated with such clarity as it is right here in this paragraph. With the notable exception of Nyarlathotep, the gods of Lovecraft are omnipotent, they are not malignant. These gods transcended space, time, and universe, occupying all and none at the same time. They have lived for eternities and will live for eternities more. Their consciousness has developed for hundreds of thousands of millennia, and because of this, their scope is so much larger than the few thousand years humans have existed. In fact, the only reason Nyarlathotep has any kind of vengeance is because humans keep trying to invade and go beyond their bubble. He is a god who believes we are a stain on the beautiful tapestry of consciousness and wants to be rid of our parasitic species. When Cthulhu comes out of the sea at the end of “The Call of Cthulhu” he is not trying to destroy the world, but his simple visage shows the magnitude of what we dont know, and that in-and-of itself is enough to drive everyone, with the notable exception of Randolph Carter, insane. Damnation is tied so closely to the malevolence of gods and the insanity caused by them, but that’s just a construct so that mere mortals can understand. This whole story is all about how the life we live is an illusion of our own construct, and there is so much more beyond our ken.
So lets dig into that multiverse, shall we?
“The man of Truth is beyond good and evil…The man of Truth had ridden to All-Is-One. The man of Truth las learnt that Illusion is the only reality, and that substance is an impostor.”
Carter goes through the first Gateway of existence:
“Even the First Gateway had taken something of stability from him, leaving him uncertain about his bodily form and about his relationship to the mistily defined objects around him, but it had not disturbed his sense of unity. He had still been Randoplh Carter , a fixed point in the dimensional seething. now, beyond the Ultimate Gateway, he realized in a moment of consuming fright that he was not one person but many persons.”
I mentioned Marvel earlier, and I’ve just started watching WandaVision, like many of you may have as well. This show seems to be of a similar set up to Carter’s story. We have Wanda living in a dream world of her own construct (or maybe caused by another to keep her under control with those calls of “Who’s doing this to you Wanda?”) The layers are slowly being peeled back to revel a reality that may just be too difficult for her to comprehend, thus fracturing her mind. Or maybe she has already been through the gates of which Carter speaks of, and what we view every Friday night is a perception of her fractured mind? The idea of a multiverse is complicated, and Lovecraft here barely scratches the surface (hopefully, with the help of Rick and Morty writers, we’ll see a bit more cohesion in the Marvel Multi-Verse). Carter has lived many lives and we’ve seen that in previous stories (in “The Silver Key” Carter was both his adult self and his ten year old self), but when he goes beyond the ultimate door we find that there are many worlds which hold his consciousness. There are countless alien beings which have been “Randolph Carter”, just not in human form. These are not parallel universes, but unique and individual universes with single threads of consciousness which hold things together. Deja Vu? Strange memories of places and things you shouldn’t have? Sudden empathy or hate for a creature or thing? These are all because we have lived these experiences either concurrently or in the past…or even in the future.
Think of a cupcake stand. The saucers are the different universes of which there could be infinite, the pole holding them together is your consciouness and on each infinte saucer there is a different being with different experiences, but with your soul as the connector. Lovecraft describes it here as:
They told him that every figure of space is but the result of the intersection by a place of some corresponding figure of one more dimension – as a square is cut from a cube or a circle from a sphere. The cube and sphere, of three dimensions, are thus cut from corresponding forms of four dimensions that men known only through guesses and dreams; and these in turn are cut from forms of five dimensions, and so on up to the dizzy and reachless heights of archetypal infinity.
A slight change of angle could turn the student of today into the child of yesterday; could turn Randolph Carter into that wizard Edmund Carter who fled from Salem to the hills behind Arkham in 1692, or that Pickman Carter who in the year 2169 would use strange means in repelling the Mongol hordes from Australia; could turn a human Carter into one of those earlier entities which had dwelt in primal Hyperborea and worshipped black, plastic Tsathoggua after flying down from Kythanil, the double planet that once revolved around Arcturus; could turn a terrestrial Carter to a remotely ancestral and doubtfully shaped dweller on Kythanil itself, or a still remoter creature of trans-galactic Shonhi; or a four-dimensioned gaseous consciousness in an older space-time continuum, or a vegetable brain of the future on a dark radio-active comet of inconceivable orbit – and so on, in the endless cosmic circle.
In fact Carter did this. He transcended through the Ultimate Gate into Zkauba, the wizard of Yaddith, a strange bird-insect like creature and lived for years in this being, until he found his way to travel in a “thin envelope of electron-activated metal” (early TARDIS?) back to earth.
And then we find ourselves back in the room from the beginning of the story with Swami finishing his story and the group realizing that Swami’s accent was fake. That Swami’s face was a mask. The Swami himself…was not a Swami. To reveal the truth Carter pulls the mask off releveling the physiognomy of the bird-insect Zkauba as he never moved beyond that bodily form. Between everyone in the group only Apinwall, the lawyer, sees and in his madness at seeing beyond the gates of the Silver Key, flees the scene and doesn’t foreclose on Carter’s estate.
It’s a long strange ride and this being a Blind Read (The first time I’ve read it) I’m sure I missed volumes which others could fill in. As I get closer to completing the entire oeuvre of Lovecraft I’m constantly mystified at how intellectual all of the stories are and now fully understand the praise as one of the early incredible horror authors.
What do you think??
Join me next week as we delve into “The Whisperer in Darkness”
I’m going to be diving into the Titus Crow series now that I’ve gotten the Carter books under my belt. They follow Titus Crow and Etienne-Laurent de Marigny from this story (follow me on Goodreads if you want updates). That tale centers around the strange clock which is the center piece of Carter’s house which the four men discussed Carter’s fate.
The reason I bring this up here is because it ties together the dream Lands and the waking world so perfectly, where I thought previously that they were two separate, mutually exclusive things. The strange clock has strange hieroglyphics on it instead of numbers:
To him let me say that the language of those hieroglyphics is not Naacal but R’Lyehian, which was brought to earth by the spawn of Cthulhu countless ages ago.
And in sunken R’lyeah sleeping Cthulhu lie…and with strange aeons even death may die.
“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.”