“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.
“There was something about him where he stood all by himself under the trees and the stars, on the edge of the streetlight’s glow in the darkness, that was symbolic of many men and women, not alone in this Sac Prairie, but in all the Sac Prairies of the world, something which spoke, out of that pathetic, ludicrous figure, of the spiritual isolation of so many people, something which made the thoughtful onlooker to wonder what thin line divided him from that other, knowing perhaps that the distance of chance or Providence was less great than the few steps separating one from the other in that darkness.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re switching gears with only one more week left in the Lovecraft series, I reflect back on the time we’ve spent talking about and analyzing August Derleth, the self imposed protégé of Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
To be brutally honest, I’ve not been a huge fan of August Derleth’s work. On the surface it seems like he hits all the bullet points, however his writing style is not conducive to the style of horror in which Lovecraft wrote. I’d actually be much more interested in reading some of his other works…in fact the quote from the introduction to this essay comes from a different story he wrote entitled, “Walden West.”
Derleth is one of the earlier instances of what I would consider calling the “story smith,” or campfire story teller. What I mean by that, is a few things… the text is very general and basic. The plot is straightforward and direct. The story is a direct line. Think about authors such as Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and Stephen King. These are not authors who spend time worrying about their word selection. These are not authors you would consider to be necessarily literary. This is not a bad thing, it’s just a different style of writing.
Lovecraft was something all together different. He was incredibly perfidious, and every word was placed in just the right place. Looking back on his stories they were difficult and complicated and, sometimes, hard to process. But that’s what made him so perfect for this kind of horror. Lovecraft’s description is written in a such a way that at first glace (or first read as it were) it doesn’t seem particularly scary, but the more it sits with you, those little turns of phrase bloom like fungus in your brain and you begin to think about the stories when you least expect them.
Derleth isn’t like that. He tries to alter his writing style to match Lovecraft’s, but instead of being insidious, it just becomes more drawn out. He uses run-on sentences and labyrinthine verbiage, but instead of feeling more like Lovecraft he ends up just sounding pretentious.
It’s a bit unfortunate that Derleth decided to publish these stories as H.P. Lovecraft instead of himself, because, quite frankly, the stories would have been far greater had he just not tried to copy Howard’s style. A very specific story I can reference is “Witches Hollow” which was an utterly unique tale; told in an entirely different voice from the rest of his Lovecraft knock offs. In my opinion this was his best story because it wasn’t trying to clarify what Lovecraft had done before. It wasn’t trying to prove that it was a part of the Lovecraft ethos, it was just a great story that used elements created by Howard Phillips and moved out onto it’s own. This is what Lovecraft wanted his created world to be anyway. Other authors like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Bloch, and later like Brian Lumley and Thomas Ligotti utilized the mythos as a unique genre rather than an homage to Lovecraft himself. Stories like this always turn out better because you can be yourself without being beholden to what the previous author wanted.
The other downfall with Derleth is his preference for quantity. He was known to have said that he could sit down and write a “quality story” every day. The issue is that he never checked his facts, nor did he care overly much about grammar and spelling errors (this is an assumption on my part because of all the syntax, grammar, and Lovecraft facts which were incorrect. He may be very happy with the outcomes here). You could say the same about Carroll and Graf (the publisher of the books I read by Derleth…which I probably wouldn’t recommend if you could find another version), and it’s possible that it’s their oversight here and not his. But the larger issue is Derleth changing facts of Lovecraft to fit his story.
Let me clarify here. If Derleth were writing these stories as he should have been, using his own name, then I’d have zero problem with him changing facts or bending the narrative, but the moment he uses the name Lovecraft and doesn’t use his own name, that sullys the name of Lovecraft. You’ll see people online saying they hate Derleth for what he did. They hate him for using Lovecraft’s name and producing the stories he did, and there is some validity to thier argument.
I’m a little torn, because I truly believe that Lovecraft would not be in the public consciousness like he is now had it not been for Derleth creating Arkham House Publishing and continuing to produce stories in Lovecraft’s name all the way into the 70’s. Even companies such as Chaosium who produced multiple board games and the role playing game Call of Cthulhu, utilized more elements of gameplay from Derleth (The Investigator trope, and the Elder Sign) than they did from Lovecraft. Derleth is forever entrenched into this sub-culture, whether you like it or not.
Which proves that his stories had something to show off. Derleth is basically Lovecraft lite. I’d highly recommend starting with Derleth if you’ve been having difficulty breaking through the language barrier Lovecraft presents. Derleth’s stories are simpler and considerably less nuanced, which makes them easier to digest. One can get a feel for the world Lovecraft created without taking a deep dive – then once you feel the hook, you can jump into Lovecraft proper and get the real experience.
We’ve come a long way in the past four years. I started out not really knowing where to go with this project and it’s been so rewarding and fun to get the full experience of two different authors in one. I’ve also come to a brand new group of people and have met some great folks discussing the nuances of these authors. I really wasn’t sure if I was going to keep going, but the experience has been so great that I’m going to move onto a new author whom I’ve always wanted to dig deeper into but have been too scared to.
When I was a kid I read “The Hobbit” and I loved it. I tried to read “The Lord of the Rings,” but I had difficulty getting past the language. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I finally read those stories, but there were so many loose threads in that book that left me wanting more. There’s an entire history beyond the novels of those worlds and that’s what I intend on jumping into next. We have the last installment of “The Lurker at the Threshold” next week, then one final “last thoughts” on Lovecraft himself, before we switch genres and head straight into “The Silmarillion” by J.R.R. Tolkien. Join me and let me know your thoughts!
“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!
“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 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”
“For at the base of the wall, behind the baseboard, there lay, among long yellowed papers half gnawed away by mice, yet still bearing on their surfaces the unmistakably cabalistic designs of some bygone day, among wicked implements of death and destruction – short, dagger-like knives rusted by what must surely have been blood – the small skulls and bones of at least three children!“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re unraveling Derleth’s complex love of Lovecraft while trying to understand his religious overtones thrust upon the conversely amoral Lovecraft Universe.
The first note I feel I have to hit is the overarching hope in Derleth’s horror. This is now the third story I’ve read by him and all the while there has been a niggling itch that I just couldn’t reach. These types of stories could have been written by Lovecraft, but there is something so utterly different about them and until now I just couldn’t put my finger on it. The language is slightly different, but for a reader who is only looking for story and isn’t going to dig any deeper, I’m not sure if they would notice a difference. The stories themselves are absolutely horror with fantastic elements, and similar terrifying hopeless situations the protagonists find themselves in. So what is it?
There is a subtle nearly imperceptible change. Lovecraft was depressed and that comes off in his writing style. The characters are dreary, people stuck in cycles of destitution and despair. Nearly every story has an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness.
In Derleth’s stories (thus far at least) the protagonists not only survive, but they aren’t thrust into a horrid spiral of depression and fear. It’s much more light hearted as if they’re stories told by a college buddy over drinks about an escapade, rather than a drunk recounting the horrors that led him to the bottom of the bottle to a bartender in some run down dive.
That’s an extreme statement but the sentiment is real. Lovecraft is serious, his tales have bite and nuance, whereas Derleth’s stories seem to be written more for fun.
That being said, let’s check out what fun can be had in The Peabody Heritage!
It starts out with an immediate reference to the old Lovecraft tales, “I never knew my great-grandfather Asaph Peabody…” If you’ll remember from Lovecraft’s story “In the Vault” there’s a character named Asaph (known for his angry, bucolic disposition) who’s buried in a tomb. There are things that happen in that story which echo this one, and unfortunately I knew within that first sentence what was basically going to happen at the end of this one…but more on that later.
The first chapter is about the protagonist slowly moving back into his ancestral home. It’s a fascinating description which recalls the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA: “The dwelling itself was the product of many generations. It had been built originally in 1787, at first as a simple colonial house, with severe lines, an unfinished second storey, and four impressive pillars at the front. But, in time, this had become the basic part of the house, the heart, as it were. Subsequent generations had altered and added to it-at first by the addition of a floating stairway and a second storey; then by various ells and wings…”
This is a wonderful way to introduce the detective story the tale becomes as the narrator works to renovate this house so that he can live in it. He even finds the family tomb and enters it, curious about his lineage. He finds various cubbies and caskets in the tomb with the names of his family etched upon them, but then he finds Asaph’s disturbed tomb:
“Moreover, it seemed as if someone had lifted or attempted to lift the cover, for one of the hinges was broken, and the other loosened.”
Curious as to what happened he lifted the cover and, “I saw that through some hideous error, he (Asaph) had been buried face downward – I did not want to think, even at so long a time after his death, that the old man might have been buried in a cataleptic state and so suffered a painful death in that cramped, airless space.“
It’s a strange thought with the evidence of the tampered sarcophagus lid to go immediately to the idea he may be buried alive, but seemingly because of this sentiment he flips the skeleton over before putting the lid back on the coffin. Derleth handles this with deft skill because altering the remains is obviously thematically dangerous, but the way it’s written feels almost as if it’s done with a religious reverence instead of a horrible precognition.
The next chapter begins with our narrator dreaming, a theme which continues along though the entire story that connects to a major Lovecraftian concept – dreaming. The question immediately is, what does dreaming mean to Derleth? As we’ve talked about in previous Blind Reads, Lovecraft seems to consider dreaming as travelling or dimension hopping. So many of his stories held the precedent that the “dreamers” like Randolph Carter were actually time travelers who went through gates of consciousness and dimension to instantly find different areas of time and space. Derleth, starts down that road, but then seems to take a different approach here.
After finding what they consider a “priests hole” (a place to hide runaway slaves) in one of the strange void spaces in the house, the narrator, “Though ordinarily not at all given to dreams, I was literally beset by the most grotesque phantasms of sleep, in which I played a passive role and was subjected to all manner of distortions of time and space, sensory illusions, and several frightening glimpses of a shadowy figure in a conical black hat with an equally shadowy creature by his side.“
So initially this seems to indicate that because of the “distortions of time and space” that we might be getting some of that dimensional hopping, but as we get deeper into the tale we find that there is a distinct difference between dreaming and possession.
The protagonist goes into “…a space unaccounted for along the north wall upstairs, in the oldest part of the house” and found “The door to it (was) hidden in the finely-wrought carvings which decorated that entire wall,” and that “…the door which had no knob and worked only by pressure upon one of the carvings.”
I mean who doesn’t want a secret office which has a secret door with a pressure plate lock carved into a cedar relief on a wall? It’s still a dream of mine!
They go into this room and found, “...it’s angles seemed to be awry,” and there “…were curious drawings on the floor.” and all manner of strange texts (including such gems as the Malleus Maleficarum) and news stories of missing children.
Having read through Lovecraft we know instantly that this is a witches room. The odd angles, much like in “Dreams of the Witch House” and other stories, are there because they present a bend in the fabric of reality and make witchcraft easier to practice; spells more potent. The fact that there are stories of missing children lend a malevolence to the room.
Intrigued our narrator continues doing work on the house and begins having more and more prevalent dreams of this Black Man (as in color not race) and his nefarious familiar. The narrator heads to town and finds that the townsfolk are despairing of him, though he tries to be friendly. When he inquires as to their demeanor, he’s told that his family name, Peabody, has a terrible history. His ancestors were thought to have stolen children whom they killed to be used in some kind of witchcraft.
Discouraged, he goes home but finally gets a construction crew to go through that secret wall and renovate the hidden office. Through the construction he dreams of Walpurgis night (which, if you remember from Lovecraft, that’s a night of witchcraft) where he walks through the woods to a Black Mass out in the woods. There’s a group of witches along with his Black Man and large black cat which stands beside him. When the narrator wakens, he finds that his feet and legs are dirty.
Seemingly ignoring this outlandish event, he finds that the crew renovating have fled the house in disgust. When he goes to investigate, he come across the quote at the beginning of this essay. Panicked, he takes the children’s remains and puts them into one of his ancestors coffins. Then to make matters worse, three more children go missing.
And still he dreams. His somnambulant excursions take him back to the Black Mass again and again, and there’s some strange Christian iconography there which was always absent in Lovecraft. We hear of the devils, Balor, Beelzebub, and Sathanus. While Lovecraft went a long way to divest himself from any kind of religious deities, Derleth is leaning into them, seemingly in an effort to add horror from these Christian call backs.
We also find that these Devils are trying to bring him into the fold of their coven and that these nightly excursions are actually happening, they aren’t actual dreams. This is a theme that we’ve seen in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” as well, where an ancestor of a character begins to take over the living relative because they accidentally took part in reviving the ancestor. We get confirmation of this when the narrator goes to the crypt and checks on Asaph’s grave and finds that the bones have begun to grow skin, and there are three bodies of children in the coffin with Asaph’s remains!
And here is that call back from earlier. Remember when I said we’d see how the story ended? in the tale “In the Vault” Asaph was a corpse who came alive and tried to kill one the characters of that tale. Asaph as corpse bit into his leg and tried to make him fall to his death on the stone ground. In this story, the disturbed body is what actually causes the Demon Balor to come back, as turning him over reinstated the machinations of the Devils.
The fact is that the narrator wasn’t dreaming, but because he turned the body over, he allowed Asaph to come into his body and use it to go to the Black Mass. It was possession, not dreaming.
So in the end we have the narrator fighting these forces and wondering, “Who, I wonder, after I am dead, if I am buried as the others were, will turn me over?”
Initially this seems like a dark and twisty ending, but in reality Derleth just leaned into it. Lovecraft would have had the narrator telling us how he went insane, how he fought and did everything he could to stop the coven, and whether he succeeded or not he would have been irrevocably changed. The tone would have been much more desolate.
Here Derleth’s character just gives in and decides he wont fight. That he will just take part of the coven with the Devils and do their bidding. It’s a dark ending, but in a weird way it’s not as dark as Lovecraft would have been, because at least here the narrator has hope that he will live on, though in a twisted way. Lovecraft’s character wouldn’t have wanted to live on, because of the strange and utterly devastating knowledge he had gained.
Will all Derleth be this way? Join me next week with “The Gable Window” to find out!
“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!”
“The Funeral of alice occupied so much time that John quite forgot about the box – but when they did open it they found it to be a solid gold chunk worth about $10,000 enough to pay for any thing but the death of his sister.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we go even further back in time to discover Lovecraft’s beginnings and tackle concepts of trauma, loss, desire, and adventure in two Juvenilia tales that are anything but polished.
I debated for a while whether I really wanted to cover these after reading them, but in the end I decided to hold my promise. I said I would read as much Lovecraft as I could get my hands on, so I’m holding to my word. The question is, how would I deconstruct these stories? They reminded me of my own work when I was young…and when I mean young I mean ten or eleven (which probably means that Howard was about six when we equate talent). The writing is subpar with grammar errors abounding and the stories themselves are just little ditties which any youth could come up with.
What I eventually found more interesting, however is that instead of taking a look at the story itself, I decided to take apart the themes to get a deeper glimpse into the man and what would eventually make his writing the legend that it became.
The first story “The Little Glass Bottle” seems to be an effort at humor biting off of “Treasure Island” which was published about ten to fifteen years prior to Lovecraft writing this story. It follows a group of sailors who find the titular bottle floating on the sea. The bottle had a letter inside:
Jan 1 1864 I am John Jones who writes this letter my ship is fast sinking with a treasure on board I am where it is marked * on the enclosed chart…dotted lines represent course we took
Enclosed is a drawing of a dotted line through the Indian Ocean just off of Australia. Captain Jones gets so excited that he decides to go after it: “in 4 weeks the(y) reached the place where directed & the divers went down and came up with an iron bottle…“
Inside of the bottle they find a note:
Dec 3 1880 Dear Searcher excuse me for the practical joke I have played on you but it serves you right to find nothing for your foolish act – However I will defray your expenses to & from the place you found your bottle I think it will be $25.0.00 so that amount you will find in an Iron box I know where you found the bottle because I put this bottle here & the iron box & then found a good place to put the second bottle hoping the enclosed money will defray your expenses some I close – Anonymous
They dive down and get the money and we end with a little meta story telling: “...I hardly think that they will ever go to a mysterious place as directed by a mysterious bottle.”
This absolutely has a childish feeling and a fear of taking things too far. So really not much to it. But lets take a deeper look…
From an early age it’s obvious that Lovecraft is fascinated with the Ocean. There must be a correlation in his mind with something important being there, or somewhere in the area surrounding Australia. This, one of his first stories, leads some intrepid adventurers there to discover a treasure which turns out to be a fraud. Many years later in basically the same area, in a tale named “The Call of Cthulhu” some explorers go in search for answers and come across R’lyeh and the Elder God Himself. This is a similar journey in a similar area. A group of men looking for fortune and power and find out they vastly underestimated what they were looking for.
The difference come with age. In this story the person who sent them on the wild goose chase is contrite, a sentiment I don’t think I’ve seen in Lovecraft. We know Howard becomes jaded as he gets older and that absolutely shows through in his stories, because the characters are just too far gone down the rabbit hole to turn back. Here we see that, for Lovecraft himself, it is not yet too far. He hasn’t yet had the heart ache…he hadn’t yet survived the trauma. He still believed that though there is a darker side to humanity, the inherent goodness can come through. That is noticeably absent in the second tale.
“The Secret Cave” is like a Grimm’s Fairy tale. It’s a simple story about a horrible tragedy. It dives into grief in such a complex way, and in so much more of a profound way beyond any of his other stories, that as a reader it feels as though we are getting a glimpse into mental walls he put up to block out the horrors of his life.
The story begins with two young children, John and Alice, getting left alone in their house as their parents go away, presumably on a date. The two children go into the cellar to play, and Alice accidentally does something to cause a wall to cave in. John goes back upstairs and grabs some candles to light their way as they go exploring behind the collapsed wall.
The story takes a strange turn here and the reader gets the feeling that it’s something that’s in John’s head, a fantasy of an adventure prevalent in young children. Here is the disjointed passage:
“…the(y) walked on farther & pretty soon the plastering left off & they were in a cave Little alice was frightened at first but at her brothers assurance that it was “all right” she allayed her fears, soon they came to a small box which John took up & carried within pretty soon they came on a boat in it were two oars he dragged it with difficulty along with him soon they found the passage came to an abrupt stop he pulled the obstacle away & to his dismay water rushed in in torrents...”
Later something occurs to him “…he can shut off the water...”, which he does, but then finds that his sister had drowned. The last paragraph is the opening quote of this essay.
It’s a gruesome little tale, but there is SO much packed into the passage of their “adventure.” It’s here we get the first indication something is off in the story. We go from a normal cellar to a strange, almost other worldly cave, something that fits the adventure theme because it seems like this cave would be right at home on Treasure Island. Why is it mysterious you ask? Because it’s a dry cave…but it has a boat and oars in it as well as a mysterious box that when opened contains a solid gold bar worth $10,000. The cave goes no where, it just dead ends, but John finds an “obstacle” which when removed creates a deluge. Once he saves himself with the edge of the boat the boat is never mentioned again, but suddenly he realizes he can shut off the water.
How could you use a valve to shut off water? Why, you can if there’s a water main!
The whole story is a fabrication. John Lee was going on an adventure in his head, when in reality he was just hanging out in his basement and a wall which held their water heater broke open and flooded the cellar. John was never scared like his little sister, because he knew they were only in the safety of their own basement the whole time.
But still his sister died, which brings me to my next point. Why was John capitalized the whole story and Alice in lower case? Was this some sort of sexism Lovecraft was practicing subconsciously? I really don’t think so.
This story is absolutely part of his early writings. The plotting is truncated and hazy, the grammar is atrocious, the writing is simple, but this story is a clear representation of how Lovecraft dealt with his own grief and how he dealt with the outside world.
The story is told in past tense, but the POV is muddled. It goes from 3rd person omniscient to 3rd person personal pretty fluidly. When the action is taking place, we are inside of John’s head, but when the scene is being described we are looking at the action as a fly on the wall. One gets the feeling that this was an unconscious effort to say that when bad things are happening to us, things become disjointed and too close to really understand what’s happening, it’s only in hindsight when we have a better understanding of what happened. So what does this have to do with the capitalization of Alice?
John goes on an Adventure, and the spoils of that adventure are $10,000, but the cost is his sister’s life. Like the last line says it was a “solid gold chunk worth about $10,000 enough to pay for any thing but the death of his sister.”
Worth any thing. He has come to an early realization that nothing can cover up the grief, and blames himself for causing the death of his sister. There is a feeling to this piece of tremendous sadness and uncontrollable self doubt and self hate. Alice isn’t capitalized in this story because to capitalize her would make her a person. To keep her lower case means she can just be a thing, and maybe, just maybe, that 10K can do something about it.
Join me next week as we take a glimpse at “The Thing on the Doorstep.”
“There lay Great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults and sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear into dreams of the sensitive and called imperiously to the faithful to come on a pilgrimage of liberation and restoration. All this Johansen did not suspect, but God knows he soon saw enough!”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! I was planning on concluding the illustrious “The Call of Cthulhu” this week, but it turns out I had waaaay to much to say, so we’re going to push the conclusion to next week!
Last week we finished with a few thoughts about Cthulhu himself (itself? herself? theirself?), and the beginning of Detective Legrasse’s story. Remember how he went into the swamps of Louisiana and found a bunch of cultists effecting a ritual around a ring of fire and in the center of that ring was a monolith with a statue of Cthulhu on it’s apex? Well there was a tussle as the police broke up the ritual, “Wild blows were struck, shots were fired, and escapes were made…”
In the end the police captured “forty-seven sullen prisoners” and “The image on the monolith (the idol of Cthulhu)…was carefully removed and carried back by Legrasse.”
Initially the police thought this gathering was just a particularly nefarious voodoo cult. They let their prejudice guide them in their approach because, “Most were seamen, and a sprinkling of negroes and mulattoes, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult. But before many questions were asked, it became manifest that somethign far deeper and older than negro fetichism (sp) was involved.”
The police did everything they could to get more information out of the worshippers beyond that they prayed to “The Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men,” and that “This was a cult,” who “...had always existed and always would exist… until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway.”
The cultists said they were innocent of any killing. All those missing people, all the dead bodies that led the police to execute the raid were denied. The cultists said the ritual “…killing had been done by Black Winged Ones which had come to them from their immemorial meeting-place in the haunted wood.”
This strikes me as incredibly atmospheric. The thought of the old Spanish Moss trees, hanging down over the swampy foggy ground where hidden dark winged aeon old creatures lurk, just tickles my imagination in the best possible way. The description of the raid is short, but the set up is effective enough and then as we continually look back at the events surrounding the raid, it gives you a more and more grotesque point of view of what they actually walked into.
They finally get one of the cultists, “Old Castro,” to give them a bit more information. “There had been aeons when other things ruled on the earth, and They had had great cities. The remains of Them… were still to be found as Cyclopean stones on islands in the Pacific” (this is important later in the story), and “there were arts which could revive Them when the stars had come round again to the right positions in the cycle of eternity.” because “They had, indeed, come themselves from the stars, and brought their images with them.“
That is an interesting statement. “Brought their images with them.” Castro tells us that the Great Old Ones “had shape… but that shape was not made of matter.” Then he gives us the most important and interesting line of the story:
When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live.
Shortly there afterward we get “the much discussed couplet” from the Necronomicon:
That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.
Lets put all this together. We are told that Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones are dead and trapped in their great city of R’lyeh under the Pacific Ocean somewhere, because at some point on ancient history the city sunk. How can They be asleep but dead and have form but no matter?
The Great Old ones are immortal so we know that even though we are told Cthulhu is dead under the ocean, He is also immortal thus he cannot die. We also know that They are from the stars and made from the stars. So then we go back to what Old Castro told us, “They brought their images with them.”
The Great Old Ones came from the stars with form, but those forms were just shells, just fantastic images of what they projected themselves as. What we think of as Cthulhu, dead and sleeping under the ocean is in actuality just a shell. Cthulhu and the Other Great Old Ones ascended back to the stars at some point, and because they are formless (and maybe just concepts?) they left their shells to remain on Earth for the time when they need or want to come back. So that’s why Cthulhu can be both dead and sleeping at the same time. It is just the shell and He can be awoken through a ritual when the stars align, giving Him a causeway to earth.
When reading through Lovecraft the couplet is in many stories, and is something which always confused me. This story made it terribly obvious. Cthulhu is immortal, thus eternal, thus he cannot die; “That is not dead which can eternal lie,” ok that makes sense, but then what does the second part mean? “And with strange aeons even death may die.” Oh. Given time and multiple universes (and dream worlds) even death, the ultimate absolute can die. Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones, are more powerful than what we understand as the ultimate absolute.
Cultists for these types of beings never really made sense to me before. There is certain subset of the anarchists who want to set the world on fire, but Castro describes the resurrection of The Great Old Ones this way:
“The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.“
So I can see how there might be a very small amount of people who could believe that this is the way to go. But the volume of people? That ceremony that Legrasse broke up was hundreds of cultists. They all want to burn the world?
Then while digesting this story and the infamous couplet brought me to a realization. Yes, there are people that want to burn the world, but there are a far higher population which are terrified of death. If the return of the Great Old Ones means that the followers will be granted eternity, than there probably is a huge amount of the population who would be willing to take part, damn the consequences. Death is supposed to be the absolute, but what if it didn’t have to be?
Beyond this the couplet brings up what Lovecraftian horror really means. Cosmic horror is a difficult concept to wrap your mind around and it’s specifically built that way. The couplet gives us a glimpse into what this really means; where we truly stand in the world. I remember showing my wife the reboot of the show “Cosmos” narrated by Neil Degrasse Tyson. When they showed the earth in comparison to the galaxy and then in contrast with the universe, she made me turn it off because it gave her the willies. It was too much for her to understand that our entire world means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. This is the same concept with cosmic horror except more theologically. Death is where we all head, but there are things so far beyond that. Things that are “miles tall” that cannot die. Things which have lived billions of years and will live for billions more.
It’s no wonder Lovecraft was agoraphobic, if he just sat around thinking about these concepts all day.
Join me next week for the conclusion of “The Call of Cthulhu!”
Just a few more thoughts if you’ll indulge me. While reading about the section on the raid I had a conceptual thought about Lovecraft in general. In the story Lovecraft uses a thematic approach that describes the action in a single line, then when recalling the events Legrasse goes into much greater detail. After reading as much Lovecraft as I have, I can say that he did this because he’s not great at writing action, however his strength is in the feel of the piece. Legrasse is able to go far more into detail and flush out his feelings at the time and his disgust with the cultists, but during the raid all he could muster was direct and emotionless fact.
Our human brains work this way. When we look back on a time frame or an event, it almost always comes out more emotional that it was during the event. If it was traumatic, the events are colored much darker when you recall them. If it was inconsequential or happy, the events usually are colored much brighter and happier while recalling them. This is known in psychology terms as the reminiscence bump.
I’ve been reading Lovecraft now for nearly two years. I do a critique and analysis on a story every week (or, as in this case, over multiple weeks). I saw a thread on Twitter asking people what their favorite Lovecraft story was and I couldn’t come up with one. I thought back on nearly every story with fond memories, even though I know for a fact that I didn’t always like the stories that much while I was reading them. That’s the reminiscence bump.
Lovecraft is a master of atmosphere, despite his terrible action sequences and dialog. But atmosphere is what you truly remember when thinking back on a story. How the story made you feel. Individual action sequences and dialog are no longer aren’t what stick in long term memory, so what bubbles to the surface is the atmosphere you experienced while reading. When I think back on Lovecraft’s works I feel almost universal love. That’s a really strange thing to say, because about six months into this project it felt like a slog and I remember feeling bored, but now I cant remember which story I was bored with because I liked them all so much!
The more you read Lovecraft the more you like it. He’s insidious in that way. At first the language is a bit of a barrier, but once it starts to flow, your mind creates and atmosphere and experience greater than you read on the page.
“Important sections of Charles Ward’s store of mental images, mainly those touching modern times and his own personal life, had been unaccountably expunged; whilst all the massed antiquarianism of his youth had welled up from some profound consciousness to engulf the contemporary and the individual.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve even deeper into the mystery of Charles Dexter Ward as we take a look at chapter four, “A Mutation and a Madness.”
This penultimate chapter gives us some much needed information, and sets us up for the final chapter “A Nightmare and a Cataclysm.” I have a feeling because of the direction the text is taking, and the title of the last chapter we are going to get a much more intimate view of what that attack on Curwen’s farm house looked like; with Ward taking place of the antagonist, but that’s for next week.
This week we continue to follow Ward down the rabbit hole. What Lovecraft does so well in this novel is heighten the mystery and suspense by not fully showing us what’s actually happening. He’s brought in all these other horror tropes (as mentioned last week), so the reader is left wondering what’s going on. Is this magic? Are Curwen and his fellows actually witches? Are they vampires? Did they tap into some eldritch energy? Based upon my reading so far in Lovecraft’s oeuvre it could be any of these options. We don’t get a specific answer in this chapter, but things are certainly clarifying, so lets dig into it as much as we can!
We start, right off the bat, with Ward acting subdued after the event on Good Friday where his mother collapsed. Ward seemed to regress back to the antiquarian activities of his youth. He was subdued for months. What was he doing during this time? We know he was dabbling in Curwen’s personal documents, so was Curwen biding his time before coming into being? Or was Ward trying to fight him off?
Those few months go by and it seems as though we have the answer: “The youth was arguing or remonstrating hotly with himself, for there suddenly burst forth a perfectly distinguishable series of clashing shouts in differentiated tones like alternate demands and denials…” then a curious statement was overheard from Mrs. Ward: “…must have it red for three months…”
Curwen had been biding his time. There was something they were working on which took time, some incantation, and Ward was either an unwilling or reluctant participant in it. We know this because Ward’s mother listened all night and “...as long as she had remained awake she had heard faint sounds from the laboratory above, sounds as if of sobbing and pacing, and of a sighing which told only of despair’s profoundest depths.”
Ward was being compelled and I think that something happened during the “Good Friday” kerfluffle that ended the last chapter which took hold of Ward. It’s almost as if a part of Curwen had been injected into Ward’s subconsciousness and they were two beings fighting for one body. That would certainly explain “clashing shouts in differentiated tones.”
The next day we find there had been more body snatching from the cemetery the night before Ward’s lamentations. The body of Ezra Weeden, the young man who courted Eliza Tillinghast who became Curwen’s wife and then led the charge on the farm house, was exhumed and then shortly there after there were “…shrieks of a man in mortal terror and agony.” followed by, “strange and unpleasant odours…”
This entire novel there has been grave robbing. In previous chapters, I assumed it was because Curwen was trying to gain access to the knowledge of his ancestors. What I now am coming to realize is the reason Curwen (and by extension Ward) needs the “Saltes” of the past, is not to resurrect them (although I do believe that they do resurrect the bodies, which makes the hypothesis all the more gruesome), but to feed on them. Curwen and his coven have abnormally long life and to do that you must have a source to fuel you.
This makes exhuming Weeden seem cruel and vicious, as though Curwen is exacting revenge on the man for storming his farmhouse all those years ago, but maybe there is something deeper going on here. If they in fact do gain the knowledge from these poor souls they bring back, maybe Curwen is trying to figure out how Weeden succeeded in convincing the townsfolk to attack. Maybe Curwen is trying to stop that from happening again, against Ward.
This still doesn’t change that they seem to not only be feeding on the dead but also the living, because vampirism begins taking place concurrently, and we already know that Hutchinson has survived thus far as a “Transylvanian Count” who lives off blood. Around this time there is also stories of people being attacked by …”a lean, lithe, leaping monster with burning eyes which fastened its teeth in the throat or upper arm and feasted ravenously.”
Enter Dr. Allen, a mysterious man who suddenly appears and has become Ward’s companion. This companion, along with a man servant, move into a new house…the center of the vampiristic attacks…and they become reclusive with each other.
Ward “grew steadily paler and more emaciated even than before, and lacked some of his former assurance when repeating to Dr. Willett his old, old story of vital research and future revelations.”
Could it be that Dr. Allen is the vampire and he is actually feeding on Ward? Or is it Curwen, through Ward’s body that is effecting the exsanguinating attacks?
The answer is unclear, but at this time Ward makes a deal with a local abattoir and has abnormal amounts of blood and meat sent to him. There is concurrently a caravan headed to Ward’s abode that is hijacked by thieves. Thieves who promptly drop the cache in horror as they realize it’s grisly (dead bodies) contents.
The small coven of three is slowly building power. Power in blood and power in knowledge. The three men move into the old Farm House complete with it’s hidden catacombs of Curwen’s making. It does not seem strange to me that they had to find a “man servant” to join Dr. Allen and Ward, because years before Curwen had to be joined with Orne and Hutchinson to be a coven of three. What did Allen and Ward promise this young man to join them?
Once at the farmhouse Ward realizes that he’s in over his head and decides to take a last stand. He sends a letter to his Alienist (Psychiatrist) Dr. Willett which states, “Instead of triumph I have found terror, and my talk with you will not be a boast of victory but a plea for help and advice in saving both myself and the world from a horror beyond all human conception or calculation.” Yikes. It’s here that Lovecraft begins to transcend the run of the mill horror. He has conceded that things like zombies, witches, and vampires exist in the world, but they are a means to an end for a deeper and more horrible truth to come. They are mosquito’s pecking at someones skin, when the whole time there is something deeper, insidious, and ruthless, like a virus which will do much more damage, just waiting to be let free.
As if to emphasize this, the post script is a desperate attempt at redemption, “Shoot Dr. Allen on sight and dissolve his body in acid. Don’t burn it.”
What a strange and horrifying thought. Ward is so scared of Dr. Allen coming back from the grave, that he knows you must absolutely destroy the body; that way the “Saltes” cannot be restored. This also makes sense because in previous letters, Orne told Curwen not to bring up what you cant put down, which coincides with Curwen’s collecting acids. He must have used those acids to “put down” whatever horrible thing he “brought up.”
Soon after this letter, Charles Dexter Ward goes absent. His nefarious companions state that he is just out and about and must not be disturbed. They say he is OK and just doing very important research. Charles’ dad calls, inquiring after his son and hears Dr. Allen for the first time and “…it seemed to excite some vague and elusive memory which could not be actually placed…” It stands to reason that the voice was one he heard Ward utter in a different tone while he argued with himself on that infamous Good Friday. Then we get into the last and probably most important question of this chapter.
Who is Curwen and how is Dr. Allen involved?
Dr. Willett and Ward’s father visit and Ward himself tells them, “I am grown phthisical,” (I had to look it up too) which means that he’s become consumptive, that his speech is hoarse and gravelly. Ward has become a shell of who he formerly was.
We call back to the beginning of the chapter and remember that Ward had stopped being his normal self. His memory was wiped and any knowledge of anything current was cleared for items of antiquity. His speech had even changed cadence to represent a previous dialectical time. He even makes statements like this one:
There is no evil to any in what I do, so long as I do it rightly.
I believe Curwen has taken over Ward. The text leads to some question of that, in fact the last few paragraphs actually seem to state that Dr. Allen was Curwen. What if that was true? What if Allen was Curwen? Allen disappears about the time Ward makes this transition, so it may well be that Allen was Curwen (they even slant rhyme) in Ezra Weeden’s expired body. When the body began to give out (because it required too much blood for upkeep) Curwen began the transition into Ward’s body. That was why Ward was absent for those few days, because it took that much time to make the transition.
The conflict will come because Willett and the elder Ward believe that Allen is Curwen, so we’ll have to to just wait for the final chapter to see how it all pans out!
Will Ward make it through? Will Curwen summon something he can’t put down? Will Hutchinson and Orne re-appear?
Join me next week for the finale of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward!
“There were chanting’s and repetitions, and thunderous declamations in uncanny rhythms; and although these sounds were always in Ward’s own voice, there was something in the quality of that voice, and in the accents of the formulae it pronounced, which could not but chill the blood of every hearer.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This time we’re jumping into chapter 3 “A Search and an Evocation.” There are some very interesting concepts in this chapter and I’ve begun to wonder if Lovecraft is using this novel to incorporate all horror within his mythos, as there are many horror tropes in this chapter. It feels as though he is trying to say that these tropes were actually created from his own “Yog-Sothothery.” We’ll get a little more into this later, but this chapter jumps forward and we are reunited with our titular character as we follow him in his descent into madness.
The majority of this chapter is the “Search” of the title. Ward is fascinated with his ancestor and researches to find more information about him. At the start of the chapter he is open about his curiosity and what information he discovers. His family is slightly disturbed by his findings, but they generally don’t seem to care that much.
Ward asks consistently to travel abroad to dig deeper, but his parents reject that idea, telling him instead to stay state-side. He decides the best thing for him to do is research Salem.
He finds “Curwen’s only close friends had been one Edward Hutchinson of Salem-Village and one Simon Orne of Salem.” We already know from the previous chapters that Simon has practiced some kind of spell craft or alchemy which had given him such prolonged life that he had to take another name and act as though he was his own son, Jedediah. So we understand that they have some connection with the occult.
Ward continues to research and finds a curious letter which speaks of strange things: “And of ye Seede of Olde shal One be borne who shal looke Backe, tho’ know’g not what he seeke“
Obviously this pertains to Ward. It’s curious that this passage tells us that Ward is compelled to research despite not knowing why he has the urge, nor knowing what he’s looking for, and it is this passage which tells him that he doesn’t have a choice. This is a staple of Lovecraft and horror in general. There’s a reason why people run back into houses whilst being chased by monsters and murderers. There’s a reason people don’t move out of haunted houses. It can sometimes be jarring when you watch or read a character do something like this, but there’s a reason it’s one of the oldest horror tropes. People feel compelled to understand. Think about magic tricks. How many people will watch someone do a magic trick and then immediately ask how the magician did it? It’s that unknown that drives their worst fears and if we can just comprehend what’s going on, we can correlate it to something tangible and make it less scary. That’s the brilliance of Lovecraft. He uses creatures and themes that are so beyond the realm of our ken that it is not possible to correlate them.
This is why the people of Salem and Providence were so scared of Curwen and his coven of three. Because they were doing things; chants that weren’t in a known language, smells that were beyond comprehension, and anti-aging, that the people instantly feared them because these actions were outside of the norm.
This brings me to the second classic horror trope, the Witch. We’ve been playing at the witch for this entire book so far, with references to Salem and casting spells, but this is the first time we get a small, secluded house, hidden in the woods where a coven of three practice their incantations. To Lovecraft these incantations are not witchcraft as we know it, but direct conversation with the Great Old Ones. That’s truly where magic comes from, not from the earth, or Satan, or anything else. Witchcraft is Yog-Sothothery.
But back to the story. After spending time in Salem, Ward comes home excited about his found evidence of Curwen. During this time he also figured out where Curwen’s house on Olney Court was, so the next portion is his investigation goes there.
We get the feeling that Ward took on some aspect of Curwen as he was travelling in Salem, because when he sees the house on Olney Court and the changes made to it, he feels a pang of fear and regret. Almost as if that portion of Curwen’s history was dissolved.
He digs into the house and scours it for information finding three interesting items. The first was a portrait of Curwen which was hidden behind the wall. Ward contracts some workers and an artist to take the painting out and restore it, then he puts it up in his attic study to ostensibly overlook his work. He also finds two documents: a lost journal by Curwen with a strange inscription: “To Him Who Shal Come After, & How He May Gett Beyonde Time & ye Spheres…” and a cipher which he hopes will translate a note he found from Hutchinson with a similar language.
Ward takes these documents and heads back to his room. He begins to pull back from his parents, (“At night he kept the papers under lock and key in an antique cabinet of his, where he also placed them whenever he left the room.”) and spends his time under the gaze of Curwen’s portrait. “…he inaugurated a dual policy of chemical research and record-scanning; fitting up for one laboratory in the unused attic of the house.” Remember how Curwen would get the “Saltes” of his ancestors to bring them back and ask for information? Well during this time Ward’s research is about where Curwen is buried. There is evidence that he may have found the grave, and possibly more evidence that Curwen’s body was not in it. But more on that later.
He continues to ask his parents to travel abroad, and where they resist for a while, they finally agree to let him. He wanders through Eastern Europe and at first, sends frequent letters. Soon however the letters slacken and then nearly stop by the time he gets to Transylvania. He visits with Baron Ferenczy, and “…the situation of Baron Ferenczy’s castle did not favor visits. It was on a crag in the dark wooded mountains, and the region was so shunned by the country folk that normal people could not help feeling ill at ease.”
What a strange description. To me this is a perfect depiction of Dracula’s castle, yet another reference to a classic trope that Lovecraft is incorporating in this novel. To top that off, the experience of Ward is similar to that of Jonathan Harker as well. He goes to the castle, then becomes so consumed (see what I did there?) with work, that he doesn’t readily respond to correspondence. Could this possibly be Lovecraft trying to subsume these tropes? Was Dracula meant to be part of the mythos? Think about all those coffins that Curwen “imported” in the last chapter. Could it be that some of those creatures weren’t actually vampires, but vampiric constructs that Curwen, using Yog-Sothothery, resurrected? Or is this just a nod to Stoker?
It may in fact be a nod because the next few paragraphs, those of Ward returning to Providence from his time abroad, are wonderful homages to Poe. The language suddenly shifts, and the focus on atmosphere takes center stage;
“When the coach crossed the Pawcatuck and entered Rhode Island amidst the faery goldeness of a late spring afternoon his heart beat with a quickened force, and the entry to Providence along Reservoir and Elmwood avenues was a breathless and wonderful thing despite the depths of forbidden lore to which he had delved.”
Ward gets home and is noticeably changed. He has prematurely aged and has become far more withdrawn. In fact, “…Dr. Lyman’s assign to Ward’s European trip the beginning of his true madness.” The most disturbing aspect of this is the next trope that we come across. Thirty years before this book was written, Oscar Wilde published “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. Here Lovecraft throws another bone out to the horror community. Ward’s visage begins to take on the physiognomy of the portrait of Curwen. Ward has been striving to find his ancestor, but maybe there is something more going on here. Could he have been possessed by Curwen in Transylvania? or is it the magic, the Yog-Sothothery, bringing them together? The fact that the concept and usage of the portrait is so similar to Wilde’s tale I’d intimate the latter.
Ward retreats to his attic lab and we see the opening quote of this essay, where he delves into his experiments. Strange noises and smells emanate from the lab (remember how Curwen’s farm house had strange smells that latched onto it’s attackers?), and his parents take note. His mother tries to spy on him and notices four men bringing a coffin like box into the lab. This coffin could be the body of Curwen, or even more likely Curwen’s “Saltes”, because what comes after is startling.
Ward begins a strange chant in an even stranger dialect and the weather goes south. The strange smell (possibly Brimstone?) wafts throughout the house as Ward’s experiment proceeds and it gets to the point that his mother faints. Once the ceremony concludes, Ward promises his father that he will discontinue that type of experiment in the attic and move on, but right at the end of the chapter we find that “the portrait of Joseph Curwen had resigned forever its staring surveillance of the youth it so strangely resembled, and now lay scattered on the floor as a thin coating of fine bluish-grey dust.”
The transformation was complete, or rather the “evocation” was complete. I wonder if Curwen didn’t actually die in the raid on his farmhouse, but instead transposed himself, or at least his soul, into the painting. When the four men brought the coffin with the mortal and tactile “Saltes” (remains) of Curwen, all that was left was the ritual to bring him back. The essence of the portrait seeped into Ward, and he took on the aspect of Curwen.
That’s how the chapter ends, but before I let you go I’d remiss if I didn’t mention that is some beautiful language in this chapter, far better than I’ve seen in the previous ones. My favorite line pertains to Ward’s mother when asked what she saw to make her faint:
“Memory sometimes makes merciful deletions.”
Yikes. This just adds to the mystique and horror of the tale, especially with only two more chapters. We know something is going to begin to come together and I think some major knowledge is going to be dropped in the next chapter.
I wonder if we’ll continue to receive those classic tropes. Keep an eye on them if you’re reading along because I wonder if there may be some underlying meaning behind this novel. So far we’ve come across Witches, Zombies, Vampires, Dorian Gray, and a little bit of Poe stuck in there. What might we find next?
Let’s find out next week for an analysis of Chapter 4 “A Mutation and a Madness.”
“He bore the name Charles Dexter Ward, and was placed under restraint most reluctantly by the grieving father who had watched his aberration grow from a mere eccentricity to a dark mania involving both a possibility of murderous tendencies and a profound and peculiar change in apparent contents of his mind.”
Welcome back to another blind read! It feels like it’s been a long drought since the last time we covered one of Lovecraft’s more popular pieces, and I gotta tell you, I was very excited to jump into this one.
Right from the start we enter into familiar territory. The POV is much more omniscient than much of Lovecraft (the majority of his stories seem to be told from a much more limited 3rd person, and much of that is from the perspective of an unreliable narrator), however the omniscient narrator spends this chapter describing the character of Ward, whom is a young man who has gone down a path that has led him to the strange.
We find that Ward is an inquisitive youth. He’s described as “a scholar and antiquarian”, but at some point (specifically at his last year of Moses Brown School, the feeder school to Brown University) “he suddenly turned from the study of the past to the study of the occult.”
Ward, while doing research into his past, found that one of his ancestors had some connection to the occult. One Joseph Curwen, “who had come from Salem in March of 1692, and about whom a whispered series of highly peculiar and disquieting stories clustered.” It was in this research of his ancestor that Ward began to go down the rabbit hole of the occult.
Whatever he did had strange consequences. It changed, not only his mind and the psychology behind it, but his actual physiology. There is a really fascinating section early on in the story where Lovecraft describes Ward’s “Organic processes”. The entire point of this is to show that Ward had tapped into something that changed him, but the brilliance of this section is that it encompasses the horror of Lovecraft perfectly:
“Respiration and heart action had a baffling lack of symmetry; the voice was lost, so that no sounds above a whisper were possible; digestion was incredibly prolonged and minimised, and neural reactions to standard stimuli bore no relation at all to anything heretofore recorded, either normal or pathological. The skin had a morbid chill and dryness, and the cellular structure of the tissue seemed exaggeratedly coarse and loosely knit.”
This was the most fascinating section to me because when you read the passage, something about what he’s describing feels off. You know that Ward has been effected by something, but as a reader, you are uncertain what it is. You know he’s still human, but you know that whatever he got himself into has done something to him, and it’s that word… something… that creates real fear. This ambiguous description is the cornerstone of Lovecraft’s genius of horror. He pontificates, but doesn’t out and out recount what is truly going on.
It wasn’t that Ward had become some creature (although he could… this is only the first chapter), just that there was something wrong with him. I see this all the time in bad horror, where the author tries too hard for the scare, and in doing so, usually describes the creature or describes in lurid detail what is happening to the character. When we actually get to see something our brain is able to put it in a box, and where that box may not be pleasant, it’s the first step in understanding. Lovecraft’s point is that we can never understand these types of horrors. He lets the reader’s mind do the work for them.
Even the titles elicit this with stories like “The Thing in the Moonlight” or “The Unnamable” prove that he understood what’s truly scary to people is what they don’t know, not what they do know. He describes things that are a little strange to unsettle the reader, but not to outright terrify. Lovecraft wants to do what his creations do, he wants to be that insidious pulling at the back of your unconscious that tells you something isn’t right, even though you don’t understand what that is.
The brilliance of this story is he places Ward into such a realistic place. He goes into great detail describing Providence, RI. So much in fact that there is criticism (actually from Lovecraft himself) that the novel is a “cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism” because of the detail he uses in describing Providence. Now, where he sees this as self aggrandizing, I find it a wonderful juxtaposition to the oddity that is Ward. The realism of his illustration of Providence grounds us, which makes the possibility of the unseen horrors corrupting that reality all the more… well… horrible.
Come back next week and read along as we cover chapter 2 “An Antecedent and a Horror” in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward!
“Presently I heard a swishing in the sparse grass toward the left, and saw the dark forms of two men looming up in the moonlight.”
Welcome back to a very strange blind read!
This wasn’t really a story and in fact when I researched Lovecraft’s bibliography it isn’t represented at anywhere. As it turns out, this is actually a letter that Lovecraft once sent about a dream he had to a colleague. The letter was then taken and a beginning and end was tacked onto it. It’s curious why someone would do this, because the text doesn’t make sense and doesn’t sound ANYTHING like Lovecraft. Let’s break it down a little. Here’s the opening, obviously not written by Lovecraft:
“Morgan is not a literary man; in fact he cannot speak English with any degree of coherency. That is what makes me wonder about the words he wrote, though others have laughed.
“He was alone the evening it happened. Suddenly an unconquerable urge to write came over him, and taking pen in hand he wrote the following:”
So, so many things wrong here. First of all why name him Morgan? Without any characterization this is just a failed attempt to change something that doesn’t need to be changed. The very next line starts “My name is Howard Phillips.” so there is no reason to adjust it, other than either an attempt to make it their own (which I don’t believe because it’s published in a Lovecraft book), or they wanted it to seem more like a story rather than a letter. It’s an uninspired and useless tactic.
Next “he cannot speak English with any degree of coherency.” What? If you read the following letter, the man writing it obviously has an expert’s grasp of the language; as it’s written far better than this opening salvo. I mean, the writer (I refuse to say author here for this anonymous hack job) tacks on a fragment to end the sentence that makes zero sense in the context!
Then we get into Lovecraft’s actual (letter) writing. This letter is brilliant and terrifying (it might be some of the scariest he’s written), and packs so much into just two pages that I would consider it a must read for any fan (just ignore the two opening paragraphs and the closing paragraph).
The narrator describes finding a strange aged trolley car on a plateau. The narrator goes inside and sees two figures approaching. One screeches and the other goes to all fours and runs around wolf-like. The description of the screamer is terrifying, and now I understand why people say “Silent Hill” is Lovecraftian: “…but because the face of the motorman was a mere white cone tapered to one blood-red-tentacle…”
The scene repeats itself with a feeling of foreboding and anxiety that the dreamer will eventually be caught by this mysterious motorman. The story ends with the ominous, “God! When will I awaken?”
This letter was written in the last few years of Lovecraft’s life, and I wonder if this was almost a cry for help. He created this verdant field of wonder and fear, and one has to wonder if drugs (laudinam or opium) caused some of this nightmare fuel to seep into his head.
Then again what if this was a metaphor? The bestial nature had left him (the conductor was the one who went wolf-like and ran around; ostensibly away. Cone-head was the real nemesis) as the conductor ran off, and he was left being haunted by the strange and otherworldly motorman. I find it interesting that the conductor, the one who was meant to drive the vehicle (or in this case drive the consciousness?) went feral and directionless, whereas the motorman – the one who powers and builds the craft – became the staying force. The motorman whom changed and became something otherworldly. It almost feels like this is Lovecraft’s ID and this letter is the realization that maybe there is something off about him internally. Something otherworldly?
Much like many of his narrators he sees this truism and is terrified by it, and we as readers have to wonder… How much time did Lovecraft spend dreaming, and in the end did he succumb and transcend into his own dreamlands?
Join me and read along next week where we’ll cover the first chapter of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward!”
“It was a key – a guide – to certain gateways and transitions of which mystics have dreamed and whispered since the race was young, and which lead to freedoms and discoveries beyond three dimensions and realms of life and matter that we know.”
Welcome back to another blind read! I was excited to read this one because I thought it might have to do with the Necronomicon, but soon found out that the eponymous book was yet another tome of outlandish sorcery – but more on that later.
This fragment starts out with the old Lovecraft standby – the unreliable narrator. This one doesn’t mince words though, our narrator comes right out and says, “wow this is crazy, I don’t even know where I am, or even who I am half the time!”
Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s the beginning: “My memories are confused…I am not even certain how I am communicating this message…My identity, too, is bewilderingly cloudy.”
I’ve been debating on where to put this critique, but every other story is pretty jam packed with content, whereas this is a shorter fragment, so I think I’ll talk about this here…
I’m not thrilled about this unreliable narrator that Lovecraft loves to use. It’s fine every once and a while, but when you consistently re-use the same themes, it feels more like bad writing than a trend. I understand it for sure. Lovecraft is trying to set the stage and each unreliable narrator tends to have a different reason for their unreliableness (totally a word). This narrator is confused because of “… that worm riddled book…” he discovered. He delved so deep into it’s mysteries that it has altered his reality so that he’s not sure as to which reality he’s actually in.
The issue this creates is that the story is now forever stuck in the fantasy realm. The wonderful nature of Lovecraft is the creepy realism he develops with his mythology. He takes us to real places with dirty people (literally and figuratively) who are just trying to make a living, and these extraordinary things happen to them. By telling the story by an unreliable narrator it takes away some of the stakes. Could all of this insanity all be in their head? Could they just be lying? Are they under the influence of something like Opium of Peyote? All of these choices are fine for a story or two, but when we start out nearly every story with the narrator saying something along the lines of “I don’t even know where I am right now!” It becomes more about fantasy than horror and the stakes are lowered for the reader. Lovecraft dances this line superbly in most of his works, but it would be a better choice had the narrator understood what was happening, rather than telling us at the beginning of each story that it might not be true.
Just had to get that off my chest, but back to the story…
The narrator finds the old “wormy” book in some old book store and the shop keep is grateful to be rid of it (or is this some ploy? Could the shop keep with his “curious sign with his hand” be in on it?). When the narrator reads it he finds that, as the starting quote says, it is a key; a gateway to other worlds. I thought for sure this was the classic Grimoire I mentioned earlier but, “… the hand of some half-crazed monk, had traced these ominous Latin phrases in unicals of awesome antiquity.” So we know it’s not the Necronomicon because that tome was written by the Mad Arab Alhazred and he’d be writing it in either Arabic or Aramaic, so it must be something else. The first few pages are burned away, so no one really knows what the book is, however there are references to many other things within: “But still I read more – in hidden, forgotten books and scrolls to which my new vision led me…” So we know there is more to Lovecraft’s old forgotten mystery tomes than the Necronomicon and the Pnakotic Manuscripts.
This fragment was written just a few years before Lovecraft died, so who knows what he would have created as he expanded his universe (I’m sure other authors, like Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth did, along with a multitude of others who followed, but I’m not there yet).
We even get a glimpse of some strange square building which terrifies the narrator into giving up his research and becoming a hermit. There’s mention that he has gone back in time, could this strange square building have been a Cthulhu temple in R’lyeh? The narrator doesn’t know, so we wont either.
But that’s all. This one is a fairly contained story, but there isn’t a whole lot to it. It feels like this is actually a character sketch for a future story, or that he was trying to work out what another old tome could be. Who knows? Maybe I’ll read another story during this blind read and come across a book which is a “key” somewhere else! Anyone out there, know which book this story is referencing?
I’ve purposely kept some of the better known Lovecraft stories for last. I wanted to try to get as much experience within the framework of his oeuvre before jumping into larger and more popular stories. To that end, I have just one more fragment to get to, “The Thing in the Moonlight” which will be next week (reading from the beautifully Michael Whelan illustrated Del Rey books), before heading into “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”
Come join me! Lets read along!
“There rose within him the tantalizing faith that somewhere an easy gate existed, which if one found would admit him freely to those outer deeps whose echoes rattled so dimly at the back of his memory.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! I’ve finally finished with the Juvenilina and I can’t say how happy I am to be back with the fragments. These are some of his later story ideas and, well, fragments of stories that Lovecraft never got to finish and oh my lord what a wealth they are.
These fragments contain more Yog-Sothothery than any of the individual short stories that I’ve read so far and I wonder if these works were his way of organizing his thoughts. He packs so much information into these few pages, while the rest of his short stories are vague and only hold a little indication of where he wanted his mythos to progress. I wonder if this is how all of his stories started and then he pared back on the lore, so that he might be able to focus more on the. After all, to me, the greatest strength of Lovecraft is how he lets the reader develop the horror in their own minds.
Anyway, back to the story. This story starts out like many of his other stories where the narrator tells us of a man (here in London instead of New England) who walls himself off from friends and family. He has been traumatized by something in his past and we get a page or two glimpse of how he lives his current life, then we peel back the onion to stare directly into the trauma.
The man strives to stay away from anything that makes him think. In fact the only books he has are brain candy: “His room is filled with books of the tamest and most puerile kind, and hour after hour he tries to lose himself in their feeble pages.” No! Lovecraft wasn’t elitist, I swear! (as a side note, I’m really curious to see who he thought was “puerile.” That would be an interesting post in and of itself!)
The point is, something happened to the man and he wants to make sure his brain doesn’t delve deeper into whatever past experiences he had. That’s either a coping mechanism not to relive the trauma, or it’s because he has something hidden in his brain that he’s scared to bring back out.
Eventually a young man named Williams enters his life. This young man is a scholar and has a feeling that the old man knows something more than he tells. He picks and prods and eventually gets a bit of information out of the old man about his past.
Seemingly unprompted, though one might believe that he inferred about the terrible book from the conversations he had with the old man, Williams brings home the Necronomicon. “…the infamous Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.” which he sought out from a local rare bookseller.
The old man sees the book and, “…one glimpse he had had of the title was enough to send him into transports, and some of the diagrams set in the vague Latin text excited the tensest and most disquieting recollections in his brain.”
We learn that the old man is Lord Northam, whose lineage goes back to Roman times. In fact, one of his Roman ancestors actually found evidence of the Old Ones; “Gabinius had, the rumour ran, come upon the cliffside cavern where strange folk met together and made the Elder Sign in the dark…”
During the Hellenistic period and slightly before there were cave dwelling hierophants who practiced something called the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were basically rituals to Hades and Demeter. We already know that Lovecraft gets much of his inspiration from Greek and Roman culture and it seems as though he is adopting these Hierophants as his own to represent his Cthulhu cult (I.E. praying over the ocean). He also infers R’lyeh, “a great land in the west that had sunken, leaving only the islands with the roths and circles and shrines of which Stonehenge was the greatest.”
The story abruptly ends while telling about Lord Northam’s childhood, and one gets the feeling that if Lovecraft was able to actually finish it, this story would be one of the most complete and comprehensive histories of his Mythology.
We get so much of the origins of the cult that surrounds the mythos, including a great understanding of where in our world much of these places are and the events that happened within them. Lovecraft was absolutely anglified, making the majority of his major events happen in England, New England, and in the sea between, but he also holds a special place in his heart for the mysteries of Greece and Arabia. There is much that he didn’t understand about those worlds and I think he was drawn to culture mainly because of the desert. It was something that he couldn’t have imagined being in, or being around (whether that be because the of the temperature, the vast miles of nothingness, or the emptiness of humanity) and thus it grew in mystery within his brain. I believe that’s why he posed the people of the mysteries as cultists and why artifacts of the Old Ones power (The infamous Mad Arab, and even the narrator from The Transition of Juan Romero) seem to come from there. Because the culture was so vastly different, that in a way he vilified it.
Once again we are shown brightly Lovecraft’s xenophobia, as he subsumes it within the mythos he created. Transposing real world people and events into horrors which we don’t understand and cannot contemplate.
Come back next week for another Blind Read! We’ll be covering the fragment, “The Book.”
“There be those who say that things and places have souls, and there be those who say they have not; I dare not say, myself, but I will tell of the Street.”
This is the best opening line I’ve seen from Lovecraft in all that I’ve read of him (Despite the weird piratey feel), and this even comes from one of his Juvenilia!
I wasn’t really sure where Lovecraft was headed with this one. This short story felt like a bit of a ramble; as if he had a basic idea of what he wanted to accomplish, but he wasn’t sure how he wanted to get there. The writing is much more sophomoric than much of his other writings, but the story itself is far more controlled and succinct than The Poetry of the Gods was (which I’ve since been told the majority of which not actually written by Lovecraft).
In this story we follow the history of a street from the dawn of time when magic ruled, to the present day. The “soul” that Lovecraft is talking about is the Street’s history; the mystery and magic that’s inherent to an individual location. This is such a through line with all of Lovecraft’s writings, but I don’t think I’ve seen it so blatant in any other story than it is here.
The Street has a soul. Through time events happen. People coalesce around the Street and form it into a community. They build it into a town. The nation forms around the Street. There are wars to defend locations and ideals, including skirmishes with “natives” and battles with soldiers wandering the streets. There is even mention of the Declaration of Independence as the world changes around the Street.
The Street, however, never loses its core. It never loses it’s spirit. Things around it can change, “the air was not quite so pure as before, but the spirit of the place had not changed.”
Lovecraft believed that the way the world was headed was a detriment to the human mind. I think that’s why he ultimately wrote about what he wrote about. It was his goal to keep things unchanged and his Yog-Sothothery was that old magic that was too powerful (both in good and evil and ambivalence) to change. Many of the people in his stories are trying to bring back those old gods…trying to bring back that old magic…to a time before humans gradually destroyed the world. That’s why he loved New England, because it held onto the traditions of old, unlike places like New York which thrived on change (See the stories HE and The Horror at Red Hook).
Overall there isn’t much to this story but that theme. That theme is such a powerful one in his writings, however, that this is an incredible addition to his works because we can gain a greater understanding of his oeuvre as a whole.
One last thing before I let you go. I noticed something strange in this story, and where it is a blind read (meaning that it’s the first time I’ve read it, so I could have easily missed some context), I think that there may be more to his legacy than I previously thought.
I’ve always heard that Lovecraft was a notorious racist. Now, because of the day and age that he lived in, I’m sure that this was true (not to mention some of the wording he uses to describe minorities, also not using this as an excuse to forgive racism), but reading his works in such a bulk and analyzing them like I have, I think that he’s a bit more of a Xenophobe and an Agorophobe. I think he equally was scared of and disliked any people who were different, or had differing cultures than he did. It actually makes me pity him more than vilify him because fears drove him as we see in his literature. (Qualifier: I am not giving him a pass. I am not saying racism in any form is ok, in fact I think treating anyone different because of melanin or cultural differences is pretty abhorrent. I’m not saying that we should look past it. It’s just an observation that it seems like he fears everyone outside of his comfort zone, not just minorities. In fact in The Horror at Red Hook the evil person is dutch. He does have terrible language which is detrimental to the world as a whole.)
Lines like; “But it felt a stir of pride one day when again marched forth young men, some of whom never came back. These young men were clad in blue.”
It seems as though he’s talking about the Civil War here. If he is, then he was firmly in the Union side (which makes sense because he lived in Providence). I want to hope that he was pro Union because of the slavery issue, that he was still a humanist, but it could be that I love his writing and I’m looking for an excuse.
I guess I’d have to read his letters to get a better understanding of the man himself.
What do you think?
“It was only a bit of vers libre, that pitiful compromise of the poet who overleaps prose yet falls short of the divine melody of numbers; but it had in it all the unstudied music of a bard who lives and feels, who gropes ecstatically for unveiled beauty.”
Welcome back for another Blind Read! This time we’re diving into a co-op between Lovecraft and Anna Helen Crofts. This story is a divergence from what we have seen so far in Lovecraft’s fiction so if you’re looking for a horror story, look elsewhere. What we do get to see here is an interesting genesis of Lovecraft as an author and potentially his position, much like Marcia in the story, as a herald to the gods.
The story follows the aforementioned Marcia, who lives in an austere mansion and suffers from general malaise because of, “…some greater and less explicable misplacement in time and space, whereby she had been born too late, too early, or too far away from the haunts of her spirit ever to harmonize with the unbeautiful things of contemporary reality…” This quote strikes me. It feels almost as if Lovecraft is using Marcia to be a stand in for himself (or potentially Ms. Crofts).
He was not born at the right time.
Lovecraft craved mystery, and the strange, and mysticism. Contemporary culture of the time just didn’t fit with these amorphous constructs. We see this time and again (especially in the stories such as HE or Shadow over Innsmouth) Lovecraft wanted magic in the world of technology.
We go along with Marcia as she’s approached by Hermes and brought before Zeus. Zeus is looking for a mortal to herald the coming of the gods and brings Marcia there to do so.
The text itself is interesting because the exposition is cut up by poetry, as if to expose how brilliant Marcia is, but it also displays how bad poetry can halt magic from happening.
This is pretty much everything you get out of the story. It’s disjointed and strange, but it tries to hover between the mega weird of Lovecraft and softer, more realistic fiction. It doesn’t hit the nail on the head. It leaves you with the feeling that either one, or both of the authors were trying to show off how important and how amazing they were, but the self aggrandizement comes off as cheap and smarmy. It makes the story feel useless.
Where my interest in this story lies is how similar the Greek gods of the story were with Lovecraft’s original cannon. I’ve mentioned before that Greek gods and culture were a heavy influence on Lovecraft in general, and this story solidifies this.
There is a bit of the Dream-Quest as Marcia is brought to Olympus and sits before Zeus, as he tells her, “..the time approaches when our voices shall not be silent. It is a time of awakening and change.”
There is even evidence of the Pnakotic Manuscripts or the Necronomicon with “…reading from a manuscript words which none has ever heard before, but which when heard will bring to men the dreams and fancies they lost so many centuries ago, when Pan lay down to doze in Arcady, and the great Gods withdrew to sleep in lotos-gardens beyond the lands of the Hesperides.”
So much correlation that it’s hard not to read into it. From stories such as The Tree, The Tomb and What the Moon Brings, we catch such a huge influence from Greek culture that I now truly believe that his Yog-Sothothery is based upon these gods. He just puts a slightly more nefarious tint to them.
What do you think??
“At this time, my belief in the supernatural was firm and deep-seated, else I should have dismissed with scorn the incredible narrative unfolded before my eyes.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! We’re diving back into another one of H.P. Lovecraft’s Juvenilia… The Alchemist. This was the first story I’ve read from Lovecraft that I truly feel that he had not gained his writing chops before starting. The narrative is obviously unpracticed and the plot is loose, with a number of issues.
The major thing that jumps out at me is that, unlike his other stories where he relies on inference for horror and terror, in this one he goes right to it and calls a spade a spade. The antagonists are father and son and they are evil. Flat out. Lovecraft even goes so far as to state that the father “…burnt his wife alive as a sacrifice to the Devil, and the unaccountable disappearance of many small peasant children were laid at the dreaded door of these two.” OK. That’s bad enough. We can probably leave it there. We know that these two are corrupt and irredeemable. We know they are the antagonists, but Lovecraft takes it a step further.
“…the evil old man loved his offspring with fierce intensity, whilst the youth had for his parent a more than filial affection.”
I hope I misunderstand this quote, and I hope it means something other than physical love, though I don’t know what else would be more than filial. Even more bothersome, Lovecraft states “…through the dark natures of father and son ran one redeeming ray of humanity,” meaning that their “more than filial love” is seen as a redeeming quality. Hmm. Mayhaps we’ve seen a little into why Lovecraft became such a recluse.
But let’s dig into the story, shall we?
A young man is locked away in a tower because the “…restriction was imposed upon me because my noble birth placed me above association with such plebeian company.” (though really it was because of the curse, but more on that later) Because of this isolation our narrator spends the majority of his time reading over old archaic tomes, but “Those studies and pursuits which partake of the dark and occult in nature most strongly claimed my attention.”
Through these tomes he reads of a man by the name of Michel Mauvais and his son Charles, also known as Le Sorcier. Mauvais, an evil sorcerer who strove for “such things as the Philosopher’s Stone or the Elixir of Eternal Life.” Meanwhile the Count, our narrator’s ancestor, finds one day that his son is missing and immediately goes to Michel Mauvais’ house and kills him for the murder Godfrey, his son. It is later found that Godfrey had just wandered off and eventually came back, though too late to save Mauvais. Le Sorcier curses the count and his ancestors, stating that every man in his lineage will die at the age of 32.
The tome tells how each ancestor of our narrator dies at that age. Eventually on the narrator’s 32nd birthday, Le Sorcier appears and says that it was actually he that had lived these past 600 years and had killed every one of the Narrators kin on their 32nd birthday to ensure the curse continues. He takes the Elixir of Life to help him in this capacity. Here the tale concludes.
We know the narrator wins the inferred scuffle, because he lives to tell the tale. We also know he steals the Elixir of Eternal Life from Charles Le Sorcier because the narrator tells us that the events he described were 90 years prior.
There are two possible outcomes here. The first is how the narrator tells it: he kills Le Sorcier, takes the drought, and lives forever in his tower. The second is that the narrator is none other than Le Sorcier himself, and the earlier story of being holed up was a hoax. Neither one of these are well thought out conclusions however. Either one of these outcomes leave a large number of plot holes, even in this seven page story. Unfortunately I felt this was Lovecraft’s weakest story of which I’ve read so far.
What do you think?