“It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth’s dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.” – H.P. Lovecraft
Welcome back to another Blind Read! Well we’ve officially done it. We’ve read through every H.P. Lovecraft story I could find as well as all the August Derleth stories attributed to Lovecraft. I’ve already covered my final thoughts on August Derleth (which you can find here), so I wont be mentioning his work here, but I intend on covering Lovecraft’s writing style, touching on some of the work and making recommendations.
First and foremost, Lovecraft is a hard nut to crack. If you’re a casual reader his catalogue can be quite daunting. His language is archaic and complex, and his exposition is dense and verbose. I had no idea where to start when I began reading Lovecraft, and I dont think I started in the right place, but I intend on shining a light here in the dark places of Howard Phillips’ mind for the neophyte.
To me, the absolute best place to start to get into Lovecraft is the story “The Festival.” “Some fear had been gathering in me, perhaps because of the strangeness of my heritage, and the bleakness of the evening, and the queerness of the silence in that aged town of curious customs.”
The Festival holds all the elements you want in an introduction to Lovecraft. Ancestral ties, intense and submersed atmosphere, A classic Lovecraftian township, witchcraft, cosmic horror… you name it and this story has it. It follows our classic unreliable narrator as he heads to Kingsport for Yuletide whose, “fathers had called me to the old town...” There he finds himself involved in a nefarious ritual which includes the Necronomicon.
This wasn’t the first story I read of Lovecraft, but it was the turning point for me. Before reading this story I was on the fence, I really wasn’t sure if I liked the writing or not. I was upset because I thought there was going to be far more monsters and aliens and things like that interspersed within the text. What this story made me realize is that Lovecraft is all about the feel. His text is sneaky because as you read it it kind of just glazes over you, but the longer you read, and the longer you sit with the text, the more it sinks in and that familiar anxiety attributed to good horror is subsumed in your conscious. Lovecraft is at his best when he delivers atmosphere, and this story is dripping with it. Not only that, but this is also the most accessible story in terms of readability, which makes it one of the best jumping off points for all things Lovecraft.
If you’re not into the short stories and are looking for a novel, jump right into “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” “He bore the name of Charles Dexter Ward, and was placed under restraint most reluctantly by the grieving father who had watched his aberration grow from a mere eccentricity to a dark mania involving both a possibility of murderous tendencies and a profound and peculiar change in the apparent contents of his mind.” Not only is this novel cleaner and an easier plot line to follow, but it has some spectacular imagery and characterization… something which Lovecraft wasn’t known for.
Told in altering perspective form, this novel gets to the core of Lovecraftian horror without being overt, nor necessarily Cosmic, but with a grand backstory which brings historical witchcraft from Salem into Lovecraft’s own mythology. In case you hadn’t realized, witchcraft is at the core of Lovecraft’s fiction. Derleth made his fiction famous for the mythos, but even with those Cosmic deities, witchcraft was the unifying base. Characters over and over again utilize witchcraft as a means to an end, which more often than not ends up reversing course on them, just like you saw in the quote above. Many of these characters, including the titular Ward, use witchcraft in the guise of what they like to call “antiquarianism” where they study old books and genealogies, but it all comes down to a few books which ends up overpowering the narrator.
“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” follows in this tradition, but there are enough pages for Lovecraft to build some really incredible atmosphere. We go through two chapters of introductions and then Lovecraft takes his time building tension and dread until we get to the ultimate conclusion. It’s a wonderful novel and a very good introduction to longform Lovecraft.
Don’t expect campfire tales when you read these stories. Don’t expect to be scared out of your gourd. There’s not much in these tales that will scare you while you’re reading them. Lovecraft’s genius is his precision. Every word chosen means something. Every reference is purposeful. Even the length of a story has meaning. These are the types of stories which dig into your subconscious and stick with you far longer than you’d anticipate. These are the types of stories which so surreptitiously describe a surface that all the sudden I developed trypophobia. These are the types of stories that make you second guess the glance that stranger gave you. They aren’t going to jump off the page and yelp with fright, but like all great horror does, they settle down into your mind like a parasite and feed on deep rooted fears you didn’t even know you had…but somehow Howard Phillips Lovecraft did.
There are many other tales I cut from this list, but some amazing notables are, “Dreams in the Witch House,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Music of Erich Zann,” “Pickman’s Model,” and the ultimate horror short story which delivers the most visceral and terrifying text… “The Rats in the Walls.”
Pick up these stories and take them slow. Analyze the text and let the master take you for a ride!
Join me next week as we take a brand new journey, and begin with The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien!
I would like to thank everyone who has joined the conversation and read along with me over these past few years. I used this convention as an excuse to read through H.P. Lovecraft’s tales, and as most times you take on a long project, it changes you through the process. This series of essays has made me a better writer and reader (you can tell by reading the first few of this series), but it has also tempered my angst over other’s opinions. I never experienced any kind of negativity I would expect through a Social Media (though there were absolutely differing opinions!) endeavor like this. That’s the main reason I want to keep going and move onto another Author whom people have trouble getting into past a few of his stories. Let’s continue the conversation and continue the positivity, and continue the opposing views.
“After a long enough time to allow for the assimilating of this rapidly narrated series of curious facts, I asked, ‘Conceding that the data in these rare books does offer the solution of the events which have taken place in this corner of the State during the past two hundred years and more, what then, in your opinion, is it – which particular manifestation, that is – that lurks at the threshold, which is presumably the opening in the roof of that stone tower?”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we not only conclude this novel, but bring our August Derleth journey to an end as well. Derleth has brought clarity to the mystery of Lovecraft, but whether that’s a good thing or not I’ll leave that up to you to decide!
We jump into the final section of the novel leaving the mystery open as to what happened to Stephen Bates. Instead there is a jump in narrative to the perspective of Winfield Phillips who was the understudy of Dr. Seneca Lapham of Miskatonic University. We find that at the urging of Dr. Harper, apparently “late of the library staff,” Stephen Bates delivered a manuscript to Dr. Lapham and “urged Dr. Lapham to read it at once.”
The stupidity which runs rampant in this story apparently effected the previously forward thinking Bates as well, because in an effort to ameliorate his cousin he decides to perform a task asked of him by Dewart and the ersatz companion Misquamicus. They ask him to move the strange stone with the strange markings, of which Dewart previously removed from the peak of the tower, only because “…it seemed that neither he nor the Indian nor the two of them together could manage that marked stone which my cousin had dislodged from the roof of the tower.” So, naturally, Stephen does it and removes the very last vestige of protection from the area by removing the Elder Sign.
They speak for a while, and Dr. Lapham shows him a Bas-relief with a cephalopod looking creature with long tentacles, to which Bates replies “‘It looks like the things that flew about near the tower – that might have made the clawprints – but it’s also like the thing to which my cousin was talking.“
Dr. Lapham nods and shakes his hand and Bates takes his leave. The majority of the remainder of the book is a rumination on the mythos and clarification of what the mythos is. It seems obvious to me at this point (without reading the correspondence between Lovecraft and Derleth) that this novel has a direct point, beyond just being a fun horror story. This last chapter, alongside events which happened earlier in the tale, feel like Derleth sat around and decided that Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothothery was just too complicated. It was too vague for the modern reader. Derleth took it upon himself to clarify the mythos and put the various gods into specific categories because, in general, that’s how humans work…we need to put things in buckets. Lovecraft’s insidious horror was so pervasive because of how vague it was. Lovecraft relied on the brief description and let your mind do the rest of the work. This tactic ends up making for more difficult reading, but then your mind takes over and rather than letting the imagery go, it builds upon it and seethes into your unconscious. It’s like watching the original “The Haunting” movie from the sixties and then watching the 1999 remake. It’s what you don’t see that scares you. The moment you put a face to something you are suddenly able to identify it and the point of Lovecraftian horror is removed. Derleth, in trying to make the mythos more accessible, has ostensibly removed the fear from the god like characters and made them anthropomorphic. They are no longer apathetic, but now nefarious.
What Derleth does in this last portion which I did find fascinating was tying together our history through anthropology with these Elder Gods. He speaks of mysterious things like “The strange sculptures and carvings of Easter Island and Peru.” and mythological creatures such as Wendigo. We even get one of the first “almost” scientific references to ghost hunting…a precursor to books and movies such as “Hell House;” “I…will propound a theory of psychic residue, but I think it is far more than that – far, far more…” except Lapham is saying that this residue is from the outsiders, not ghosts.
To work out what their next steps are the two men then spend pages and pages of text clarifying and demystifying the mythology. We find that the Great Old Ones, “had some correspondence to the elements – as of earth, water, air, fire-” and had followers who effected certain ‘openings’ through which the Great Old Ones and their extra-terrestrial minions might enter.” who are these Great Old Ones? To Derleth, they are:
“The first among them is Cthulhu, who lies supposedly “dead but dreaming” in the unknown sunken city of R’lyeh, which some writers have thought to be in Atlantis, some in Mu, and some few in the sea not far off the coast of Massachusetts. Second among them is Hastur, sometimes called Him Who Is Not To Be Named and Hastur the Unspeakable, who supposedly resides in Hali in the Hyades. Third is Shub-Niggurath, a horrible travesty on a god or goddess of fertility. Next comes one who is described as the ‘Messenger of the Gods”-Nyarlathotep – and particularly of the most powerful extension of the Great Old Ones, the noxious Yog-Sothoth, who shares the dominion of Azathoth, the blind and idiot chaos at the centre of infinity.”
The two men then tell us, “...that without Alijah Billington was engaged in some kind of nefarious practice which may or may not have been akin to sorcery.” as they correlate what the Necronomicon says and tie it together with the history. So apparently I was wrong about Alijah not being involved, but what’s interesting is that he was the one who sealed everything up. One has to wonder if this were not just another case of an ancestor possessing his offspring for a longer life, like we’ve seen so many times before in both Lovecraft and Derleth, and when Alijah realized what was happening, he sealed off the tower with the help of the Elder sign and fled the country.
Winfield and Lapham speak of the “rules” and how they’ve all been broken.
- “The water ceased to flow of itself“
- “Dewart molested this (the stone block with the elder sign) in precisely the way Alijah hoped it would not be disturbed.
- “Finally, the entreaty to which reference is made in order to effect the primary stage of contact with the forces beyond the threshold.”
Each and every one, with the help of Stephen Bates being stupid, has been effected and Richard, in the body of Dewart, is ready to bring forth his outsider.
In an effort to tie everything together they speak about the window: “I suggest the window is not a window at all, but a lens or prism or mirror reflecting vision from another dimension or dimensions – in short, from time or space.” and it was only when looking through this window and getting a strange vision that Dewart “felt the compulsion to dislodge the block set into the roof.”
They even get into what these outsiders are. If I’m being honest this was the story I was looking for the entire time I read Lovecraft and I’m only getting it now, here at the end of all things. We get the history of the war between the Elder Gods and the Great Old Ones and the distinction between them (I’ll put this passage in the post script), but now that I’m reading it in this context I’m a little let down, which I find curious.
I love playing board and role playing games, and have played Call of Cthulhu many times. Every time there’s a scene almost exactly like this last chapter, where the atmosphere is stuffy but cozy, as your characters uncover eldritch truths in hidden rooms or libraries. Obviously Chaosium, the company who created the games, took quite a bit of narrative out of Derleth. But there’s something missing. The depth and visceral emotional realness that is Lovecraft is missing, and that makes this feel like watching “The Librarian” instead of watching “Indiana Jones,” both you have to suspend disbelief, but somehow through character and setting and plot, Indiana just feels that much more realistic and relatable. But I digress…
Dr. Lapham tells us the way the Elder Gods were able to defeat and lock away the Great Old Ones was by the use of the Elder Sign (See? Elder Gods used their sign, which was powerful enough to lock up these alien Titans) which turns out to be “‘Armor against witches and daemons, against the Deep Ones, the Dholes, the Voormis, the Tcho-Tcho, the Abominable Mi-Go, the Shoggoths, the Ghasts, the Valusians and all such peoples and beings who serve the Great Old Ones and their spawn…carven out of grey stone from ancient Mnar…‘”
Armed with this knowledge they decide to go out and confront Richard Billington and his assistant Quamicus. They get out to the stone tower and find Billington in Dewarts body up on the tower doing the incantation to bring forth the Lurker at the Threshold:
“Iä! Iä!N’ghaa, n’n’ghai-ghai! Iä! Iä! N’ghai, n-yah, n-yah, shoggog, phthaghn! Iä! Iä! N’ghai, y-nyah, y-nyah! N’ghaa, n’n’ghai, waf’l pthaghn – Yog-Sothoth! Yog-Sothoth...”
Finally we have our Big Bad! Yog-Sothoth! The creature so pervasive on our world in Lovecraft’s opinion that he called his mythos Yog -Sothothery! This is a pretty brilliant move by Derleth to have the Lurker at the Threshold be Yog-Sothoth because that’s the diety who is closest to our world. Not floating through the ether like Azathoth, not dead and dreaming under the sea like Cthulhu, or Dagon. Not lost to space and time like Nyarlathotep (though I really want to see something with him in it! I have “Khai of Khem” by Brian Lumley another Lovecraftian antecedent, in hopes that it’s about Nyarlathotep!). This whole novel, less so the short stories I read first, seem to be a nod towards Lovecraft and a hope to bring his strange and wonderful mind to the masses, and he proves it here by bringing forward Yog-Sothoth. Or does he?
Dewart trails off at the end of the incantation because Dr. Lapham brings out a firearm, and in the most anti-climactic ending, merely shoots the man. But then! Quamicus gets up onto the tower and continues the spell! We might finally see a Great Old One…nope Lapham shoots Quamicus too, and thus ends our tale.
At least that’s how I thought it was going to end. Derleth slaps on one final paragraph right there at the end…it’s a vision of what Winfield, our narrator, thinks he sees:
“great globes of light massing towards the opening, and not alone among these, but the breaking apart of the nearest globes, and the protoplasmic flesh that flowed blackly outward to join together and form that eldritch, hideous horror from outer space, that spawn of the blankness of primal time, that tentacled amorphous monster which was the lurker at the threshold, whose mask was a congeries of iridescent globes, the noxious Yog-Sothoth, who froths as primal slime in nuclear chaos forever beyond the nethermost outposts of space and time!“
So we may not have gotten a good look at any of the Great old Ones, but we got some great insight into what they and who they are. The story itself as a total for the novel isn’t very complete, but it was interesting to see things from different characters perspectives.
The novel itself is a bit bland, and difficult to get through, not for the same reasons that Lovecraft is hard to get through, but because Derleth has a penchant for meandering. It does feel like this was the appropriate send off to this/these author/authors, because, like I said earlier, we finally got what we were initially intending on getting when I started this project those four plus years ago. A understanding about the difference between The Great Old Ones and the Elder Gods.
Is this something that’s interested you? Do you want to read Lovecraft, but are daunted by his complexity? Join me next week as we review favorite stories and final thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft!
As promised, here is the passage about the conflict between the Elder Gods and the Great Old Ones…
“Ubbo-Sathla is that unforgotten source whence came those daring to oppose the Elder Gods who ruled from Betelgueze; the Great Old Ones who fought against the Elder Gods; and these Old Ones were instructed by Azathoth, who is the blind, idiot god, and by Yog-Sothoth, who is the All-in-One and One-in-All, and upon whom are no strictures of time and space, and whose aspects on earth are ‘Umr At-Tawil and the Ancient Ones. The Great Old Ones dream forever of that coming time when they shall once more rule Earth and all the Universe of which it is part…Great Cthulhu shall rise from R’lyeh; Hastur, who is Him Who Is Not To Be Named, shall come again from the dark star near Aldebaran in the Hyades; Nyarlathotep shall howl forever in darkness where he abideth; Shub-Niggurath, who is the Black Goat With a Thousand Young, shall spawn and spawn again, and shall have dominion over all wood nymphs, satyrs, leprechauns, and the Little People; Lloigor, Zhar, and Ithaqua shall ride the spaces among the stars and shall ennoble those who are their followers, who are the Tcho-Tcho; Cthugha shall encompass his dominion from Fomalhaut; Tsathoggua shall come from N’kai…They wait forever at the Gates, for the time draws near, the hour is soon at hand, while the Elder Gods sleep, dreaming, unknowing there are those who know the spells put upon the Great Old Ones by the Elder Gods, and shall learn how to break them, as already they can command the followers waiting beyond the doors from Outside.”
“I saw my cousin far more clearly, as I later realized, than I should have seen him by all the laws of perspective and sight applied to the distance, the time, and the setting, but at the moment this did not occur to me as forcefully as it might otherwise have done for a very vivid reason – because I saw far more than these fundamentals of the setting, which seemed, as it were, little more than a frame for the utterly horrible and frightful visions which presented themselves to my view from the study window.
“For my cousin Ambrose was not alone.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we progress into a crescendo of information, solidify Derleth’s legacy in Cosmic horror, and bring Stephen Bates’ manuscript to a close.
We start this section with Stephen and Ambrose returning “‘home,’ where he (Ambrose) ‘belonged.‘” But we find that while the two men were in Boston there were two mysterious deaths which sound remarkable familiar. The “bodies of two victims…both appeared to have been dropped from a height, varying between them, both were badly mangled and torn, however recognizable...”
This strikes me as reminiscent to either “The Haunter in the Dark” or the flying Mi-Go from far reaching space (These may actually be the same creatures. The descriptions for both are vague enough that I truly think one of the Mi-Go was called out and was the titular Haunter.), called out of space and time by Ambrose’s calls and killed the two people as sacrifices necessary to complete the ritual and bring forth, whichever deity Ambrose (or Richard Billington taking over his body) is working to summon.
As soon as they get there, Ambrose “began to act in a manner completely antipodal to his conduct as my (Stephen’s) winter-guest in the city.” But one other thing went terribly wrong as soon as they arrived.
“The frogs – do you hear them? Listen to them sing!” Ambrose cries out to Stephen. It’s remarkable that Stephen doesn’t get it even after reading all the documents of correspondence, because the batrachian crying is the last line of defense…and we find out a few pages later, the Whippoorwills are crying out in song.
Derleth works on building the tension by reiterating the rules and even going so far as recalling a portion from the Necronomicon: “…that writer described only as the ‘mad Arab,’ because the amphibia were of the same primal relationship as the sect of followers of the Sea-Being known as the ‘Deep-Ones.'”
Derleth describes the noises for a few pages, ramping the unease, until he steps up his game by stating that “there was an old woman in Dunwich who had several times been awakened in the night by the voice of Jason Osborn…and decided finally that it came from somewhere ‘beside her, or out of the space or the sky overhead.“
Don’t know who Jason Osborn is? He’s one of those victims who “appeared to ‘have been dropped from a height.'”
Stephen thinks about this for a while and decides that he needs to go speak with Mrs. Bishop based upon the notes from his cousin.
Immediately she invites him inside because of his car. “‘Tis the same car the Master come in – yew come from the master!” It’s an odd reply because she thinks of Ambrose as her “Master” or rather she knows that Richard has taken back over Ambrose’s body, specifically because of the music of the frogs, “I been a-hearin’ ’em a-callin’ steady, an’ I know they’re a-callin’ fer Them from Outside.”
Stephen asks her what actually happened before. Why did Alijah leave? What is actually going down here?
“It never got Alijah. Alijah shut It up an’ got away. Alijah shut It up – an’ he shut up the Master, too, out there, Outside, when the Master was ready tew come back again after thet long a time. Ain’t many as knows it, but Misquamicus fer one.” But who is the Master? “He wore a Whateley face an’ he wore a Doten face an’ he wore a Giles face an’ he wore a Corey face...”
She never gives a clear understanding of who the Master really is, although obviously he’s either a priest of one of the Great Old Ones, or he’s one of the Great Race of Yith (In Lovecraft they were observers, in Derleth they are interferers with a nefarious bent). The Master is not one of these individual humans she speaks about, but rather some sort of Outsider who has the ability to jump into others bodies and control them. So when she calls Ambrose “Master” she ain’t speaking about Ambrose, she’s speaking about this Outsider who has invaded and taken over his personality and body.
As Mrs. Bishop and Stephen are speaking, he remembers the correspondence between Alijah and someone named Jonathan Bishop, who in those letters speaks of Alijah as Master as well. We find out that he was Mrs. Bishop’s grandfather who “come on tew some uv the secrets an’ he thought he knew it all.” He brought his own unfortunate end by trying to call “It” down.
She tells Stephen he should have a “sign uv perteckshun” which will stop them from being able to hear what’s happening on this side of the multiverse. We also know from previous Derleth that this sign of protection, otherwise known as the Elder Sign, can also be used to imprison outsiders. In fact that’s what Ambrose carved out of the stone tower at the beginning of this novel which was holding a Outer God in prison, but it’s also what keep Cthulhu imprisoned and sleeping in R’lyeh.
Mrs. Bishop continues to speak of the sign and how it will protect him and what the outsiders can do, using Jason Osborn as an example, and ends with this: “An’ the wust uv it is, yew doan’t see Them a-tall – but yew can tell when They’re near by the smell, the wust smell ever – like suthin’ straight aout uv Hell!”
I bring this up, not only because it’s notable that you can tell the Outsiders by their smell, but also because of what the smell means for each author. In Lovecraft the smell was a fruiting fungous smell. Earthy and putrid and nauseating. It was supposed to indicate something odd, something not of this world all the while eliciting disgust about what the fungus of space would do. Fugus it self can grow on anything, and generally overruns it’s host body which is the feeling Lovecraft wanted his readers to feel as they read his works. That slow insidious crawl.
Derleth took all that Lovecraft did and layered on his religious tendency over top of it. Thus the smell was out of Hell, it became a sulfurous smell rather than a fungoid smell, still eliciting innate fears, but, to me, Lovecraft’s is far more powerful, because a sulfur smell just brings about images of demons, which are in the image of man, whereas the outsiders are something we cant even fathom. Something that can break your mind just by looking at them. Something beyond comprehension.
Eventually Stephen goes back to the house and he finds that he’s alone. He passes the strange leaden window and decides to take a look through it, only to find that it’s become a sort of magnifying glass which shows the tower and circle of stones in perfect clarity. We get the opening quote of this essay, and find out whom is with Ambrose:
“On the roof, as it were one on each side of him, were two toad-like creatures which seemed constantly to be changing shape and appearance…And in the air about him were great viperine creatures, which had curiously distorted heads, and grotesquely great clawed appendages, supporting themselves with ease by the aid of black rubbery wings of singularly monsterous dimensions…the things I saw had an existence quite apart from my imagination.”
The space around Ambrose becomes “In Flux” popping into existence and vanishing, as if another dimension were trying to enter into our world and something even more insane happens:
“…the Thing, which first appeared before me as an angular extension into space, with its focal point before my cousin Ambrose at the tower, became in succession a great amorphous mass of changing flesh, squamous as certain snakes, and putting forth and drawing back constantly and without cessation innumerable tentacular appendages of all lengths and shapes; a horrible, blackly furred thing with great red eyes that opened from all portions of its body; a hellish monstrosity which was octopoid in seeming to have become a small, shrivelled mass of torso with tentacles hundreds of times its size and weight which whipped backward in a fanning motion into space, and the ends of which were literally sloughed or melted away into distance, while the empurpled body opened a great eye to look upon my cousin, and disclosed beneath it a great pit of mouth from which issued a terrible, if muted, screaming...”
This visage only lasts a few moments before suddenly Ambrose is alone on the tower, but it’s a significant moment in literature. This is truly the first time one of the Great Old Ones is described in such detail. This is undoubtedly Yog-Sothoth, whom I believe Derleth has decided to make his big bad for this novel (Poor Nyarlathotep…maybe next time). Lovecraft has previously given short descriptions, but nothing definitive, this is the first time we get such detail and it’s this description, I believe, which fuels the fire for all the future art to come out which visualize the Great Old Ones.
Stephen says he doesn’t sleep that night, but promises himself the next morning he’ll leave. So when he wakes he sees Ambrose who “seemed very cheerful” and he mentions that he has acquired help. “In fact, he is an Indian…his name is Quamis.”
I think I was previously incorrect about who and what Quamis really was. If you remember in part 2, I spoke of him being innocent and fighting against the evils. I think that maybe our shaman just might have something to do with the whole craziness to begin with!
What do you think? Let’s find out next week in the conclusion as we begin the last chapter entitled “Narrative of Winfield Phillips.”
“The Fourth letter was in some was the most frightening. A kind of pall of astonished horror had been laid upon Dewart by the first three letters; but in the fourth there lay an incredible suggestion of shuddersome terror, though this was not so much evident in the words as in the implications.“
Welcome back to another blind read! This week we slide into foreshadow with the potential for much more nefarious events on the horizon as we delve deeper into what or who the Lurker is.
This conclusion of part 1, “Billington’s Wood” set’s up a very exciting story – probably the most exciting of any I’ve seen in Derleth. Last week we established that Dewart, our main protagonist, inherited a house in the back woods of Massachusetts outside of a little town called Dunwich. He finds a strange colored glass window with strange designs, lots of books and history of his ancestors, and an odd tower surrounded by stone rings. When he heads to the tower he carves out a stone with an Elder Sign on it to get a view of the area.
There was much talk of naming conventions, as Derleth tried his best to fool us as to which character he was introducing (I’m still hoping the main antagonist is Nyarlathotep!), but this week we join our protagonist Dewart with a quest for more information.
He heads out into Dunwich in an effort to discover the truth of Misquamacus, a native mystic and Laban Billington’s companion, but “when he arrived at the cluster of houses which was Dunwich, though no sign survived to identify it, most of the dwellings being deserted and in various stages of ruin.”
He looks around until he finds a “mercantile establishment” with “Two shabby old men (who) leaned up against the building, and, taking in their appearance of mental and physical degeneracy and inbreeding, Dewart addressed himself to them.”
This passage is so endemic in Lovecraft and Derleth, that I’ve been ruminating over it for quite some time. So much of horror is the fear of the unknown, and none do that theme better than Lovecraft. The general population at the time of this novel’s publication however (and quite honestly still to this day) fear what would make a person live out off the grid and only with a few kin. That fear that they would have to live in squalor and the only possibility of affection or twisted love would be inbreeding translates into monstrous intent. If they’re willing to do that to themselves just imagine what they would do to a normal person! This is echoed in movies like “The Hills Have Eyes” and James Dickey’s haunting novel (and the movie they made of it) “Deliverance.”
Both Lovecraft and Derleth use this internal fear to set up the unease of their plots. In this story Dewart feels at home and does stupid things (like carving out an Elder Sign) because of his comfort, but the tone changes when he heads out into these remote locals. There is tension in the interactions and the writing. Dewart still hasn’t chosen to believe in the magic or the otherworldly nastiness that he could potentially unleash. At this point in the story he’s only worried about the human horror which could blossom in these back country yokels if they get their ire up.
The two “shabby old men” are just as weary of outsiders as Dewart is of the down home Dunwich folks, and when he asks if either of them know of any Indians around he merely gets, “‘Hain’t no Injuns left.'” but the other companion notices something peculiar about Dewart’s look and asks him straight out if he’s a Billington. Dewart, feeling emboldened relays his bloodline… that he’s the great-great-grandson of Alijah.
“He had no sooner identified himself than both the old men underwent a complete change in manner; from simply curious individuals, they became almost fawning and subservient.” They tell him to go see Mrs. Bishop for more information, but why would they become fawning and subservient? Historically in Lovecraft (and pretty much every Derleth story) it’s because of a tainted bloodline, and the down home folk have been through so much horror already that they’re weary of people from these bloodlines…but why subservient? Could Derleth be implying that the whole town has become complicit in the outsider cult? Let’s find out…
Dewart heads off to meet her Mrs. Bishop. You might remember that the Bishops are very closely connected with the Marshes of Innsmouth fame that there is a good chance Dewart is about to go out and meet with a descendant of a Deep One, but an old woman answers the door with “rather a conviction of hidden knowledge, and in addition, a most disturbing sense of secret, almost contemptuous superiority…”
She asks him right out of he’s looking for Quamis, and lets him know that Quamis “ain’t never coming back.” She gives him all kinds of information about Alijah, telling him “‘ye’ll not do like Alijah did, an’ mind – yew leave the stone an’ keep the door sealed an’ locked so thet them from Outside can’t git back.‘” Oops.
But she tells him that the information he’s looking for is in Alijah’s old books. He gets ready to leave and the old woman mumbles to herself in some strange language, which Dewart tries to decipher: “N’gai, n’ga’ghaa, shoggog, y’hah, Nyarla-to, Nyarla-totep, Yog-Sotot, n-yah, n-yah.” He thinks it’s strange, but nothing else. He then goes off to meet a Mrs. Giles in hopes to find a picture and discovers that she and her son are scared of Dewart from his ancestral appearance, holding a Kewpie Doll as if it were a talisman to ward off evil. He leaves mourning these people because their poverty and depravity was “infinitely more terrible because it carried with it implication of self-choice” showing off his hubris and ignorance before heading home.
But there is something strange going on here. It could just be Derleth trying to throw us off the track again, but why in the world would the two old men be subservient, Mrs. Bishop be so willing to help, and Mrs. Giles so scared of what’s going on? and what’s up with Mrs. Bishop intoning the Great Old Ones under her breath? We’ll have to wait because we never find out in the first section of the book.
Getting back to the story, the next day Dewart’s cousin Stephen Bates (whom the next section of the book is named after) “summons” Dewart to Boston to collect some documents. In said documents are Alijah Billington’s rules for taking over the Dunwich property:
“He is not to cause the water to cease flowing about the island of the tower, nor to molest the tower in any way, nor to entreat the stones.” Oops agian.
“He is not to open the door which leads to strange time and place, nor invite Him Who lurks at the threshold, nor to call out to the hills.” Could that be Nyarlathotep? Yog-Sothoth?
“He is not to disturb the frogs, particularly the bullfrogs of the marshland between the tower and the house, nor the fire-flies, nor the birds known as whippoor-wills, lest he abandon his locks and his guards.” Well at least he’s been good on that front…so far at least!
“He is not to touch upon the window, seeking to change it in any way.” We’ve had notice of the window, but we don’t truly know what it is yet, nor have we seen it close up.
Otherwise the last rule is just keep the land or destroy it, don’t sell it.
Dewart hems and haws over these rules, trying to figure out what the big deal is, then he decides to go get a closer look at the window. This is the first point in the story where things start to get a bit…otherworldly.
“By some trick or arrangement of moonlight on the leaded panes, the window gave the unmistakable appearance of a grotesquely malformed head…with a vast dome-like forehead…and the nebulous outline trailed off in a hideous representation of what seemed to be tentacles.”
He moves a chair over to get a closer look, “when the entire window seemed to become animated, as if the moonlight had turned to witchfire, as if the outline, spectral as it was, had come to malign life.” But then suddenly it stopped and became just a window again, a window which aimed his view out to the mysterious tower and circle of stones, where he saw “something flaffing darkly around the tower.“
He’s upset about what he experienced, but decides to go for a walk because, surely, all of those things were put into his mind because of the message from his great-great-grandfather. It’s dusk, but he saw a strange glow and heard voices raised in fright coming from Dunwich. Weirded out, he went back to the house and decides to give it a rest for the night.
The next day he wakes and listens to the radio to hear of a corpse found, “but the body is so mangled and torn t would seem as if the waves had beaten it up along the rocks for a long time.”
Derleth briefly misdirects us as Dewart worries that there may be a Massachusetts version of Jack the Ripper or a copy cat of the Troppmann murders, although one really has to wonder why he even discusses this up seeing as a body “beaten against rocks” is a far cry from being dissected like those two murderers… but this is what Derelth does. He works his misdirections in, to both build suspense (now he has you thinking about serial killers in conjunction with the cosmic horror), and to try and keep you guessing about what’s going to happen. In fact the next few pages in the book are Dewart ruminating on what Alijah’s “rules” are all about and giving reasons for what they could possibly mean, obviously with his conjectures all being false or just half truths, until he comes across a few letters between Alijah and some correspondent named Jonathan B.
These letters have all mention of cosmic entities. Jonathan B. mentions on many occasions that he is a faithful servant to Alijah, and despite the normal ancestral degradation you would expect from Lovecraft or Derleth, these letters seem to exonerate Alijah. It seems as though Alijah was a fighter against “servts. of N. or of Yog-Sothothe” and is indeed the one who sealed the Lurker with the Elder Sign.
There is also mention of another “Him who is not to be named.” No this is not Voldemort, but very potentially a precursor to him. This, I believe, is the nefarious King in Yellow, better known as the Unspeakable…better known as Hastur. But how does he fit in the Cthulhu Mythos?
Remember that it wasn’t until Derleth that the Cthulhu Mythos were called the Cthulhu Mythos…Lovecraft actually described them as Yog-Sothothery, based around his favorite of his otherworldy gods. This novel was published in 1945 which was significantly earlier than nearly all of Derleth’s stories, and thus far, with the exception of “Witches’ Hollow,” this has been the best. Derleth seems to be at the top of his game here, where later in his career he seemed to phone it in, relying on the same old story line again and again. This very well may have been the first time he created this often repeated ancestral story line, and if it was published in ’45 you have to imagine that he was writing it in either the late 30’s or the early 40’s where the influence of Lovecraft’s correspondence was the most fresh.
In these four letters from Alijah Derleth begins to tighten his storyline a bit, by bringing in the Native American mythology and tying it to the mythos, while also giving us the back story of why the tower was built…to seal away the Lurker at the Threshold. The seal which Dewart has already broken. There are only a few more guards which he hasn’t messed with, and he’s already begun to play with the window, so he’s going to be reliant on the birds and the frogs to stop Nyarlathotep or Yog-Sothoth, and potentially Hastur, and their minions from entreating upon our world.
But there are other forces moving against him. He has a dream that night where he heads to the tower, beneath “great birds that fought and tore, birds with horribly distorted human aspects” and because it’s a dream, he just keeps going to the tower. He looks up through the hole he made when he carved out the Elder Sign stone, and, in a “hideous distortion of the Latin tongue…He recited a formula thrice and made designs in the sand.”
He “dreamed” of a hideous aspect apparating, “squid-like or octopoid, passing among the trees as air…”
As it floated away he headed back to his room and got back to bed..in his dream. But when he woke the next morning he found sandy foot prints in the room and his clothes disheveled.
He decides he’s been too wound up, and he needs help with everything going on, so he makes a decision:
“It took great physical and mental effort for him to drive into Arkham and deposit the letter to Stephen Bates beyond recall in the post-office of that city, whose ancient gambrel roofs and shuttered windows seemed to crouch and leer at him with ghastly camaraderie as he went by.”
It’s here that Dewart leaves us in anticipation of Part 2 of the novel “Manuscript by Stephen Bates.” Derleth may just be using the epistolary style which Lovecraft had perfected to cover some back story, to fill out this novel. Lovecraft did that so well in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” as he focused each section of that novel on different people to give different perspectives as to what was actually going on in the tale.
Join me next week as we dive into the Manuscript and see where Derleth is taking us!
“So, then, Old Billington was ‘feared’ or disliked and everyone connected with him in any way likewise. This additional discovery put Dewart almost into a fever of anticipation; his quest was so different from the usual genealogical adventure that it delighted him; here was mystery, here was something deep, unfathomable, something out of the routine ken; and, fed by this taste of the mystery, Dewart was stirred and stimulated with the excitement of the chase.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we begin down the journey of Derleth’s longest Lovecraftian story along tried and true lines, while delving into what differentiates the two authors.
Once again we begin with a man going back to his ancestral home to restore it. Nearly every single Derleth story has this opening salvo and it just really shows the difference in imaginative capabilities between the two men. We’ll get into writing ability and imagination a bit more later, but to do so I need to introduce you to the story.
Our “Protagonist” is Ambrose Dewart. He’s a British gentleman who has come to the back water of Massachusetts “...towards the strange, lonely Dunwich country beyond Dean’s Corners” to a strange and forbidden place called Billington’s Wood, “and all that property around, including the great house which could not be seen but was none the less there, deep in that wood, on a pleasant knoll, it was said ‘near the tower and the circle of stones.’“
Again, much like in other stories the house was upkept by “a firm of solicitors” because the last of the Billingtons, Alijah and his son Laban, fled the area. No information is given as to why they fled other than the notorious sounds coming from the woods such as “a piping and croaking of frogs” and a “chorus of whippoorwills” but we know from previous stories that the batrachian croaking indicates that Deep Ones are near and the whippoorwill is an indication to deep and dark foreshadowing and warning, and yet as soon as the Billingtons left, the noises stopped.
Ambrose finally gets to the house and notices that it’s devoid of all modernity, “such as electricity…” which might indicate a foreshadowing for something to come ahead, but I believe it’s just Derleth’s effort to show the atmosphere of the place. Another one of those red herrings he’s so apt to do.
It’s mentioned numerous times in the first few pages that this area is full into the “portion of Dunwich country where the Whateleys and the Bishops...” lived which tells us immediately that something is going to happen surrounding Cthulhu, Dagon, or the Deep Ones (Derleth pretty much ignored the Shoggoth which is unfortunate because they are some of the most intense and fearful creatures), because, well, all Derleth has something to do with Cthulhu, Dagon, or the Deep Ones.
But then there’s a very interesting bit of information which arises when Ambrose is searching through the house and finds Laban’s journal. “The child, Laban, who was, Dewert determined, his own grandfather…” Laban is motherless and has a Narragansett Indian named Quamus (or Quamis) as a companion (no doubt a slave or indentured servant, but such is never mentioned). Until one day when Alijah gets angry with them and “has forbidden us to go, on the banks of the stream across from that place where the tower rises. He (Quamus) was on his hands and knees and had his arms raised up, and he was saying in a loud voice words in his own language which I could not understand…but had the sound of Narlato, or Narlatep.”
Ok two things. This book thus far (I’m only covering the first 40 pages of it so we may get to some surprises later!) has a penchant for giving things numerous names and Derleth uses it as a crutch to try and give the reader an inkling of what’s going to happen instead of really delving into the scene and layering in the details for us to find later. This is the first difference between the two authors… Derleth hits you over the head with a hammer, where Lovecraft would sew unease beneath your skin. The second thing is… Oh my god is Derleth separating himself from his safety net!!?? Is Nyarlathotep going to make an appearance in the story!? Or is this just another red herring Derleth is so quick to throw out to distract fans of Lovecraft. There’s no further mention other than the almost throw away of this line with the two misspellings, but I’m am extremely excited if this were to be the case.
Eventually in Laban’s journal there are “great noises” coming from the hills and suddenly Quamus is missing. There isn’t anything of else in the journal, so in an effort to broaden his knowledge, Dewart searches around the house and eventually finds a book called “Of Evill Sorceries done in New-England of Daemons in no Humane Shape.” The Book basically tells us of a Wampanaug Shaman named Misquamacus (does that name seem familiar? It should, it’s Derleth playing again…could it be Laban’s friend and confidant Quamus?) who summoned some kind of “Evill” and “there was no Way to send it back that Thing he summon’d, so ye Wampanaug wise Man had caught and prison’d it where the Ring of Stones had been.”
So obviously what he’s referring to here is the tower on the property and the ring of stones “reminiscent to Stonehenge.” How does one trap an outsider per Derleth’s rules? By placing a flat stone “with ye Elder Sign” on it.
Dewart is interested so he goes to the library and goes through several months of newspapers of both the “Arkham Advertiser” and the “Arkham Gazette.” We get story after story of which we’ve heard over and over again and which don’t particularly add to this tale, but instead are Derleth’s efforts at showing how scary the place is. This is a perfect time to hit on one more facet of the differences between these two writers.
Lovecraft spent much of his pages describing the scenery and atmosphere of the space. This is what conversely makes him a brilliant but difficult author. He’s very dense because he didn’t really care about character development, so each paragraph can span for pages as we get the feel for what’s going on in his story. They are also filled with psychological and philosophical diatribes meant to be the point of the story, but also illicit thought behind the horrors he’d placed in front of us. I’ve recently found something going around social media rounds which (paraphrasing) was that the person who read Lovecraft in their youth would read story after story back to back. They didn’t find each individual story very scary, but they were intrigued by his themes and atmosphere. It’s only a day or so later that those dark corners of your house start to seem menacing as the stories start to get under your skin. Because that’s what Lovecraft does and does so well. He focuses so much on atmosphere and philosophy that he surreptitiously digs down into our subconscious and broadens our way of looking at things.
Derleth, conversely, focuses more on the people and the shock factor. In fact, to prove that point, the vast majority of the stories I started out with Derleth finished the last few paragraphs in italics… because for some reason he thought that would drive home the shock ending that we’d seen coming all along. There is no philosophy in Derleth and there is no real atmosphere (except in The Watcher Out of Time. I really wish he’d gotten a chance to finish that before his death and redeem himself). Derleth instead spends his time giving us back story and red herrings in the shape of Lovecraftian fan offerings. The worst part about this fan service is that they very rarely pan out. I’m excited for the prospect of Nyarlathotep being in this book, but I’m not holding my breath, because that’s what Derleth does. He says hey look at this! You know what it is and I’m going to make you think this story is going to be about something else, but I’m only putting that in the story to distract you from the Deep Ones that will yet again be my antagonists.
This type of background is what we get for page after page. We hear about the Billingtons, about John Druven, a man who jibbed the Billingtons because he saw evidence of evil deeds…and ended up dead for it. There’s even mention of Reverend Ward Phillips (who is the character in the meta-fictional story “The Lamp of Alhazred“) and a letter he received talking about magic happening to both wipe memory and to create a cosmic stir at the “circle of stones.“
After all this information Dewart decides he’s going to go out the tower and the circle of stones and investigate it. He enters the tower and finds a spiral staircase up with a “decoration in the nature of a bas-relief, which he soon saw was a single design repeated as a chain for the entire length of the stair.” This Bas-relief also “appeared on the platform, and he bend to scrutinize it more closely, thus discovering it to be an intricate pattern of concentric circles and radiating lines, which, the more attentively it was gazed at, offered a perplexing maze to the eye in that it seemed at one moment to be of such an appearance, and in the next appeared to change inexplicably.”
He eventually got to the top platform which was hedged in with a large limestone rock, which “It’s decoration, however, did not follow the motif of the bas-relief figures, but was, rather, in the rough shape of a star, in the centre of which there appeared to be a caricature of a single giant eye.“
Oof. Here’s that Elder Sign! Is this where Misquamicus trapped the outsider? Right here in this tower? Man after all of that Dewart must be starting to kind of freak out. All that text which led him here to find that there is a bit of truth to it all. What does he do?
He carves the rock with the Elder Sign out so he can see the land from the top of the tower.
Ok it’s now time to talk about how absolutely and outright STUPID Derleth’s protagonists are.
The worst part is it’s not just stupidity. Carving out the Elder Sign was something Derleth thought had to happen for the storyline to progress (well he did just let out some kind of outsider which I’m really hoping is Nyarlathotep), but there’s no motivation to do so. This happens again and again in Derleth, where the plot drives the characters motives rather than the characters motives driving plot. In past stories like “The Shadow in the Attic” I’d roll my eyes when the main character would stay in a place obviously corrupted for no particular reason, but when Dewart carves out his only protection I actually said out loud, “You Dumbass!” I’m not sure if I was talking about Dewart or Derleth, but with Derleth’s propensity for giving alternatives for names, maybe Dewart is Derleth. Maybe he’s writing about himself!
And that’s where we call it after the first 5th of this novel! Join me next week as we find out what other secrets Billington’s Woods hold, which outsider is released into said woods, and what other stupid things Dewart is going to do while battling that outsider!
“At the same time, his thoughts took an amazing turn; he was less concerned with the glass and its properties, and more with an ambiguous, ill-defined concept of vast dimensions and spaces beyond the terrestrial scenes familiar to him; and he felt himself being drawn into some vortex of dream and speculation that profoundly disturbed him. It was as if he were falling into a bottomless pit.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we cover Derleth’s most promising, though incomplete, tale and take some time to analyze and speculate on the man’s intentions.
This weeks story is a strange one, but not in a Lovecraftian…or dare I say it, Derlethian way. It’s the longest story in the collection I have (The Watchers out of Time, Carroll & Graf 1991), but it’s also incomplete, and not even in a first draft kind of way. There are grammatical errors in it sure (of which I believe the publisher decided to keep in for purity reasons), but after about 30 pages the story just stops. It apparently was never finished and included in this collection posthumously.
This fact actually makes this a perfect transition because were going to finish up this series by deconstructing “The Lurker at the Threshold” which is one of Derelth’s novels (which he published under Lovecraft’s name), and this story feels more like a novella, or the beginning of a novel, than a short story. Derleth isn’t known for his atmosphere as Lovecraft was, but this novel gives you a great feel for the Dunwich environs in a way that not even Lovecraft established. He takes his time to give the reader a visual of what the country actually looks like. The reader can also tell that this was a story to make an effort to collect all the disparate strands of lineage and place and mythos and tie them all together. I truly get the feeling that this story was supposed to be his Magnum Opus…it’s really a shame he never got a chance to complete it.
Alright, enough waxing…lets get into the story!
The story begins as so many of Derleth’s stories have. Nick Walters is a man living in Surrey, England who received a letter, “couched in rather old-fashioned legal terminology” informing him that he is the recipient of an “Ancestral Property” in Massachusetts backwaters.
We also get a brief description of Walters physiognomy, he has a “wide mouth…curious lobeless ears, or the large pale blue slightly bulging eyes.” This is a dead giveaway that Walters is on the branch of the Marshes and the Whateleys, so when we find out later that the house he inherited is actually the old house of Cyrus Whateley, it’s no surprise.
We’re introduced to the place by Boyle, Walter’s lawyer, who speaks about “Whateley Country” which includes Dunwich. Make no mistake there’s nothing but ridicule and derision as he speaks about the place: “It’ll be like turning into the American past...”
That statement is the transition to a great chapter of Derleth describing place. This is something Lovecraft did so well, and something Derleth just hasn’t spent the time to do thus far in any of his stories. That makes me believe that his novels must be so much better than any of his shorter work, because he slows down and spends the time to bring the reader viscerally into the story.
As Walters drives into the region “many brier-bordered stone walls made their appearance, pressing upon the road; most of these were broken down in places, with field stones scattered along the foot of the walls. The road wound into hills past great old trees, bramble-covered fences, and barren fields and pastures in country that was only sparsely settled.”
I could go on and on with quotes of the section. There’s even a passage where Derleth points out what’s really happening. “He drove slowly.” It’s actually a double entendre because Derleth is talking about Walters driving, but he’s also talking about himself writing. His tales are generally breakneck speed compared to Lovecraft, and this chapter describing place and atmosphere is something so heartachingly absent from his other stories. This meta-fictional phrase feels as though he’s telling us and himself to slow down, so we can get a visual of what this place actually looks and feels like. The payoff is huge. It really does feel like “turning into the American past.”
There are even call backs to his previous stories like “The Horror from the Middle Span” with passages such as: “A quaint covered bridge crossed the river, a relic of that distant past to which the settlement itself obviously belonged.”
This is important because, as I mentioned earlier, it really feels as though Derleth is trying to bring his corner of Lovecraft (namely Dunwich and Innsmouth) together into a cohesive narrative. There are pages and pages with Walters at the library going over genealogy and history of the Whateleys and their cousins. We even get introduced to our favorite grumpy old shop keep, Tobias Whateley, who has shown up in multiple Derleth tales. Always warning foolish “cousins” away from their ancestral estates tended to by the “eddicated” Whateleys (we’ll talk about this more later).
When Walters finally gets to the house there are fun little Easter eggs like, ” Nothing more recent than Dickens stood among the leather-bound tomes, and many of them were in Latin and other languages.” There is even a telescope. But my favorite aspect, and one which you might remember from “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” is the infamous grandfather clock:
“…a curious, obviously hand-carved clock standing almost three feet tall, its face covered with strange designs – of serpentine coils and primitive creatures belonging clearly to some pre-human era, he thought, utterly alien.” which was “intended to tell more than time.“
Walters goes back to get supplies and speak to Tobias who mentioned Increase Brown, who apparently kept up the house, but because the story was never finished, and he isn’t really spoken of again.
We transition to night and get the most supernatural chapter right before the story ends. The night air is filled with strange sounds which seem to come from either “avian or batrachian throats.” but then he noticed that there was something more than that. Out up on a hill (it could it be Sentinel hill where witchcraft was once done?) “He heard voices, which were surely of men crying out…and on the crest of round hill behind Dunwich there was a glow in the now dark heavens, as of a bonfire burning there.”
He decides to ignore this strange fact and goes on studying. He finds a photograph, and within that photo is a carving in the wall with a glass eye which was “strangely clouded.” As he looked closer, “the clouding he had seen was the unmistakable outline of two human faces – the one, of an old man, bearded, looked directly out of the glass; the other, a lean hawklike face, with the skin drawn tight over its bones, looked out from behind the first, his face slightly tilted as if he were deferring to the older man…“
This is obviously supposed to indicate Cyrus and Aberath Whateley. But undeterred by the oddity he decides to research further and heads to the study, where a curious light is glowing. He opens the doors and “he was further surprised to see light flickering in the room as if he had left a lamp burning there...” but in fact “The source of the glow he had seen was the glass eye in the carved triangle above the fireplace.”
He climbs closer and finds some strange Eye of Sauron info…”The carving which framed it was fully as baffling. The eye appeared in what was almost its optical center. The outer frame was a triangular pediment. At first glance, the carving appeared to be classically conventional design. But now, in the light of the lamp Walters held, it bore a disquieting resemblance to a huge octopus-like being, yet unearthly to look upon; in the convex circle of glass lay a huge, central eye, opaque to sight now, but still cloudy with pale light that shifted oddly even now.“
Well hello Cthulhu. It’s like an eye to watch over the place, and to gather any souls necessary for it’s nefarious nature. As he looks into the eye he gets the feeling which is the opening quote of this essay, and the reason I call it the eye of Sauron. It seems to give him a strange compulsion on just the single look. The light goes out and he stands there like Ray from Ghostbusters II looking at Vigo, but eventually he breaks the connection and leaves the room.
He decides he’s going to go back to Springfield in the morning and do more research at the library, but he can’t get over the feeling that the house is somehow occupied with a presence… other than himself.
The final chapter has Walters going to the library and researching more about genealogy. There’s a fascinating section where he finds that a preacher named Hoag talked out against the Whateleys only to go missing, as well as a Reverend Hoadley who did the same thing with the same outcome, yet somehow both of those men had some kind of connection with the Whateleys. He mentions all the last names of the characters he’s used in connection to the area and even goes over Dr. Armitage’s dealings from the original Lovecraft tale “The Dunwich Horror.”
Then right before the end of the story he finds a letter addressed “For Him Who Will Come,”
“Read, that you may know, that you may prepare to wait for Those Who Watch, and fulfill that which is meant to be.”
He’s waiting for those who watch, namely the Ancient Ones. Cthulhu is sleeping and dreaming from his prison in R’lyeh, watching through the golden eye in that carving…and it obviously isn’t the only one. He entraps souls, hence the two previous Whateley’s trapped within the eye… which coincidentally glowed when there was some kind of ritual happening on Sentinel Hill…when the last time we saw that happen Lavinia was pregnant from some Outsider, and a Shoggoth rampaged over the town.
Obviously, since this was published posthumously and not even finished, this was supposed to be Derleth consolidating the pantheon of whom he considered the most important of the Ancient Ones and solidifying his presence in the mythos. Of all the tales, I’ve been the most interested in this one. It’s the most readable (even with it’s grammatical mistakes) and the closest to a Lovecraft tale in feel than anything else he’s written.
It is possible that this closeness is because this tale was meant to be a novel or at least a novella, so maybe his Lovecraftian novel will hold up to the same standards?
Lets find out next week as we begin “The Lurker at the Threshold!”
“He suddenly fixed widening eyes on my companion, his jaw dropped, his hands began to shake; for a moment or two he was frozen into that position; then he shrugged himself up and off the barstool, turned, and in a stumbling run burst out of the building into the street, a long, despairing cry shuddering back through the wintry air.”
Welcome back to another Blind read! This week we break down an entirely trite tale which merely rehashes older material while we conjecture the past’s future of the legacy of Lovecraft.
This story was an immense let down. There was incredible potential for developing something unique and elaborate out of the minute change Derleth layers into the story, but unfortunately he doesn’t do anything with it. We fall back into the same trite patterns which, quite frankly, Lovecraft was leaps and bounds beyond Derleth because of writing ability. Don’t really understand what I mean? Let’s break this down.
The story begins with a bit of promise, though I have to admit I was dreading it a bit when I began. Derleth has a penchant for using Deep Ones as his main antagonists, which is fine, but he doesn’t give them anything beyond what Lovecraft already created. Derleth’s stories of magic, occult, and the strange, were all far more interesting than his Innsmouth based stories.
To start, we are introduced to the focus of the story: “The facts relating to the fate of my friend, the late sculptor, Jeffrey Corey – if indeed “late” is the correct reference…”
Here we have another potentially “unreliable narrator” who is doing the campfire thing and telling us a story. What piqued my interest here was that Corey was a sculptor, that tied with the fact that the title has “clay” in it, made me excited for a possible twist. Derleth even begins taking us to a unique space, but then pulls it back and falls into his old safe trends.
The narrator immediately tells us that Corey’s “distant relatives” are the “reclusive Marshes who still lived in that Massachusetts seaport town (Innsmouth)” and in the next paragraph gives a description of Corey:
“He had very strong blue eyes, and his lantern-jawed face would have stood out in any assemblage of people, not alone for the piercing quality of his gaze, but as much for the rather strange, wattled appearance of the skin back from his jaws, under his ears and down his neck a little way below his ears.”
If you’ve read “The Shadow over Innsmouth” you know what this means. Obed Marsh was a sailor for the East India Company and he took a bride from a remote South Pacific Island. It turns out that the bride was either a Deep One, or a human offspring of a Deep One, so when they came back to Innsmouth, they created “The Order of Dagon” and it was believed they held services to their dark god just off the coast at a place called “Devils Reef.” They did nefarious things until the U.S. Government came and set off depth charges off Devil’s Reef and arrested the Marsh clan.
In Lovecraft this was a unique and creepy tale with some wonderful imagery. We also got a sub-context of paranoia because of the outcome of the story…we understand the government knows more about the goings on in Innsmouth and decides then to snuff it out. Kind of a Big Brother oversight conspiracy theory.
Derleth does his best in the next few pages to recount what happened in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but, rightly so, he doesn’t cover any of the contextualization of what was actually going on there because it doesn’t really pertain to his narrator. This is however where we get the only interesting twist, and incidentally we got the direction I was really hoping the story would go.
The depth charges “set off such turmoil in the depths that a subsequent storm washed ashore all manner of debris, of which a peculiar blue clay came in along the waters edge…”
Using that clay, Corey begins work on a new sculpture he entitles “Sea Goddess.”
Predictable things begin to happen. As he begins the sculpture he gives the “Sea Goddess” webbed toes. When asked why, he tells the narrator, “I don’t really know…The fact is I hadn’t planned to do it. It just happened.” Then when the narrator asks about the “disfiguring marks on the neck…” Corey just laughs it off and says “Perhaps a ‘Sea Goddess’ ought to have gills.” Yeah…Ok Corey.
The narrator tells us that after Corey went missing he found his notebooks which normally held notes about his art, but around this time they became more of a journal of his downfall.
Corey talks about his “Compulsion” to “baptize the Sea Goddess” and he begins to have strange dreams. They start innocuous enough, “A dream of swimming accompanied by shadowy men and women.” Then he has erotic dreams of “a woman, naked, slipped into my bed after I had gone to sleep, and remained there all night.” Scandalous!
There is even an entry which is frankly the most eye rolling thing I’ve read in Derleth. “The dream of swimming again. In the sea-depths. A sort of city far below. Ryeh or R’lyeh? Something named ‘Great Thooloo’?”
That passage gives me a visceral reaction. Now to be fair, if I had read this story first, it may have been gripping, but because I’ve gone through Lovecraft’s entire catalog, it just didn’t hold the same gravity as everything else. To top that off this is probably the first time anyone who’d ever read these stories got a phonetic interpretation of Cthulhu, so that potentially could have been very groundbreaking, but ultimately at this point I can tell you exactly what’s going to happen, line for line, with the rest of the story.
The rest of the story follows as you would expect. The narrator and Corey try to do some research into why Corey keeps having these dreams. They find out a bit more about his distant relatives, until they find the drunk at the bar… you know… the absolute best source for any strange knowledge. They wake him up from his drunken stupor and give him more liquor to get the most trustworthy story. They speak for a while discovering new things for the characters, but nothing new for any reader whom is familiar with the Innsmouth story, until eventually Corey’s scarf falls a bit and we get the opening quote for this essay.
Those “curious corrugations” on Corey’s neck begin to hurt, “it isn’t the pain one associates with stiffness or friction or a bruise. It’s as if the skin were about to break outward…” which happens about the same time as, gasp, The sculpture of the Sea Goddess goes missing! Then shortly there after so does Corey!
The narrator wonders about them, until he is out on a boat and sees a couple of fish creatures swimming together. One which was absolutely female and the other which…gasp… looked just like Corey!
The story comes off as droll and tired. There was really no uniqueness to the tale at all, as even in the last few Derleth stories, he re-uses the same themes and ideas without giving us much of anything new to go off of, or even the atmospheric writing which Lovecraft used.
In one final example of Derleth’s forced writing I give you this passage:
“There was some evidence to show that he had gone down to the Atlantic and walked in – whether with the intention of swimming or of taking his life could not be ascertained. The prints of his bare feet were discovered in what remained of that odd clay thrown up by the sea in February, but there were no returning prints.”
Derleth is full of these little phantasms. There is really no way anyone would be able to identify that “evidence” that Corey walked into the Ocean. This is just Derleth trying to give the reader the impact of what’s going on, but it’s lazy writing. I’ve mentioned it many times before, but this is specifically what I’m talking about. Instead of spending the time to get some really well thought out story lines, Derleth focused more on production. He apparently was famous for saying that he could write a “quality” story every week.
Don’t let me scare you away from him. These stories are fun and unique… if you haven’t read Lovecraft. Derleth is actually like a Lovecraft light. Lovecraft himself has unique and fairly difficult language, but once you’re able to break it all down and digest it, they are some of the most unique and terrifying stories written. Derleth’s language is far more accessible, and if I’d have to recommend a pathway, I’d say to read Derleth first. That will give you a sampling of what you can expect in Lovecraft without a worry about the language. Then when you get to Lovecraft, you can understand how wonderful and dense and unique those stories truly are.
We’re at the end of the short stories. We only have one last short story and one novel to dissect, and the next story is technically “unfinished.” Could that be Derleth’s swan song?
Let’s find out next week as we read “The Watchers Out Of Time!”
“In perhaps three quarters of a mile I came to a great wooden door, barred on the inside. I put down the lamp and lifted the bar. Opening the door, I found myself looking into a tangle of growth that effectively concealed the opening into the tunnel from anyone outside. I pushed through this tangle sufficiently to find myself looking down the hill toward the countryside below, where I could see the Miskatonic some distance away, and a stone bridge across it – but nowhere a dwelling of any kind, only the ruins of what had once been isolated farms.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we tie together some of Lovecraft’s classics while solidifying Derleth’s legacy in the mythos.
We start off our story much the same way as we did in “The Dark Brotherhood,” with a statement. We learn about a document which was found written by one Ambrose Bishop, which turns out the story is the said document:
“The Bishop Manuscript was found by authorities investigating the disappearance of Ambrose Bishop. It was enclosed in a bottle evidently thrown wide into the woods at the rear of the burning house. It is still being held in the office of the sheriff in Arkham, Massachusetts.”
This again is Derleth falling back into his comfortable role. We again know there’s going to be a house burned down. We again are introduced to a disappearance and a mystery. The last few tales have been nice because he’s made a drastic twist towards the end which give us as readers a new experience through his tired tropes. But he has let us down within the pages of this book. Lets find out what he does here, shall we?
The “manuscript” begins as Ambrose approaches his ancestor, Septimus Bishop’s, house. He finds a run down old house, but decides he needs to go into town to get provisions before digging into the old place, so he heads to the general store. There, he speaks to the proprietor Tobias Whateley. They make niceties for a little while until Tobias realizes Ambrose is a Bishop:
“At the mention of the name, Whateley went a shade paler than his normal pallor. Then he made a move to sweep the articles I had brought back from the counter.“
This seems to be an odd thing for a Whateley to do to anyone, knowing what we know about their corrupted family, but, he refuses service to Ambrose. Spurned on by derision Ambrose decides to head to Arkham, to find the local newspaper, The Arkham Advertiser, and try to understand why he was treated in such an abrupt fashion. What did Septimus do?
“Nothing has been heard of Septimus Bishop, who apparently vanished from his home in the country above Dunwich ten days ago. Mr. Bishop was a recluse and a bachelor, to whom the folk of Dunwich were in the habit of ascribing many superstitious abilities, calling him at various times, a ‘healer’ and a ‘warlock.’ Mr. Bishop was a tall, spare man, aged about 57 at the time of his disappearance.“
He also sees an article which gives quite a bit of information regarding a broken down old bridge which leads over the Miskatonic river. It seems as though there was an effort to repair the…middle span…of the bridge years before, even though the bridge is no longer in use.
This is just one of the styles Derleth uses. It’s lazy writing to be sure, because he’s basically just sticking some sort of foreshadowing in the story to lead the reader along. He needed to read more Agatha Christie before he could perfect his red herring work, but it seems as though the only red herrings he’s willing to throw around are to trick the people looking for the Lovecraft connections (I.E. throwing in a Whateley as a good guy), which is incidentally what I’m doing here, so it’s an enjoyable offshoot of the project. I feel like I’m involved in a little mental Tet-a-Tet with Derleth.
Anyway the story progesses and Ambrose finds books about astronomy and astrology and finds a telescope and various other such books. As he keeps digging around he finds a trap door which leads downward into a sub-cellar.
“A brick floor had been erected in it – something very much like an altar, of stone, for one, and benches, also of stone. And on the floor there were those crude drawings similar to the cupola of the house…”
It’s remarkably like the cellar from “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” except for here, there’s a tunnel offshoot which seems to go for miles. Ambrose follows it all the way to the end which you can read in the beginning quote of this essay.
Ambrose heads back to the house deciding to try to dig into some of those letters. Here Derleth endeavors to bring together the mythos in a clunky, and ineffective way. He finds a letter with a title (who titles a letter?):
“In the name of Azathoth, by the sign of the Shining Trapezohedron, all things will be known to you when the Haunter of the Dark is summoned. There must be no light, but He who comes by darkness goes unseen and flees the light. All secrets of Heaven and Hell will be made known.”
The signature is blotched but he thinks it said “Asenath Bowen.”
Ok, a few things here in a sentence which on the surface seems to be loaded with Lovecraftian goodness. In Lovecraft, Azathoth is called the “Blind Idiot God” because he’s so old and so apathetic toward the universe that he’s just a immense immovable force. I imagine he causes madness because he’s so large and strange, that it boggles our puny human minds, kind of like when you sit down to contemplate how massive the universe actually is, it’s almost impossible to comprehend. Another example is trying to imagine what a trillion dollars would look like. It might drive you a little mad knowing it exists.
So Azathoth didn’t bring about the Trapezohedron, which is kind of like the Lament Configuration (or puzzle box) from Hellraiser, so connecting the two of them don’t really make sense. In the story “The Haunter of the Dark” a person needs to gaze upon the the Trapezohedron to gain knowledge of the world…knowledge beyond their own ken, not just the insignia of the talisman.
In addition to that, nothing is gained by summoning The Haunter. The Haunter, I believe, is just Mi-Go, one of the flying creatures from Yuggoth, where incidentally, the Shining Trapezohedron is supposedly created.
So to say that “all will be revealed” is either Derleth lazily adding horror elements, or the absolute worst “here drink the cool-aid” moments ever.
Then we finish off with two famous names in Lovecraft. The first is Asenath, who is a character from “The Thing on the Doorstep” where she uses mind control, telepathy, and astral projection to possess people. Bowen is the name of the archaeologist who discovered the Trapezohedron in “The Haunter in the Dark.”
This is, again, just Derleth throwing out fan service. This is the red herring we spoke of earlier that he’s so bad about creating, because as soon as he mentions Asenath, I believed there was going to be some sort of possession in the story…based upon the few previous paragraphs I think you can tell that there isn’t.
Derleth throws out a number of other names “Great Cthulhu” “Hastur the Un-speakable” “Shub-Niggurath” “Dho formula” even “Wilbur Whately” in the research. This is all Derleth trying to throw us off the trail of what’s really going on, but then he just tells us:
“The bridge was very old, and only the middle span stood, supported by two stone piers, one of them thickened with a large outcropping of concrete, upon which whoever had constructed it had etched a large five-pointed star in the center…”
We saw this a few different places but most recently in “Witches’ Hollow” where the star stones or “Elder Signs” were used to hold outsiders, to imprison them. It is no coincidence that the tunnel from the house exits right in front of the broken bridge with the Elder Sign on it.
But then, in a drastic and totally unforeseen event (wink, wink), there’s a terrible storm that destroys the bridge, and Ambrose finds bones that were hidden…or imprisoned underneath.
He takes the bones to turn into the authorities but when he goes to retrieve them after cleaning up…they’re gone! He has dreams which are realistic and potentially strangely prophetic:
“dreams in which I saw the bones I had brought reassemble themselves into a skeleton – and the skeleton clothe itself in flesh – and the whiplike bones grow into something not of this world that constantly changed shape…”
Ambrose wakes up and is startled to find a man in the house with him. A man “lean of face, saturnine in countenance….” with “a squamous thing with the face of a lovely woman.”
Hello Septimus and Asenath. Brought back to life because the Elder Sign barricading their tomb was destroyed.
Soon after, disappearances began to happen again in Dunwich, and the town got together to go after the risen warlocks. Septimus comes to Ambrose and takes him through the tunnels as the folks from Dunwich burn down the manor. There the manuscript ends, but we find right afterwards the middle span of the bridge was re-built, with an Elder Sign imprinted on it…
The ending of this essay might feel a bit rushed, but that’s how the story goes. We go through the whole thing, methodically describing every detail, until Septimus and Asenath are resurrected…then everything happens in a few paragraphs. It feels as though deadlines were rushing Derleth to get the story out, because it feels like such a lost opportunity to capitalize on. There’s so much wealth of character and history, but as we’ve seen in stories like “Witches’ Hollow” action isn’t one of Derleth’s strong suits, so it’s entirely possible he just didn’t know how to write the ending.
This isn’t one of Derleth’s best. The story is interesting, but it felt like he was bored with it and just wanted it to end. But for us, we’re running out of stories. With only two left where will Derleth take us?
Find out next week as we read “Innsmouth Clay.”
“‘That is good,’ he said. ‘Because if you will permit my brothers and me to call on you at your home on Angell Street, we may be able to convince you that there is life in space – not in the shape of men, but life, and life possessing a far greater intelligence than that of your most intelligent man.‘”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve into the strange world of The Dark Brotherhood, and where the concept intially seems trite, if you can hang out until the end we get a unique and fun divergence!
The story begins with a strange excerpt which could be part of a police report or part of a newspaper clipping, but Derleth doesn’t tell us which it is. What it does do is give us a sneak peek of what to expect in the coming story…”It is probable that the facts in regard to the mysterious destruction by fire of an abandoned house on a knoll along the shore of the Seekonk in a little habited district between the Washington and Red Bridges will never be known.”
Obviously we’re going to figure it out! There is mention of a Rose Dexter involved with a Arthur Phillips somehow in connection to this fire. Through my previous wanderings I’ve found that Arthur Phillips is a name Derleth uses instead of using Howard’s real name, so immediately I’m ready for two things. I think this story will be slightly meta, like “The Lamp of Alhazred” because Derleth is using the Phillips pseudonym and also that Rose (Rose Dexter? Like Charles Dexter Ward?) will again be the heroine much like Rhoda was in “The Shadow in the Attic.” If you remember from that story, Rhoda set fire to the house and rescued Adam. Let’s see how right I am!
Derleth begins with his best opening yet: “The nocturnal streets of any city along the Eastern Seaboard afford the nightwalker many a glimpse of the strange and terrible, the macabre and outré, for darkness draws from the crevices and crannies, the attic rooms and cellar hideaways of the city those human beings who, for obscure reasons lost in the past, choose to keep the day in their grey niches – the misshapen, the lonely, the sick, the very old, the haunted, and those lost souls who are forever seeking their identities under cover of night, which is beneficent for them as the cold light of day can never be.“
Little do we know that this is what the story is all about…hiding your identity in the shadows of night.
What the narrator is describing is the walks that both he and Rose would go on at night. What makes that night a particularly interesting walk is they came across a stranger:
“He was dressed almost uniformly in sombre black, save for his white shirt and flowing Windsor tie he affected. His clothing was unpressed, as if it had been worn for a long time without having been attended to, but it was not unclean, as far as I could see. His brow was high, almost dome-like; under it his dark eyes looked out hauntingly, and his face narrowed to his small blunt chin. His hair, too, was longer than most men of my generation wore it...”
The man gives his name as Mr. Allan and by his conversation, just a little off. He is terse and pithy. He is intelligent, but emotionally distant. That in and of itself isn’t that bad, but he keeps looking at Rose where the sense is “…his interest was other than amorous.” which is an important distinction to remember later. His interest this night is the cemetery which they show him and then take their leave. It is only when they’re walking away that Rose mentions what she saw as obvious…”‘He looks like Edgar Allan Poe.'”
Ignoring the fact that they’re in Providence and the cemetery they take the impostor to is supposedly Poe’s burial ground (he was interred in Baltimore), we take this as one more of Derleth’s little artistic allowances. It seems rather odd, but nothing beyond that.
The story continues for a while with Arthur meeting up with Mr. Allen night after night, while at the same time across town Rose seems to meet up with him as well. There’s speculation that there are sightings of even more of these men…all looking exactly like Edgar Allan Poe and all going by the name of Mr. Allan. Immediately I was brought back to the Jack Finney classic, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We know Derleth loves his cosmic connection, and we know in that story, pods came down from space and they created exact replicas of people, but with a hive mind instead of their own mind. That classic was published in 1955 so Derleth pulling from that inspiration makes total sense, especially as we move into the next portion of the story.
Arthur is curious and he eventually takes one of the Mr. Allan’s up on their offer (which is the quote to open this essay) and when the two men get to the house they are met with seven Mr. Allans:
“‘Our intention Mr. Phillips,’ explained their spokesman – whom I took to be the gentleman I had encountered on Benefit Street – ‘is to produce for you certain impressions of extra-terrestrial life. All that is necessary for you to do is relax and to be receptive.'”
Arthur agrees and they begin a chant which begins to change the reality around him. Suddenly he is viewing an “extra-terrestrial scene” with figures which are, “enormous, iridescent, rugose cones, rising from a base almost ten feet wide to a height of over ten feet...” Ah. I should have guessed. The Great Race of Yith.
We’ve seen them in so many of Derleth’s stories that it shouldn’t surprise me here, but it does. Quite frankly at this point in the story I was pretty disappointed because I was hoping for a new and unique perspective. This feels like Derleth is falling back into his old tricks. This is one of the longer stories thus far from Derleth, and to get this far in and find out that we’re going back over old material, especially with the unique, although rather droll tale he’d been telling thus far, made me put the book down for a while. Was this just going to be another retelling of whom the Yith are? Why layer on Poe?
Despite my disappointment I had to find out, so I picked it back up.
Arthur can’t let what he saw go. It freaked him out and he left, but there was just something a little off about the scene he witnessed, so he decided the next night he would go back and get to the bottom of things. He goes back into the house, careful to be quiet and sneaks upstairs. There he finds some strange “glass encased slab” which he approaches and finds a clone of Poe inside. But that’s not the strange part…there is something else in the case.
“But when at last I looked upon that which lay upon the likeness of Poe, I almost cried out in fearful surprise, for it was, in miniature, a precise reproduction of one of the rugose cones I had seen only last night in the hallucination induced in my home on Angell Street! And the sinuous movement of the tentacles on it’s head – or what I took to be its head – was indisputable evidence that it was alive!”
So between this smaller being in the tube with Poe and the fact that we know these creature speak telepathically, I believe Derleth is actually (again!) changing what we know of as the Cthulhu Mythos and expanding it out into the broader world. What do I mean? This smaller being, with obvious nefarious intentions, sounds to me exactly like an Illithid of Dungeons & Dragons fame. Those creatures first came to light in the role playing modules in the mid to late seventies, which was about ten years after the publication of this story, so Derleth seems to be moving beyond the impassive elder deities and creating these off shoot races which are so much more popular in modern culture. The new description of the smaller body and what it does for the rest of the story matches pretty perfectly with this concept, as well as the idea of the impostors next door we experience in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Arthur flees the scene and finds out that Rose was invited into the house as well. He pleads with her not to go, but she eventually does and Arthur chases after her. He gets there just in time to see something terrible in the glass cases:
“For in the one that lit the room with its violently pulsating and agitated violet radiation lay Rose Dexter, fully clothed, and certainly under hypnosis – and on top of her lay, greatly elongated and with tentacles flailing madly, the rugose cone-like figure I had last seen shrunken on the likeness of Poe. And in the connected case adjacent to it – I can hardly bear to set it down even now – lay, identical in every detail, a perfect duplicate of Rose!”
They are body snatchers! Arthur freaks out and burns the house down, like we saw in that opening report. He grabs Rose and runs to safety…but then in the next few days he begins to worry. Did he save the right Rose? Did he get the pod Rose or the real Rose?
We are left with a News Story to end the tale:
“LOCAL GIRL SLAYS ATTACKER
Rose Dexter…last night fought off and killed a young man she charged with attacking her…Her attacker was identified as an acquaintance, Arthur Phillips...”
And there our story ends.
This was probably the most Lovecraftian ending of any of the Derleth stories and the most like Invasion of the Body Snatchers because the bad guys won. There wasn’t the happier ending that Derleth has been so known for, but rather a unease which permeates the history of the tale.
It also turns out I was wrong on both levels. This story was strictly a male led story unlike “The Shadow in the Attic” and it wasn’t meta at all, but instead much more a product of it’s era and a story to inform the future generations.
Is that what Derleth’s legacy will be? Let’s find out more next week as we gaze on “The Horror From the Middle Span!”
“As a result, I became aware of a vaguely disquieting fact; from time to time, Andrew Potter responded to some stimulus beyond the apprehension of my senses, reacting precisely as if someone had called to him, sitting up, growing alert, and wearing the air of someone listening to sounds beyond my own hearing, in same attitude assumed by animals hearing sounds beyond the pitch levels of the human ear.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve into the back woods to the town of Witches’ Hollow and fully uncover an interesting cultural diaspora which seems to fuel both Lovecraft’s imagination as well as Derleth’s. This was also (so far at least!) Derleth’s most unique telling while at the same time adding to Lovecraft’s mythos. We’ll discuss this more later, but I have to say that this was the most enjoyable tale from Derleth, despite it’s faults.
The story starts with a unique twist: “District School Number Seven Stood on the very edge of that wild country which lies west of Arkham.” Believe it or not, in this story we’re following a grade school teacher. We find that “The school district has now been consolidated,” which changed the student body and his “charges added up to twenty-seven.” We even hear some familiar names; “There were Allens and Whateleys and Perkinses, Dunlocks and Abbots and Talbots – and there was Andrew Potter.“
The narrator tells us Andrew Potter “was a large boy for his age, very dark of mien, with haunting eyes and a shock of tousled black hair.” and that “he was in the fifth grade, and it did not take long…to discover that he could easily advance into the seventh of eighth...” right before we get the quote which opens this essay.
Our narrator decides that he needs to go speak to Andrew’s parents and see if he can possibly get them to allow the child to move up in grades because when he speaks to the boy, Andrew tells him “‘What I’m interested in doesn’t matter. It’s what my folks want that counts.”
On the surface level this makes sense and it also brings me to the thematic point I mentioned earlier. Much of Lovecraft and Derleth seem to take place in rural or back woods regions, and because of the poverty level in these areas, there’s quite often an adherence to family and familial ideals over your own best interest. I’ve seen this in real life in the central valley of California, where farming families prefer their children to work with them in the fields picking instead of going to school. If someone from the school gets involved they generally shun that person, because the poverty is so intense that the need for immediate money (picking that day instead of going to school) is more important than some vague promise of a better life in the future… if you don’t work now and spend your time wasting away in a class that doesn’t pertain to your life…then your wasting potential. So this choice both builds the characters and because it’s a horror story, this theme becomes low hanging fruit because all the sudden you can have a family who has nefarious inclinations hiding among the poor.
This also fits in with the theme of the familial bond which occurs so much in Lovecraft’s style of fiction. There are so many stories (The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Ancestor, Arthur Jermyn, The Dunwich Horror, et. all) where an ancestor of the folk in the story got into dark magic and caused a ripple that would effect all generations within his lineage. In this story, we have old Wizard Potter (yes really. I don’t think there’s a connection with the notorious Harry, though some of the darker elements of Rowling’s work may have in a slight way been informed by Lovecraft or Derleth, but ultimately this has to be a coincidence) who is considered “a bad lot.” Derleth ties him to evil magic by saying that he was a cousin to Wizard Whateley (who apparently had quite a big family because he’s now connections in multiple Derleth stories with different cousins) of Dunwich, and the two of them “called something down from the sky, and it lived with him until he died.” Except we know now that whatever he called down, lived beyond old Wizard Potter.
When our industrious teacher goes to confront the Potters he finds that they deny him immediately by telling him that young Andrew will be stopping school as soon as the law allows. Then, while they’re standing there being awkward, something strange happens.
“The moment the father stopped talking, there was a singular harmony of attitude – all four of them seemed to be listening to some inner voice...”
This calls back to an earlier Lovecraft story “The Thing on the Doorstep.” In that tale Asenath, the primary antagonist, was able to project herself into other’s bodies, imposing her mind and suppressing theirs. We also have the idea of the Yith from stories such as “The Shadow out of Space” and “The Shadow out of Time” where they would do the same, take over the body of a host. The Potter family seems to have some kind of telepathic bond where they are either listening to each other, or listening to some higher being which is giving them directions. It goes beyond their own kin as well, however, as we find when our narrator speaks to one of his students about them.
“‘You shouldn’t a told Andrew Potter we talked about him,’ he said with a kind of unhappy resignation.
‘I didn’t, Wilbur.’
‘I know I didn’t. So you must have,’ he said. And then, ‘Six of our cows got killed last night, and the shed where they were was crushed down on ’em.’“
The Potter’s have Telepathy and bore into people’s minds. Derleth is striving to make the connection that these Ancient Ones have plans on Earth, but there is some force keeping them out, so they need to use these strange tools and spells and books to help seem into susceptible human brains. The teacher narrator suspects something more than natural (maybe not wholly supernatural) is going on and decides to head to local Miskatonic University to do some research. There he comes across one of these forbidden texts… The Necronomicon. While he’s reading it a Professor of the University notices him and tells him that he knows about the Potters and he knows what to do with them.
This Professor Keane shows the narrator, “...objects of stone, roughly in the shape of five-pointed stars. He put five of them in my hand.”
Then he tells the narrator the crux of the story and all the events run downhill at breakneck pace towards the climax:
“You must keep one of these at least on your person at all times, and you must keep all thought of the stone and what you are about to do out of your mind. These beings have a telepathic sense – an ability to read your thoughts.” and after discussing them for a moment Keane tells our narrator, “These stones are among the thousands bearing the Sea of R’lyeh which closed the prisons of the Ancient Ones. They are the seals of the Elder Gods.”
Ok so beyond the fact that he directly contradicts Lovecraft here (R’lyeh is the city where Cthulhu sleeps, not a sea) he is single handedly building the legacy of what would hold Lovecraft’s mythos forever entombed in popular culture. He is creating the basis for the gaming community.
If you’ve ever played the board game “Manisions of Madness” or one of the bevy of video games, or even the role playing game “The Call of Cthulhu” you’ve seen all of these elements. The librarian, or professor, who surreptitiously knows more than they should and helps the investigator. The Elder Signs which the narrator uses to hold the Ancient Ones in place, the action packed rollercoaster ending after a slow burn build to find the truth. These are what made Lovecraft truly popular in the last four decades and what continues to build his legacy. Derleth lays the basis for all that gaming culture right here in this story published in 1962.
It also deepens what he would come to call “The Cthulhu Mythos.” These Elder Signs were extremely sparingly used in Lovecraft (I think only twice mentioned) and in Lovecraft their usage wasn’t specifically spelled out as they are here. This is probably the best thing Derleth has done to the legacy of Lovecraft (because in the preceding stories there hasn’t been much), because we have quite a bit of evidence of what these powerful deities are, but before this, there have been no tools in which to battle them. By telling us that these Elder Signs were what was used to imprison them, we now have an inkling that there can be a chance to beat them.
The rest of the story unfolds as you would expect. The narrator builds a wall in his mind, striving to keep it blank so the Potter’s wont know what he’s planning, then tracks them all down and places the stones on them one by one, shunning the outsider whom was “called down from the sky.“
The story, unlike any by Lovecraft, ends with a super happy ending, where the Potter family is returned their humanity and they all remain whole after they move away from the little village of Witches’ Hollow. The narrator decides he wants to forget, or at least not look any further into the mysteries which seemed to surround that family there in that backwoods burg.
It’s a completely different feel from Lovecraft, but it’s fun and adventurous and totally worth the read.
Can Derleth keep it up? Can we move beyond that poor rehashing of Lovecraft’s tales and get into more adventurous stories like this one?
Join me to fid out next week as we try out “The Shadow in the Attic!”
“Dr. Gilman kept his own council, but the two who had brought him whispered into one ear after another a singular tale, telling how they had found in the house a great moisture, a wetness clinging to the walls, to the doorknob, even to the bed to which they had lowered Enoch Conger only a short while before hastening for the doctor – and on the floor a line of wet footprints made by feet with webbed toes – a trail that led out of the house and down to the edge of the sea, and all along the way the imprints were deep, as if something heavy had been carried from the house, something as heavy as Enoch.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re treading familiar “waters” as we get a quaint little story, which potentially created echoes throughout literary history.
The Fisherman of Falcon Point is pretty much exactly what you would think it is. It’s a story about a fisherman in the little burg of Falcon Point which is just down the coast from the infamous Innsmouth.
The story begins as a fairy tale: “Along the Massachusetts coats where he lived many things are whispered about Enoch Conger-” Enoch is the main character (I hesitate to say protagonist) of the story, and in this first line we immediately get the understanding that something strange is going on with him; he’s become a legend people tell, but Derleth does a good job in the opening of not indicating if he survived or otherwise, thus increasing our curiosity as a reader. He even goes one step further later down the page: “There he lived until he was seen no more, for none can say he died.”
Our narrator tells us “He was a powerful man, broad in the shoulders, barrel-chested, with long, muscular arms.” Also “…that he talked with the gulls and terns, with the wind and the pounding sea, and with others that could not be seen and were heard only in strange tones like the muted sounds made by great batrachian beasts unknown in the bogs and marshes of the mainland.”
Conger was a loner, a taciturn man who we’re made to believe speaks to animals because he’s so solitary. He only interacts with humans when he heads to the bar after coming in from a fishing excursion; it’s when he’s fishing in the sea just off the coast of Falcon Point and Innsmouth in which he communes with the fishes. Better than sleeping with the fishes I guess!
What’s important about the introduction of the story is the tone and method of telling the tale. Derleth usually takes a bit of a closer 3rd person perspective in his writing, giving us a glimpse into what the character themselves are thinking. This story moves back to a more 3rd omniscient perspective, with slightly more whimsical language. The effect is that instead of this story feeling like a driving short horror, it reads more like a mythology/world building story. It truly feels like you’re sitting around the campfire while Derleth tells you this fantastical tale…
Which is important because the story threads the line based upon what we guess about the area and the established mythology of the area. You never feel as though Conger is in mortal peril, but you know something very strange is about to happen to him.
In fact the tone and style of this story remind me so much of a more recent literary horror novel, “The Fisherman” by John Langan. You can ignore what seems to be the connection between these tales, because what it really is, is the fantastic mythology based around location. “The Fisherman” is highly recommended if you’ve not partaken, but it proves that though Lovecraft created this world, none of his writing had this tone or whimsy. This is purely Derleth creating a legacy.
Anyway back to the story. Conger spends much of his time in his favorite spot fishing, until that spot finally dries up, so he decides to venture out further… out towards Devils Reef in the sea beyond Innsmouth. Once there he “cast his net, and brought up many fishes – and something more-“
That something more is never described, but it spooks Conger enough to immediately leave. He heads back to his favorite bar where he tells his fishy tales, and the aged fishermen there think he’s seen a mermaid. “She was not a mermaid.” Conger responds, but is only met with derision.
“They laughed at him and made many a jest, but he heard them not.” But still he was spooked. He stayed away from Devil’s Reef for years and eventually, “…one night the word was brought to Innsmouth that Enoch Conger had been greviously hurt at his lonley occupation...” where two local fisherman took him back to his home and left him there to find the doctor.
We get the opening quote of this essay next as Enoch is carried away. At this point, based upon what we know about Enoch we can assume one of two things. He either had DNA from Innsmouth in his blood somewhere along the lines because of his penchant to speaking to animals, especially amphibians, or he was in some way marked by the cult of Dagon to be taken.
Years later “the venerable old Jedidiah Harper, patriarch of the coastal fishermen,” swore that he saw a school of fishlike people swimming alongside his boat. The had the look of half amphibian and half man, “they had seemed to be singing a chant to Dagon, a chant of praise, and among them, he swore, he had seen Enoch Conger…“
This raises a dark and fascinating point in which Derleth is playing at. I mentioned back in the Blind Read for “The Shadow out of Space” that Derleth seemed to be playing with body horror, or the idea that someone could be altered physically as well as mentally because of an outside force. In that story it was an Elder Sign on a person. Here we actually have Conger transitioning from a human into a Deep One and it seems as though he was marked early on. Namely his penchant for speaking to animals and then his catching a Deep One in a net. It’s possible that original Deep One he caught did something to him which started the transition, and it was only years later that he began his transformation, but I rather think it was the “injury” he sustained when found by those two fisherman. I think he was more than likely altered in some way, by his own volition or not, and that event caused the transition. He wasn’t actually injured. He was forced to change by some ritual.
We’ve talked about it before: rituals are a cornerstone with the Lovecraft mythos. Much of what goes on in Lovecraft’s original work is actually called (by his own verbiage) witch craft. That hasn’t happened very much so far in Derleth’s tales, but with this story, we may just be turning a corner.
Join me next week as we explore “Witch’s Hollow.”
As an aside, the first few stories in Derleth’s collection had Saurian, or Reptilian creatures who prayed to Dagon. The last few all had Batrachian, or amphibian creatures. Both of these are a bit of a divergence, from the fish men that were the Deep Ones in Lovecraft, but Derleth’s Amphibious creatures are a much closer distinction than the reptilian. I wonder if we’ll ever get a reason for this in the text, though I tend to believe there wont be. It may just be Derleth’s poetic license that he felt he could do whatever he wanted with the legacy, or it’s possible that he didn’t truly understand his friend’s writing before he started himself. In any case, I’m excited to see where we go next!
“That was what his grandfather had meant when he had written ‘you have gone forth into the world and gathered to yourself learning sufficient to permit you to look upon all things with an inquiring mind ridden neither by the superstition of ignorance nor the superstition of science.'”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! Here we have a combined sequel to both “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Dunwich Horror” all at the same time. If you don’t think those stories jive too well together you’d be right; one is about Dagon and the other about Yog-Sothoth. It seems, however, as though Derleth decided that he liked Cthulhu and Dagon (the fishy ones) so much more that he’d focus all of his energies on slowly phasing out of Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothothery and into his own more popular Cthulhu Mythos.
We begin the tale talking about the backwoods of Massachusetts and I was immediately excited: “At dusk, the wild, lonely country guarding the approaches to the village of Dunwich in north central Massachusetts seems more desolate and forbidding than it ever does by day.”
The Dunwich Horror is one of my favorite Lovecraft tales because he packs so much into it and not only is it a wonderful horror tale, but it also expands his mythos in such a wonderful way. The Whatley’s are farming folk and Lavinia Whately, a strange albino woman, becomes pregnant. No one seems to know who the father is, but mad old Whately mentions in passing about some strange theory that she was impregnated by someone named Yog-Sothoth, but that’s just in passing, and he’s crazy anyway, so we move forward. Lavinia gives birth to Wilbur, who is strange in and of himself, he ages prematurely, he’s described as a “dark, goatish infant,” he has an odd musty odor, and under the tutilage of old man Whateley he’s drawn to Arkham to study the Necronomicon. While at Miskatonic University he turns into a beast and dies, but the doctors are curious as to how that’s possible so they head to Dunwich to investigate, only to come across a terrible Shoggoth as it rampages across the country side.
That is as simple an explanation as I can give, but the story is significantly better. In Derleth’s tale the only real connection to Dunwich is the Whately name. Our protagonist is Abner Whately which is confusing because in the original tale we’re led to believe the line of Whately’s died off. We’re given a brief description: “The Whatleys has a curse on ’em…and thar’s what happened on Sentinel Hill that time-Lavinny’s Wilbur” but that isn’t really a connection. We can only assume that there were cousins to the branch that died off in Lovecraft’s tale living somewhere nearby and took over the farmhouse. That new Whatley, Grandfather Luther as named in this new story, had a few children. Our protagonist Abner meets Zebulon, his uncle and speaks of his Aunt Sarah, who their grandfather Luther locked away in her room after she visited…wait for it…Innsmouth.
At the mention of Innsmouth we lose all thread of Dunwich and suddenly the story becomes a sequel to Lovecraft’s doomed “Shadow Over Innsmouth” instead.
You might ask why Sarah decided to go to Innsmouth? Well Derleth hashes that reasoning out in dialog:
“‘What was Aunt Sarah doing in Innsmouth?‘
‘Are there Whatleys there, too?’
‘Not Whatleys. Marshes. Old Obed Marsh that was Pa’s cousin.‘”
If you remember from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” Old Obed Marsh was a sea captain who took a strange island wife whom was not seen much afterward. She was, in fact, one of Dagon’s Deep Ones; a fish creature who worships from the underwater city just off Devil’s reef off the coast of Innsmouth called Y’ha-nthlei. Innsmouth itself was peopled by hybrid Deep Ones, as the people of that coastal town were breeding with the Deep Ones for years.
And that’s what happened to Sarah. She met her cousin Ralsa Marsh and apparently had a tryst. When Grandfather Luther heard of it, he locked her away in her room.
So we’ve been weaving back and forth between stories, but lets focus on what happens in Derleth’s, shall we? The reason Abner arrived at the house is because his Grandfather Luther died and asked him to go there and burn down the mill and everything above it. In his letter, Luther tells Abner “It is my wish that at least the mill section of this house be destroyed. Let it be taken apart, board by board. If anything in it lives, I adjure you solemnly to kill it. No matter how small it may be.”
Then there is a post script, “If I seem to have the sound of madness, pray recall that worse than madness has spawned among the Whatelys. I have stood free of it. It has not been so of all that is mine. There is more stubborn madness in those who are unwilling to believe in what that know not of and deny that such exists, than in those of our blood who have been guilty of terrible practices, and blasphemy against God, and worse.”
If you blink you miss it. Obviously Luther is speaking of his daughter Sarah here. She’s the one touched by madness, because she had an affair with her fishy Deep One cousin, Ralsa. She’s the one whom was locked in the room, presumably with her offspring…locked in there until she died.
But that isn’t what could be missed in that paragraph. Lovecraft was very careful to God out of his works. Actually that’s probably a mis-statement. He didn’t believe in god…or the devil. So Lovecraft’s horror was cosmic, because in his world there wasn’t truly evil, there was only incomprehensible horrors. Derleth, conversely, was very religious and he mentions God in nearly every story I’ve read so far. That’s not necessarily a bad thing…well it is if you’re a Lovecraft fan…but what he seems to be saying here is that because Sarah was “guilty of terrible practices” namely having sex with her cousin, that she was rightly entombed with her spawn. It is meant, I’m sure, to mean that because Ralsa was a Deep One and Sarah’s judgment was so poor that she hooked up with him, that had to be kept safe from herself. The issue seems to be Derleth’s however because he’s the one who made Ralsa her cousin. There’s no precedence for that in Lovecraft, so its almost like it’s Derleth made him a cousin because in his’s eyes, sex with your cousin is the same as being an evil otherworldly creature. Not saying it’s right, but it sure doesn’t warrant a death sentence.
So Abner is there to destroy the room and the mill. He goes about the story working to do this task, and while doing so heads to Sarah’s room. To get rid of the musty smell he “...kicked the shutters out to let in a welcome blast of fresh, damp air.” When he turns to inspect the room he “caught sight of a long-legged frog or toad” vanish behind a bureau. What we come to realize is that Sarah’s and Ralsa’s offspring was full Deep One and apparently in Derleth’s part of this shared universe when Deep Ones don’t eat they become diminutive. Abner’s act of kicking out the shutter, gives the creature a chance to escape. The dead cattle? That’s the escaped Deep One eating and growing to regular size. If you remember from “The Dunwich Horror” this is what the Shoggoth did, so much so that the old man Whatley and Wilbur had to keep rebuilding farmhouses to house it.
But Abner doesn’t realize this at first. It isn’t until Abner heads to the shuttered room late in the story and sees “There, squatting in the midst of the tumbled bedding from the long-abandoned bed, sat a monstrous, leathery skinned creature that was neither frog nor man, one gorged with food, with blood still slavering from it’s batrachian jaws and upon it’s webbed fingers…” with limbs “grown from its bestial body like those of a frog, and tapering off into a man’s hands, save for the webbing between the fingers.“
He throws the lantern at the creature, immolating both it and the room, thus ending the horror.
Derleth tries to include some aspects of “The Dunwich Horror” into this tale, but he makes small changes. The odor which pervades the story is fishy instead of musty, the dead cattle are because a Deep One is on the loose instead of a Shoggoth. He uses tools like this to bring his tale together and separate himself from Lovecraft. He obviously wants things to be more connected with Cthulhu, potentially making that eldritch god a much larger aspect of the whole mythos…but then again he’s stepping on his own toes.
A few weeks ago we covered a few stories, Namely “The Peabody Heritage” and even further back “The Survivor.” In both of these stories the creature whom we can only understand as an aspect of Dagon or Cthulhu, were Saurian, I.E. reptilian. However in this story he seems to be changing that to batrachian, or fishlike, amphibian. Why is he changing up his own rules between stories? Could there be a connector I haven’t seen yet? Could Derleth be trying to connect more of the world and make it cohesive for all his new readers? By the title we have a great read next week to find out!
Join me as we dive into “The Fisherman of Falcon Point!”
Derleth is cherry picking to fulfill the needs of his current tale.(The ancestor, the peabody heritage)
“If it is true that man lives forever on the edge of an abyss, the certainly most men must experience moments of awareness – of a kind of precognition, as it were – when the vast, unplumbed depths which exist forever on the rim of man’s little world become for one cataclysmic moment tangible, when the terrible, boundless well of knowledge of which even the most brilliant man has only tasted, assumes a shadowy being capable of striking the most primal terror into even the stoutest heart.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we trudge through the terribly derivative and bastardizing story, while reconciling memory and looking to the future of Lovecraft Country.
Right from the beginning of this story, I could tell that it was going to be a weak retelling of “The Shadow Out of Time” and unfortunately it was nearly a word for word reconditioning of that odd novella with Derleth putting his own, less sophisticated stamp on it. Derleth tries to clarify what was going on in the original story, but unfortunately the whole thing just leaves a bad taste in your mouth, as he strives to tie some of the mythos together, which don’t seem as though they fit.
It’s ultimately a lazy effort and pretty obviously a money grab. Even the title, replacing Space or Time, is a lazy effort to reimagine. Reading this story almost feels like I’m reading “Lovecraft for Dummies”, which is a massive let down.
There are some interesting connectors though, and that’s what we’ll be focusing on as I give you a Cliffs Notes version of the story.
If you’ve read “The Shadow out of Time” you know what’s going to happen. This story follows Nathaniel Corey who’s our narrator. Corey has a patient, Amos Piper, who had the same kind of strange circumstances of his alliterative counter part Peaslee from “The Shadow out of Time.” They black out for years, loosing that time. They suddenly developed an interest in the occult while they concurrently lose control of their bodily faculties for a period of time. It turns out in both stories that the characters were invaded by one of the Great Race of Yith, a race looking to gather information about every other species in existence. The Yith have the ability to travel through time and space (hence both titles) to do so. Eventually the Yith retract, and the more the narrator digs, they eventually find themselves being invaded.
What Derleth’s version is missing is the philosophical element of Lovecraft’s novelette. In fact it seems like that’s what he’s missing with all of his stories. Lovecraft has popularity because he created incredible atmosphere, but at the same time, his stories were philosophical treatises. Derleth, I’m coming to understand, is basically writing dime store books. He’s actively removing the philosophy from Lovecraft’s ethos and dumbing the stories down to make them more accessible to a wider audience. The jury is still out about how I feel about this, especially because he seems to change small things about the stories which I think curve away from the original intent (more specifically creating a more Christian outlook instead of an apathetic one). The only real philosophizing in this story is the opening quote of this essay, which incidentally is the opening paragraph (or at least most of the opening paragraph) of the story.
That being said Derleth does add a few details to make this world more his own. Some of these add a layer of sub-context which both inform us of Derleth’s process and add a bit to the story. The first of these comes fairly early in the story and had me excited for the prospects:
“The moment I close my eyes, there appear on the retina strange geometrical figures and designs, together with vague lights and even more sinister shapes beyond, as of great creatures past the conception of mankind...”
If we remember from stories such as “Dreams in the Witch House” and even such favorites as “The Call of Cthulhu,” strange geometrical figures and angles play a huge role. In Lovecraft they’re used as a sort of talisman to help magnify the magic being used. Strange angles, conversely, seem to create a fold in space and time where dimension and time hopping becomes possible. Derleth seems to be layering this concept onto people. If we can actually put these designs onto our own figure, can we call forth elder entities into our own bodies? Would they come through us in some kind of body horror, or would they merely take over our minds which seems to be indicated here in this story? It’s a very exciting prospect for what could possibly be coming in later stories.
Derleth also makes use of popular culture as well, grounding the story into a specific timeline. Piper’s episode of transmogrification takes place during a performance of Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter.” Because this reference was so specifically called out it makes me wonder if there’s a specific meaning behind it’s inclusion. “The Letter” is about a woman named Leslie, who is on trial for killing Geoff Hammond, a friend of her husbands. Throughout the play it’s found out that Hammond was in fact Leslie’s lover, who scorned her for another woman. The eponymous letter comes to light and Leslie is eventually acquitted, but she’s not completely innocent. She is guilty of adultery and sees her punishment as the knowledge that she killed the man she truly loved.
On surface level this seems like it doesn’t connect. What could this possibly mean? I contemplated for a few pages until I came across a long quote which begins to reveal a potential deeper meaning:
“The rugose cones which made their present form had been occupied for only a few centuries, and were far from their true form, which was more kin to a shaft of light, for they were a race of free minds, capable of invading any body and displacing the mind which inhabited it. They had occupied Earth until they had become involved in the titanic struggle between the Elder Gods and the Ancient Ones for the dominion of the cosmos, a struggle which, he told me, accounted for the Christian Mythos among mankind, for the simple minds of early men had conceived of their ancestral memories of this struggle as one between elemental Good and elemental Evil.”
There’s a decent amount to unravel here, but I want to add one more quote before we take the deep dive into Derleth’s mind.
“Indeed, if anything, his memory during his illness – once indoctrination had been completed – was infinitely superior to the functioning of that part of his mind before.”
So how does this correlate to “The Letter?” Follow with me here, because we’re getting deep!
Lovecraft made sure to keep religion out of his stories (although I do find an interesting correlation to heaven or hell in “The White Ship“), but it seems as though Derleth is working to incorporate and explain why it’s necessary. Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothothery was mostly apathetic; they were ancient and powerful gods who saw humans as insignificant. They weren’t “evil,” their goal was not to overthrow our society or make us slaves. We are as pointless as little black ants to them. If we annoy them they step on us. If we don’t bother them they generally let us be.
Derleth flat out states that it was a “struggle between elemental Good and elemental Evil.” He’s working to quintessentially change what Lovecraft was striving to do. He’s working to make it his own instead of honoring Howard. He gets away with it, making these tales more popular posthumously than during Lovecraft’s life, but he steals some of the heart of the tale. Derleth is Leslie. He’s ostensibly killed the memory of what Lovecraft was striving for, but he gets away with it, tarnishing the one he admired and loved.
That’s what this story feels like. It’s told well and it’s a interesting story, but only if you haven’t read Lovecraft first. If you had it feels like a tarnishing of the legacy. In Derleth’s effort to make it easier and more accessible, to put meaning behind why the Ancient Ones and the Elder Gods did what they did, makes the story somehow not really worth it. It’s the theory behind “the reveal.” If you have a monster so horrible that a mere glance at it could drive you insane, then you let the imagination come up with it’s image. Derleth, puts a rugose cone head and some tentacles and claws and calls it scary, when in reality, he’s just making it basic.
Let’s see how Derleth moves beyond this next week as we cover one of his most popular stories “The Shuttered Room”
Addendum: I was supposed to publish an essay on “The Shadow out of Space,” but I hit a computer blip. Luckily I’m headed out of town and worked ahead, and had this one ready a week early. Enjoy this one now and come back for “The Shadow out of Space” next week!
“The city on the desert was the Nameless City and the snowy peaks were the Mountains of Madness or perhaps Kadath in the Cold Waste. And he enjoyed keenly bestowing names upon these landscapes, for they came to him with ease, they sprang to his mind as if they had always been lingering on the perimeter of his thoughts, waiting for this moment to come into being.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we relax, awash in a wonderfully metafictional story, which is probably the most enjoyable Derleth tale to date!
I assumed by the title that this story would be about the cannon. The Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred is mentioned in a number of Lovecraft stories as the author of the original Necronomicon. A grimoire discussing the Elder Gods and the spells in which he was privy to. To both summon them, to honor them, and to worship them. He supposedly had an “otherworldly experience” and gained the knowledge of the Elder Gods, enough at least to write the cursed Necronomicon.
Alhazred was not mentioned beyond this capacity (at lest in Lovecraft’s works), but we can infer that he was one of the first “Dreamers” much like Randolph Carter (From such famous stories as “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” “The Statement Of Randoph Carter,” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”), however unlike Carter it seems as though either gaining the knowledge, or the act of writing the Necronomicon is what drove Alhazred “Mad.”
This story doesn’t have anything to do with Alhazred however, but is instead a homage to Howard Phillips himself. The story follows Ward Phillips, “then thirty, and in indifferent health, though this was but a continuation of the sickliness which had so often made his childhood miserable.”
After reading this passage on the first page I assumed Derleth was going to make the character a mirror Howard, but as I got deeper, I realized that Ward Phillips was just a stand in so he wouldn’t have to specifically mention Lovecraft. The story is a love letter to a lost friendship, and it was wonderful to experience. It is actually about Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Derleth goes on to examine the man, “Phillips had become a writer for the pulp magazines, and had eked out a spare living by undertaking in addition the revision of countless almost hopeless manuscripts of prose and verse by writers far more amateur than he...” and “Phillips, who lived in the past, believed that the way to defeat the sense of time was to cling close to unaltered early haunts.” This is just another clue. We know what Derleth’s saying here is true from their correspondence and all such stories such as “The Horror at Red Hook.“
“He often went to a hill, Nentaconhaunt, from the slope of which he could look down on his native city and wait there for the sunset and the enchanting panoramas of the city springing to its life by night, with the steeples and gambrel roofs darkening upon the orange and crimson...”
This hill which the fictional Ward Phillips went to to gain inspiration from, is a real hill in Providence. The description in the above quote obviously lends to the atmosphere of Lovecraft’s stories in general and I wonder if Lovecraft himself spent time on that hill, taking in the evening and letting his imagination soar. Just how many stories obtained their genesis from time on that hill? The Hill’s name strikes me as well. I’m not sure of the etymology, and this isn’t the place to have that discussion anyway, but it seems to me that it enflamed Lovecraft’s dark imagination, perhaps even fueling the creation of such names as the “Necronomicon?”
In any case, Ward Phillips, our illustrious stand in, spends his evenings on the hill, so he spends his nights writing. He’s got a “meager income” so he doesn’t use electric light to write, but instead decides to use an old lamp his Grandfather Whipple left him (If that name sounds familiar you are correct. It is concurrently the name of Howard’s Grandfather, and Captain Abraham Whipple who led a charge against Joseph Curwen in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward). The Lamp of Alhazred.
I immediately thought the lamp was going to summon some kind of Deep One, but I was given a much more pleasant surprise. The lamp created a shadow play upon the walls, something “Ward” sat back and viewed in wonder:
“It seemed to be a scene of the earth when young, one in which the land was still in the process of being formed, a land where great gouts of steam came from fissures and rocks, and the trails of serpentine animals showed plainly in the mud. High overhead flew great beasts that fought and tore, and from an opening in a rock on the edge of the sea, a tremendous animal appendage, resembling a tentacle, uncoiled sinuously and menacingly into the red, wan sunlight of that day, like a creature of some fantastic fiction.“
“Slowly the scene changed,” into what the opening quote describes, and we realize that this story is not a horror story at all, but a homage, or even love song, between one author and his predecessor. There is care as Derleth even describes: “he took time to answer letters from his correspondents, to whom he wrote of his ‘dreams’.” which of course he’s speaking of himself as one of Lovecraft’s correspondents.
Derleth waxes poetic about how many people must have viewed the fantastic themes and scenes which came from the lamp and wonders how many will in the future. It’s at this point, just a page or two from the end, in which we realize he’s now speaking on Lovecraft’s writing. H.P.’s stories are, not just a candle in the dark, but a lamp, illuminating a new way forward for authors. He made it possible to move beyond Gothic horror and try new things. He was the trail-blazer who created a dynasty of such authors as Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard, and informed artists such as Moebius and H.R. Giger.
It’s a fantastic little story and it brought me back to the first day I started this blog series. What it must have been like to be one of his pen pals. To hear of the story ideas, and to bath in the blossoming fungi that became his oeuvre. I can only hope that the rest of the stories in Derleth’s collection live up to the same inspiration!
Join me next week as we look into “The Shuttered Room”
“There was no question but that my cousin had found some way to tap the stream of memory; he had established beyond doubt that everything that happened to a human being was registered in some compartment of the brain, and that it needed but the proper bridge to it’s place of storage in memory to bring it to consciousness once more.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we travel back into time alongside Derleth’s characters to view a fairly Lovecraftian Tale, which quixotically, doesn’t hold enough of Lovecraft’s themes.
Here’s another tale told in Vermont and (at least as far as I could tell) is absent of any of Derleth’s predilections of adding in little details like names of old characters to get readers excited, but instead holds to the trope of a man in trouble calling on a friend to help them in their research as Lovecraft did in tales such as “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Colour out of Space.”
We begin with a description of the man in need, the narrator’s cousin, Ambrose Perry. He’s apparently an old retired medical doctor whom “went into virtual seclusion at his home, which he had built in the middle of a dense wood, and outfitted with as complete a laboratory as money could buy.”
Ambrose calls on our narrator, a man who’s without a job. Ambrose sends him a letter, “offering me a handsome emolument if I would accept the position of secrecy.” A theme which was not, I believe, intended was the unreliable narrator trope. The narrator is a man who’s probably in his mid to late thirties and jobless without prospect. This tale was written in the fifties, so the idea of a man of that age without prospects generally leads me to the idea that the narrator is a vagrant, and is possible of anything if he thinks it will get him a little further… or possibly to get another fix (more on that later)? The two men are cousins that’s true, but why would the narrator be reached out to first? And why the emphasis on the importance of secrecy? Probably because vagrancy lends itself to being disposable, so it wouldn’t matter the secrets learned, because the narrator was never meant to leave the property. Something to think about as we move throughout the story.
Why was this the first thing that came to my mind? Because when Ambrose answers the door, “he was thin and gaunt; the hale, ruddy man I had last seen almost four years ago had vanished, and in his place stood a mere travesty of his former self.” Ambrose had come across something profound. He either wanted someone who wouldn’t say anything because they understood, or he wanted someone disposable when things got too deep.
Ambrose brings the narrator into confidence and tells him the job is to transpose his notes from shorthand into a narrative, then proceeds to tell our narrator that he’s developed a method of, “a combination of drugs and music, taken at a time when the body is half-starved induces the mood and makes it possible to cast back in time and sharpen all the faculties to such a degree that memory is regained.” The point of this vision quest is to “recapture all my past, down to the most minute nooks and crannies of human memory, and I am now further convinced that, by the same methods, I can extend this perceptive process to hereditary memory and recreate the events of man’s heredity.” He’s even said that he’s recaptured memories from his own time in the womb.
The narrator lives in this strange abode for weeks with his host disappearing for half of every day to do his strange experiments. His only companionship are the Reeds, “man and wife, who were both in their sixties, were subdued. They made little conversation, not only because Mrs. Reed both cooked and served her dinner, but because they were plainly accustomed to carrying on an existence apart from their employer’s…”
Why is the only thing he mentions the fact that she cooks him dinner? Why doesn’t he mention the butlery duties of Mr. Reed? Initially this would seem like it’s an important designation. In fact I wrote in my notes that they were characters to watch. I thought they might be devious, possibly nefarious characters, but they turn out to be just an old couple who have seen too much and decide they just need to put their heads down and do their job. In fact they turn out to be much like The Slydes from “House on Haunted Hill.” They’re atmosphere. They’re not really characters, but a backdrop to give off a creepy vibe.
So the atmosphere is in place and the narrator is curious about what’s going on, until finally Ambrose grows to weak from his food abstinence. He calls the narrator in and we finally get a glimpse. “The atmosphere of the laboratory, ill-lit with but one low red light near to the operating table, was eerie. My cousin looked far more like a corpse than a man under the influence of drugs. Moreover, there was playing in one corner an electric phonograph, so that the low, discordant strains of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps flowed through the room and took possession of it.“
This is an area of prose where Derleth is sound. His writing is simplistic and over-run with contextual errors (not to mention lazy. There’s a part of me that after reading Lovecraft for years and bathing in his beautiful exposition, to be laden with Derleth just outright saying “it was eerie” is a bit troublesome), but he gives off a much more visual contextualization. It’s almost as though because Derleth wrote after TV became popular and Lovecraft didn’t, that his tales are more direct…as though they’re stories meant to read like a show, rather than Lovecraft who was more cerebral. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, but it’s probably not the right time for that.
Getting back to the story, the narrator is now privy to the lab and takes notes of Ambrose going even further back in time, back to before he was born in fact, back to memories that couldn’t possibly be his own and eventually he broke into the strangest of phrases:
“Forest sunk into earth…Great ones fighting, tearing. Run, run… New trees for old. Footprints ten feet across. We live in cave, cold, damp, fire…“
Ambrose thinks he may have gotten somewhere, but strangely, he kicks our narrator out. He locks the door leaving the Reeds and the narrator to wait outside and listen to the odd sounds coming from the laboratory. Ambrose’s dog starts to get upset; “Whereas hitherto he had been a singularly well-behaved dog, now he began to bark often at night, and day by day he whined and moved about the house and yard with an air of alarm.”
They would leave food on a tray outside of the laboratory door, and always when they weren’t looking the food would disappear. The notes became more difficult for the narrator to decipher. “He seemed to have difficulty properly holding a pencil, and his lines were scrawled in large letters over all the sheets of paper without any sense of order, though this was not entirely unexpected in one heavily dosed with drugs.”
But then the music, what Ambrose touted as heavily important for the process, suddenly stopped right about the time, “a pervasive and highly repellent musk, clearly an animal odor, which seemed to emanate from the laboratory.” The narrator also thinks he “...saw some unpleasantly large animal scuttling into the woods.“
The narrator finally gets into the lab and finds what to him looks like “a primal animal’s abode.” With parts of game, obviously caught and devoured strewn about the lab. The lab itself was destroyed, but the door leading to the woods was wide open.
The narrator followed the trail until he came upon Ginger, Ambrose’s dog, with a fresh kill in the woods:
“For the thing that lay below Ginger’s bloody jaws was a sub-human caricature of a man, a hellish parody of primal growth, with horrible malformations of face and body, giving off an all-pervasive and wholly charnel musk – but it was clad in the rags of my cousin’s mouse-colored dressing-gown, and it wore on it’s wrist my cousin’s watch.”
So we come to find that the set up of the story had a Lovecraftian tint; a man searching for knowledge, taking part in obscure or arcane rituals, but the payoff is different than anticipated. He goes back in time and because of the rituals he executed, he gained aspects of his prehistoric ancestors. It’s a shocking ending sure, but Derleth lost quite a bit along the way. There was plenty of drama he could have infused with Ambrose looking like his actual ancestors, much like in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” There’s also the mention of the Great Ones, which didn’t actually pan out.
Ultimately the story reads much like the narrator is…unreliable. I mentioned earlier that the narrator was a confusing personage. Is he a man looking to do the most and just down on his luck? It doesn’t seem so because of all the previous things mentioned, and also his vast knowledge of drugs. There’s a portion of the text where the narrator gives a scientific description of the Marijuana Ambrose “uses.” I’ve seen this in people I know, where they are so enamored with Weed that they get into the scientific aspects of it, sometimes to the detriment of everything else in their lives. Could that be what the narrator was looking for? Easy access to weed?
Even if that is the case, he’s unreliable. What’s more Derleth is unreliable as well and I’m slowly coming to the understanding that there may be a metafictional dichotomy here. Derleth was using Lovecraft’s name to sell his horror fiction and where… yes… he coined the phrase “Cthulhu Mythos” and supposedly expanded Lovecraft’s world, it feels like he’s using key words of Lovecraft to get some of his weirder tales out there.
Derleth himself is unreliable because I keep going into these stories expecting a Lovecraftian payoff, but he pulls the rug out from under us just as we get to the end. Is this how the rest of the experience will go? Fun stories, but not nearly Lovecraftian? Based on the title I think we’re going to find out next week!
Read along as we cover “The Shadow out of Space!”
“Though the majority of these alterations had apparently been made to contribute to Wilbur’s comfort, there was one change which had baffled me at the time that Wilbur had made it, and for which he never offered any explanation; this was the installation in the south wall of his gable room of a great round window of a most curious clouded glass, of which he said only that it was a work of great antiquity, which he had discovered and acquired in the course of his travels in Asia. He referred to it as one time as “the glass from Leng” and at another as “possibly Hyadean in origin,” neither of which enlightened me in the slightest…“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve into Derleth’s most cosmic story yet, while at the same time lamenting his tone and applauding his action.
From the very start “The Gable Window” feels like Derleth stretched to make it much more of a Lovecraft story than it is. His Christianity is just so profound that it pervades the writing in such a way that you instantly know it isn’t Howard Phillips, but at the same time, the text is good enough to make you want to keep reading.
The story starts off with two slaps in the face which are meant to be fan service. About half way down the first paragraph we get this:
“It (the house of the narrator’s cousin, Wilber Akeley) had fallen into disuse after the grandson of the farmer who had built it had left the soil for the seaside city of Kingston, and my cousin bought the estate of that heir disgruntled with the meager living to be made on that sadly depleted land. It was not a calculated move, for the Akeleys did nothing by sudden impulse.”
Instantly I’m annoyed. As we’ve seen from previous stories, Derleth has no qualms with using names and locations of Lovecraft’s to disuse. Akeley is the name of the farmer whom communes with, and takes rides from, strange advanced aliens in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” but this turns out to be ok, because Wilber (later in the story) is a relative of Henry, which instantly ties this story into Lovecraft country. Why then, did Derleth decide to call the seaside town Kingston instead of Kingsport? It cheapens the story, making it seem as though Derleth either tried to make the story his own, or even worse, that he accidentally called the city by the incorrect name. These kind of iniquities keep popping up throughout Derleth’s stories, and it’s no wonder there’s disdain for him using Lovecraft’s name. It’s not the stories themselves, which are entertaining, but that he lends fan service while at the same time not actually continuing the traditions. Kind of like why Fans of Star Wars are so upset with the most recent trilogy of movies.
Getting back to the story, the narrator renovates the house, much like the narrator did in “The Peabody Heritage,” but as we see in the introductory quote to this essay, he doesn’t remove or remodel the glass in the gable window. The Plateau of Leng is popular in Lovecraft literature as both an alien landscape and a space in Antarctica where reality is thin and the ability to dimension hop is strong (foreshadowing alert), seen in such stories as “At The Mountains of Madness” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” and where it seems a strange and dangerous place, it isn’t nefarious at all.
The room is obviously the most used, but “I found myself from the beginning curiously repelled by the gable room, in part certainly because it reminded me so strongly of the living presence of my dead cousin who could never again occupy his favorite corner of the house, in part also because the room was to me unnaturally alien and seemed cold to me, holding me off as by some physical force I could not understand…“
The room is filled with Wilbur’s manuscripts and various books from the nearby Miskatonic University in Arkham, which we know from Lovecraft is one of the few locations which house the fabled Necronomicon.
The narrator hears various noises. “These were of no consequence at first: they began as tiny, almost unnoticed things.” Like what sounded like a cat scratch at the window, or some kind of slapping/slithering sound coming from the window. It didn’t unnerve the narrator until he realized there was no possible was for a cat to touch the window and there was no tree nearby.
Unnerved but nonplussed, the narrator continues his renovations and eventually gets a letter from the executor of the estate stating that all Wilbur’s papers on his research are to be destroyed, the books on certain shelves are to be turned into Miskatonic University, and the glass in the gable window broken.
Interested, the narrator goes to these shelves and finds strange and old books; “The more recent ones among them – and none of these dated beyond 1850 – had been assembled from various places; some had belonged to our fathers’ cousin, Henry Akeley, of Vermont, who had sent them down to Wilbur; some bore the ownership stamps of the Biblotheque Nationale of Paris…”
Here is where I get touchy. There are things like this throughout Derleth and despite the fact that he lauds himself as an incredible writer (without a doubt these stories are fun), he make a plethora of mistakes. This whole story Wilber is our narrator’s cousin. This quote all of the sudden makes him the narrators brother? “…some had belonged to our fathers’ cousin…” The narrator and the cousin couldn’t have the same father or they wouldn’t be cousins. These are the little missteps which happen again and again that directly contradict other details in Derleth’s stories. This is also why I believe that he didn’t mean to misquote Kingsport as Kingston, he just didn’t care to go back through and verify the details. It’s just sloppy writing, and NOT something which Lovecraft would have permitted considering his perfidy.
Moving beyond the irritation, the Biblotheque Nationale of Paris is the second known location of the Necronomicon, and in the very next paragraph we get a small list of books contained within this auspicious home library:
“…they bore such titles as Pnakotic Manuscripts, the R’lyeh Text, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, the Book of Eibon, the Dhol Chants, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan, Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis, the Celaeno Fragments, the Cultes De Goules of the Comte d’Erlette, the Book of Dzyan, a photostat copy of the Necronomicon…“
This is all very exciting because here Derleth infuses some of his own ideas seamlessly into Lovecraft (meaning some of these books are of Derleth’s creation), but then unfortunately in the next sentence he ruins the progress he makes:
“Did it matter whether you call it God and the Devil, or the Elder Gods and the Ancient Ones, Good and Evil or such names as the Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss, the only named Elder God, or these of the Great Old Ones…“
Derleth then goes on to name the Lovecraftian Pantheon which is his strength. He is the one who really clarified the mythos and created it as we know it today, but yes August, it really does matter if you call it God and the Devil.
Lovecraft created a world which was amoral and apathetic. The Ancient Ones and the Elder Gods had their own agendas and humans just tend to get in the way at times, as we strive for more power. In the Lovecraft world the only good and evil was man…and nearly always it was man who was evil. In our apparent struggle for power we are the ones who create menace; these Elder Gods are merely like a giant rock in the road. If we just pass them by we might not even know they’re there, but if we get curious and want to know what they are and accidentally kick them, we break our toe.
Derleth frames his religion overtop of this uncaring world gives good and evil attributes to them. All the sudden these creatures who were never malevolent, just massive (think of yourself walking down the street and accidentally stepping on a bug), are all the sudden a hidden threat bent on killing off or enslaving mankind. The issue is, that kind of creature belies the genius of Lovecraft. If the Elder Gods are evil, then humankind should have been wiped out all together because these Elder Gods are just too powerful. In Derleth’s world, these Elder Gods once ran the universe but are now waiting for some fool to blunder into setting them free, or some cult to summon them back to their glory. In Lovecraft these creatures were unknowable which made the merest glance of them drive a man insane. In Derleth’s stories they become a land dwelling octopus.
There are very few tentacles in Lovecraft. There are many tentacles in Derleth.
And we see them as the narrator goes into the room with the gable window. For the first time he notices there’s a pentagram drawn on the ground. Curious he decides to read off some text:
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgahnagl fhtagn.”
and suddenly the glass becomes a portal and he seems strange baked landscape with odd people he remembers his cousin calling Sand People. Then from a cave:
“…little by little, an incredible monster made it’s appearance – at first a probing tentacle, then another, and presently half a dozen cautiously exploring the caves mouth. And then, from out the darkness of the cavern’s well, an eldritch head shown dimly.”
The creature moves forward to the glass…eventually through the glass and the narrator is terrorized. Yet unlike in Lovecraft where the narrator would lose consciousness only to then delve into a downward spiral of madness, this narrator comes to his senses and wipes the side of the chalked Pentagram, instantly closing the portal. How do we know it worked?
“…I know beyond doubt that what I saw was not the product of my feverish fancy, because nothing could demolish that final damning proof which I found near the shattered glass on the floor of the gable room – the cut tentacle, ten feet in length, which had been caught between dimensions when the door had been shut against that monstrous body to which it belonged, the tentacle no living savant could identify as belonging to any known creature, living or dead, on the face or in the subterrene depths of the earth!“
Despite all the issues I’ve laid out, it’s a very satisfying tale. I point these things out so that the casual reader will know the difference between what the experience is between reading Lovecraft and Derleth. Will these disparities continue?
Let’s find out next week as we read “The Ancestor.”
“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.”
“It was in the house of Dexter, in the northern part of the town near the present intersection of North Main and Olney Streets, on the occasion of Canonchet’s raid of March 30, 1676, during King Phillip’s War; and the astute sachem, recognising it at once as a thing of singular venerableness and dignity, sent it as a symbol of alliance to a faction of the Pequots in Connecticut with whom he was negotiating. On April 4th he was captured by the colonists and soon after executed, but the austere head of Ibid continued on his wanderings.”
Welcome back to a very strange Blind Read! This week we contemplate academia while ruminating on relevance, legacy, and idolatry and wax poetic while following Lovecraft’s lead!
What a odd, curious whimsey this story was. There really isn’t much to it as it’s primarily a brief satire of what Lovecraft deemed academia of the time period… but if we look closely, beyond the gallows humor indicative of the man, and past the analogy he was striving for, we catch some strange influences into his other works. Themes that seeped into popular culture over the years which have not been present in his others works. Theme’s subsumed within a blanket of normalcy. Ok, I’ll stop being coy, let’s get to it!
Like I said, there’s not much to the story (especially the length), but we get the analogy immediatly with the opening sentence:
“The erroneous idea that Ibid is the author of the Lives is so frequently met with, even among those pretending to a degree of culture, that it is worth correcting.”
This is immediately following from an opening quote (“…-as Ibid says in his famous Lives of the Poets.” – From a Student theme.)
We then get a brief glimpse of the history Ibid himself (with some ridiculous speculation on his name which puts together many Ceasar’s and common Roman names together…there may be something to this, but it’s not something I caught: Caius Anicius Magnus Furius Camillus Aemilanus Cornelius Valerius Pompeius Julius Ibidus) before Lovecraft describes how the man’s skull is passed from person to person throughout history. From ancient Rome to Charlemagne, from private citizens to soldiers, from Native Americans to witches. This skull is passed as heirloom, as an art piece, as a magical talisman, and as a curiosity. There are even scenes which recall Hamlet and his famous Yorick scene where he gazes at the skull, nay into the skull, as though there is some deeper meaning or power within it.
So what is the point? Why follow along with a supposed “Learned Man” and then his skull afterward? The quote would seem to indicate that Lovecraft is railing against the stupidity of the uninformed at first. From the matter of a student wrongly using a quote, to Lovecraft ridiculing those who don’t know the truth:
“It should be a matter of general knowledge that Cf. is responsible for this work“
“There is a false report – very commonly reproduced in modern books...”
This seems to be the idea, but then, after we survive a page of brain numbing etymology, we get this sentence: “His full name – long and pompous according to the custom of an age which had lost the trinomial simplicity of classic Roman nomenclature…“
Then we go into a romp of the mans skull through history. Why would the man’s skull, as it outlines in the quote at the beginning of this essay, be “a thing of singular venerableness and dignity” when the only reason it’s available to be handed down is because it was “exhumed and ridiculed by Lombard Duke of Spoleto, who took his skull (after exhuming it) to King Autheris for use as a wassail-bowl.“
It’s because Lovecraft is poking fun at the pompous nature of academia in general. These people are so focused on revering something which was created to use as a drinking vessel, but attribute all means of power to it because of it’s age and the misguided idea of what he wrote.
This threw me for a while as it seems as thought Lovecraft is making fun of himself, after all one of his primary themes which pop up again and again is the idea of gathering knowledge and respect for learning. Is this supposed to be another navel gazing romp? Is Lovecraft saying he isn’t taking himself too seriously so we shouldn’t? Or is he saying that maybe he has taken himself too seriously and should stop? I think it goes deeper than that.
When we think about characters like Curwen in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” they are the ones pursuing these dark powers. They are the ones pursuing the dark underbelly of nature by seeking out these vessels of the outer gods. It’s a theme that I’ve mentioned many times and it’s a theme which comes up again and again in Lovecraft. Characters who seek out knowledge to understand more about the universe.
There’s only one character whom has been able to do this and not paid a terrible price. That’s Randolph Carter. What makes Carter unique is that he didn’t actually strive for the knowledge, rather it was thrust upon him and he adapted and worked with it to better understand his place. Carter’s wasn’t a path of power, but rather of understanding. I think that’s the crux here. Yes, Lovecraft is railing against the pomposity of academia and learning, which he seems to revel in, but instead he’s pushing back against the idea of false knowledge.
Lovecraft is playing with us before we even start reading. Ibid is actually a writing tool. Ibid is an abbreviation of the Latin “ibidem” which means in the same place. When you see the word ibid in a reading list it is referring you to material in a source just mentioned. For example it could be another chapter of a book that has just been referred to. Even with the title Lovecraft is playing with us, as he’s letting us know that he’s mentioned this concept multiple times. He’s referencing back to his previous works. This whole story is merely a reference to prove his thesis in his current (at the time he wrote this) oeuvre.
Anything can be twisted to fit a narrative. The whole point of much of Lovecraft’s cosmic gods is the idea that we’re insignificant in comparison to the beings actually running the show. If you’re striving for power, your talisman will end up being a mug from some smart dead guy, but if you’re goal is respecting and living with that power, then and only then, will you end up with “The Silver Key.“
Join me next week as we delve into some of Lovecraft’s earliest work with “The Little Glass Bottle!”
One last this before you go. There is one last thing which this story brought to my head (pun totally intended). One big visual within Lovecraft’s legacy is the idea of the head sprout. Whether that’s from fungi breaking through the skull (an Example is from “Fruiting Bodies” by Brian Lumley), creatures breaking through (we’ve actually seen this in “The Haunter in the Dark“), or people gaining such “insight” that they literally have thoughts (creatures) as an extension of their skull (think the tokens in the game Bloodborne).
The mere fact that so many of the historical people and the fictional characters in this story thought they could gain power or knowledge from this skull made this correlation immediate in my brain. This is not much of a story, but although this is supposed to be a “Blind Read” (meaning that I’m reading the story for the first time, without knowledge of it), I read this one twice. I feel as though I’m still missing references and innuendo, but if I can leave you with anything that represents Lovecraft to me, I’ll leave you with this image:
“Plodding through the endless downtown streets and the bleak, decayed squares beyond, he came finally upon the ascending avenue of century worn steps, sagging Doric porches, and blear-paned cupolas which he felt must lead up to the long-known, unreachable world beyond the mists.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we are tackling the darkness and entreating to hold a candle to the mystery and banish the Haunter of the Dark!
I had to sit and ruminate for a while on this one to decide whether it was genius, or if there wasn’t much going on. I think this is what happens when people read Lovecraft in succession like this for as long as I have. The connections are the same, the locations just change. We absolutely get the influence of the Mi-Go, much like we had in The Whisperer in Darkness, and some direct contact with the Outer Gods. What I’m finding more and more intriguing with these stories is that there is absolutely a theme of the connectedness of madness and genius. This story though, had a new surprising twist which took me a while to pick up on.
This story, though written later than many of the other stories, seems as though he was trying to tack on his mythos into something a bit more gothic in nature. In essence this is a sequel to a Robert Bloch story (“The Shambler from the Stars” of which I have not read, so feel free to take this critique with a grain of salt. I’m making assumptions based upon what I know of Bloch’s work. Though he does bring in insanity nicely in much of his work. Think “Psycho.”) and we have some amazing imagery and some quintessential Lovecraftian academic themes (I’ll explain later), but when we boil it down to the ending, I initially felt it was phoned in…that is until I thought about his wording. What is a Haunter, really?
Right off the bat we are told the ending, “Cautious investigators will hesitate to challenge the common belief that Robert Blake (read Bloch) was killed by lighting.” and we know immediately that Blake will die from whatever he gets himself into. This also leads into the broader gaming aspect which has made Lovecraft so popular. Being an “Investigator” and endeavoring to reveal what kind of strange death or rare occurrence happened is the corner-stone of the gaming experience, and this story is a good example of how that framework came about. There aren’t really investigator characters in Lovecraft, but there are the curious interlopers and in stories like this the characters go down a rabbit hole which is exactly where the ideas of the game come into play. Things like finding artifacts and texts which lend to further understanding of the Lovecraft universe are probably what sparked the idea for the game in the first place. Which leads me to a wonderful scene in the tale.
“When he did look away, it was to notice a somewhat singular mound of dust in the far corner near the ladder to the steeple. Just why it took his attention he could not tell, but something in it’s contours carried a message to his unconscious mind. ploughing toward it, and brushing aside the hanging cobwebs as he went, he began to discern something grim about it. Hand and handkerchief soon revealed the truth, and Blake gasped with a baffling mixture of emotions. It was a human skeleton, and it must have been there a very long time.“
This tense exposition is a perfect example of the gothic nature of the story, but it’s slow burn displays it’s brilliance. We can feel the environment, the cold stone, the cobwebs, the air thick with dust, and everything there holds meaning. The skeleton uncovered is actually an old reporter from the defunct paper “Providence Telegram,” and a notebook Blake finds on the skeleton holds the history of what transpired to that poor soul.
There is also the oddity of the bones themselves. Yes they’ve been there for years, but there seems to be something strangely nefarious in the dark “The skull was in a very particular state – stained yellow, and with charred aperture in the top as if some powerful acid had eaten through solid bone.” There are even bones with “seemed oddly dissolved at the ends.” What could have possibly eaten through his head? There is even mention of a blackening, like lightning. Strange happenings, and even through the end we don’t get a complete resolution…that is until we dig into the text a bit more.
So what was it that caused this reporters death? Was it shock? Herat attack? Was there some strange electrical charge which did this? Acid? Perhaps we might look to his journal:
“Fr. O’Malley tells of devil-worship with box found in great Egyptian ruins – says they call up something that can’t exist in light. Flees a little light, and banished by strong light. Then has to be summoned again. Probably got this from deathbed confession of Francis X. Feeney, who had join Starry Wisdom in ’49. These people say the Shining Trapezohedron shews them heaven & other worlds, & that the Haunter in the Dark tells them secrets in some way.”
So was this a cultist haven instead of a church? What is the Shining Trapezohedron? What kind of wisdom did the Haunter show them, and who is the Haunter? The layout of the church itself is even curious, “The designs were largely conventional, and his knowledge of obscure symbolism told him much concerning some of the ancient patterns.” and even more strange, “Blake noticed that the cobwebbed cross above the altar was not of the ordinary kind, but resembled the primordial ankh or crux ansata of shadowy Egypt.“
There are even strange texts there in the old chapel area, “a Latin version of the abhorred Necronomicon, the sinister Liber Ivonis, the infamous Cultes des Goules of Comte d’Erlette, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Juntz, and old Ludvig Prinn’s hellish De Vermis Mysteriis. But there were others he had known merely by reputation or not at all – the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the Book of Dzyan, and a crumbling volume in wholly unidentifiable characters yet with certain symbols and diagrams shudderingly recognizable to the occult student.“
Blake continues further up past “Yellowish stains and charred patches (were) found on the ladder to the windowless spire,” where he finds a strange shining stone (The Trapezohedron) and glimpses the vast secrets of the universe within it. He sees beyond Yuggoth (Pluto as we found from “Whisperer in Darkness”), he sees the history of the strange Mi-Go first coming to Antarctica, lost continents lost to the sea (Atlantis? R’lyeh?) all the way through to Egypt…where Nyarlathotep corrupted. But the visions also seemed to call something forth. Something large and winged and darker than the night. Something which lives in darkness and something that, now that he has gazed into the stone, knows about Blake and can see into him as well. Sees him and speaks to him, even after the box with the strange shining stone is closed. The Haunter in the Dark.
Here is Lovecraft bringing in his classic theme of shape to something new and devious. The Shining Trapezohedron immediately makes me think of the puzzle box from Hellraiser, could this be that Lovecraft has created yet ANOTHER trope for the horror genre? Well, whether he did or not, he does bring back his infamous odd angles. If we remember back with “Dreams in the Witch house” (probably the best designation of this theme), Lovecraft uses strange angles and shapes to give off the feeling that something is off. When buildings are convex instead of being concave as in “The Music of Erich Zann” and it gives the reader a feeling that something unnatural is happening, but in “Dream in the Witch House” the odd angles actually create magic. They create a space where our reality has folded into different angles and the spaces between the dream world, the universe, and time, are thin. Something Stephen King would have called a “thinny” in his Dark Tower series. This thin space allows magic to flow into our world, but it also gives us glimpses into worlds beyond our ken, much like this Trapezohedron…or even the puzzle box.
So the “Haunter” who seems to live in the space of the box, now has a view to Blake, but then something terrible (at least for Blake) happens. There is a terrible storm and the power goes out. Because we know the Haunter lives in the dark and fears the light, there is a mounting fear through the remainder of the story, until finally we get to the climax.
Through the dark they find Blake, frozen before his window. There were the familiar burn marks on the top of his head, however the glass of the window was unaffected, also “...a burst of the singular foetor was likewise noticed.” in his room.
“The rigid body sat bolt upright at the desk by the window, and when the intruders saw the glassy, bulging eyes, and the marks of stark, convulsive fright on the twisted features, they turned away in sickened dismay.“
They couldn’t wrap their minds around what could have possibly happened so they said it had to be lighting…lightning that scorched the top of his head, much the same as the journalist in the church spire. There is also that Fetid Odor (yep I meat to capitalize it. There are so many mentions of the “odour” in Lovecraft that I feel as though it’s the outsider calling card. It just deserves something more.) which pervades the room and emanates from the body.
To me there is something far more disgusting going on here.
If we look up the definition of “Haunter” in Webster’s one of the meanings is “To remain persistently; to loiter; stay or linger.” and the story is built upon the premise that Blake saw something of the Haunter in the Trapezohedron and it has come back for him, but that doesn’t really fit with the title.
I think what’s really going on here is the Haunter is a being, or beings, who use the Trapezohedron to traverse time and space, much like the witch did in her strangely angled house, and when Blake gazed upon it the knowledge it gave him was of the universe. But to give that knowledge it implanted, or impregnated, his brain with a thought child. A thought child that grew in the darkness, because what it was used to was the void of space. No, the Haunter didn’t come from outside, the Haunter lingered in Blake’s brain until it grew large enough, by feeding on his psyche. It waited until it was dark enough to extricate itself from his mind and not be damaged by the light. It used the synapses of his brain to create an exit and literally fried an exit hole through his skull. That’s why his head looked like it was hit with lightning. That’s why there’s the strange fetid (read fungoid) odor coming from his head.
We found out in “The Whisperer in Darkness” that the strange smell which is re-occurring in Lovecraft is actually that of a rotten fungous, which is the smell of Yuggoth. And what is a fungous? It’s a parasite. It grows from others nutrients. It’s a passenger. It’s a Haunter.
Join me next week as we dive into another of Lovecraft’s comedic short tales, IBID!
“The unknown things, Akeley wrote in a script grown pitifully tremulous, had begun to close in on him with a wholly new degree of determination. The nocturnal barking of the dogs whenever the moon was dim or absent was hideous now, and there had been attempts to molest him on the lonely roads he had to traverse by day.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re diving into the new strange world of the Vermont Backwoods as our narrator strives to solve the mystery of one Henry Akeley. We get glimpses of Cosmic horror, the dream lands, and a brand new call back to a horror trope (the one appearing here, I’m pretty sure Lovecraft probably created!) as we descend in this world and strain to hear the Whisperer in Darkness.
Lovecraft begins this story with an enigma; “Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end.”
It’s a strange way to begin a short story because it leads the reader to infer that the narrator didn’t actually see anything throughout the story…so how is there a story to even tell? This can be a daunting assignment as we look at the sheer length of the tale but as we peel back Lovecraft’s language, we begin to see that he didn’t “see” anything, but that doesn’t preclude audible horror and given the title of this story, I think the denouement is going to be quite the romp. Besides which fact that this is what Lovecraft does best. He beats around the bush, deftly hiding from his audience what’s really going on, because the very nature of his horror would be ruined by the descriptors. In this story, we do in fact get a description, but it’s of dead creatures who may or not be real and the corpses disappear before any inspection can take place…that only makes it that much more terrifying when the encounters begin.
We start the story with the classical skeptical narrator (who very well could be unreliable. We’ll get t that later), who has heard a number of strange happenings in the woods surrounding his friend Akeley’s house. The folk tales speak of, “…pinkish things about five feet long; with crustaceous bodies bearing vast pairs of dorsal fins or membranous wings and several sets of articulated limbs, and with a sort of convoluted ellipsoid, covered with multitudes of very short antennae, where a head would normally be.”
So here we get our first glimpse of some freaky Lovecraftian stuff, but our narrator defers; “It was my conclusion that such witnesses – in every case naïve and simple backwoods folk – had glimpsed the battered and bloated bodies of human beings or farm animals in the whirling currents; and had allowed the half-remembered folklore to invest these pitiful objects with fantastic attributes.”
Although our disparaging narrator disavows the local folk on prejudice alone, he does dive into the mythology of the area. We hear how these backwoods folk have adapted to them, “the common name applied to them was ‘those ones,’ or ‘the old ones,’…” so we already know there’s some validity to these destitute whom the narrator disparages. They have knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos. It does makes sense because these are the type of people who distrust outsiders, whom take care of themselves; so if something like this were to become a regular occurrence, then having it happen in this type of locale with these types of people make the most sense because they wont be going outside of their bubble to talk about it.
We also learn that the Native Americans had stories about these strange creatures as well. “They talked with their heads, which changed colour in difference ways to mean different things.”
Then to cap off everything the narrator ties in that he’s heard about a Nepalese Abominable Snow-Men species, whom they call the Mi-Go (Which I believe were also referenced in “At the Mountains of Madness“). This is where the story turns from the normal garden variety horror to an aspect of the Mythos.
The Farmer who disappeared (Akeley) whom our narrator is searching for, has knowledge of forbidden tomes. He knows about the Necronomicon and in one of his letters he even states, “the Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu cycles – which were hinted at in the Necronomicon.”
These things are so outside of our everyday reality that our narrator continuously dis-believes his erstwhile friend and contends that it must just be natural phenomena. The claw prints outside of his house, the strange whisperings he hears in the darkness, the strange corpses of creatures he cannot explain. He disavows the claims because the corpses soon disappear and Akeley has a neighboring crotchety old farmer by the name of Brown who he holds accountable for all the other occurrences.
But the more and more our narrator looks into these night occurrences, the more and more he delves into the mythos: “I found myself faced by names and terms that I had heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connections – Yuggoth, Great Cthulhu, Tsathoggua, Yog-Sothoth, R’lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Hastur, Yian, Leng, the Lake of Hali, Bethmoora, the Yellow Sign, L’Mur-Kathulos, Bran, and the Magnum Innominandium – and was drawn back through nameless aeons and inconceivable dimensions to worlds of elder, outer entity at which the crazed author of the Necronomicon had only guessed in the vaguest way.”
The first half of this tale is an expansion of the mythos in general, and we finally get an understanding of where the outer gods call home.
With the knowledge we have of what the universe looks like, this revelation is a little lack luster, but if you think back to what we understood of the universe in 1919 and imagine what it must have been like for people when scientists said they discovered a “new planet beyond Neptune” and then Lovecraft included that new dwarf planet into his mythos? The fear that might have been invoked, especially when the planet was given the name of the god of the underworld…Pluto. Lovecraft put his stamp on it. Pluto is where these strange, alien, creatures came from (though the mythos name for it is Yuggoth). The Mi-Go, who worship Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath (the goat with a thousand young and the mother of many gods of the mythos), who bow to Hastur, and do the bidding of Nyarlathotep, call Pluto home.
We also know the grand daddy of the mythos, Azathoth, also wanders blindly around the vacuum of space. One with the limited knowledge of how large the Universe was at the time, can only assume that Azathoth must have been wandering just past Pluto. Thus when Randolph Carter went sailing in his Dream-Quest and came into contact with Azathoth, he was wandering beyond the icy mountainous ranges of Pluto and it’s Mi-Go inhabitants.
This is just another nail in the coffin of belief that the dream-lands and the real world are fluid. The dream lands are more like a parallel universe, where there are gates between our world and the worlds of the Outer Gods. So few humans have experienced it, but many of the creatures of that dream realm have breached the barrier and have come over to our world. Our narrator even feels this as he tells us “My own zeal for the unknown flared up to meet his, and I felt myself touched by the contagion of the morbid barrier-breaking.”
So now we have set the stage. We know that our narrator will not “see” anything throughout this story, so we can only hope to garner inference (are the claw marks part of Shub-Niggurath’s thousand young? Is it a coincidence that Satan is considered goat like, while Shub-Niggurath is the mother of goats?) from the correspondence that Akeley sends our intrepid narrator…which brings us to our next point.
It feels like Lovecraft has created a new horror trope in this story which I’m sure has not existed before this point. The reason I’m sure is because of the availability of technology…and that is the trope of “found footage.”
As we progress through the story Akeley tells our narrator of various things which have transpired around him which we have already mentioned – the whisperings in the dark, the claw marks, the Mi-Go corpses (which incidentally disappear and fade back into the dreamlands) – and he goes through the normal progression of a character in a Lovecraft story…he suspects and is scared, he becomes terrified and pleads for help, he suddenly turns this around and says he was mistaken and he is in no danger, then he disappears. This is a theme which Lovecraft has instituted in many of his stories (take “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” for example), but the layer he adds into this tale is a recording phonograph and a Dictaphone.
We get passages like this:
(A CULTIVATED MALE VOICE)
…is the Lord of the Woods, even to…and the gifts of the men of Leng…so from the wells of night to the gulfs of space, and from the gulfs of space to the wells of night, ever the praises of Great Cthulhu, of Tsathoggua, and of Him Who is not to be Named. Ever Their praises, and abundance to the Black Goat of the Woods. Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!
(A BUZZING IMITATION OF HUMAN SPEECH)
Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!
The narrator spends time cultivating what it must have been like to listen to this passage, and though we are jaded now, at the time this was a unique and never before seen tool. Lovecraft was able to give an audible, visceral take on what it must have been like for this man to be sitting in a darkened room, listening to a scratchy Dictaphone espousing these words in barely human tones.
“To this hour I shudder retrospectively when I think of how it struck me, prepared though I was by Akeley’s accounts.”
I leave you with that slight feeling of unease. The feeling that you are being watched by some unseen Whisperer of ancient horrors. Watched by a group of alien creatures who’s motivations are unknown. Watched.
“There seemed to be an awful, immemorial linkage in several definite stages betwixt man and nameless infinity. The blasphemies which appeared on earth, it was hinted, came from the dark planet Yuggoth, at the rim of the solar system; but this was itself merely the populous outpost of a frightful interstellar race whose ultimate source must lie far outside even the Einsteinian space-time continuum or greatest known cosmos.”
Join me next week as we conclude “The Whisperer in Darkness”
“What happened then is scarcely to be described in words. It is full of those paradoxes, contradictions, and anomolies which have no place in waking life, but which fill our more fantastic dreams, and are taken as matters of course till we return to our narrow, rigid, objective world of limited causation and tri-dimensional logic.”
Welcome back to another mind bending Blind Read! We’ve learned about Randolph Carter in the past, including the indominable Silver Key, but this time we traverse through the doorway this magical talisman produces. Lets dive into a treatise on traversing space, time, dimension, and existence as we traverse through the gates of the Silver Key.
The opening few chapters is basically a rehash of the stories “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” “The Silver Key” and “The Statement of Randolph Carter.” The story is unique in it’s narration because most of Lovecraft is told from the perspective of a single narrator, but this story begins omniscient and doesn’t more into narration until Swami Chandraputra directly relates the events surrounding Randolph Carter.
“In a vast room hung with strangely figured arras and carpeted with Bokhara rugs of impressive age and workmanship four men were sitting around a document-strown table.” These four men were Etienne-Laurent de Marigny (Later to be a mainstay in Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow Series), the aforementioned Swami, Ward Phillips, and Ernest B. Apinwall, whom is an executor of Carter’s estate and is trying to sell it all off.
Apinwall tells the other three his goal is selling off the Carter estate, because Carter himself has been gone nearly four years and it’s time to move on. The Swami objects and tells the group he has proof that Carter is alive and needs to make sure that Aspinwall doesn’t sell anything. Once we have the abridgement of Carter’s history we jump right into new territory with the quote which opens this essay.
The actual story is too complicated and intricate to tell in short form here, heck, Lovecraft could barely get it out in long form of the story itself, but the basics are that just beyond where Carter had already gone using the Silver Key, there are more gates, and these gates had only been transcended by a few mortals…ever. Carter traversed these gates and gained an understanding far deeper than any human could ever comprehend.
The story covers what we consider to be Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, so we’re not dealing with a horror story as it is, but something that goes so much farther than that. Serendipity comes to mind because I’ve recently been following Marvel and all that they have been working through, with perceptions of thought and reality and multiverse, which makes reading this story at this time seem so very apt. We’ll dig into what I’m talking about in a moment here, but first I would like to discuss the perception of gods and Gods in Lovecraft.
To open it up, I’d like to give you some straight text from this story:
Carter guessed what they were, whence they came, and Whom they served; and guessed, too, the price of their service. But he was still content, for at one mighty venture he was to learn all. Damnation, he reflected, is but a word bandied about by those whose blindness leads them to condemn all who can see, even with a single eye. He wondered at the vast conceit of those who had babbled of the malignant Ancient Ones, as if They could pause from their ever lasting dreams to wreak wrath upon mankind. As well, he thought, might a mammoth pause to visit frantic vengeance on an angleworm. Now the whole assemblage on the vaguely hexagonal pillars was greeting him with a gesture of those oddly carven scepters, and radiating a message which he understood…
There is a whole lot of theology and thought packed into that one little paragraph!
The first portion is the concept of damnation. If you’ve been following along with this blog then you know Lovecraft didn’t adhere to any specific religion; in the sense that the dogma of the church just didn’t make any kind of rational sense to him. This paragraph is the perfect example of that. People who are either willfully ignorant, or just plain blind to reality as Lovecraft saw it, didn’t understand that if there was a God or gods, then they really dont care about you. Rationally it doesn’t make sense for a supreme being to care about lesser beings, thus indicating that these “gods” were mammoths and we were angleworms. Because these beings dont really care about us, then damnation itself must be a construct of religion to keep people in line. Religion, like governance, is about control and comfort. Humans crave structure despite how we act and react sometimes, and to know that there is a heaven and a hell makes people more at ease. If they go to church on Sunday and say their prayers by night, they wont become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright. Damnation (at least what this story is trying to convey) is a construct of the mind, and for Carter, it isn’t until he breaks the barrier held in check by the Silver Key that he comes to this realization. He moves beyond one universe into multiple and lives countless lives and endless consciousness’ all at once; giving him a greater understanding than that of even the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred and his ravings in the Necronomicon. Damnation is a state of mind, not a place.
To piggy back on that we have the conception of the gods in Lovecraft’s mythos. It has been played around with in stories such as “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, but not elucidated with such clarity as it is right here in this paragraph. With the notable exception of Nyarlathotep, the gods of Lovecraft are omnipotent, they are not malignant. These gods transcended space, time, and universe, occupying all and none at the same time. They have lived for eternities and will live for eternities more. Their consciousness has developed for hundreds of thousands of millennia, and because of this, their scope is so much larger than the few thousand years humans have existed. In fact, the only reason Nyarlathotep has any kind of vengeance is because humans keep trying to invade and go beyond their bubble. He is a god who believes we are a stain on the beautiful tapestry of consciousness and wants to be rid of our parasitic species. When Cthulhu comes out of the sea at the end of “The Call of Cthulhu” he is not trying to destroy the world, but his simple visage shows the magnitude of what we dont know, and that in-and-of itself is enough to drive everyone, with the notable exception of Randolph Carter, insane. Damnation is tied so closely to the malevolence of gods and the insanity caused by them, but that’s just a construct so that mere mortals can understand. This whole story is all about how the life we live is an illusion of our own construct, and there is so much more beyond our ken.
So lets dig into that multiverse, shall we?
“The man of Truth is beyond good and evil…The man of Truth had ridden to All-Is-One. The man of Truth las learnt that Illusion is the only reality, and that substance is an impostor.”
Carter goes through the first Gateway of existence:
“Even the First Gateway had taken something of stability from him, leaving him uncertain about his bodily form and about his relationship to the mistily defined objects around him, but it had not disturbed his sense of unity. He had still been Randoplh Carter , a fixed point in the dimensional seething. now, beyond the Ultimate Gateway, he realized in a moment of consuming fright that he was not one person but many persons.”
I mentioned Marvel earlier, and I’ve just started watching WandaVision, like many of you may have as well. This show seems to be of a similar set up to Carter’s story. We have Wanda living in a dream world of her own construct (or maybe caused by another to keep her under control with those calls of “Who’s doing this to you Wanda?”) The layers are slowly being peeled back to revel a reality that may just be too difficult for her to comprehend, thus fracturing her mind. Or maybe she has already been through the gates of which Carter speaks of, and what we view every Friday night is a perception of her fractured mind? The idea of a multiverse is complicated, and Lovecraft here barely scratches the surface (hopefully, with the help of Rick and Morty writers, we’ll see a bit more cohesion in the Marvel Multi-Verse). Carter has lived many lives and we’ve seen that in previous stories (in “The Silver Key” Carter was both his adult self and his ten year old self), but when he goes beyond the ultimate door we find that there are many worlds which hold his consciousness. There are countless alien beings which have been “Randolph Carter”, just not in human form. These are not parallel universes, but unique and individual universes with single threads of consciousness which hold things together. Deja Vu? Strange memories of places and things you shouldn’t have? Sudden empathy or hate for a creature or thing? These are all because we have lived these experiences either concurrently or in the past…or even in the future.
Think of a cupcake stand. The saucers are the different universes of which there could be infinite, the pole holding them together is your consciouness and on each infinte saucer there is a different being with different experiences, but with your soul as the connector. Lovecraft describes it here as:
They told him that every figure of space is but the result of the intersection by a place of some corresponding figure of one more dimension – as a square is cut from a cube or a circle from a sphere. The cube and sphere, of three dimensions, are thus cut from corresponding forms of four dimensions that men known only through guesses and dreams; and these in turn are cut from forms of five dimensions, and so on up to the dizzy and reachless heights of archetypal infinity.
A slight change of angle could turn the student of today into the child of yesterday; could turn Randolph Carter into that wizard Edmund Carter who fled from Salem to the hills behind Arkham in 1692, or that Pickman Carter who in the year 2169 would use strange means in repelling the Mongol hordes from Australia; could turn a human Carter into one of those earlier entities which had dwelt in primal Hyperborea and worshipped black, plastic Tsathoggua after flying down from Kythanil, the double planet that once revolved around Arcturus; could turn a terrestrial Carter to a remotely ancestral and doubtfully shaped dweller on Kythanil itself, or a still remoter creature of trans-galactic Shonhi; or a four-dimensioned gaseous consciousness in an older space-time continuum, or a vegetable brain of the future on a dark radio-active comet of inconceivable orbit – and so on, in the endless cosmic circle.
In fact Carter did this. He transcended through the Ultimate Gate into Zkauba, the wizard of Yaddith, a strange bird-insect like creature and lived for years in this being, until he found his way to travel in a “thin envelope of electron-activated metal” (early TARDIS?) back to earth.
And then we find ourselves back in the room from the beginning of the story with Swami finishing his story and the group realizing that Swami’s accent was fake. That Swami’s face was a mask. The Swami himself…was not a Swami. To reveal the truth Carter pulls the mask off releveling the physiognomy of the bird-insect Zkauba as he never moved beyond that bodily form. Between everyone in the group only Apinwall, the lawyer, sees and in his madness at seeing beyond the gates of the Silver Key, flees the scene and doesn’t foreclose on Carter’s estate.
It’s a long strange ride and this being a Blind Read (The first time I’ve read it) I’m sure I missed volumes which others could fill in. As I get closer to completing the entire oeuvre of Lovecraft I’m constantly mystified at how intellectual all of the stories are and now fully understand the praise as one of the early incredible horror authors.
What do you think??
Join me next week as we delve into “The Whisperer in Darkness”
I’m going to be diving into the Titus Crow series now that I’ve gotten the Carter books under my belt. They follow Titus Crow and Etienne-Laurent de Marigny from this story (follow me on Goodreads if you want updates). That tale centers around the strange clock which is the center piece of Carter’s house which the four men discussed Carter’s fate.
The reason I bring this up here is because it ties together the dream Lands and the waking world so perfectly, where I thought previously that they were two separate, mutually exclusive things. The strange clock has strange hieroglyphics on it instead of numbers:
To him let me say that the language of those hieroglyphics is not Naacal but R’Lyehian, which was brought to earth by the spawn of Cthulhu countless ages ago.
And in sunken R’lyeah sleeping Cthulhu lie…and with strange aeons even death may die.
“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.
“On the night I arrived I heard strange music from the peaked garret overhead, and the next day asked old Blandot about it. He told me it was an old German voil-player, a strange dumb man who signed his name Erich Zann, and who played evenings in a cheap theatre orchestra; adding that Zann’s desire to play in the night after his return from the theatre was the reason he had chosen this lofty and isolated garret room, whose single gable window was the only point on the street from which one could look over the terminating wall at the declivity and panorama beyond.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! I cannot tell you how excited I am to be discussing this short story! It is without a doubt my most favorite Lovecraft story to date, filled with creepy ambiance (brimming with classic, though augmented, Lovecraftian tropes) and a terrifying climax . This one is not to be missed!
We start, yet again, with our classic unreliable narrator. Everything seems above board with this gentleman except for the fact that he lived in an apartment on a road that he has since been unable to find. We can brush off the absurdism and take that as Lovecraftian madness, or we can take this story at just face value…an entertaining fiction the narrator weaves for us.
“I have examined maps of the city with the greatest care,” the narrator tells us, “yet have never again found the Rue d’Auseil.” We are transported to France, a brand new locale for a Lovecraft story. It’s a nice changeup from our New England home base, because we can now see that these types of events (which we saw on a much broader scale in The Call of Cthulhu) happen around the globe.
The narrator tells us that the French (possibly Parisian) alley “..was always shadowy along that river, as if the smoke of neighboring factories shut out the sun perpetually.” It also stank: “The river was…odorous with evil stenches which I have never smelt elsewhere...” These things in and of themselves are not indicators to anything particularly nefarious. Remember that Lovecraft was writing in the early 20th century and much of the poorer areas of the world had to deal with these types of issues. We were neck deep in an industrial revolution and laws were slim. There were factories which spouted smoke and exhaust with abandon, and rivers were usually run off for toilets. What Lovecraft is doing is just setting up the scene, much like he does in “The Dunwich Horror” by creating a space where the poorer people of the world deal with this kind of degradation that the rich never has to condescend to understand. These types of things just happen with more frequency in the poor areas because the poor doesn’t have any power or recourse to deal with them. So the rich can live in a sunny and perfumed estate, and the poor people have to deal with their smoggy and “odorous” runoff.
The narrator “had never seen another street as narrow and steep as the Rue d’Auseil.” It was “closed off to vehicles, consisting in several places of flights of steps, and ending at the top in a lofty ivied wall.”
The Rue d’Auseil is cut off from the world. It is dirty and difficult to access, but so far we’ve not seen anything really out of the ordinary. Until this sentence:
“The houses were tall, peaked-roofed, incredibly old, and crazily leaning backward, forward and sidewise. Occasionally an opposite pair, both leaning forward, almost met across the street like an arch...”
This is where we get Lovecraftian. Much like in “Dreams in the Witch House” architecture plays a large part in the mythos. Strange, non-Euclidean geometry in structures is an indication that it’s a location for a portal to the outside world. These types of places in Lovecraftian fiction are used as a terminus of power. The off-putting architecture means that magic is stronger in the rue d’Auseil and could potentially be a locus of summoning Elder beings.
After getting the description of the building and finding out that our narrator gains a flat on the fifth floor, we get the quote which opens this essay…our introduction to Erich Zann and what our narrator means when he calls Zann “dumb” is just a sobriquet for mute, a matter of much importance for the denouement of the story.
The narrator gains access to Zann’s apartment by being nice, and Zann plays him some music: “He did not employ the music-rack, but offering no choice and playing from memory, enchanted me for over an hour with strains I had never heard before; strains which must have been of his own devising…They were a kind of fugue, with recurrent passages of the most captivating quality, but to me were notable for the absence of any of the weird notes I had overheard from my room below on other occasions.”
So now we have evidence of not only architecture being odd and off-putting, but now music which is discordant. I was riveted when Lovecraft jumped into this realm. Music is known to open one’s mind, to help with memory, to assist with focus, even to repair parts of the brain. I am, in fact, listening to music right now as I write this. If we consider the power music can hold and that it can be used in conjunction with magic, this opens up whole new worlds within the cosmic horror field! It seems to me that Lovecraft is setting up that Zann is an old man who has experienced too much, and possibly had been part of some Cthulhu cult at one point in his life After reading The Call of Cthulhu we know how pervasive they are). He learned the music from them and is using it in some form or another that deals with these eldritch gods…but more on that soon.
When our narrator inquires about the discordant music, Zann glanced “...toward the lone curtained window, as if fearful of some intruder – a glace doubly absurd, since the garret stood high and inaccessible above all adjacent roofs, this window being the only point on the steep street… from which one could see over the wall at the summit.”
Ah and there it is. We have an alley that has strange non-Euclidean architecture, and a mute man (is he mute? Or has he seen things so terrible because of his “duty” that he can no longer speak? Is it something else?) playing strange, discordant music in a gambrel room which is the only room in the alley that can see over the wall to the city beyond. That window is always curtained. A diligent reader will tell immediately that this is going to be the…summit…of the story. The focus is too heavy on the window to not understand that something will come from that portal to beyond the wall.
Zann leaves with pleasantries, but when our narrator asks him to play some of the strange music he has heard late at night, Zann’s “...bony right hand reached out to stop my mouth and silence…” him. This reinforces the theory that Zann might not really be mute, but a gatekeeper that knows his voice may cause something to come through that curtained portal.
Zann shakes our narrators hand and he leaves as friends, but doesn’t “speak” to the narrator for some few days. Our narrator, intrigued by the man, listens at his door and hears the man’s cello wail.
“It was not that the sounds were hideous, for they were not; but that they held vibrations suggesting nothing on this globe of earth, and that at certain intervals they assumed a symphonic quality which I could hardly conceive as produced by one player.”
The narrator eventually gets in and talks to Zann and gets him to write down his experience. Over an hour the old man writes before the narrator “half fancied I heard a sound myself; though it was not a horrible sound, but rather an exquisitly low and infinitiely distant musical note, suggesting a player in one of the neighboring houses, or in some abode beyond the lofty wall over which I had never been able to look.”
Zann, terrified, “seized his viol (cello), and commenced to rend the night with the wildest playing I had ever heard from his bow save when listening at the barred door.”
and “It was more horrible than anything I had ever overheard, because I could now see the expression on his face, and could realise that this time the motive was stark fear.”
And “In his frenzied strains I could almost see shadowy satyrs and Bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of clouds and smoke and lightning.”
Then “The shutter rattled more loudly, unfastened, and commenced slamming against the window. Then the glass broke shiveringly under the persistent impacts, and the chill wind rushed in, making the candles sputter and rustling the sheets of paper on the table where Zann had begun to write out his horrible secret.”
A gust comes in through the window and Zann plays furiously, his eyes wide and terrified. The narrator looks to the window where he “might see the slope beyond the wall, and the city outspread beneath… but only blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth.”
The cello brays behind him and the candles flicker out leaving them in pitch. The narrator flails, trying to figure out what’s going on and “Suddenly out the blackness the madly sawing bow struck me, and I knew I was close to the player.” but when he finally gets a glimpse of Zann, he reaches out to the madly playing musician and “I felt of the still face, the ice-cold, stiffened, unbreathing face whose glassy eyes bulged uselessly into the void.”
The story comes to a close as our narrator flees the scene.
So what does it all mean? Instantly I think of two things and both make for a spectacular story. The first is that Zann died while doing everything he could to stop whatever eldritch horror was trying to make it’s way through the portal and his body was kept animate by whatever secret drive he had written into the lost note to the narrator (or by whatever task he was given by an otherworldly being).
The second, and the version I like better, is that Zann was dead all along. The narrator is unreliable and insane and imagines the whole thing. He has a psychotic episode and that’s why he is never able to find Rue d’Auseil again. That’s why Zann never spoke. That’s why the papers Zann wrote blew away and the narrator never got to read them. That’s why the room was otherworldly. Zann was a corpse all along and everything else is in the narrators head. This version is just so deliciously creepy that I cant help but to prefer it.
But there is a third possibility. This entire story could have taken place in the dreamlands. The rue d’Auseil is not on any map because it doesn’t exist in the waking world, only in the mysterious dreamlands. It’s also fairly reminiscent to “The Strange High House in the Mist” because, there too, we have a caretaker guarding a house against something evil and huge just outside it.
In any case this is a fast paced, unique tale that’s perfect for anyone looking to get into Lovecraft.
Which version do you prefer?
Join me next week as we discuss “The Picture in the House”!
If anyone knows the truth of this please leave a comment! I researched and tried to find rue d’Auseil and even tried to do a translation, but was unable to uncover anything as to it’s meaning. This may be another indication of Lovecraft intending this to be a dreamland tale, but it could also be him trying to expand his own universe. We spend quite a bit of time in New England, but there are a few tales which we go out into the world and in every locale Lovecraft creates fake cities, or roads, or houses, or geographic features. We know that Lovecraft wanted other writers to take his stories beyond what he created… maybe this was his way of creating a parallel universe that’s very similar to ours, but has these eldritch truths which we cannot see in our world. Maybe he was trying to build out enough to ensure his legacy. To ensure his Yog-Sothothery. What do you think?