“As his hammer blows began to fall, the horse outside whinnied in a tone which may have been encouraging and may have been mocking. In either case it would have been appropriate; for the unexpected tenacity of the easy-looking brickwork was surely a sardonic commentary on the vanity of mortal hopes, and the use of a task whose performance deserved every possible stimulus.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re covering a story with all the mental veracity of Ambrose Bierce coupled with the Gothic beauty of Edgar Allan Poe. We have a very supernatural tale (a slight divergence from Lovecraft’s norm) which is perfect for this post because of the overtones matching Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (well, that is as perfect as any Lovecraft tale could be for Christmas!), because of it’s themes of repentance, and the almost anthropomorphizing of the horse in the story.
Well…It’s Christmas! Let’s get started!
Lovecraft let’s you know the tone right from the get go: “Mention a bucolic Yankee setting, a bungling and thick-fibred village undertaker, and a careless mishap in a tomb, and no average reader can be brought to expect more than a hearty albeit grotesque phase of comedy.”
We follow George Birch, the aforementioned undertaker in this tale, but Lovecraft does something unique right from the get go. He describes what happens in the story, holding back only the denouement, letting the reader’s mind run wild.
“It was generally stated that the affliction and shock were results of an unlucky slip whereby Birch had locked himself for nine hours in the receiving tomb of Peck Valley Cemetery, escaping only by crude and disasterous mechanical means; but while this much was undoubtably true, there were other and blacker things which the man used to whisper to me in his drunken delirium toward the last.”
So Birch, get’s locked in a tomb by accident and something happens to him there. Sure. My mind immedaitly turns to tales much like “The Tomb” where we get some of the strange Lovecraftian otherworldliness and I began trying to figure out what type of story I was getting my self into…was it a dreamlands? No, the tone was too straightforward. lovecraft has a tendency to give a slightly whimsical, or mystical cadence to his Dream Lands stories… so this must be a Mythos story… right?
Well the tone of this story is different from even those stories. Much like we saw last week, Lovecraft tends to spend quite a bit of time on setting the scene, because the power in much of the magic in “his world” comes from words and smells and architecture. This story spends pages talking about Birch himself. , “I suppose one should start in the cold December of 1880, when the ground froze and the cemetery delvers found they could dig no more graves till spring… The undertaker grew doubly lethargic in the bitter weather, and seemed to outdo even himself in carelessness.”
So Birch is a poor Scrooge, or Grinch like character. He is “bucolic” and a grouch, but what’s more he’s lazy. “Birch decided that he would begin the next day with little old Matthew Fenner, whose grave was also nearby; but actually postponed the matter for three days…” and adding to his procrastination: “He had, indeed, made that coffin for Matthew Fenner; but had cast it aside at last as too awkward and flimsy, in a fit of curious sentimentality aroused by recalling how kindly and generous the little old man had been to him during his bankruptcy five years before.” so the diminutive Fenner got one of the better coffins, while Asaph Sawyer who was not “a loveable man” got the terrible cast off coffin that Fenner was supposed to have received …all because Birch was just too lazy to build the correct sized coffin for Sawyer.
Fast forward to Birch inside the tomb, we get another indication of his laziness: “For the long-neglected latch was obviously broken, leaving the careless undertaker trapped in the vault, a victim of his own oversight.”
Birch, through his own laziness has become a victim of his own negligence. Here is the first indication of the Scrooge theme, Birch is sowing his own oats. He created a situation where he has now trapped himself because he couldn’t bother with doing a little work. The “Ghosts” of his past are coming back to haunt him here, but this is just the beginning.
He cant get the door opened, so he decides to take the morbid child approach and stack all the caskets in the tomb up like some sort of macabre ladder: And so the prisoner toiled in the twilight, heaving the unresponsive remnants of mortality with little ceremony as his miniature Tower of Babel rose course by course.”
We get the quote which opens the essay where Birch decides that he wants to chizel his way out of an aperture at the apex of his corpse stair, but …”As he remounted the splitting coffins he felt his weight very poignantly; especially when, upon reaching the topmost one, he heard that aggravated crackle which bespeaks the wholesale rending of wood.”
Because of his carelessness in constructing the coffins, he was now standing upon a tower of breaking timber and corpses, until “...no sooner was his full bulk again upon it than the rotting lid gave way, jouncing him two feet down on a surface which even he did not care to imagine.” That line right there gave publishers a pause. Lovecraft very rarely goes for the gross out, focusing instead on much higher end psychological scare tactics. Here he went full “Johnny Got his Gun” (there is a terrible scene where the main character gets caught in barbed wire and falls on and through a rotten and fetid corpse…this scene and story pales in comparison to the horror that Dalton Trumbo creates in that novel) as Birch’s feet go into the corpse of Asaph Sawyer.
This being a Lovecraft tale you would expect something strange to happen, something unexpected, something otherworldly, but this story is the exception to the rule. This story is a straight supernatural tale, and because of it’s difference it comes off all the stronger because of it. The corpse grabs his leg.
“In another moment he knew fear for the first time that night; for struggle as he would, he could not shake clear of the unknown grasp which held his feet in relentless captivity. Horrible pains, as of savage wounds, shot through his calves; and in his mind was a vortex of fright mixed with an unquenchable materialism that suggested splinters, loose nails, or some other attribute of a breaking wooden box.”
I felt the same way. I didn’t believe that Lovecraft would take a flat out supernatural approach, but I am kept on my toes. Birch gets free and runs away, liping along until he gets to ghis doctor. Once inspected and unloads his story off his conscience, Dr. Davis is horrified because he comes to understand exactly what happened.
Birch gave Sawyer Matthew Fenner’s coffin because Fenner’s coffin was poorly made and Sawyer’s coffin was well constructed. Dr. Davis comes to the realization that Fenner is extremely short, whereas Sawyer is extremely tall. Dr. Davis goes to the tomb and finds the corpse and finds the ultimate betrayal of the undertaker…
“The skull turned my stomach, but the other was worse – those ankles cut neraly off to fit Matt Fenner’s cast-aside coffin!”
The final nail in the coffin!
Birch actually cut off Sawyer’s feet to make sure he fit in the coffin and Davis verified that the teeth markes on Birch’s ankle were indeed from the rotten teeth of Sawyer.
To me this is the ghost coming down to show Scrooge the right path. This was the wake up call to stop being lazy and to start doing right by people. Whether you believe that Birch’s foot just happened to land on the corpse’s mouth, or that the corpse animated itself out of anger at it’s slight beyond the grave, this was Birch’s call, much like Scrooge being showed his possible future.
To me the story is perfect for the season (at least as perfect a story as Lovecraft can get), and I hope you all had a blast reading it!
Join me next week as we evaluate “Cold Air”
To me these Post Scripts have started to become a little bit of an inside joke, but truly they are all here just to get one last point across which doesn’t quite fit into the narrative of the essay. Here I would love to talk a little about the anthropomorphosizing of Birch’s horse.
The entire story the horse felt like something Walt Disney would create. The horse was tryign to tell Birch what he was doing was a mistake. You could almost feel the horse rolling it’s eyes at the laxy way Birch held the reigns. To me the horse was the true indicator that we were in a Lovecraft story. Doesn’t make sense does it? Let me explain.
Normally we would have an unreliable narrator teloing us a story. At some point in the story we get information that doesn’t quite add up right, but Lovecraft forcuses so much on subtlety that we wil never get an outright statement from the narrator saying something was off. We just need to infer based upon the surroundings.
In this story everything is fairly normal, except for the horse (a kind of macabre parrallel to The Grinch’s dog Max). The horse gives indication at every stage that Birch isn’t doing the right things with it’s outragous personality.
When Birch finally gets to teh tomb the horse neighs and stamps and paws, and soon leaves Birch to his fate as the man ventures in. It isn’t until this point that the narrator can take leave of reality. It isn’t until the horse leaves that we start to get something far beyond normal, and the horse doesn’t leave until the very end of the story.
In every tale Lovecraft tells he has a gatekeeper or a key-master. If they cause a rift they are a key-master, if they stop a rift from happening they are a gatekeeper. It is these characters, human or not, that keep things normal. In this story we dont know for sure if what happened to Birch was supernatural or not, but what leaves that open for question is that the gatekeeper is gone. It’s once this horse leaves that the crazy happens, and if you’ll notice…all of Lovecraft happens in the shadows when you’ve turned to look at something in the light.
“It’s a beautiful place,” I said, looking out over the bow of the ship at the Amazonian jungle as it passed us by. I wasn’t lying. Such an untouched place brought a warmth to my heart, more so than any city ever could.
“It’s a dangerous place, Kay,” My boyfriend David said, “full of deadly creatures, deadly flora, and superstitious and territorial natives.”
“Which is why you brought me along,” Mark said, cocking his rifle and kicking a box of C4 housed under the windows of the boat. “Now hold on, while I dock this thing.”
We were headed to a sacred pool down in the Amazon jungle, following a lead to the find of the century. The missing link. For years my research kept hearing rumors of a fish man in the depths of the jungle, but it wasn’t until Mark and I found the skeletal hand with webbing on a tributary of the Amazon that brought some credence to those rumors.
“Did anyone else find it strange that those natives told us exactly where to look?” Edwin asked. He was our Anthropologist.
“Enough Edwin! We gave them more supplies than they could use in a year! Of course they were going to tell us where to go!” Mark said.
“I’m just saying. Native Amazonian’s historically aren’t too happy to work so well with others,” Edwin concluded.
“The natives are the last thing we have to worry about, Edwin. Let’s get camp set up, it’s starting to get dark. We don’t want to be caught outside with these deadly mosquitoes!” David laughed.
It didn’t take long to build camp, but David was right. The Mosquitoes were horrible. It was so nice to get inside the tent and block out the bugs.
“You hear that Kay? Sounds like laughter,” David said after we had settled down to sleep.
“David, get away from the side,” I cried.
“But I really think I heard laughter. It was strange, kind of gurgling. I’m gonna to take a look,” He said and left the tent. I sat there with my sleeping bag pulled tight under my chin, I mean I know that’s a stupid childish protective safety thing, but I really couldn’t help myself.
I was right to be worried, because after a few minutes I heard him scream.
“David!” I cried and unzipped my tent. I saw a shadow of someone walking by and my skin went cold. There was a strange earthy, wet smell in the air. It was like ozone blended with moss.
“What’s going on?” Mark called. I let out a little yip, embarrassed at my reaction, because he must’ve been the figure I saw.
“David heard laughter and went out to check it out. I heard him scream,” I said.
“Stay with me,” Mark said. He lifted his rifle. “We’ll move to the edge of the water. That way we can’t get surrounded by anything in the woods.”
“What’s going on guys?” Edwin ran up to join us.
“Stay close,” Mark responded. I couldn’t open my mouth. David had better be kidding, but you’d better believe I was going to kill him whether he was or not.
“Woah!” Edwin cried. “Look at this!”
He was bent over something stuck in the muck at the forest edge. Stuck in the ground was an old wooden pendant, petrified by time. It portrayed some strange bipedal fish creature. I turned it in the moonlight when something out of the corner of my eye made me look up.
Mark was standing on the edge of the water line looking past us into the jungle. The something that caught my eye was walking out of the water towards him. The water was black reflecting moonlight making the water look like oil. I thought the figure was David at first, but it was just my mind wishing for something that wasn’t true. The figure opened its arms. It had a huge arm span and its hands were webbed, its skin was scaly, and its neck had gills.
“Look out!” I cried. I was too late. The creature’s arms wrapped around Mark and its nails dug into him. He screamed as the creature bit into his neck from behind. I could see blood as black as the oily Amazon roll down Mark’s body as the creature ripped a piece of his neck free. He collapsed into the water.
“Run!” I cried.
We ran back to the metal safety of the ship. My heart was pounding and I was having trouble getting breath. Did I really just see that? I had to have imagined it, right? But, God the metallic stink of blood surrounded me, I couldn’t focus, I just wanted to be with David. I wanted him to hold me.
When Edwin and I approached the ship, I saw David on the other side of some bushes. My heart soared!
“David!” I cried. “David, get on the ship!”
We turned the corner and my knees gave out beneath me. It wasn’t David. Or rather, it was only part of him. His head was stuck down on a pole that was thrust into the ground. His eyes bugged out of his head, and his tongue lolled. Bugs crawled in and out of his grotesque mouth. I saw a mosquito feeding on one of his bulging eye balls.
I think I cried out. I think I sobbed, but the next thing I knew, Edwin and I were inside the metal boat. Edwin must have put a mop across the handle of the door, blocking us in. Didn’t he see David outside? How did he think a mere mop would stop that thing? Especially with exposed windows?
“Let’s get out of here. We got what we came for,” Edwin said, he was sobbing. Tears and snot running down his face.
“What? What do you mean we got what we came for?” I cried. We didn’t got anything but death!
Edwin held up the idol he found on the beach.
“Get rid of that fucking thing!” I yelled.
“No!” Edwin wailed. “It’s what we were paid for!”
The mop handle cracked as the creature slammed on the other side of the door.
“It’s coming for the idol! Get rid of it!”
Edwin took a few steps back, nearing one of the many windows in the cabin.
“No! Let’s just get the boat moving… ” Edwin said.
The creature’s hands broke through the window and grasped Edwin’s head. Its claws dug into his cheeks and he was momentarily lifted before his skin gave way and the claws tore up and back, ripping skin from his face, piercing his eyes and spraying blood across the room.
I grabbed the idol from Edwin’s dead hands and threw it out the window. I grabbed the broken mop handle in a futile attempt to defend myself.
Then the creature stepped into the room. It smelled of earth and blood and swamp water. It looked like a piranha, if a piranha was six foot tall. Its teeth were razor sharp and its claws were long and dripping with blood. Its green skin shone in the moonlight and it cocked its head to the side like a dog when it saw me.
“I’m leaving. You can go now. I…I won’t cause you any problems,” I called. I took a step back and my foot hit a box. I glanced down. It was the explosives. I knelt down and grabbed a packet of explosives and the detonator. The creature didn’t like that.
It screeched and opened its arms wide. Blood dripped from its hands and its mouth.
My heart was pounding so hard I thought it was going to leap from my chest. The creature took a step toward me and I threw the explosives at it. Its reflexes were incredible. It caught the C4 in the air and immediately turned to look at it.
“Fuck you,” I said, and depressed the button a split second before diving behind a table.
The echo of the explosion resonated in my ears, but somehow I got up and got to the wheel. I thrust the throttle all the way to the maximum. Fuck this place. I was getting out of here.
I managed a glance at the body of the thing. Its arm was completely gone. Disintegrated. Its head was half gone, the rest a toasted black. I had to get the thing off the boat. There was no way I was going to keep going with its corpse there, but I couldn’t think of that right now. I was shaking too bad, I just had to focus on getting out of the jungle.
I heard distant chanting. It got louder and louder and I felt bile rise in my throat. I peered out the window and I saw Amazonians at the shore line. They were dancing and shaking something in the air. The chant was a dissonant sound that made my skin crawl. I squinted at what they held. It was the same as we saw on the beach. The fish idol.
I went back to the wheel when I heard clicking behind me. Nails on metal.
“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?
“Cautiously advancing, we gave vent to a simultaneous ejaculation of wonderment, for of all the unnatural monsters either of us had in our lifetimes beheld, this was in surpassing degree the strangest.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week, we’ll be diving into some of Lovecraft’s “juvenilia,” as it’s called. This is one of the last stories he wrote as a young man (The Alchemist being the last), before taking a break from writing these types of fictions. He returned to fiction years later and wrote the rest of his better known bibliography
This is a good story with echoes of future works tucked inside of it. Now, where there isn’t much in terms of cosmic horror or a Mythos connection, there is a slight thread (though far fetched) that we’ll be examining in a bit.
The story is a simple one and very straight forward. Lovecraft doesn’t leave much to the imagination, but he does create a great little horror story. The story begins with our narrator taking a tour through some strange caverns. He gets separated from his group and ends up fighting (really just throwing rocks at) some kind of creature that rose up from the depths of the cavern system.
He thinks he kills the creature with the rocks and tries to inspect it. He finds that it’s a white haired ape like creature, but it’s too hard to see because his torch extinguished in the time he wandered, lost. When the tour guide eventually finds him, flashlight en tow, they see that the creature was actually a man, assumed to be down here so long that he has mutated (I wonder if Gollum comes from this story).
It’s fun and short, and what you’d expect from a young man’s fiction. But what if this were the seed for so much more?
So the obvious connection is The Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family, because that is a story of a man intermarrying a Portuguese woman, who eventually turned out to be a Congan Ape Goddess. Arthur Jermyn and his family all had apish aspect because they were offspring of the Ape Goddess. Maybe the beast in the cave was actually a Jermyn?
But then we can go deeper. There are a few mentions of the people of Congo praying to this Ape Goddess “Under the Congan moon”, and inference that potentially the moon could have been where the Ape creatures came from (see What the Moon Brings and The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath). Could this be the mythos connection? Could these creatures have been somehow been connected with the moon-beasts?
Even in stories such as The Doom that Came to Sarnath have this moon connection, where it seems as though something has come down from the moon and taken over, or corrupted life on our planet. This could be the cosmic connection we’re looking for, because the vast majority of Lovecraft’s mythos come from the stars.
Of course, this is a tenuous connection to say the least, but I like to think that Lovecraft’s beginnings could have had this kind of influence, at least subconsciously, over his later work. His vague mythos (which from what I understand, he didn’t want to have much connectivity), may have actually been more connected than we really thought of previously.
What do you think?
“But at this time it was all horribly real, and nothing can ever efface the memory of those nighted crypts, those titan arcades, and those half-formed shapes of hell that strode gigantically in silence holding half-eaten things whose still surviving portions screamed for mercy or laughed with madness.”
Wow, what a wild ride this story was. This was probably the scariest and most classic horror of any H.P. Lovecraft that I’ve read up to date.
As the story begins we are introduced to detective Thomas F. Malone who is on extended medical leave for trauma. The first portion of the story describes how he’s living and dealing with this trauma, of which we are still ignorant.
The second portion of the story covers Red Hook. We get a call back to HE, as there is a similar tenement structure our narrator experienced there. This story also takes place in New York, which is absolutely unique for Lovecraft. It does not hold the same atmosphere as much of his work, but from the start of this story the tone has a much darker and sinister feel. The basis in New York gives Lovecraft the ability to explore different themes than the usual fantasy/cosmic horror that he frames in New England.
The third portion of the story is the introduction to Malone’s quarry, Robert Suydam. “Suydam was a lettered recluse of an ancient Dutch family,” and he purchased a space in the run down, twisting alleyways of Red Hook. After a strange trip to Europe, Suydam began to deteriorate. His personal hygiene took a hit, he lost friends, and “When he spoke it was to babble of unlimited powers almost within his grasp, and to repeat with knowing leers such mystical words or names as ‘Sephiroth’, ‘Ashmodai’ and Samael’.” And there it is. We have three demons from the Kabbalah and Christian religions. The text has gone beyond the normal Lovecraft, no longer in the world of the cosmic horror. We are no longer in the dreamlands (though there is a little bit of dream stuff to come), we have now crossed over into religious horror. To me this raised my hackles. I find this subject matter far more terrifying that anything I have yet come by within Lovecraft’s oeuvre.
The fourth section of the story delves into the police work. Trying to uncover just what strange dealings that Suydam has been up to. They raid his home, which is empty, and they come across blasphemous art work and things that Malone simply “did not like”. They also found an inscription:
O friend and companion of night, thou who rejoices in the baying of dogs and spilt blood, who wanderest in the midst of shades among the tombs, who longest for blood and bringest terror to mortals, Gorgo, Mormo, thousand-faced moon, look favourably on our sacrifices!
I had no idea what this meant. Though obviously a atmospheric quote, I believed it had deeper meaning. Lovecraft infuses lots of Greek mythology and heritage within his work. There is a certain amount of admiration he obviously felt for the culture and the artwork. He loves the idea of marble structures and busts and even includes some of that iconography in this story as well. So when I came across this quote, it was no surprise to me that it was about Hecate, the Greek Goddess of the underworld, ghosts, and magic. This story was not going to deal with cosmic horror, it was going to deal with something closer to home. It was about Hell.
The next short section of the story tells of a journey Suydam takes across the sea, where he dies. He instructs that his body be conveyed to the bearer of the note provided.
Then we move into the Horror. Malone goes to Red Hook and investigates, noticing a melee. He goes to allay the fight and finds strange sounds and smells while all the participants of the battle flee. Malone suspects something nefarious behind a large door, so he takes a stool and breaks the door open, “whence poured a howling tumult of ice-cold wind with all the stenches of the bottomless pit, and whence reached a sucking force not of earth or heaven, which, coiling sentiently about the paralysed detective, dragged him through the aperture and down unmeasured spaces filled with whispers and wails, and gusts of mocking laughter.“
Malone is sucked into Hell. He experiences some truly horrific scenes, perfect for any fan of this type of fiction, and much more evocative than anything I’ve experienced from Lovecraft. We see Suydam giving himself over to a demon, finally getting what he was after, and becoming one with hell.
The final section explains how the mysterious group brought Suydam’s body back to that experience and how Malone could hear that same refrain from some “hag” speaking to young children about Hecate. The knowledge of the fate of Suydam and that whatever devious magic caused it is still alive and well in Red Hook is what truly throws Malone over the edge.
When I think of Lovecraft I don’t generally think “disturbing”, but I have to say that this one was up there. That penultimate chapter covering Malone’s experiences in Hell were truly unsettling.
What do you think?
I’m going to start this one with a little rant. This is a blurb about this story from the back of the book: A crazed murderer blames his crime on beings from another dimension. Wild ravings from an insane man turn to prophecy when the Truth is revealed.
This is the problem with most writing. It isn’t the writing itself, but it’s marketing. The only thing about the above sentence that is true is the fact that the man (Joe Slater) is a murderer. Nothing else is true, and it begs the question if the person who wrote the blurb actually read the story. If they had, then it is a much greater crime to purposefully mislead the reader to try and get more sales, by outright fabricating the plot.
Slater never blames his crimes on beings of another dimension (in fact there are never beings, in plural, but ever only one being who “did him great wrong”). Then the author of the blurb deigns to use the buzz word “prophesy”. There is no prophesy. The ravings of the mad Joe Slater are heard by the narrator and the narrator has an interest in dreams, so to see what Joe is seeing, he hooks them both up with a skullcap to see what he is seeing. Which he does. That’s it.
Ok sorry. Now to the nitty gritty of the story.
This is one of Lovecraft’s earliest stories and supposedly has no correlation to the later works. I see quite a bit here that would lead to that however. Again we have these strange green northern lights. Again we have madness derived from exposure to a cosmic deity. Again we have the unreliable narrator. Again we have the remote local. And to top it all off we have Lovecraft’s trademark superiority complex (He names the madman’s neighbor Peter Slader, where the madman’s name is Joe Slater. He mentions many times that they are all backwoods yokels who have no knowledge and intimates that they inbreed. Only to verify that claim by naming the characters of the mountains with such close names as to subliminally castigate them).
Where this shows as an early work is that he actually shows his god. The narrator goes “Beyond the walls of sleep”, and into the cosmic realm that drove the simple Slater mad. the Narrator himself (though it is never discussed what he actually does, or how he acts) is offered a leave of absence, because he is “working too hard” after the experience he gained from Slater’s mind.
But perhaps the most provocative aspect of the story, is why the cosmic deity would come down and inhabit a backwards “white trash” (Yes. Lovecraft actually wrote the words “White Trash” in 1919) yokel, who doesn’t have any brains. Maybe because the idea was to make a transformation?
“His gross body could not undergo the needed adjustments between ethereal life and planet life.”
Meaning he was not intelligent enough to understand how to make the transition. But the narrator can ascend and we are left feeling slightly off kilter, as if this were not a choice, but now that the cosmic deity has found an appropriate zygote he will being his proliferation.