“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.