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Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft/August Derleth; The Survivor

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 un-assuming visage of August Derleth

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.'”

Artist’s rendition of a Deep One

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.

From the pages of the Pnakotic Manuscripts

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!”

Post Script:

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??