“I assured him I had never heard of Nahum Wentworth before, though I admitted privately to some curiosity about the object of my host’s preoccupation, insofar as he had been given to reading the Seventh Book of Moses, which was a kind of Bible for the supposed hexes, since it purported to offer all manner of spells, incantations, and charms to those readers who were gullible enough to believe in them.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we tread the back roads beyond the wastrel excuse for a farming town known as Dunwich to find horrors unknown in the magical ether of Lovecraft’s universe.
So I immediately have to print a retraction (but that’s kind of the point of a blind read isn’t it? To conjecture?). Last week I said I expected Derleth to work pretty much exclusively on expanding Lovecraft’s mythos. To clarify the unclear, and to streamline the vague. I said I didn’t think he would write a straight horror story. I’m happy to say that in the very next story, “Wentworth’s Day,” which we’ll be digesting shortly, he’s proved me wrong. There have actually been many stories which are allegedly inspired by Lovecraft (By authors such as Brian Lumley and Robert Bloch), but I’ve never really understood exactly how Lovecraft supposedly inspired them because they never really felt like they truly fit in his world. Weird of course, but not really Lovecraftian. Now I understand. This story, which again is just a straight horror story with only a slant connection to the cosmic (which you’d only catch if you were well versed in Lovecraft), is the direct antecedent to such books as “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”
The story begins as our narrator is driving through the backwoods beyond the previously mentioned Dunwich. There seems to be nothing habitable out there except for “…reclusive dwellers on some broken-down farms.” The narrator even mentions that the area, “Once, long ago, it had the reputation of being a country in which Hexerei – the witch beliefs of superstitious people – was practiced…” and that which we know as readers has the potential for Shoggoth (disappointingly, none appear). I thought this may be a call back, but as we’ll see, there are a few things in this story which are only call backs… they’re only prompts meant to entice the reader to keep going.
Derleth spends some decent time setting the scene as the narrator tells us he gets stuck because the highway was blocked off. He goes on a detour late in the evening, trying to push through and instantly regretting it.
A storm soon blossoms and he passes what seems to be a more habitable property. It’s a house and a barn and “The headlamps’ glow swept the face of the dwelling there…” He sees a mail box with the name “Amos Stark” (which really has no reference lineage, but I mention is because it seems remarkably familiar to a Stephen King story you may be familiar with…). The narrator takes the liberty of parking in the mans barn (how rude is that? I know these stories were written in the 50’s, but imagine the gaul… ‘I’m just going to drive my car into your barn without asking. I’m owed that because this place is so run down, I bet they wont even notice!’ Well, the people of the backwoods New England must be nicer, because when “a wizened old man with a scraggly beard half covering his scrawny neck” came to the door, he didn’t bat an eye, just ushered the narrator into his house.
Then the weird stuff starts to happen and not the weird stuff you’d expect from this kind of horror story. Stark offhandedly says today “is Wentworth’s day. I thought yew might be Nahum.” Now I’m not an expert on New England names from the early 20th Century, but I don’t think Nahum is a popular one, so immediately I’m excited because I’m thinking, “Yes, here’s ‘The Colour out of Space’ character directly in a Derleth tale (Nahum Gardener was the farmer whose family’s misfortune it was to have the meteor land on their property), but then the more I read I realize that it’s just a bad call back, a poorly misplaced fan service. This new character is Nahum Wentworth, not Gardener, and Derleth only named him that to keep readers reading… to keep the references to Lovecraft, no matter how thin, while forging his own path. I understand this predilection but it makes me sad because this story is good, but this erroneous and desperate grab for an audience feels dirty.
After that we get the tale of Stark and Wentworth. Apparently Wentworth was pretty rich and gave Stark a loan. The loan was set to come due this night: “Five years, an’ this is the day, this is Wentworth’s Day.” Wentworth had until midnight, that very night our narrator came knocking to collect on his money… the only problem is… Wentworth is dead. Stark “accidently” shot him in the back of his head:
“‘I fell,’ he muttered, and there followed a sentence or two of inanities. ‘All they was to it.’ And again many indistinguishable words. ‘Went off – quick-like.” Once more a round of meaningless or inaudible words. ‘Didn’t know ’twas aimed at Nahum.'”
So all of that put together seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal right? Well, then we remember that this is an area which historically practices what Derleth calls the Hexerei. Stark shows our narrator (still don’t really know why he’s being so forthwith with our narrator. This seems like a plot convenience, but at the same time, this was backwoods New England in the 50’s, set in the 30’s. Maybe, nay probably, people were a bit more equitable back then) some of Wentworth’s books he had taken and our attention is immediately drawn to The Seventh Book of Moses.
“…the Seventh Book of Moses, which, I soon found, was a curious rigmarole of chants and incantations to such “princes” of the nether world of Aziel, Mephistopheles, Marbuel, Barbuel, Aniquel, and others.”
Yet another reason why we know this is emphatically not Lovecraft (besides the fact that Derleth was actually much better at dialogue). The Seventh Book of Moses is a real historical book which talks of magical and spiritual arts as well as Christian demons and devils and such and is commonly mentioned in occult circles. This is nothing like the Pnakotic Manuscripts or the Necronomicon. It’s a bit disappointing that we aren’t getting more of Lovecraft’s world, because Derleth claimed these stories were actually written by Howard Phillips and only cleaned up by Derleth. Like I said earlier, the stories (so far at least) stand on their own, but to put Lovecraft’s name on it gives the first tinges of stigma against Derleth. I still enjoyed the tale, but for these reasons it feels a bit like a cash grab instead of honest inspiration.
We then get another “Colour out of Space” reference when a Whippoorwill calls. If you recall from that tale, the whippoorwill cries as an omen for ill to come. Shortly there after the deadly call there’s a knock at the door.
Stark goes to answer, but waits the few minutes until after the clock strikes midnight… or at least he thinks he does:
“I heard Stark’s exclamation of triumph. ‘Past midnight!’ He had looked at his clock, and at the same time I looked at my watch. His clock was ten minutes fast.“
And retribution come right quick. Wentworth had come back for Stark.
“Amos Stark was spread on the floor on his back, and sitting astride him was a mouldering skeleton, its bony arms bowed above his throat, it’s fingers at his neck.“
Once the deed is done and Stark is dead the skeleton withdraws, leaving our narrator aghast in horror, and we get our moment of Scary Stories to tell in the Dark:
“For as I bent above Amos Stark, ascertaining that he was indeed dead, I saw sticking into the discolored flesh of his neck the whitened finger bones of a human skeleton, and, even as I looked upon them, the individual bones detached themselves, and went bounding away from the corpse, down the hall, and out into the night to rejoin that ghastly visitor who had come from the grave to keep his appointment with Amos Stark!”
Join me next week as we dive deeper into Derleth with hopeful curiosity in “The Peabody Heritage.”
“The lower or ground floor, however, abounded in evidence of its one time occupant, the surgeon, for one room of it had manifestly served him as a laboratory of some kind, and an adjoining room as a study, for both had the look of having been but recently abandoned in the midst of some inquiry or research, quite as if the occupation of the house by its brief tenant – post mortem Charriere – had not touched upon these rooms.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! We’ve graduated from Lovecraft after reading his entire catalog, and we’re now moving onto works inspired by, and potentially even partially written by, Lovecraft. August Derleth was one of Howard Phillip’s contemporaries and loved his work so much that he published it all years after they originally appeared in magazines like “Weird Tales.” From what I can surmise, Derleth states that much of what he wrote himself was based upon extensive notes he gathered from Lovecraft himself and thus for many years published these under Lovecraft’s name instead of his own.
The Survivor is the first of these stories we’re getting to, and where the atmosphere, tone, and content are accurate and reminiscent of Lovecraft’s works, the writing makes it painfully apparent that this story was written by someone other than Lovecraft himself. Not to say that it’s bad. This is an entertaining story and it’s written well, but the archaic sentence structure and unique verbosity of Lovecraft created the depth of gothic horror present in all of his tales. This story feels more like Derleth is doing his best to imitate Lovecraft all while trying to clarify the mythos and put his own stamp onto it at the same time.
The story begins much like you’d expect; with out narrator recanting a story of something which happened in his past. We get that same “gather around the fireplace” feel but, again, you can tell right from the start that it isn’t Lovecraft writing:
“I had never intended to speak or write again of the Charriere house, once I had fled Providence on that shocking night of discovery – there are memories which every man would seek to suppress, to disbelieve, to wipe out of existence – but I am forced to set down how the narrative of my brief acquaintance with the house on Benefit Street, and my precipitate flight there-from, lest some innocent person be subjected to the indignity by the police in an effort to explain the horrible discovery the police have made at last – that same ghastly horror it was my lot to look upon before any human eye – and what I saw was surely far more terrible that what remained to be seen after all these years, the house having reverted to the city, as I had known it would.”
Wow! What a rambling full paragraph sentence which says absolutely nothing! The story really gets much better from here, but you can tell that Derleth was trying his hardest to do what Lovecraft did so well…create a thesis for the story in the first paragraph, to set the story up for what we should be expecting for the rest of our reading experience, but Derleth rambles here and it halts the suspension of disbelief due to lack of comprehension.
Soon Derleth rights his ship and we find that our protagonist/narrator is an “antiquarian” much like many of the Lovecraftian characters (think Charles Dexter Ward) and is looking for a house to live in for a month so he can continue his work. He is drawn to this house because of it’s old architecture, which delights his antiquarian nature despite having many people telling him the house is cursed.
He moves in finds that it’s the house of a Dr. Cherriere who recently died, but paid the taxes long enough so that one of his “relatives” could come and claim it (Though we already know from the opening paragraph that, that didn’t happen).
The house was built back in 1704 and “Its rooms were irregular – appearing to be either quite large or very small.” There is even a laboratory, which doesn’t surprise our narrator because Cherriere is a doctor, but in this lab there are “strange, almost cabalistic drawings, resembling physiological charts, of various kinds of saurians...”
This was the first moment that gave me pause (at least in terms of mythology). I was expecting a purely Lovecraftian fever dream out of this story, but it turns out that this is the first moment that Derleth decides to add his own spin onto Lovecraft’s mythos. There is evidence of other reptilian creatures and studies throughout the house and in the study the narrator finds, “a sequence of cryptic references to certain mythological creatures, particularly one named ‘Cthulhu,’ and another named ‘Dagon.'”
Obviously Derleth found these two gods and their servants, “The Deep Ones,” the most intriguing (at least as far as this first story is concerned. The evidence is there, however, because where Lovecraft called his mythology Yog-Sothothery, Derleth renamed it “The Cthulhu Mythos”), because this story is firmly rooted around the two of them. The change comes with the advent of the saurian features. The narrator calls the Deep Ones “evidently amphibious creatures living in the depths of the seas.” Which is curious for a number of reasons. The first is that amphibians don’t actually live deep under water as they need oxygen periodically. The second is that Lovecraft’s deep ones were fish creatures, not reptile creatures. So as Derleth is working on clearing up some of the confusion as to what these gods are and where they land in the pantheon, he is also stamping his own predilections on top. I’m in no way detracting from Derleth’s efforts (except for the amphibian living on the bottom of the ocean) because I believe that Lovecraft wanted other authors to take the ideas and run with them (he’s said so a few different times in letters). In fact the only reason Lovecraft is as popular as he is today is because of Derleth’s efforts at clarifying the mythos (and renaming it) for the broad populace. After reading just this first story, I myself have a much clearer understanding of the mythos which is, incidentally, what I was looking for when I started this series in the first place. It’s also why I wanted to keep going and cover Derleth as well. I believe Lovecraft was only looking to create unique and terrifying stories. It doesn’t seem like it was until Derleth took over that it really became a contained “cosmic horror” theme in and of itself.
Speaking of “mythos,” our narrator continues to dig and finds strange books which will be familiar to any reader of Lovecraft: Cultes des Goules, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and The Pnakotic Manuscripts, all mixed in with other strange books of Derleth’s creation. Some of these (like The Saurian Age) will be interesting to see if they come up in future works as well, since it looks like Derleth is making the sea creatures reptilian, rather than the fish people of Innsmouth, potentially in an effort to make the Deep Ones more scary. He’s even moving from the notorious “smell” which we have found in Lovecraft to be a fungoid smell, to now a reptilian smell (full disclosure. I really have no idea what a reptilian smell is…can someone describe that? Is that in any way similar to the moldy smell of fungous?)
While filtering through these he finds that Dr. Cherriere is actually extremely old. There’s evidence of him being born back in the 1600’s! Could this actually be him and not just some ancestor? Could it be that he is actually not dead, and just waiting for the memory of his “death” to die down so he can come back as his own “nephew?” (Of course he is!)
This is where the real horror of the story begins. The narrator hears a break in and follows the sounds to the study:
“I turned on the flashlight, which was directed at the desk I had left…What I saw was incredible, horrible. It was not a man who stood there, but a travesty of a man.“
It was a half reptile, half man. It was Dr. Cherriere. The man who’d spent his life studying the ancient and forbidden knowledge hidden in those terrible books. It’s the classic Lovecraftian theme of the eternal desire to gain forbidden knowledge. Dr. Cherriere had turned himself, through experiments with the saurian nature of Dagon and Cthulhu and the hidden knowledge in the forbidden tomes, into a mockery of a man just to prolong his life.
The story is predictable, but in a weird way that’s comforting. Like I said earlier, this story feels like Derleth’s effort to clarify Lovecraft, and that predictability was necessary because he was giving the reader familiarity (or fan service?) so he could go the extra mile with exposition and explanation of known quantities. In general we know these creatures and those ancient tomes exist in this world…what we don’t know is how they’re interconnected. It almost feels like Derleth’s stories will be an approach of connecting Lovecraft’s world, instead of just writing horror stories.
Let’s find out if that’s the case next week, as we evaluate “Wentworth’s Day!”
If there is any doubt whether this was Lovecraft writing or Derleth, then rest easy. I found the smoking gun! The text should be enough to tell. Though Derleth is a good writer, his style is all together simple when put up next to Lovecraft. Lovecraft uses archaic words that weren’t even still in use back when he was writing in the 20’s and 30’s. He did this to give an “antiquarian” feel for the reader. To bring us all into a different world. Derleth isn’t looking to do that, he’s looking to clarify the universe in which Lovecraft created.
But that isn’t the smoking gun. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Derleth wrote this story and not Lovecraft because of a simple tool. Derleth calls it a flashlight. Lovecraft calls it a torch. There is not one mention of the word flashlight in any of Lovecraft’s stories. This is done on purpose to give the reader that previously mentioned feel. Derleth gives himself away, but really…do we care??
“The essence was always the same – a person of keen thoughtfulness seized with a strange secondary life and leading for a greater or lesser period an utterly alien existence typified at first by vocal and bodily awkwardness, and later by a wholesale acquisition of scientific, historic, artistic, and anthropological knowledge; an acquisition carried on with feverish zest and with a wholly abnormal absorptive power.“
Welcome back to another blind read! This week we trek down a mind bogglingly complex philosophical maze of “nightmare and terror,” in addition to connecting a large collection of Lovecraft’s tales as we try to peel back the layers of the first half of the journey of “The Shadow out of Time.”
This novelette is absolutely the most dense of anything I’ve read by Lovecraft and believe me, breaking it all down is a little daunting, but as the text says at the beginning of the story, “If the thing did happen, then man must be prepared to accept notions of the cosmos, and of his own place in the seething vortex of time, whose merest mention is paralysing.”
The plot of the story surrounds our narrator (Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee) who is a professor at Miskatonic University and by his own proclamations, insists that he has always been sound of mind. That is until he gained a “queer amnesia” which lasted for five years. During that timeframe he became obsessed with “occultism and abnormal psychology,” of which he had never had an inkling towards. During this “lost time” he traveled to the Himalayas, to the Arctic, to the Arabian deserts, to Australia, and even the “vast limestone cavern systems of western Virginia.“
Nathaniel asserts that right before his “lost time” happened he felt “...that someone else was trying to get possession of my thoughts.” which brings into play so many of the previous stories in Lovecraft’s collection. Most recently this makes me think of Asenath from “The Thing on the Doorstep” where she would project her mind into other’s bodies. As we get further into the story, we find there is an Alien species which Lovecraft refers to as the “Great Race” which “With suitable mechanical aid a mind would project itself forward in time, feeling its dim, extrasensory way till it approached the desired period. Then, after preliminary trials, it would seize on the best discoverable representative of the highest of that period’s life-forms; entering the organism’s brain and setting up therein its own vibrations while the displaced mind would strike back to the period of the displacer, remaining in the latter’s body till a reverse process was set up.”
This passage echoes the concepts in the story “The Whisperer in Darkness” as maybe a beginning of the transposition process. Remember in that story that they would extract the brain from the body so that the brain could travel to all reaches of the galaxy to gain new knowledge? Their bodies would be cast aside and their brains would be entered into metal tubes which would be sent with the alien race to space to gather knowledge (if you can believe them).
We get even deeper into the mythos as we understand that, “If the mind came from a body whose language the Great Race could not physically reproduce, clever machines would be made, on which the alien speech could be played as on a musical instrument.” Which stands to reason that “The Music Erich Zann” was playing was actually communication to this Great Race and the horror which came from the sight of them: “The Great Race’s members were immense rugose cones ten feet high, and with head and other organs attached to foot-thick, distensible limbs spreading from the apexes.”
So it’s natural to draw the conclusion that it’s this Great Race which has been searching out the history of the universe and transpose themselves into various cultures on planets. They were the influence for Asenath gaining her access to these powers, which also ties them to Dagon and the “Shadow over Innsmouth,” they are an influence on Kingsport with the “Terrible Old Man” and his metal tubes, they influence Arkham as they collect people mechanically and put their brains in tubes. While they enter their subjects bodies they search out as much cosmic knowledge as they can gather from that world, and when they’re done they put the consciousness back into their host’s body. To the host it feels like they are dreaming. We have absolutely heard that before. This story seems to be confirming my suspicion as to what the dreamlands actually are, because right at the beginning of the fourth section Nathaniel tells us, “I continued…to keep a careful record of the outré dreams which crowded upon me so thickly and vividly. Such a record, I argued, was of genuine value as a psychological document. The glimpses still seemed damnably like memories…”
In the Randolph Carter tales (The Silver Key, Through the Gates of the Silver Key, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Unnamable), our protagonist is called a dreamer. With the help of the Necronomicon, he “dreams” and travels around the universe, interacting with various species. He then uses the Silver Key to go beyond consciousness. In fact in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” he even becomes one of these creatures.
The layer that’s added with this story is that even though these travels are thought of as dreaming, the real nature of what’s going on here is that these people are traversing time not consciousness. To solidify this concept there’s even a paragraph right in the middle of the fourth chapter:
There was a mind from the planet we know as Venus, which would live incalculable epochs to come, and one from an outer moon of Jupiter six million years in the past. Of earthly minds there were some from the winged, star-headed, half vegetable race of palaeogean Antarctica; one from the reptile people of the fabled Valusia; three from the furry pre-human Hyperborean worshippers of Tsathoggua; one from the wholly abominable Tcho-Tchos; two from the arachnid denizens of earth’s last age; five from the hardly coleopterous species immediately following mankind, to which the Great Race was some day to transfer it’s keenest minds en masse in the face of horrible peril; and several from different branches of humanity.
He goes on to talk of the various historical figures of both Lovecraftian mythos and human history, inexorably trying them together. It is here (it’s discussed in The Dream Quest-of Unknown Kadath as well) in which Lovecraft tells us in no uncertain terms that Time is not a concept of motion or reality, but that Time itself is an alternative universe, which is why people can actually traverse to and from. It is, in and of itself, a dimension, so to understand time travel we have to understand that it’s a linear thing. You go through a gate into another dimension. A dimension of time. This bypasses the problem of physics because it’s a separate dimension of which the Great Race have perfected (alongside some of the Elder Gods) how to traverse it. The same way that Carter was able to get there through the gate using the silver key, and Wilmarth viewed (albeit in a much more crude fashion) in “The Whisperer in Darkness.”
This story is about discovering something from a different dimension, not a different time period, so when we look at the title, we should see it as “A Shadow from Another Dimension,” though, of course, that isn’t nearly as catchy.
SO we know that the knowledge and witchcraft of transposition came from this Great Race and much of what’s happening in Lovecraft’s devised world centers around these beings. In fact when this story opens we are immediately greeted with the knowledge of Prof. Peaslee finding “fragments of unknown, primordial masonry” in “Western Australia.” Similarly, just off the Western Coast of Australia, in the story “The Call of Cthulhu” we find a “cyclopean city” made with strange, impossible angles with unknown materials (primordial masonry?). We know of this city as R’lyeh, the lost city of the god Cthulhu. Could Peaslee have also found evidence of this lost city?
Find out next week as we conclude “The Shadow out of Time!”
“In the spring of 1847, the little village of Ruralville was thrown into a state of excitement by the landing of a strange Brig is the harbour. It carried no flag, and no name was painted on its side, and everything about it was such as would excite suspicion. It was from Tripoli, Africa, and the captain was named Manuel Ruello. The Excitement increased, however; when John Griggs, (The magnate of the village) suddenly disappeared from his home. This was the night of October 4th – On October 5th the Brig left.“
Welcome to another Blind Read! This week we work to find the threads which link the Mystery of the Graveyard and The Mysterious Ship to Lovecraft’s larger works, all the while uncovering the enigma of his mind and…potentially…how the mythos came into being. Both of these stories have their beginnings firmly in the dime and nickel novels of the time, pulling from their pulpy plots and over the top protagonists.
“The Mystery of the Graveyard” also goes by the alternate title “A Dead Man’s Revenge” and has remarkable plot twists for the length of the story. Agatha Christie could have had a run for her money if Lovecraft made the turn towards mystery instead of the darker pivot towards horror. He even has a hero detective protagonist to rival Hercule Poirot in King John.
The story begins with the funeral of Joseph Burns. Burns gave some very strange and specific requirements during his funeral. He asked the rector, Mr. Dobson, “Before you put my body in the the tomb, drop this ball onto the floor, at a spot marked ‘A.‘” Dobson goes down to the tomb and does so, but never returns. The mystery follows. The second chapter begins as Dobson’s daughter gets a letter from a mysterious Mr. Bell insisting he knows where her father is and extends a demand of a ransom to get him back. Flustered, she goes to the police and asks for King John who is “a famous western detective.”
The story runs around and around as King John strives to find Bell and figure out the mystery of where the rector went until, finally, he finds that the “A” in the tomb is a trap door that activates with pressure. Dobson fell into a sub-tomb and was hidden away there until he finally escaped. After the trial it was found that all along it was a revenge plot against the rector because Joseph Burns and his brother Francis Burns had a vendetta and hired Mr. Bell to trap and hold Dobson.
The story is told in twelve very short chapters…so short that in fact they are each only a few sentences long and every chapter has a title letting the reader know what to expect. This also strikes me as Lovecraft’s way of structuring his thoughts. When we look forward to other works like “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” as a long example and my more recently reviewed “The Thing on the Doorstep” as a shorter example, Lovecraft has a certain structure in his writing in which is easier to elucidate with these stories. In both “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Thing on the Doorstep” Lovecraft breaks his writing up into chapters, but instead of having a single narrative flow, those chapters are almost single distinct stories in and of themselves. For example in both stories the first chapter is about the protagonist of the story (other than the narrator of course). It gives the reader the background and the perspective of the (supposed) “hero” of the story. The second chapter of these stories gives background to the antagonist (Curwen in “Ward” and Asenath in “Doorstep”), then each subsequent chapter has an event which drives the narrative forward. “The Mystery of the Grave-Yard” is the same type of structure, though Lovecraft breaks this down even further, presumably so he can keep the narration on track…a common tool for very young, or beginning writers. Notice how he begins the plotting the same way (Chapter 1 is about the main focal point of the story, Dobson, and chapter two introduces Bell, the main antagonist), and then has each chapter surrounds an individual event. In his later years he does a better job at painting a bigger, more lush picture by expounding on detail and experience. Tone and atmosphere are what Lovecraft is missing in his Juvenilia, but it’s what he perfects later in life and makes him the legend of horror and supernatural that he is. This point is proven even more when we move onto the next story, “The Mysterious Ship.”
This second short is told two different times in the collection I have (I’ve actually gone through a number of different collections, starting off with the Del Rey books. Where the artwork in those books are excellent, the collections themselves aren’t that great. Language was changed and in the process, meaning seems to have changed. I’m currently working of the most recent Barnes and Noble edition which seems to be far superior), the first is an earlier shorter edition and the second is a more fleshed out atmospheric piece, where each chapter is just a few sentences longer and gives a clearer understanding and better atmosphere than the shorter one before it. These two vignettes give a better glimpse of the growth of the writer than nearly anything else I’ve seen. Lovecraft is devoid of the pomposity of literature of someone like Pynchon because Lovecraft’s first love was adventure. He wanted to tell stories that were weird and fun and wild, which led to his unique “serious, but pulpy” tales. He chose his archaic and complex writing style to compliment the wild stories he wanted to tell, not the other way around. It may seem like a small distinction, but it’s an important one.
Back to the adventure! The second story follows the titular ship which you can see in a little bit of detail in the opening quote to this essay (which is in fact the opening chapter of the longer version). It’s about a ship which journeys around and kidnaps people. The Captain and crew are eventually caught and the purloined victims are returned, bringing the story to a nice ending all tied up in a bow. The tale doesn’t have much in the way of satisfaction, but it does show Lovecraft’s love for adventure.
Between the two of these stories you can see the natural divergence of the path in which Lovecraft took. We have the standard horror or cosmic horror element with the Mystery of the Grave-Yard, in that atmosphere and the darker places he normalizes as just standard backdrops for the story…complete with sneaky plotters and nefarious acts. Then we have the adventurous bend we take with The Mysterious Ship, which feels like the beginnings of the dreams lands and such stories as “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” These tales aren’t so much focused on the horror elements as they are on the adventurous journeys the protagonists (well really just Randolph Carter) take.
I kept these Juvenilia for the end because I wanted to have something to call back on while discussing them, and I can’t say how glad I am that I did. To be able to see the growth is tremendous and its always fun to see how a writer that I’ve become this involved in began.
Next week we dive into the last story Lovecraft wrote on his own. It means this series is rapidly coming to an end, but we still have a bunch of the stories which August Derleth wrote with Lovecraft’s notes and I plan on ending this series with Lovecraft’s essay on Horror.
Join me next week as we view the “Shadow out of Time.”
“What he did do was to become an almost fanatical devotee of subterranean magical lore, for which Miskatonic’s library was and is famous. Always a dweller on the surface of phantasy and strangeness, he now delved deep into the actual runes and riddles left by a fabulous past for the guidance or puzzlement of posterity. He read things like the frightful Book of Eibon, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, and the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Abdul Ahlhazred, though he did not tell his parents he had seen them.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re sinking into a story which brings together much of Lovecraft and his themes, while simplifying the language to tell a straightforward horror tale…all while (potentially) creating yet another horror trope!
Lovecraft begins the story, like he does in so many of his stories, by immediately telling us how it will end: “It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.”
This leaves us as readers to ruminate on what the story is to be as we move forward. At the moment in time Lovecraft was writing this could have potentially been a tactic to heighten suspense, but to the modern reader who has seen so many of these themes over and again as authors re-use tropes, it falls a little flat. To start this way, we as readers know exactly how this story ends and unfortunately there aren’t any twists to surprise us.
Stephen King once wrote that (I’m paraphrasing) he goes for the creep out and if that doesn’t work he goes for the jump scare, and if that still doesn’t work he goes for the gross out. Lovecraft recognized that he wasn’t going to get the creep out, and he’s never been much for the surprise scare, so he went straight for the gross out.
Don’t let that detract from the story however because what Lovecraft does along the way is bring the history of his Lovecraft country all together and develop a disturbing little story.
The tale is mainly about Edward Pickman Derby. Sound familiar? That’s because it is. Lovecraft does a strange things with names here. Pickman is the surname of the infamous artists Richard Upton Pickman from “Pickman’s Model.” A man who housed monsters to draw and create fantastical art. In addition to this, the narrator of this story (Daniel Upton) has a child and names him Edward Derby Upton. I thought and thought about this connection. Are these characters connected to Richard Upton Pickman? The more I think about it the less I think that’s the case. I think it’s Lovecraft’s way to show how connected everything in his world is. To show how everything seems to stem from Salem, Mass (many of these characters have family trees which date back to there), or to mysterious travelers from mysterious ships. There is a connectedness in the collective consciousness of the people of Lovecraft Country, which gives credence and horror to the small town trope (all those locals staring at you as you drive through).
Ruminating on this we move onto the second chapter and we learn about Edward’s wife Asenath Waite, “She was a dark, smallish, and very good-looking except for over-protuberant eyes; but something in her expression alienated extremely sensitive people.” We find that she grew up in Innsmouth, the notorious village from “The Shadow over Innsmouth” which worshipped Dagon and bred with the fish-people. We find that she went to Kingsport high school (the slightly less nefarious town from such tales as “The Terrible Old Man” and “The Strange High House in the Mist.”) and had a “odd reputation” before moving on to Miskatonic University where she studied “mediaeval metaphysics” and had some “well-attested cases of her influence over other persons.” Students considered her a hypnotist because, “By gazing peculiarly at a fellow-student she would often give the latter a distinct feeling of exchanged personality – as if the subject were placed momentarily in the magician’s body and able to stare half across the room at her real body, whose eyes blazed and protruded with an alien expression.”
Edward meets young Asenath (who at twenty-three already has crow’s feet at her eyes) and they begin to date. Soon after Edward brings her to meet Daniel who had reservations but, “…I saw at once that his interest was by no means one sided. She eyed him continually with an almost predatory air, and I perceived that their intimacy was beyond untangling.” A month later the couple was married.
They, as a couple, delved into the occult. Asenath had a history of it from her father, Ephraim Waite, who studied the occult before his death in Innsmouth. Everything seemed good for the first year of their marriage, but then “people began talking about the change in Edward Derby.”
“People said he looked too much like his wife, or like old Ephraim Waite himself...” and then after three years of marriage to Asenath, “Edward began to hint openly to me of a certain fear and dissatisfaction.” and “...would talk darkly about the need of ‘saving his identity.‘”
At this point in the story I knew exactly what was happening and if anyone has seen the Nexflix show “Behind Her Eyes” you’ll know the outcome as well. It’s about transposition, and if we know anything about Lovecraft it’s about a man who is looking for extended life to continue on with his power gathering…I.E. Ephraim.
At the beginning of chapter four Edward speaks with Daniel and spouts his entire fears:
Dan – for God’s sake! The pit of shoggoths! Down the six thousand steps…the abomination of abominations…I never would let her take me, and then I found myself there…Ia! Shub-Niggurath!…The shape rose up from the altar, and there were 500 that howled…The Hooded Thing bleated ‘Kamog! Kamog!’ – that was old Ephraim’s secret name in the coven…I was there, where she promised she wouldn’t take me…A minute before I was locked in the library, and then I was there where she had gone with my body – in the place of utter blasphemy, the unholy pit where black realm begins and the watcher guards the gate…I saw a shoggoth – it changed shape…I can’t stand it…I wont stand it…I’ll kill her if she ever send me there again…I’ll kill that entity…her, him, it…I’ll kill it with my own hands!
And there we come to the horrible realization that Edward is actually married to Ephraim! Eww!
In all actuality he is probably married to some older creature who has since invaded Ephraim’s body, although there is a pretty hilarious moment with Ephraim: “Why did he curse that his daughter wasn’t a son?” Because he knew to transpose his mind it would have to be into his offspring, who would have a stronger hold on the otherworldly magics. Then in turn Asenath’s child would be that much stronger; but to have any of that happen, Ephraim would have to find someone to impregnate him while he was in Asenath’s body. I can imagine the curses coming from a crotchety old straight man!
Knowing Lovecraft, this could and should be the end for Edward, but suddenly he is able to somehow “convince” Asenath to go away and leave him alone. He spends a little time with Daniel, by now just a shell of a man, trying to get his life back together and eventually goes back to his home. He’s there for a while before he has a break down, calling Daniel:
“My brain! My brain! God, Dan – it’s tugging – from beyond – knocking – clawing – that she-devil – even now – Ephraim – Kamog! Kamog! – the pit of the shoggoths – Ia Shub Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!...”
He goes into the Arkham Sanitarium and Daniel goes to visit him when Daniel has a terrible realization. Edward is no longer Edward. Kamog has somehow come back to take over. Daniel shoots the form of his best friend…six times…hoping to kill the evil wizard which presides inside him.
The entire time reading this, I was entertained, but wondered where the title came from…that is until we get to the end of the story. A figure appears on Dan’s doorstep. It smells terrible and it’s diminutive. It’s wearing “one of Edward’s overcoats” with “a slouch hat pulled low” and “a black silk muffler concealed the face.” It makes a watery noise and hands Dan a letter from Edward.
In the epistle we find out Asenath “has been dead three months and a half.” Edward killed her by smashing her head in with a candlestick. Then when he was in the sanitarium she worked on “seizing my body and putting me in that corpse of her buried in the cellar.“
Dan faints, but when he comes to he calls the authorities. “What they finally found inside Edward’s oddly assorted clothes was mostly liquescent horror. There were bones, too – and a crushed-in skull. Some dental work positively identified the skull as Asenath’s.”
The thing on the doorstep was Edward, inside of the rotting corpse of Asenath. What makes it so horrible and so…Lovecraftian…is that Kamog has already lived through at least one murder, which means that he may be hovering somewhere above Arkham just waiting to find the next body to inhabit…
Lovecraft went full force into the gross out, but he tried to leave a little creep out at the end…
Join me next week as try to solve “The Mystery of the Grave-Yard” and understand “The Mysterious Ship!”
“The Funeral of alice occupied so much time that John quite forgot about the box – but when they did open it they found it to be a solid gold chunk worth about $10,000 enough to pay for any thing but the death of his sister.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we go even further back in time to discover Lovecraft’s beginnings and tackle concepts of trauma, loss, desire, and adventure in two Juvenilia tales that are anything but polished.
I debated for a while whether I really wanted to cover these after reading them, but in the end I decided to hold my promise. I said I would read as much Lovecraft as I could get my hands on, so I’m holding to my word. The question is, how would I deconstruct these stories? They reminded me of my own work when I was young…and when I mean young I mean ten or eleven (which probably means that Howard was about six when we equate talent). The writing is subpar with grammar errors abounding and the stories themselves are just little ditties which any youth could come up with.
What I eventually found more interesting, however is that instead of taking a look at the story itself, I decided to take apart the themes to get a deeper glimpse into the man and what would eventually make his writing the legend that it became.
The first story “The Little Glass Bottle” seems to be an effort at humor biting off of “Treasure Island” which was published about ten to fifteen years prior to Lovecraft writing this story. It follows a group of sailors who find the titular bottle floating on the sea. The bottle had a letter inside:
Jan 1 1864 I am John Jones who writes this letter my ship is fast sinking with a treasure on board I am where it is marked * on the enclosed chart…dotted lines represent course we took
Enclosed is a drawing of a dotted line through the Indian Ocean just off of Australia. Captain Jones gets so excited that he decides to go after it: “in 4 weeks the(y) reached the place where directed & the divers went down and came up with an iron bottle…“
Inside of the bottle they find a note:
Dec 3 1880 Dear Searcher excuse me for the practical joke I have played on you but it serves you right to find nothing for your foolish act – However I will defray your expenses to & from the place you found your bottle I think it will be $25.0.00 so that amount you will find in an Iron box I know where you found the bottle because I put this bottle here & the iron box & then found a good place to put the second bottle hoping the enclosed money will defray your expenses some I close – Anonymous
They dive down and get the money and we end with a little meta story telling: “...I hardly think that they will ever go to a mysterious place as directed by a mysterious bottle.”
This absolutely has a childish feeling and a fear of taking things too far. So really not much to it. But lets take a deeper look…
From an early age it’s obvious that Lovecraft is fascinated with the Ocean. There must be a correlation in his mind with something important being there, or somewhere in the area surrounding Australia. This, one of his first stories, leads some intrepid adventurers there to discover a treasure which turns out to be a fraud. Many years later in basically the same area, in a tale named “The Call of Cthulhu” some explorers go in search for answers and come across R’lyeh and the Elder God Himself. This is a similar journey in a similar area. A group of men looking for fortune and power and find out they vastly underestimated what they were looking for.
The difference come with age. In this story the person who sent them on the wild goose chase is contrite, a sentiment I don’t think I’ve seen in Lovecraft. We know Howard becomes jaded as he gets older and that absolutely shows through in his stories, because the characters are just too far gone down the rabbit hole to turn back. Here we see that, for Lovecraft himself, it is not yet too far. He hasn’t yet had the heart ache…he hadn’t yet survived the trauma. He still believed that though there is a darker side to humanity, the inherent goodness can come through. That is noticeably absent in the second tale.
“The Secret Cave” is like a Grimm’s Fairy tale. It’s a simple story about a horrible tragedy. It dives into grief in such a complex way, and in so much more of a profound way beyond any of his other stories, that as a reader it feels as though we are getting a glimpse into mental walls he put up to block out the horrors of his life.
The story begins with two young children, John and Alice, getting left alone in their house as their parents go away, presumably on a date. The two children go into the cellar to play, and Alice accidentally does something to cause a wall to cave in. John goes back upstairs and grabs some candles to light their way as they go exploring behind the collapsed wall.
The story takes a strange turn here and the reader gets the feeling that it’s something that’s in John’s head, a fantasy of an adventure prevalent in young children. Here is the disjointed passage:
“…the(y) walked on farther & pretty soon the plastering left off & they were in a cave Little alice was frightened at first but at her brothers assurance that it was “all right” she allayed her fears, soon they came to a small box which John took up & carried within pretty soon they came on a boat in it were two oars he dragged it with difficulty along with him soon they found the passage came to an abrupt stop he pulled the obstacle away & to his dismay water rushed in in torrents...”
Later something occurs to him “…he can shut off the water...”, which he does, but then finds that his sister had drowned. The last paragraph is the opening quote of this essay.
It’s a gruesome little tale, but there is SO much packed into the passage of their “adventure.” It’s here we get the first indication something is off in the story. We go from a normal cellar to a strange, almost other worldly cave, something that fits the adventure theme because it seems like this cave would be right at home on Treasure Island. Why is it mysterious you ask? Because it’s a dry cave…but it has a boat and oars in it as well as a mysterious box that when opened contains a solid gold bar worth $10,000. The cave goes no where, it just dead ends, but John finds an “obstacle” which when removed creates a deluge. Once he saves himself with the edge of the boat the boat is never mentioned again, but suddenly he realizes he can shut off the water.
How could you use a valve to shut off water? Why, you can if there’s a water main!
The whole story is a fabrication. John Lee was going on an adventure in his head, when in reality he was just hanging out in his basement and a wall which held their water heater broke open and flooded the cellar. John was never scared like his little sister, because he knew they were only in the safety of their own basement the whole time.
But still his sister died, which brings me to my next point. Why was John capitalized the whole story and Alice in lower case? Was this some sort of sexism Lovecraft was practicing subconsciously? I really don’t think so.
This story is absolutely part of his early writings. The plotting is truncated and hazy, the grammar is atrocious, the writing is simple, but this story is a clear representation of how Lovecraft dealt with his own grief and how he dealt with the outside world.
The story is told in past tense, but the POV is muddled. It goes from 3rd person omniscient to 3rd person personal pretty fluidly. When the action is taking place, we are inside of John’s head, but when the scene is being described we are looking at the action as a fly on the wall. One gets the feeling that this was an unconscious effort to say that when bad things are happening to us, things become disjointed and too close to really understand what’s happening, it’s only in hindsight when we have a better understanding of what happened. So what does this have to do with the capitalization of Alice?
John goes on an Adventure, and the spoils of that adventure are $10,000, but the cost is his sister’s life. Like the last line says it was a “solid gold chunk worth about $10,000 enough to pay for any thing but the death of his sister.”
Worth any thing. He has come to an early realization that nothing can cover up the grief, and blames himself for causing the death of his sister. There is a feeling to this piece of tremendous sadness and uncontrollable self doubt and self hate. Alice isn’t capitalized in this story because to capitalize her would make her a person. To keep her lower case means she can just be a thing, and maybe, just maybe, that 10K can do something about it.
Join me next week as we take a glimpse at “The Thing on the Doorstep.”
“It was in the house of Dexter, in the northern part of the town near the present intersection of North Main and Olney Streets, on the occasion of Canonchet’s raid of March 30, 1676, during King Phillip’s War; and the astute sachem, recognising it at once as a thing of singular venerableness and dignity, sent it as a symbol of alliance to a faction of the Pequots in Connecticut with whom he was negotiating. On April 4th he was captured by the colonists and soon after executed, but the austere head of Ibid continued on his wanderings.”
Welcome back to a very strange Blind Read! This week we contemplate academia while ruminating on relevance, legacy, and idolatry and wax poetic while following Lovecraft’s lead!
What a odd, curious whimsey this story was. There really isn’t much to it as it’s primarily a brief satire of what Lovecraft deemed academia of the time period… but if we look closely, beyond the gallows humor indicative of the man, and past the analogy he was striving for, we catch some strange influences into his other works. Themes that seeped into popular culture over the years which have not been present in his others works. Theme’s subsumed within a blanket of normalcy. Ok, I’ll stop being coy, let’s get to it!
Like I said, there’s not much to the story (especially the length), but we get the analogy immediatly with the opening sentence:
“The erroneous idea that Ibid is the author of the Lives is so frequently met with, even among those pretending to a degree of culture, that it is worth correcting.”
This is immediately following from an opening quote (“…-as Ibid says in his famous Lives of the Poets.” – From a Student theme.)
We then get a brief glimpse of the history Ibid himself (with some ridiculous speculation on his name which puts together many Ceasar’s and common Roman names together…there may be something to this, but it’s not something I caught: Caius Anicius Magnus Furius Camillus Aemilanus Cornelius Valerius Pompeius Julius Ibidus) before Lovecraft describes how the man’s skull is passed from person to person throughout history. From ancient Rome to Charlemagne, from private citizens to soldiers, from Native Americans to witches. This skull is passed as heirloom, as an art piece, as a magical talisman, and as a curiosity. There are even scenes which recall Hamlet and his famous Yorick scene where he gazes at the skull, nay into the skull, as though there is some deeper meaning or power within it.
So what is the point? Why follow along with a supposed “Learned Man” and then his skull afterward? The quote would seem to indicate that Lovecraft is railing against the stupidity of the uninformed at first. From the matter of a student wrongly using a quote, to Lovecraft ridiculing those who don’t know the truth:
“It should be a matter of general knowledge that Cf. is responsible for this work“
“There is a false report – very commonly reproduced in modern books...”
This seems to be the idea, but then, after we survive a page of brain numbing etymology, we get this sentence: “His full name – long and pompous according to the custom of an age which had lost the trinomial simplicity of classic Roman nomenclature…“
Then we go into a romp of the mans skull through history. Why would the man’s skull, as it outlines in the quote at the beginning of this essay, be “a thing of singular venerableness and dignity” when the only reason it’s available to be handed down is because it was “exhumed and ridiculed by Lombard Duke of Spoleto, who took his skull (after exhuming it) to King Autheris for use as a wassail-bowl.“
It’s because Lovecraft is poking fun at the pompous nature of academia in general. These people are so focused on revering something which was created to use as a drinking vessel, but attribute all means of power to it because of it’s age and the misguided idea of what he wrote.
This threw me for a while as it seems as thought Lovecraft is making fun of himself, after all one of his primary themes which pop up again and again is the idea of gathering knowledge and respect for learning. Is this supposed to be another navel gazing romp? Is Lovecraft saying he isn’t taking himself too seriously so we shouldn’t? Or is he saying that maybe he has taken himself too seriously and should stop? I think it goes deeper than that.
When we think about characters like Curwen in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” they are the ones pursuing these dark powers. They are the ones pursuing the dark underbelly of nature by seeking out these vessels of the outer gods. It’s a theme that I’ve mentioned many times and it’s a theme which comes up again and again in Lovecraft. Characters who seek out knowledge to understand more about the universe.
There’s only one character whom has been able to do this and not paid a terrible price. That’s Randolph Carter. What makes Carter unique is that he didn’t actually strive for the knowledge, rather it was thrust upon him and he adapted and worked with it to better understand his place. Carter’s wasn’t a path of power, but rather of understanding. I think that’s the crux here. Yes, Lovecraft is railing against the pomposity of academia and learning, which he seems to revel in, but instead he’s pushing back against the idea of false knowledge.
Lovecraft is playing with us before we even start reading. Ibid is actually a writing tool. Ibid is an abbreviation of the Latin “ibidem” which means in the same place. When you see the word ibid in a reading list it is referring you to material in a source just mentioned. For example it could be another chapter of a book that has just been referred to. Even with the title Lovecraft is playing with us, as he’s letting us know that he’s mentioned this concept multiple times. He’s referencing back to his previous works. This whole story is merely a reference to prove his thesis in his current (at the time he wrote this) oeuvre.
Anything can be twisted to fit a narrative. The whole point of much of Lovecraft’s cosmic gods is the idea that we’re insignificant in comparison to the beings actually running the show. If you’re striving for power, your talisman will end up being a mug from some smart dead guy, but if you’re goal is respecting and living with that power, then and only then, will you end up with “The Silver Key.“
Join me next week as we delve into some of Lovecraft’s earliest work with “The Little Glass Bottle!”
One last this before you go. There is one last thing which this story brought to my head (pun totally intended). One big visual within Lovecraft’s legacy is the idea of the head sprout. Whether that’s from fungi breaking through the skull (an Example is from “Fruiting Bodies” by Brian Lumley), creatures breaking through (we’ve actually seen this in “The Haunter in the Dark“), or people gaining such “insight” that they literally have thoughts (creatures) as an extension of their skull (think the tokens in the game Bloodborne).
The mere fact that so many of the historical people and the fictional characters in this story thought they could gain power or knowledge from this skull made this correlation immediate in my brain. This is not much of a story, but although this is supposed to be a “Blind Read” (meaning that I’m reading the story for the first time, without knowledge of it), I read this one twice. I feel as though I’m still missing references and innuendo, but if I can leave you with anything that represents Lovecraft to me, I’ll leave you with this image:
“Plodding through the endless downtown streets and the bleak, decayed squares beyond, he came finally upon the ascending avenue of century worn steps, sagging Doric porches, and blear-paned cupolas which he felt must lead up to the long-known, unreachable world beyond the mists.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we are tackling the darkness and entreating to hold a candle to the mystery and banish the Haunter of the Dark!
I had to sit and ruminate for a while on this one to decide whether it was genius, or if there wasn’t much going on. I think this is what happens when people read Lovecraft in succession like this for as long as I have. The connections are the same, the locations just change. We absolutely get the influence of the Mi-Go, much like we had in The Whisperer in Darkness, and some direct contact with the Outer Gods. What I’m finding more and more intriguing with these stories is that there is absolutely a theme of the connectedness of madness and genius. This story though, had a new surprising twist which took me a while to pick up on.
This story, though written later than many of the other stories, seems as though he was trying to tack on his mythos into something a bit more gothic in nature. In essence this is a sequel to a Robert Bloch story (“The Shambler from the Stars” of which I have not read, so feel free to take this critique with a grain of salt. I’m making assumptions based upon what I know of Bloch’s work. Though he does bring in insanity nicely in much of his work. Think “Psycho.”) and we have some amazing imagery and some quintessential Lovecraftian academic themes (I’ll explain later), but when we boil it down to the ending, I initially felt it was phoned in…that is until I thought about his wording. What is a Haunter, really?
Right off the bat we are told the ending, “Cautious investigators will hesitate to challenge the common belief that Robert Blake (read Bloch) was killed by lighting.” and we know immediately that Blake will die from whatever he gets himself into. This also leads into the broader gaming aspect which has made Lovecraft so popular. Being an “Investigator” and endeavoring to reveal what kind of strange death or rare occurrence happened is the corner-stone of the gaming experience, and this story is a good example of how that framework came about. There aren’t really investigator characters in Lovecraft, but there are the curious interlopers and in stories like this the characters go down a rabbit hole which is exactly where the ideas of the game come into play. Things like finding artifacts and texts which lend to further understanding of the Lovecraft universe are probably what sparked the idea for the game in the first place. Which leads me to a wonderful scene in the tale.
“When he did look away, it was to notice a somewhat singular mound of dust in the far corner near the ladder to the steeple. Just why it took his attention he could not tell, but something in it’s contours carried a message to his unconscious mind. ploughing toward it, and brushing aside the hanging cobwebs as he went, he began to discern something grim about it. Hand and handkerchief soon revealed the truth, and Blake gasped with a baffling mixture of emotions. It was a human skeleton, and it must have been there a very long time.“
This tense exposition is a perfect example of the gothic nature of the story, but it’s slow burn displays it’s brilliance. We can feel the environment, the cold stone, the cobwebs, the air thick with dust, and everything there holds meaning. The skeleton uncovered is actually an old reporter from the defunct paper “Providence Telegram,” and a notebook Blake finds on the skeleton holds the history of what transpired to that poor soul.
There is also the oddity of the bones themselves. Yes they’ve been there for years, but there seems to be something strangely nefarious in the dark “The skull was in a very particular state – stained yellow, and with charred aperture in the top as if some powerful acid had eaten through solid bone.” There are even bones with “seemed oddly dissolved at the ends.” What could have possibly eaten through his head? There is even mention of a blackening, like lightning. Strange happenings, and even through the end we don’t get a complete resolution…that is until we dig into the text a bit more.
So what was it that caused this reporters death? Was it shock? Herat attack? Was there some strange electrical charge which did this? Acid? Perhaps we might look to his journal:
“Fr. O’Malley tells of devil-worship with box found in great Egyptian ruins – says they call up something that can’t exist in light. Flees a little light, and banished by strong light. Then has to be summoned again. Probably got this from deathbed confession of Francis X. Feeney, who had join Starry Wisdom in ’49. These people say the Shining Trapezohedron shews them heaven & other worlds, & that the Haunter in the Dark tells them secrets in some way.”
So was this a cultist haven instead of a church? What is the Shining Trapezohedron? What kind of wisdom did the Haunter show them, and who is the Haunter? The layout of the church itself is even curious, “The designs were largely conventional, and his knowledge of obscure symbolism told him much concerning some of the ancient patterns.” and even more strange, “Blake noticed that the cobwebbed cross above the altar was not of the ordinary kind, but resembled the primordial ankh or crux ansata of shadowy Egypt.“
There are even strange texts there in the old chapel area, “a Latin version of the abhorred Necronomicon, the sinister Liber Ivonis, the infamous Cultes des Goules of Comte d’Erlette, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Juntz, and old Ludvig Prinn’s hellish De Vermis Mysteriis. But there were others he had known merely by reputation or not at all – the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the Book of Dzyan, and a crumbling volume in wholly unidentifiable characters yet with certain symbols and diagrams shudderingly recognizable to the occult student.“
Blake continues further up past “Yellowish stains and charred patches (were) found on the ladder to the windowless spire,” where he finds a strange shining stone (The Trapezohedron) and glimpses the vast secrets of the universe within it. He sees beyond Yuggoth (Pluto as we found from “Whisperer in Darkness”), he sees the history of the strange Mi-Go first coming to Antarctica, lost continents lost to the sea (Atlantis? R’lyeh?) all the way through to Egypt…where Nyarlathotep corrupted. But the visions also seemed to call something forth. Something large and winged and darker than the night. Something which lives in darkness and something that, now that he has gazed into the stone, knows about Blake and can see into him as well. Sees him and speaks to him, even after the box with the strange shining stone is closed. The Haunter in the Dark.
Here is Lovecraft bringing in his classic theme of shape to something new and devious. The Shining Trapezohedron immediately makes me think of the puzzle box from Hellraiser, could this be that Lovecraft has created yet ANOTHER trope for the horror genre? Well, whether he did or not, he does bring back his infamous odd angles. If we remember back with “Dreams in the Witch house” (probably the best designation of this theme), Lovecraft uses strange angles and shapes to give off the feeling that something is off. When buildings are convex instead of being concave as in “The Music of Erich Zann” and it gives the reader a feeling that something unnatural is happening, but in “Dream in the Witch House” the odd angles actually create magic. They create a space where our reality has folded into different angles and the spaces between the dream world, the universe, and time, are thin. Something Stephen King would have called a “thinny” in his Dark Tower series. This thin space allows magic to flow into our world, but it also gives us glimpses into worlds beyond our ken, much like this Trapezohedron…or even the puzzle box.
So the “Haunter” who seems to live in the space of the box, now has a view to Blake, but then something terrible (at least for Blake) happens. There is a terrible storm and the power goes out. Because we know the Haunter lives in the dark and fears the light, there is a mounting fear through the remainder of the story, until finally we get to the climax.
Through the dark they find Blake, frozen before his window. There were the familiar burn marks on the top of his head, however the glass of the window was unaffected, also “...a burst of the singular foetor was likewise noticed.” in his room.
“The rigid body sat bolt upright at the desk by the window, and when the intruders saw the glassy, bulging eyes, and the marks of stark, convulsive fright on the twisted features, they turned away in sickened dismay.“
They couldn’t wrap their minds around what could have possibly happened so they said it had to be lighting…lightning that scorched the top of his head, much the same as the journalist in the church spire. There is also that Fetid Odor (yep I meat to capitalize it. There are so many mentions of the “odour” in Lovecraft that I feel as though it’s the outsider calling card. It just deserves something more.) which pervades the room and emanates from the body.
To me there is something far more disgusting going on here.
If we look up the definition of “Haunter” in Webster’s one of the meanings is “To remain persistently; to loiter; stay or linger.” and the story is built upon the premise that Blake saw something of the Haunter in the Trapezohedron and it has come back for him, but that doesn’t really fit with the title.
I think what’s really going on here is the Haunter is a being, or beings, who use the Trapezohedron to traverse time and space, much like the witch did in her strangely angled house, and when Blake gazed upon it the knowledge it gave him was of the universe. But to give that knowledge it implanted, or impregnated, his brain with a thought child. A thought child that grew in the darkness, because what it was used to was the void of space. No, the Haunter didn’t come from outside, the Haunter lingered in Blake’s brain until it grew large enough, by feeding on his psyche. It waited until it was dark enough to extricate itself from his mind and not be damaged by the light. It used the synapses of his brain to create an exit and literally fried an exit hole through his skull. That’s why his head looked like it was hit with lightning. That’s why there’s the strange fetid (read fungoid) odor coming from his head.
We found out in “The Whisperer in Darkness” that the strange smell which is re-occurring in Lovecraft is actually that of a rotten fungous, which is the smell of Yuggoth. And what is a fungous? It’s a parasite. It grows from others nutrients. It’s a passenger. It’s a Haunter.
Join me next week as we dive into another of Lovecraft’s comedic short tales, IBID!
“With the memory of the roadside claw-print fresh in my mind, Akeley’s whispered paragraphs had affected me queerly; and the hints of familiarity with this unknown world of fungous life – forbidden Yuggoth – made my flesh creep more than I cared to own. I was tremendously sorry about Akeley’s illness, but had to confess that his hoarse whisper had a hateful as well as pitiful quality. If only he wouldn’t gloat so about Yuggoth and it’s black secrets!”
Welcome back for another Blind Read! This week we conclude our dive into the strangely fungoid world of the Mi-Go and talk about the last half of The Whisperer in Darkness.
So the first half of the story was our narrator gathering information about what happened to Akeley and the strange other-worldly beings who turned out to be harbingers for the remainder of the tale. In this second half we have the narrator’s (Wilmarth) trip to Vermont and the subsequent confrontation with Akeley.
As we begin this second half Lovecraft infuses a strange feeling of a descent by describing the trip from the city to the “more primitive New England.” We get the visuals of the Industrial revolution with “foreigners and factory smoke, billboards and concrete roads” as we descend and “As I did so it seemed to me that I was likewise turning the calendar back a century.“
This is a lengthy (in page number) traverse through the country on our way to find Akeley’s farm and it actually feels as though this is an intended technique. Lovecraft is giving us time, as readers, to transcend the modernity of which the story had been taking place, and supplanting that with this metaphorical descent into the old and unknown. We even get introduced to a new and unnerving character, one Mr. Noyes, a particularly put together but aloof young man with a faint Bostonian accent whom serves as Wilmarth’s driver. If this seems strange to you you’re not alone, our narrator felt it as well, “Remembering what a hermit Akeley had been, I was a trifle surprised at the ready availability of such a friend” (to come down and pick the narrator up and bring him to the farm). There is the mention of Akeley having “a sudden attack of some asthmatic trouble.” which is curious because throughout this tale, even in the quote which opens this essay, we have mention that these creatures are a fungi. Fungus are a spectacular way to develop asthma or allergic reactions and it seems as though Akeley is having those more and more frequently of late. In fact even a few pages later when our narrator finally gets to the farm he tells us “They were the hellish tracks of the living fungi from Yuggoth.“
Noyes tells our narrator that Akeley would love to see him, but he is in a difficult state. His “Asthma” is so bad that he’s incredibly sick and cannot get up. It’s so bad in fact that he must spend his time recovering in the dark heavily blanketed. Yeah…that’s some gnarly Asthma.
The narrator gets to the room and immediately wants to leave…”Perhaps it was a certain odd odour which I thought I noticed – though I well know how common musty odours are in even the best of old farmhouses.“
I highlight this because throughout this series I have notated many times Lovecraft has mentioned the strange odors and they always revolve around these outer gods or their subservients. I’ve always assumed that there was some kind of sulphuric smell, indicating a connection with the Devil or the underground (in fact if memory serves, there was a single mention of this specific olfactory note), but I wonder if all along it was actually the musty, slightly vegetative rottenness of fungi which these characters have been notating as the funk. If these Yoggothians are parallel or even ubiquitous with great gods such as Azathoth (which this tale seems to indicate), then the strange odors which these characters smell in almost every Lovecraft work is fungus.
This makes Lovecraft’s works powerful on so many levels! Even now, modern science is looking for extraterrestrial life, but so far all that we can find which could exist in the chemicals of our galaxy is but single cell organisms and fungus. Lovecraft is contending that these creatures come from Pluto (read Yuggoth), and though we know that planet is covered in ice, it does not preclude the possibility of fungus. The fact that these ancient creatures are fungous made sentient and have been around since the dawn of time is just so intriguing, when you contrast that with the evolution of mankind beside them.
There is so much of this we could dig into, but I’m going to save that for a later post…anyway, back to the story…
The narrator sits down with Akeley in the dark and they begin to discuss what’s been going on. Akeley jumps right into the hard science:
“Do you know that Einstein is wrong, and that certain objects and forces can move with a velocity greater than that of light? With proper aid I expect to go backward and forward in time, and actually see and feel the earth of remote past and future epochs. You cant imagine the degree to which those beings have carried science. There is nothing they cant do with the mind and body of living organisms. I expect to visit other planets, and even other stars and galaxies. The first trip will be to Yuggoth, the nearest world fully peopled by beings…
Yet I am going there.”
We spend nearly the entire rest of the story going over the logistics of what these outer beings do to gather humans to travel faster than light or time. The problem is our corporeal selves…at least that’s what Akeley was told. They have a specific method of extracting the brain and setting it in a tube. This metal tube is what would make the transition through space and time and thus give the consciousness of an individual being greater knowledge and understanding…all they have to sacrifice is their own body.
Akeley, cloaked in darkness, makes a motion to the tubes in the room and one of them begins to speak to our narrator. The disembodied consciousness describes to Wilmarth of the great expanse which he has seen (the brain in the tube…not Wilmarth) and will soon see again. The knowledge of the larger world and that these fungoid creatures mean us no harm, but that they indeed want to increase our knowledge of the wider world.
They spend the night trying to make our narrator believe that their intentions are honest. That they are not trying to hurt him and all of this begins to make a little sense. The letters from Akeley going from concern, to fear, to understanding, and when you’re reading it (as you can tell from the previous essay I posted last week) you get the distinct feeling that there is something off about the whole scenario. That these creatures are only putting up a front. That Akeley is being tricked and he’s not really going to be able to go off and do these things.
But nothing actually happens. The narrator just goes to sleep and leaves Akeley to converse with the strange brains in the tubes and with Noyes… and when he wakes Akeley is gone. So in the end this doesn’t actually turn out to be a horror story because Akeley gets to go out to the stars and experience the strange like very few humans have ever before.
Let’s back this up shall we?
When the narrator first gets to the farmhouse he notices a strange vibration in the air that immediately makes him feel off, then there was Akeley himself:
“For a moment the closed blinds allowed me to see very little, but then a kind of apologetic hacking or whispering sound drew my attention to a great easy chair in the farther, darker corer of the room. Within it’s shadowy depths I saw the white blur of a man’s face and hands.“
“There was a touch of the pitiful in the limp, lifeless way his leans hands rested in his lap. He had on a loose dressing-gown, and was swathed around the head and high around the neck with a vivid yellow scarf or hood.“
“It was a hard whisper to catch at first, since the grey mustache concealed the moment of his lips, and something in its timbre disturbed me greatly;”
And our narrator was given a coffee: “My first spoonful revealed a faintly unpleasant acrid taste, so that I did not take more.”
The characters also mention the Necronomicon again and again, and as we know from Lovecraft’s previous works this is not a tome of the Other Gods, but instead it’s a tome of necromantic magic that uses (sparsely) the powers of the cosmos.
So then what the devil is going on here? As it turns out the Akeley we meet is not who he says he is. That final letter we get from Akeley is actually not Akeley either, but an impostor and the really terrified letter the narrator received was the last communication Akeley sent before he was taken by these creatures. The form in the shadows…the titular Whisperer…is a creature from beyond, whom is covered up and disguised so that Wilmarth, our narrator, doesn’t notice that it’s not him. The horror doesn’t really come until the last line of the story, when the confusion of the events begins to unfold:
“For the things in the chair, perfect to the last, subtle detail of the microscopic resemblance – or identity – were the face and hands of Henry Wentworth Akeley.“
When we look back at the last phonograph Wilmarth hears, we know that Akeley was taken against his will:
“...brought it on myself…sent back the letters and the record…end on it…taken in…seeing and hearing…damn you…impersonal force, after all…fresh, shiny cylinder…great God…“
Between this recording and the hidden Akeley we know that whomever is at play…possibly the nefarious Nyarlathotep (whose name is uttered in one of the recordings), does not have philanthropy at heart. They are harvesting something. To me, all of these things happening at a farm indicates a brutal and corrupted sense of humor…one that is right at home in Lovecraft.
Join me next week as we seek out the Haunter in the Dark!
“The unknown things, Akeley wrote in a script grown pitifully tremulous, had begun to close in on him with a wholly new degree of determination. The nocturnal barking of the dogs whenever the moon was dim or absent was hideous now, and there had been attempts to molest him on the lonely roads he had to traverse by day.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re diving into the new strange world of the Vermont Backwoods as our narrator strives to solve the mystery of one Henry Akeley. We get glimpses of Cosmic horror, the dream lands, and a brand new call back to a horror trope (the one appearing here, I’m pretty sure Lovecraft probably created!) as we descend in this world and strain to hear the Whisperer in Darkness.
Lovecraft begins this story with an enigma; “Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end.”
It’s a strange way to begin a short story because it leads the reader to infer that the narrator didn’t actually see anything throughout the story…so how is there a story to even tell? This can be a daunting assignment as we look at the sheer length of the tale but as we peel back Lovecraft’s language, we begin to see that he didn’t “see” anything, but that doesn’t preclude audible horror and given the title of this story, I think the denouement is going to be quite the romp. Besides which fact that this is what Lovecraft does best. He beats around the bush, deftly hiding from his audience what’s really going on, because the very nature of his horror would be ruined by the descriptors. In this story, we do in fact get a description, but it’s of dead creatures who may or not be real and the corpses disappear before any inspection can take place…that only makes it that much more terrifying when the encounters begin.
We start the story with the classical skeptical narrator (who very well could be unreliable. We’ll get t that later), who has heard a number of strange happenings in the woods surrounding his friend Akeley’s house. The folk tales speak of, “…pinkish things about five feet long; with crustaceous bodies bearing vast pairs of dorsal fins or membranous wings and several sets of articulated limbs, and with a sort of convoluted ellipsoid, covered with multitudes of very short antennae, where a head would normally be.”
So here we get our first glimpse of some freaky Lovecraftian stuff, but our narrator defers; “It was my conclusion that such witnesses – in every case naïve and simple backwoods folk – had glimpsed the battered and bloated bodies of human beings or farm animals in the whirling currents; and had allowed the half-remembered folklore to invest these pitiful objects with fantastic attributes.”
Although our disparaging narrator disavows the local folk on prejudice alone, he does dive into the mythology of the area. We hear how these backwoods folk have adapted to them, “the common name applied to them was ‘those ones,’ or ‘the old ones,’…” so we already know there’s some validity to these destitute whom the narrator disparages. They have knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos. It does makes sense because these are the type of people who distrust outsiders, whom take care of themselves; so if something like this were to become a regular occurrence, then having it happen in this type of locale with these types of people make the most sense because they wont be going outside of their bubble to talk about it.
We also learn that the Native Americans had stories about these strange creatures as well. “They talked with their heads, which changed colour in difference ways to mean different things.”
Then to cap off everything the narrator ties in that he’s heard about a Nepalese Abominable Snow-Men species, whom they call the Mi-Go (Which I believe were also referenced in “At the Mountains of Madness“). This is where the story turns from the normal garden variety horror to an aspect of the Mythos.
The Farmer who disappeared (Akeley) whom our narrator is searching for, has knowledge of forbidden tomes. He knows about the Necronomicon and in one of his letters he even states, “the Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu cycles – which were hinted at in the Necronomicon.”
These things are so outside of our everyday reality that our narrator continuously dis-believes his erstwhile friend and contends that it must just be natural phenomena. The claw prints outside of his house, the strange whisperings he hears in the darkness, the strange corpses of creatures he cannot explain. He disavows the claims because the corpses soon disappear and Akeley has a neighboring crotchety old farmer by the name of Brown who he holds accountable for all the other occurrences.
But the more and more our narrator looks into these night occurrences, the more and more he delves into the mythos: “I found myself faced by names and terms that I had heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connections – Yuggoth, Great Cthulhu, Tsathoggua, Yog-Sothoth, R’lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Hastur, Yian, Leng, the Lake of Hali, Bethmoora, the Yellow Sign, L’Mur-Kathulos, Bran, and the Magnum Innominandium – and was drawn back through nameless aeons and inconceivable dimensions to worlds of elder, outer entity at which the crazed author of the Necronomicon had only guessed in the vaguest way.”
The first half of this tale is an expansion of the mythos in general, and we finally get an understanding of where the outer gods call home.
With the knowledge we have of what the universe looks like, this revelation is a little lack luster, but if you think back to what we understood of the universe in 1919 and imagine what it must have been like for people when scientists said they discovered a “new planet beyond Neptune” and then Lovecraft included that new dwarf planet into his mythos? The fear that might have been invoked, especially when the planet was given the name of the god of the underworld…Pluto. Lovecraft put his stamp on it. Pluto is where these strange, alien, creatures came from (though the mythos name for it is Yuggoth). The Mi-Go, who worship Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath (the goat with a thousand young and the mother of many gods of the mythos), who bow to Hastur, and do the bidding of Nyarlathotep, call Pluto home.
We also know the grand daddy of the mythos, Azathoth, also wanders blindly around the vacuum of space. One with the limited knowledge of how large the Universe was at the time, can only assume that Azathoth must have been wandering just past Pluto. Thus when Randolph Carter went sailing in his Dream-Quest and came into contact with Azathoth, he was wandering beyond the icy mountainous ranges of Pluto and it’s Mi-Go inhabitants.
This is just another nail in the coffin of belief that the dream-lands and the real world are fluid. The dream lands are more like a parallel universe, where there are gates between our world and the worlds of the Outer Gods. So few humans have experienced it, but many of the creatures of that dream realm have breached the barrier and have come over to our world. Our narrator even feels this as he tells us “My own zeal for the unknown flared up to meet his, and I felt myself touched by the contagion of the morbid barrier-breaking.”
So now we have set the stage. We know that our narrator will not “see” anything throughout this story, so we can only hope to garner inference (are the claw marks part of Shub-Niggurath’s thousand young? Is it a coincidence that Satan is considered goat like, while Shub-Niggurath is the mother of goats?) from the correspondence that Akeley sends our intrepid narrator…which brings us to our next point.
It feels like Lovecraft has created a new horror trope in this story which I’m sure has not existed before this point. The reason I’m sure is because of the availability of technology…and that is the trope of “found footage.”
As we progress through the story Akeley tells our narrator of various things which have transpired around him which we have already mentioned – the whisperings in the dark, the claw marks, the Mi-Go corpses (which incidentally disappear and fade back into the dreamlands) – and he goes through the normal progression of a character in a Lovecraft story…he suspects and is scared, he becomes terrified and pleads for help, he suddenly turns this around and says he was mistaken and he is in no danger, then he disappears. This is a theme which Lovecraft has instituted in many of his stories (take “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” for example), but the layer he adds into this tale is a recording phonograph and a Dictaphone.
We get passages like this:
(A CULTIVATED MALE VOICE)
…is the Lord of the Woods, even to…and the gifts of the men of Leng…so from the wells of night to the gulfs of space, and from the gulfs of space to the wells of night, ever the praises of Great Cthulhu, of Tsathoggua, and of Him Who is not to be Named. Ever Their praises, and abundance to the Black Goat of the Woods. Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!
(A BUZZING IMITATION OF HUMAN SPEECH)
Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!
The narrator spends time cultivating what it must have been like to listen to this passage, and though we are jaded now, at the time this was a unique and never before seen tool. Lovecraft was able to give an audible, visceral take on what it must have been like for this man to be sitting in a darkened room, listening to a scratchy Dictaphone espousing these words in barely human tones.
“To this hour I shudder retrospectively when I think of how it struck me, prepared though I was by Akeley’s accounts.”
I leave you with that slight feeling of unease. The feeling that you are being watched by some unseen Whisperer of ancient horrors. Watched by a group of alien creatures who’s motivations are unknown. Watched.
“There seemed to be an awful, immemorial linkage in several definite stages betwixt man and nameless infinity. The blasphemies which appeared on earth, it was hinted, came from the dark planet Yuggoth, at the rim of the solar system; but this was itself merely the populous outpost of a frightful interstellar race whose ultimate source must lie far outside even the Einsteinian space-time continuum or greatest known cosmos.”
Join me next week as we conclude “The Whisperer in Darkness”
“What happened then is scarcely to be described in words. It is full of those paradoxes, contradictions, and anomolies which have no place in waking life, but which fill our more fantastic dreams, and are taken as matters of course till we return to our narrow, rigid, objective world of limited causation and tri-dimensional logic.”
Welcome back to another mind bending Blind Read! We’ve learned about Randolph Carter in the past, including the indominable Silver Key, but this time we traverse through the doorway this magical talisman produces. Lets dive into a treatise on traversing space, time, dimension, and existence as we traverse through the gates of the Silver Key.
The opening few chapters is basically a rehash of the stories “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” “The Silver Key” and “The Statement of Randolph Carter.” The story is unique in it’s narration because most of Lovecraft is told from the perspective of a single narrator, but this story begins omniscient and doesn’t more into narration until Swami Chandraputra directly relates the events surrounding Randolph Carter.
“In a vast room hung with strangely figured arras and carpeted with Bokhara rugs of impressive age and workmanship four men were sitting around a document-strown table.” These four men were Etienne-Laurent de Marigny (Later to be a mainstay in Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow Series), the aforementioned Swami, Ward Phillips, and Ernest B. Apinwall, whom is an executor of Carter’s estate and is trying to sell it all off.
Apinwall tells the other three his goal is selling off the Carter estate, because Carter himself has been gone nearly four years and it’s time to move on. The Swami objects and tells the group he has proof that Carter is alive and needs to make sure that Aspinwall doesn’t sell anything. Once we have the abridgement of Carter’s history we jump right into new territory with the quote which opens this essay.
The actual story is too complicated and intricate to tell in short form here, heck, Lovecraft could barely get it out in long form of the story itself, but the basics are that just beyond where Carter had already gone using the Silver Key, there are more gates, and these gates had only been transcended by a few mortals…ever. Carter traversed these gates and gained an understanding far deeper than any human could ever comprehend.
The story covers what we consider to be Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, so we’re not dealing with a horror story as it is, but something that goes so much farther than that. Serendipity comes to mind because I’ve recently been following Marvel and all that they have been working through, with perceptions of thought and reality and multiverse, which makes reading this story at this time seem so very apt. We’ll dig into what I’m talking about in a moment here, but first I would like to discuss the perception of gods and Gods in Lovecraft.
To open it up, I’d like to give you some straight text from this story:
Carter guessed what they were, whence they came, and Whom they served; and guessed, too, the price of their service. But he was still content, for at one mighty venture he was to learn all. Damnation, he reflected, is but a word bandied about by those whose blindness leads them to condemn all who can see, even with a single eye. He wondered at the vast conceit of those who had babbled of the malignant Ancient Ones, as if They could pause from their ever lasting dreams to wreak wrath upon mankind. As well, he thought, might a mammoth pause to visit frantic vengeance on an angleworm. Now the whole assemblage on the vaguely hexagonal pillars was greeting him with a gesture of those oddly carven scepters, and radiating a message which he understood…
There is a whole lot of theology and thought packed into that one little paragraph!
The first portion is the concept of damnation. If you’ve been following along with this blog then you know Lovecraft didn’t adhere to any specific religion; in the sense that the dogma of the church just didn’t make any kind of rational sense to him. This paragraph is the perfect example of that. People who are either willfully ignorant, or just plain blind to reality as Lovecraft saw it, didn’t understand that if there was a God or gods, then they really dont care about you. Rationally it doesn’t make sense for a supreme being to care about lesser beings, thus indicating that these “gods” were mammoths and we were angleworms. Because these beings dont really care about us, then damnation itself must be a construct of religion to keep people in line. Religion, like governance, is about control and comfort. Humans crave structure despite how we act and react sometimes, and to know that there is a heaven and a hell makes people more at ease. If they go to church on Sunday and say their prayers by night, they wont become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright. Damnation (at least what this story is trying to convey) is a construct of the mind, and for Carter, it isn’t until he breaks the barrier held in check by the Silver Key that he comes to this realization. He moves beyond one universe into multiple and lives countless lives and endless consciousness’ all at once; giving him a greater understanding than that of even the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred and his ravings in the Necronomicon. Damnation is a state of mind, not a place.
To piggy back on that we have the conception of the gods in Lovecraft’s mythos. It has been played around with in stories such as “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, but not elucidated with such clarity as it is right here in this paragraph. With the notable exception of Nyarlathotep, the gods of Lovecraft are omnipotent, they are not malignant. These gods transcended space, time, and universe, occupying all and none at the same time. They have lived for eternities and will live for eternities more. Their consciousness has developed for hundreds of thousands of millennia, and because of this, their scope is so much larger than the few thousand years humans have existed. In fact, the only reason Nyarlathotep has any kind of vengeance is because humans keep trying to invade and go beyond their bubble. He is a god who believes we are a stain on the beautiful tapestry of consciousness and wants to be rid of our parasitic species. When Cthulhu comes out of the sea at the end of “The Call of Cthulhu” he is not trying to destroy the world, but his simple visage shows the magnitude of what we dont know, and that in-and-of itself is enough to drive everyone, with the notable exception of Randolph Carter, insane. Damnation is tied so closely to the malevolence of gods and the insanity caused by them, but that’s just a construct so that mere mortals can understand. This whole story is all about how the life we live is an illusion of our own construct, and there is so much more beyond our ken.
So lets dig into that multiverse, shall we?
“The man of Truth is beyond good and evil…The man of Truth had ridden to All-Is-One. The man of Truth las learnt that Illusion is the only reality, and that substance is an impostor.”
Carter goes through the first Gateway of existence:
“Even the First Gateway had taken something of stability from him, leaving him uncertain about his bodily form and about his relationship to the mistily defined objects around him, but it had not disturbed his sense of unity. He had still been Randoplh Carter , a fixed point in the dimensional seething. now, beyond the Ultimate Gateway, he realized in a moment of consuming fright that he was not one person but many persons.”
I mentioned Marvel earlier, and I’ve just started watching WandaVision, like many of you may have as well. This show seems to be of a similar set up to Carter’s story. We have Wanda living in a dream world of her own construct (or maybe caused by another to keep her under control with those calls of “Who’s doing this to you Wanda?”) The layers are slowly being peeled back to revel a reality that may just be too difficult for her to comprehend, thus fracturing her mind. Or maybe she has already been through the gates of which Carter speaks of, and what we view every Friday night is a perception of her fractured mind? The idea of a multiverse is complicated, and Lovecraft here barely scratches the surface (hopefully, with the help of Rick and Morty writers, we’ll see a bit more cohesion in the Marvel Multi-Verse). Carter has lived many lives and we’ve seen that in previous stories (in “The Silver Key” Carter was both his adult self and his ten year old self), but when he goes beyond the ultimate door we find that there are many worlds which hold his consciousness. There are countless alien beings which have been “Randolph Carter”, just not in human form. These are not parallel universes, but unique and individual universes with single threads of consciousness which hold things together. Deja Vu? Strange memories of places and things you shouldn’t have? Sudden empathy or hate for a creature or thing? These are all because we have lived these experiences either concurrently or in the past…or even in the future.
Think of a cupcake stand. The saucers are the different universes of which there could be infinite, the pole holding them together is your consciouness and on each infinte saucer there is a different being with different experiences, but with your soul as the connector. Lovecraft describes it here as:
They told him that every figure of space is but the result of the intersection by a place of some corresponding figure of one more dimension – as a square is cut from a cube or a circle from a sphere. The cube and sphere, of three dimensions, are thus cut from corresponding forms of four dimensions that men known only through guesses and dreams; and these in turn are cut from forms of five dimensions, and so on up to the dizzy and reachless heights of archetypal infinity.
A slight change of angle could turn the student of today into the child of yesterday; could turn Randolph Carter into that wizard Edmund Carter who fled from Salem to the hills behind Arkham in 1692, or that Pickman Carter who in the year 2169 would use strange means in repelling the Mongol hordes from Australia; could turn a human Carter into one of those earlier entities which had dwelt in primal Hyperborea and worshipped black, plastic Tsathoggua after flying down from Kythanil, the double planet that once revolved around Arcturus; could turn a terrestrial Carter to a remotely ancestral and doubtfully shaped dweller on Kythanil itself, or a still remoter creature of trans-galactic Shonhi; or a four-dimensioned gaseous consciousness in an older space-time continuum, or a vegetable brain of the future on a dark radio-active comet of inconceivable orbit – and so on, in the endless cosmic circle.
In fact Carter did this. He transcended through the Ultimate Gate into Zkauba, the wizard of Yaddith, a strange bird-insect like creature and lived for years in this being, until he found his way to travel in a “thin envelope of electron-activated metal” (early TARDIS?) back to earth.
And then we find ourselves back in the room from the beginning of the story with Swami finishing his story and the group realizing that Swami’s accent was fake. That Swami’s face was a mask. The Swami himself…was not a Swami. To reveal the truth Carter pulls the mask off releveling the physiognomy of the bird-insect Zkauba as he never moved beyond that bodily form. Between everyone in the group only Apinwall, the lawyer, sees and in his madness at seeing beyond the gates of the Silver Key, flees the scene and doesn’t foreclose on Carter’s estate.
It’s a long strange ride and this being a Blind Read (The first time I’ve read it) I’m sure I missed volumes which others could fill in. As I get closer to completing the entire oeuvre of Lovecraft I’m constantly mystified at how intellectual all of the stories are and now fully understand the praise as one of the early incredible horror authors.
What do you think??
Join me next week as we delve into “The Whisperer in Darkness”
I’m going to be diving into the Titus Crow series now that I’ve gotten the Carter books under my belt. They follow Titus Crow and Etienne-Laurent de Marigny from this story (follow me on Goodreads if you want updates). That tale centers around the strange clock which is the center piece of Carter’s house which the four men discussed Carter’s fate.
The reason I bring this up here is because it ties together the dream Lands and the waking world so perfectly, where I thought previously that they were two separate, mutually exclusive things. The strange clock has strange hieroglyphics on it instead of numbers:
To him let me say that the language of those hieroglyphics is not Naacal but R’Lyehian, which was brought to earth by the spawn of Cthulhu countless ages ago.
And in sunken R’lyeah sleeping Cthulhu lie…and with strange aeons even death may die.
“One seldom saw them; but a few times a year they sent down little yellow, squint-eyed messengers (who look like Scythians) to trade with merchants by means of gestures, and every spring and autumn they held the infamous rites on the peaks, their howlings and altar-fires throwing terror into the villages.“
Welcome back for another Blind Read! This week will be in a slightly different format as the story we cover is a unique entry for Lovecraft as well.
The tale is told through the frame of an epistle recalling a dream; and undoubtedly it’s a recollection of a dream that Lovecraft himself had. There isn’t much to the story in and of itself – it tells of a group in a Roman Legion who are investigating a disturbance outside of a town – but the text itself informs us more as to the man and his incorporation of history than anything else.
The story begins with the salutation of the letter, “Dear Melmoth.”
Without a doubt this is a reference to Charles Maturin’s 1820 gothic novel “Melmoth the Wanderer” which centers around a man who sells his soul to the devil in trade for an extra 150 years of life. This is a common theme in Lovecraft – the pursuit of knowledge and the desire for an elongated life to gather such knowledge. Invariably the contract ends up corrupting the soulless character and they end up seeking Eldritch magic to make their lives even longer. In stories such as “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” we have a sample character of Curwen who has a coven of three. These men have done much the same as Malmoth, where they basically have denied their morals so they may live longer. One has to consider that the narrator of this tale, (whom signs in Latin) is indeed a contemporary of Melmoth and has partaken in a similar deal…perhaps directly relating to the circumstances of this story.
The narrator tells us that he thinks the dream which is the basis of this tale is a product of reading the Aeneid on Halloween, “This Virgilian diversion, together with the spectral thoughts incident to All Hallows’ Eve with its Witch-Sabbaths on the hills, produced in me last Monday night a Roman dream of such supernatural clearness and vividness, and such titanic adumbrations of hidden horror, that I verily believe I shall some day employ it in fiction.”
And clear and vivid it was. We have a six page, single paragraph story which details life in a Roman culture. The story is fairly simple, though with a few Lovecraft flourishes, but what I find fascinating about this is how much Lovecraft was enamored with two ancient civilizations. The Romans and the Egyptians.
Nearly every story of his has some kind of connection to one or the other of these societies, and I have to wonder if it’s because of their accumulation of knowledge. These two cultures were known as two of the most learned early dynasties, both with questionable roots hidden beneath their outward collective togetherness, in fact there is a passage here which brings this to light:
I, however, who seemed to be a close friend of Balbutius, had disagreed with him; averring that I had studied deeply in the black forbidden lore, and that I believed the very old folk capable of visiting amongst any nameless doom upon the town, which after all was a Roman settlement and contained a great number of our citizens.
This group was well within the borders of the empire, and yet still they had “mountain folk” who delved into deep forbidden lore. Obviously Lovecraft is speaking about these “very old folk” of the mountains praying to the Outer Gods or at least the Great Old Ones. This idea brings to mind some of the old cults of Crete and I have to wonder if the origination of the idea of the Eldritch Gods came from the Eleusinian Mysteries.
These Mysteries were one of those hidden cults within the Roman legions who were based on an old agrarian Grecian religion who prayed to Persephone. The Mysteries were heady rituals which often prayed directly to Hades and frequently divulged in psychotropic drugs so that members may have a “vision quest” to the underworld and back…the same journey as Persephone.
Yet another reason to believe this comes in the last line, “Of the fate of that cohort no record exists, but the town at least was saved – for encyclopedias tell of the survival of Pompelo to this day, under the modern Spanish name of Pampelona...” Pampelona is known as a flourishing agricultural center and seeing as the Eleusinian Mysteries were based around Ag, one has to wonder…
The central dogma of the mysteries come from a dialog from Homer and echoed in Virgil. Could there be a correlation with Lovecraft reading Virgil then relating these Mysteries to modern day Salem, Mass. and witchdom?
“There were shocking dooms that might be called out of the hills on the Sabbaths; doom which ought not to exist within the territories of the Roman People; and to permit orgies of the kind known to prevail at Sabbaths would be but little in consonance with the customs of those whose forefathers…had executed so many Roman citizens in the practice of Bacchanalia – a matter kept ever in memory…graven upon bronze and set open to every eye.”
Lovecraft would be the one to tell you, as he had such a high, nearly narcissistic view of himself. Much like our narrator here: “That the danger to the town and inhabitants of Pompelo was a real one, I could not from my studies doubt.” He here’s the only one in a Roman Legion who has the knowledge that the “very old folk” in the hills are a danger to the town, and the record he puts forth here is that he is the main reason why the town was saved…not because he could defeat whatever was out there that the very old folk summoned…but because he knew well enough to avoid it.
This strange dichotomy, that Lovecraft was agoraphobic and xenophobic, but still he felt he was the only one that could help people, shines here. The narrator knows that there are strange things in the hills, and the only person with first hand knowledge of what could possibly be there cant deal with it, “Looking for the youth Vercellius, our guide, we found only a crumpled heap weltering in a pool of blood…He had killed himself when the horses screamed.” The legion is faced with what the guide knew to be true:
“And the torches died out altogether, there remained above the stricken and shrieking cohort only the noxious and horrible altar-flames on the towering peaks; hellish and red, and now silhouetting the mad, leaping, and colossal forms of such nameless beasts as had never a Phrygian priest or Campanian grandam whispered of in the wildest of furtive tales.“
This is the hidden allegory of which I’m not even Lovecraft was conscious of. The legion was heading off to confront a group of “very old folk” of unknown origin in the great mountains. The alien ranges fed into Lovecraft’s agoraphobia, and the unknown people, the people who had strange beliefs unknown and off-putting to him, fuel his xenophobia. The physical manifestation of these fears are the creatures which are so massive and aged that they block the stars. This fear of Lovecraft’s is so overwhelming that the terror it brings is Eldritch and Ancient and Unfathomable.
If you have any theories, I’d love to hear them in the comments!
Join me next week as we delve into the mystery “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”
“We spent the rest of the night in the brilliantly lighted study, nervously discussing what we should do next. The discovery that some vault deeper than the deepest known masonry of the Romans underlay this accursed pile – some vault unsuspected by the curious antiquarians of three centuries – would have been sufficient to excite us without any background of the sinister.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we dive down into the depths of Gothic Romanesque castles to find the truth behind The Rats in the Walls. This story is lauded as one of Lovecraft’s best of his first decade of writing, and though the imagery it elicits created one of the absolute best illustrations of Lovecraft’s work to date (in my opinion at least), the story is a bit plodding. It isn’t until the last five pages or so that we really get into the gruesome reality of the story and it’s understandable that it was turned down by so many publications early on (notably rejected by Argosy)… this is one vivid and gory tale.
I contend that the reason it’s said to be the best of his early work is because so much of what he strove to do early on was focus on detail to elucidate setting… in that case this story truly is one of the best he wrote early on. In addition to that factoid, we also have his early theme of family. Specifically revolving around genetic madness. So many of his stories have to do with the narrator slowly realizing that he’s odd, or at least his impulses are, but it’s not really his fault. It’s because there is some kind of hereditary defect which creates a strain of corruption.
This leads me to believe that there must have been something in his own life… some drive or impulse that he (Lovecraft) felt nagging at the back of his skull which he felt was directly a cause of his genes. Or could he have been of the mindset that all humans are inherently good and the only reason someone would turn bad, or even evil, is if they had some kind of genetic interference with their ancestors who in turn passed on the defect? I’m sure there is some Lovecraft scholar out there that knows the answer to this. If you do, leave a comment for discussion!
Anyway, lets get into the text…
We start off with place. The narrator tells us, “On July 16, 1923, I moved into Exham Priory after the last workman had finished his labors.” So the first sentence tells us that there’s some religious undertones to the story. The fact that the narrator is moving into a Priory gives us that immediate understanding of a vast array of history surrounding place…and religion in Lovecraft is rarely good. The reason the place is laid bare is in the next sentence:
“...a tragedy of intensely hideous, though largely unexplained, nature had struck down the master, five of his children, and several servants; and driven forth under a cloud of suspicion and terror the third son, my lineal progenitor and the only survivor of the abhorred line.”
This is our first indication that something is wrong. Why would our narrator call his genetic line abhorred? There’s a bit of contextualization, but we as readers are supposed to pick up that there is something not quite right with the family. However the narrator tells us right up front, “Had I suspected their nature, how gladly I would have left Exham Priory to it’s moss, bats, and cobwebs!”
The narrator gets flack for rebuilding this monument to the past, specifically from the people who live in the nearby town: “When the people could not forgive, perhaps, was that I had come to restore a symbol so abhorrent to them; for, rationally nor not, they viewed Exham Priory as nothing less than a haunt of fiends and werewolves.“
Why werewolves? Lycanthropy, in all of my forays into Lovecraft, has not been a trope that he is prone to focus on. There is primate mating, but no specific virus or disease which causes a person to become an animal. What is it about this, “prehistoric temple, a Druidical or ante-Druidical thing which must have been contemporary with Stonehenge“?
Why had the locals “…represented my ancestors as a race of hereditary daemons beside whom Gilles de Retz and Marquis de Sade would seem veriest tyros, and hinted whisperingly at their responsibility for the occasional disappearances of villagers through several generations“?
Was it because he had an ancestor who “performed nameless ceremonies at the bidding of a Phrygian priest.” or the “young Randolph Delapore of Carfax, who went among the negroes and became a voodoo priest after he returned from the Mexican War” or potentially even “…the hideous tale of Lady Mary de la Poer, who shortly after her marriage to the Earl of Shrewsfield was killed by him and his mother, both of the slayers being absolved and blessed by the priest to whom they confessed what they dared not repeat to the world.“
Well, for the purposes of this story and for the intention of our narrator, (dont forget the lycanthropy thread) it’s probably “…most vivid of all, there was the dramatic epic of the rats – the scampering army of obscene vermin which had burst forth from the castle three months after the tragedy that doomed it to desertion – the lean, filthy, ravenous army which had swept all before it and devoured fowl, cats, dogs, hogs, sheep, and even two hapless human beings before its fury was spent.”
Here we have our explanation more than anything else. The titular rats have made their entrance into the story and they are causing all the havoc. So the priory was burned down. Years later, our narrator rebuilds the house and moves in. Obviously people are not happy, but why? Everything happened so far in the past and the real reason why people disliked his family was because of the rats…well that and the…werewolves.
Shortly after moving in, our narrator immediately finds that something isn’t right with the newly built house. “I told the man there must be some singular odour or emanation from the old stonework, imperceptible to human senses, but affecting the delicate organs of cats even through new woodwork. This I truly believed, and when the fellow suggested the presence of mice or rats, I mentioned that there had been no rats there for three thousand years…“
The narrator’s cat (who’s name I will not repeat here) was pawing at tapestries and walls where nothing presented itself. It was curious to our narrator, but nothing to be alramed about. I will, however, call your attention to the line, “imperceptable to human senses,” and remind you one more time of the strange mention of lycanthropy earlier in the story.
Later that night he has a dream which foreshadows everything else and gives a precursor to the great artwork of Michael Whelan: “I seemed to be looking down from an immense height upon a twilit grotto, knee-deep with filth, where a white-bearded daemon swineheard drove about his staff a flock of fungous, flabby beasts whose appearance filled me with unutterable loathing.“
Strange happenings continue into the next day and eventually our narrator finds a sub-basement. Too scared to proceed alone he calls on a friend, Captain Norrys, and beneath the Roman construction they found a vault:
“The Vault was very deep in the foundations of the priory, and undoubtedly far down on the face of the beetling limestone cliff overlooking the waste valley.”
The quote which opens this essay comes next, with our intrepid explorers trying to figure out what to do. They eventually decide to go through the sub-cellar and go into the vault…where nothing good could ever come.
“There now lay revealed such a horror as would have overwhelmed us had we not been prepared. Through a nearly square opening in the tiled floor, sprawling on the flight of stone steps so prodigiously worn that it was little more than an inclined place at the centre, was a ghastly array of human or semi-human bones. Those which retained their collocation as skeletons shewed attitudes of panic fear, and over all were the marks of rodent gnawing. The skulls denoted nothing short of utter idiocy, cretinism, or primitive semi-apedom.”
What I find truly intriguing about this part of the story is that all of these men are following our narrator down into this pit without any kind of inclination as to what they’re doing. The only person to hear the critters was our narrator (“imperceptible to human senses“), so it must just be the high of the discovery itself that kept them going.
Beyond that we have another mention of “apedom.” This calls back to “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” where, again, one of Jermyn’s ancestors went to the Congo and wed a She-Ape who was considered a demi-god. Arthur Jermyn finds out that his ancestor is a white ape. Could our narrator here have much the same ancestral line? Or could there be a streak of rodent lycanthropy in his past?
Our group keeps going down until we get to this incredible passage. It is here that Lovecraft starts to really pour it on thick:
It was a twilit grotto of enormous height, stretching away farther than any eye could see; a subterraneous world of limitless mystery and horrible suggestion. There were buildings and other architectural remains – in one terrified glace I saw a weird pattern of tumuli, a savage circle of monoliths, a low-domed Roman ruin, a sprawling Saxon pile, and an early English edifice of wood – but all these were dwarfed by the ghoulish spectacle presented by the general surface of the ground. For yards about the steps extended an insane tangle of human bones, or bones at least as human as those on the steps. Like a foamy sea they stretched, some fallen apart, but others wholly or partly articulated as skeletons; these latter invariably in postures of daemoniac frenzy, either fighting off some menace of clutching other forms with cannibal intent.
I’ve been dancing around it, but this has to be the inspiration for the classic Michael Whelan cover. This is the Lovecraft that I had always been looking for as a young man growing up. For me it was always about the imagery and the feel of what he was writing, rather than the actual themes that he was exploiting. I would sit and look at the Michael Whelan covers and marvel at their gothic surrealist nature, but whenever I picked Lovecraft up the language was too daunting for me to overcome.
Now that I’m older and more well read and capable of the mental bandwidth it takes to analyze his language, I felt it was the perfect time to dissect his works, which is why this blog came into being. Hopefully it will give others the ability to enjoy his stories, despite the language, or in some cases, maybe even because of it.
But I digress.
“It was the antechamber of hell, and poor Thornton fainted again when Trask told him that some skeleton things must have descended as quadrupeds through the last twenty or more generations.”
Our narrator had taken his fellows into some hellish nightmare with “prehistoric tumuli” and “skulls which were slightly more human than a gorilla’s…” All this in some massive vault underneath the priory and was so tumescent that “We shall never know what sightless Stygian worlds yawn beyond the little distance we went…“
The group traverses this nightmare realm, built upon centuries of bodies and bones, until the narrator finally hears what he was dreading:
“It was the eldritch scurrying of those fiend-born rats, always questing for new horrors, and determined to lead me on even unto those grinning caverns of earth’s centre where Nyarlathotep, the mad faceless god, howls blindly in the darkness to the piping of two amorphous idiot flute players.”
This is where the theories of the narrative diverge, as no one else in the party sees or hears the rats other than our narrator, who incidentally spouts off some phrase in Gaelic:
“That is what they say I said when they found me in the blackness after three hours; found me crouching in the blackness over the plump, half-eaten body of Capt. Norrys, with my own cat leaping and tearing at my throat.“
Two theories jump out at me as the narrator is put away raving that he didn’t kill Captain Norrys, the rats did. The first is what I like to believe because of all the seeds planted earlier in the story. We had the mention of werewolves, which is merely a reference for us to understand that there is Lycanthropy in the possibility of this story, but instead of it being a werewolf, it’s a wererat.
The second notion is that the narrator is the only one to ever hear the rats in the walls; with the exception of his cat, but I’d contend that the cat was trying to say that something was there in the walls. Some vast power the cat was trying to get to. Cats have power in Lovecraft, just look at “The Cats of Ulthar.”
The unique take on this however, is that the narrator doesn’t take on the appearance of a rat, but the mental capacity of the rat. That’s the power of the lycanthrope here and that’s probably the storm of rats which happened all those years previous. What was built underneath the priory is a temple to the horrible god Nyarlathotep and the people tied to the priory, the people who practiced the rituals and built the horrible vault, were the people inflicted with the curse of the lycanthrope. That’s why so many of the townsfolk are scared of the priory…years ago it was a group of cannibals who imagined they were rats who stormed the village and killed and ate and ravaged. Thus when the narrator discovers the horrible truth, his genetic disposition is to turn feral and become one with the rat…poor Captain Norrys was just in the way as the rodent appetite took hold of the narrator.
We were also given a hint to the cannibalism earlier as well, which could also be considered part of Nyarlathotep’s influence.
The other theory is that everything was normal until they got to the vault and Nyarlathotep’s influence robbed the crew of their senses, but I this theory is all conjecture. The real evidence comes from what I’ve discussed prior and I tend to believe that Lovecraft puts in hints, buried underneath detail, and we just have to dig a bit to get to it.
This story touches on a number of tropes classic to Lovecraft as well. Genetic madness, place triggering memory and sanity, the haunted/possession trope, and architecture which develops a tone for the story. What I love about it (and probably why it’s lauded as his best) is that it puts all these themes together in one place, but doesn’t focus on any individual theme, which just enhances the overall feel of the whole story.
Let me know what you think in the comments! Were there mystical rats? Or was it really our narrator all along?
Join me next week as we dissect “The Very Old Folk”!
“For his part, he was afflicted with a complication of maladies requiring a very exact regimen which included constant cold. Any marked rise in temperature might, if prolonged, affect him fatally; and the frigidity of his habitation – some 55 or 56 degrees Fahrenheit – was maintained by an absorbption system of ammonia cooling, the gasoline engine of whose pumps I had often heard in my own room below.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! I’ve nearly read all of Lovecraft thus far (I think this series will only take me as far as March!) and I’ve seen many of his stories stated as influenced by Edgar Allen Poe; although Lovecraft himself states this story is more a homage to Arthur Machen, Poe bleeds off the page in this tale.
Because of this influence there is much lauding that this is a straight supernatural tale (no mythos involved). While it’s structure is exactly like “The Picture in the House” or “The Music of Erich Zann” (let’s be real, this story is the exact formula that many Lovecraft stories take), it’s hard to actually find the threat of Cosmic horror in this one, and for a casual reader, that thread would be lost. I contend that it’s there, however, as well as the influence of one of the most nefarious characters in all of Lovecraft’s Mythos.
Let’s get started shall we?
The first line, if you’ve read much Lovecraft, makes you roll your eyes:
“You ask me to explain why I am afraid of a draught of cool air; why I shiver more than others upon entering a cold room, and seem nauseated and repelled when the chill of evening creeps through the heat of a mild autumn day.”
It’s a classic entrance to many of his stories, setting us up with what we’re supposed to be expecting while giving a mild redirection of the action and concurrently establishing the unreliable narrator.
The action is pretty straightforward. We have a man who is down on his luck, but at the same time extremely perfidious. He was looking for a place to live, but unable to find anywhere clean enough for him. “It soon developed that I had only a choice between different evils, but after a time I came upon a house in West Fourteenth Street which disgusted me much less than the others I had sampled.”
What I find so interesting and a little ridiculous about this revelation is this narrator cared more for the cleanliness of the place and didn’t seem to mind so much about the loud machines running and a smell coming from the room above him from “an absorption system of ammonia cooling, the gasoline engine of whose pumps I had often heard in my own room below.”
The man in the room above, The Spanish Doctor Munoz, who “…most certainly was a man of birth, cultivation, and discrimination.” but then in the very next paragraph describes Munoz as having a physiognomy with a “Moorish touch.” This is our first clue that something is off about the man (well, at least in Lovecraft’s world). I’ve read enough Lovecraft to know that if we have a man of mysterious background and has a tinge of pigment in his skin, he more than likely some kind of ulterior motives. He is either directly a bad actor, or he’s working with someone who is.
Our narrator goes to visit with him and immediately gets a bad feeling from him: “Nevertheless, as I saw Dr. Munoz in that blast of cool air, I felt a repugnance which nothing in his aspect could justify.” We spend the next few paragraphs discussing Munoz, and how “...repugnance was soon replaced with admiration,” as we learn that Munoz has a strange affliction (which we learn a bit of in the opening quote of this essay). The admiration comes because Munoz, instead of letting his affliction run his life (there is a very good reason which we will find out later), he has designed a spectacular contraption to keep his temperature at 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
The narrator reviews some strange ministrations of which he has seen and been through and marvels at how well Munoz’s method works for him, despite the fact that “He developed strange caprices, acquiring a fondness for exotic spices and Egyptian incense till his room smelled like the vault of a sepulchered Pharaoh in the Valley of the Kings.”
Woah there. Wait a minute, wait just one minute. Here now we have two aspects of this story now relating to the Mythos in general. The first is that Munoz has a bunch of bottles in his apartment, both on tables and hanging, the second was that he developed a taste for Egyptian Incense. We know that Munoz “...talked of death incessantly, but laughed hollowly when such things as burial or funeral arrangements were gently suggested.”
If you remember, in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” the essential “Saltes” of people were kept in bottles which Curwen used to bring them back from the dead and make them slaves. Likewise in “The Terrible Old Man” similar bottles were hung about the old sailors house. Having these bottles is a sure sign that Munoz has had some kind of witchcraft in his past…or he is regularly practicing it.
Then we move onto the Egyptian Incense and which is a sly reference to the most nefarious being in Lovecraft’s oeuvre… Nyarlathotep. A cosmic entity who posed as an Egyptian Pharaoh who was heavily scented with said olfaction.
The majority of the Gods in the Mythos aren’t evil. They are just so all powerful and other-worldy that they tend to drive people insane… or smash them as a human would a bug. Nyarlathotep is different. Nyarlathotep is one of those absolute evil beings who would take over the world given the chance. In fact the prose poem Lovecraft wrote about this being shows just how terrible he really is.. Knowing that, everytime Lovecraft makes this kind of reference…to Egypt, Pharoahs, or spices, it immediately calls back to Nyarlathotep.
So what is Munoz doing? What is his connection? Well, we’re about to find out.
Dr. Munoz’s contraption to keep the room cool and to keep him healthy breaks. Our narrator runs out to find parts to replace it, while he has a young man run for ice to keep Munoz chilled.
The narrator comes back to find “The house was in utter turmoil, and above the shatter of awed voices I heard a man praying in a deep basso. Fiendish things were in the air, and lodgers told over the beads of their rosaries as they caught the odour from beneath the doctor’s closed door.“
The young man who was fetching ice had fled after the second load was brought in. He left screaming. Our narrator enters and finds “A kind of dark, slimy trail led from the open bathroom door to the hall door, and thence the desk, where a terrible little pool had accumulated.”
On the desk is a letter which ends our little tale of horror, but rather than have me describe it, you should read it for yourself:
“The end…is here. No more ice – the man looked and ran away. Warmer every minute, and the tissues can’t last. I fancy you know – what I said about the will and the nerves and the preserved body after the organs ceased to work. It was a good theory, but couldn’t keep up indefinitely. There was a gradual deterioration I had not foreseen. Dr. Torres knew, but the shock killed him. He couldn’t stand what he had to do – he had to get me in a strange, dark place when he minded my letter and nursed me back. And the organs never would work again. It had to be done my way – artificial preservation – for you see I dies that time eighteen years ago.”
Join me next week as we analyze “The Rats in the Walls.”
“As his hammer blows began to fall, the horse outside whinnied in a tone which may have been encouraging and may have been mocking. In either case it would have been appropriate; for the unexpected tenacity of the easy-looking brickwork was surely a sardonic commentary on the vanity of mortal hopes, and the use of a task whose performance deserved every possible stimulus.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re covering a story with all the mental veracity of Ambrose Bierce coupled with the Gothic beauty of Edgar Allan Poe. We have a very supernatural tale (a slight divergence from Lovecraft’s norm) which is perfect for this post because of the overtones matching Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (well, that is as perfect as any Lovecraft tale could be for Christmas!), because of it’s themes of repentance, and the almost anthropomorphizing of the horse in the story.
Well…It’s Christmas! Let’s get started!
Lovecraft let’s you know the tone right from the get go: “Mention a bucolic Yankee setting, a bungling and thick-fibred village undertaker, and a careless mishap in a tomb, and no average reader can be brought to expect more than a hearty albeit grotesque phase of comedy.”
We follow George Birch, the aforementioned undertaker in this tale, but Lovecraft does something unique right from the get go. He describes what happens in the story, holding back only the denouement, letting the reader’s mind run wild.
“It was generally stated that the affliction and shock were results of an unlucky slip whereby Birch had locked himself for nine hours in the receiving tomb of Peck Valley Cemetery, escaping only by crude and disasterous mechanical means; but while this much was undoubtably true, there were other and blacker things which the man used to whisper to me in his drunken delirium toward the last.”
So Birch, get’s locked in a tomb by accident and something happens to him there. Sure. My mind immedaitly turns to tales much like “The Tomb” where we get some of the strange Lovecraftian otherworldliness and I began trying to figure out what type of story I was getting my self into…was it a dreamlands? No, the tone was too straightforward. lovecraft has a tendency to give a slightly whimsical, or mystical cadence to his Dream Lands stories… so this must be a Mythos story… right?
Well the tone of this story is different from even those stories. Much like we saw last week, Lovecraft tends to spend quite a bit of time on setting the scene, because the power in much of the magic in “his world” comes from words and smells and architecture. This story spends pages talking about Birch himself. , “I suppose one should start in the cold December of 1880, when the ground froze and the cemetery delvers found they could dig no more graves till spring… The undertaker grew doubly lethargic in the bitter weather, and seemed to outdo even himself in carelessness.”
So Birch is a poor Scrooge, or Grinch like character. He is “bucolic” and a grouch, but what’s more he’s lazy. “Birch decided that he would begin the next day with little old Matthew Fenner, whose grave was also nearby; but actually postponed the matter for three days…” and adding to his procrastination: “He had, indeed, made that coffin for Matthew Fenner; but had cast it aside at last as too awkward and flimsy, in a fit of curious sentimentality aroused by recalling how kindly and generous the little old man had been to him during his bankruptcy five years before.” so the diminutive Fenner got one of the better coffins, while Asaph Sawyer who was not “a loveable man” got the terrible cast off coffin that Fenner was supposed to have received …all because Birch was just too lazy to build the correct sized coffin for Sawyer.
Fast forward to Birch inside the tomb, we get another indication of his laziness: “For the long-neglected latch was obviously broken, leaving the careless undertaker trapped in the vault, a victim of his own oversight.”
Birch, through his own laziness has become a victim of his own negligence. Here is the first indication of the Scrooge theme, Birch is sowing his own oats. He created a situation where he has now trapped himself because he couldn’t bother with doing a little work. The “Ghosts” of his past are coming back to haunt him here, but this is just the beginning.
He cant get the door opened, so he decides to take the morbid child approach and stack all the caskets in the tomb up like some sort of macabre ladder: And so the prisoner toiled in the twilight, heaving the unresponsive remnants of mortality with little ceremony as his miniature Tower of Babel rose course by course.”
We get the quote which opens the essay where Birch decides that he wants to chizel his way out of an aperture at the apex of his corpse stair, but …”As he remounted the splitting coffins he felt his weight very poignantly; especially when, upon reaching the topmost one, he heard that aggravated crackle which bespeaks the wholesale rending of wood.”
Because of his carelessness in constructing the coffins, he was now standing upon a tower of breaking timber and corpses, until “...no sooner was his full bulk again upon it than the rotting lid gave way, jouncing him two feet down on a surface which even he did not care to imagine.” That line right there gave publishers a pause. Lovecraft very rarely goes for the gross out, focusing instead on much higher end psychological scare tactics. Here he went full “Johnny Got his Gun” (there is a terrible scene where the main character gets caught in barbed wire and falls on and through a rotten and fetid corpse…this scene and story pales in comparison to the horror that Dalton Trumbo creates in that novel) as Birch’s feet go into the corpse of Asaph Sawyer.
This being a Lovecraft tale you would expect something strange to happen, something unexpected, something otherworldly, but this story is the exception to the rule. This story is a straight supernatural tale, and because of it’s difference it comes off all the stronger because of it. The corpse grabs his leg.
“In another moment he knew fear for the first time that night; for struggle as he would, he could not shake clear of the unknown grasp which held his feet in relentless captivity. Horrible pains, as of savage wounds, shot through his calves; and in his mind was a vortex of fright mixed with an unquenchable materialism that suggested splinters, loose nails, or some other attribute of a breaking wooden box.”
I felt the same way. I didn’t believe that Lovecraft would take a flat out supernatural approach, but I am kept on my toes. Birch gets free and runs away, liping along until he gets to ghis doctor. Once inspected and unloads his story off his conscience, Dr. Davis is horrified because he comes to understand exactly what happened.
Birch gave Sawyer Matthew Fenner’s coffin because Fenner’s coffin was poorly made and Sawyer’s coffin was well constructed. Dr. Davis comes to the realization that Fenner is extremely short, whereas Sawyer is extremely tall. Dr. Davis goes to the tomb and finds the corpse and finds the ultimate betrayal of the undertaker…
“The skull turned my stomach, but the other was worse – those ankles cut neraly off to fit Matt Fenner’s cast-aside coffin!”
The final nail in the coffin!
Birch actually cut off Sawyer’s feet to make sure he fit in the coffin and Davis verified that the teeth markes on Birch’s ankle were indeed from the rotten teeth of Sawyer.
To me this is the ghost coming down to show Scrooge the right path. This was the wake up call to stop being lazy and to start doing right by people. Whether you believe that Birch’s foot just happened to land on the corpse’s mouth, or that the corpse animated itself out of anger at it’s slight beyond the grave, this was Birch’s call, much like Scrooge being showed his possible future.
To me the story is perfect for the season (at least as perfect a story as Lovecraft can get), and I hope you all had a blast reading it!
Join me next week as we evaluate “Cold Air”
To me these Post Scripts have started to become a little bit of an inside joke, but truly they are all here just to get one last point across which doesn’t quite fit into the narrative of the essay. Here I would love to talk a little about the anthropomorphosizing of Birch’s horse.
The entire story the horse felt like something Walt Disney would create. The horse was tryign to tell Birch what he was doing was a mistake. You could almost feel the horse rolling it’s eyes at the laxy way Birch held the reigns. To me the horse was the true indicator that we were in a Lovecraft story. Doesn’t make sense does it? Let me explain.
Normally we would have an unreliable narrator teloing us a story. At some point in the story we get information that doesn’t quite add up right, but Lovecraft forcuses so much on subtlety that we wil never get an outright statement from the narrator saying something was off. We just need to infer based upon the surroundings.
In this story everything is fairly normal, except for the horse (a kind of macabre parrallel to The Grinch’s dog Max). The horse gives indication at every stage that Birch isn’t doing the right things with it’s outragous personality.
When Birch finally gets to teh tomb the horse neighs and stamps and paws, and soon leaves Birch to his fate as the man ventures in. It isn’t until this point that the narrator can take leave of reality. It isn’t until the horse leaves that we start to get something far beyond normal, and the horse doesn’t leave until the very end of the story.
In every tale Lovecraft tells he has a gatekeeper or a key-master. If they cause a rift they are a key-master, if they stop a rift from happening they are a gatekeeper. It is these characters, human or not, that keep things normal. In this story we dont know for sure if what happened to Birch was supernatural or not, but what leaves that open for question is that the gatekeeper is gone. It’s once this horse leaves that the crazy happens, and if you’ll notice…all of Lovecraft happens in the shadows when you’ve turned to look at something in the light.
“As I surveyed this quaint apartment, I felt an increase in that aversion first excited by the bleak exterior of the house. Just what it was that I feared or loathed, I could by no means define; but something in the whole atmosphere seemed redolent of unhallowed age, of unpleasant crudeness, and of secrets which should be forgotten.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! With heavy influences from Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft takes this story to a very dark place, creating an almost grim dark form of his predecessor. In addition to it’s extremely dark nature this tale is apparently the first mention of the Miskatonic Valley and potentially even the first glimpse of Arkham as Lovecraft develops the eponymous Lovecraft Country. We also get echoes and seeds of some other stories which would come about later and perhaps the introduction of a different favorite character; but make no mistake; this story is a wonderfully detailed terror.
This story is all about the details which tends to happen in Lovecraft periodically a ten page story about a single event. He tends to elucidate to such a degree as to give the reader a sense of being there. The detail is spectacular which lends to the extremely visceral denouement.
Our narrator begins by telling us of his search, that many searchers (he’s a genealogist) “haunt strange, far places…” like Egypt, “Rhine castles” and “forgotten cities in Asia.” But we find that our narrator has found a newer venue, a place where he can find ancient knowledge and deep lines of genealogy:
“But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.”
You see what I mean by detail? But what I find most interesting about this passage is “a new thrill“. This is Lovecraft stating that you’ll not find the run of the mill horrors here. This is a whole new level of terror. This is an entirely unique horror. This new thrill is Lovecraftian Cosmic horror.
We find the “Most horrible of all sights are the little unpainted wooden houses remote from travelled ways, usually squatted upon some damp, grassy slope or leaning against some gigantic outcropping of rock.” and “In such houses have dwelt generations of strange people, whose like the world has never seen.” who have “dark furtive traits from the prehistoric depths of their cold Northern heritage.“
Here he sets up these people as being human, but slightly separate from the normal, run of the mill, person. We see that, “Erring as all mortals must, they were forced by their rigid code to seek concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed.”
I find it odd that Lovecraft, the wordsmith that he was, chose to use the word “mortals” instead of humans. This seems to indicate to me that there is a shift in breeding and evolution (which makes sense seeing as the narrator is a genealogist), kind of like what happened to Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. These people, for all intents and purposes, are no longer human, but another line of genetics who are merely “mortal.”
Our narrator finds the house he’s looking for. “Honest, wholesome structures do not stare at travelers so slyly and hauntingly, and in my genealogical researches I had encountered legends of a century before which biased me against places of this kind.” never-the-less our narrator approaches and “...instead of trying the door I knocked, feeling as I did a trepidation I could scarcely explain.”
The narrator decides that the house must be occupied, so he enters and we get a grand description of the place adding to the ambience of the narrative, and just before we get the quote that opens this essay we find out that “Most of the houses in this region I had found rich in relics of the past, but here the antiquity was curiously complete; for in all the room I could not discover a single article of definitely post-revolutionary date.”
So if the owner of the building which is still inhabited, is either stuck in the past metaphorically, or they are preternaturally old and are hiding away from the species that they used to be.
While looking around the narrator comes across a book…Pigafetta’s Regnum Congo, which is a real account of a Italian traveler in the Congo region. The narrator flips through the book surprised and terrified at the illustrations which show beings which are half ape alongside others that are normal humans. This is either a call back or a precursor to “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” as in that story we find that a descendant of Arthur goes into the Congo and claims a wife…who turns out to be one of these partially white apelike creatures. In fact throughout Lovecraft we can see indications of these creatures and so far I am undecided as to whether they have a direct correlation to the ancient magics that take place in the alternate universe of Lovecraft, or they are just an accidental creation and have no real stake in anything that’s happening in the overall cosmic reality. It’s an interesting question and I’m sure that I wont ever truly have an answer to it, but I hope to glean a little more insight as I get through the rest of the stories.
While our narrator is reviewing the terrible “...Plate XII, which represented in gruesome detail a butcher’s shop of the cannibal Anziques.” we hear “the unmistakable sound of walking in the room overhead.” and the old tenant of the abode appears, who “seemed abnormally ruddy and less wrinkled than one might expect…But for his horrible unkemptness the man would have been as distinguished-looking as he was impressive.“
The man greets our narrator calmly for someone who just experienced a B and E and the two talk about the book for the majority of the remainder of the story… that is until “The especially bizarre thing was that the artist had made his Africans look like white men – the limbs and quarters hanging on the walls of the shop were ghastly, while the butcher with his axe was hideously incongruous. But my host seemed to relish the view as much as I disliked it.”
Yikes! Could it be there’s a reason the host didn’t balk at seeing a stranger in his house?
A storm brews outside which our narrator doesn’t notice immediately because the intensity of the storm increases as the fervor of the host’s grotesque desires bubble to the surface. As “I listened to the rain, and to the rattling of the bleared, small-paned windows, and marked a rumbling of approaching thunder quite unusual for the season. Once a terrific flash and peal shook the frail house to it’s foundations, but the whisperer (the host) seemed not to notice.”
The tenant is caught in zeal over the depictions of the cannibalism, and in fact soon tells our narrator “Queer haow a cravin’ gits a holt on ye- As ye love the Almighty, young man, don’t tell nobody, but I swar ter Gawd thet picter begun ta make me hungry fer victuals I coudn’t raise nor buy-” and finished by telling our narrator “They say meat makes blood an’ flesh, an’ gives ye new life, so I wondered ef ‘twudn’t make a man live longer an’ longer ef ’twas more the same.“
The storm ravages outside as droplets begin to fall upon the opened book, but we soon come to realize that “rain is not red.” Our narrator looks up and “...beheld just above us on the loose plaster of the ancient ceiling a large irregular spot of wet crimson which seemed to spread even as I viewed it.”
Our narrator has stumbled into the domicile of a cannibal who has been eating people for hundreds of years to keep himself alive, when “a moment later came the titanic thunderbolt of thunderbolts; blasting the accursed house of unutterable secrets and bringing the oblivion which alone saved my mind.”
There is a bit to unravel here and it’s all a little outside the normal realm of Lovecraft. The first aspect is the capitalization of “Gawd” by the host. The general usage of God versus god, is that when the capitalization is used in this context the speaker believes in this higher being, when it isn’t… he doesn’t. By all indications the narrator believes as well. What makes this particularly interesting is that Lovecraft was a notorious atheist, but he still includes divine intervention of the “Thunderbolt” at the end of the story. The whole thing feels more like a really dark Hawthorne tale rather than a Lovecraft story because of these influences. I half wonder if that was the intention because of the detail in the opening salvo of the story. It sounds remarkably similar in tone and description as the openings of “The Scarlet Letter” or “The House of Seven Gables.”
Could there be some latent subconscious religion spattered in here, or is this intentional on Lovecraft’s part?
After working on this project for as long as I have, I’d wager that he was working to emulate, not to infuse religion. That wasn’t something he really even cared to follow through with, and the capitalizations are not there in his other works. The only possible explanation is that the host was speaking of some cosmic being (Azathoth?) as a higher being, not the Roman-Catholic Yahweh.
What do you think?
Join me next week as we cover “In the Vault!”
Post Script: I mentioned in the introduction that there was the possible inclusion of a favorite character? I think there is a distinct possibility that the tenant is the “Terrible Old Man.” We know that at one point the Terrible Old Man came from Arkham or at least passed through it, and there is mention of the works of Cotton Mather of Salem Mass. fame in the house. We also know that the Terrible Old Man was at one point in Salem (possibly during Joseph Curwen’s time there). We also know that the Terrible Old Man is a sea captain who went all across the globe before finally settling down in Kingsport, so it is possible he gained some of this knowledge or info from his time at sea (possibly sailing into the Congo?).
Whether these connections are there or not, this is one of the most fun aspects of this project. Looking for these connections. See you next week!
“Hello. I’m Vincent Price, and you’re invited to my Carnival this evening. So far the ghosts have only murdered seven people. So won’t you come to make it 8? You’ll find creatures beyond imagination, murderers, ghouls, vampires and other…blood sucking things. You’d better hurry, your ticket…expires…at midnight. Your Carnival is at Hubert’s Grove.”
Oscar pulled the phone away from his ear and looked at it, as if its screen would divulge more information.
The call’s number was (000)000-0000, so Oscar didn’t answer. He turned to Olivia.
“What is it babe?”
“I just go this really weird call,” he held the phone out to her. “Listen to the message.” He half thought it was a joke. Olivia loved that horror shit. Oscar didn’t have a clue who Vincent Price was, but he was sure Olivia would. Besides that, every year at Halloween she begged Oscar to take her to Hubert’s Grove. It was one of those places where they build a haunted maze in the woods and then charge a crazy admission price to go in and have idiots in costumes jump out at you.
He realized he made a mistake handing the phone over a second before he did it.
“OH MY GOD WE HAVE TO GO!” Olivia squealed when she finished the message.
“No! That was really Vincent Price’s voice! They must have spliced it from old movies!”
“Babe…” Oscar repeated.
She looked at him, then firmly planted a fist on her hip. “You wanna get lucky tonight, you’re taking me.”
A few minutes later they were in the car on the way to Hubert’s Grove.
The marquee said “Carnival of Souls” and they parked right in front of it. The carnival was desolate and run down. There were no people about and the tarp which encompassed the tents was stained and torn. Dust blew on a hidden zephyr through the central concourse where a solo ticket booth stood. Behind the glass of the booth was an old mechanical Zoltar, which had an abyssal stare and teeth that were just a little too white.
The full moon was the only illumination in the carnival, but it was enough to show the way to through the park. Directly on the other side of the carnival was an old house of horrors dark ride with the title “The Tingler” and a large cutout of Vincent Price’s head under the arched name.
“Oh my God this is spectacular!” Olivia screamed and ran to the Zoltar ticket booth.
“For access to the carnival please place your tickets in the slot below,” the mechanical soothsayer intoned.
“Ah, damn babe, I don’t know about this,” Oscar said. “This thing ‘aint looking like it’s been running for years.”
“Oh stop it, you big baby! I seen the squash festival here last week,” Olivia came back at him.
Oscar looked up to the rusty ferris wheel. “That enough time to build all this stuff?”
“Totally! They build that shit in a few hours. Where are the tickets?” She asked.
“Serious? You were there, we ‘aint got no tickets. We just got that phone call.”
A bright flash came from Zoltar’s eyes that briefly blinded them before Vincent Price’s dulcet tones echoed through its voice box.
“Welcome to your carnival. We accept your ticket,” The voice paused and a loud boom echoed over the grounds followed by a shower of sparks. There was a soft baby’s cry and the rides burst to life. Oscar was sure he could still hear the baby’s lament behind the screeching of rusted gears, but he was distracted by the voice coming from the Ticket Booth.
“Your first tickets are for “The Tingler,” so named because of the parasite in your spine that gives you tingles every time you’re frightened. If you can survive The Tingler you will receive your ticket to the next attraction at the conclusion of the dark ride.”
Two tickets popped out of a metal disc at waist height on the Ticket Booth. The voice laughed a terrifying but familiar guffaw before it faded to the ambiance of the grinding gears and soft baby cry.
“This is so fucking cool,” Olivia said already running toward the haunted house dark ride.
Oscar looked down at his arms and could see goose flesh and hair standing on end.
“Hold up!” He said running after her.
The Tingler had a long ramp with switchbacks leading up to the entrance, where a track carried cars barely large enough for two people to sit in. Olivia jumped in one of the cars and slid to the side gently slapping the seat next to her, beckoning Oscar to join her. Her smile hit each ear. He squeezed in and lowered the safety bar to cover their laps.
“The more scared you are, the larger the Tingler grows,” a voice projected from the car’s speakers behind their head.
The car sped up, then jerkily slowed and slammed a 90 degree turn into the attraction, snapping their heads to the side. Oscar let out a little “uh” as they were suddenly faced with a realistic wax figure on a hydraulic piston shooting out at their car. With a hiss, the piston moved the figure away from the car, revealing how fake the set up was. It was dark inside of the first room, which looked like a laboratory with faint glowing red lights. There were dollar store props, including rubber bats hanging from the ceiling with twine. There were other wax figurines in the room as well, all in various poses of horror but none of them moving. On what looked to be an operating table was a wax figure working on what looked to be a giant rubber centipede.
“Your first experience of the Tingler is past! Don’t let it get too strong or it could take over!” Vincent Price’s voice echoed in their ears.
The car moved slowly through the room before snapping again to the left. A sound track of a scream blasted from the speakers behind their heads and the wax figure of a woman with long nails and sharp teeth jumped out at them. Oscar jumped, but Olivia squealed in delight. The hiss sounded and the hydraulics brought the wax doll back into the shadows.
The next scene had even worse décor. There were more wax dolls in a scene that looked like a scientist fighting off vampire, but the supposed house they were in was just canvas that covered the walls with a painted scene and a jarring green lightbulb which lit the room from the ceiling. Vampires were painted on the canvas to look like they were swarming the painted windows and there was a Paper Mache dog attached to a metal pole moving back and forth as though it was attacking one of the vampires. The wax figures looked fairly realistic, though the running wax was evident. Everything else looked like it was produced for an eight year old’s diorama.
“Oh, come on! This is…ooof!” Oscar started as the car made another sharp turn.
This time he closed his eyes as to not get the jump scare but volume of the scream in the speaker system still made him jump.
This room was another painted canvas, however this one depicted a large Victorian mansion. There was a wax figure with a knife attached to a pneumatic track in the middle of the room. It was moving back and forth so that every time it moved forward it stabbed another wax figure.
“The only way to stop the Tingler from taking over,” the voice echoed behind their heads again, “is to kill the host!”
Oscar rolled his eyes and searched for more fake decorations when he saw something strange. The wax figure getting stabbed was missing one of its eyes and beneath the wax veneer was a real eye, open wide and staring at him. Olivia was laughing beside him.
“Yo, what the fuck?” He said as the car jerked them around another corner.
Another figure jumped out at them, but this one had a knife in its hand. The knife slid into his shoulder and his cry of pain echoed the tinny voice over the speaker.
With a hydraulic hiss the wax figure moved backwards. As it did the figure’s the head slumped.
“Oscar?” Olivia wasn’t laughing anymore.
The figure that jumped out at them wasn’t wax. It was a dead woman with her hands tied together around the knife. She had enough wax coating her that it made her body slightly stiff.
The room they entered was entirely metal illuminated by a red light. A figure hunched over a large cauldron in the corner of the room. It was facing away from them, but it was tall and gaunt and absolutely alive.
“The Tingler gets stronger! We must kill its source before it gets out of control!” The voice echoed behind them. There was a click and a grinding noise coming from the speakers as if a record had completed and continued to spin on its pin.
“Oscar?” Fear laced Olivia’s voice.
Oscar tried to turn to see what made the noise and felt a needle slide into the back of his neck.
“Oww!” Olivia wailed.
Immediately Oscar’s vision blurred.
The figure leaning over the cauldron turned around. It was wearing a melting wax mask and underneath Oscar thought he saw burnt skin.
“Welcome to your carnival,” the figure said. “Where you’ll be an attraction for all eternity.”
The figure pulled a lever and the last thing Oscar saw was a body falling from the ceiling into the cauldron of wax.
I’m taking the week off from the Blind Read series to catch up on work, so I’ll leave you with a Lovecraft inspired story. Here’s a horror short based in the madness of the mind…
The black spot was still there. How many times have I scrubbed that damn thing? It’s always there, in the corner, next to the refrigerator, just above the counter in the kitchen. I used to put my knife block there to cover it. It was a large spot, but there were a lot of knifes in the set. It’s such an embarrassing spot. It makes me feel like people would look at it and think I didn’t clean. I mean, how can I ever have anyone over?
Who am I kidding? It’s not like I know anyone who would come over. Not like I have any friends. I can’t have friends. They might want to come over and then they would see the spot and then they would judge me. I have to get rid of it. Cleaning doesn’t seem to help, so I decide that the best thing that I can do is cut it out. Cut it out of the wall, cut it out of my life.
Ah it worked! I got it out of the wall! I went to the hardware store and I bought a drill and cut the embarrassing stain out of the wall. I bought drywall to cover it up and repainted it. It finally looks like the rest of the wall! I can be a normal person now. I can invite people over, I can have friends. This is the best day of my life!
The best day followed by the worst day. When I woke up today, I found a new spot and it’s larger than the last one. It’s in my living room this time. It’s large and ugly. It looks kind of black, but if you get closer to it, it almost looks brown. Where are these stains coming from? I have to go get the drill.
That one was much harder to get out. It ended up being a much larger hole than I anticipated. I started to cut and red liquid came out from the wall. For a moment I thought it was blood. It can’t be blood. Walls don’t bleed. But the liquid spread the stain. I had to cut out half of the wall. I didn’t have enough dry wall to cover it the spot I cut so I had to go back to the hardware store. The clerks there are friendly. Maybe they could be my friends. Maybe. But I have to get that spot out of the wall first.
It’s gotten worse. There is a human sized spot in my room. It’s deep brown. I’m not fooled by thinking its black anymore. The moment I put the drill to it, blood comes out. I know, I know. It can’t be blood, because walls don’t bleed. But it really seems like it. What’s even stranger is that when I cut, the house seems to groan. You know how old houses shift and they make noises? Creaks, cracks, pops? That’s what happens when I cut. I wish I had a friend who could come over and tell me that it’s just the creaks in the house. That it’s not something more strange. That it’s not blood.
I cut into the wall. I ignore the wall’s cries. I ignore the blood. Behind the drywall is something I can’t ignore though. The house has bones. Bloody bones in the walls. Bones where studs should be.
I got back to the hardware store. I need to get more dry wall. I need to get more paint. I’m so embarrassed though. They are nice to me there. I think they can be friends, but something has changed now. It is as though they know about my house, with its blood and its bones. They ask me why I’m wearing sunglasses and a hat and a large trench coat with the collar turned up. They say it’s good to see me, but I can tell that they’re lying.
I put up the drywall when I got home. I spackled it perfectly, then painted it over. No one would ever guess that there are bones and blood behind the wall.
There’s another spot. Another one! It’s in the shower. The brown spot almost makes it look like the wall is skin. Like it has texture. Like it has movement. I repeat the process. I ignore the groans. I ignore the blood. I ignore the bones. I act like nothing is there. I act like I have a normal house. I act like I’m normal.
There’s a new spot today. I don’t know how they keep appearing. I know how to fix it. I’ve done it so many times before. I know I just need to do it again. This must be what my life is. Just getting rid of these dark spots. Erasing anything that doesn’t seem normal. I will make sure that people think I’m normal.
I grab the drill. I run my hand over the spot. I wonder how I’m going to find the materials to fix the hole I create as I cut out this abnormality. I put the drill to my chest. Once I cut this spot out of me, I’ll be normal. I’ll be able to have friends.
“It’s a beautiful place,” I said, looking out over the bow of the ship at the Amazonian jungle as it passed us by. I wasn’t lying. Such an untouched place brought a warmth to my heart, more so than any city ever could.
“It’s a dangerous place, Kay,” My boyfriend David said, “full of deadly creatures, deadly flora, and superstitious and territorial natives.”
“Which is why you brought me along,” Mark said, cocking his rifle and kicking a box of C4 housed under the windows of the boat. “Now hold on, while I dock this thing.”
We were headed to a sacred pool down in the Amazon jungle, following a lead to the find of the century. The missing link. For years my research kept hearing rumors of a fish man in the depths of the jungle, but it wasn’t until Mark and I found the skeletal hand with webbing on a tributary of the Amazon that brought some credence to those rumors.
“Did anyone else find it strange that those natives told us exactly where to look?” Edwin asked. He was our Anthropologist.
“Enough Edwin! We gave them more supplies than they could use in a year! Of course they were going to tell us where to go!” Mark said.
“I’m just saying. Native Amazonian’s historically aren’t too happy to work so well with others,” Edwin concluded.
“The natives are the last thing we have to worry about, Edwin. Let’s get camp set up, it’s starting to get dark. We don’t want to be caught outside with these deadly mosquitoes!” David laughed.
It didn’t take long to build camp, but David was right. The Mosquitoes were horrible. It was so nice to get inside the tent and block out the bugs.
“You hear that Kay? Sounds like laughter,” David said after we had settled down to sleep.
“David, get away from the side,” I cried.
“But I really think I heard laughter. It was strange, kind of gurgling. I’m gonna to take a look,” He said and left the tent. I sat there with my sleeping bag pulled tight under my chin, I mean I know that’s a stupid childish protective safety thing, but I really couldn’t help myself.
I was right to be worried, because after a few minutes I heard him scream.
“David!” I cried and unzipped my tent. I saw a shadow of someone walking by and my skin went cold. There was a strange earthy, wet smell in the air. It was like ozone blended with moss.
“What’s going on?” Mark called. I let out a little yip, embarrassed at my reaction, because he must’ve been the figure I saw.
“David heard laughter and went out to check it out. I heard him scream,” I said.
“Stay with me,” Mark said. He lifted his rifle. “We’ll move to the edge of the water. That way we can’t get surrounded by anything in the woods.”
“What’s going on guys?” Edwin ran up to join us.
“Stay close,” Mark responded. I couldn’t open my mouth. David had better be kidding, but you’d better believe I was going to kill him whether he was or not.
“Woah!” Edwin cried. “Look at this!”
He was bent over something stuck in the muck at the forest edge. Stuck in the ground was an old wooden pendant, petrified by time. It portrayed some strange bipedal fish creature. I turned it in the moonlight when something out of the corner of my eye made me look up.
Mark was standing on the edge of the water line looking past us into the jungle. The something that caught my eye was walking out of the water towards him. The water was black reflecting moonlight making the water look like oil. I thought the figure was David at first, but it was just my mind wishing for something that wasn’t true. The figure opened its arms. It had a huge arm span and its hands were webbed, its skin was scaly, and its neck had gills.
“Look out!” I cried. I was too late. The creature’s arms wrapped around Mark and its nails dug into him. He screamed as the creature bit into his neck from behind. I could see blood as black as the oily Amazon roll down Mark’s body as the creature ripped a piece of his neck free. He collapsed into the water.
“Run!” I cried.
We ran back to the metal safety of the ship. My heart was pounding and I was having trouble getting breath. Did I really just see that? I had to have imagined it, right? But, God the metallic stink of blood surrounded me, I couldn’t focus, I just wanted to be with David. I wanted him to hold me.
When Edwin and I approached the ship, I saw David on the other side of some bushes. My heart soared!
“David!” I cried. “David, get on the ship!”
We turned the corner and my knees gave out beneath me. It wasn’t David. Or rather, it was only part of him. His head was stuck down on a pole that was thrust into the ground. His eyes bugged out of his head, and his tongue lolled. Bugs crawled in and out of his grotesque mouth. I saw a mosquito feeding on one of his bulging eye balls.
I think I cried out. I think I sobbed, but the next thing I knew, Edwin and I were inside the metal boat. Edwin must have put a mop across the handle of the door, blocking us in. Didn’t he see David outside? How did he think a mere mop would stop that thing? Especially with exposed windows?
“Let’s get out of here. We got what we came for,” Edwin said, he was sobbing. Tears and snot running down his face.
“What? What do you mean we got what we came for?” I cried. We didn’t got anything but death!
Edwin held up the idol he found on the beach.
“Get rid of that fucking thing!” I yelled.
“No!” Edwin wailed. “It’s what we were paid for!”
The mop handle cracked as the creature slammed on the other side of the door.
“It’s coming for the idol! Get rid of it!”
Edwin took a few steps back, nearing one of the many windows in the cabin.
“No! Let’s just get the boat moving… ” Edwin said.
The creature’s hands broke through the window and grasped Edwin’s head. Its claws dug into his cheeks and he was momentarily lifted before his skin gave way and the claws tore up and back, ripping skin from his face, piercing his eyes and spraying blood across the room.
I grabbed the idol from Edwin’s dead hands and threw it out the window. I grabbed the broken mop handle in a futile attempt to defend myself.
Then the creature stepped into the room. It smelled of earth and blood and swamp water. It looked like a piranha, if a piranha was six foot tall. Its teeth were razor sharp and its claws were long and dripping with blood. Its green skin shone in the moonlight and it cocked its head to the side like a dog when it saw me.
“I’m leaving. You can go now. I…I won’t cause you any problems,” I called. I took a step back and my foot hit a box. I glanced down. It was the explosives. I knelt down and grabbed a packet of explosives and the detonator. The creature didn’t like that.
It screeched and opened its arms wide. Blood dripped from its hands and its mouth.
My heart was pounding so hard I thought it was going to leap from my chest. The creature took a step toward me and I threw the explosives at it. Its reflexes were incredible. It caught the C4 in the air and immediately turned to look at it.
“Fuck you,” I said, and depressed the button a split second before diving behind a table.
The echo of the explosion resonated in my ears, but somehow I got up and got to the wheel. I thrust the throttle all the way to the maximum. Fuck this place. I was getting out of here.
I managed a glance at the body of the thing. Its arm was completely gone. Disintegrated. Its head was half gone, the rest a toasted black. I had to get the thing off the boat. There was no way I was going to keep going with its corpse there, but I couldn’t think of that right now. I was shaking too bad, I just had to focus on getting out of the jungle.
I heard distant chanting. It got louder and louder and I felt bile rise in my throat. I peered out the window and I saw Amazonians at the shore line. They were dancing and shaking something in the air. The chant was a dissonant sound that made my skin crawl. I squinted at what they held. It was the same as we saw on the beach. The fish idol.
I went back to the wheel when I heard clicking behind me. Nails on metal.
“Thus only a week after his advent to the Stubbs family circle, where he lurked like the vile serpent that he was, he had persuaded the heroine to elope! It was in the night that she went leaving a note for her parents, sniffing the familiar mash for the last time, and kissing the cat goodbye – touching stuff!”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re talking about the satiric and absurdist piece, “Sweet Ermengarde.” This is a literature genre that I’m not super familiar with (at least it’s history), but this story seems to bite off the comedic nature of some of his contemporaries, while calling back to some of those classical authors like Shakespeare, or even further back, Aristophanes.
Calling on Vaudeville, Lovecraft tells a story of Ethyl Ermengarde Stubbs, whom “...her father persuaded her to drop the praenomen after the passage of the 18th Amendment, averring that it made him thirsty by reminding him of ethyl alcohol” This is the beginning of our tale, setting us up to understand what we’re getting ourselves into.
Ermengarde is a “Simple Rustic Maid” who “confessed to sixteen summers, and branded as mendacious all reports to the effect that she was thirty.” and had “light hair which was never dark at the roots except when the local drug store was short on supplies.” This sets our maid up as duplicitous from the start. These examples, of course are not devious in any way, but they give an indication that things are not actually what they seem. If we know anything about Lovecraft we know this will eventually pay off, because he tends to be very exacting in his prose, never leaving the slightest detail to chance.
We soon learn that Ermengarde had two suitors, “‘Squire Hardman, who had a mortgage on the old home (The Stubbs farm), was very rich and elderly.” and “the handsome Jack Manly, whose curly yellow hair had won the sweet Ermengarde’s heart...”
Nearly Dickensian isn’t it? We have the dastardly vaudevillian villain, Hardman (he’s a “hard man” to love…he is a “hard man” with a hard heart, only caring about money and prestige) who could frequently be seen “viciously twirling his moustache and riding crop, and kicking an unquestionably innocent cat who was out strolling (Lovecraft loves cats).” Meanwhile we have the Jack Manly, who was a young heartthrob and was the romantic love interest who frequently whispered secret nothings to Ermengarde. We immediately know we are supposed to root for “Manly” and hate “Hardman” despite the over the top affections Lovecraft writes in to fan the flames of absurdism in the tale.
Then, just to add another nail in the ridiculous coffin, when the first chapter ends Lovecraft puts “Curtain” as a stage direction indicating the end of a scene; though this is very obviously a story and not a play. It’s just yet another call back to the vaudeville stage plays, with their moustache twirling villains and hooks to pull the players from the stage after a gaff.
The second chapter begins with Hardman going after the Stubbs unknown “vein of rich GOLD!” He plans on foreclosing the Stubbs farm unless Ermengarde disavows her “Manly” lover and marries him. Jack, being the man he is (and after his “Tears flowed like white ale“), he decides he is going to go off to the city to gain a fortune and buy the mortgage from Hardman. Queue more over the top PDA.
Hardman, not to be foiled, decides to kidnap Ermengarde only to realize (after deciding she was being too “Difficult” that it would just be easier to foreclose! Why then he could just take the gold! But, in the mean time, a few hunters find the gold and make an attempt to garner sweet Ermengarde’s affections.
And, believe it or not, ANOTHER suitor comes into play, the indominable Algernon Reginald Jones; the perfidious “city chap” who came down to work on the foreclosure which brings up to the quote at the beginning of this essay. That was all pure Lovecraft: all at once vilifying and romanticizing the exit. Pure satire.
But then our resourceful young (well, as long as the hair dye held out) lady finds a love note from another woman in Algernon’s breast pocket! Well I never! She just had to leave that scoundrel behind!
So she heads off and gets lost “Alone in the Great City.” She looks for her “Manly” suitor but fails. She looks for a job and only finds only a “fashionable and depraved cabaret; but our heroine was true to her rustic ideals and refused to work in such a gilded and glittering palace of frivolity – especially since she was offered only $3.00 per week with meals but no board.”
She wanders and finds an ornate bag in the park. Soon after finding that the the owner is a Mrs. Van Itty, a clever play on words and very much a replacement for Havisham of Great Expectations fame. Mrs. Vanity, sorry… Van Itty is so pleased with our heroine that she takes her on as a ward, and then everything begins to come up Millhouse.
Van Itty hires a chauffer who turns out to be the down and out Algernon. remember the note from the woman in his breast pocket? She stole all his land and money from him.
Algernon drives Van Itty and Ermengarde to Hogton (another fun play on setting and words), Ermengarde’s home, and there they find that Manly has become a beggar. Van Itty sees Ermengarde’s mother and realizes that she was a maid who stole Van Itty’s babe from her crib some 28 years previous (“How could she get away with the sixteen-year-old-stuff if she had been stolen twenty-eight years ago?”). So Ermengarde was really Van Itty’s child all along! With this incredible revelation our intrepid heroine decides to take Hardman up on his offer and foreclose on her faux parent’s house and take the vein of gold for herself. Hardman, “The poor dub did…” what she asked and became subservient, and Ermengarde was suddenly the devious rich heiress.
We come to the end of the tale and find there is a bit of a Lovecraftian twist and role reversal going on. Ermengarde is a play on a contemporary Frances Hodgson Burnett’s character in The Little Princess (P. 1905), of the same name. In that story Ermengarde is a “fat child who is not in the least bit clever…” and that’s who we are meant to believe this Ermengarde is (mentally, not physically), but this is Lovecraft and he’s never pleased with leaving things simple so he flips expectations on their head multiple times. Manly becomes a bum. Algernon becomes a pauper. Hardman becomes a cull. Van Itty becomes a loving mother.
Taking an “As You Like It” type of approach, Lovecraft excels in his humor and construction to give us the surprise ending, but he does leave clues along the way.
Her father, the elder Stubbs, is a bootlegger and loves alcohol so much that he has to drop his daughter’s first name, lest he become a lost drunk. Hardman makes poor decisions and cant figure out that he can just foreclose on the property to get the gold until it’s too late. Algernon let’s things happen to him, rather than making things happen for himself. Manly is nothing but a pretty face and curly hair. These are the types of details you must pay attention to in Lovecraft to be informed on where he’s going next, both in this absurdist romp, and the normal horrific fare.
This is not your normal Lovecraft, but it is spectacular and hilarious. If you’re a fan of classic literature the references and the humor will hit you in exactly the right way. This is a must.
Join me next week as we delve into an underground Lovecraft classic “The Music of Erich Zann!”
I have one last reference I wanted to call up. Algernon Reginald Jones (and the whole tale in total) seem to be a call back to the tales of Horatio Alger, the classic rags to riches author. Alger wrote about “Street Boys” who lived the American Dream. They worked hard and worked their way up the ladder to become pillars of their community or leaders in business. Alger(non) was a play on those classic characters, but with the classic Lovecraft twist.
It’s truly amazing the depth and intelligence that Lovecraft writes with. It makes me a bit sad that I started here and not with Lord Dunsany or other contemporaries, because even as I delve deeper, I find that his work is founded on so many others. His ideas are built from the seeds of his predecessors and I feel as though I’ve missed so much by not understanding fully his foundation.
This post has been a bit English Teachery (and I get rid of that idea by using a word like teachery!) but there is so much more enjoyment when you catch the threads and really get into the man’s head!
“I am now, however, resolv’d to unburthen myself of a Secret which I have hitherto kept thro’ Dread of Incredulity; and to impart to the publick a true knowledge of my long years, in order to gratifie their taste for authentick Information of an Age with whose famous Personages I was on familiar Terms.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read!
As you can tell this is not your normal Lovecraft story. In fact I debated on whether I should cover it or not, but in the end I decided that each one of these stories gives a a glimpse at the half occluded mind of Lovecraft and thus informs us, hopefully not falsely, into the theories and connections behind the writing itself.
I’ve seen this story categorized as a “whimsey” and I cant think of a better box to put it in. Whimsey is a sobriquet for anything odd or fanciful.; a product of capricious fancy. This is a story which describes Lovecraft’s likes and dislikes, it is not a story in and of itself (so dont be looking for a recap!)
He tells the story under a pen name of Humphry Littlewit, talk about a capricious reference! He was a man born of little wit, indicating the reader to ready themselves for the sarcastic tone coming. This is just another reiteration to tell us not to take this story too seriously.
What we see from the opening paragraph is Lovecraft calling himself basically an immortal. He was born in 1690, and much of his writing is inspired by this influence: “Tho’ many of my readers have at times observ’d and remark’d a Sort of antique Flow in my Stile of Writing...”
This is probably the most interesting aspect of this story and the only time I’ve seen this in Lovecraft’s writing. The 4th wall. This story is Lovecraft directly telling his audience how he feels about style and the works of others. It’s full of references and I cant even come close to capturing all of them, but it seems to focus quite a bit on “THE LITERARY CLUB“
We go on for pages describing the merits of the writers whom would meet with Samuel Johnson and speak of their admittance to the group. What’s important about this is the way he speaks of these men of science and letters. There is no small amount of derision, masked by sarcasm, for these other writers and historians. This goes right along with the image of Lovecraft where he is full of himself…what some call “stuffy,” while at the same time lauding his appreciation for Johnson. Johnson is considered by some (very obviously by Lovecraft) to be one of the most distinguished writers in history, and by the critique of the other huge names (men like Gibbon, who wrote the preeminent history of Rome) Lovecraft is teasing that he is amongst the greatest who ever lived.
The deeper we dig, however, it actually seems as though Lovecraft is simultaneously venting his frustration over critics while simultaneously giving justifications for his own writing through the lampooning of the other writers.
Lines such as “‘you are mistaken. They who lose their Hold do so from their own Want of Strength; but desiring to conceal their weakness, they attribute the Absense of Success to the first Critick that mentions them.”
Lovecraft was not received well during his lifetime. It wasn’t until August Derleth posthumously published his works that he started to gain traction. Once has to wonder how much of this is Lovecraft voicing his own opinion through another’s lens to get his true feelings out in the open.
This is the penultimate example, other than in the last few lines where he speaks of John Burgoyne and how he never succeeded in his life of letters. The narrator insinuates that, because of his failure in Saratoga during the American Revolution, he “was blackballed by three votes,” ultimately meaning that talent didn’t matter, his life and his failures in public life held him back from being a successful writer.
Lovecraft felt much the same way about himself. It didn’t seem to matter how hard he tried, he projected that those outside factors limited his ability to be successful… much like John Borgoyne. That, coupled with the negative reception of his first few stories (which lets be real, every writer experiences), he “attributed” his failure to that “first critick that mentioned him.”
It goes even further, because “Dr. Johnson was second to no Man in the Pains he took to revise the bad Verses of others...”
Just after this line we have the narrator (Lovecraft) re-writing a poem, to which Johnson tells him “Sir, you have straightened out the Feet, but you have put neither Wit nor Poetry into the lines.” He is after all “Littlewit”.
This may seem like a whole lot of negative to be said about Lovecraft, but I’d contend the exact opposite. These were features of himself that he recognized, and this story in effect, is a lampooning of himself and his “stuffy” nature. He’s here calling out his failures, and doing so in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way.
While this in no means was a great read (if you’re a casual reader ignore it), it really shows his motivations and gives a good insight into his personality. Many contend that Lovecraft didn’t have a sense of humor and was too full of himself, but the story is written in Samuel Johnson’s style-not Lovecraft’s- and he points out his own weaknesses, showing that there are those whom Lovecraft looked up to, and that he was only too aware of his shortcomings. It’s a bit drab of a story, but if you’re interested in learning more about the man then you have to give this one a shot!
Join me next week as we cover another one his Lovecraft’s attempts at humor: “Sweet Ermengarde.”
“Gabe! Oh God please get over here! I don’t know what to do. It’s horrible!”
It was Henry… I hadn’t heard from Henry for quite some time. We were flat mates back in college; the days of too much drinking and too many drugs. We’d grown apart over time, not because of any interpersonal issues, just time and space. He’d become a Chemist and I became a police detective. My policing skills made it all the more disturbing that he was calling me out of the blue.
“Henry, slow down. What’s going on?” I asked.
“My lab. It’s been destroyed and… my assistants… Gabe. They’re dead! Someone killed them!” Henry wailed.
“Call the police Henry, meaning right now. As soon as I get off the phone. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
I grabbed my coat and exited my brownstone. Snow was coming down in droves which always seemed to make it harder to get a cab. When I finally flagged one down, I got in and the world was drowned out by Bruce Springsteen’s new hit blaring over the radio.
The cab made its way across town as slow as molasses, belying the song blaring on the radio. We apparently were not “Born to Run.”
My hackles rose as soon as we pulled up to Henry’s lab. The windows were smashed and the snow beneath them was spattered with red spots. I hoped it wasn’t blood, but as a detective I knew better.
I tossed the cabbie a tenner and knocked on the door to the lab. I checked to make sure my pistol was in its holster under my coat and took out my Moleskine.
The door flew open and Henry stood there looking frantic. His eyes were sunken and his skin was jaundiced. He looked like he hadn’t slept for days. Springsteen echoed behind him in his lab.
“Gabe! Thank God! Get in here! I don’t know what to do!”
“Slow it down Henry, tell me what’s going on,” I said entering the lab. It was a disaster. Broken glass everywhere. The ground was littered with viscous liquid, but what was worse was the bodies. Two people were dead on the ground. I didn’t even need to inspect them, their terrible wounds told me all I needed to know.
A woman had her head turned around backwards, her spine creating strange bluish-purple bulges in her neck where the bone was trying to break free.
A man was lying in a pool of blood with what looked to be a sword sticking out of his back. That must have been what created the blood spatter on the snow outside. I walked to the end of the room to switch off the radio. I couldn’t focus with that music blaring.
“They told me that a man named Edward came here looking for me. Looking for a new formula I’d created,” Henry said.
“Did they see him?” I started, then looked back at my disheveled friend, “wait, did you say they told you?”
“Yes! They told me he came in here and tore the place apart looking for more of my formula and when he couldn’t find it…” Henry trailed off.
“Henry,” I said. “How could they have told you if they were dead when you got there?”
His face looked surprised for a moment, then it twisted somehow. His skin rippled, his hair grew, his eye color changed. He was not the Henry I once knew.
“Oh you are so smart, Gabe!” His voice was not Henry’s. This voice was lower, rockier.
I reached for my pistol but he was faster than light. He was upon me before I could draw the revolver and his sharp teeth dug into my shoulder.
I screamed in agony and threw him away from me.
I managed a glance at him as I fumbled for my Smith and Wesson. What I saw was not human. His nails had grown long and sharp and his joints snapped and twisted into something more bestial. His eyes were bloodshot, matching my blood which covered his mouth and nose.
“Henry,” I cried, pulling the gun and pointing it. “What was in that formula?”
He laughed and sprung. I do not believe in the supernatural, but I swear he covered the fifteen feet between us with a single bound. His nails dug at my shoulders and his teeth snapped at my face. The pistol went off and he squealed like a rat.
I fell backward when he let go and fired another bullet off after him. I swear it hit him. I saw the blood spray off him but he didn’t stop moving.
The lights suddenly went out, plunging the lab into darkness. The only light in the room was the dim illumination of the lamp from the street.
“Henry!” I cried. “Henry, I don’t know what you’ve done, but we can reverse this! Did the formula make you become Edward?”
Laugher echoed through the laboratory. Springsteen came back on the radio.
“Henry! You called for help! I know you called for me to help you get rid of this Edward. Come out and let me help you!” I cried.
He sprang at me from my flank and I felt nails rake across my back.
I screamed and fired my pistol again.
At night, we ride through mansions of glory, in suicide machines…
“Is there an antidote, Henry?” I cried into the darkened room.
…this town rips the bones from your back…
I heard the laughter of the insane in the room.
“You really don’t understand, Gabe,” he laughed.
I could see his eyes reflecting through the darkness.
…it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap…
“The serum wasn’t to help me control the urges.”
…we gotta get out of here…
I lost him. I couldn’t see where he was. I took a deep breath and braced my pistol in both hands.
“You see Gabe,” He began before singing along with The Boss “I gotta find out how it feels. Don’t you want to know how it feels?”
He was suddenly in front of me and I felt his nails claw into me again. I shot my gun, but it was errant. He was gone again before I could respond.
Laughter echoed in the darkness.
…Tramps like us, baby we were born to run…
“Once I took the serum there was no more Henry. There was only Edward,” his laughter echoed inside my head. I was suddenly dizzy. I felt consciousness retreating from me. I looked down to where he scratched me. There was no scratch. I saw a syringe sticking out of me.
…I want to die with you…
“I didn’t call you here to stop Edward,” His gravelly voice said.
…on the streets tonight…
“I called you here to have a partner.”
I felt intense anger. I leaned into the hate. It felt good.
…Tramps like us, baby we were born to run…
“At one time – probably in middle life – he had evidently been grossly fat; but now he was horribly lean, the purple flesh hanging in loose pouches under his bleary eyes and upon his cheeks. Altogether, Old Bugs was not pleasing to look upon.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re digging into the parable of Old Bugs and we’ll talk a little about writing style and contemporaries of Lovecraft.
I started reading this story expecting some kind of dark twist by the end. The title made me pause, because I was worried about some kind of Lovecraftian gross out. I was met with, not a scary tale, but a wonderful parable about the dangers of addiction. Of course this is told through Lovecraft’s lens so it is far more severe than it needs to be, but it’s told to hammer the point across, so take the text with a grain of salt.
Our story begins by describing Sheehan’s Pool Room, “which adorns one of the lesser alleys in the heart of Chicago’s stockyard distcrict, is not a nice place.” Lovecraft describes the air as having “acrid fumes of unnumbered cheap cigars and cigarettes,” which “too seldom know(s) the purifying rays of the sun“
Lovecraft says this pool hall is redolent with “the aroma of strong, wicked whiskey...” and we soon find out that the story takes place in 1950…31 years after the story was written.
Lovecraft vaguely describes the 18th amendment (prohibition) as coming from a “benevolent government” so right away we know that, between the story taking place in Chicago notorious for it’s speakeasys, and speaking of prohibition, that Lovecraft expected that doomed amendment to continue on forever. Lovecraft, you see, was a teetotaler and contended that there was evil inherent in alcohol as well as drugs.
The story evolves beyond Sheehan’s to describe the codger “Old Bugs.” Bugs is a sad excuse for a human (In Lovecraft’s opinion). He begs for drink and drugs in Sheehan’s in exchange for doing menial and disgusting labor. He apparently “epitomised the pathetic soecies known as ‘bum’ or the ‘down-and-outer‘.”
No one seems to know where Old Bugs came from but he often started stories of his past, “exploding into sesquipedalian admonitions and strange oaths…” giving indication that Bugs at some point was formally educated, but soon after his verbose tirades, his “alcohol-enfeebled brain would wander from the subject,” and he would return to his menial cleaning task.
The only break was when Bugs would pull out an old picture of a young woman, apparently an old lover, but invariably he would stuff it back into his pocket and get lost into drink.
Being prohibition, alcohol was illegal and thus Sheehan’s was stuck in a back alley away from prying eyes. To get new business the “pool hall” employed “runners” to garner new clients. One day a runner brought in young Alfred Trever to the hall; “a rich and high-spirited youth who would ‘go the limit’ in anything he undertook.‘”
He was a college boy who at Lawrence just joined the “mock-fraternity” of…wait for it…”Tappa Tappa Keg.” One can feel both sarcasm and the disdain for the drink dripping off the page.
Young Galpin had a young fiancé and a very rigid mother who rails against alcohol. These feelings in Galpin’s mother come from her own fiancé before Galpin’s father. Apparently he was a brilliant young man who was about to take up a professorship at Lawrence, before “Evil habits, dating from a first drink taken years before in woodland seclusion, made themselves manifest in the young professor; and only by a hurried resignation did he escape a nasty persecution for injury to the habits and morals of the pupils under his charge.“
Old Bugs overhears this tale and watches on in silence, cleaning vomit and filth from the bar.
Young Trevor, excited to jump into an unknown arena, orders a whiskey and is about to drink it. Old Bugs meanwhile has pulled out the picture of the young lady. He approaches Trevor and states:
Do not do this thing. I was like you once, and I did it. now I am like – this.
Bugs persists and Sheehan goes to remove him. A scuffle breaks out and Bugs was heard yelling “He shall not drink! He shall not drink!”
They eventually get Bugs out of the bar…excuse me, “pool hall” and Trevor sits down to grab his drink again when he notices the picture Old Bugs’ fawns over on the bar. He is surprised because, “Over the library mantel in his home hung the exact replica of that picture, and all his life he had known and loved the original.
“For the gentle and noble features were those of his own mother.”
Wow what a parable!
I actually found out after reading the story that Lovecraft wrote the tale for a young friend Alfred Galpin, who wanted to get drink before Prohibition started. Lovecraft sent young Galpin the story along with a letter. The letter was asked to be read after the story, and in the letter is said “Now will you be good?”
It’s nice to see more of a human side of Lovecraft, even if he is a little spastic in his affections. Alfred was the name of the youth in the story, Galpin was Old Bugs original name and even Elanor Wing, who was Bug’s love interest and Alfred’s mother, was a friend of Lovecraft in real life. This was a pointed story to get Alfred Galpin (his friend) not to drink, because obviously if he had one sip then obviously he would devolve into an old bum begging for drink in a tavern. Incidentally that’s why this is the only Lovecraft story (of which I’ve read at least) which takes place that far in the future. It’s written that way to make Galpin understand that if he gets lost in the drink then what he has to look forward to is a life as Old Bugs.
Being this close to the holidays, there is no doubt an echo of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with the look into the future and what it could hold if the current path isn’t altered. I would contend however that there is a stronger resemblance to a contemporary across the United States in San Francisco…Ambrose Bierce.
This is exactly a tale that Bierce would tell and it’s told in much the same manner and dialect. Granted Bierce came before Lovecraft (and to tell the truth I haven’t actually heard Lovecraft referencing Bierce), but the tonality is the same. When you take a story like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” which was made into a Twilight Zone episode of the same name, you can almost feel a visceral sensation of morality streaming through the text.
Then when you layer on newer writers of Lovecraftian fictions like Brian Lumley, you can see some of the same moral tones which blend in between Bierce and Lovecraft. Specifically in stories like “Fruiting Bodies” or “The Levee.”
Beyond morality, there is also the twist ending which Bierce was famous for (and sometimes forced through…painfully). Lovecraft tacks on this style of twist ending with some of his short stories very well, but the vast majority are trundling towards an inevitable ending. This story, though obvious, was specifically meant to have a shock ending to elicit a response from his friend, and by extension the audience, which was a divergence from Bierce. Bierce was looking for the shock, for the unexpected. He contended that he was the best writer to ever live because of this, and where he was absolutely a staple of American literature, by no means was he the best and his usage of these kind of tricks may have carried on beyond him, but for writers like Lovecraft, they give a basis of what to do and what not to do when building these kind of stories. Yes the ending was there for a bit of shock value, but the story was also written to be an anvil over the readers head. This story is not subtle in it’s moral, and thus we already know what the ending is going to be when we get there. This makes the shock ending more palatable because the reader can recognize it as a device that’s used sort of tongue in cheek instead of as a desire to shock.
Join me next week as we tackle “A Reminiscence of Dr. Johnson!”