“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 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!
“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”
“As his hammer blows began to fall, the horse outside whinnied in a tone which may have been encouraging and may have been mocking. In either case it would have been appropriate; for the unexpected tenacity of the easy-looking brickwork was surely a sardonic commentary on the vanity of mortal hopes, and the use of a task whose performance deserved every possible stimulus.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re covering a story with all the mental veracity of Ambrose Bierce coupled with the Gothic beauty of Edgar Allan Poe. We have a very supernatural tale (a slight divergence from Lovecraft’s norm) which is perfect for this post because of the overtones matching Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (well, that is as perfect as any Lovecraft tale could be for Christmas!), because of it’s themes of repentance, and the almost anthropomorphizing of the horse in the story.
Well…It’s Christmas! Let’s get started!
Lovecraft let’s you know the tone right from the get go: “Mention a bucolic Yankee setting, a bungling and thick-fibred village undertaker, and a careless mishap in a tomb, and no average reader can be brought to expect more than a hearty albeit grotesque phase of comedy.”
We follow George Birch, the aforementioned undertaker in this tale, but Lovecraft does something unique right from the get go. He describes what happens in the story, holding back only the denouement, letting the reader’s mind run wild.
“It was generally stated that the affliction and shock were results of an unlucky slip whereby Birch had locked himself for nine hours in the receiving tomb of Peck Valley Cemetery, escaping only by crude and disasterous mechanical means; but while this much was undoubtably true, there were other and blacker things which the man used to whisper to me in his drunken delirium toward the last.”
So Birch, get’s locked in a tomb by accident and something happens to him there. Sure. My mind immedaitly turns to tales much like “The Tomb” where we get some of the strange Lovecraftian otherworldliness and I began trying to figure out what type of story I was getting my self into…was it a dreamlands? No, the tone was too straightforward. lovecraft has a tendency to give a slightly whimsical, or mystical cadence to his Dream Lands stories… so this must be a Mythos story… right?
Well the tone of this story is different from even those stories. Much like we saw last week, Lovecraft tends to spend quite a bit of time on setting the scene, because the power in much of the magic in “his world” comes from words and smells and architecture. This story spends pages talking about Birch himself. , “I suppose one should start in the cold December of 1880, when the ground froze and the cemetery delvers found they could dig no more graves till spring… The undertaker grew doubly lethargic in the bitter weather, and seemed to outdo even himself in carelessness.”
So Birch is a poor Scrooge, or Grinch like character. He is “bucolic” and a grouch, but what’s more he’s lazy. “Birch decided that he would begin the next day with little old Matthew Fenner, whose grave was also nearby; but actually postponed the matter for three days…” and adding to his procrastination: “He had, indeed, made that coffin for Matthew Fenner; but had cast it aside at last as too awkward and flimsy, in a fit of curious sentimentality aroused by recalling how kindly and generous the little old man had been to him during his bankruptcy five years before.” so the diminutive Fenner got one of the better coffins, while Asaph Sawyer who was not “a loveable man” got the terrible cast off coffin that Fenner was supposed to have received …all because Birch was just too lazy to build the correct sized coffin for Sawyer.
Fast forward to Birch inside the tomb, we get another indication of his laziness: “For the long-neglected latch was obviously broken, leaving the careless undertaker trapped in the vault, a victim of his own oversight.”
Birch, through his own laziness has become a victim of his own negligence. Here is the first indication of the Scrooge theme, Birch is sowing his own oats. He created a situation where he has now trapped himself because he couldn’t bother with doing a little work. The “Ghosts” of his past are coming back to haunt him here, but this is just the beginning.
He cant get the door opened, so he decides to take the morbid child approach and stack all the caskets in the tomb up like some sort of macabre ladder: And so the prisoner toiled in the twilight, heaving the unresponsive remnants of mortality with little ceremony as his miniature Tower of Babel rose course by course.”
We get the quote which opens the essay where Birch decides that he wants to chizel his way out of an aperture at the apex of his corpse stair, but …”As he remounted the splitting coffins he felt his weight very poignantly; especially when, upon reaching the topmost one, he heard that aggravated crackle which bespeaks the wholesale rending of wood.”
Because of his carelessness in constructing the coffins, he was now standing upon a tower of breaking timber and corpses, until “...no sooner was his full bulk again upon it than the rotting lid gave way, jouncing him two feet down on a surface which even he did not care to imagine.” That line right there gave publishers a pause. Lovecraft very rarely goes for the gross out, focusing instead on much higher end psychological scare tactics. Here he went full “Johnny Got his Gun” (there is a terrible scene where the main character gets caught in barbed wire and falls on and through a rotten and fetid corpse…this scene and story pales in comparison to the horror that Dalton Trumbo creates in that novel) as Birch’s feet go into the corpse of Asaph Sawyer.
This being a Lovecraft tale you would expect something strange to happen, something unexpected, something otherworldly, but this story is the exception to the rule. This story is a straight supernatural tale, and because of it’s difference it comes off all the stronger because of it. The corpse grabs his leg.
“In another moment he knew fear for the first time that night; for struggle as he would, he could not shake clear of the unknown grasp which held his feet in relentless captivity. Horrible pains, as of savage wounds, shot through his calves; and in his mind was a vortex of fright mixed with an unquenchable materialism that suggested splinters, loose nails, or some other attribute of a breaking wooden box.”
I felt the same way. I didn’t believe that Lovecraft would take a flat out supernatural approach, but I am kept on my toes. Birch gets free and runs away, liping along until he gets to ghis doctor. Once inspected and unloads his story off his conscience, Dr. Davis is horrified because he comes to understand exactly what happened.
Birch gave Sawyer Matthew Fenner’s coffin because Fenner’s coffin was poorly made and Sawyer’s coffin was well constructed. Dr. Davis comes to the realization that Fenner is extremely short, whereas Sawyer is extremely tall. Dr. Davis goes to the tomb and finds the corpse and finds the ultimate betrayal of the undertaker…
“The skull turned my stomach, but the other was worse – those ankles cut neraly off to fit Matt Fenner’s cast-aside coffin!”
The final nail in the coffin!
Birch actually cut off Sawyer’s feet to make sure he fit in the coffin and Davis verified that the teeth markes on Birch’s ankle were indeed from the rotten teeth of Sawyer.
To me this is the ghost coming down to show Scrooge the right path. This was the wake up call to stop being lazy and to start doing right by people. Whether you believe that Birch’s foot just happened to land on the corpse’s mouth, or that the corpse animated itself out of anger at it’s slight beyond the grave, this was Birch’s call, much like Scrooge being showed his possible future.
To me the story is perfect for the season (at least as perfect a story as Lovecraft can get), and I hope you all had a blast reading it!
Join me next week as we evaluate “Cold Air”
To me these Post Scripts have started to become a little bit of an inside joke, but truly they are all here just to get one last point across which doesn’t quite fit into the narrative of the essay. Here I would love to talk a little about the anthropomorphosizing of Birch’s horse.
The entire story the horse felt like something Walt Disney would create. The horse was tryign to tell Birch what he was doing was a mistake. You could almost feel the horse rolling it’s eyes at the laxy way Birch held the reigns. To me the horse was the true indicator that we were in a Lovecraft story. Doesn’t make sense does it? Let me explain.
Normally we would have an unreliable narrator teloing us a story. At some point in the story we get information that doesn’t quite add up right, but Lovecraft forcuses so much on subtlety that we wil never get an outright statement from the narrator saying something was off. We just need to infer based upon the surroundings.
In this story everything is fairly normal, except for the horse (a kind of macabre parrallel to The Grinch’s dog Max). The horse gives indication at every stage that Birch isn’t doing the right things with it’s outragous personality.
When Birch finally gets to teh tomb the horse neighs and stamps and paws, and soon leaves Birch to his fate as the man ventures in. It isn’t until this point that the narrator can take leave of reality. It isn’t until the horse leaves that we start to get something far beyond normal, and the horse doesn’t leave until the very end of the story.
In every tale Lovecraft tells he has a gatekeeper or a key-master. If they cause a rift they are a key-master, if they stop a rift from happening they are a gatekeeper. It is these characters, human or not, that keep things normal. In this story we dont know for sure if what happened to Birch was supernatural or not, but what leaves that open for question is that the gatekeeper is gone. It’s once this horse leaves that the crazy happens, and if you’ll notice…all of Lovecraft happens in the shadows when you’ve turned to look at something in the light.
“Thus only a week after his advent to the Stubbs family circle, where he lurked like the vile serpent that he was, he had persuaded the heroine to elope! It was in the night that she went leaving a note for her parents, sniffing the familiar mash for the last time, and kissing the cat goodbye – touching stuff!”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re talking about the satiric and absurdist piece, “Sweet Ermengarde.” This is a literature genre that I’m not super familiar with (at least it’s history), but this story seems to bite off the comedic nature of some of his contemporaries, while calling back to some of those classical authors like Shakespeare, or even further back, Aristophanes.
Calling on Vaudeville, Lovecraft tells a story of Ethyl Ermengarde Stubbs, whom “...her father persuaded her to drop the praenomen after the passage of the 18th Amendment, averring that it made him thirsty by reminding him of ethyl alcohol” This is the beginning of our tale, setting us up to understand what we’re getting ourselves into.
Ermengarde is a “Simple Rustic Maid” who “confessed to sixteen summers, and branded as mendacious all reports to the effect that she was thirty.” and had “light hair which was never dark at the roots except when the local drug store was short on supplies.” This sets our maid up as duplicitous from the start. These examples, of course are not devious in any way, but they give an indication that things are not actually what they seem. If we know anything about Lovecraft we know this will eventually pay off, because he tends to be very exacting in his prose, never leaving the slightest detail to chance.
We soon learn that Ermengarde had two suitors, “‘Squire Hardman, who had a mortgage on the old home (The Stubbs farm), was very rich and elderly.” and “the handsome Jack Manly, whose curly yellow hair had won the sweet Ermengarde’s heart...”
Nearly Dickensian isn’t it? We have the dastardly vaudevillian villain, Hardman (he’s a “hard man” to love…he is a “hard man” with a hard heart, only caring about money and prestige) who could frequently be seen “viciously twirling his moustache and riding crop, and kicking an unquestionably innocent cat who was out strolling (Lovecraft loves cats).” Meanwhile we have the Jack Manly, who was a young heartthrob and was the romantic love interest who frequently whispered secret nothings to Ermengarde. We immediately know we are supposed to root for “Manly” and hate “Hardman” despite the over the top affections Lovecraft writes in to fan the flames of absurdism in the tale.
Then, just to add another nail in the ridiculous coffin, when the first chapter ends Lovecraft puts “Curtain” as a stage direction indicating the end of a scene; though this is very obviously a story and not a play. It’s just yet another call back to the vaudeville stage plays, with their moustache twirling villains and hooks to pull the players from the stage after a gaff.
The second chapter begins with Hardman going after the Stubbs unknown “vein of rich GOLD!” He plans on foreclosing the Stubbs farm unless Ermengarde disavows her “Manly” lover and marries him. Jack, being the man he is (and after his “Tears flowed like white ale“), he decides he is going to go off to the city to gain a fortune and buy the mortgage from Hardman. Queue more over the top PDA.
Hardman, not to be foiled, decides to kidnap Ermengarde only to realize (after deciding she was being too “Difficult” that it would just be easier to foreclose! Why then he could just take the gold! But, in the mean time, a few hunters find the gold and make an attempt to garner sweet Ermengarde’s affections.
And, believe it or not, ANOTHER suitor comes into play, the indominable Algernon Reginald Jones; the perfidious “city chap” who came down to work on the foreclosure which brings up to the quote at the beginning of this essay. That was all pure Lovecraft: all at once vilifying and romanticizing the exit. Pure satire.
But then our resourceful young (well, as long as the hair dye held out) lady finds a love note from another woman in Algernon’s breast pocket! Well I never! She just had to leave that scoundrel behind!
So she heads off and gets lost “Alone in the Great City.” She looks for her “Manly” suitor but fails. She looks for a job and only finds only a “fashionable and depraved cabaret; but our heroine was true to her rustic ideals and refused to work in such a gilded and glittering palace of frivolity – especially since she was offered only $3.00 per week with meals but no board.”
She wanders and finds an ornate bag in the park. Soon after finding that the the owner is a Mrs. Van Itty, a clever play on words and very much a replacement for Havisham of Great Expectations fame. Mrs. Vanity, sorry… Van Itty is so pleased with our heroine that she takes her on as a ward, and then everything begins to come up Millhouse.
Van Itty hires a chauffer who turns out to be the down and out Algernon. remember the note from the woman in his breast pocket? She stole all his land and money from him.
Algernon drives Van Itty and Ermengarde to Hogton (another fun play on setting and words), Ermengarde’s home, and there they find that Manly has become a beggar. Van Itty sees Ermengarde’s mother and realizes that she was a maid who stole Van Itty’s babe from her crib some 28 years previous (“How could she get away with the sixteen-year-old-stuff if she had been stolen twenty-eight years ago?”). So Ermengarde was really Van Itty’s child all along! With this incredible revelation our intrepid heroine decides to take Hardman up on his offer and foreclose on her faux parent’s house and take the vein of gold for herself. Hardman, “The poor dub did…” what she asked and became subservient, and Ermengarde was suddenly the devious rich heiress.
We come to the end of the tale and find there is a bit of a Lovecraftian twist and role reversal going on. Ermengarde is a play on a contemporary Frances Hodgson Burnett’s character in The Little Princess (P. 1905), of the same name. In that story Ermengarde is a “fat child who is not in the least bit clever…” and that’s who we are meant to believe this Ermengarde is (mentally, not physically), but this is Lovecraft and he’s never pleased with leaving things simple so he flips expectations on their head multiple times. Manly becomes a bum. Algernon becomes a pauper. Hardman becomes a cull. Van Itty becomes a loving mother.
Taking an “As You Like It” type of approach, Lovecraft excels in his humor and construction to give us the surprise ending, but he does leave clues along the way.
Her father, the elder Stubbs, is a bootlegger and loves alcohol so much that he has to drop his daughter’s first name, lest he become a lost drunk. Hardman makes poor decisions and cant figure out that he can just foreclose on the property to get the gold until it’s too late. Algernon let’s things happen to him, rather than making things happen for himself. Manly is nothing but a pretty face and curly hair. These are the types of details you must pay attention to in Lovecraft to be informed on where he’s going next, both in this absurdist romp, and the normal horrific fare.
This is not your normal Lovecraft, but it is spectacular and hilarious. If you’re a fan of classic literature the references and the humor will hit you in exactly the right way. This is a must.
Join me next week as we delve into an underground Lovecraft classic “The Music of Erich Zann!”
I have one last reference I wanted to call up. Algernon Reginald Jones (and the whole tale in total) seem to be a call back to the tales of Horatio Alger, the classic rags to riches author. Alger wrote about “Street Boys” who lived the American Dream. They worked hard and worked their way up the ladder to become pillars of their community or leaders in business. Alger(non) was a play on those classic characters, but with the classic Lovecraft twist.
It’s truly amazing the depth and intelligence that Lovecraft writes with. It makes me a bit sad that I started here and not with Lord Dunsany or other contemporaries, because even as I delve deeper, I find that his work is founded on so many others. His ideas are built from the seeds of his predecessors and I feel as though I’ve missed so much by not understanding fully his foundation.
This post has been a bit English Teachery (and I get rid of that idea by using a word like teachery!) but there is so much more enjoyment when you catch the threads and really get into the man’s head!
“Dr. Frankenstein’ll be ‘appy,” Louis Grogan said. He was a recent transplant to the states, his cockney accent giving him away. Louis was a young kid when he ran away from home and jumped on a freighter. He didn’t realize he was headed for the America’s until the boat landed in Plymouth. Being so young, naïve, and stupid, He was the perfect specimen for Buddy Charles to exploit.
“Boy, you know it,” Buddy responded, “you grab the head and I’ll grab the feet.”
The night was dark and storm clouds rolled over the graveyard. Buddy liked it when the weather was poor. A little thunder and a little rain made the digging was much easier. Not to mention you could be damn near as loud as you wanted and prying ears wouldn’t hear you. That was the problem with grave robbing. People always called the law.
They lifted the crudely made casket from the earth; cold blue moonlight refracting off the grave dirt. They had a carriage waiting for them with doors akimbo, so once they freed the casket they hoisted it into the carriage and slammed the doors shut. The crack of the carriage doors was echoed a moment afterward with a ripple of thunder.
“Louis, shut yer pie hole. No need to be groaning like that! What, you hurt yourself?” Buddy hissed.
“It wa’nt me, boss,” Louis said.
No, it couldn’t have been Louis. He was much too close. That moan came from a distance.
“Get saddled up, hoss. We’re getting outta here,” Buddy said.
He scanned the graveyard, waiting for the lightning to illuminate the plot; straining to find the origin of that moan.
“We got company, hoss. Out yonder, beyond the Mausoleum. He’s a big ‘un too. Let’s get moving,” Buddy said.
He climbed on the front of the carriage next to Louis and cracked the reigns. The horses neighed and reared and Buddy wondered if their reaction was because of the reigns or the thunder.
“Shit, that was close!” Louis cried.
Buddy cracked the reigns once again, urging the horses to speed.
A large figure stepped out in front of the carriage and grabbed one of the horses by the neck. The force of the figure and the momentum of the horse created an audible crack as the horse’s neck snapped and it collapsed to the ground. The carriage tilted from the mismatched inertia and it flipped on its side. Buddy and Louis were thrown clear from the carriage as it rolled and smashed up against a rock.
Buddy rose to his knees. He shook his head in an effort to clear the haze of shock from the wreck. A large figure stepped over him. Lightning shone dirty boots and overalls covered in grave dirt.
The creature above him moaned. It had bulging muscles beneath the overalls and another crack of lightning illuminated its face. It was a patchwork of brown and pink skin crudely stitched together.
“Do not be afraid of him, Buddy,” a familiar voice echoed over the graveyard.
“Dr. Frankenstein? What’s going on here?” Buddy asked. He was vaguely aware of his bladder releasing. He glanced around and saw Louis was unconscious lying on the ground.
“He’s glorious, isn’t he?” Dr. Frankenstein said. The doctor looked up at the creature and smiled. He approached and caressed its arm. “Such an amazing specimen.”
“What…what is he?” Buddy asked.
“He is my creation!” Frankenstein said.
“What, like a robot?” Buddy asked.
“No! He’s alive!” Dr. Frankenstein cried. “I’ll show you what he can do!”
The doctor whistled and the creature walked over to Louis.
“UUUUUHHHH,” It moaned.
It grabbed Louis by the head and lifted him off the ground before turning Louis around like a rag doll and swinging his body, crushing his head against a rock. The creature groaned and repeatedly swung Louis’ body down. With each subsequent blow Louis’ head flattened until eventually gore and bone splayed like a child’s drawing over the granite. Buddy felt the hot splash of blood and brain spatter across his face.
“Oh, god!” He cried.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Dr. Frankenstein said.
Buddy jumped up and tried to run but the creature was faster. It grabbed his arm and twisted him into an embrace. Its breath reeked of decaying putrescence that made his eyes water.
“I am truly sorry Buddy,” Dr. Frankenstein said. “I just had to make sure you couldn’t escape.”
The creature pinned his arms to his sides and picked him up off the ground. He kicked the creature with all his might and it didn’t even seem to notice.
“You see, I’ve always admired you Buddy. You were never got caught by the police,” Frankenstein opined. He took a few steps toward them. Lightning flashed again, illuminating the grimacing construct of semi-rotten skin.
“That takes a special kind of intelligence. To stay out of jail all of these years, I mean,” The doctor crooned.
The creature leaned Buddy over and pinned him to the ground. He tried to move his arms but the creature’s hands were like iron shackles.
“You see Buddy, this creature is incredibly complex. It has taken years of experimentation. You’ve been able to provide me with some exemplary body parts, always taking care the tissues weren’t too decayed. This is important Buddy, because they need to hold up as I patch them together. But those are just limbs. When I tried to give my creature intelligence the corpse brains never worked. I’ve found that once the body dies the synapses that make the brain work aren’t far behind. I needed a fresh brain. Some new intelligence. That’s what my creature is lacking. The final piece of the puzzle,” Frankenstein said, suddenly brandishing a knife.
“UUUUHHHHH,” the creature moaned, as if to confirm Frankenstein’s statement.
“A brain of its own.”
Frankenstein held the carving knife up to Buddy’s forehead and began to cut.
“Then, driven ahead by curiosity in their captured yacht under Johansen’s command, the men sight a great stone pillar sticking out of the sea, and in S. Latitude 47* 9′, W. Longitude 126* 43′ come upon a coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror – the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, that was built in measureless aeons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This time…I swear…This time we will finish The Call of Cthulhu! There is just far too much memorable and incredibly in depth material here to try and crunch it down, and I didn’t want to have two posts of 10k words a piece. Anyway here we go!
Last week we left off with the conclusion of Legrasse’s story of how he came across the Cthulhu idol and his raid of the cultists in the swamps of Louisiana. This week we start off by getting some connectivity between the two story lines (Wilcox and Legrasse).
Once Legrasse finishes his story, Angell takes the idol which was a remarkable resemblance to the one which Wilcox fabricated from his dreams. Both the narrator and Angell seem to be in denial, believing Wilcox must have somehow heard the story of the Louisiana raid, because Angell’s papers tell us that the idol “…was, no doubt, the giant shape he (Wilcox) had raved of in delirium.”
Our narrator goes to see his Uncle (Angell) who speaks of how the whole ordeal has effected him. “He talked of his dreams in a strangely poetic fashion; making me see with terrible vividness the damp cyclopean city of slimy green stone – whose geometry, he oddly said, was all wrong…”
We find that Wilcox “…had soon forgotten it amidst the mass of his equally weird reading and imagining…” and yet Angell seems to be followed by it. In fact our narrator tells us that “my uncle’s death was far from natural.” and yet still the narrator strives to understand what all of this actually means: “for I felt sure that I was on track for a very real, very secret, and very ancient religion whose discovery would make me an anthropologist of note.”
There are two very interesting themes here if you’ll indulge me. The first being Wilcox’s apparent amnesia. How can it be that someone can experience such a breakdown and not remember much about it? Beyond that, how can there be such a great population across the world which experienced the Call and for that month had similar breakdowns, only to go about their normal lives? The answer? Disassociation.
We humans are excellent at putting things in buckets and adapting. If there’s something that’s a little too big for our minds to wrap around, we are able to put it aside and basically ignore that it ever happened. This is a theme that is so closely tied to madness that I’m surprised that I haven’t seen or heard about it in Lovecraft discussions already. We already know that the mere thought of The Great Old Ones can drive a person insane, but what does that really do to a person? How does that effect our narrative?
It’s disassociation which makes Lovecraft so prominent. How can these cults remain so hidden when they have such reach? How can The Great Old Ones be so influential, but no one knows about them? How can COVID-19 be so prevalent, but we still go about our daily lives? We as humans have an ability to ignore facts if they aren’t in our face, and then when they appear they can drive us to madness. This is the classic “I didn’t think it could happen to me!” syndrome. There’s a reason why people are scared of ghosts and things that go bump in the night, because in the back of their mind there’s the possibility the supernatural could be real. But of course we ignore that…until we are face to face with something we are unable to rationally explain.
The second theme which keeps presenting itself over and over again is character Hubris. Again and again we see these people go down the rabbit hole of chaos and end up paying the price. So what is it that makes them do it? We get the quote right in the text from the narrator, “I was on the track of a very real, very secret, and very ancient religion whose discovery would make me an anthropologist of note.” Our narrator ignores all the signs of danger and actively participates in denial. Why did Wilcox forget about everything and his Uncle conversely get sucked in? Because Wilcox had a momentary lapse of sanity and Angell got old and couldn’t deal with the real life consequences of his pursuits? But of course, our narrator is young and strong, so nothing could possibly effect him the way it did his Uncle…right?
It’s something we see again and again in Lovecraft because it’s so endemic in our personalities as humans. If we want something, we’ll ignore the red flags, even the direct danger, because it’s something you desire. In both life and love this is a universal truth, but the denial of this truth is strong because the ends justify the means. In a relationship you’ll ignore red flags because you want to be with the person. In Hubris, you’ll ignore the dangers because the end result of the pursuit is that ever elusive power.
This pursuit leads our narrator to find a news article from the Sydney Bulletin which describes the freighter ship “Vigilant” who captured a ship with one living man and one dead man. The living man was Gustaf Johansen and his story brings together the reason why so many people went cuckoo that April.
While sailing in the middle of the Ocean on the schooner Emma, the crew came in contact with a yacht Alert, who had a very aggressive crew which attacked the Emma. Damaged, the Emma sinks and a number of the crew die, but the remainder now led by Johansen, boards and kills the crew of the Alert easily, “because of their particularly abhorrent and desperate though rather clumsy mode of fighting.”
“The next day, it appears, they raised and landed on a small island, although none is known to exist in that part of the ocean.” Johansen doesn’t seem to have a memory of what happened but the only survivors on the Emma turned out to be Briden and Johansen himself, with Briden dying of “…no apparent cause, and was probably due to excitement or exposure.”
The narrator comes to a realization. Right about the time Johansen and the crew get to the strange island in the ocean, is right about the time things started going crazy all over the world. To dig even further (Hubris) into this quandary, he decides to go and find Johansen.
Eventually he finds that Johansen has gone back to Oslo, but died shortly after returning. Apparently “Physicians found no adequate cause for the end, and laid it down to heart trouble and a weakened constitution.” If that sounds familiar, that’s because that’s the same thing Angell died of, but still our narrator ignores the signs.
Johansen’s widow gives the narrator Johansen’s journal, and finally we find the terrible truth.
The journey of the Emma started off with a vast earthquake and fast forwarding, after the fight and boarding of the Alert we find that the strange island they found (the quote from the beginning of this essay) is none other than the Nightmare City of R’lyeh, presumably broken free, or arisen from the depths because of the strange earthquake.
Johansen and his crew go aboard this strange island and are immediately ill at ease with its geometry; “He had said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.”
We are met with the strange angles from such stories as Dreams in the Witch House and Sphere’s such as in the stories of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and the Dunwich Horror. We know that these are the calling cards of the Great Old Ones, the architecture of madness which encompasses their culture, things which call Their attention which are too hard for our mere mortal minds to comprehend. For example “suspense lurked leeringly in those crazily elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance shewed concavity after the first shewed convexity.” and “though they could not decide whether it lay flat like a trap-door or slantwise like an outside cellar door.“
The group tried to open the door to no avail, until suddenly the door opened by itself: “In this phantasy of prismatic distortion it moved anomalously in a diagonal way, so that all rules of matter and perspective seemed upset.”
From inside Cthulhu “…actually burst forth like smoke from it’s aeon-long imprisonment, visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away inot the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membranous wings.”
“After vigintillions (which equals 1 with 63 zeros after it) of years Great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight.”
So we know that nine men went aboard that island, but only two got back to the ship. Here’s what happened:
“Three men were swept up by the flabby claws before anybody turned. Parker slipped as the other three were plunging frenziedly over endless vistas of green-crusted rock to the boat, and Johansen swears he was swallowed up by an angle of masonry which shouldn’t have been there; and angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse.”
Briden and Johansen were the only two that made it to the boat, and as they fled “…the Titan thing from the stars slavered and gibbered like Polypheme (more cylops references) cursing the fleeing ship of Odysseus.“
“Briden looked back and went mad…But Johansen had not given out yet.”
“The awful squid-head with writhing feelers came nearly up to the bow-sprit of the sturdy yacht, but Johansen drove on relentlessly.” And Johansen got lucky. He never looked back and never got a full glimpse of Cthulhu as It actually is. It seems as though for that brief moment Cthulhu was in our world, until it ascended back up to the stars, It sent It’s Call to our world. The empaths like Wilcox felt this Call and had a month long descent into madness, because at It’s core, Cthulhu’s essence is chaos. Briden stayed in that spot on the ship and died, not eating nor drinking, scared to death, because just seeing The Great Priest was enough to strip his mind.
Our narrator put the journal in with his notes and the idol into a lock box and set it aside knowing that what he felt while reading it, that strange otherworldliness, the odd feeling that what he was reading was not possible but was possible at the same time, that he vowed never to let that information see the light of day.
He knows that the cults still exists and he knows that one day Cthulhu may return, but R’lyeh was sunken again and so he just has to hope that while he lives the stars wont align to give a path back for the High Priest from the stars.
Join me next week as we read “The Terrible Old Man!”
It is really no wonder that so many of the games that have come out focus so much on this particular Lovecraft story and there are three reasons for this being so.
The first is that we actually get to see Cthulhu, unlike the other Great Old Ones. Sure, we get to see a bit of the Shoggoth, but that’s not nearly the same because they’re just the workers, the slave labor of the Great Old Ones. Because we have a idea of what this creature looks like and has abilities to do, we are able to put it into a gameable scenario.
This story has incredible imagery, but what makes it special is that it’s tied to specific places around the world, so that leads to the second point. Many games follow along with the investigative plotline, which is this story in it’s entirety. You have a narrator who is following clues, through cultists and strange happenings, to find…and hopefully stop…the ultimate horrible ending. The rise of Cthulhu.
Finally Lovecraft has a tried and true style which he uses in many of his tales to bring the reader into the story. It was made famous by Bram Stoker in Dracula, but Lovecraft uses it to perfection. This is the Epistolary model. The best way to make something feel more realistic and more impactful is to show the action as part of a letter or as part of a newspaper. These epistles show first hand experience rather than just a narrator (which in Lovecraft are primarily unreliable) telling us a story. This gives the reader something they can feel they could look it up themselves which gives the narration validity and trustworthiness, especially when dealing with the macabre and otherworldly. It’s no wonder that this style is so popular in spectacular fiction
“There lay Great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults and sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear into dreams of the sensitive and called imperiously to the faithful to come on a pilgrimage of liberation and restoration. All this Johansen did not suspect, but God knows he soon saw enough!”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! I was planning on concluding the illustrious “The Call of Cthulhu” this week, but it turns out I had waaaay to much to say, so we’re going to push the conclusion to next week!
Last week we finished with a few thoughts about Cthulhu himself (itself? herself? theirself?), and the beginning of Detective Legrasse’s story. Remember how he went into the swamps of Louisiana and found a bunch of cultists effecting a ritual around a ring of fire and in the center of that ring was a monolith with a statue of Cthulhu on it’s apex? Well there was a tussle as the police broke up the ritual, “Wild blows were struck, shots were fired, and escapes were made…”
In the end the police captured “forty-seven sullen prisoners” and “The image on the monolith (the idol of Cthulhu)…was carefully removed and carried back by Legrasse.”
Initially the police thought this gathering was just a particularly nefarious voodoo cult. They let their prejudice guide them in their approach because, “Most were seamen, and a sprinkling of negroes and mulattoes, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult. But before many questions were asked, it became manifest that somethign far deeper and older than negro fetichism (sp) was involved.”
The police did everything they could to get more information out of the worshippers beyond that they prayed to “The Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men,” and that “This was a cult,” who “...had always existed and always would exist… until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway.”
The cultists said they were innocent of any killing. All those missing people, all the dead bodies that led the police to execute the raid were denied. The cultists said the ritual “…killing had been done by Black Winged Ones which had come to them from their immemorial meeting-place in the haunted wood.”
This strikes me as incredibly atmospheric. The thought of the old Spanish Moss trees, hanging down over the swampy foggy ground where hidden dark winged aeon old creatures lurk, just tickles my imagination in the best possible way. The description of the raid is short, but the set up is effective enough and then as we continually look back at the events surrounding the raid, it gives you a more and more grotesque point of view of what they actually walked into.
They finally get one of the cultists, “Old Castro,” to give them a bit more information. “There had been aeons when other things ruled on the earth, and They had had great cities. The remains of Them… were still to be found as Cyclopean stones on islands in the Pacific” (this is important later in the story), and “there were arts which could revive Them when the stars had come round again to the right positions in the cycle of eternity.” because “They had, indeed, come themselves from the stars, and brought their images with them.“
That is an interesting statement. “Brought their images with them.” Castro tells us that the Great Old Ones “had shape… but that shape was not made of matter.” Then he gives us the most important and interesting line of the story:
When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live.
Shortly there afterward we get “the much discussed couplet” from the Necronomicon:
That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.
Lets put all this together. We are told that Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones are dead and trapped in their great city of R’lyeh under the Pacific Ocean somewhere, because at some point on ancient history the city sunk. How can They be asleep but dead and have form but no matter?
The Great Old ones are immortal so we know that even though we are told Cthulhu is dead under the ocean, He is also immortal thus he cannot die. We also know that They are from the stars and made from the stars. So then we go back to what Old Castro told us, “They brought their images with them.”
The Great Old Ones came from the stars with form, but those forms were just shells, just fantastic images of what they projected themselves as. What we think of as Cthulhu, dead and sleeping under the ocean is in actuality just a shell. Cthulhu and the Other Great Old Ones ascended back to the stars at some point, and because they are formless (and maybe just concepts?) they left their shells to remain on Earth for the time when they need or want to come back. So that’s why Cthulhu can be both dead and sleeping at the same time. It is just the shell and He can be awoken through a ritual when the stars align, giving Him a causeway to earth.
When reading through Lovecraft the couplet is in many stories, and is something which always confused me. This story made it terribly obvious. Cthulhu is immortal, thus eternal, thus he cannot die; “That is not dead which can eternal lie,” ok that makes sense, but then what does the second part mean? “And with strange aeons even death may die.” Oh. Given time and multiple universes (and dream worlds) even death, the ultimate absolute can die. Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones, are more powerful than what we understand as the ultimate absolute.
Cultists for these types of beings never really made sense to me before. There is certain subset of the anarchists who want to set the world on fire, but Castro describes the resurrection of The Great Old Ones this way:
“The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.“
So I can see how there might be a very small amount of people who could believe that this is the way to go. But the volume of people? That ceremony that Legrasse broke up was hundreds of cultists. They all want to burn the world?
Then while digesting this story and the infamous couplet brought me to a realization. Yes, there are people that want to burn the world, but there are a far higher population which are terrified of death. If the return of the Great Old Ones means that the followers will be granted eternity, than there probably is a huge amount of the population who would be willing to take part, damn the consequences. Death is supposed to be the absolute, but what if it didn’t have to be?
Beyond this the couplet brings up what Lovecraftian horror really means. Cosmic horror is a difficult concept to wrap your mind around and it’s specifically built that way. The couplet gives us a glimpse into what this really means; where we truly stand in the world. I remember showing my wife the reboot of the show “Cosmos” narrated by Neil Degrasse Tyson. When they showed the earth in comparison to the galaxy and then in contrast with the universe, she made me turn it off because it gave her the willies. It was too much for her to understand that our entire world means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. This is the same concept with cosmic horror except more theologically. Death is where we all head, but there are things so far beyond that. Things that are “miles tall” that cannot die. Things which have lived billions of years and will live for billions more.
It’s no wonder Lovecraft was agoraphobic, if he just sat around thinking about these concepts all day.
Join me next week for the conclusion of “The Call of Cthulhu!”
Just a few more thoughts if you’ll indulge me. While reading about the section on the raid I had a conceptual thought about Lovecraft in general. In the story Lovecraft uses a thematic approach that describes the action in a single line, then when recalling the events Legrasse goes into much greater detail. After reading as much Lovecraft as I have, I can say that he did this because he’s not great at writing action, however his strength is in the feel of the piece. Legrasse is able to go far more into detail and flush out his feelings at the time and his disgust with the cultists, but during the raid all he could muster was direct and emotionless fact.
Our human brains work this way. When we look back on a time frame or an event, it almost always comes out more emotional that it was during the event. If it was traumatic, the events are colored much darker when you recall them. If it was inconsequential or happy, the events usually are colored much brighter and happier while recalling them. This is known in psychology terms as the reminiscence bump.
I’ve been reading Lovecraft now for nearly two years. I do a critique and analysis on a story every week (or, as in this case, over multiple weeks). I saw a thread on Twitter asking people what their favorite Lovecraft story was and I couldn’t come up with one. I thought back on nearly every story with fond memories, even though I know for a fact that I didn’t always like the stories that much while I was reading them. That’s the reminiscence bump.
Lovecraft is a master of atmosphere, despite his terrible action sequences and dialog. But atmosphere is what you truly remember when thinking back on a story. How the story made you feel. Individual action sequences and dialog are no longer aren’t what stick in long term memory, so what bubbles to the surface is the atmosphere you experienced while reading. When I think back on Lovecraft’s works I feel almost universal love. That’s a really strange thing to say, because about six months into this project it felt like a slog and I remember feeling bored, but now I cant remember which story I was bored with because I liked them all so much!
The more you read Lovecraft the more you like it. He’s insidious in that way. At first the language is a bit of a barrier, but once it starts to flow, your mind creates and atmosphere and experience greater than you read on the page.
“It represented a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long narrow wings behind.”
Welcome back for another Blind Read! This week we’re diving into the most classic Lovecraft story in the catalog. Between the board games, the role playing games, and the video games (not to mention the plushies!), Cthulhu and the perennial trope of a detective investigating an eldritch mystery while fighting off evil cultists has burned its way into our culture. This Great Old One was so popular that he took over from Yog-Sothoth, transferring the mythology from Yog-Sothothery to The Cthulhu Mythos.
What I find so fascinating about this tale is that it’s more of a creepy mystery than a horror story. Lovecraft wrote far scarier stories, but with this one he found just the right mold to make it everlasting.
We kick off the story with the best opening paragraph in Lovecraft:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all it’s contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
Much of this opening chapter is written in this theosophist cadence, delivering some of the best writing of Lovecraft’s career. Not only is it beautiful prose, but it also deftly communicates not only the direction the story is going to undertake, but the theory behind the mythos itself. It really is no wonder Cthulhu became the center of Lovecraft’s world (at least in his audience’s point of view).
The actual narrative starts with a realization of our narrator, “That glimpse, like all dread glimpses of truth, flashed out from an accidental piecing together of separated things – in this case an old newspaper item and the notes of a dead professor.” The professor, the narrators grand-uncle George Gammell Angell, was ninety-two years old and happened upon a man (epithet from the original text redacted) whom reminded him of some strange past. Whatever it reminded him of dropped the professor by a heart attack right then.
Angell was a Professor Emeritus of Semitic languages at Brown University, and because of his interests, he had many archaeological artifacts. Upon his death the narrator and the executor of his estate find a strange box. Beyond the barrier of the box there is an odd bas-relief and a number of papers.
The papers have strange hieroglyphics “which only a diseased fancy could conceive.” Our narrator tells us they look like, “...simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature…A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings…“
Well hello Cthulhu.
In case there is any question, we next find a document entitled “Cthulhu Cult” which talks about “Dream and dream work of H.A. Wilcox” and the “Narrative of Inspector John R. Legrasse.” This sets up the rest of the narrative, as the story is cut into three parts. The first focuses on Wilcox’s story, the second on Legrasse, and the third of a strange sea voyage. (Because of the volume of text to unravel here, we’ll only be covering Wilcox and the first half of Legrasse in this essay.)
Wilcox just showed up one day at Angell’s study “bearing the singular clay bas-relief“. Wilcox was a young man who was studying sculpture and was an excitable, anxious youth, in fact he even called himself “Psychically hypersensitive.” He visited Angell many times, seemingly testing the waters to see if Angell would believe his outlandish tale, before finally diving into a larger, very odd story. What struck Angell more than the youth’s frantic nature, was the bas-relief, because “…the conspicuous freshness of the tablet implied kinship with anything but archaeology.“
Wilcox seemly changes over the time he’s dealing with Angell (starting on March 1st and ending on Arpil 2nd). He gets more and more frantic, his claims becoming more and more deliriously strange. Finally Wilcox gives in and tells Angell, “It is new (the bas-relief), indeed, for I made it last night in a dream of strange cities; and dreams are older than brooding Tyre, or the contemplative Sphinx, or garden-girded Babylon.”
Wilcox the sculptor tells a rambling tale which began with a slight earthquake which Wilcox thinks triggered his imagination. He dreamed, “...of great cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror.” He heard “a voice that was not a voice” which said “Cthulhu fhtagn.”
Angell worked more and more with Wilcox to try and get to the bottom of this strange youth’s obsession. To understand where his psychosis came from. As Angell worked with him the words Wilcox repeated most often were “Cthulhu” and “R’lyeh.” He even mentioned of a “...gigantic thing ‘miles high’ which walked or lumbered about.”
Then suddenly, despite the youth getting worse and worse, devolving into a miasma of despair, Wilcox one day was perfectly fine with no trace of anxiety or psychosis.
Angell, perturbed researched and found that many people in New England were acting strangely, much like Wilcox, “...always between March 23rd and April 2nd…” The narrator even gives us more examples of how others went “hysterical“, but still the narrator holds onto rationalism, as though Angell was searching for signs and he saw what he wanted, not the actual truth. It is only when we get to the second chapter of the story that the true cultural cataclysm begins.
That chapter begins with Inspector Legrasse travelling all the way from New Orleans to speak directly with professor Angell and brings with him, “a grotesque, repulsive, and apparently very ancient stone statue whose origin he was at a loss to determine.”
The good inspector came across this fetish when he broke up a supposed voodoo meeting down in Louisiana. The quote at the start of this essay is the description of the idol he confiscated from that cult meeting and is an actual description of Cthulhu himself. All those art pieces you’ve seen online gain their inspiration from the few paragraphs in this story, and I have to say, their depictions are pretty perfect.
Lovecraft does a really interesting thing here. He is famous for not describing the creatures from the cosmic horror arena, but yet he does go to great lengths to describe Cthulhu here. Why would that be? Why would Lovecraft subvert his theme of not describing the horrific creatures in his mythos in this story? Then I came to a realization, but more on that in a bit.
The confiscated idol was researched and was not found to be made of earthly origin and the subject and writings on the fetish, “belonged to something horribly remote and distinct from mankind as we know it…“
Angell collected professors to view the idol and to see if anyone had any kind of insight as to what it was, or what it might mean. Unanimously they were at a loss … except for one man, Professor of Anthropology William Channing Webb. Years before while on an expedition in Greenland Webb came across a native tribe praying to some kind of idol very similar to this fetish. He said they were chanting:
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”
Which roughly translates to: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.“
Excited, Legrasse tells his tale. His precinct knew of a place in the swamps of Louisiana where squatters and voodoo practitioners liked to occupy. They generally stayed clear of the “…black haunted woods where no dweller ventured...” but there were reports of women and children missing in the area, and speculation that a voodoo cult was behind it. They heard there was going to be a big voodoo meeting so Legrasse compiled a force of twenty policemen to head down to the swamps to break up this cult meeting. This group of cultists used the same chant as Professor Webb had heard in Greenland, but something horribly unique happened down in those swamps. In a natural glade, “...leaped and twisted a more indescribable horde of human abnormality than any but a Sime or an Angarola could paint.” These monstrous creatures danced around a “ring-shaped bonfire” which had an eight foot monolith in the center with the Cthulhu statuette on the top.
They captured a few of the cultists only to find that they were praying to their head priest Cthulhu.
What a minute. This took me a minute to compute. Cthulhu is only a priest? This is a creature so powerful and so corruptible that it has the capability of destroying the world… and it’s only a priest to a much higher being?
Then I realized this is what Cosmic Horror is all about. This is why Lovecraft doesn’t describe these beings very often, but that’s what also makes this story so memorable and powerful. We DO get to see Cthulhu here, and his visage is enough to drive men to death. Cthulhu is miles tall, nearly formless, but somehow has form of a terrible amalgamation of things which are at the roots of all fear. Just looking at a idol of him gives people the willies. But when we learn here that Cthulhu is just a mere priest it means that Cthulhu prays to beings which are epically more powerful than he is. It’s like the perspective of the universe seen from your living room. This story really strikes home the fact that we dont matter in the grand scheme of things. That there is so much more to the world than our minds could ever comprehend. Why doesn’t Lovecraft describe his Cosmic Monsters? It would be like trying to describe the scale of the universe to an agoraphobic infant.
This is what the narrator is slowly beginning to realize as he puts together the tale of Wilcox and Legrasse, and we can only wager that Angell guessed at the truth, because when he saw that (epithet redacted) sailor, the man mirrored the Cthulhu cultists so much that it made his heart stop in terror. At this point, we can only guess that, but things get so much deeper, so much more grand that our narrator will come to see the possible impact of what this creature is and the havoc these cultists could wreck upon the world.
Join me next week for the conclusion of “The Call of Cthulhu!”
Trypophobia? “The abnormal feeling of discomfort or revulsion at the sight of clustered holes or bumps?” That’s a real thing and it keeps coming up again and again in Lovecraft. Why do I bring it up here? Well the root of this phobia comes from strange things in nature. The images we see root down into our subconsciousness and inform our conscious mind. Are you scared of spiders? You probably suffer a little from this phobia. Think about their clusters of eyes. If you see a cluster of bumps or holes, your subconscious mind attributes this to a close up of the cluster of a spiders eye, and triggers that fear of spiders. Octopus? Their tentacles have suckers that look like clusters of holes or bumps. Again, this is something rooted into your subconsciousness. When Lovecraft describes Cthulhu as having tentacles, it isn’t the idea of a whip like beard that’s scary, I mean no one is truly scared of tails. It’s the suckers on those tentacles and what they could possibly do to you if they attach is which make the tentacles eerie. Lovecraft is tapping into those deeper fears, the fears of which we dont even realize that we have, which make his writing so effective.
“Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true.“
Welcome back for another Blind Read! This week we’re diving into Pickman’s Model; a singularly unique Lovecraft story. We get not only the classic Lovecraft tropes; Witchcraft, summons, and people going beyond their ken to gain power or knowledge, but we get some insight into the man himself and his personal tastes (hint, they’re just as weird as his writing is).
We know exactly how the story will end within the first few paragraphs, and yet, this is one of Lovecraft’s finest works (at least in my opinion). The previously mentioned themes of Lovecraft are in the background (though obviously present), and two facets of Lovecraft’s personality come through, the love of New England (specifically Boston) and his love of art. His prose transcends much of his normal exposition because he’s describing, what is in his opinion, high art. He isn’t only trying to create horrors, but he’s lifting up some of his favorite artists and some of his contemporaries. It reads as though he was having a blast writing, which some of the stories he wrote (I’m looking at you Herbert West – Reanimator) feel contrived.
The story is simple. We follow an art curator who had Richard Upton Pickman as a resident in his Art Club, to a gruesome conclusion. He begins the story by telling us “…I cant use the subway or go down into cellars anymore.” and that “Morbid art doesn’t shock me…” We know all of Pickman’s art is morbid because the narrator tells us that the only piece that wasn’t wholly grotesque, the one that people could actually palate, was the piece entitled “Ghoul Feeding” which was hung in the narrators Art Club.
The narrator goes to great pains to explain that “Pickman’s forte was faces.” and how he had “latent instincts” for “the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness.“
To give example the narrator says “…Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh.” because “There’s something those fellows catch – beyond life – that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Dore had it.“
Indeed Dore was lauded as the most iconic realist artists of in his time. His black and white drawings had more depth of character of anything I’ve had ever seen either (I have “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Coleridge, illustrated by Dore and it is everything). His mostly religious vistas brought humanity to his angels and devils. Dore endeavored to show his audience that humanity could be all of these things. We were the angels. We were the devils. We were everything in between. We came to realize, through his art, that WE were better or worse than anything we could actually dream up.
Then our narrator mentions Sime. Sidney Sime was a fantasist and a satirist who relied on his outrageous concepts to elicit emotion. Famously he partnered up with Lord Dunsany (is it any wonder that Lovecraft liked Sime?) to illustrate Dunsany’s “The Gods of Paegana.” Dunsany famously quoted “I tried to account for the Ocean and the Moon. I don’t know whether anyone has ever tried that before.” Dunsany is Lovecraft’s inspiration for stories like Dagon, and with images like “Slid” is it really any wonder?
Art is the centerpiece of this masterful story, but either because Lovecraft is channeling the art or because of it’s inspiration; we get some of the best, most atmospheric writing he’s done. While explaining that Pickman’s relatives were cast out of Salem in 1692 (we’ve heard that one before!), the narrator describes how they treaded through the North End:
“When we did turn, it was to climb through the deserted length of the oldest and dirtiest alley I ever saw in my life, with crumbling – looking gables, broken small – paned windows, and archaic chimneys that stood out half-disintegrated against the moonlit sky. I don’t believe there were three houses in sight that hadn’t been standing in Cotton Mathers time – certainly I glimpsed at least two with an overhang, and once I thought I saw a peaked roof-line of the almost forgotten pre-gambrel type, though antiquarians tell us there are none left in Boston.”
This is a classic Lovecraft technique. We go from some normal vista to an area that is just a little off. Something that shouldn’t be possible. There’s nothing outwardly menacing about the neighborhood the narrator suddenly experiences, but the mention that “antiquarians tell us there are none left…” indicates that we have passed into another world, or we have transcended into an underworld where normal people don’t pass.
The narrator tells us again and again that he is not weak of heart, that he has seen horrible paintings, but “It was the faces…those horrible faces, that leered and slavered out of the canvas with the very breath of life!” He sets us up for the denouement when we finally reach Pickman’s vault.
The vault is filled with paintings; “…the ones he couldn’t paint or even shew in Newbury Street…” The narrator tells us “There was none of the exotic technique you see in Sidney Sime, none of the trans-Saturnian landscapes and lunar fungi that Clark Ashton Smith uses to freeze the blood.” No, these were more hyper realistic than his public “Ghoul Feeding” painting that turned everyone’s blood. It seems that most of these paintings had a backdrop of Copp’s Hill burying ground, which had a number of figures who “…were seldom completely human, but often approached humanity in varying degree.” and “They were usually feeding.”
Our narrator is disgusted, but he allows Pickman to take him into the next area where things get even more atmospheric. We get depictions of art with creatures coming up from cracks and holes in the ground, and strange angles and spaces that should not be possible. Here again, Lovecraft is making an effort to seep into our subconscious without us ever knowing it. There is a very real fear called Trypophobia which states that people are scared of honeycombs or groups of regular holes (I wont scar anyone with pictures…but if you’re curious click here) . To envision hellish creatures coming from these holes is just one more way to make the reader feel ill at ease. It’s an atmospheric addition in which Lovecraft uses to perfection. Likewise his “strange geometry” which we’ve seen before as well. Remember back in “Dream in the Witch House” where the “sorcerer” used the strange geometry of the house to better conjure up horrors? Lovecraft is setting the scene for the climax. Building the tension, making the reader feel… off. The first step is setting the stage that Pickman is somehow odd and descended from witches. The next is heading into a place that even historians say doesn’t exist. The final step is giving the audience a glimpse of strange and off-putting artwork – artwork that’s hard to look at because it shouldn’t be possible. Art work that is too horrible to look at without screaming.
As we digest this, the narrator sees a camera. When asked, Pickman “…told me that he used it in taking scenes for backgrounds...” and our narrator sees a paper crumbled up next to a painting. He makes an effort to unravel it, when he is distracted by Pickman taking him deeper into his studio, so the narrator puts the crumpled paper into his pocket.
When they get into a bricked up room Pickman shows the narrator a work in progress so terrifying that it makes our narrator scream. This, right here, is what’s so wonderful of Lovecraft’s work. He’s painstakingly told us that Pickman had a horrible realism to his work. Then we get possible examples that are close, but not quite as terror inducing as anything Pickman had the ability to exude. We get a few examples of his lesser works as well, just to give the reader some dread as to what is coming – “The Lesson” about dog-like things that are teaching stolen children how to eat like them…”Subway Accident” which portrayed “a flock of vile things…clambering up from some unknown catacomb through a crack in the floor of the Boylston Street subway and attacking a crowd of people on the platform.” – also an unnamed drawing that depicted “a vast cross-section of Beacon Hill, with ant-like armies of the mephitic monsters squeezing themselves through burrows that honeycombed the ground.“
All of this anticipation and then Lovecraft purposely keeps the description of the painting which finally puts the narrator over the edge because Lovecraft knows that whatever we’ve been building in our minds is far more terrifying than anything he could possibly put to page. Lovecraft does this time and again in his work, where he describes just enough to make the psyche of his reader take off and make of what they are reading that much worse.
The scream causes Pickman to start. He produces a revolver and ushers our narrator out of the room. He makes up an excuse that there’s a rat nest in the walls, but when he’s hidden from sight something more devious happens. Our narrator heard, “a sharp grating noise, a shouted gibberish from Pickman, and the deafening discharge of all six chambers of a revolver...”
That ends the narrators adventures with Pickman. He leaves to go home and is terribly off put by the realism of the paintings, the detail Pickman is able to get from the photos he takes for the backgrounds, the realistic faces Pickman is able to create out of nothing. But then, when he gets home, he feels the paper in his pocket. It isn’t a paper at all. It’s a photograph. A photograph of “the monstrous being he was painting on that awful canvas.”
And oh reader, “It was the model he was using – and it’s background was merely the wall of the cellar studio in minute detail…It was a photograph from life.“
Join me next week as we tackle the infamous “History of the Necronomicon!”
There is another painting in Pickman’s vault which gives us and interesting peek into Lovecraft’s social landscape.
A scene in an unknown vault, where scores of beasts crowded about one who held a well-known Boston guide-book and was evidently reading aloud. All were pointing to a certain passage, and every face seemed so distorted with epileptic and reverberant laughter that I almost thought I heard the fiendish echoes. The title of the picture was “Holmes, Lowell, and Longfellow Lie Buried in Mount Auburn.”
This is a seeminly deviant view at first. It’s just demons looking at a…guidebook? But then we get answers when we get the title. Mount Auburn is a well known cemetery in Boston and it’s the main resting place for the Boston Brahmins (nomenclature penned by the doctor and writer Oliver Wendall Holmes…yes the same Holmes).
So why are the demons laughing at the guidebook? Well the Boston Brahmins are heavily associated with the Boston Aristocracy and Anglicism. Two things that Lovecraft railed against.
So what is Lovecraft saying here? The demons have a guidebook. The demons are looking for this place, because they are going to collect the Boston elite and religious, because, to Lovecraft, those two things are worse than being a murderer. The demons, using the guidebook, have finally found their way to the elite to procure thier pound of flesh. Death and the cemetery wont save them.
That right there is what’s so wonderful about Lovecraft. These little gems that you can extract, only if you look close enough, to the overall narrative.
“It is uncommon to fire all six shots of a revolver with great suddenness when one would probably be sufficient, but many things in the life of Herbert West were uncommon.”
Welcome back for another Blind Read! We’re tackling Reanimator this week and yowza, there is a heck of a lot going on here in a story that is absolutely not a typical Lovecraftian story.
Lovecraft was commissioned to write an episodic tale, in which each segment was published subsequently in each issue of the magazine. I have to admit, that after reading the story I did a tiny bit of research into the story, because of how… well… unlike his other stories it was and found that Lovecraft himself called the process of writing for the magazine “manifestly inartistic” because of how the magazine editor wanted it structured. You can feel Lovecraft’s disdain as he writes the story and the further you get into it, there is an aspect of camp that can absolutely be considered Lovecraft’s subtle dig at how much he hated the project. Ironically that bit of camp invigorated film makers from (obviously) Stuart Gordon to Sam Raimi.
But we’ll get to all that soon. Let’s dive in, shall we?
We start the story with a very strange statement which sets up the unreliable narrator right off the bat: “Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror.”
Excuse me, what?
He was your friend in college and… in after life? Is the narrator trying to say that they are friends still after death, or does he just mean that they were friends after college? This is a strange statement because immediately after it we find that West disappears in a “sinister manner.” Lovecraft isn’t one to mince words like this… he tends to be vague, but very precise. So what is our narrator telling us here? Well we wont get the answer to that until the very last sentence of the story.
The narrator states that he can only speak of West in terror because of the “wonder and diabolism of his experiments…” and instantly we understand that West was enamored by the dual nature of life and death. West believes that there could be developed, a method to delay death, or “overcome it artificially” by a “calculated chemical reaction.“
West immersed himself in these experiments during college using his home brew formulas on animals with varying levels of success, but “since the same solution never worked alike on different organic species, he would require human subjects for further and more specialised progress.”
Ridiculed by Miskatonic University staff and students, he is soon told that he cannot continue this line of study by their dean, “the learned and benevolent Dr. Allen Halsey.”
While the narrator describes this rejection from the Dean, we get our first philosophical rumination. “Holding with Haeckel that all life is a chemical and physical process, and that the so-called ‘soul’ is a myth...” (We’ll talk more about Haeckel later) Relying on this thesis West looks for fresh human bodies in an effort to re-animate them. He knows that if the flesh deteriorates too much then the process wont work, so the two men (narrator and West) “followed the local death-notices like ghouls...” and moved out to a farm house for its remoteness. The idea being that they can grave rob and bring the bodies to the house without being seen.
It takes a while, but they finally procure a body with enough freshness so they try the formula. They wait far longer than they think they should and nothing happens. Disappointed, they move into the next room and continue to work, while “…from the pitch black room we had left there burst the most appalling and daemonic succession of cries that either of us had ever heard.”
The two men are so terrified by the ululations and the crashes of destruction coming from that room that they tear from the place and head home, only to hear the next day that the house burned down with nary a glimpse of their reanimated corpse.
And this is all in the first chapter.
There are one or two exceptions, but this first chapter reads like a standard Lovecraftian story. The descriptions, the prose, the tone, it could basically be all out of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but then we move into the second chapter and find the story stalls.
From the first sentence we understand a plague of typhoid has devastated the town, and we rehash the theory behind the freshness of the bodies. We hear again from Dr. Halsey, who tells West in no uncertain terms that he must stop his research.
Then the story devolves for a page or so. From the perspective of the narrator we get into a rant about religion and ethics. He calls the “professor-doctor” type “the product of generations of puritanism...” and “whose worst real vice is timidity” with “…sins like Ptolemaism, Calvinism, anti-Darwinism, anti-Nietzscheism, and every sort of Sabbatarianism and sumptuary legislation.”
The narrator is railing against morals with an almost Ayn Rand fanaticism. You remember the scientist which we mentioned earlier? Haeckel? Without a doubt a brilliant man who created our classifications for families of living creatures (phylum, kingdom, etc,), BUT was a proponent of scientific racism and eugenics. Yeah, you heard that right. The man the narrator (and probably Lovecraft) is lauding as a genius, believes that there are scientific reasons why some races and creeds are better than others and that we should use eugenics to resolve the problem. You want to know who else got his main ideas from this man? Adolph Hitler. Also a German fanatic who was coming into power as this was being written. One has to wonder if the magazine Lovecraft was writing for had “specific leanings” and that’s why these elements are in this story and so prevalent (seriously, like the whole story), as opposed to his other stories. I wont mention it beyond this but there are some horribly racist things stated in the next chapter, worse than anything I’ve read in Lovecraft so far. Suffice it to say that there are some really interesting things in this story with plotting and style (and perhaps, just maybe, Lovecraft was using this hate as a device, but we’ll see that later), but if these themes are triggers IN ANY WAY, never read this story. It’s not even in the top 50% of Lovecraft anyway, and if it weren’t for the 1985 movie, I don’t think this story would have any historical longevity.
Whew! Sorry, had to leave that disclaimer. Anyway…
There’s a wake at the end of this chapter for Dr. Halsey (he died of typhoid) and West and the narrator tie one on, “making a night of it” and are seen later, after midnight, walking home with a third man in their arms. There’s a kerfluffel in West’s boarding room that night and when the landlord comes to investigate, they find West and the narrator bloodied and the window broken.
There’s a trail of blood and “remnants of bodies left behind...” There is even evidence of these bodies being chewed on. The police follow the trail until they find the fiend, who bears a startling resemblance to Dr. Halsey. The beast is captured and put into Arkham Asylum and the two heroes take a breath of relief as the chapter ends. But before it does, we get the first evidence of camp that will carry through to the 1985 movie.
To conclude the chapter West says: “Damn it, it wasn’t quite fresh enough!” Queue slight chuckle and eye roll.
The third chapter begins with the quote from the start of this essay and we spend over half of this chapter re-hashing the previous two. Then West and the narrator, because they are doctors, are asked to oversee an illegal boxing match. One of the pugilists is knocked unconscious and West declares him dead. They take the man and inject him with the formula, hoping that he is recently dead enough for it to work, but the man comes back as a monster, raging at them, and West puts it down with his revolver.
The next chapter is interesting if only because the prose is so simplistic as opposed to the majority of Lovecraft, and the plot so kooky, that it really feels as though Lovecraft is mentally done with the project, as if the only reason he is continuing it is for the money.
Three quarters of the chapter re-hashes the previous ones, until a travelling salesman comes around and “suddenly dies” on West’s porch. West uses the formula on him and when the man re-animates. We understand that West killed him because of his statement when he revives: “Help! Keep off, you cursed little tow-head fiend – keep that damned needle away from me!”
Then suddenly because WWI is going on, West decides he needs to go to the battle front to get fresh body parts to see if he can reanimate them. Some of the most atmospheric writing comes here and there is a bit more waxing poetic on the idea of the soul versus the mechanics of the body, but there isn’t much more to go on. The reader can feel Lovecraft’s disdain for the project bleeding through the text.
Then finally we get the last chapter where we get more re-hashing and a Halloween haunted house moment where one of the reanimated creatures is wearing a wax mask (check the very last quote in this essay). This triggers a campy moment where all the creatures West has reanimated come back and break through a plaster wall. The creatures are apparently angry at West for reanimating them so they “tore him to pieces before my eyes, bearing the fragments away into that subterranean vault of fabulous abominations.”
Servants find the narrator unconscious the next morning with West gone and an “unbroken plaster wall.” The servants state he was either mad or a murderer, and we get the last line which brings it all together: “But I might not be mad if those accursed tomb-legions had not been so silent.”
I sat for quite some time after reading this last line. He might not be mad if they had not been so silent. Meaning that he was mad as a hatter the entire time, and everything that we’ve experienced through his eyes were the ramblings of a potentially very dangerous madman. The perspectives on race, religion, science versus the soul, and all that malarkey that we spiraled into, was really just a madman capable of murder and probably much worse. Lovecraft is saying “nope, that was all from a crazy person, so you shouldn’t actually believe any of it.”
Don’t believe me? Lovecraft left us clues.
Remember the first line we talked about earlier? About how the narrator knows West “After Life?” The narrator tells us all along that West is the one reanimating everyone. West is the one killing people. But if the narrator knows West “after life,” then that means that he has killed West and reanimated him, making the narrator the real monster here, not West. In fact because of the unreliable narrator form, the entire story is subject to speculation, because it was probably the narrator who had been doing all the killing and reanimating all along.
We also know that from the very beginning the that West is missing. But in the last paragraph the narrator tells us that West was torn limb from limb. Throughout the story there are contradictions like this. For example: The narrator is a doctor but he doesn’t understand that Jewish, black, and white people (the only examples he gave) have the same internal organs.
There is also the fact that when they went to war and got to see the battle fields, the narrator, as a doctor felt that “Some of these things made me faint, others have convulsed me with devastating nausea, while others have made me tremble...” Really. You’re a field doctor who has killed creatures you brought back to life, done autopsies, looked at desiccated and chewed on corpses without a second thought… but a battlefield makes you faint. I at first thought this was a failing of the writing, but now because of other evidence I think it was a stylistic, unreliable narrator choice.
Throughout the story the narrator lovingly says that West, is “…a calm, blonde, blue-eyed scientific automaton...”, like, multiple times (I think I counted four times). In this exact same way. Yet we have a character call West a toe-head, a slang debasement for a blonde white person. It was odd at first that there would be a slang word against a white person in this story given the hate speech toward others, but what I realized is that the hate speech all came from the narrator, and the other characters in the story (Dr. Halsey, this salesman for example) didn’t hold these same views and railed against what the narrator thought. Those horrible racist, classist, and bigamous statements were from the perspective was an extremist insane psychotic.
The largest evidence of this? This story is too campy, too simplistic, too direct to be a serious Lovecraft story. I’ve spent the better part of two years reading and analyzing his work and I’ve not come across anything like this story. This was a very specific idea that was written for a very specific audience and he got paid $5 a chapter to do it. I get the feeling that he was asked to make it this direct, so the subversion of expectations was his way of sticking his middle finger to the proprietor and the audience.
Join me and read along as we cover “Pickman’s Model” next week!
I’ve stated that the prose in this story is much more simple than most Lovecraft (admittedly making it more accessible to a larger audience), but there were a few moments of brilliance here and there. My favorite examples are as follows:
“A touch of colour came to cheeks hitherto chalk-white, and spread out under the curiously ample stubble of sandy beard. West, who had his hand on the pulse of the left wrist, suddenly nodded significantly; and almost simultaneously a mist appeared on the mirror inclined above the body’s mouth.“
“In a dark corner of the laboratory, over a queer incubating burner, he kept a large covered vat full of this reptilian cell-matter; which multiplied and grew puffily and hideously.”
“I can still see Herbert West under the sinister electric light as he injected his reanimating solution into the arm of the headless body.”
“His expressionless face was handsome to the point of radiant beauty, but had shocked the superintendent when the hall light fell on it – for it was a wax face with eyes of painted glass.”
“Dr. Armitage, associating what he was reading with what he had heard of Dunwich and it’s brooding presences, and of Wilbur Whateley and his dim, hideous aura that stretched from a dubious birth to a cloud of probable matricide, felt a wave of fright as tangible as a draught of the tomb’s cold clamminess.“
Welcome back for another Blind Read! The week we’re diving into one of the creepier, lugubrious, and plodding stories to date – The Dunwich Horror (check pronunciation notes in the post script!).
Lovecraft intersperses some interesting socio-political factors into this, one of his more visceral tales, all the while giving some first hand looks at what some of these cosmic creatures look like – breaking from his standard of building fear by occluding our sight of these terrible creatures. The story is slow developing, but there’s more in this story to build the Mythos than any other story I’ve read from him.
That being said, let’s dive in shall we?
Despite the fact that we divert from Lovecraft’s held tenet of showing his creatures, we begin the story with an old standby, an introductory chapter to set the stage and atmosphere of Dunwich. Lovecraft leans into his overbearing descriptions in an effort to make sure the reader understands the place; “Without knowing why, one hesitates to ask directions from the gnarled, solitary figures spied now and then on crumbling doorsteps or on sloping, rock-strewn meadows…” and “It is not reassuring to see, on a closer glance, that most of the houses are deserted and falling to ruin, and that the broken-steepled church now harbours the one slovenly mercantile establishment of the hamlet.” In fact the town has “…gone far along the path of retrogression…” that “They have come to form a race by themselves, with the well-defined mental and physical stigmata of degeneracy and inbreeding.”
We’re shown a run down shambles of a town with all the quaint elegance of “The Hills Have Eyes.” But that’s what sets this story apart from his other works. Much of Lovecraft has affluent characters, using their influence and money to dive down into these rabbit holes of terror. The Dunwich Horror is the opposite, it has backwater folks living in the abandoned hills of New England experiencing the insidious horror.
The saddest aspect of this comes in the first chapter of the story: “The old gentry, representing the two or three armigerous families which came from Salem in 1692…” and though they “…have kept somewhat above the general level of decay…” they themselves have degenerated. This is not “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” where we get to gallivant around the globe researching and finding clues to the highest peaks of godhood. No. This is the story of the underside. This is the story of people who had the knowledge (they came from Salem, just like Curwen did in that story) of cosmic wonder, and let it degrade into something foul. I’d wager that’s why we get to see a bit of the creature here…Lovecraft wanted to solidify how dirty, how incredibly unclean this place really was.
But that also raises that sociological aspect I mentioned earlier. Throughout this story Lovecraft is disparaging to the townsfolk. Their speech is degraded, their hygiene is terrible (“Dunwich folk have never been remarkable for olfactory immaculateness.“), and their living situations are deplorable. They cant even solve their own problems, they need to get help from the more affluent Arkham people. The whole book almost feels like Lovecraft is saying ‘this is what happens when you live in poverty. You stop caring and you devolve.’ The deceit here is that it doesn’t matter what your fiscal situation is, in Lovecraft, there will always be some fanatic who delves into the unknown and causes unrest.
But I digress. Back to the story!
We are introduced to the Whateley clan, more specifically the “goatish looking” infant Wilbur Whateley, his albino mother Lavinia, and Old Whateley, who are all inbred and have odd looks with no chins. Lavinia gave birth to Wilbur without anyone knowing his parentage, many speculating inbreeding because he was “exceedingly ugly despite his appearance of brilliancy; there being something almost goatish or animalistic about his thick lips, large-pored, yellowish skin, coarse crinkly hair, and oddly elongated ears.“
Wilbur grows at preternatural rates; walking at 8 months, talking at 11 months, reading the tomes of Old Whateley at the age of a year and seven months, and by the time he was four and a half years old he already looked 15.
This is where the slog hits in the story, where page after page goes by with familiar themes and normal Lovecraft happenings. We find sores on Old Whateley and Lavinia, cattle are sent to the house frequently, paid for with gold of an extremely ancient date (who even accepted it as a form of payment?), evidence of vampirism, strange odors no one is able to recognize, and odd rituals on May-eve and All-Hallows up on Sentinel Hill led by Old Whateley amongst strange rock formations and a rock altar. Old Whateley and Wilbur re-build the house, to make the inside space larger, and to give it some of the same strange architecture as can be found on the hill. These are all integral to the story and all instances which come up in Lovecraft again and again.
Then one day Old Whateley dies and tells Wilber, “Open up the gates to Yog-Sothoth with the long chant that ye’ll find on page 751 of the complete edition…“
Wilbur heads to Miskatonic University library to search out The Necronomicon as the Old Whateley’s volume is not complete. He seems to get the information he needs and heads back home. That Halloween there is some kind of kerfluffle and his mother is never seen again.
Dr. Armitage of nearby Arkham hears of Wilbur’s visit and looks over his shoulder at page 751 translated. Here we get more information about the Old Ones than we’ve gotten in nearly all of Lovecraft, and all in one page (It’s so provocative that I’ll set a link here for you to read it, but it’s so long that it will just take up too much space, so you may read it…at your own peril!). That page of the Necronomicon leads directly into the opening quote for this essay.
There is also another interesting connection with other Lovecraft here, and that’s “Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family“, where Wilbur’s movement is considered “Gorilla like” along with his “albino mother,” and if you’ll remember the story a princess was pulled from a temple in the jungle and it was found out that she was basically an albino gorillaesk figure. Could it be that this is what happens to people as they take on aspects of the Old Ones? Did at one point in our evolution, we humans diverted from the cosmic skein while our hominid ancestors were closer to those outer deities? Something to ponder.
Armitage makes a crack that inbreeding could not have caused the physical features displayed by Wilbur, “Shew them Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan and they’ll think it a common Dunwich scandal!” Armitage already knows something is amiss.
Later that year Armitage, along with two fellow compatriots hear a dog howl and smell the horrible odor connected to the cosmos. They find a dog had jumped through the window and killed Wilbur Whateley, though this was not the Wilbur Whateley everyone had known…”...with very man-like hands and head, and the goatish, chinless face had the stamp of the Whateley’s upon it…though it’s chest…had leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator. The back was piebald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes. Below the waist, though, it was the worst; for here all human resemblance left off and sheer phantasy began. The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply…whilst in lieu of a tail there depended a kind of trunk or feeler with purple annular markings…“
Strange things begin to happen in Dunwich and they all seem to surround a large invisible creature who is destroying houses and killing people. Armitage delves into research to figure out how to dispel the creature and comes across the “Dho-Hna” formula and a singular terrible phrase written in Wilbur’s crooked scrawl: “I wonder how I shall look when the earth is cleared and there are no earth beings on it.”
Wilbur obviously began his transformation into some sort of cosmic avatar, whether that be the servant Shoggoth, or something else, he was actively looking to wipe the earth clear of humanity. From everything I’ve read in Lovecraft thus far, this is the first instance where it is absolutely clear the destruction of the human race is the point of the fanatic study. Usually it is just a lust for power or eternal life or knowledge beyond what they should be able to understand.
Dr. Armitage, along with Professor Rice and Dr. Morgan head to Sentinal Hill with a special sprayer which will show the invisible creature (clever if trite plot device). Again we are shown a description. Lovecraft does a fairly good job at this though, because he just throws out a few vague discordant descriptors and lets our mind construct the monstrosity. It is readily apparent that the invisible monster is a Shoggoth. Here it is in clear terms from one of the villagers:
Bigger’n a barn…all made o’ squirmin’ ropes…hull thing sort o’ shaped like a hen’s egg bigger’n anything, with dozens o’ legs like hogsheads that haff shut up when they step…nothin’ solid abaout it – all like jelly, an’ made o’ sep’rit wrigglin’ ropes pushed clost together…great bulgin’ eyes all over it…ten or twenty maouths or trunks a-stickin’ aout all along the sides, big as stovepipes, an’ all a-tossin’ an’ openin’ an’ shuttin’…all grey, with kinder blue or purple rings…an’Gawd in heaven – that haff face on top!…
I find this description particularly interesting, not only because we finally get to see what a Shoggoth looks like (It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter. – description of a Shoggoth from “At the Mountains of Madness”) with a bit more clarity, no the more intriguing thing here is that section about a ‘half face.’
The Shoggoths are the work horses of the Old Ones (Like the actual workers. They tend to whatever the Old Ones need. Do the dirty work as it were.) and this story seems to be indicating that humans can become Shoggoth, and all they need to do is breed with them…
The story concludes with the trio from Arkham banishing the Shoggoth creature to whence it came. This would probably be a satisfactory conclusion, but Lovecraft takes it a step further. In the last paragraph we find the truth of where the creature came from. This entire story, the Whateley’s were building bigger and bigger spaces. It was unclear as to why, just a vague mention by Old Whateley on his death bed: “More space, Willy, more space soon. Yew grows – an’ that grows faster.”
But oh god, the creature had half a face. “That face with the red eyes an’ crinkly albino hair, an’ no chin, like the Whateleys...”
Remember that Wilbur grew at an abnormal pace? This was because of his connection with the cosmic deities. Why would the Shoggoth grow at the same pace? We finally see that this monster was not something Wilbur or his grandpappy summoned. Lavinia gave birth to Wilbur and the no one knew who the father was, well it turns out that the monster “…was his twin brother, but it looked more like the father than he did.”
One only has to wonder…did Old Whateley willingly give up Lavinia to birth cosmic deities?
Join me next week as we jump into Herbert West – Reanimator!
Here’s just a fun rejoinder about the pronunciation of Dunwich.
My brother and his family live in Providence, RI and he is adamant that the real pronunciation of Dunwich is Dunnich. Because RI was a colony they took on the English pronunciation and that’s what is used today (Hence Greenwich village is pronounced Grennich village. What’s interesting in this story is that Lovecraft goes to far lengths to use onomatopoeia to make the speech of the villagers precise to their dialect. He does this to the point that some of it is neigh on impossible to read because he focuses so much on pronunciation to show their destitution. I mention this because there’s one instance where a villager, in dialogue, calls the town Dunwich. Therefore we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that it is the Dunwich Horror, not the Dunnich Horror.
“There were chanting’s and repetitions, and thunderous declamations in uncanny rhythms; and although these sounds were always in Ward’s own voice, there was something in the quality of that voice, and in the accents of the formulae it pronounced, which could not but chill the blood of every hearer.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This time we’re jumping into chapter 3 “A Search and an Evocation.” There are some very interesting concepts in this chapter and I’ve begun to wonder if Lovecraft is using this novel to incorporate all horror within his mythos, as there are many horror tropes in this chapter. It feels as though he is trying to say that these tropes were actually created from his own “Yog-Sothothery.” We’ll get a little more into this later, but this chapter jumps forward and we are reunited with our titular character as we follow him in his descent into madness.
The majority of this chapter is the “Search” of the title. Ward is fascinated with his ancestor and researches to find more information about him. At the start of the chapter he is open about his curiosity and what information he discovers. His family is slightly disturbed by his findings, but they generally don’t seem to care that much.
Ward asks consistently to travel abroad to dig deeper, but his parents reject that idea, telling him instead to stay state-side. He decides the best thing for him to do is research Salem.
He finds “Curwen’s only close friends had been one Edward Hutchinson of Salem-Village and one Simon Orne of Salem.” We already know from the previous chapters that Simon has practiced some kind of spell craft or alchemy which had given him such prolonged life that he had to take another name and act as though he was his own son, Jedediah. So we understand that they have some connection with the occult.
Ward continues to research and finds a curious letter which speaks of strange things: “And of ye Seede of Olde shal One be borne who shal looke Backe, tho’ know’g not what he seeke“
Obviously this pertains to Ward. It’s curious that this passage tells us that Ward is compelled to research despite not knowing why he has the urge, nor knowing what he’s looking for, and it is this passage which tells him that he doesn’t have a choice. This is a staple of Lovecraft and horror in general. There’s a reason why people run back into houses whilst being chased by monsters and murderers. There’s a reason people don’t move out of haunted houses. It can sometimes be jarring when you watch or read a character do something like this, but there’s a reason it’s one of the oldest horror tropes. People feel compelled to understand. Think about magic tricks. How many people will watch someone do a magic trick and then immediately ask how the magician did it? It’s that unknown that drives their worst fears and if we can just comprehend what’s going on, we can correlate it to something tangible and make it less scary. That’s the brilliance of Lovecraft. He uses creatures and themes that are so beyond the realm of our ken that it is not possible to correlate them.
This is why the people of Salem and Providence were so scared of Curwen and his coven of three. Because they were doing things; chants that weren’t in a known language, smells that were beyond comprehension, and anti-aging, that the people instantly feared them because these actions were outside of the norm.
This brings me to the second classic horror trope, the Witch. We’ve been playing at the witch for this entire book so far, with references to Salem and casting spells, but this is the first time we get a small, secluded house, hidden in the woods where a coven of three practice their incantations. To Lovecraft these incantations are not witchcraft as we know it, but direct conversation with the Great Old Ones. That’s truly where magic comes from, not from the earth, or Satan, or anything else. Witchcraft is Yog-Sothothery.
But back to the story. After spending time in Salem, Ward comes home excited about his found evidence of Curwen. During this time he also figured out where Curwen’s house on Olney Court was, so the next portion is his investigation goes there.
We get the feeling that Ward took on some aspect of Curwen as he was travelling in Salem, because when he sees the house on Olney Court and the changes made to it, he feels a pang of fear and regret. Almost as if that portion of Curwen’s history was dissolved.
He digs into the house and scours it for information finding three interesting items. The first was a portrait of Curwen which was hidden behind the wall. Ward contracts some workers and an artist to take the painting out and restore it, then he puts it up in his attic study to ostensibly overlook his work. He also finds two documents: a lost journal by Curwen with a strange inscription: “To Him Who Shal Come After, & How He May Gett Beyonde Time & ye Spheres…” and a cipher which he hopes will translate a note he found from Hutchinson with a similar language.
Ward takes these documents and heads back to his room. He begins to pull back from his parents, (“At night he kept the papers under lock and key in an antique cabinet of his, where he also placed them whenever he left the room.”) and spends his time under the gaze of Curwen’s portrait. “…he inaugurated a dual policy of chemical research and record-scanning; fitting up for one laboratory in the unused attic of the house.” Remember how Curwen would get the “Saltes” of his ancestors to bring them back and ask for information? Well during this time Ward’s research is about where Curwen is buried. There is evidence that he may have found the grave, and possibly more evidence that Curwen’s body was not in it. But more on that later.
He continues to ask his parents to travel abroad, and where they resist for a while, they finally agree to let him. He wanders through Eastern Europe and at first, sends frequent letters. Soon however the letters slacken and then nearly stop by the time he gets to Transylvania. He visits with Baron Ferenczy, and “…the situation of Baron Ferenczy’s castle did not favor visits. It was on a crag in the dark wooded mountains, and the region was so shunned by the country folk that normal people could not help feeling ill at ease.”
What a strange description. To me this is a perfect depiction of Dracula’s castle, yet another reference to a classic trope that Lovecraft is incorporating in this novel. To top that off, the experience of Ward is similar to that of Jonathan Harker as well. He goes to the castle, then becomes so consumed (see what I did there?) with work, that he doesn’t readily respond to correspondence. Could this possibly be Lovecraft trying to subsume these tropes? Was Dracula meant to be part of the mythos? Think about all those coffins that Curwen “imported” in the last chapter. Could it be that some of those creatures weren’t actually vampires, but vampiric constructs that Curwen, using Yog-Sothothery, resurrected? Or is this just a nod to Stoker?
It may in fact be a nod because the next few paragraphs, those of Ward returning to Providence from his time abroad, are wonderful homages to Poe. The language suddenly shifts, and the focus on atmosphere takes center stage;
“When the coach crossed the Pawcatuck and entered Rhode Island amidst the faery goldeness of a late spring afternoon his heart beat with a quickened force, and the entry to Providence along Reservoir and Elmwood avenues was a breathless and wonderful thing despite the depths of forbidden lore to which he had delved.”
Ward gets home and is noticeably changed. He has prematurely aged and has become far more withdrawn. In fact, “…Dr. Lyman’s assign to Ward’s European trip the beginning of his true madness.” The most disturbing aspect of this is the next trope that we come across. Thirty years before this book was written, Oscar Wilde published “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. Here Lovecraft throws another bone out to the horror community. Ward’s visage begins to take on the physiognomy of the portrait of Curwen. Ward has been striving to find his ancestor, but maybe there is something more going on here. Could he have been possessed by Curwen in Transylvania? or is it the magic, the Yog-Sothothery, bringing them together? The fact that the concept and usage of the portrait is so similar to Wilde’s tale I’d intimate the latter.
Ward retreats to his attic lab and we see the opening quote of this essay, where he delves into his experiments. Strange noises and smells emanate from the lab (remember how Curwen’s farm house had strange smells that latched onto it’s attackers?), and his parents take note. His mother tries to spy on him and notices four men bringing a coffin like box into the lab. This coffin could be the body of Curwen, or even more likely Curwen’s “Saltes”, because what comes after is startling.
Ward begins a strange chant in an even stranger dialect and the weather goes south. The strange smell (possibly Brimstone?) wafts throughout the house as Ward’s experiment proceeds and it gets to the point that his mother faints. Once the ceremony concludes, Ward promises his father that he will discontinue that type of experiment in the attic and move on, but right at the end of the chapter we find that “the portrait of Joseph Curwen had resigned forever its staring surveillance of the youth it so strangely resembled, and now lay scattered on the floor as a thin coating of fine bluish-grey dust.”
The transformation was complete, or rather the “evocation” was complete. I wonder if Curwen didn’t actually die in the raid on his farmhouse, but instead transposed himself, or at least his soul, into the painting. When the four men brought the coffin with the mortal and tactile “Saltes” (remains) of Curwen, all that was left was the ritual to bring him back. The essence of the portrait seeped into Ward, and he took on the aspect of Curwen.
That’s how the chapter ends, but before I let you go I’d remiss if I didn’t mention that is some beautiful language in this chapter, far better than I’ve seen in the previous ones. My favorite line pertains to Ward’s mother when asked what she saw to make her faint:
“Memory sometimes makes merciful deletions.”
Yikes. This just adds to the mystique and horror of the tale, especially with only two more chapters. We know something is going to begin to come together and I think some major knowledge is going to be dropped in the next chapter.
I wonder if we’ll continue to receive those classic tropes. Keep an eye on them if you’re reading along because I wonder if there may be some underlying meaning behind this novel. So far we’ve come across Witches, Zombies, Vampires, Dorian Gray, and a little bit of Poe stuck in there. What might we find next?
Let’s find out next week for an analysis of Chapter 4 “A Mutation and a Madness.”
“He bore the name Charles Dexter Ward, and was placed under restraint most reluctantly by the grieving father who had watched his aberration grow from a mere eccentricity to a dark mania involving both a possibility of murderous tendencies and a profound and peculiar change in apparent contents of his mind.”
Welcome back to another blind read! It feels like it’s been a long drought since the last time we covered one of Lovecraft’s more popular pieces, and I gotta tell you, I was very excited to jump into this one.
Right from the start we enter into familiar territory. The POV is much more omniscient than much of Lovecraft (the majority of his stories seem to be told from a much more limited 3rd person, and much of that is from the perspective of an unreliable narrator), however the omniscient narrator spends this chapter describing the character of Ward, whom is a young man who has gone down a path that has led him to the strange.
We find that Ward is an inquisitive youth. He’s described as “a scholar and antiquarian”, but at some point (specifically at his last year of Moses Brown School, the feeder school to Brown University) “he suddenly turned from the study of the past to the study of the occult.”
Ward, while doing research into his past, found that one of his ancestors had some connection to the occult. One Joseph Curwen, “who had come from Salem in March of 1692, and about whom a whispered series of highly peculiar and disquieting stories clustered.” It was in this research of his ancestor that Ward began to go down the rabbit hole of the occult.
Whatever he did had strange consequences. It changed, not only his mind and the psychology behind it, but his actual physiology. There is a really fascinating section early on in the story where Lovecraft describes Ward’s “Organic processes”. The entire point of this is to show that Ward had tapped into something that changed him, but the brilliance of this section is that it encompasses the horror of Lovecraft perfectly:
“Respiration and heart action had a baffling lack of symmetry; the voice was lost, so that no sounds above a whisper were possible; digestion was incredibly prolonged and minimised, and neural reactions to standard stimuli bore no relation at all to anything heretofore recorded, either normal or pathological. The skin had a morbid chill and dryness, and the cellular structure of the tissue seemed exaggeratedly coarse and loosely knit.”
This was the most fascinating section to me because when you read the passage, something about what he’s describing feels off. You know that Ward has been effected by something, but as a reader, you are uncertain what it is. You know he’s still human, but you know that whatever he got himself into has done something to him, and it’s that word… something… that creates real fear. This ambiguous description is the cornerstone of Lovecraft’s genius of horror. He pontificates, but doesn’t out and out recount what is truly going on.
It wasn’t that Ward had become some creature (although he could… this is only the first chapter), just that there was something wrong with him. I see this all the time in bad horror, where the author tries too hard for the scare, and in doing so, usually describes the creature or describes in lurid detail what is happening to the character. When we actually get to see something our brain is able to put it in a box, and where that box may not be pleasant, it’s the first step in understanding. Lovecraft’s point is that we can never understand these types of horrors. He lets the reader’s mind do the work for them.
Even the titles elicit this with stories like “The Thing in the Moonlight” or “The Unnamable” prove that he understood what’s truly scary to people is what they don’t know, not what they do know. He describes things that are a little strange to unsettle the reader, but not to outright terrify. Lovecraft wants to do what his creations do, he wants to be that insidious pulling at the back of your unconscious that tells you something isn’t right, even though you don’t understand what that is.
The brilliance of this story is he places Ward into such a realistic place. He goes into great detail describing Providence, RI. So much in fact that there is criticism (actually from Lovecraft himself) that the novel is a “cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism” because of the detail he uses in describing Providence. Now, where he sees this as self aggrandizing, I find it a wonderful juxtaposition to the oddity that is Ward. The realism of his illustration of Providence grounds us, which makes the possibility of the unseen horrors corrupting that reality all the more… well… horrible.
Come back next week and read along as we cover chapter 2 “An Antecedent and a Horror” in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward!