“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!
“Presently I heard a swishing in the sparse grass toward the left, and saw the dark forms of two men looming up in the moonlight.”
Welcome back to a very strange blind read!
This wasn’t really a story and in fact when I researched Lovecraft’s bibliography it isn’t represented at anywhere. As it turns out, this is actually a letter that Lovecraft once sent about a dream he had to a colleague. The letter was then taken and a beginning and end was tacked onto it. It’s curious why someone would do this, because the text doesn’t make sense and doesn’t sound ANYTHING like Lovecraft. Let’s break it down a little. Here’s the opening, obviously not written by Lovecraft:
“Morgan is not a literary man; in fact he cannot speak English with any degree of coherency. That is what makes me wonder about the words he wrote, though others have laughed.
“He was alone the evening it happened. Suddenly an unconquerable urge to write came over him, and taking pen in hand he wrote the following:”
So, so many things wrong here. First of all why name him Morgan? Without any characterization this is just a failed attempt to change something that doesn’t need to be changed. The very next line starts “My name is Howard Phillips.” so there is no reason to adjust it, other than either an attempt to make it their own (which I don’t believe because it’s published in a Lovecraft book), or they wanted it to seem more like a story rather than a letter. It’s an uninspired and useless tactic.
Next “he cannot speak English with any degree of coherency.” What? If you read the following letter, the man writing it obviously has an expert’s grasp of the language; as it’s written far better than this opening salvo. I mean, the writer (I refuse to say author here for this anonymous hack job) tacks on a fragment to end the sentence that makes zero sense in the context!
Then we get into Lovecraft’s actual (letter) writing. This letter is brilliant and terrifying (it might be some of the scariest he’s written), and packs so much into just two pages that I would consider it a must read for any fan (just ignore the two opening paragraphs and the closing paragraph).
The narrator describes finding a strange aged trolley car on a plateau. The narrator goes inside and sees two figures approaching. One screeches and the other goes to all fours and runs around wolf-like. The description of the screamer is terrifying, and now I understand why people say “Silent Hill” is Lovecraftian: “…but because the face of the motorman was a mere white cone tapered to one blood-red-tentacle…”
The scene repeats itself with a feeling of foreboding and anxiety that the dreamer will eventually be caught by this mysterious motorman. The story ends with the ominous, “God! When will I awaken?”
This letter was written in the last few years of Lovecraft’s life, and I wonder if this was almost a cry for help. He created this verdant field of wonder and fear, and one has to wonder if drugs (laudinam or opium) caused some of this nightmare fuel to seep into his head.
Then again what if this was a metaphor? The bestial nature had left him (the conductor was the one who went wolf-like and ran around; ostensibly away. Cone-head was the real nemesis) as the conductor ran off, and he was left being haunted by the strange and otherworldly motorman. I find it interesting that the conductor, the one who was meant to drive the vehicle (or in this case drive the consciousness?) went feral and directionless, whereas the motorman – the one who powers and builds the craft – became the staying force. The motorman whom changed and became something otherworldly. It almost feels like this is Lovecraft’s ID and this letter is the realization that maybe there is something off about him internally. Something otherworldly?
Much like many of his narrators he sees this truism and is terrified by it, and we as readers have to wonder… How much time did Lovecraft spend dreaming, and in the end did he succumb and transcend into his own dreamlands?
Join me and read along next week where we’ll cover the first chapter of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward!”
“It was a key – a guide – to certain gateways and transitions of which mystics have dreamed and whispered since the race was young, and which lead to freedoms and discoveries beyond three dimensions and realms of life and matter that we know.”
Welcome back to another blind read! I was excited to read this one because I thought it might have to do with the Necronomicon, but soon found out that the eponymous book was yet another tome of outlandish sorcery – but more on that later.
This fragment starts out with the old Lovecraft standby – the unreliable narrator. This one doesn’t mince words though, our narrator comes right out and says, “wow this is crazy, I don’t even know where I am, or even who I am half the time!”
Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s the beginning: “My memories are confused…I am not even certain how I am communicating this message…My identity, too, is bewilderingly cloudy.”
I’ve been debating on where to put this critique, but every other story is pretty jam packed with content, whereas this is a shorter fragment, so I think I’ll talk about this here…
I’m not thrilled about this unreliable narrator that Lovecraft loves to use. It’s fine every once and a while, but when you consistently re-use the same themes, it feels more like bad writing than a trend. I understand it for sure. Lovecraft is trying to set the stage and each unreliable narrator tends to have a different reason for their unreliableness (totally a word). This narrator is confused because of “… that worm riddled book…” he discovered. He delved so deep into it’s mysteries that it has altered his reality so that he’s not sure as to which reality he’s actually in.
The issue this creates is that the story is now forever stuck in the fantasy realm. The wonderful nature of Lovecraft is the creepy realism he develops with his mythology. He takes us to real places with dirty people (literally and figuratively) who are just trying to make a living, and these extraordinary things happen to them. By telling the story by an unreliable narrator it takes away some of the stakes. Could all of this insanity all be in their head? Could they just be lying? Are they under the influence of something like Opium of Peyote? All of these choices are fine for a story or two, but when we start out nearly every story with the narrator saying something along the lines of “I don’t even know where I am right now!” It becomes more about fantasy than horror and the stakes are lowered for the reader. Lovecraft dances this line superbly in most of his works, but it would be a better choice had the narrator understood what was happening, rather than telling us at the beginning of each story that it might not be true.
Just had to get that off my chest, but back to the story…
The narrator finds the old “wormy” book in some old book store and the shop keep is grateful to be rid of it (or is this some ploy? Could the shop keep with his “curious sign with his hand” be in on it?). When the narrator reads it he finds that, as the starting quote says, it is a key; a gateway to other worlds. I thought for sure this was the classic Grimoire I mentioned earlier but, “… the hand of some half-crazed monk, had traced these ominous Latin phrases in unicals of awesome antiquity.” So we know it’s not the Necronomicon because that tome was written by the Mad Arab Alhazred and he’d be writing it in either Arabic or Aramaic, so it must be something else. The first few pages are burned away, so no one really knows what the book is, however there are references to many other things within: “But still I read more – in hidden, forgotten books and scrolls to which my new vision led me…” So we know there is more to Lovecraft’s old forgotten mystery tomes than the Necronomicon and the Pnakotic Manuscripts.
This fragment was written just a few years before Lovecraft died, so who knows what he would have created as he expanded his universe (I’m sure other authors, like Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth did, along with a multitude of others who followed, but I’m not there yet).
We even get a glimpse of some strange square building which terrifies the narrator into giving up his research and becoming a hermit. There’s mention that he has gone back in time, could this strange square building have been a Cthulhu temple in R’lyeh? The narrator doesn’t know, so we wont either.
But that’s all. This one is a fairly contained story, but there isn’t a whole lot to it. It feels like this is actually a character sketch for a future story, or that he was trying to work out what another old tome could be. Who knows? Maybe I’ll read another story during this blind read and come across a book which is a “key” somewhere else! Anyone out there, know which book this story is referencing?
I’ve purposely kept some of the better known Lovecraft stories for last. I wanted to try to get as much experience within the framework of his oeuvre before jumping into larger and more popular stories. To that end, I have just one more fragment to get to, “The Thing in the Moonlight” which will be next week (reading from the beautifully Michael Whelan illustrated Del Rey books), before heading into “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”
Come join me! Lets read along!
“There rose within him the tantalizing faith that somewhere an easy gate existed, which if one found would admit him freely to those outer deeps whose echoes rattled so dimly at the back of his memory.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! I’ve finally finished with the Juvenilina and I can’t say how happy I am to be back with the fragments. These are some of his later story ideas and, well, fragments of stories that Lovecraft never got to finish and oh my lord what a wealth they are.
These fragments contain more Yog-Sothothery than any of the individual short stories that I’ve read so far and I wonder if these works were his way of organizing his thoughts. He packs so much information into these few pages, while the rest of his short stories are vague and only hold a little indication of where he wanted his mythos to progress. I wonder if this is how all of his stories started and then he pared back on the lore, so that he might be able to focus more on the. After all, to me, the greatest strength of Lovecraft is how he lets the reader develop the horror in their own minds.
Anyway, back to the story. This story starts out like many of his other stories where the narrator tells us of a man (here in London instead of New England) who walls himself off from friends and family. He has been traumatized by something in his past and we get a page or two glimpse of how he lives his current life, then we peel back the onion to stare directly into the trauma.
The man strives to stay away from anything that makes him think. In fact the only books he has are brain candy: “His room is filled with books of the tamest and most puerile kind, and hour after hour he tries to lose himself in their feeble pages.” No! Lovecraft wasn’t elitist, I swear! (as a side note, I’m really curious to see who he thought was “puerile.” That would be an interesting post in and of itself!)
The point is, something happened to the man and he wants to make sure his brain doesn’t delve deeper into whatever past experiences he had. That’s either a coping mechanism not to relive the trauma, or it’s because he has something hidden in his brain that he’s scared to bring back out.
Eventually a young man named Williams enters his life. This young man is a scholar and has a feeling that the old man knows something more than he tells. He picks and prods and eventually gets a bit of information out of the old man about his past.
Seemingly unprompted, though one might believe that he inferred about the terrible book from the conversations he had with the old man, Williams brings home the Necronomicon. “…the infamous Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.” which he sought out from a local rare bookseller.
The old man sees the book and, “…one glimpse he had had of the title was enough to send him into transports, and some of the diagrams set in the vague Latin text excited the tensest and most disquieting recollections in his brain.”
We learn that the old man is Lord Northam, whose lineage goes back to Roman times. In fact, one of his Roman ancestors actually found evidence of the Old Ones; “Gabinius had, the rumour ran, come upon the cliffside cavern where strange folk met together and made the Elder Sign in the dark…”
During the Hellenistic period and slightly before there were cave dwelling hierophants who practiced something called the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were basically rituals to Hades and Demeter. We already know that Lovecraft gets much of his inspiration from Greek and Roman culture and it seems as though he is adopting these Hierophants as his own to represent his Cthulhu cult (I.E. praying over the ocean). He also infers R’lyeh, “a great land in the west that had sunken, leaving only the islands with the roths and circles and shrines of which Stonehenge was the greatest.”
The story abruptly ends while telling about Lord Northam’s childhood, and one gets the feeling that if Lovecraft was able to actually finish it, this story would be one of the most complete and comprehensive histories of his Mythology.
We get so much of the origins of the cult that surrounds the mythos, including a great understanding of where in our world much of these places are and the events that happened within them. Lovecraft was absolutely anglified, making the majority of his major events happen in England, New England, and in the sea between, but he also holds a special place in his heart for the mysteries of Greece and Arabia. There is much that he didn’t understand about those worlds and I think he was drawn to culture mainly because of the desert. It was something that he couldn’t have imagined being in, or being around (whether that be because the of the temperature, the vast miles of nothingness, or the emptiness of humanity) and thus it grew in mystery within his brain. I believe that’s why he posed the people of the mysteries as cultists and why artifacts of the Old Ones power (The infamous Mad Arab, and even the narrator from The Transition of Juan Romero) seem to come from there. Because the culture was so vastly different, that in a way he vilified it.
Once again we are shown brightly Lovecraft’s xenophobia, as he subsumes it within the mythos he created. Transposing real world people and events into horrors which we don’t understand and cannot contemplate.
Come back next week for another Blind Read! We’ll be covering the fragment, “The Book.”
“There be those who say that things and places have souls, and there be those who say they have not; I dare not say, myself, but I will tell of the Street.”
This is the best opening line I’ve seen from Lovecraft in all that I’ve read of him (Despite the weird piratey feel), and this even comes from one of his Juvenilia!
I wasn’t really sure where Lovecraft was headed with this one. This short story felt like a bit of a ramble; as if he had a basic idea of what he wanted to accomplish, but he wasn’t sure how he wanted to get there. The writing is much more sophomoric than much of his other writings, but the story itself is far more controlled and succinct than The Poetry of the Gods was (which I’ve since been told the majority of which not actually written by Lovecraft).
In this story we follow the history of a street from the dawn of time when magic ruled, to the present day. The “soul” that Lovecraft is talking about is the Street’s history; the mystery and magic that’s inherent to an individual location. This is such a through line with all of Lovecraft’s writings, but I don’t think I’ve seen it so blatant in any other story than it is here.
The Street has a soul. Through time events happen. People coalesce around the Street and form it into a community. They build it into a town. The nation forms around the Street. There are wars to defend locations and ideals, including skirmishes with “natives” and battles with soldiers wandering the streets. There is even mention of the Declaration of Independence as the world changes around the Street.
The Street, however, never loses its core. It never loses it’s spirit. Things around it can change, “the air was not quite so pure as before, but the spirit of the place had not changed.”
Lovecraft believed that the way the world was headed was a detriment to the human mind. I think that’s why he ultimately wrote about what he wrote about. It was his goal to keep things unchanged and his Yog-Sothothery was that old magic that was too powerful (both in good and evil and ambivalence) to change. Many of the people in his stories are trying to bring back those old gods…trying to bring back that old magic…to a time before humans gradually destroyed the world. That’s why he loved New England, because it held onto the traditions of old, unlike places like New York which thrived on change (See the stories HE and The Horror at Red Hook).
Overall there isn’t much to this story but that theme. That theme is such a powerful one in his writings, however, that this is an incredible addition to his works because we can gain a greater understanding of his oeuvre as a whole.
One last thing before I let you go. I noticed something strange in this story, and where it is a blind read (meaning that it’s the first time I’ve read it, so I could have easily missed some context), I think that there may be more to his legacy than I previously thought.
I’ve always heard that Lovecraft was a notorious racist. Now, because of the day and age that he lived in, I’m sure that this was true (not to mention some of the wording he uses to describe minorities, also not using this as an excuse to forgive racism), but reading his works in such a bulk and analyzing them like I have, I think that he’s a bit more of a Xenophobe and an Agorophobe. I think he equally was scared of and disliked any people who were different, or had differing cultures than he did. It actually makes me pity him more than vilify him because fears drove him as we see in his literature. (Qualifier: I am not giving him a pass. I am not saying racism in any form is ok, in fact I think treating anyone different because of melanin or cultural differences is pretty abhorrent. I’m not saying that we should look past it. It’s just an observation that it seems like he fears everyone outside of his comfort zone, not just minorities. In fact in The Horror at Red Hook the evil person is dutch. He does have terrible language which is detrimental to the world as a whole.)
Lines like; “But it felt a stir of pride one day when again marched forth young men, some of whom never came back. These young men were clad in blue.”
It seems as though he’s talking about the Civil War here. If he is, then he was firmly in the Union side (which makes sense because he lived in Providence). I want to hope that he was pro Union because of the slavery issue, that he was still a humanist, but it could be that I love his writing and I’m looking for an excuse.
I guess I’d have to read his letters to get a better understanding of the man himself.
What do you think?
“It was only a bit of vers libre, that pitiful compromise of the poet who overleaps prose yet falls short of the divine melody of numbers; but it had in it all the unstudied music of a bard who lives and feels, who gropes ecstatically for unveiled beauty.”
Welcome back for another Blind Read! This time we’re diving into a co-op between Lovecraft and Anna Helen Crofts. This story is a divergence from what we have seen so far in Lovecraft’s fiction so if you’re looking for a horror story, look elsewhere. What we do get to see here is an interesting genesis of Lovecraft as an author and potentially his position, much like Marcia in the story, as a herald to the gods.
The story follows the aforementioned Marcia, who lives in an austere mansion and suffers from general malaise because of, “…some greater and less explicable misplacement in time and space, whereby she had been born too late, too early, or too far away from the haunts of her spirit ever to harmonize with the unbeautiful things of contemporary reality…” This quote strikes me. It feels almost as if Lovecraft is using Marcia to be a stand in for himself (or potentially Ms. Crofts).
He was not born at the right time.
Lovecraft craved mystery, and the strange, and mysticism. Contemporary culture of the time just didn’t fit with these amorphous constructs. We see this time and again (especially in the stories such as HE or Shadow over Innsmouth) Lovecraft wanted magic in the world of technology.
We go along with Marcia as she’s approached by Hermes and brought before Zeus. Zeus is looking for a mortal to herald the coming of the gods and brings Marcia there to do so.
The text itself is interesting because the exposition is cut up by poetry, as if to expose how brilliant Marcia is, but it also displays how bad poetry can halt magic from happening.
This is pretty much everything you get out of the story. It’s disjointed and strange, but it tries to hover between the mega weird of Lovecraft and softer, more realistic fiction. It doesn’t hit the nail on the head. It leaves you with the feeling that either one, or both of the authors were trying to show off how important and how amazing they were, but the self aggrandizement comes off as cheap and smarmy. It makes the story feel useless.
Where my interest in this story lies is how similar the Greek gods of the story were with Lovecraft’s original cannon. I’ve mentioned before that Greek gods and culture were a heavy influence on Lovecraft in general, and this story solidifies this.
There is a bit of the Dream-Quest as Marcia is brought to Olympus and sits before Zeus, as he tells her, “..the time approaches when our voices shall not be silent. It is a time of awakening and change.”
There is even evidence of the Pnakotic Manuscripts or the Necronomicon with “…reading from a manuscript words which none has ever heard before, but which when heard will bring to men the dreams and fancies they lost so many centuries ago, when Pan lay down to doze in Arcady, and the great Gods withdrew to sleep in lotos-gardens beyond the lands of the Hesperides.”
So much correlation that it’s hard not to read into it. From stories such as The Tree, The Tomb and What the Moon Brings, we catch such a huge influence from Greek culture that I now truly believe that his Yog-Sothothery is based upon these gods. He just puts a slightly more nefarious tint to them.
What do you think??
“At this time, my belief in the supernatural was firm and deep-seated, else I should have dismissed with scorn the incredible narrative unfolded before my eyes.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! We’re diving back into another one of H.P. Lovecraft’s Juvenilia… The Alchemist. This was the first story I’ve read from Lovecraft that I truly feel that he had not gained his writing chops before starting. The narrative is obviously unpracticed and the plot is loose, with a number of issues.
The major thing that jumps out at me is that, unlike his other stories where he relies on inference for horror and terror, in this one he goes right to it and calls a spade a spade. The antagonists are father and son and they are evil. Flat out. Lovecraft even goes so far as to state that the father “…burnt his wife alive as a sacrifice to the Devil, and the unaccountable disappearance of many small peasant children were laid at the dreaded door of these two.” OK. That’s bad enough. We can probably leave it there. We know that these two are corrupt and irredeemable. We know they are the antagonists, but Lovecraft takes it a step further.
“…the evil old man loved his offspring with fierce intensity, whilst the youth had for his parent a more than filial affection.”
I hope I misunderstand this quote, and I hope it means something other than physical love, though I don’t know what else would be more than filial. Even more bothersome, Lovecraft states “…through the dark natures of father and son ran one redeeming ray of humanity,” meaning that their “more than filial love” is seen as a redeeming quality. Hmm. Mayhaps we’ve seen a little into why Lovecraft became such a recluse.
But let’s dig into the story, shall we?
A young man is locked away in a tower because the “…restriction was imposed upon me because my noble birth placed me above association with such plebeian company.” (though really it was because of the curse, but more on that later) Because of this isolation our narrator spends the majority of his time reading over old archaic tomes, but “Those studies and pursuits which partake of the dark and occult in nature most strongly claimed my attention.”
Through these tomes he reads of a man by the name of Michel Mauvais and his son Charles, also known as Le Sorcier. Mauvais, an evil sorcerer who strove for “such things as the Philosopher’s Stone or the Elixir of Eternal Life.” Meanwhile the Count, our narrator’s ancestor, finds one day that his son is missing and immediately goes to Michel Mauvais’ house and kills him for the murder Godfrey, his son. It is later found that Godfrey had just wandered off and eventually came back, though too late to save Mauvais. Le Sorcier curses the count and his ancestors, stating that every man in his lineage will die at the age of 32.
The tome tells how each ancestor of our narrator dies at that age. Eventually on the narrator’s 32nd birthday, Le Sorcier appears and says that it was actually he that had lived these past 600 years and had killed every one of the Narrators kin on their 32nd birthday to ensure the curse continues. He takes the Elixir of Life to help him in this capacity. Here the tale concludes.
We know the narrator wins the inferred scuffle, because he lives to tell the tale. We also know he steals the Elixir of Eternal Life from Charles Le Sorcier because the narrator tells us that the events he described were 90 years prior.
There are two possible outcomes here. The first is how the narrator tells it: he kills Le Sorcier, takes the drought, and lives forever in his tower. The second is that the narrator is none other than Le Sorcier himself, and the earlier story of being holed up was a hoax. Neither one of these are well thought out conclusions however. Either one of these outcomes leave a large number of plot holes, even in this seven page story. Unfortunately I felt this was Lovecraft’s weakest story of which I’ve read so far.
What do you think?
“Cautiously advancing, we gave vent to a simultaneous ejaculation of wonderment, for of all the unnatural monsters either of us had in our lifetimes beheld, this was in surpassing degree the strangest.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week, we’ll be diving into some of Lovecraft’s “juvenilia,” as it’s called. This is one of the last stories he wrote as a young man (The Alchemist being the last), before taking a break from writing these types of fictions. He returned to fiction years later and wrote the rest of his better known bibliography
This is a good story with echoes of future works tucked inside of it. Now, where there isn’t much in terms of cosmic horror or a Mythos connection, there is a slight thread (though far fetched) that we’ll be examining in a bit.
The story is a simple one and very straight forward. Lovecraft doesn’t leave much to the imagination, but he does create a great little horror story. The story begins with our narrator taking a tour through some strange caverns. He gets separated from his group and ends up fighting (really just throwing rocks at) some kind of creature that rose up from the depths of the cavern system.
He thinks he kills the creature with the rocks and tries to inspect it. He finds that it’s a white haired ape like creature, but it’s too hard to see because his torch extinguished in the time he wandered, lost. When the tour guide eventually finds him, flashlight en tow, they see that the creature was actually a man, assumed to be down here so long that he has mutated (I wonder if Gollum comes from this story).
It’s fun and short, and what you’d expect from a young man’s fiction. But what if this were the seed for so much more?
So the obvious connection is The Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family, because that is a story of a man intermarrying a Portuguese woman, who eventually turned out to be a Congan Ape Goddess. Arthur Jermyn and his family all had apish aspect because they were offspring of the Ape Goddess. Maybe the beast in the cave was actually a Jermyn?
But then we can go deeper. There are a few mentions of the people of Congo praying to this Ape Goddess “Under the Congan moon”, and inference that potentially the moon could have been where the Ape creatures came from (see What the Moon Brings and The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath). Could this be the mythos connection? Could these creatures have been somehow been connected with the moon-beasts?
Even in stories such as The Doom that Came to Sarnath have this moon connection, where it seems as though something has come down from the moon and taken over, or corrupted life on our planet. This could be the cosmic connection we’re looking for, because the vast majority of Lovecraft’s mythos come from the stars.
Of course, this is a tenuous connection to say the least, but I like to think that Lovecraft’s beginnings could have had this kind of influence, at least subconsciously, over his later work. His vague mythos (which from what I understand, he didn’t want to have much connectivity), may have actually been more connected than we really thought of previously.
What do you think?
“His build and lower facial features were like any other clergymen I had seen, but he had a vastly higher forehead, and was darker and more intelligent looking – also more subtly and concealedly evil-looking.”
Welcome back to another Blind read! This time we’re reviewing the very short and to the point, “The Evil Clergyman.”
There isn’t a whole lot to this one. It’s pretty straightforward, dealing with our classic un-reliable narrator, with themes of cosmic horror and sanity. This story doesn’t add to the cannon of mythos (unless there is something that I’ve missed, or something that I haven’t read yet), but it’s a fun little off shoot story.
We start off with our narrator looking an attic apartment. The man who is offering the apartment makes illusions to one of the previous tenants, and references what he did. We don’t know what it is, but we can tell that it is severe. It seems as though the narrator is not moving into the apartment, but he is rather there for research into “That abominable society…” whom he was a part of, and stayed there. I half wonder if this is the same he from the story with the name HE. They do have similar descriptions.
The man giving the apartment up (or perhaps the narrator is a working lodger) gives a number of requests: “I hope you wont stay till after dark. And I beg of you to let that thing on the table – the thing that looks like a match-box – alone.”
Whatever the previous tenant did we know it was terrible, and potentially had something to do with the thing that looks like a matchbox…which immediately made me think that the item could have potentially been a talisman with an elder sign on it. As far as I’ve seen so far, Lovecraft doesn’t have any elder signs in his fiction, so they are probably a creation of one of his acolytes, but this could have been the genesis of it.
Our narrator takes a “Flashlight” out. He delineates that this flashlight shines purple, not white light, so immediately we know that he’s either testing something, or hes doing his own nefarious experiments.
There is a familiar vacuum sound, a description that Lovecraft has used frequently to indicate summoning, and before the narrator a newcomer appears. The titular Evil Clergyman gets ready to hang himself and seems to peer into our narrator.
At first I wasn’t sure if this was a dream story, or reality, but as the Clergyman starts to hang himself he looks devilishly at our narrator, and our narrator is overcome with fear. He does the only thing that he can think of …”and drew out the peculiar ray-projector as a weapon of defense.”
This scares the Clergyman and breaks the spell. The man who offered the warnings at the beginning comes back and lets us know “Something very strange and terrible has happened to you, but it didn’t get far enough to hurt your mind and personality.”
We find that this is not the first time this has happened and that others have died in this room by their own hand. The Evil Clergyman was trying to take over our narrators body, and in fact, partially succeeds, “This is what I saw in the glass: A thin, dark man of medium stature attired in the clerical garb of the Anglican church, apparently about thirty, and with rimless, steel-bowed glasses glistening beneath a sallow, olive forehead of abnormal height.”
Our narrator had become the Evil Clergyman.
I read this story as two different meanings. The first is the purely horrific, Lovecraftian story where we have an outside being forcing his way into our world. A Clergyman who vied for more power and ended up being taken over, body and soul, by a malevolent cosmic horror being. It follows that their goal is to take over a new form and enter our world. That makes it a fun little story.
There could be deeper meaning here though. The specific mention of Anglican garb gives me a bit of pause, because of Lovecraft’s notable hatred of religion. I wonder if there is a piece of Lovecraft that said that if you let religion enter you, it would destroy your life. You would become beholden to the religion and lose a sense of your own creativity and end up killing yourself, who you are, and your very soul, by letting the religion take you over.
If this is the case, that means the people in the attic are against religion too, and they worry that in the dark of night, when terrors abound, the narrator (as many in the past have as well) might turn to religion.
There are two instances which could make this reality. The first is the description of the room contains strange geometry, much the same as in The Dreams in the Witch House. This strange geometry is a conduit for connecting one world to another. The second, is the people who stopped the Evil Clergyman in the past were “That abominable society.” Why would an abominable society be trying to stop something evil cross over? Could it be that the abominable society were in fact Cthulhu cultists, or something of that sort and they were trying to stop religion from coming into the world?
What do you think?
“If you say int he first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off…” – Anton Chekhov
“But oh God, under the weight of life, things seem brighter on the other side. No way out of here…” – Dave Matthews Band “Big Eyed Fish”
“Just as anyone who listens to the muse will hear, you can write out of your own intention or out of inspiration. There is such a thing. It comes up and talks. And those who have heard deeply the rhythms and hymns of the gods, can recite those hymns in such a way that the gods will be attracted.” – Joseph Campbell “The Hero’s Journey”
In literature when we go on a journey with a character, there is always a mental journey as well as a physical journey. Why is our hero, our hero? Why is it he/she that has been chosen to do this task? If they chose it, then why? These are the questions asked from any good protagonist on a hero’s journey, so what did Randolph Carter learn?
Welcome back to another Blind Read! We’ll be talking about the epic conclusion of The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, and some theories that i have from reading it. Again these are all my own theories, but feel free to give me some of your own!
The last time we saw Carter her was at the gates of Sarkomand and the great abyss. He finds some Ghouls who are trapped by the same evil merchants and helps them escape. Then calls upon the remainder of the ghouls to fight against these horrible minions. With the help of Nodens he gains the help of the night-gaunts. With these night-gaunts (whom “even the Great Ones fear”) and the Ghouls, they have an epic battle against the Shantak birds and moon-beasts and the fish like creatures (of which one can only assume are off shoots of Dagon). Once they win the fight, mainly because of the vastly superior night-gaunts, they all go back to Sarkomand and the ghouls go back down to the abyss and Carter, again with the help of the night-gaunts, flies to Kadath.
Upon reaching Kadath he finds that the castle is empty, all except for a Pharaoh like man, who gives him directions to the sunset city, and tells Carter that he must get the Great Ones (Earth’s Gods) back to their homes on Kadath. He tells Carter that they got the glimpse of the Sunset City from him, for it is a recreation of New England, Boston and Providence specifically, and the earth gods loved it so much that they went there.
Carter leaves, flying out on a Shantak, but realizes that he has been tricked. The Pharaoh like man was actually Nyarlathotep and he is having the Shantak take Carter to the center of the universe and the seat of Azathoth to be devoured (I think this means both physical and mental). Carter realizes the ploy, and leaps from the Shantak, and creates a kick, to bring him out of the dream. He finds himself back in Boston, and revels in his sunset city.
In a brief epilogue, Nyarlathotep is bitter that Carter escaped, but he has been able to bring the Great Ones back to Kadath and mocks them as they brood.
This is without a doubt the most uplifting story that I’ve read by Lovecraft, and that has me wondering. I understand that this story was published posthumously by August Derleth, and where I’ve not seen information to state that Lovecraft didn’t finish this story, it does seem, from the battle scene on, like a different type of story. I wonder if Derleth took over this story and finished it, to have the dreamlands be a thing. But I digress.
I have three main points for the end of this story and they all revolve around the quote’s up at the top of the page. The first is Chekhov.
There are many call backs throughout this story. We have Pickman coming back at the end. We have the slant-eyed merchant continuing to re-emerge as a sinister being (no doubt spurned on by Nyarlathotep). Finally, we have the duplication of New England as the sunset city, in the same way that King Kuranes created Cornwall to be the place of his dreamland life. This was the foreshadowing of where Lovecraft was going to take the story. Kuranes goes to great lengths to describe how he created the land that he wanted, and that he had been chasing for all these years, while he’s speaking with Carter. Then when we go back to the beginning of the story:
“…and as Carter stood breathless and expectant on that balustraded parapet there swept up to him the poignancy and suspense of almost-vanished memory…”
Lovecraft is saying right here that what he is chasing after is a memory. it wasn’t until the end that I remembered that line, and the whole story was brought full circle. That cyclical journey.
If we continue in that line it brings me to my next point.
“…the pain of lost things and the maddening need to place again what once had been an awesome and momentous place.”
He is both trying to remember what the sunset city was in his dreams, but he is also trying to reconcile the memory of New England with what it is now. His memories were what built the sunset city, and it’s wonderful and glorious vision.
The way that Carter views his current situation is that New England is run down, and the city of his dreams is so beautiful that he wants to go there. “Oh god, under the weight of life, things seem so much brighter on the other side.” He thinks that by going to the sunset city he will find heaven, or at least some version of it that he can live in, in the dreamlands. This is merely a projection however, because the reality is that the sunset city is his own creation, just like King Kuranes created Cornwall. He is searching for an idyllic memory, when what he is truly looking for is right outside of his bedroom when he wakes up.
That’s the major irony of the story, because things aren’t better on the other side. They are only better once you come to realize that the world is what you make of it, and when Carter wakes, he realizes that he is in his Sunset City finally, and the journey to Kadath, while spectacular, was unnecessary.
The last point is one that is very interesting to me, particularly when it comes to the cannon of Gods. The Great Old ones are the “Earth Gods” as Nyarlathotep calls them. Carter has nearly transcended the gods, and has completed his mythological journey (quest), by creating something that the Great Ones want to experience. At the end of the story, the Great Ones actually go to the Sunset City in the dreamlands. They see all the glory that it beholds.
The dreamlands are of neither time, nor of space. We see that because of the things that the dreamers can do, create cities and such. Stay with me now, because I’m going to get a little crazy.
So back to Carters journey for a second. The Great Ones are the Gods of Earth and everything on Earth has to do with them, not directly, but in the Lovecraftian world, we developed from these moon creatures. So when Carter created the Sunset City based upon New England, there was a link between the Great Ones and the vision of the city. They saw something in it that called back to the time that they were here, and that was the point of his journey. To bring solace to the Great Ones, to lure them back into complacency and slumber, because they could experience the world, without having to come to our world.
The tragedy of the journey is that he ultimately fails. That is where the menace and horror of the story come in. Nyarlathotep tricks Carter, and instead of making sure that the Great Ones know about the city, he is taken elsewhere, and Nyarlathotep can collect the Great Ones and take them back to Kadath, where they don’t want to be. Nyarlathotep wants the Great Ones to long for Earth, he wants them to come to earth a sew destruction (just because of their nature, not because of malice). So he brings them away from their reverie in experiencing what the Earth is like, just having a small taste, and then brings them back to the cold wastes of Kadath, and taunting them, on their loss…until they get frustrated enough to escape and head back to New England.
What do you think?
Dark tales told in a circle, with the only illumination coming from the campfire. The master storyteller, eliciting the terror from their subjects as they tell their story. Cadence and timing is paramount to the proper telling, and this story teller has it down to a science.
Welcome back to another Blind read! This time we delve deeper into the Dream Quest of Randolph Carter, and we get some new illumination on the cannon of gods prevalent in the world. But first, a recap…
We last left off when Carter got to Celephais, and we pick up this week with the introduction of King Kuranes. He is the king of Celephais and has died in real life, thus becoming a permanent denizen of the Dreamlands. King Kuranes has made Celephais look like Cornwall, because he had a longing for being in a land of his childhood. They speak for a while about the dreamlands in general, and Kuranes tries to talk Carter out of going on his trek to Kadath, but Carter is set in his path and he joins another ship, to head out to the plateau of Leng to find Kadath.
On this ship they find their way to Inquanok, a city made out of Onyx. The sailors tell Carter that the city was made from a number of quarries, where they mined the Onyx, but there is one Quarry farther on, that no one goes to any more, that quarry has larger and unknown quantities of Onyx. It is here that Carter wants to go because he has heard that the great city of Kadath is built of Onyx, much like Inquanok. There is temple to the Elder Ones here in Inquanok, and it is overseen by a “High Priest, with inner secrets”.
Carter continues on and goes to an old sea tavern, where he finds, again, the slant-eyed merchant. Who seems to have followed him on his journey.
The next day Carter purchases a yak to travel to the unknown quarry to find answers and hopefully get closer to Kadath. He is sure that he is very close, because of the Onyx connection.
He travels through the quarries, and eventually the yak gets spooked and runs away, and finally the Slant Eyed Merchant finds him and captures him with aid of the horrible Shantaks.
I have to say, I love getting a little more knowledge about the gods of Lovecraft. I know that this one was published after Lovecraft died and I wonder how much of the influence of this story comes from August Derleth. But I digress.
The most interesting thing I have come to realize about Lovecraft is his style of writing. I have always had a bit of trouble getting into his verbose style, but what i have come to realize is that Lovecraft is best read as though he were storyteller around a campfire. The tone and inflection are the same, and if you read anything, especially “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”, in this way, the story comes through so much more vividly and beautifully. Every author has their own voice, and once you have come to realize that voice the experience of reading that author becomes that much greater, and though I have thoroughly enjoyed reading all the Lovecraft I have, up to now, I know that with this understanding, I will absolutely love everything else! I just wish I hadn’t gotten through more than half of his works before coming to this realization!
Ok, back to the story…The first notable mention is the delving in to dream. King Kuranes is the ruler of Celephais, and he is dead in the waking world. It is not made clear in the story as to whether he died in the dream world or in the waking world, but he still has the power to change the landscape and make it that of the Cornwall of his childhood. There are a few interesting ti bits in this that we can examine. The first is that King Kuranes is a friend of Carters, even back in the waking world. Carter is an experienced dreamer, that we know from the description at the beginning of this story, and he has known Kuranes mainly through dream, but Carter has known him in the waking world. In fact “who in Carter’s latter dreams had reigned alternatively in the rose-crystal Palace of Seventy Delights at Celephais and in the turreted cloud-castle of sky-floating Serannian.” So the question is, how can Kuranes still be a living monarch in the dreamlands when his body is dead in the waking world. Did he die while dreaming? Is this why he can stay here? Are the dreamlands some sort of afterlife that we come to when we die? Or are only experienced dreamers able to come to the dreamlands after they die, their dreams tying them to the dreamlands?
I tend to cater more towards the latter, because the image of the “rose-crystal Palace of Seventy-Delights”, elicits an image of the 72 virgins from the Quran. We as humans tend to think of the afterlife as a reward for a life well lived here on earth. If the dreamlands are a vision of this afterlife, where you have alternative versions of heaven, hell and purgatory, then this could be an example. Kuranes is able to actually change the landscape and create the Cornish fields of his childhood after all. This seems as though this is his afterlife, based upon the life he lived in Cornwall as a child. I hope to have a better sense of what the dreamlands actually are once we get a little farther into the story.
Next set of business is the clarification to the cannon of gods. This is what I’ve been waiting for, for so long! While Carter is speaking to Kuranes, they discuss the danger of his quest, and Kuranes tells him what little he knows, as a way of warning Carter away from the quest. We find out that there are three different types of gods…Other Gods, Elder Ones and Great Ones. The whole point of this quest is to find the Great Ones, to find more information about that sun kissed city, but Kuranes warns him because, he says, the Other Gods had ways of protecting the Great Ones from “impertinent curiosity”. He made it sound as though the Other Gods would gather the Elder Ones, The truly malignant forces in the universe, to avert this curiosity. These Elder Ones were such as Azathoth and Nyarlathotep. We are as of yet unclear as to who the Great Ones are, and we know that the Other Gods (from both this story and the short story “The Other Gods) guard the outer Hells and barren space, “…especially where form does not exist…”. In fact when reading the short story “The Other Gods”, when Barzai the (not so) wise climbs Hatheg-Kla to do the same thing that Carter is trying to do here, (seek out the Great Ones), the Other Gods, do something horrible and Barzai is seen no more. The Other Gods guarded the Great Ones from “impertinent curiosity”.
The question is why is it so important for the Other Gods to protect the Great Ones, that they would pull in the malignant Elder Ones?
Hopefully we will gain an answer at the conclusion of this story!
Ok, one last little anecdotal note, which shows how pervasive Lovecraft is in our culture. The slant-eyed merchant is known to deal with a “High-priest, not to be described, which wears a yellow silken mask over it’s face and dwells all alone in a prehistoric stone monastery.” This seems to me to be the basis for the “King In Yellow”. which is a play in a book by Robert Chambers. The play is said to induce madness and despair for all who read it. Could it be that there is a correlation between worlds? Is the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, connected to the slant-eyed merchant in some way? Could that be where he got his information to write the Necronomicon?
What do you think?
“To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
for in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
must give us pause.” – Hamlet Act III Scene 1
Aye, there’s the rub. What dreams come from death, but who’s death are we talking about? What brings about these dreams? and do the dreams have a steak in reality?
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This time we’re diving into a new level of Lovecraftian fiction. Welcome to the Dreamlands. I’ve been excited to look into this a little more (in fact I even mentioned it in a previous Blind Read), because we have already begun to tackle some of the Cannon of the Mythos, so beyond Lovecraft’s weird fiction, he has the Cthulhu mythos and the Dreamland stories.
The story follows along our protagonist, Walter Gilman, who is a student of Miskatonic University in Arkham, Mass. Gilman is interested in weird science, so much so that he studies the Necronomicon in the library of Miskatonic U and familiarizes himself with the lore behind it.
But that isn’t quite enough for him. He finds a local house that was known as a residence of a Witch by the name of Old Keziah and her pet Brown Jenkin (a strange animal like furball, with a humanistic face that looks strangely like Old Keziah, and also has anthropomorphic features).
He finds that he has strange dreams in this house. He goes into strange realities and sees Old Keziah and brown Jenkin nearly every time, but he also sees strange things like spheres and polyhedrons of light, which lead him around.
He eventually comes to the realization that there are odd angles in the house. Walls tilted at incomprehensible angles that twist the mind, and whenever something strange happens it comes from those angles.
The dreams continue to get stranger, and things follow him back into the real life. He wakes and finds his feet are muddy after dreaming about walking in a muddy field. He wakes and finds his ankle has dried blood on it, after he is bitten by Brown Jenkin in the dream. He assumes that a rat bit him, but can find no blood in the room at all.
He begins to wonder about his somnambulism, and borrows flour from his landlord and places it around his room and outside of it, to try and see his footsteps and figure out what he gets up to in his sleep walking fits, but when he wakes nothing is disturbed.
The dreams continue to darken as they get closer to May Eve.
“May Eve was Walpurgis night, when hell’s blackest evil roamed the earth and all the slaves of Satan gathered for nameless rites and deeds.”
Around this time and around Hallows eve children from the poorer neighborhoods seemed to disappear. They are well known in Arkham as dark days, and as the day nears the dreams get even stranger.
Gilman sees a “black man” in his dreams, who holds out a book to him and Old Keziah wants him to sign it and gain a new name (hers was Nahab). The story centers around this strange ritual of Walpurgis night and this strange “black man”.
A local child goes missing, which happens nearly every Walpurgis night, and in his dreams, Gilman sees Old Keziah holding a knife up, with the “black man” watching in the distance. She is obviously making a sacrifice of the child and attempting to drain it’s blood into a strange metal bowl with bunch of unrecognizable symbols.
There is much confusion, and Gilman finds himself struggling with Keziah. He for some reason wonders if he actually signed the book that the “black man” held. The book of Azathoth.
Gilman succeeds in stopping Keziah and strangles her with the cross that a fellow tenant gave him.
But Gilman never wakes. The same tenant hears him screaming and goes to him. Under the blanket there is a bunch of blood coming up, and eventually a creature looking like Brown Jenkin pops out from underneath the covers, but it has a strange resemblance to Gilman in the face, and it has hands instead of claws. The creature runs to the corner, where the inverted angles appear and disappears into the wall.
The landlord evacuates the house, and there is a fire. In the wreckage they find bones from across the ages. Old Keziah had been up to her terribleness for years.
This is without a doubt my favorite of anything I’ve read by Lovecraft thus far. Terrifying and, just perfectly Lovecraft.
Lovecraft immediately puts you on edge with his mention of odd angles. What he does so well is bring the supernatural into our world so succinctly. There are alternate dimensions, but the fact that thee is a scientific way to get to those alternate dimensions…or to bring those dimensions to us, is utterly, and fantastically terrifying. In addition to that, the fact that one can indeed think of those angles and gain access to those dimensions is spectacular.
Which brings me (surreptitiously I know, but bear with me) to my next point. Walpurgis night is a brilliant temporal setting. The names of the people involved in the story are mainly Polish and Czech names, and Saint Walpurga is a Catholic saint who is known to have driven witches out of many Germanic provinces. So by making this about Walpurgis night, Lovecraft is basically retelling the story of Walpurga through his own lens. Gilman, ostensibly drives the witchcraft out of Arkham by destroying Old Keziah, and limiting the connection with our world to that of the Elder Gods.
There are a few gods mentioned in the story. There is much mention of Azathoth, who “rules from the bed of chaos”. There is Nyarlathotep, who we know has been to our plane, and lead people out of Egypt to supplicate themselves to his will (could there be an actual connection? Nyarlathotep is just a mention in this story, but does he have a reason why he can come to our world? is he a master of the angles?). Then there is Shub-Niggurath “The goat with a thousand young”.
We know that the book is Azathoth’s who is the master of chaos. Could Shub-Niggurath be Azathoth’s concubine? Is that where the thousand young came from? Then if we correlate to Christianity with the connection with Walpurgis night, we see the connection with Satan being sometimes correlated to a goat. Thus we have hell being another dimension led by Azathoth and Shub-Niggurath, with Nyarlathotep potentially being the “black man” trying to get Gilman to sign Azathoth’s book and “getting a new name”.
So Gilman actually did sign the book, and that’s why he had his transformation into a creature somewhat like Brown Jenkin, but, because he killed the only other human (old Keziah), and the Witch House was destroyed, there is a loss of connection with that hellish world.
Which brings us back to angles. In our culture good is the default. We have a thought that to be bad, or to do evil things means that you are off, that your brain does something different that other people’s brains. Lovecraft gives a reason here.
If you have the ability to see in different angles then you have access to hell. This is how you can have someone, who is structurally the same as every other human being, but their ability to see a way into another dimension, without the need of a loadstone (like the Witch House and it’s odd angles), is what leads them to evil deeds.
What do you think?
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This time we’re delving into a wonderfully classic haunted house story, with a Lovecraftian twist.
This is the story of the Shunned House, and Lovecraft finds yet another way to tell a story in a unique way. We know of the narrator’s experience there. Lovecraft tells that up front. A young man who is scared terribly by something that he cannot explain.
Then we delve into the history of the house, to try to garner a better explanation of what actually happened there. The reasoning jumps around from spirits, to demons, to vampires, to werewolves. Each person who had some kind of supernatural experience in the Shunned House have experienced something different.
The story gives some wonderfully Gothic imagery. I had a vivid image of Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” in both visceral description, as well as tonality. We find a house with a history and delve into something altogether different than we possibly expected. Poe’s story is a Gothic tragedy, but Lovecraft’s is wonderfully cosmic.
Then the story evolves. It becomes much more like Richard Matheson’s “Hell House”, where we have a scientific study, instead of a supernatural study (Hell House is one of the singularly most terrifying stories I’ve ever read, just so you know).
“We were not, as I have said, in any sense childishly superstitious, but scientific study and reflection had taught us that the known universe of three dimensions embraces the merest fraction of the whole cosmos of substance and energy.” pp 128 “At The Mountains of Madness” Dey Rey 1982.
There is so much going on in this sentence. First, we know that the narrator and his uncle are not walking into anything with a superstitious bend. They intend on using facts to find the truth of the mystery of the Shunned House. However, they recognize that science has it’s limitations and the answer that they are looking for could potentially be beyond the walls of our known dimensional world.
Then we get down into the house and discover that the story has evolved again. Now we come to the realization that we are in a Lovecraftian cosmic horror. The narrator talks about the “fungus ridden earth” and how there is a green and yellow phosphorescent glow. Thus far in my blind reads I have found that this is the most consistently mentioned precursor to a cosmic horror. This green and yellow light shows that a cosmic creature is around. Immediately it becomes less about a ghost story, and into a completely different area.
Then we come upon the most horrible section (or should I say beautifully horrible?) of any Lovecraft story I have read thus far. The phosphorescent pile is actually part of a creature that is sucking the life force out of the humans it comes into contact with. This is the reasoning for the vampire and werewolf descriptions. The creature is taking on horrible visages of other creatures to both feed and to incapacitate its victims. It was suddenly at this point that I realized this could very well be Stephen King’s inspiration for “IT”. A cosmic alien who shows people what they fear and eats their life force.
This is without a doubt one of my favorite stories I’ve read thus far. I think only “In the Walls of Eryx” comes close to this one. It’s a bit longer than most of the stories, but it’s succinct, and it changes what you think it’ll be multiple times throughout the exposition. I think if I were to recommend any one story to someone looking to get into Lovecraft I would tell them to start on this story.
What do you think?
“At the time, his shrieks were confined to the repetition of a single, mad word of all too obvious source: “Tekeli-li Tekeli-li”
A single enigmatic word that has such a huge meaning.
I had originally meant to only read two chapters and separate this blog into two different sections, but I just couldn’t stop reading, and there are so many ideas bouncing around that I decided to codify them all into this single blog.
Spoilers ahead, so if you don’t want to read them stop here.
We follow our narrator and Danforth out of the horrible city built by the Shoggoth for the Great Old Ones, and when they make it out they find the lost dog and the young Missing Gedney.
They catch a strange stench and they find a cave down to what the narrator calls the abyss. They follow it down and they find some strange blind albino penguins, and continue past them…until they find some more of the specimens that Lake found, these ones alive. Terrified they run, and they can tell that something large and terrible is following after them. They turn and see that they are being chased by a Shoggoth. Danforth ostensibly goes mad, but they eventually get out.
There are a few points I want to focus on here:
- The Poe connection
- The Blind Albino penguins and evolution
- Anthropomorphism of Star Spawn
- Physiognomy (or lack there of) of the Shoggoth
First lets talk the Poe connection. Tekeli-li is taken from The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which Poe references when the narrator hears the cry echo in the abyss.
1.First and foremost, We know that Poe had a large influence on Lovecraft in general, but what is interesting about this is how the entire novella of At the Mountains of Madness is modeled after this story. Poe set out to write a “realistic” story about a sea voyage gone wrong. Poe being Poe, some really crazy things happen. We have Lovecraft here, who is writing the story from the perspective of a scientific expedition. Everything is very logical and adhering to the scientific method throughout, until the end which takes a creepy turn…the same way Poe did in Pym. On top of that, Poe wrote about a connection with the theory of the Hollow Earth. Basically the theory that the earth is hollow and there are vast spaces and potentially civilizations in the middle of the earth. Sound familiar? In Lovecraft’s story we actually see one of these massive civilizations, and it goes way farther than that when the narrator and Danforth go into what is called the abyss. Oh did I mention that both stories take place in Antarctica?
2.Next we have the blind albino penguins. When I started reading this section I wondered what the point was. Why involve these creatures? Was it just a creepy factor to try and scare? A large creature comes out of the cave! Oh…wait…its a blind penguin. It seemed almost laughable at first. Then the more I thought about it the more brilliant it seemed. These penguins were the foreshadowing of something horrible coming. They have lived here for centuries, and down here in the abyss. That accounts for the fact that they are albino, for they very rarely see the sun. Why are they so large? The Shoggoth are huge, so if the penguins never evolved they would just get crushed (which they do anyway when a Shoggoth was incensed). Ok so we can intuit why the penguins are large and albino, but why blind? Is it just because they live in the caves? That could be, but they would probably just have evolved to be able to see in the dark. I think there is a much more sinister reason. We’ll discuss this in the last section.
3.Next Trypophobia, otherwise known as the fear of irregular patterns or clusters of small holes or bumps, or honeycomb holes. Lovecraft describes the architecture and the creation of the tunnels to be honeycombed, and he’s doing this for a multitude of reasons. The first is that he wants to give a little preamble to what the Shoggoth are. What kind of nightmare creatures create that type of pattern on purpose? Why is that the aesthetic that they want to look at? Which leads into the second reason, it gives the reader unease. This strange, abnormal pattern leaves many people on edge, and I would purport that Lovecraft suffered from trypophobia as well, which is why he was inclined to include it. The last is that it solidifies these creatures as being cosmic, or otherworldly. That is the kind of shape that one would not want around, but it may be something that makes the Great Old Ones long for home. Yet another reason to instill madness.
4.The anthropomorphism of the Star Spawn in the bas-reliefs. The Shoggoth make these statues almost in a recognizable theme. Except why is that? The Great Old Ones created the Shoggoth on our world. Whenever something is created, the idea of how it looks is relegated to the mind of the creator. Thus when things are created they are generally created in the image of the creator. The Shoggoths are no different. At the end of the story, Danforth, who read The Necronomicon to completion, mentions Yog-Sothoth. Now this is the first mention of this name in any story I have thus read, but just before he mentions this name (which I know is some sort of god in the Lovecraftian pantheon) he mentions proto-Shoggoth. This makes me believe that Yog-Sothoth actually created the Shoggoth in it’s image. Switching to the Shoggoth themselves, they lived as servants for many years, until they finally rose up against the Great Old Ones. As they lived as servants the Shoggoth watched the evolution of the planet, and how the creatures of the land actually became human from primordial ooze. I propose that this is why the Shoggoth rose up, they saw how humanity grew and took out on their own, and they saw what they could be, instead of servants. They thus created the images on the massive underground city based around their uprising. That’s why such an alien culture was legible and understandable from a couple of scientists.
5.Shoggoths are these horrible creatures. What Lovecraft does so well is that he never actually describes the creatures. He mentions that the star spawn have tentacle mouths, and that the Shoggoth have many eyes and are spherical but that’s really it. One of the most interesting descriptions came when the two are running away from their Shoggoth pursuer. Danforth has started to go mad, and is mentioning subway stations. The narrator finally understands and says that the reason is, the Shoggoth looked like a passing train. The shoggoth looked like a blur of steel and windows. The thing that sticks the most here is the world blur. Despite the fact that the Shoggoth wasn’t moving particullarly fast (they were able to out run it), it still looked like a blur. Was this because it was so hideous that our minds couldn’t comprehend it? Or is it because their features move so quickly that they are completely amorphous? This is the true Lovecraft horror. This is why Lovecraft works so well. You have these creatures that if they are described, then we can begin to understand them. When you keep it a mystery, and our minds have trouble categorizing things then unease bleeds in and the horror begins.
What do you think?
Talk about a revelation! Chapter 7 of this story gives so much of what I was looking for! It’s like a primer for Lovecraft.
Our brave explorers continue on their trek through the ancient cosmic city and through the frescoes and sculptures they tell a story of the Great Old Ones who once lived in the city. I will eventually have to go back and read through this chapter because there was so much here to consume.
First off, lets talk Shoggoth. I had thought that this was an actual god, or species of god, or something along those lines. What we find here is that the Shoggoths are actually creations of the Great Old Ones. They were “protoplasmic masses” that were brought together by the Great Old Ones to have slave labor. They were used to create the amazing city that the narrator and Danforth are exploring. The Shoggoths eventually rise up against the Great Old Ones, but were eventually put back down.
We also see a little about Cthulhu and it’s minions. They come down from the cosmos and attack the Great Old Ones. The narrator mentions these creatures as the humanoid Cthulhu spawn. There was a great war, and eventually peace broke out and the Cthulhu spawn was given the land, and the Great Old Ones and the Shoggoth took to the Ocean floor. That is until the Pacific waters rose and the great cities of the Cthulhu spawn were swallowed by the sea. From what I’ve gathered from other stories, the great city R’lyeh, where “all the cosmic octopi” lived is also the prison of Cthulhu itself (from info from the Shadow over Innsmouth). So here we have the origin (at least origin from our worldly perspective) of Cthulhu.
Then, much later, after the war with the Cthulhu spawn and the uprising of the Shoggoth, there came the Mi-go, partially fungoid, partially crustacean creatures. They also came down from the cosmos, and it seems as though they defeated the Great Old Ones, because the Great Old Ones tried to flee, but found that after so long, they could not leave the earth’s atmosphere. They thus fled to all portions of the world.
What is significant to this, is that now we have an understanding of the Great Old One’s reach and some of their capabilities. We also have now two different races besides these creatures, the Cthulhu spawn, and the Mi-go.
The Cthulhu spawn seems to be in the pacific ocean, with their few cities, including the fantastic R’lyeh. So the stories containing them, have to be in the south towards the Antarctic.
Then we have the Mi-go, who began in the Antarctic, but are known in the Himalayas, so they must have migrated during the ice age. Since the only information we have about them is that they flourish in cold environs, we must guess that any mention of the Mi-go to be surrounded by sub-zero temperatures. I imagine this information will be important for investigation later.
SO ultimately, we have people being born from the Great Old Ones. It is implied that our race may have started in this Antarctic city that the expedition has found. However we still have those transformation ideas. Transforming into a fish person. Transforming into an Ape. And transforming into a beast.
Since the Great Old Ones have relegated themselves to the Depths, then it is apparent that they have a direct correlation to the Fish transformation. As of right now I would argue that they also have the Ape transformation under their wing as well. I’m not sure where the beast transformation comes from.
Also we know that Cthulhu is empirically, NOT a Great Old One. This was something I was hazy on. Though I’m assuming that Dagon is one of the children, or lesser Great Old Ones, I have not gotten a name for any others as of yet.
Loving the story thus far, and can’t wait to see if there is any more Mythos in here.
Is there anything I missed?
What do you think?