Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft/August Derleth; The Ancestor
“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!”
Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft; In the Vault
“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.
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