“At the same time, his thoughts took an amazing turn; he was less concerned with the glass and its properties, and more with an ambiguous, ill-defined concept of vast dimensions and spaces beyond the terrestrial scenes familiar to him; and he felt himself being drawn into some vortex of dream and speculation that profoundly disturbed him. It was as if he were falling into a bottomless pit.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we cover Derleth’s most promising, though incomplete, tale and take some time to analyze and speculate on the man’s intentions.
This weeks story is a strange one, but not in a Lovecraftian…or dare I say it, Derlethian way. It’s the longest story in the collection I have (The Watchers out of Time, Carroll & Graf 1991), but it’s also incomplete, and not even in a first draft kind of way. There are grammatical errors in it sure (of which I believe the publisher decided to keep in for purity reasons), but after about 30 pages the story just stops. It apparently was never finished and included in this collection posthumously.
This fact actually makes this a perfect transition because were going to finish up this series by deconstructing “The Lurker at the Threshold” which is one of Derelth’s novels (which he published under Lovecraft’s name), and this story feels more like a novella, or the beginning of a novel, than a short story. Derleth isn’t known for his atmosphere as Lovecraft was, but this novel gives you a great feel for the Dunwich environs in a way that not even Lovecraft established. He takes his time to give the reader a visual of what the country actually looks like. The reader can also tell that this was a story to make an effort to collect all the disparate strands of lineage and place and mythos and tie them all together. I truly get the feeling that this story was supposed to be his Magnum Opus…it’s really a shame he never got a chance to complete it.
Alright, enough waxing…lets get into the story!
The story begins as so many of Derleth’s stories have. Nick Walters is a man living in Surrey, England who received a letter, “couched in rather old-fashioned legal terminology” informing him that he is the recipient of an “Ancestral Property” in Massachusetts backwaters.
We also get a brief description of Walters physiognomy, he has a “wide mouth…curious lobeless ears, or the large pale blue slightly bulging eyes.” This is a dead giveaway that Walters is on the branch of the Marshes and the Whateleys, so when we find out later that the house he inherited is actually the old house of Cyrus Whateley, it’s no surprise.
We’re introduced to the place by Boyle, Walter’s lawyer, who speaks about “Whateley Country” which includes Dunwich. Make no mistake there’s nothing but ridicule and derision as he speaks about the place: “It’ll be like turning into the American past...”
That statement is the transition to a great chapter of Derleth describing place. This is something Lovecraft did so well, and something Derleth just hasn’t spent the time to do thus far in any of his stories. That makes me believe that his novels must be so much better than any of his shorter work, because he slows down and spends the time to bring the reader viscerally into the story.
As Walters drives into the region “many brier-bordered stone walls made their appearance, pressing upon the road; most of these were broken down in places, with field stones scattered along the foot of the walls. The road wound into hills past great old trees, bramble-covered fences, and barren fields and pastures in country that was only sparsely settled.”
I could go on and on with quotes of the section. There’s even a passage where Derleth points out what’s really happening. “He drove slowly.” It’s actually a double entendre because Derleth is talking about Walters driving, but he’s also talking about himself writing. His tales are generally breakneck speed compared to Lovecraft, and this chapter describing place and atmosphere is something so heartachingly absent from his other stories. This meta-fictional phrase feels as though he’s telling us and himself to slow down, so we can get a visual of what this place actually looks and feels like. The payoff is huge. It really does feel like “turning into the American past.”
There are even call backs to his previous stories like “The Horror from the Middle Span” with passages such as: “A quaint covered bridge crossed the river, a relic of that distant past to which the settlement itself obviously belonged.”
This is important because, as I mentioned earlier, it really feels as though Derleth is trying to bring his corner of Lovecraft (namely Dunwich and Innsmouth) together into a cohesive narrative. There are pages and pages with Walters at the library going over genealogy and history of the Whateleys and their cousins. We even get introduced to our favorite grumpy old shop keep, Tobias Whateley, who has shown up in multiple Derleth tales. Always warning foolish “cousins” away from their ancestral estates tended to by the “eddicated” Whateleys (we’ll talk about this more later).
When Walters finally gets to the house there are fun little Easter eggs like, ” Nothing more recent than Dickens stood among the leather-bound tomes, and many of them were in Latin and other languages.” There is even a telescope. But my favorite aspect, and one which you might remember from “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” is the infamous grandfather clock:
“…a curious, obviously hand-carved clock standing almost three feet tall, its face covered with strange designs – of serpentine coils and primitive creatures belonging clearly to some pre-human era, he thought, utterly alien.” which was “intended to tell more than time.“
Walters goes back to get supplies and speak to Tobias who mentioned Increase Brown, who apparently kept up the house, but because the story was never finished, and he isn’t really spoken of again.
We transition to night and get the most supernatural chapter right before the story ends. The night air is filled with strange sounds which seem to come from either “avian or batrachian throats.” but then he noticed that there was something more than that. Out up on a hill (it could it be Sentinel hill where witchcraft was once done?) “He heard voices, which were surely of men crying out…and on the crest of round hill behind Dunwich there was a glow in the now dark heavens, as of a bonfire burning there.”
He decides to ignore this strange fact and goes on studying. He finds a photograph, and within that photo is a carving in the wall with a glass eye which was “strangely clouded.” As he looked closer, “the clouding he had seen was the unmistakable outline of two human faces – the one, of an old man, bearded, looked directly out of the glass; the other, a lean hawklike face, with the skin drawn tight over its bones, looked out from behind the first, his face slightly tilted as if he were deferring to the older man…“
This is obviously supposed to indicate Cyrus and Aberath Whateley. But undeterred by the oddity he decides to research further and heads to the study, where a curious light is glowing. He opens the doors and “he was further surprised to see light flickering in the room as if he had left a lamp burning there...” but in fact “The source of the glow he had seen was the glass eye in the carved triangle above the fireplace.”
He climbs closer and finds some strange Eye of Sauron info…”The carving which framed it was fully as baffling. The eye appeared in what was almost its optical center. The outer frame was a triangular pediment. At first glance, the carving appeared to be classically conventional design. But now, in the light of the lamp Walters held, it bore a disquieting resemblance to a huge octopus-like being, yet unearthly to look upon; in the convex circle of glass lay a huge, central eye, opaque to sight now, but still cloudy with pale light that shifted oddly even now.“
Well hello Cthulhu. It’s like an eye to watch over the place, and to gather any souls necessary for it’s nefarious nature. As he looks into the eye he gets the feeling which is the opening quote of this essay, and the reason I call it the eye of Sauron. It seems to give him a strange compulsion on just the single look. The light goes out and he stands there like Ray from Ghostbusters II looking at Vigo, but eventually he breaks the connection and leaves the room.
He decides he’s going to go back to Springfield in the morning and do more research at the library, but he can’t get over the feeling that the house is somehow occupied with a presence… other than himself.
The final chapter has Walters going to the library and researching more about genealogy. There’s a fascinating section where he finds that a preacher named Hoag talked out against the Whateleys only to go missing, as well as a Reverend Hoadley who did the same thing with the same outcome, yet somehow both of those men had some kind of connection with the Whateleys. He mentions all the last names of the characters he’s used in connection to the area and even goes over Dr. Armitage’s dealings from the original Lovecraft tale “The Dunwich Horror.”
Then right before the end of the story he finds a letter addressed “For Him Who Will Come,”
“Read, that you may know, that you may prepare to wait for Those Who Watch, and fulfill that which is meant to be.”
He’s waiting for those who watch, namely the Ancient Ones. Cthulhu is sleeping and dreaming from his prison in R’lyeh, watching through the golden eye in that carving…and it obviously isn’t the only one. He entraps souls, hence the two previous Whateley’s trapped within the eye… which coincidentally glowed when there was some kind of ritual happening on Sentinel Hill…when the last time we saw that happen Lavinia was pregnant from some Outsider, and a Shoggoth rampaged over the town.
Obviously, since this was published posthumously and not even finished, this was supposed to be Derleth consolidating the pantheon of whom he considered the most important of the Ancient Ones and solidifying his presence in the mythos. Of all the tales, I’ve been the most interested in this one. It’s the most readable (even with it’s grammatical mistakes) and the closest to a Lovecraft tale in feel than anything else he’s written.
It is possible that this closeness is because this tale was meant to be a novel or at least a novella, so maybe his Lovecraftian novel will hold up to the same standards?
Lets find out next week as we begin “The Lurker at the Threshold!”
“He suddenly fixed widening eyes on my companion, his jaw dropped, his hands began to shake; for a moment or two he was frozen into that position; then he shrugged himself up and off the barstool, turned, and in a stumbling run burst out of the building into the street, a long, despairing cry shuddering back through the wintry air.”
Welcome back to another Blind read! This week we break down an entirely trite tale which merely rehashes older material while we conjecture the past’s future of the legacy of Lovecraft.
This story was an immense let down. There was incredible potential for developing something unique and elaborate out of the minute change Derleth layers into the story, but unfortunately he doesn’t do anything with it. We fall back into the same trite patterns which, quite frankly, Lovecraft was leaps and bounds beyond Derleth because of writing ability. Don’t really understand what I mean? Let’s break this down.
The story begins with a bit of promise, though I have to admit I was dreading it a bit when I began. Derleth has a penchant for using Deep Ones as his main antagonists, which is fine, but he doesn’t give them anything beyond what Lovecraft already created. Derleth’s stories of magic, occult, and the strange, were all far more interesting than his Innsmouth based stories.
To start, we are introduced to the focus of the story: “The facts relating to the fate of my friend, the late sculptor, Jeffrey Corey – if indeed “late” is the correct reference…”
Here we have another potentially “unreliable narrator” who is doing the campfire thing and telling us a story. What piqued my interest here was that Corey was a sculptor, that tied with the fact that the title has “clay” in it, made me excited for a possible twist. Derleth even begins taking us to a unique space, but then pulls it back and falls into his old safe trends.
The narrator immediately tells us that Corey’s “distant relatives” are the “reclusive Marshes who still lived in that Massachusetts seaport town (Innsmouth)” and in the next paragraph gives a description of Corey:
“He had very strong blue eyes, and his lantern-jawed face would have stood out in any assemblage of people, not alone for the piercing quality of his gaze, but as much for the rather strange, wattled appearance of the skin back from his jaws, under his ears and down his neck a little way below his ears.”
If you’ve read “The Shadow over Innsmouth” you know what this means. Obed Marsh was a sailor for the East India Company and he took a bride from a remote South Pacific Island. It turns out that the bride was either a Deep One, or a human offspring of a Deep One, so when they came back to Innsmouth, they created “The Order of Dagon” and it was believed they held services to their dark god just off the coast at a place called “Devils Reef.” They did nefarious things until the U.S. Government came and set off depth charges off Devil’s Reef and arrested the Marsh clan.
In Lovecraft this was a unique and creepy tale with some wonderful imagery. We also got a sub-context of paranoia because of the outcome of the story…we understand the government knows more about the goings on in Innsmouth and decides then to snuff it out. Kind of a Big Brother oversight conspiracy theory.
Derleth does his best in the next few pages to recount what happened in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but, rightly so, he doesn’t cover any of the contextualization of what was actually going on there because it doesn’t really pertain to his narrator. This is however where we get the only interesting twist, and incidentally we got the direction I was really hoping the story would go.
The depth charges “set off such turmoil in the depths that a subsequent storm washed ashore all manner of debris, of which a peculiar blue clay came in along the waters edge…”
Using that clay, Corey begins work on a new sculpture he entitles “Sea Goddess.”
Predictable things begin to happen. As he begins the sculpture he gives the “Sea Goddess” webbed toes. When asked why, he tells the narrator, “I don’t really know…The fact is I hadn’t planned to do it. It just happened.” Then when the narrator asks about the “disfiguring marks on the neck…” Corey just laughs it off and says “Perhaps a ‘Sea Goddess’ ought to have gills.” Yeah…Ok Corey.
The narrator tells us that after Corey went missing he found his notebooks which normally held notes about his art, but around this time they became more of a journal of his downfall.
Corey talks about his “Compulsion” to “baptize the Sea Goddess” and he begins to have strange dreams. They start innocuous enough, “A dream of swimming accompanied by shadowy men and women.” Then he has erotic dreams of “a woman, naked, slipped into my bed after I had gone to sleep, and remained there all night.” Scandalous!
There is even an entry which is frankly the most eye rolling thing I’ve read in Derleth. “The dream of swimming again. In the sea-depths. A sort of city far below. Ryeh or R’lyeh? Something named ‘Great Thooloo’?”
That passage gives me a visceral reaction. Now to be fair, if I had read this story first, it may have been gripping, but because I’ve gone through Lovecraft’s entire catalog, it just didn’t hold the same gravity as everything else. To top that off this is probably the first time anyone who’d ever read these stories got a phonetic interpretation of Cthulhu, so that potentially could have been very groundbreaking, but ultimately at this point I can tell you exactly what’s going to happen, line for line, with the rest of the story.
The rest of the story follows as you would expect. The narrator and Corey try to do some research into why Corey keeps having these dreams. They find out a bit more about his distant relatives, until they find the drunk at the bar… you know… the absolute best source for any strange knowledge. They wake him up from his drunken stupor and give him more liquor to get the most trustworthy story. They speak for a while discovering new things for the characters, but nothing new for any reader whom is familiar with the Innsmouth story, until eventually Corey’s scarf falls a bit and we get the opening quote for this essay.
Those “curious corrugations” on Corey’s neck begin to hurt, “it isn’t the pain one associates with stiffness or friction or a bruise. It’s as if the skin were about to break outward…” which happens about the same time as, gasp, The sculpture of the Sea Goddess goes missing! Then shortly there after so does Corey!
The narrator wonders about them, until he is out on a boat and sees a couple of fish creatures swimming together. One which was absolutely female and the other which…gasp… looked just like Corey!
The story comes off as droll and tired. There was really no uniqueness to the tale at all, as even in the last few Derleth stories, he re-uses the same themes and ideas without giving us much of anything new to go off of, or even the atmospheric writing which Lovecraft used.
In one final example of Derleth’s forced writing I give you this passage:
“There was some evidence to show that he had gone down to the Atlantic and walked in – whether with the intention of swimming or of taking his life could not be ascertained. The prints of his bare feet were discovered in what remained of that odd clay thrown up by the sea in February, but there were no returning prints.”
Derleth is full of these little phantasms. There is really no way anyone would be able to identify that “evidence” that Corey walked into the Ocean. This is just Derleth trying to give the reader the impact of what’s going on, but it’s lazy writing. I’ve mentioned it many times before, but this is specifically what I’m talking about. Instead of spending the time to get some really well thought out story lines, Derleth focused more on production. He apparently was famous for saying that he could write a “quality” story every week.
Don’t let me scare you away from him. These stories are fun and unique… if you haven’t read Lovecraft. Derleth is actually like a Lovecraft light. Lovecraft himself has unique and fairly difficult language, but once you’re able to break it all down and digest it, they are some of the most unique and terrifying stories written. Derleth’s language is far more accessible, and if I’d have to recommend a pathway, I’d say to read Derleth first. That will give you a sampling of what you can expect in Lovecraft without a worry about the language. Then when you get to Lovecraft, you can understand how wonderful and dense and unique those stories truly are.
We’re at the end of the short stories. We only have one last short story and one novel to dissect, and the next story is technically “unfinished.” Could that be Derleth’s swan song?
Let’s find out next week as we read “The Watchers Out Of Time!”
“In perhaps three quarters of a mile I came to a great wooden door, barred on the inside. I put down the lamp and lifted the bar. Opening the door, I found myself looking into a tangle of growth that effectively concealed the opening into the tunnel from anyone outside. I pushed through this tangle sufficiently to find myself looking down the hill toward the countryside below, where I could see the Miskatonic some distance away, and a stone bridge across it – but nowhere a dwelling of any kind, only the ruins of what had once been isolated farms.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we tie together some of Lovecraft’s classics while solidifying Derleth’s legacy in the mythos.
We start off our story much the same way as we did in “The Dark Brotherhood,” with a statement. We learn about a document which was found written by one Ambrose Bishop, which turns out the story is the said document:
“The Bishop Manuscript was found by authorities investigating the disappearance of Ambrose Bishop. It was enclosed in a bottle evidently thrown wide into the woods at the rear of the burning house. It is still being held in the office of the sheriff in Arkham, Massachusetts.”
This again is Derleth falling back into his comfortable role. We again know there’s going to be a house burned down. We again are introduced to a disappearance and a mystery. The last few tales have been nice because he’s made a drastic twist towards the end which give us as readers a new experience through his tired tropes. But he has let us down within the pages of this book. Lets find out what he does here, shall we?
The “manuscript” begins as Ambrose approaches his ancestor, Septimus Bishop’s, house. He finds a run down old house, but decides he needs to go into town to get provisions before digging into the old place, so he heads to the general store. There, he speaks to the proprietor Tobias Whateley. They make niceties for a little while until Tobias realizes Ambrose is a Bishop:
“At the mention of the name, Whateley went a shade paler than his normal pallor. Then he made a move to sweep the articles I had brought back from the counter.“
This seems to be an odd thing for a Whateley to do to anyone, knowing what we know about their corrupted family, but, he refuses service to Ambrose. Spurned on by derision Ambrose decides to head to Arkham, to find the local newspaper, The Arkham Advertiser, and try to understand why he was treated in such an abrupt fashion. What did Septimus do?
“Nothing has been heard of Septimus Bishop, who apparently vanished from his home in the country above Dunwich ten days ago. Mr. Bishop was a recluse and a bachelor, to whom the folk of Dunwich were in the habit of ascribing many superstitious abilities, calling him at various times, a ‘healer’ and a ‘warlock.’ Mr. Bishop was a tall, spare man, aged about 57 at the time of his disappearance.“
He also sees an article which gives quite a bit of information regarding a broken down old bridge which leads over the Miskatonic river. It seems as though there was an effort to repair the…middle span…of the bridge years before, even though the bridge is no longer in use.
This is just one of the styles Derleth uses. It’s lazy writing to be sure, because he’s basically just sticking some sort of foreshadowing in the story to lead the reader along. He needed to read more Agatha Christie before he could perfect his red herring work, but it seems as though the only red herrings he’s willing to throw around are to trick the people looking for the Lovecraft connections (I.E. throwing in a Whateley as a good guy), which is incidentally what I’m doing here, so it’s an enjoyable offshoot of the project. I feel like I’m involved in a little mental Tet-a-Tet with Derleth.
Anyway the story progesses and Ambrose finds books about astronomy and astrology and finds a telescope and various other such books. As he keeps digging around he finds a trap door which leads downward into a sub-cellar.
“A brick floor had been erected in it – something very much like an altar, of stone, for one, and benches, also of stone. And on the floor there were those crude drawings similar to the cupola of the house…”
It’s remarkably like the cellar from “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” except for here, there’s a tunnel offshoot which seems to go for miles. Ambrose follows it all the way to the end which you can read in the beginning quote of this essay.
Ambrose heads back to the house deciding to try to dig into some of those letters. Here Derleth endeavors to bring together the mythos in a clunky, and ineffective way. He finds a letter with a title (who titles a letter?):
“In the name of Azathoth, by the sign of the Shining Trapezohedron, all things will be known to you when the Haunter of the Dark is summoned. There must be no light, but He who comes by darkness goes unseen and flees the light. All secrets of Heaven and Hell will be made known.”
The signature is blotched but he thinks it said “Asenath Bowen.”
Ok, a few things here in a sentence which on the surface seems to be loaded with Lovecraftian goodness. In Lovecraft, Azathoth is called the “Blind Idiot God” because he’s so old and so apathetic toward the universe that he’s just a immense immovable force. I imagine he causes madness because he’s so large and strange, that it boggles our puny human minds, kind of like when you sit down to contemplate how massive the universe actually is, it’s almost impossible to comprehend. Another example is trying to imagine what a trillion dollars would look like. It might drive you a little mad knowing it exists.
So Azathoth didn’t bring about the Trapezohedron, which is kind of like the Lament Configuration (or puzzle box) from Hellraiser, so connecting the two of them don’t really make sense. In the story “The Haunter of the Dark” a person needs to gaze upon the the Trapezohedron to gain knowledge of the world…knowledge beyond their own ken, not just the insignia of the talisman.
In addition to that, nothing is gained by summoning The Haunter. The Haunter, I believe, is just Mi-Go, one of the flying creatures from Yuggoth, where incidentally, the Shining Trapezohedron is supposedly created.
So to say that “all will be revealed” is either Derleth lazily adding horror elements, or the absolute worst “here drink the cool-aid” moments ever.
Then we finish off with two famous names in Lovecraft. The first is Asenath, who is a character from “The Thing on the Doorstep” where she uses mind control, telepathy, and astral projection to possess people. Bowen is the name of the archaeologist who discovered the Trapezohedron in “The Haunter in the Dark.”
This is, again, just Derleth throwing out fan service. This is the red herring we spoke of earlier that he’s so bad about creating, because as soon as he mentions Asenath, I believed there was going to be some sort of possession in the story…based upon the few previous paragraphs I think you can tell that there isn’t.
Derleth throws out a number of other names “Great Cthulhu” “Hastur the Un-speakable” “Shub-Niggurath” “Dho formula” even “Wilbur Whately” in the research. This is all Derleth trying to throw us off the trail of what’s really going on, but then he just tells us:
“The bridge was very old, and only the middle span stood, supported by two stone piers, one of them thickened with a large outcropping of concrete, upon which whoever had constructed it had etched a large five-pointed star in the center…”
We saw this a few different places but most recently in “Witches’ Hollow” where the star stones or “Elder Signs” were used to hold outsiders, to imprison them. It is no coincidence that the tunnel from the house exits right in front of the broken bridge with the Elder Sign on it.
But then, in a drastic and totally unforeseen event (wink, wink), there’s a terrible storm that destroys the bridge, and Ambrose finds bones that were hidden…or imprisoned underneath.
He takes the bones to turn into the authorities but when he goes to retrieve them after cleaning up…they’re gone! He has dreams which are realistic and potentially strangely prophetic:
“dreams in which I saw the bones I had brought reassemble themselves into a skeleton – and the skeleton clothe itself in flesh – and the whiplike bones grow into something not of this world that constantly changed shape…”
Ambrose wakes up and is startled to find a man in the house with him. A man “lean of face, saturnine in countenance….” with “a squamous thing with the face of a lovely woman.”
Hello Septimus and Asenath. Brought back to life because the Elder Sign barricading their tomb was destroyed.
Soon after, disappearances began to happen again in Dunwich, and the town got together to go after the risen warlocks. Septimus comes to Ambrose and takes him through the tunnels as the folks from Dunwich burn down the manor. There the manuscript ends, but we find right afterwards the middle span of the bridge was re-built, with an Elder Sign imprinted on it…
The ending of this essay might feel a bit rushed, but that’s how the story goes. We go through the whole thing, methodically describing every detail, until Septimus and Asenath are resurrected…then everything happens in a few paragraphs. It feels as though deadlines were rushing Derleth to get the story out, because it feels like such a lost opportunity to capitalize on. There’s so much wealth of character and history, but as we’ve seen in stories like “Witches’ Hollow” action isn’t one of Derleth’s strong suits, so it’s entirely possible he just didn’t know how to write the ending.
This isn’t one of Derleth’s best. The story is interesting, but it felt like he was bored with it and just wanted it to end. But for us, we’re running out of stories. With only two left where will Derleth take us?
Find out next week as we read “Innsmouth Clay.”
“‘That is good,’ he said. ‘Because if you will permit my brothers and me to call on you at your home on Angell Street, we may be able to convince you that there is life in space – not in the shape of men, but life, and life possessing a far greater intelligence than that of your most intelligent man.‘”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve into the strange world of The Dark Brotherhood, and where the concept intially seems trite, if you can hang out until the end we get a unique and fun divergence!
The story begins with a strange excerpt which could be part of a police report or part of a newspaper clipping, but Derleth doesn’t tell us which it is. What it does do is give us a sneak peek of what to expect in the coming story…”It is probable that the facts in regard to the mysterious destruction by fire of an abandoned house on a knoll along the shore of the Seekonk in a little habited district between the Washington and Red Bridges will never be known.”
Obviously we’re going to figure it out! There is mention of a Rose Dexter involved with a Arthur Phillips somehow in connection to this fire. Through my previous wanderings I’ve found that Arthur Phillips is a name Derleth uses instead of using Howard’s real name, so immediately I’m ready for two things. I think this story will be slightly meta, like “The Lamp of Alhazred” because Derleth is using the Phillips pseudonym and also that Rose (Rose Dexter? Like Charles Dexter Ward?) will again be the heroine much like Rhoda was in “The Shadow in the Attic.” If you remember from that story, Rhoda set fire to the house and rescued Adam. Let’s see how right I am!
Derleth begins with his best opening yet: “The nocturnal streets of any city along the Eastern Seaboard afford the nightwalker many a glimpse of the strange and terrible, the macabre and outré, for darkness draws from the crevices and crannies, the attic rooms and cellar hideaways of the city those human beings who, for obscure reasons lost in the past, choose to keep the day in their grey niches – the misshapen, the lonely, the sick, the very old, the haunted, and those lost souls who are forever seeking their identities under cover of night, which is beneficent for them as the cold light of day can never be.“
Little do we know that this is what the story is all about…hiding your identity in the shadows of night.
What the narrator is describing is the walks that both he and Rose would go on at night. What makes that night a particularly interesting walk is they came across a stranger:
“He was dressed almost uniformly in sombre black, save for his white shirt and flowing Windsor tie he affected. His clothing was unpressed, as if it had been worn for a long time without having been attended to, but it was not unclean, as far as I could see. His brow was high, almost dome-like; under it his dark eyes looked out hauntingly, and his face narrowed to his small blunt chin. His hair, too, was longer than most men of my generation wore it...”
The man gives his name as Mr. Allan and by his conversation, just a little off. He is terse and pithy. He is intelligent, but emotionally distant. That in and of itself isn’t that bad, but he keeps looking at Rose where the sense is “…his interest was other than amorous.” which is an important distinction to remember later. His interest this night is the cemetery which they show him and then take their leave. It is only when they’re walking away that Rose mentions what she saw as obvious…”‘He looks like Edgar Allan Poe.'”
Ignoring the fact that they’re in Providence and the cemetery they take the impostor to is supposedly Poe’s burial ground (he was interred in Baltimore), we take this as one more of Derleth’s little artistic allowances. It seems rather odd, but nothing beyond that.
The story continues for a while with Arthur meeting up with Mr. Allen night after night, while at the same time across town Rose seems to meet up with him as well. There’s speculation that there are sightings of even more of these men…all looking exactly like Edgar Allan Poe and all going by the name of Mr. Allan. Immediately I was brought back to the Jack Finney classic, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We know Derleth loves his cosmic connection, and we know in that story, pods came down from space and they created exact replicas of people, but with a hive mind instead of their own mind. That classic was published in 1955 so Derleth pulling from that inspiration makes total sense, especially as we move into the next portion of the story.
Arthur is curious and he eventually takes one of the Mr. Allan’s up on their offer (which is the quote to open this essay) and when the two men get to the house they are met with seven Mr. Allans:
“‘Our intention Mr. Phillips,’ explained their spokesman – whom I took to be the gentleman I had encountered on Benefit Street – ‘is to produce for you certain impressions of extra-terrestrial life. All that is necessary for you to do is relax and to be receptive.'”
Arthur agrees and they begin a chant which begins to change the reality around him. Suddenly he is viewing an “extra-terrestrial scene” with figures which are, “enormous, iridescent, rugose cones, rising from a base almost ten feet wide to a height of over ten feet...” Ah. I should have guessed. The Great Race of Yith.
We’ve seen them in so many of Derleth’s stories that it shouldn’t surprise me here, but it does. Quite frankly at this point in the story I was pretty disappointed because I was hoping for a new and unique perspective. This feels like Derleth is falling back into his old tricks. This is one of the longer stories thus far from Derleth, and to get this far in and find out that we’re going back over old material, especially with the unique, although rather droll tale he’d been telling thus far, made me put the book down for a while. Was this just going to be another retelling of whom the Yith are? Why layer on Poe?
Despite my disappointment I had to find out, so I picked it back up.
Arthur can’t let what he saw go. It freaked him out and he left, but there was just something a little off about the scene he witnessed, so he decided the next night he would go back and get to the bottom of things. He goes back into the house, careful to be quiet and sneaks upstairs. There he finds some strange “glass encased slab” which he approaches and finds a clone of Poe inside. But that’s not the strange part…there is something else in the case.
“But when at last I looked upon that which lay upon the likeness of Poe, I almost cried out in fearful surprise, for it was, in miniature, a precise reproduction of one of the rugose cones I had seen only last night in the hallucination induced in my home on Angell Street! And the sinuous movement of the tentacles on it’s head – or what I took to be its head – was indisputable evidence that it was alive!”
So between this smaller being in the tube with Poe and the fact that we know these creature speak telepathically, I believe Derleth is actually (again!) changing what we know of as the Cthulhu Mythos and expanding it out into the broader world. What do I mean? This smaller being, with obvious nefarious intentions, sounds to me exactly like an Illithid of Dungeons & Dragons fame. Those creatures first came to light in the role playing modules in the mid to late seventies, which was about ten years after the publication of this story, so Derleth seems to be moving beyond the impassive elder deities and creating these off shoot races which are so much more popular in modern culture. The new description of the smaller body and what it does for the rest of the story matches pretty perfectly with this concept, as well as the idea of the impostors next door we experience in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Arthur flees the scene and finds out that Rose was invited into the house as well. He pleads with her not to go, but she eventually does and Arthur chases after her. He gets there just in time to see something terrible in the glass cases:
“For in the one that lit the room with its violently pulsating and agitated violet radiation lay Rose Dexter, fully clothed, and certainly under hypnosis – and on top of her lay, greatly elongated and with tentacles flailing madly, the rugose cone-like figure I had last seen shrunken on the likeness of Poe. And in the connected case adjacent to it – I can hardly bear to set it down even now – lay, identical in every detail, a perfect duplicate of Rose!”
They are body snatchers! Arthur freaks out and burns the house down, like we saw in that opening report. He grabs Rose and runs to safety…but then in the next few days he begins to worry. Did he save the right Rose? Did he get the pod Rose or the real Rose?
We are left with a News Story to end the tale:
“LOCAL GIRL SLAYS ATTACKER
Rose Dexter…last night fought off and killed a young man she charged with attacking her…Her attacker was identified as an acquaintance, Arthur Phillips...”
And there our story ends.
This was probably the most Lovecraftian ending of any of the Derleth stories and the most like Invasion of the Body Snatchers because the bad guys won. There wasn’t the happier ending that Derleth has been so known for, but rather a unease which permeates the history of the tale.
It also turns out I was wrong on both levels. This story was strictly a male led story unlike “The Shadow in the Attic” and it wasn’t meta at all, but instead much more a product of it’s era and a story to inform the future generations.
Is that what Derleth’s legacy will be? Let’s find out more next week as we gaze on “The Horror From the Middle Span!”
“I never forgot the shadowed house where he lived alone and had someone in – by night – to keep his house for him – the high ceilinged rooms, the attic which no one entered by day and into which no one was permitted, ever, to go with a lamp or light of any kind, the small-paned windows that looked out upon the bushes and trees, the fan-lit doors; it was the kind of house that could not fail to lay its dark magic upon an impressionable young mind, and it did upon mine, filling me with brooding fancies and, sometimes, terrifying dreams, from which I started awake and fled to my mother’s side, and one memorable night lost my way and came upon my great-uncle’s housekeeper, with her strange emotionless, expressionless face – she stared at me and I at her, as across unfathomable gulfs of space, before I turned and sped away, spurred by new fear imposed upon those engendered in dreams.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read with the longest run on sentence quote yet! This week we discover a homage to Derleth’s contemporaries, and a surprising and welcoming new theme as we digest the least Lovecraftian, but probably the creepiest of Derleth’s stories.
The story starts off like so many other’s of Derleth’s, that immediately we’re set up with fatigue. Once again we have a distant uncle who has died and has asked his nephew to come and take care of the estate (the description of the estate is the opening quote of this essay). The first half of the story follows this tried and true arc, but things come off the rails and we get some new trends permeating the text.
It begins in part one of the story, when our narrator moves into the house which has always had a night time maid, but “My great-uncle’s housekeeper had evidently been instructed to continue her duties at least until my occupancy.” The house is Uber clean when our narrator shows up.
Our narrator questions this and goes to the estate lawyer: “If he made arrangements to have it kept clean, there must have been another key.”
All in all the fact that the house is clean is not a big deal, the narrator even suspects that Uriah didn’t tell the housekeeper to stop cleaning so she just kept at it until told otherwise. Setting up an important trend. Adam (the narrator) doesn’t think the woman is smart enough to stop cleaning on her own. Derleth spends so much time on this fact, that we know from the beginning that the housekeeper is going to be a lynchpin to the story.
We also get a divergence from the normal “Shuttered room” trope. The narrator remembers when he was little, his family made a visit to the odd house. He remembers seeing the strange housekeeper which is also in the awesome run on sentence quote at the beginning of this essay, but more importantly he remembers that attic room being off limits to everyone, but now, “There were no other conditions whatsoever, not even a ban on the attic room I had expected to see set down.”
Subverting the theme is one of the biggest reasons why this story works so well. So much in both Lovecraft and Derleth we get the same stories (much, much more so in Derleth) over and over again, so that when we begin the tale, we know pretty much how it’s going to end. These little twists bring about a sorely needed freshness from those other droll tales.
So no ban and it seems like the housekeeper keeps coming to the house. These are the two most important aspects of this story. We’ll see why in a minute.
The story progresses on with the narrator exploring the house and exploring the surrounding town. He tries to get information about why the housekeeper is still coming, or even who she is, but is only met with more questions. No one seems to know who the maid really is. There’s speculation, but there is no name, no description, or even an explanation as to why she comes so late at night.
Then we’re introduced to Rhoda, the narrator’s fiancée. She walks into the house, intending to only stay for the night, but is immediately off put; “‘The whole house disturbs me Adam,’ she said with unaccustomed gravity. ‘Don’t you feel anything wrong?'”
He shrugs it off, thinking that it feels off because his great-uncle had died there and there had been rumors of witchcraft in the past, but he doesn’t feel as though anything were truly wrong. He feels that obviously Rhoda is being sensitive. They have a night together and Rhoda tries to persuade him to leave, but they eventually get ready to go to sleep for the night, and because it’s the fifties and they aren’t married, they head to separate rooms. This is when the story takes a very strange and freaky turn.
“It was sometime after midnight when I was awakened.”
There’s someone in the bed with Adam. He reaches over to feel around in the bed and touches a breast. My first reaction was humor because he seems off put by this and based upon Derleth’s past stories, I anticipated this being Rhoda, possessed, getting into bed with him… but Derleth surprises.
“…the breast I had touched was not Rhoda’s; her breasts were firm, beautifully rounded – and the breast of the woman who lay next to me on my bed was flaccid, large nippled, and old.”
It’s the housekeeper lying naked in the bed next to him. Immediately images of Stanly Kubrick’s version of The Shining flash through my brain and suddenly for the first time in my readings of Derleth, I’m surprised. He’s finally gotten beyond what’s expected, beyond the safe tropes, and into something truly disturbing. And this is just the beginning.
What I expect to be the housekeeper flees the room without confrontation and once Adam gets his wits about him he follows to see just what was going on. When he gets to the hallway “…I heard, drifting down as if from somewhere outside, high up over the house, the wailing and screaming of a woman’s voice, the voice of a woman being punished…”
Could this be Uriah punishing his housekeeper for showing affection, or even desire for Adam? But isn’t Uriah dead?
The next morning Adam and Rhoda meet up for breakfast and it turns out Rhoda saw the housekeeper as well. “‘She seemed to be a young woman – but I had a strange feeling that she wasn’t young at all. Her face was expressionless – fixed. Only her eyes seemed to be alive.'”
Rhoda tries to convince Adam that he should leave with her, but to gain his inheritance all he has to do is stay there for three months. Surly it couldn’t be that bad…could it?
Adam becomes enamored with the idea that the housekeeper stays in the house, so he goes to the only room she could possibly be in…the aforementioned Attic.
When he gets there, the unease in the story increases tenfold… “A single chair stood in the middle of that gabled room, and on it lay a few prosaic objects and one which could not be so described – some woman’s clothing – and a rubber mask – one of that kind which moulds to the features of the wearer.”
This explains why the housekeeper is “expressionless” she’s actually wearing a mask. I was brought back to my formative years when I remember sitting on my parent’s couch with my hands over my face, fingers cracked just enough to see through them, while we watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The author of the book Psycho is based on is Robert Bloch, who was a contemporary of both Lovecraft and Derleth. Obviously Derleth is pulling references from Bloch’s seminal work, but could this be a case of Norman Bates? Is Uriah actually alive, just under the false guise of the housekeeper. Hold tight…it get’s weirder.
Remember the event in the bed from the previous night? It’s the housekeeper, whether Uriah has taken over her mind or not. But where is she? Why are the clothes sitting on a single chair in the attic room? As Adam looks around he finds more:
“I picked up the lamp and held it high. It was then that I saw the shadow, which lay beyond my own, against the wall and sloping ceiling – a monstrous, misshapen, blackened area, as if some vast flame had flared forth and burnt its image into the wood there…it bore a resemblance to a distorted human figure.“
That passage sound remarkably like a radiation shadow, which is a brilliant theme to instill in late sixties fiction, during a growing fear of a nuclear arms race.
Adam turns around and finds on the opposite wall, “an opening no larger than that for a mouse…painted in garish red chalk or oil…(in) a sequence of curious angular lines, which seemed to me completely unlike any geometrical designs with which I was familiar and which were arranged in such a fashion as to make the mousehole seem their precise center.”
Witchcraft. We know from stories such as “Dreams in the Witch House” and “The Music of Erich Zann” that these strange angles are created to make the veil between the worlds of the living and dead…or our dimension and other dimensions…thinner, and more likely able to traverse. With this strange hole in the attic, directly across from the radiation shadow on the opposite wall, we can only assume that some kind of power came through and blasted whomever that was out of this existence.
The story speeds up as Adam researches and tries to figure out what that could possibly be. He finds it in forbidden books Uriah had kept, “I…found myself led from book to book from a discussion of the ‘essence’ or ‘soul’ or ‘lifeforce,’ as it was variously called, through chapters on transmigration and possession, to a dissertation on taking over a new body by driving out the life force within and substituting one’s own essence…“
Ah, we are moving back through the tropes created by Lovecraft which Derleth likes so much! Whether it’s the Yith taking over someone’s body, or it’s Joseph Curwen imposing himself on Charles Dexter Ward, the possession theme stands strong…and it turns out that Adam’s fiancée has a feeling something is wrong. She calls him and again begs him to leave, but now there is a strange reticence to him. He even laughs at her and says “‘I’ve always said women are irrational creatures.'”
That night after getting off the phone, the turning point happens.
“There in the well of glowing darkness behind and a little above me hung the spectral likeness of Great-uncle Uriah Garrison – something as ephemeral as air…”
Adam seems stuck there until the spirit dissipates. He then goes to the study where he sees the Housekeeper cleaning. She turns “and I looked into pools of glowing fire, eyes that were hardly eyes at all but so much more.” He stands there for another moment, lost, until he goes back to the attic and finds that the strange geometric hole in the wall was glowing with blue light, “And the painted lines all around the hole glowed as with a light all their own.”
Soon after Rhoda comes back and knocks on the door, determined to save him and he tells her, “Go away, leave us alone.”
Us? It seems as though the transition has already begun and he is joined in his body with Uriah and the housekeeper. He shuts the door on his fiancée, but she is not to be outdone. Later that night she lights the house on fire, finds a ladder and sets it at the window to Adam’s room and saves him.
There’s a weird dichotomy throughout the story. The word succubus is used a few times throughout, but at the same time Adam is not the hero of the story. There is no hero… in fact there’s a heroine. It’s pretty unheard of in this type of genre fiction at this time (the boys club of cosmic horror) for there to be a female protagonist, but throughout the entire story Rhoda is the one who’s right, Rhoda keeps trying to save Adam who cant save himself, and then at the end, ACTUALLY saves him. So what does that have to do with the Succubus?
The main antagonist in the story is actually the Housekeeper (The Succubus). The strange woman who pulled Uriah’s life force out of him. That’s what keeps her going. We know that’s what happens because we see his spirit, but it was the evil gaze of the housekeeper that pulled Adam away from his own life. He was acting like his normal self until that instance happened. You remember the red herring of the “wails of the woman being punished?” That was probably the housekeeper tormenting Uriah.
The last paragraph begins as such, “Women are fundamentally not rational creatures.” (Yes, he says this again) When I read that line I thought, damn, he’s one sexist dude. Then I thought about it. The main antagonist is a woman. The main heroine is a woman. The man who thinks this sexist thought (Adam), though said through a first person narrative, is taking us back to our first trope we came across in Lovecraft. The unreliable narrator.
Whether Derleth wrote it this way to be subversive, or if he wrote it this way to hide his intentions, this story is about woman empowerment. This is a story where women have power and men have none.
I’m impressed by Derleth for the first time. Now I’m excited to see where he takes us next.
Join me next week as we discover, “The Dark Brotherhood.”
“As a result, I became aware of a vaguely disquieting fact; from time to time, Andrew Potter responded to some stimulus beyond the apprehension of my senses, reacting precisely as if someone had called to him, sitting up, growing alert, and wearing the air of someone listening to sounds beyond my own hearing, in same attitude assumed by animals hearing sounds beyond the pitch levels of the human ear.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve into the back woods to the town of Witches’ Hollow and fully uncover an interesting cultural diaspora which seems to fuel both Lovecraft’s imagination as well as Derleth’s. This was also (so far at least!) Derleth’s most unique telling while at the same time adding to Lovecraft’s mythos. We’ll discuss this more later, but I have to say that this was the most enjoyable tale from Derleth, despite it’s faults.
The story starts with a unique twist: “District School Number Seven Stood on the very edge of that wild country which lies west of Arkham.” Believe it or not, in this story we’re following a grade school teacher. We find that “The school district has now been consolidated,” which changed the student body and his “charges added up to twenty-seven.” We even hear some familiar names; “There were Allens and Whateleys and Perkinses, Dunlocks and Abbots and Talbots – and there was Andrew Potter.“
The narrator tells us Andrew Potter “was a large boy for his age, very dark of mien, with haunting eyes and a shock of tousled black hair.” and that “he was in the fifth grade, and it did not take long…to discover that he could easily advance into the seventh of eighth...” right before we get the quote which opens this essay.
Our narrator decides that he needs to go speak to Andrew’s parents and see if he can possibly get them to allow the child to move up in grades because when he speaks to the boy, Andrew tells him “‘What I’m interested in doesn’t matter. It’s what my folks want that counts.”
On the surface level this makes sense and it also brings me to the thematic point I mentioned earlier. Much of Lovecraft and Derleth seem to take place in rural or back woods regions, and because of the poverty level in these areas, there’s quite often an adherence to family and familial ideals over your own best interest. I’ve seen this in real life in the central valley of California, where farming families prefer their children to work with them in the fields picking instead of going to school. If someone from the school gets involved they generally shun that person, because the poverty is so intense that the need for immediate money (picking that day instead of going to school) is more important than some vague promise of a better life in the future… if you don’t work now and spend your time wasting away in a class that doesn’t pertain to your life…then your wasting potential. So this choice both builds the characters and because it’s a horror story, this theme becomes low hanging fruit because all the sudden you can have a family who has nefarious inclinations hiding among the poor.
This also fits in with the theme of the familial bond which occurs so much in Lovecraft’s style of fiction. There are so many stories (The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Ancestor, Arthur Jermyn, The Dunwich Horror, et. all) where an ancestor of the folk in the story got into dark magic and caused a ripple that would effect all generations within his lineage. In this story, we have old Wizard Potter (yes really. I don’t think there’s a connection with the notorious Harry, though some of the darker elements of Rowling’s work may have in a slight way been informed by Lovecraft or Derleth, but ultimately this has to be a coincidence) who is considered “a bad lot.” Derleth ties him to evil magic by saying that he was a cousin to Wizard Whateley (who apparently had quite a big family because he’s now connections in multiple Derleth stories with different cousins) of Dunwich, and the two of them “called something down from the sky, and it lived with him until he died.” Except we know now that whatever he called down, lived beyond old Wizard Potter.
When our industrious teacher goes to confront the Potters he finds that they deny him immediately by telling him that young Andrew will be stopping school as soon as the law allows. Then, while they’re standing there being awkward, something strange happens.
“The moment the father stopped talking, there was a singular harmony of attitude – all four of them seemed to be listening to some inner voice...”
This calls back to an earlier Lovecraft story “The Thing on the Doorstep.” In that tale Asenath, the primary antagonist, was able to project herself into other’s bodies, imposing her mind and suppressing theirs. We also have the idea of the Yith from stories such as “The Shadow out of Space” and “The Shadow out of Time” where they would do the same, take over the body of a host. The Potter family seems to have some kind of telepathic bond where they are either listening to each other, or listening to some higher being which is giving them directions. It goes beyond their own kin as well, however, as we find when our narrator speaks to one of his students about them.
“‘You shouldn’t a told Andrew Potter we talked about him,’ he said with a kind of unhappy resignation.
‘I didn’t, Wilbur.’
‘I know I didn’t. So you must have,’ he said. And then, ‘Six of our cows got killed last night, and the shed where they were was crushed down on ’em.’“
The Potter’s have Telepathy and bore into people’s minds. Derleth is striving to make the connection that these Ancient Ones have plans on Earth, but there is some force keeping them out, so they need to use these strange tools and spells and books to help seem into susceptible human brains. The teacher narrator suspects something more than natural (maybe not wholly supernatural) is going on and decides to head to local Miskatonic University to do some research. There he comes across one of these forbidden texts… The Necronomicon. While he’s reading it a Professor of the University notices him and tells him that he knows about the Potters and he knows what to do with them.
This Professor Keane shows the narrator, “...objects of stone, roughly in the shape of five-pointed stars. He put five of them in my hand.”
Then he tells the narrator the crux of the story and all the events run downhill at breakneck pace towards the climax:
“You must keep one of these at least on your person at all times, and you must keep all thought of the stone and what you are about to do out of your mind. These beings have a telepathic sense – an ability to read your thoughts.” and after discussing them for a moment Keane tells our narrator, “These stones are among the thousands bearing the Sea of R’lyeh which closed the prisons of the Ancient Ones. They are the seals of the Elder Gods.”
Ok so beyond the fact that he directly contradicts Lovecraft here (R’lyeh is the city where Cthulhu sleeps, not a sea) he is single handedly building the legacy of what would hold Lovecraft’s mythos forever entombed in popular culture. He is creating the basis for the gaming community.
If you’ve ever played the board game “Manisions of Madness” or one of the bevy of video games, or even the role playing game “The Call of Cthulhu” you’ve seen all of these elements. The librarian, or professor, who surreptitiously knows more than they should and helps the investigator. The Elder Signs which the narrator uses to hold the Ancient Ones in place, the action packed rollercoaster ending after a slow burn build to find the truth. These are what made Lovecraft truly popular in the last four decades and what continues to build his legacy. Derleth lays the basis for all that gaming culture right here in this story published in 1962.
It also deepens what he would come to call “The Cthulhu Mythos.” These Elder Signs were extremely sparingly used in Lovecraft (I think only twice mentioned) and in Lovecraft their usage wasn’t specifically spelled out as they are here. This is probably the best thing Derleth has done to the legacy of Lovecraft (because in the preceding stories there hasn’t been much), because we have quite a bit of evidence of what these powerful deities are, but before this, there have been no tools in which to battle them. By telling us that these Elder Signs were what was used to imprison them, we now have an inkling that there can be a chance to beat them.
The rest of the story unfolds as you would expect. The narrator builds a wall in his mind, striving to keep it blank so the Potter’s wont know what he’s planning, then tracks them all down and places the stones on them one by one, shunning the outsider whom was “called down from the sky.“
The story, unlike any by Lovecraft, ends with a super happy ending, where the Potter family is returned their humanity and they all remain whole after they move away from the little village of Witches’ Hollow. The narrator decides he wants to forget, or at least not look any further into the mysteries which seemed to surround that family there in that backwoods burg.
It’s a completely different feel from Lovecraft, but it’s fun and adventurous and totally worth the read.
Can Derleth keep it up? Can we move beyond that poor rehashing of Lovecraft’s tales and get into more adventurous stories like this one?
Join me to fid out next week as we try out “The Shadow in the Attic!”
“That was what his grandfather had meant when he had written ‘you have gone forth into the world and gathered to yourself learning sufficient to permit you to look upon all things with an inquiring mind ridden neither by the superstition of ignorance nor the superstition of science.'”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! Here we have a combined sequel to both “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Dunwich Horror” all at the same time. If you don’t think those stories jive too well together you’d be right; one is about Dagon and the other about Yog-Sothoth. It seems, however, as though Derleth decided that he liked Cthulhu and Dagon (the fishy ones) so much more that he’d focus all of his energies on slowly phasing out of Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothothery and into his own more popular Cthulhu Mythos.
We begin the tale talking about the backwoods of Massachusetts and I was immediately excited: “At dusk, the wild, lonely country guarding the approaches to the village of Dunwich in north central Massachusetts seems more desolate and forbidding than it ever does by day.”
The Dunwich Horror is one of my favorite Lovecraft tales because he packs so much into it and not only is it a wonderful horror tale, but it also expands his mythos in such a wonderful way. The Whatley’s are farming folk and Lavinia Whately, a strange albino woman, becomes pregnant. No one seems to know who the father is, but mad old Whately mentions in passing about some strange theory that she was impregnated by someone named Yog-Sothoth, but that’s just in passing, and he’s crazy anyway, so we move forward. Lavinia gives birth to Wilbur, who is strange in and of himself, he ages prematurely, he’s described as a “dark, goatish infant,” he has an odd musty odor, and under the tutilage of old man Whateley he’s drawn to Arkham to study the Necronomicon. While at Miskatonic University he turns into a beast and dies, but the doctors are curious as to how that’s possible so they head to Dunwich to investigate, only to come across a terrible Shoggoth as it rampages across the country side.
That is as simple an explanation as I can give, but the story is significantly better. In Derleth’s tale the only real connection to Dunwich is the Whately name. Our protagonist is Abner Whately which is confusing because in the original tale we’re led to believe the line of Whately’s died off. We’re given a brief description: “The Whatleys has a curse on ’em…and thar’s what happened on Sentinel Hill that time-Lavinny’s Wilbur” but that isn’t really a connection. We can only assume that there were cousins to the branch that died off in Lovecraft’s tale living somewhere nearby and took over the farmhouse. That new Whatley, Grandfather Luther as named in this new story, had a few children. Our protagonist Abner meets Zebulon, his uncle and speaks of his Aunt Sarah, who their grandfather Luther locked away in her room after she visited…wait for it…Innsmouth.
At the mention of Innsmouth we lose all thread of Dunwich and suddenly the story becomes a sequel to Lovecraft’s doomed “Shadow Over Innsmouth” instead.
You might ask why Sarah decided to go to Innsmouth? Well Derleth hashes that reasoning out in dialog:
“‘What was Aunt Sarah doing in Innsmouth?‘
‘Are there Whatleys there, too?’
‘Not Whatleys. Marshes. Old Obed Marsh that was Pa’s cousin.‘”
If you remember from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” Old Obed Marsh was a sea captain who took a strange island wife whom was not seen much afterward. She was, in fact, one of Dagon’s Deep Ones; a fish creature who worships from the underwater city just off Devil’s reef off the coast of Innsmouth called Y’ha-nthlei. Innsmouth itself was peopled by hybrid Deep Ones, as the people of that coastal town were breeding with the Deep Ones for years.
And that’s what happened to Sarah. She met her cousin Ralsa Marsh and apparently had a tryst. When Grandfather Luther heard of it, he locked her away in her room.
So we’ve been weaving back and forth between stories, but lets focus on what happens in Derleth’s, shall we? The reason Abner arrived at the house is because his Grandfather Luther died and asked him to go there and burn down the mill and everything above it. In his letter, Luther tells Abner “It is my wish that at least the mill section of this house be destroyed. Let it be taken apart, board by board. If anything in it lives, I adjure you solemnly to kill it. No matter how small it may be.”
Then there is a post script, “If I seem to have the sound of madness, pray recall that worse than madness has spawned among the Whatelys. I have stood free of it. It has not been so of all that is mine. There is more stubborn madness in those who are unwilling to believe in what that know not of and deny that such exists, than in those of our blood who have been guilty of terrible practices, and blasphemy against God, and worse.”
If you blink you miss it. Obviously Luther is speaking of his daughter Sarah here. She’s the one touched by madness, because she had an affair with her fishy Deep One cousin, Ralsa. She’s the one whom was locked in the room, presumably with her offspring…locked in there until she died.
But that isn’t what could be missed in that paragraph. Lovecraft was very careful to God out of his works. Actually that’s probably a mis-statement. He didn’t believe in god…or the devil. So Lovecraft’s horror was cosmic, because in his world there wasn’t truly evil, there was only incomprehensible horrors. Derleth, conversely, was very religious and he mentions God in nearly every story I’ve read so far. That’s not necessarily a bad thing…well it is if you’re a Lovecraft fan…but what he seems to be saying here is that because Sarah was “guilty of terrible practices” namely having sex with her cousin, that she was rightly entombed with her spawn. It is meant, I’m sure, to mean that because Ralsa was a Deep One and Sarah’s judgment was so poor that she hooked up with him, that had to be kept safe from herself. The issue seems to be Derleth’s however because he’s the one who made Ralsa her cousin. There’s no precedence for that in Lovecraft, so its almost like it’s Derleth made him a cousin because in his’s eyes, sex with your cousin is the same as being an evil otherworldly creature. Not saying it’s right, but it sure doesn’t warrant a death sentence.
So Abner is there to destroy the room and the mill. He goes about the story working to do this task, and while doing so heads to Sarah’s room. To get rid of the musty smell he “...kicked the shutters out to let in a welcome blast of fresh, damp air.” When he turns to inspect the room he “caught sight of a long-legged frog or toad” vanish behind a bureau. What we come to realize is that Sarah’s and Ralsa’s offspring was full Deep One and apparently in Derleth’s part of this shared universe when Deep Ones don’t eat they become diminutive. Abner’s act of kicking out the shutter, gives the creature a chance to escape. The dead cattle? That’s the escaped Deep One eating and growing to regular size. If you remember from “The Dunwich Horror” this is what the Shoggoth did, so much so that the old man Whatley and Wilbur had to keep rebuilding farmhouses to house it.
But Abner doesn’t realize this at first. It isn’t until Abner heads to the shuttered room late in the story and sees “There, squatting in the midst of the tumbled bedding from the long-abandoned bed, sat a monstrous, leathery skinned creature that was neither frog nor man, one gorged with food, with blood still slavering from it’s batrachian jaws and upon it’s webbed fingers…” with limbs “grown from its bestial body like those of a frog, and tapering off into a man’s hands, save for the webbing between the fingers.“
He throws the lantern at the creature, immolating both it and the room, thus ending the horror.
Derleth tries to include some aspects of “The Dunwich Horror” into this tale, but he makes small changes. The odor which pervades the story is fishy instead of musty, the dead cattle are because a Deep One is on the loose instead of a Shoggoth. He uses tools like this to bring his tale together and separate himself from Lovecraft. He obviously wants things to be more connected with Cthulhu, potentially making that eldritch god a much larger aspect of the whole mythos…but then again he’s stepping on his own toes.
A few weeks ago we covered a few stories, Namely “The Peabody Heritage” and even further back “The Survivor.” In both of these stories the creature whom we can only understand as an aspect of Dagon or Cthulhu, were Saurian, I.E. reptilian. However in this story he seems to be changing that to batrachian, or fishlike, amphibian. Why is he changing up his own rules between stories? Could there be a connector I haven’t seen yet? Could Derleth be trying to connect more of the world and make it cohesive for all his new readers? By the title we have a great read next week to find out!
Join me as we dive into “The Fisherman of Falcon Point!”
Derleth is cherry picking to fulfill the needs of his current tale.(The ancestor, the peabody heritage)
“If it is true that man lives forever on the edge of an abyss, the certainly most men must experience moments of awareness – of a kind of precognition, as it were – when the vast, unplumbed depths which exist forever on the rim of man’s little world become for one cataclysmic moment tangible, when the terrible, boundless well of knowledge of which even the most brilliant man has only tasted, assumes a shadowy being capable of striking the most primal terror into even the stoutest heart.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we trudge through the terribly derivative and bastardizing story, while reconciling memory and looking to the future of Lovecraft Country.
Right from the beginning of this story, I could tell that it was going to be a weak retelling of “The Shadow Out of Time” and unfortunately it was nearly a word for word reconditioning of that odd novella with Derleth putting his own, less sophisticated stamp on it. Derleth tries to clarify what was going on in the original story, but unfortunately the whole thing just leaves a bad taste in your mouth, as he strives to tie some of the mythos together, which don’t seem as though they fit.
It’s ultimately a lazy effort and pretty obviously a money grab. Even the title, replacing Space or Time, is a lazy effort to reimagine. Reading this story almost feels like I’m reading “Lovecraft for Dummies”, which is a massive let down.
There are some interesting connectors though, and that’s what we’ll be focusing on as I give you a Cliffs Notes version of the story.
If you’ve read “The Shadow out of Time” you know what’s going to happen. This story follows Nathaniel Corey who’s our narrator. Corey has a patient, Amos Piper, who had the same kind of strange circumstances of his alliterative counter part Peaslee from “The Shadow out of Time.” They black out for years, loosing that time. They suddenly developed an interest in the occult while they concurrently lose control of their bodily faculties for a period of time. It turns out in both stories that the characters were invaded by one of the Great Race of Yith, a race looking to gather information about every other species in existence. The Yith have the ability to travel through time and space (hence both titles) to do so. Eventually the Yith retract, and the more the narrator digs, they eventually find themselves being invaded.
What Derleth’s version is missing is the philosophical element of Lovecraft’s novelette. In fact it seems like that’s what he’s missing with all of his stories. Lovecraft has popularity because he created incredible atmosphere, but at the same time, his stories were philosophical treatises. Derleth, I’m coming to understand, is basically writing dime store books. He’s actively removing the philosophy from Lovecraft’s ethos and dumbing the stories down to make them more accessible to a wider audience. The jury is still out about how I feel about this, especially because he seems to change small things about the stories which I think curve away from the original intent (more specifically creating a more Christian outlook instead of an apathetic one). The only real philosophizing in this story is the opening quote of this essay, which incidentally is the opening paragraph (or at least most of the opening paragraph) of the story.
That being said Derleth does add a few details to make this world more his own. Some of these add a layer of sub-context which both inform us of Derleth’s process and add a bit to the story. The first of these comes fairly early in the story and had me excited for the prospects:
“The moment I close my eyes, there appear on the retina strange geometrical figures and designs, together with vague lights and even more sinister shapes beyond, as of great creatures past the conception of mankind...”
If we remember from stories such as “Dreams in the Witch House” and even such favorites as “The Call of Cthulhu,” strange geometrical figures and angles play a huge role. In Lovecraft they’re used as a sort of talisman to help magnify the magic being used. Strange angles, conversely, seem to create a fold in space and time where dimension and time hopping becomes possible. Derleth seems to be layering this concept onto people. If we can actually put these designs onto our own figure, can we call forth elder entities into our own bodies? Would they come through us in some kind of body horror, or would they merely take over our minds which seems to be indicated here in this story? It’s a very exciting prospect for what could possibly be coming in later stories.
Derleth also makes use of popular culture as well, grounding the story into a specific timeline. Piper’s episode of transmogrification takes place during a performance of Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter.” Because this reference was so specifically called out it makes me wonder if there’s a specific meaning behind it’s inclusion. “The Letter” is about a woman named Leslie, who is on trial for killing Geoff Hammond, a friend of her husbands. Throughout the play it’s found out that Hammond was in fact Leslie’s lover, who scorned her for another woman. The eponymous letter comes to light and Leslie is eventually acquitted, but she’s not completely innocent. She is guilty of adultery and sees her punishment as the knowledge that she killed the man she truly loved.
On surface level this seems like it doesn’t connect. What could this possibly mean? I contemplated for a few pages until I came across a long quote which begins to reveal a potential deeper meaning:
“The rugose cones which made their present form had been occupied for only a few centuries, and were far from their true form, which was more kin to a shaft of light, for they were a race of free minds, capable of invading any body and displacing the mind which inhabited it. They had occupied Earth until they had become involved in the titanic struggle between the Elder Gods and the Ancient Ones for the dominion of the cosmos, a struggle which, he told me, accounted for the Christian Mythos among mankind, for the simple minds of early men had conceived of their ancestral memories of this struggle as one between elemental Good and elemental Evil.”
There’s a decent amount to unravel here, but I want to add one more quote before we take the deep dive into Derleth’s mind.
“Indeed, if anything, his memory during his illness – once indoctrination had been completed – was infinitely superior to the functioning of that part of his mind before.”
So how does this correlate to “The Letter?” Follow with me here, because we’re getting deep!
Lovecraft made sure to keep religion out of his stories (although I do find an interesting correlation to heaven or hell in “The White Ship“), but it seems as though Derleth is working to incorporate and explain why it’s necessary. Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothothery was mostly apathetic; they were ancient and powerful gods who saw humans as insignificant. They weren’t “evil,” their goal was not to overthrow our society or make us slaves. We are as pointless as little black ants to them. If we annoy them they step on us. If we don’t bother them they generally let us be.
Derleth flat out states that it was a “struggle between elemental Good and elemental Evil.” He’s working to quintessentially change what Lovecraft was striving to do. He’s working to make it his own instead of honoring Howard. He gets away with it, making these tales more popular posthumously than during Lovecraft’s life, but he steals some of the heart of the tale. Derleth is Leslie. He’s ostensibly killed the memory of what Lovecraft was striving for, but he gets away with it, tarnishing the one he admired and loved.
That’s what this story feels like. It’s told well and it’s a interesting story, but only if you haven’t read Lovecraft first. If you had it feels like a tarnishing of the legacy. In Derleth’s effort to make it easier and more accessible, to put meaning behind why the Ancient Ones and the Elder Gods did what they did, makes the story somehow not really worth it. It’s the theory behind “the reveal.” If you have a monster so horrible that a mere glance at it could drive you insane, then you let the imagination come up with it’s image. Derleth, puts a rugose cone head and some tentacles and claws and calls it scary, when in reality, he’s just making it basic.
Let’s see how Derleth moves beyond this next week as we cover one of his most popular stories “The Shuttered Room”
Addendum: I was supposed to publish an essay on “The Shadow out of Space,” but I hit a computer blip. Luckily I’m headed out of town and worked ahead, and had this one ready a week early. Enjoy this one now and come back for “The Shadow out of Space” next week!
“The city on the desert was the Nameless City and the snowy peaks were the Mountains of Madness or perhaps Kadath in the Cold Waste. And he enjoyed keenly bestowing names upon these landscapes, for they came to him with ease, they sprang to his mind as if they had always been lingering on the perimeter of his thoughts, waiting for this moment to come into being.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we relax, awash in a wonderfully metafictional story, which is probably the most enjoyable Derleth tale to date!
I assumed by the title that this story would be about the cannon. The Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred is mentioned in a number of Lovecraft stories as the author of the original Necronomicon. A grimoire discussing the Elder Gods and the spells in which he was privy to. To both summon them, to honor them, and to worship them. He supposedly had an “otherworldly experience” and gained the knowledge of the Elder Gods, enough at least to write the cursed Necronomicon.
Alhazred was not mentioned beyond this capacity (at lest in Lovecraft’s works), but we can infer that he was one of the first “Dreamers” much like Randolph Carter (From such famous stories as “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” “The Statement Of Randoph Carter,” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”), however unlike Carter it seems as though either gaining the knowledge, or the act of writing the Necronomicon is what drove Alhazred “Mad.”
This story doesn’t have anything to do with Alhazred however, but is instead a homage to Howard Phillips himself. The story follows Ward Phillips, “then thirty, and in indifferent health, though this was but a continuation of the sickliness which had so often made his childhood miserable.”
After reading this passage on the first page I assumed Derleth was going to make the character a mirror Howard, but as I got deeper, I realized that Ward Phillips was just a stand in so he wouldn’t have to specifically mention Lovecraft. The story is a love letter to a lost friendship, and it was wonderful to experience. It is actually about Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Derleth goes on to examine the man, “Phillips had become a writer for the pulp magazines, and had eked out a spare living by undertaking in addition the revision of countless almost hopeless manuscripts of prose and verse by writers far more amateur than he...” and “Phillips, who lived in the past, believed that the way to defeat the sense of time was to cling close to unaltered early haunts.” This is just another clue. We know what Derleth’s saying here is true from their correspondence and all such stories such as “The Horror at Red Hook.“
“He often went to a hill, Nentaconhaunt, from the slope of which he could look down on his native city and wait there for the sunset and the enchanting panoramas of the city springing to its life by night, with the steeples and gambrel roofs darkening upon the orange and crimson...”
This hill which the fictional Ward Phillips went to to gain inspiration from, is a real hill in Providence. The description in the above quote obviously lends to the atmosphere of Lovecraft’s stories in general and I wonder if Lovecraft himself spent time on that hill, taking in the evening and letting his imagination soar. Just how many stories obtained their genesis from time on that hill? The Hill’s name strikes me as well. I’m not sure of the etymology, and this isn’t the place to have that discussion anyway, but it seems to me that it enflamed Lovecraft’s dark imagination, perhaps even fueling the creation of such names as the “Necronomicon?”
In any case, Ward Phillips, our illustrious stand in, spends his evenings on the hill, so he spends his nights writing. He’s got a “meager income” so he doesn’t use electric light to write, but instead decides to use an old lamp his Grandfather Whipple left him (If that name sounds familiar you are correct. It is concurrently the name of Howard’s Grandfather, and Captain Abraham Whipple who led a charge against Joseph Curwen in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward). The Lamp of Alhazred.
I immediately thought the lamp was going to summon some kind of Deep One, but I was given a much more pleasant surprise. The lamp created a shadow play upon the walls, something “Ward” sat back and viewed in wonder:
“It seemed to be a scene of the earth when young, one in which the land was still in the process of being formed, a land where great gouts of steam came from fissures and rocks, and the trails of serpentine animals showed plainly in the mud. High overhead flew great beasts that fought and tore, and from an opening in a rock on the edge of the sea, a tremendous animal appendage, resembling a tentacle, uncoiled sinuously and menacingly into the red, wan sunlight of that day, like a creature of some fantastic fiction.“
“Slowly the scene changed,” into what the opening quote describes, and we realize that this story is not a horror story at all, but a homage, or even love song, between one author and his predecessor. There is care as Derleth even describes: “he took time to answer letters from his correspondents, to whom he wrote of his ‘dreams’.” which of course he’s speaking of himself as one of Lovecraft’s correspondents.
Derleth waxes poetic about how many people must have viewed the fantastic themes and scenes which came from the lamp and wonders how many will in the future. It’s at this point, just a page or two from the end, in which we realize he’s now speaking on Lovecraft’s writing. H.P.’s stories are, not just a candle in the dark, but a lamp, illuminating a new way forward for authors. He made it possible to move beyond Gothic horror and try new things. He was the trail-blazer who created a dynasty of such authors as Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard, and informed artists such as Moebius and H.R. Giger.
It’s a fantastic little story and it brought me back to the first day I started this blog series. What it must have been like to be one of his pen pals. To hear of the story ideas, and to bath in the blossoming fungi that became his oeuvre. I can only hope that the rest of the stories in Derleth’s collection live up to the same inspiration!
Join me next week as we look into “The Shuttered Room”
“There was no question but that my cousin had found some way to tap the stream of memory; he had established beyond doubt that everything that happened to a human being was registered in some compartment of the brain, and that it needed but the proper bridge to it’s place of storage in memory to bring it to consciousness once more.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we travel back into time alongside Derleth’s characters to view a fairly Lovecraftian Tale, which quixotically, doesn’t hold enough of Lovecraft’s themes.
Here’s another tale told in Vermont and (at least as far as I could tell) is absent of any of Derleth’s predilections of adding in little details like names of old characters to get readers excited, but instead holds to the trope of a man in trouble calling on a friend to help them in their research as Lovecraft did in tales such as “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Colour out of Space.”
We begin with a description of the man in need, the narrator’s cousin, Ambrose Perry. He’s apparently an old retired medical doctor whom “went into virtual seclusion at his home, which he had built in the middle of a dense wood, and outfitted with as complete a laboratory as money could buy.”
Ambrose calls on our narrator, a man who’s without a job. Ambrose sends him a letter, “offering me a handsome emolument if I would accept the position of secrecy.” A theme which was not, I believe, intended was the unreliable narrator trope. The narrator is a man who’s probably in his mid to late thirties and jobless without prospect. This tale was written in the fifties, so the idea of a man of that age without prospects generally leads me to the idea that the narrator is a vagrant, and is possible of anything if he thinks it will get him a little further… or possibly to get another fix (more on that later)? The two men are cousins that’s true, but why would the narrator be reached out to first? And why the emphasis on the importance of secrecy? Probably because vagrancy lends itself to being disposable, so it wouldn’t matter the secrets learned, because the narrator was never meant to leave the property. Something to think about as we move throughout the story.
Why was this the first thing that came to my mind? Because when Ambrose answers the door, “he was thin and gaunt; the hale, ruddy man I had last seen almost four years ago had vanished, and in his place stood a mere travesty of his former self.” Ambrose had come across something profound. He either wanted someone who wouldn’t say anything because they understood, or he wanted someone disposable when things got too deep.
Ambrose brings the narrator into confidence and tells him the job is to transpose his notes from shorthand into a narrative, then proceeds to tell our narrator that he’s developed a method of, “a combination of drugs and music, taken at a time when the body is half-starved induces the mood and makes it possible to cast back in time and sharpen all the faculties to such a degree that memory is regained.” The point of this vision quest is to “recapture all my past, down to the most minute nooks and crannies of human memory, and I am now further convinced that, by the same methods, I can extend this perceptive process to hereditary memory and recreate the events of man’s heredity.” He’s even said that he’s recaptured memories from his own time in the womb.
The narrator lives in this strange abode for weeks with his host disappearing for half of every day to do his strange experiments. His only companionship are the Reeds, “man and wife, who were both in their sixties, were subdued. They made little conversation, not only because Mrs. Reed both cooked and served her dinner, but because they were plainly accustomed to carrying on an existence apart from their employer’s…”
Why is the only thing he mentions the fact that she cooks him dinner? Why doesn’t he mention the butlery duties of Mr. Reed? Initially this would seem like it’s an important designation. In fact I wrote in my notes that they were characters to watch. I thought they might be devious, possibly nefarious characters, but they turn out to be just an old couple who have seen too much and decide they just need to put their heads down and do their job. In fact they turn out to be much like The Slydes from “House on Haunted Hill.” They’re atmosphere. They’re not really characters, but a backdrop to give off a creepy vibe.
So the atmosphere is in place and the narrator is curious about what’s going on, until finally Ambrose grows to weak from his food abstinence. He calls the narrator in and we finally get a glimpse. “The atmosphere of the laboratory, ill-lit with but one low red light near to the operating table, was eerie. My cousin looked far more like a corpse than a man under the influence of drugs. Moreover, there was playing in one corner an electric phonograph, so that the low, discordant strains of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps flowed through the room and took possession of it.“
This is an area of prose where Derleth is sound. His writing is simplistic and over-run with contextual errors (not to mention lazy. There’s a part of me that after reading Lovecraft for years and bathing in his beautiful exposition, to be laden with Derleth just outright saying “it was eerie” is a bit troublesome), but he gives off a much more visual contextualization. It’s almost as though because Derleth wrote after TV became popular and Lovecraft didn’t, that his tales are more direct…as though they’re stories meant to read like a show, rather than Lovecraft who was more cerebral. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, but it’s probably not the right time for that.
Getting back to the story, the narrator is now privy to the lab and takes notes of Ambrose going even further back in time, back to before he was born in fact, back to memories that couldn’t possibly be his own and eventually he broke into the strangest of phrases:
“Forest sunk into earth…Great ones fighting, tearing. Run, run… New trees for old. Footprints ten feet across. We live in cave, cold, damp, fire…“
Ambrose thinks he may have gotten somewhere, but strangely, he kicks our narrator out. He locks the door leaving the Reeds and the narrator to wait outside and listen to the odd sounds coming from the laboratory. Ambrose’s dog starts to get upset; “Whereas hitherto he had been a singularly well-behaved dog, now he began to bark often at night, and day by day he whined and moved about the house and yard with an air of alarm.”
They would leave food on a tray outside of the laboratory door, and always when they weren’t looking the food would disappear. The notes became more difficult for the narrator to decipher. “He seemed to have difficulty properly holding a pencil, and his lines were scrawled in large letters over all the sheets of paper without any sense of order, though this was not entirely unexpected in one heavily dosed with drugs.”
But then the music, what Ambrose touted as heavily important for the process, suddenly stopped right about the time, “a pervasive and highly repellent musk, clearly an animal odor, which seemed to emanate from the laboratory.” The narrator also thinks he “...saw some unpleasantly large animal scuttling into the woods.“
The narrator finally gets into the lab and finds what to him looks like “a primal animal’s abode.” With parts of game, obviously caught and devoured strewn about the lab. The lab itself was destroyed, but the door leading to the woods was wide open.
The narrator followed the trail until he came upon Ginger, Ambrose’s dog, with a fresh kill in the woods:
“For the thing that lay below Ginger’s bloody jaws was a sub-human caricature of a man, a hellish parody of primal growth, with horrible malformations of face and body, giving off an all-pervasive and wholly charnel musk – but it was clad in the rags of my cousin’s mouse-colored dressing-gown, and it wore on it’s wrist my cousin’s watch.”
So we come to find that the set up of the story had a Lovecraftian tint; a man searching for knowledge, taking part in obscure or arcane rituals, but the payoff is different than anticipated. He goes back in time and because of the rituals he executed, he gained aspects of his prehistoric ancestors. It’s a shocking ending sure, but Derleth lost quite a bit along the way. There was plenty of drama he could have infused with Ambrose looking like his actual ancestors, much like in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” There’s also the mention of the Great Ones, which didn’t actually pan out.
Ultimately the story reads much like the narrator is…unreliable. I mentioned earlier that the narrator was a confusing personage. Is he a man looking to do the most and just down on his luck? It doesn’t seem so because of all the previous things mentioned, and also his vast knowledge of drugs. There’s a portion of the text where the narrator gives a scientific description of the Marijuana Ambrose “uses.” I’ve seen this in people I know, where they are so enamored with Weed that they get into the scientific aspects of it, sometimes to the detriment of everything else in their lives. Could that be what the narrator was looking for? Easy access to weed?
Even if that is the case, he’s unreliable. What’s more Derleth is unreliable as well and I’m slowly coming to the understanding that there may be a metafictional dichotomy here. Derleth was using Lovecraft’s name to sell his horror fiction and where… yes… he coined the phrase “Cthulhu Mythos” and supposedly expanded Lovecraft’s world, it feels like he’s using key words of Lovecraft to get some of his weirder tales out there.
Derleth himself is unreliable because I keep going into these stories expecting a Lovecraftian payoff, but he pulls the rug out from under us just as we get to the end. Is this how the rest of the experience will go? Fun stories, but not nearly Lovecraftian? Based on the title I think we’re going to find out next week!
Read along as we cover “The Shadow out of Space!”
“Though the majority of these alterations had apparently been made to contribute to Wilbur’s comfort, there was one change which had baffled me at the time that Wilbur had made it, and for which he never offered any explanation; this was the installation in the south wall of his gable room of a great round window of a most curious clouded glass, of which he said only that it was a work of great antiquity, which he had discovered and acquired in the course of his travels in Asia. He referred to it as one time as “the glass from Leng” and at another as “possibly Hyadean in origin,” neither of which enlightened me in the slightest…“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve into Derleth’s most cosmic story yet, while at the same time lamenting his tone and applauding his action.
From the very start “The Gable Window” feels like Derleth stretched to make it much more of a Lovecraft story than it is. His Christianity is just so profound that it pervades the writing in such a way that you instantly know it isn’t Howard Phillips, but at the same time, the text is good enough to make you want to keep reading.
The story starts off with two slaps in the face which are meant to be fan service. About half way down the first paragraph we get this:
“It (the house of the narrator’s cousin, Wilber Akeley) had fallen into disuse after the grandson of the farmer who had built it had left the soil for the seaside city of Kingston, and my cousin bought the estate of that heir disgruntled with the meager living to be made on that sadly depleted land. It was not a calculated move, for the Akeleys did nothing by sudden impulse.”
Instantly I’m annoyed. As we’ve seen from previous stories, Derleth has no qualms with using names and locations of Lovecraft’s to disuse. Akeley is the name of the farmer whom communes with, and takes rides from, strange advanced aliens in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” but this turns out to be ok, because Wilber (later in the story) is a relative of Henry, which instantly ties this story into Lovecraft country. Why then, did Derleth decide to call the seaside town Kingston instead of Kingsport? It cheapens the story, making it seem as though Derleth either tried to make the story his own, or even worse, that he accidentally called the city by the incorrect name. These kind of iniquities keep popping up throughout Derleth’s stories, and it’s no wonder there’s disdain for him using Lovecraft’s name. It’s not the stories themselves, which are entertaining, but that he lends fan service while at the same time not actually continuing the traditions. Kind of like why Fans of Star Wars are so upset with the most recent trilogy of movies.
Getting back to the story, the narrator renovates the house, much like the narrator did in “The Peabody Heritage,” but as we see in the introductory quote to this essay, he doesn’t remove or remodel the glass in the gable window. The Plateau of Leng is popular in Lovecraft literature as both an alien landscape and a space in Antarctica where reality is thin and the ability to dimension hop is strong (foreshadowing alert), seen in such stories as “At The Mountains of Madness” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” and where it seems a strange and dangerous place, it isn’t nefarious at all.
The room is obviously the most used, but “I found myself from the beginning curiously repelled by the gable room, in part certainly because it reminded me so strongly of the living presence of my dead cousin who could never again occupy his favorite corner of the house, in part also because the room was to me unnaturally alien and seemed cold to me, holding me off as by some physical force I could not understand…“
The room is filled with Wilbur’s manuscripts and various books from the nearby Miskatonic University in Arkham, which we know from Lovecraft is one of the few locations which house the fabled Necronomicon.
The narrator hears various noises. “These were of no consequence at first: they began as tiny, almost unnoticed things.” Like what sounded like a cat scratch at the window, or some kind of slapping/slithering sound coming from the window. It didn’t unnerve the narrator until he realized there was no possible was for a cat to touch the window and there was no tree nearby.
Unnerved but nonplussed, the narrator continues his renovations and eventually gets a letter from the executor of the estate stating that all Wilbur’s papers on his research are to be destroyed, the books on certain shelves are to be turned into Miskatonic University, and the glass in the gable window broken.
Interested, the narrator goes to these shelves and finds strange and old books; “The more recent ones among them – and none of these dated beyond 1850 – had been assembled from various places; some had belonged to our fathers’ cousin, Henry Akeley, of Vermont, who had sent them down to Wilbur; some bore the ownership stamps of the Biblotheque Nationale of Paris…”
Here is where I get touchy. There are things like this throughout Derleth and despite the fact that he lauds himself as an incredible writer (without a doubt these stories are fun), he make a plethora of mistakes. This whole story Wilber is our narrator’s cousin. This quote all of the sudden makes him the narrators brother? “…some had belonged to our fathers’ cousin…” The narrator and the cousin couldn’t have the same father or they wouldn’t be cousins. These are the little missteps which happen again and again that directly contradict other details in Derleth’s stories. This is also why I believe that he didn’t mean to misquote Kingsport as Kingston, he just didn’t care to go back through and verify the details. It’s just sloppy writing, and NOT something which Lovecraft would have permitted considering his perfidy.
Moving beyond the irritation, the Biblotheque Nationale of Paris is the second known location of the Necronomicon, and in the very next paragraph we get a small list of books contained within this auspicious home library:
“…they bore such titles as Pnakotic Manuscripts, the R’lyeh Text, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, the Book of Eibon, the Dhol Chants, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan, Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis, the Celaeno Fragments, the Cultes De Goules of the Comte d’Erlette, the Book of Dzyan, a photostat copy of the Necronomicon…“
This is all very exciting because here Derleth infuses some of his own ideas seamlessly into Lovecraft (meaning some of these books are of Derleth’s creation), but then unfortunately in the next sentence he ruins the progress he makes:
“Did it matter whether you call it God and the Devil, or the Elder Gods and the Ancient Ones, Good and Evil or such names as the Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss, the only named Elder God, or these of the Great Old Ones…“
Derleth then goes on to name the Lovecraftian Pantheon which is his strength. He is the one who really clarified the mythos and created it as we know it today, but yes August, it really does matter if you call it God and the Devil.
Lovecraft created a world which was amoral and apathetic. The Ancient Ones and the Elder Gods had their own agendas and humans just tend to get in the way at times, as we strive for more power. In the Lovecraft world the only good and evil was man…and nearly always it was man who was evil. In our apparent struggle for power we are the ones who create menace; these Elder Gods are merely like a giant rock in the road. If we just pass them by we might not even know they’re there, but if we get curious and want to know what they are and accidentally kick them, we break our toe.
Derleth frames his religion overtop of this uncaring world gives good and evil attributes to them. All the sudden these creatures who were never malevolent, just massive (think of yourself walking down the street and accidentally stepping on a bug), are all the sudden a hidden threat bent on killing off or enslaving mankind. The issue is, that kind of creature belies the genius of Lovecraft. If the Elder Gods are evil, then humankind should have been wiped out all together because these Elder Gods are just too powerful. In Derleth’s world, these Elder Gods once ran the universe but are now waiting for some fool to blunder into setting them free, or some cult to summon them back to their glory. In Lovecraft these creatures were unknowable which made the merest glance of them drive a man insane. In Derleth’s stories they become a land dwelling octopus.
There are very few tentacles in Lovecraft. There are many tentacles in Derleth.
And we see them as the narrator goes into the room with the gable window. For the first time he notices there’s a pentagram drawn on the ground. Curious he decides to read off some text:
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgahnagl fhtagn.”
and suddenly the glass becomes a portal and he seems strange baked landscape with odd people he remembers his cousin calling Sand People. Then from a cave:
“…little by little, an incredible monster made it’s appearance – at first a probing tentacle, then another, and presently half a dozen cautiously exploring the caves mouth. And then, from out the darkness of the cavern’s well, an eldritch head shown dimly.”
The creature moves forward to the glass…eventually through the glass and the narrator is terrorized. Yet unlike in Lovecraft where the narrator would lose consciousness only to then delve into a downward spiral of madness, this narrator comes to his senses and wipes the side of the chalked Pentagram, instantly closing the portal. How do we know it worked?
“…I know beyond doubt that what I saw was not the product of my feverish fancy, because nothing could demolish that final damning proof which I found near the shattered glass on the floor of the gable room – the cut tentacle, ten feet in length, which had been caught between dimensions when the door had been shut against that monstrous body to which it belonged, the tentacle no living savant could identify as belonging to any known creature, living or dead, on the face or in the subterrene depths of the earth!“
Despite all the issues I’ve laid out, it’s a very satisfying tale. I point these things out so that the casual reader will know the difference between what the experience is between reading Lovecraft and Derleth. Will these disparities continue?
Let’s find out next week as we read “The Ancestor.”
“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!
“I assured him I had never heard of Nahum Wentworth before, though I admitted privately to some curiosity about the object of my host’s preoccupation, insofar as he had been given to reading the Seventh Book of Moses, which was a kind of Bible for the supposed hexes, since it purported to offer all manner of spells, incantations, and charms to those readers who were gullible enough to believe in them.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we tread the back roads beyond the wastrel excuse for a farming town known as Dunwich to find horrors unknown in the magical ether of Lovecraft’s universe.
So I immediately have to print a retraction (but that’s kind of the point of a blind read isn’t it? To conjecture?). Last week I said I expected Derleth to work pretty much exclusively on expanding Lovecraft’s mythos. To clarify the unclear, and to streamline the vague. I said I didn’t think he would write a straight horror story. I’m happy to say that in the very next story, “Wentworth’s Day,” which we’ll be digesting shortly, he’s proved me wrong. There have actually been many stories which are allegedly inspired by Lovecraft (By authors such as Brian Lumley and Robert Bloch), but I’ve never really understood exactly how Lovecraft supposedly inspired them because they never really felt like they truly fit in his world. Weird of course, but not really Lovecraftian. Now I understand. This story, which again is just a straight horror story with only a slant connection to the cosmic (which you’d only catch if you were well versed in Lovecraft), is the direct antecedent to such books as “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”
The story begins as our narrator is driving through the backwoods beyond the previously mentioned Dunwich. There seems to be nothing habitable out there except for “…reclusive dwellers on some broken-down farms.” The narrator even mentions that the area, “Once, long ago, it had the reputation of being a country in which Hexerei – the witch beliefs of superstitious people – was practiced…” and that which we know as readers has the potential for Shoggoth (disappointingly, none appear). I thought this may be a call back, but as we’ll see, there are a few things in this story which are only call backs… they’re only prompts meant to entice the reader to keep going.
Derleth spends some decent time setting the scene as the narrator tells us he gets stuck because the highway was blocked off. He goes on a detour late in the evening, trying to push through and instantly regretting it.
A storm soon blossoms and he passes what seems to be a more habitable property. It’s a house and a barn and “The headlamps’ glow swept the face of the dwelling there…” He sees a mail box with the name “Amos Stark” (which really has no reference lineage, but I mention is because it seems remarkably familiar to a Stephen King story you may be familiar with…). The narrator takes the liberty of parking in the mans barn (how rude is that? I know these stories were written in the 50’s, but imagine the gaul… ‘I’m just going to drive my car into your barn without asking. I’m owed that because this place is so run down, I bet they wont even notice!’ Well, the people of the backwoods New England must be nicer, because when “a wizened old man with a scraggly beard half covering his scrawny neck” came to the door, he didn’t bat an eye, just ushered the narrator into his house.
Then the weird stuff starts to happen and not the weird stuff you’d expect from this kind of horror story. Stark offhandedly says today “is Wentworth’s day. I thought yew might be Nahum.” Now I’m not an expert on New England names from the early 20th Century, but I don’t think Nahum is a popular one, so immediately I’m excited because I’m thinking, “Yes, here’s ‘The Colour out of Space’ character directly in a Derleth tale (Nahum Gardener was the farmer whose family’s misfortune it was to have the meteor land on their property), but then the more I read I realize that it’s just a bad call back, a poorly misplaced fan service. This new character is Nahum Wentworth, not Gardener, and Derleth only named him that to keep readers reading… to keep the references to Lovecraft, no matter how thin, while forging his own path. I understand this predilection but it makes me sad because this story is good, but this erroneous and desperate grab for an audience feels dirty.
After that we get the tale of Stark and Wentworth. Apparently Wentworth was pretty rich and gave Stark a loan. The loan was set to come due this night: “Five years, an’ this is the day, this is Wentworth’s Day.” Wentworth had until midnight, that very night our narrator came knocking to collect on his money… the only problem is… Wentworth is dead. Stark “accidently” shot him in the back of his head:
“‘I fell,’ he muttered, and there followed a sentence or two of inanities. ‘All they was to it.’ And again many indistinguishable words. ‘Went off – quick-like.” Once more a round of meaningless or inaudible words. ‘Didn’t know ’twas aimed at Nahum.'”
So all of that put together seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal right? Well, then we remember that this is an area which historically practices what Derleth calls the Hexerei. Stark shows our narrator (still don’t really know why he’s being so forthwith with our narrator. This seems like a plot convenience, but at the same time, this was backwoods New England in the 50’s, set in the 30’s. Maybe, nay probably, people were a bit more equitable back then) some of Wentworth’s books he had taken and our attention is immediately drawn to The Seventh Book of Moses.
“…the Seventh Book of Moses, which, I soon found, was a curious rigmarole of chants and incantations to such “princes” of the nether world of Aziel, Mephistopheles, Marbuel, Barbuel, Aniquel, and others.”
Yet another reason why we know this is emphatically not Lovecraft (besides the fact that Derleth was actually much better at dialogue). The Seventh Book of Moses is a real historical book which talks of magical and spiritual arts as well as Christian demons and devils and such and is commonly mentioned in occult circles. This is nothing like the Pnakotic Manuscripts or the Necronomicon. It’s a bit disappointing that we aren’t getting more of Lovecraft’s world, because Derleth claimed these stories were actually written by Howard Phillips and only cleaned up by Derleth. Like I said earlier, the stories (so far at least) stand on their own, but to put Lovecraft’s name on it gives the first tinges of stigma against Derleth. I still enjoyed the tale, but for these reasons it feels a bit like a cash grab instead of honest inspiration.
We then get another “Colour out of Space” reference when a Whippoorwill calls. If you recall from that tale, the whippoorwill cries as an omen for ill to come. Shortly there after the deadly call there’s a knock at the door.
Stark goes to answer, but waits the few minutes until after the clock strikes midnight… or at least he thinks he does:
“I heard Stark’s exclamation of triumph. ‘Past midnight!’ He had looked at his clock, and at the same time I looked at my watch. His clock was ten minutes fast.“
And retribution come right quick. Wentworth had come back for Stark.
“Amos Stark was spread on the floor on his back, and sitting astride him was a mouldering skeleton, its bony arms bowed above his throat, it’s fingers at his neck.“
Once the deed is done and Stark is dead the skeleton withdraws, leaving our narrator aghast in horror, and we get our moment of Scary Stories to tell in the Dark:
“For as I bent above Amos Stark, ascertaining that he was indeed dead, I saw sticking into the discolored flesh of his neck the whitened finger bones of a human skeleton, and, even as I looked upon them, the individual bones detached themselves, and went bounding away from the corpse, down the hall, and out into the night to rejoin that ghastly visitor who had come from the grave to keep his appointment with Amos Stark!”
Join me next week as we dive deeper into Derleth with hopeful curiosity in “The Peabody Heritage.”
“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.”
“What happened then is scarcely to be described in words. It is full of those paradoxes, contradictions, and anomolies which have no place in waking life, but which fill our more fantastic dreams, and are taken as matters of course till we return to our narrow, rigid, objective world of limited causation and tri-dimensional logic.”
Welcome back to another mind bending Blind Read! We’ve learned about Randolph Carter in the past, including the indominable Silver Key, but this time we traverse through the doorway this magical talisman produces. Lets dive into a treatise on traversing space, time, dimension, and existence as we traverse through the gates of the Silver Key.
The opening few chapters is basically a rehash of the stories “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” “The Silver Key” and “The Statement of Randolph Carter.” The story is unique in it’s narration because most of Lovecraft is told from the perspective of a single narrator, but this story begins omniscient and doesn’t more into narration until Swami Chandraputra directly relates the events surrounding Randolph Carter.
“In a vast room hung with strangely figured arras and carpeted with Bokhara rugs of impressive age and workmanship four men were sitting around a document-strown table.” These four men were Etienne-Laurent de Marigny (Later to be a mainstay in Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow Series), the aforementioned Swami, Ward Phillips, and Ernest B. Apinwall, whom is an executor of Carter’s estate and is trying to sell it all off.
Apinwall tells the other three his goal is selling off the Carter estate, because Carter himself has been gone nearly four years and it’s time to move on. The Swami objects and tells the group he has proof that Carter is alive and needs to make sure that Aspinwall doesn’t sell anything. Once we have the abridgement of Carter’s history we jump right into new territory with the quote which opens this essay.
The actual story is too complicated and intricate to tell in short form here, heck, Lovecraft could barely get it out in long form of the story itself, but the basics are that just beyond where Carter had already gone using the Silver Key, there are more gates, and these gates had only been transcended by a few mortals…ever. Carter traversed these gates and gained an understanding far deeper than any human could ever comprehend.
The story covers what we consider to be Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, so we’re not dealing with a horror story as it is, but something that goes so much farther than that. Serendipity comes to mind because I’ve recently been following Marvel and all that they have been working through, with perceptions of thought and reality and multiverse, which makes reading this story at this time seem so very apt. We’ll dig into what I’m talking about in a moment here, but first I would like to discuss the perception of gods and Gods in Lovecraft.
To open it up, I’d like to give you some straight text from this story:
Carter guessed what they were, whence they came, and Whom they served; and guessed, too, the price of their service. But he was still content, for at one mighty venture he was to learn all. Damnation, he reflected, is but a word bandied about by those whose blindness leads them to condemn all who can see, even with a single eye. He wondered at the vast conceit of those who had babbled of the malignant Ancient Ones, as if They could pause from their ever lasting dreams to wreak wrath upon mankind. As well, he thought, might a mammoth pause to visit frantic vengeance on an angleworm. Now the whole assemblage on the vaguely hexagonal pillars was greeting him with a gesture of those oddly carven scepters, and radiating a message which he understood…
There is a whole lot of theology and thought packed into that one little paragraph!
The first portion is the concept of damnation. If you’ve been following along with this blog then you know Lovecraft didn’t adhere to any specific religion; in the sense that the dogma of the church just didn’t make any kind of rational sense to him. This paragraph is the perfect example of that. People who are either willfully ignorant, or just plain blind to reality as Lovecraft saw it, didn’t understand that if there was a God or gods, then they really dont care about you. Rationally it doesn’t make sense for a supreme being to care about lesser beings, thus indicating that these “gods” were mammoths and we were angleworms. Because these beings dont really care about us, then damnation itself must be a construct of religion to keep people in line. Religion, like governance, is about control and comfort. Humans crave structure despite how we act and react sometimes, and to know that there is a heaven and a hell makes people more at ease. If they go to church on Sunday and say their prayers by night, they wont become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright. Damnation (at least what this story is trying to convey) is a construct of the mind, and for Carter, it isn’t until he breaks the barrier held in check by the Silver Key that he comes to this realization. He moves beyond one universe into multiple and lives countless lives and endless consciousness’ all at once; giving him a greater understanding than that of even the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred and his ravings in the Necronomicon. Damnation is a state of mind, not a place.
To piggy back on that we have the conception of the gods in Lovecraft’s mythos. It has been played around with in stories such as “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, but not elucidated with such clarity as it is right here in this paragraph. With the notable exception of Nyarlathotep, the gods of Lovecraft are omnipotent, they are not malignant. These gods transcended space, time, and universe, occupying all and none at the same time. They have lived for eternities and will live for eternities more. Their consciousness has developed for hundreds of thousands of millennia, and because of this, their scope is so much larger than the few thousand years humans have existed. In fact, the only reason Nyarlathotep has any kind of vengeance is because humans keep trying to invade and go beyond their bubble. He is a god who believes we are a stain on the beautiful tapestry of consciousness and wants to be rid of our parasitic species. When Cthulhu comes out of the sea at the end of “The Call of Cthulhu” he is not trying to destroy the world, but his simple visage shows the magnitude of what we dont know, and that in-and-of itself is enough to drive everyone, with the notable exception of Randolph Carter, insane. Damnation is tied so closely to the malevolence of gods and the insanity caused by them, but that’s just a construct so that mere mortals can understand. This whole story is all about how the life we live is an illusion of our own construct, and there is so much more beyond our ken.
So lets dig into that multiverse, shall we?
“The man of Truth is beyond good and evil…The man of Truth had ridden to All-Is-One. The man of Truth las learnt that Illusion is the only reality, and that substance is an impostor.”
Carter goes through the first Gateway of existence:
“Even the First Gateway had taken something of stability from him, leaving him uncertain about his bodily form and about his relationship to the mistily defined objects around him, but it had not disturbed his sense of unity. He had still been Randoplh Carter , a fixed point in the dimensional seething. now, beyond the Ultimate Gateway, he realized in a moment of consuming fright that he was not one person but many persons.”
I mentioned Marvel earlier, and I’ve just started watching WandaVision, like many of you may have as well. This show seems to be of a similar set up to Carter’s story. We have Wanda living in a dream world of her own construct (or maybe caused by another to keep her under control with those calls of “Who’s doing this to you Wanda?”) The layers are slowly being peeled back to revel a reality that may just be too difficult for her to comprehend, thus fracturing her mind. Or maybe she has already been through the gates of which Carter speaks of, and what we view every Friday night is a perception of her fractured mind? The idea of a multiverse is complicated, and Lovecraft here barely scratches the surface (hopefully, with the help of Rick and Morty writers, we’ll see a bit more cohesion in the Marvel Multi-Verse). Carter has lived many lives and we’ve seen that in previous stories (in “The Silver Key” Carter was both his adult self and his ten year old self), but when he goes beyond the ultimate door we find that there are many worlds which hold his consciousness. There are countless alien beings which have been “Randolph Carter”, just not in human form. These are not parallel universes, but unique and individual universes with single threads of consciousness which hold things together. Deja Vu? Strange memories of places and things you shouldn’t have? Sudden empathy or hate for a creature or thing? These are all because we have lived these experiences either concurrently or in the past…or even in the future.
Think of a cupcake stand. The saucers are the different universes of which there could be infinite, the pole holding them together is your consciouness and on each infinte saucer there is a different being with different experiences, but with your soul as the connector. Lovecraft describes it here as:
They told him that every figure of space is but the result of the intersection by a place of some corresponding figure of one more dimension – as a square is cut from a cube or a circle from a sphere. The cube and sphere, of three dimensions, are thus cut from corresponding forms of four dimensions that men known only through guesses and dreams; and these in turn are cut from forms of five dimensions, and so on up to the dizzy and reachless heights of archetypal infinity.
A slight change of angle could turn the student of today into the child of yesterday; could turn Randolph Carter into that wizard Edmund Carter who fled from Salem to the hills behind Arkham in 1692, or that Pickman Carter who in the year 2169 would use strange means in repelling the Mongol hordes from Australia; could turn a human Carter into one of those earlier entities which had dwelt in primal Hyperborea and worshipped black, plastic Tsathoggua after flying down from Kythanil, the double planet that once revolved around Arcturus; could turn a terrestrial Carter to a remotely ancestral and doubtfully shaped dweller on Kythanil itself, or a still remoter creature of trans-galactic Shonhi; or a four-dimensioned gaseous consciousness in an older space-time continuum, or a vegetable brain of the future on a dark radio-active comet of inconceivable orbit – and so on, in the endless cosmic circle.
In fact Carter did this. He transcended through the Ultimate Gate into Zkauba, the wizard of Yaddith, a strange bird-insect like creature and lived for years in this being, until he found his way to travel in a “thin envelope of electron-activated metal” (early TARDIS?) back to earth.
And then we find ourselves back in the room from the beginning of the story with Swami finishing his story and the group realizing that Swami’s accent was fake. That Swami’s face was a mask. The Swami himself…was not a Swami. To reveal the truth Carter pulls the mask off releveling the physiognomy of the bird-insect Zkauba as he never moved beyond that bodily form. Between everyone in the group only Apinwall, the lawyer, sees and in his madness at seeing beyond the gates of the Silver Key, flees the scene and doesn’t foreclose on Carter’s estate.
It’s a long strange ride and this being a Blind Read (The first time I’ve read it) I’m sure I missed volumes which others could fill in. As I get closer to completing the entire oeuvre of Lovecraft I’m constantly mystified at how intellectual all of the stories are and now fully understand the praise as one of the early incredible horror authors.
What do you think??
Join me next week as we delve into “The Whisperer in Darkness”
I’m going to be diving into the Titus Crow series now that I’ve gotten the Carter books under my belt. They follow Titus Crow and Etienne-Laurent de Marigny from this story (follow me on Goodreads if you want updates). That tale centers around the strange clock which is the center piece of Carter’s house which the four men discussed Carter’s fate.
The reason I bring this up here is because it ties together the dream Lands and the waking world so perfectly, where I thought previously that they were two separate, mutually exclusive things. The strange clock has strange hieroglyphics on it instead of numbers:
To him let me say that the language of those hieroglyphics is not Naacal but R’Lyehian, which was brought to earth by the spawn of Cthulhu countless ages ago.
And in sunken R’lyeah sleeping Cthulhu lie…and with strange aeons even death may die.
“We spent the rest of the night in the brilliantly lighted study, nervously discussing what we should do next. The discovery that some vault deeper than the deepest known masonry of the Romans underlay this accursed pile – some vault unsuspected by the curious antiquarians of three centuries – would have been sufficient to excite us without any background of the sinister.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we dive down into the depths of Gothic Romanesque castles to find the truth behind The Rats in the Walls. This story is lauded as one of Lovecraft’s best of his first decade of writing, and though the imagery it elicits created one of the absolute best illustrations of Lovecraft’s work to date (in my opinion at least), the story is a bit plodding. It isn’t until the last five pages or so that we really get into the gruesome reality of the story and it’s understandable that it was turned down by so many publications early on (notably rejected by Argosy)… this is one vivid and gory tale.
I contend that the reason it’s said to be the best of his early work is because so much of what he strove to do early on was focus on detail to elucidate setting… in that case this story truly is one of the best he wrote early on. In addition to that factoid, we also have his early theme of family. Specifically revolving around genetic madness. So many of his stories have to do with the narrator slowly realizing that he’s odd, or at least his impulses are, but it’s not really his fault. It’s because there is some kind of hereditary defect which creates a strain of corruption.
This leads me to believe that there must have been something in his own life… some drive or impulse that he (Lovecraft) felt nagging at the back of his skull which he felt was directly a cause of his genes. Or could he have been of the mindset that all humans are inherently good and the only reason someone would turn bad, or even evil, is if they had some kind of genetic interference with their ancestors who in turn passed on the defect? I’m sure there is some Lovecraft scholar out there that knows the answer to this. If you do, leave a comment for discussion!
Anyway, lets get into the text…
We start off with place. The narrator tells us, “On July 16, 1923, I moved into Exham Priory after the last workman had finished his labors.” So the first sentence tells us that there’s some religious undertones to the story. The fact that the narrator is moving into a Priory gives us that immediate understanding of a vast array of history surrounding place…and religion in Lovecraft is rarely good. The reason the place is laid bare is in the next sentence:
“...a tragedy of intensely hideous, though largely unexplained, nature had struck down the master, five of his children, and several servants; and driven forth under a cloud of suspicion and terror the third son, my lineal progenitor and the only survivor of the abhorred line.”
This is our first indication that something is wrong. Why would our narrator call his genetic line abhorred? There’s a bit of contextualization, but we as readers are supposed to pick up that there is something not quite right with the family. However the narrator tells us right up front, “Had I suspected their nature, how gladly I would have left Exham Priory to it’s moss, bats, and cobwebs!”
The narrator gets flack for rebuilding this monument to the past, specifically from the people who live in the nearby town: “When the people could not forgive, perhaps, was that I had come to restore a symbol so abhorrent to them; for, rationally nor not, they viewed Exham Priory as nothing less than a haunt of fiends and werewolves.“
Why werewolves? Lycanthropy, in all of my forays into Lovecraft, has not been a trope that he is prone to focus on. There is primate mating, but no specific virus or disease which causes a person to become an animal. What is it about this, “prehistoric temple, a Druidical or ante-Druidical thing which must have been contemporary with Stonehenge“?
Why had the locals “…represented my ancestors as a race of hereditary daemons beside whom Gilles de Retz and Marquis de Sade would seem veriest tyros, and hinted whisperingly at their responsibility for the occasional disappearances of villagers through several generations“?
Was it because he had an ancestor who “performed nameless ceremonies at the bidding of a Phrygian priest.” or the “young Randolph Delapore of Carfax, who went among the negroes and became a voodoo priest after he returned from the Mexican War” or potentially even “…the hideous tale of Lady Mary de la Poer, who shortly after her marriage to the Earl of Shrewsfield was killed by him and his mother, both of the slayers being absolved and blessed by the priest to whom they confessed what they dared not repeat to the world.“
Well, for the purposes of this story and for the intention of our narrator, (dont forget the lycanthropy thread) it’s probably “…most vivid of all, there was the dramatic epic of the rats – the scampering army of obscene vermin which had burst forth from the castle three months after the tragedy that doomed it to desertion – the lean, filthy, ravenous army which had swept all before it and devoured fowl, cats, dogs, hogs, sheep, and even two hapless human beings before its fury was spent.”
Here we have our explanation more than anything else. The titular rats have made their entrance into the story and they are causing all the havoc. So the priory was burned down. Years later, our narrator rebuilds the house and moves in. Obviously people are not happy, but why? Everything happened so far in the past and the real reason why people disliked his family was because of the rats…well that and the…werewolves.
Shortly after moving in, our narrator immediately finds that something isn’t right with the newly built house. “I told the man there must be some singular odour or emanation from the old stonework, imperceptible to human senses, but affecting the delicate organs of cats even through new woodwork. This I truly believed, and when the fellow suggested the presence of mice or rats, I mentioned that there had been no rats there for three thousand years…“
The narrator’s cat (who’s name I will not repeat here) was pawing at tapestries and walls where nothing presented itself. It was curious to our narrator, but nothing to be alramed about. I will, however, call your attention to the line, “imperceptable to human senses,” and remind you one more time of the strange mention of lycanthropy earlier in the story.
Later that night he has a dream which foreshadows everything else and gives a precursor to the great artwork of Michael Whelan: “I seemed to be looking down from an immense height upon a twilit grotto, knee-deep with filth, where a white-bearded daemon swineheard drove about his staff a flock of fungous, flabby beasts whose appearance filled me with unutterable loathing.“
Strange happenings continue into the next day and eventually our narrator finds a sub-basement. Too scared to proceed alone he calls on a friend, Captain Norrys, and beneath the Roman construction they found a vault:
“The Vault was very deep in the foundations of the priory, and undoubtedly far down on the face of the beetling limestone cliff overlooking the waste valley.”
The quote which opens this essay comes next, with our intrepid explorers trying to figure out what to do. They eventually decide to go through the sub-cellar and go into the vault…where nothing good could ever come.
“There now lay revealed such a horror as would have overwhelmed us had we not been prepared. Through a nearly square opening in the tiled floor, sprawling on the flight of stone steps so prodigiously worn that it was little more than an inclined place at the centre, was a ghastly array of human or semi-human bones. Those which retained their collocation as skeletons shewed attitudes of panic fear, and over all were the marks of rodent gnawing. The skulls denoted nothing short of utter idiocy, cretinism, or primitive semi-apedom.”
What I find truly intriguing about this part of the story is that all of these men are following our narrator down into this pit without any kind of inclination as to what they’re doing. The only person to hear the critters was our narrator (“imperceptible to human senses“), so it must just be the high of the discovery itself that kept them going.
Beyond that we have another mention of “apedom.” This calls back to “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” where, again, one of Jermyn’s ancestors went to the Congo and wed a She-Ape who was considered a demi-god. Arthur Jermyn finds out that his ancestor is a white ape. Could our narrator here have much the same ancestral line? Or could there be a streak of rodent lycanthropy in his past?
Our group keeps going down until we get to this incredible passage. It is here that Lovecraft starts to really pour it on thick:
It was a twilit grotto of enormous height, stretching away farther than any eye could see; a subterraneous world of limitless mystery and horrible suggestion. There were buildings and other architectural remains – in one terrified glace I saw a weird pattern of tumuli, a savage circle of monoliths, a low-domed Roman ruin, a sprawling Saxon pile, and an early English edifice of wood – but all these were dwarfed by the ghoulish spectacle presented by the general surface of the ground. For yards about the steps extended an insane tangle of human bones, or bones at least as human as those on the steps. Like a foamy sea they stretched, some fallen apart, but others wholly or partly articulated as skeletons; these latter invariably in postures of daemoniac frenzy, either fighting off some menace of clutching other forms with cannibal intent.
I’ve been dancing around it, but this has to be the inspiration for the classic Michael Whelan cover. This is the Lovecraft that I had always been looking for as a young man growing up. For me it was always about the imagery and the feel of what he was writing, rather than the actual themes that he was exploiting. I would sit and look at the Michael Whelan covers and marvel at their gothic surrealist nature, but whenever I picked Lovecraft up the language was too daunting for me to overcome.
Now that I’m older and more well read and capable of the mental bandwidth it takes to analyze his language, I felt it was the perfect time to dissect his works, which is why this blog came into being. Hopefully it will give others the ability to enjoy his stories, despite the language, or in some cases, maybe even because of it.
But I digress.
“It was the antechamber of hell, and poor Thornton fainted again when Trask told him that some skeleton things must have descended as quadrupeds through the last twenty or more generations.”
Our narrator had taken his fellows into some hellish nightmare with “prehistoric tumuli” and “skulls which were slightly more human than a gorilla’s…” All this in some massive vault underneath the priory and was so tumescent that “We shall never know what sightless Stygian worlds yawn beyond the little distance we went…“
The group traverses this nightmare realm, built upon centuries of bodies and bones, until the narrator finally hears what he was dreading:
“It was the eldritch scurrying of those fiend-born rats, always questing for new horrors, and determined to lead me on even unto those grinning caverns of earth’s centre where Nyarlathotep, the mad faceless god, howls blindly in the darkness to the piping of two amorphous idiot flute players.”
This is where the theories of the narrative diverge, as no one else in the party sees or hears the rats other than our narrator, who incidentally spouts off some phrase in Gaelic:
“That is what they say I said when they found me in the blackness after three hours; found me crouching in the blackness over the plump, half-eaten body of Capt. Norrys, with my own cat leaping and tearing at my throat.“
Two theories jump out at me as the narrator is put away raving that he didn’t kill Captain Norrys, the rats did. The first is what I like to believe because of all the seeds planted earlier in the story. We had the mention of werewolves, which is merely a reference for us to understand that there is Lycanthropy in the possibility of this story, but instead of it being a werewolf, it’s a wererat.
The second notion is that the narrator is the only one to ever hear the rats in the walls; with the exception of his cat, but I’d contend that the cat was trying to say that something was there in the walls. Some vast power the cat was trying to get to. Cats have power in Lovecraft, just look at “The Cats of Ulthar.”
The unique take on this however, is that the narrator doesn’t take on the appearance of a rat, but the mental capacity of the rat. That’s the power of the lycanthrope here and that’s probably the storm of rats which happened all those years previous. What was built underneath the priory is a temple to the horrible god Nyarlathotep and the people tied to the priory, the people who practiced the rituals and built the horrible vault, were the people inflicted with the curse of the lycanthrope. That’s why so many of the townsfolk are scared of the priory…years ago it was a group of cannibals who imagined they were rats who stormed the village and killed and ate and ravaged. Thus when the narrator discovers the horrible truth, his genetic disposition is to turn feral and become one with the rat…poor Captain Norrys was just in the way as the rodent appetite took hold of the narrator.
We were also given a hint to the cannibalism earlier as well, which could also be considered part of Nyarlathotep’s influence.
The other theory is that everything was normal until they got to the vault and Nyarlathotep’s influence robbed the crew of their senses, but I this theory is all conjecture. The real evidence comes from what I’ve discussed prior and I tend to believe that Lovecraft puts in hints, buried underneath detail, and we just have to dig a bit to get to it.
This story touches on a number of tropes classic to Lovecraft as well. Genetic madness, place triggering memory and sanity, the haunted/possession trope, and architecture which develops a tone for the story. What I love about it (and probably why it’s lauded as his best) is that it puts all these themes together in one place, but doesn’t focus on any individual theme, which just enhances the overall feel of the whole story.
Let me know what you think in the comments! Were there mystical rats? Or was it really our narrator all along?
Join me next week as we dissect “The Very Old Folk”!
“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.
“Hello. I’m Vincent Price, and you’re invited to my Carnival this evening. So far the ghosts have only murdered seven people. So won’t you come to make it 8? You’ll find creatures beyond imagination, murderers, ghouls, vampires and other…blood sucking things. You’d better hurry, your ticket…expires…at midnight. Your Carnival is at Hubert’s Grove.”
Oscar pulled the phone away from his ear and looked at it, as if its screen would divulge more information.
The call’s number was (000)000-0000, so Oscar didn’t answer. He turned to Olivia.
“What is it babe?”
“I just go this really weird call,” he held the phone out to her. “Listen to the message.” He half thought it was a joke. Olivia loved that horror shit. Oscar didn’t have a clue who Vincent Price was, but he was sure Olivia would. Besides that, every year at Halloween she begged Oscar to take her to Hubert’s Grove. It was one of those places where they build a haunted maze in the woods and then charge a crazy admission price to go in and have idiots in costumes jump out at you.
He realized he made a mistake handing the phone over a second before he did it.
“OH MY GOD WE HAVE TO GO!” Olivia squealed when she finished the message.
“No! That was really Vincent Price’s voice! They must have spliced it from old movies!”
“Babe…” Oscar repeated.
She looked at him, then firmly planted a fist on her hip. “You wanna get lucky tonight, you’re taking me.”
A few minutes later they were in the car on the way to Hubert’s Grove.
The marquee said “Carnival of Souls” and they parked right in front of it. The carnival was desolate and run down. There were no people about and the tarp which encompassed the tents was stained and torn. Dust blew on a hidden zephyr through the central concourse where a solo ticket booth stood. Behind the glass of the booth was an old mechanical Zoltar, which had an abyssal stare and teeth that were just a little too white.
The full moon was the only illumination in the carnival, but it was enough to show the way to through the park. Directly on the other side of the carnival was an old house of horrors dark ride with the title “The Tingler” and a large cutout of Vincent Price’s head under the arched name.
“Oh my God this is spectacular!” Olivia screamed and ran to the Zoltar ticket booth.
“For access to the carnival please place your tickets in the slot below,” the mechanical soothsayer intoned.
“Ah, damn babe, I don’t know about this,” Oscar said. “This thing ‘aint looking like it’s been running for years.”
“Oh stop it, you big baby! I seen the squash festival here last week,” Olivia came back at him.
Oscar looked up to the rusty ferris wheel. “That enough time to build all this stuff?”
“Totally! They build that shit in a few hours. Where are the tickets?” She asked.
“Serious? You were there, we ‘aint got no tickets. We just got that phone call.”
A bright flash came from Zoltar’s eyes that briefly blinded them before Vincent Price’s dulcet tones echoed through its voice box.
“Welcome to your carnival. We accept your ticket,” The voice paused and a loud boom echoed over the grounds followed by a shower of sparks. There was a soft baby’s cry and the rides burst to life. Oscar was sure he could still hear the baby’s lament behind the screeching of rusted gears, but he was distracted by the voice coming from the Ticket Booth.
“Your first tickets are for “The Tingler,” so named because of the parasite in your spine that gives you tingles every time you’re frightened. If you can survive The Tingler you will receive your ticket to the next attraction at the conclusion of the dark ride.”
Two tickets popped out of a metal disc at waist height on the Ticket Booth. The voice laughed a terrifying but familiar guffaw before it faded to the ambiance of the grinding gears and soft baby cry.
“This is so fucking cool,” Olivia said already running toward the haunted house dark ride.
Oscar looked down at his arms and could see goose flesh and hair standing on end.
“Hold up!” He said running after her.
The Tingler had a long ramp with switchbacks leading up to the entrance, where a track carried cars barely large enough for two people to sit in. Olivia jumped in one of the cars and slid to the side gently slapping the seat next to her, beckoning Oscar to join her. Her smile hit each ear. He squeezed in and lowered the safety bar to cover their laps.
“The more scared you are, the larger the Tingler grows,” a voice projected from the car’s speakers behind their head.
The car sped up, then jerkily slowed and slammed a 90 degree turn into the attraction, snapping their heads to the side. Oscar let out a little “uh” as they were suddenly faced with a realistic wax figure on a hydraulic piston shooting out at their car. With a hiss, the piston moved the figure away from the car, revealing how fake the set up was. It was dark inside of the first room, which looked like a laboratory with faint glowing red lights. There were dollar store props, including rubber bats hanging from the ceiling with twine. There were other wax figurines in the room as well, all in various poses of horror but none of them moving. On what looked to be an operating table was a wax figure working on what looked to be a giant rubber centipede.
“Your first experience of the Tingler is past! Don’t let it get too strong or it could take over!” Vincent Price’s voice echoed in their ears.
The car moved slowly through the room before snapping again to the left. A sound track of a scream blasted from the speakers behind their heads and the wax figure of a woman with long nails and sharp teeth jumped out at them. Oscar jumped, but Olivia squealed in delight. The hiss sounded and the hydraulics brought the wax doll back into the shadows.
The next scene had even worse décor. There were more wax dolls in a scene that looked like a scientist fighting off vampire, but the supposed house they were in was just canvas that covered the walls with a painted scene and a jarring green lightbulb which lit the room from the ceiling. Vampires were painted on the canvas to look like they were swarming the painted windows and there was a Paper Mache dog attached to a metal pole moving back and forth as though it was attacking one of the vampires. The wax figures looked fairly realistic, though the running wax was evident. Everything else looked like it was produced for an eight year old’s diorama.
“Oh, come on! This is…ooof!” Oscar started as the car made another sharp turn.
This time he closed his eyes as to not get the jump scare but volume of the scream in the speaker system still made him jump.
This room was another painted canvas, however this one depicted a large Victorian mansion. There was a wax figure with a knife attached to a pneumatic track in the middle of the room. It was moving back and forth so that every time it moved forward it stabbed another wax figure.
“The only way to stop the Tingler from taking over,” the voice echoed behind their heads again, “is to kill the host!”
Oscar rolled his eyes and searched for more fake decorations when he saw something strange. The wax figure getting stabbed was missing one of its eyes and beneath the wax veneer was a real eye, open wide and staring at him. Olivia was laughing beside him.
“Yo, what the fuck?” He said as the car jerked them around another corner.
Another figure jumped out at them, but this one had a knife in its hand. The knife slid into his shoulder and his cry of pain echoed the tinny voice over the speaker.
With a hydraulic hiss the wax figure moved backwards. As it did the figure’s the head slumped.
“Oscar?” Olivia wasn’t laughing anymore.
The figure that jumped out at them wasn’t wax. It was a dead woman with her hands tied together around the knife. She had enough wax coating her that it made her body slightly stiff.
The room they entered was entirely metal illuminated by a red light. A figure hunched over a large cauldron in the corner of the room. It was facing away from them, but it was tall and gaunt and absolutely alive.
“The Tingler gets stronger! We must kill its source before it gets out of control!” The voice echoed behind them. There was a click and a grinding noise coming from the speakers as if a record had completed and continued to spin on its pin.
“Oscar?” Fear laced Olivia’s voice.
Oscar tried to turn to see what made the noise and felt a needle slide into the back of his neck.
“Oww!” Olivia wailed.
Immediately Oscar’s vision blurred.
The figure leaning over the cauldron turned around. It was wearing a melting wax mask and underneath Oscar thought he saw burnt skin.
“Welcome to your carnival,” the figure said. “Where you’ll be an attraction for all eternity.”
The figure pulled a lever and the last thing Oscar saw was a body falling from the ceiling into the cauldron of wax.
I’m taking the week off from the Blind Read series to catch up on work, so I’ll leave you with a Lovecraft inspired story. Here’s a horror short based in the madness of the mind…
The black spot was still there. How many times have I scrubbed that damn thing? It’s always there, in the corner, next to the refrigerator, just above the counter in the kitchen. I used to put my knife block there to cover it. It was a large spot, but there were a lot of knifes in the set. It’s such an embarrassing spot. It makes me feel like people would look at it and think I didn’t clean. I mean, how can I ever have anyone over?
Who am I kidding? It’s not like I know anyone who would come over. Not like I have any friends. I can’t have friends. They might want to come over and then they would see the spot and then they would judge me. I have to get rid of it. Cleaning doesn’t seem to help, so I decide that the best thing that I can do is cut it out. Cut it out of the wall, cut it out of my life.
Ah it worked! I got it out of the wall! I went to the hardware store and I bought a drill and cut the embarrassing stain out of the wall. I bought drywall to cover it up and repainted it. It finally looks like the rest of the wall! I can be a normal person now. I can invite people over, I can have friends. This is the best day of my life!
The best day followed by the worst day. When I woke up today, I found a new spot and it’s larger than the last one. It’s in my living room this time. It’s large and ugly. It looks kind of black, but if you get closer to it, it almost looks brown. Where are these stains coming from? I have to go get the drill.
That one was much harder to get out. It ended up being a much larger hole than I anticipated. I started to cut and red liquid came out from the wall. For a moment I thought it was blood. It can’t be blood. Walls don’t bleed. But the liquid spread the stain. I had to cut out half of the wall. I didn’t have enough dry wall to cover it the spot I cut so I had to go back to the hardware store. The clerks there are friendly. Maybe they could be my friends. Maybe. But I have to get that spot out of the wall first.
It’s gotten worse. There is a human sized spot in my room. It’s deep brown. I’m not fooled by thinking its black anymore. The moment I put the drill to it, blood comes out. I know, I know. It can’t be blood, because walls don’t bleed. But it really seems like it. What’s even stranger is that when I cut, the house seems to groan. You know how old houses shift and they make noises? Creaks, cracks, pops? That’s what happens when I cut. I wish I had a friend who could come over and tell me that it’s just the creaks in the house. That it’s not something more strange. That it’s not blood.
I cut into the wall. I ignore the wall’s cries. I ignore the blood. Behind the drywall is something I can’t ignore though. The house has bones. Bloody bones in the walls. Bones where studs should be.
I got back to the hardware store. I need to get more dry wall. I need to get more paint. I’m so embarrassed though. They are nice to me there. I think they can be friends, but something has changed now. It is as though they know about my house, with its blood and its bones. They ask me why I’m wearing sunglasses and a hat and a large trench coat with the collar turned up. They say it’s good to see me, but I can tell that they’re lying.
I put up the drywall when I got home. I spackled it perfectly, then painted it over. No one would ever guess that there are bones and blood behind the wall.
There’s another spot. Another one! It’s in the shower. The brown spot almost makes it look like the wall is skin. Like it has texture. Like it has movement. I repeat the process. I ignore the groans. I ignore the blood. I ignore the bones. I act like nothing is there. I act like I have a normal house. I act like I’m normal.
There’s a new spot today. I don’t know how they keep appearing. I know how to fix it. I’ve done it so many times before. I know I just need to do it again. This must be what my life is. Just getting rid of these dark spots. Erasing anything that doesn’t seem normal. I will make sure that people think I’m normal.
I grab the drill. I run my hand over the spot. I wonder how I’m going to find the materials to fix the hole I create as I cut out this abnormality. I put the drill to my chest. Once I cut this spot out of me, I’ll be normal. I’ll be able to have friends.
“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.
“Gabe! Oh God please get over here! I don’t know what to do. It’s horrible!”
It was Henry… I hadn’t heard from Henry for quite some time. We were flat mates back in college; the days of too much drinking and too many drugs. We’d grown apart over time, not because of any interpersonal issues, just time and space. He’d become a Chemist and I became a police detective. My policing skills made it all the more disturbing that he was calling me out of the blue.
“Henry, slow down. What’s going on?” I asked.
“My lab. It’s been destroyed and… my assistants… Gabe. They’re dead! Someone killed them!” Henry wailed.
“Call the police Henry, meaning right now. As soon as I get off the phone. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
I grabbed my coat and exited my brownstone. Snow was coming down in droves which always seemed to make it harder to get a cab. When I finally flagged one down, I got in and the world was drowned out by Bruce Springsteen’s new hit blaring over the radio.
The cab made its way across town as slow as molasses, belying the song blaring on the radio. We apparently were not “Born to Run.”
My hackles rose as soon as we pulled up to Henry’s lab. The windows were smashed and the snow beneath them was spattered with red spots. I hoped it wasn’t blood, but as a detective I knew better.
I tossed the cabbie a tenner and knocked on the door to the lab. I checked to make sure my pistol was in its holster under my coat and took out my Moleskine.
The door flew open and Henry stood there looking frantic. His eyes were sunken and his skin was jaundiced. He looked like he hadn’t slept for days. Springsteen echoed behind him in his lab.
“Gabe! Thank God! Get in here! I don’t know what to do!”
“Slow it down Henry, tell me what’s going on,” I said entering the lab. It was a disaster. Broken glass everywhere. The ground was littered with viscous liquid, but what was worse was the bodies. Two people were dead on the ground. I didn’t even need to inspect them, their terrible wounds told me all I needed to know.
A woman had her head turned around backwards, her spine creating strange bluish-purple bulges in her neck where the bone was trying to break free.
A man was lying in a pool of blood with what looked to be a sword sticking out of his back. That must have been what created the blood spatter on the snow outside. I walked to the end of the room to switch off the radio. I couldn’t focus with that music blaring.
“They told me that a man named Edward came here looking for me. Looking for a new formula I’d created,” Henry said.
“Did they see him?” I started, then looked back at my disheveled friend, “wait, did you say they told you?”
“Yes! They told me he came in here and tore the place apart looking for more of my formula and when he couldn’t find it…” Henry trailed off.
“Henry,” I said. “How could they have told you if they were dead when you got there?”
His face looked surprised for a moment, then it twisted somehow. His skin rippled, his hair grew, his eye color changed. He was not the Henry I once knew.
“Oh you are so smart, Gabe!” His voice was not Henry’s. This voice was lower, rockier.
I reached for my pistol but he was faster than light. He was upon me before I could draw the revolver and his sharp teeth dug into my shoulder.
I screamed in agony and threw him away from me.
I managed a glance at him as I fumbled for my Smith and Wesson. What I saw was not human. His nails had grown long and sharp and his joints snapped and twisted into something more bestial. His eyes were bloodshot, matching my blood which covered his mouth and nose.
“Henry,” I cried, pulling the gun and pointing it. “What was in that formula?”
He laughed and sprung. I do not believe in the supernatural, but I swear he covered the fifteen feet between us with a single bound. His nails dug at my shoulders and his teeth snapped at my face. The pistol went off and he squealed like a rat.
I fell backward when he let go and fired another bullet off after him. I swear it hit him. I saw the blood spray off him but he didn’t stop moving.
The lights suddenly went out, plunging the lab into darkness. The only light in the room was the dim illumination of the lamp from the street.
“Henry!” I cried. “Henry, I don’t know what you’ve done, but we can reverse this! Did the formula make you become Edward?”
Laugher echoed through the laboratory. Springsteen came back on the radio.
“Henry! You called for help! I know you called for me to help you get rid of this Edward. Come out and let me help you!” I cried.
He sprang at me from my flank and I felt nails rake across my back.
I screamed and fired my pistol again.
At night, we ride through mansions of glory, in suicide machines…
“Is there an antidote, Henry?” I cried into the darkened room.
…this town rips the bones from your back…
I heard the laughter of the insane in the room.
“You really don’t understand, Gabe,” he laughed.
I could see his eyes reflecting through the darkness.
…it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap…
“The serum wasn’t to help me control the urges.”
…we gotta get out of here…
I lost him. I couldn’t see where he was. I took a deep breath and braced my pistol in both hands.
“You see Gabe,” He began before singing along with The Boss “I gotta find out how it feels. Don’t you want to know how it feels?”
He was suddenly in front of me and I felt his nails claw into me again. I shot my gun, but it was errant. He was gone again before I could respond.
Laughter echoed in the darkness.
…Tramps like us, baby we were born to run…
“Once I took the serum there was no more Henry. There was only Edward,” his laughter echoed inside my head. I was suddenly dizzy. I felt consciousness retreating from me. I looked down to where he scratched me. There was no scratch. I saw a syringe sticking out of me.
…I want to die with you…
“I didn’t call you here to stop Edward,” His gravelly voice said.
…on the streets tonight…
“I called you here to have a partner.”
I felt intense anger. I leaned into the hate. It felt good.
…Tramps like us, baby we were born to run…
“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.
Lewis turned the key in the lock to the main doors and waved off Dr. Whemple. The darkened museum was always his favorite place to be. It was quiet, there were things to be learned from the exhibits, and there were always books.
He’d been looking forward to this week for months. This was the week they brought in the treasures from the Egyptian dig. He’d been following it closely. Dr. Whemple and his associates finally discovered the long lost burial site of Imhotep.
It was all very exciting for Lewis. He didn’t know much about Egypt or its history, but he thought he could use the information. He had another date with Elizabeth on Tuesday and she had even mentioned how much she loved Egyptian history and was excited to hear about the exhibit of the high priest Imhotep coming to their town. He was planning on learning everything there was to know about Imhotep to impress her. She was beautiful and smart and maybe, just maybe, he could trick her into falling in love with him.
He whistled as he opened the door to the curating room. He knew he wasn’t allowed in the room without supervision, Dr. Whemple made sure that no one went into the room without him but what was the harm? Lewis only wanted to get some firsthand experience to show off for Elizabeth.
The room was incredible. It was dusty, sure, but all the artifacts came from Egypt. What else could he expect coming from all that sand?
The first thing he noticed was the sarcophagus. It was stone and had the shape of a man carved into the lid. The carving had crossed arms was holding a flail and maybe a hook. He hoped those things had a name. He would love to regale Elizabeth with that knowledge.
He turned to the table and saw an old parchment underneath a heavy glass. It was in a language he couldn’t understand, but he gave it a shot anyway. The words stumbled over his tongue, but he finished and shrugged. Maybe he could regurgitate that and say it was some kind of prayer to impress Elizabeth. He tried it again.
A moment later a large crash came from behind him. He twisted just as the candles blew out and the room was plunged into darkness.
“Damn,” he said under his breath and patted his uniform until he found a box of matches. He lit one and held it high and blood instantly drained from his face. The lid of the sarcophagus had fallen off and smashed on the ground. That was it. He was going to get fired. There was no way Dr. Whemple would forgive something like this!
Then he heard something move behind him. It almost sounded like someone dragging a sheet over the ground.
He turned and held the match high. He thought he saw movement for a second but the match burned his finger and he dropped it, cursing. He got another match and struck it on the box. The light bloomed and illuminated a figure standing before him. It had old rotten cloth wrapped around it, covering the entirety of its body. It lifted an arm out to him, cloth hanging loose, showing a brown, wrinkled skeletal hand with long twisted and yellowed nails.
Lewis screamed and jumped back, swiping his hand at the thing. His finger caught on a strand of the rotted cloth covering the thing’s face. The cloth pulled free, taking with it a part of the creatures dehydrated skin. The cloth began to unravel as the second match burned Lewis’ finger.
He cursed and fell backwards. He struck another match. It bloomed and he immediately wished it hadn’t. The wrappings had fallen free of the face of the creature. Its skin was rotten and twisted, with intermittent holes, showing bone and blackness of its mouth. The eyeballs were gone, replaced with some kind of beetles crawling in and out of the empty sockets. Its teeth were long and yellow and pointed.
Lewis was sure it laughed at him. He screamed as it grasped his arm with its rotten hand. Its grip was stronger than anything he’d ever felt before and it snapped one of the bones in his forearm.
The creature lifted him up by his ruined arm, bringing him face to face with its horrible rotten visage. Its breath smelt like decay and hot sand. It opened its mouth wider than Lewis thought possible and one of those beetles began to crawl out.
Lewis screamed again and when he opened his mouth, the beetle flew into it. He could feel it crawl down his throat. He tried to scream, but no sound came out. Two more beetles crawled out of the creature’s eyes. They landed on Lewis’ nose and forced their way into his nostrils…
Dr. Whemple stood outside the door, waiting for Lewis to unlock it for him.
“About time Lewis!” Whemple cried as Lewis swung the door wide for him. “My lord man, you look terrible. Maybe you should head home and get some rest!”
Lewis didn’t respond, but Whemple could see a beetle crawl over the back of Lewis’ hand.
“Lewis! Wipe that off! Why, that looked suspiciously like a scarab! You weren’t bitten were you? Those can be terribly poisonous!” Whemple asked.
Lewis pointed behind Whemple into the Museum. The doctor, confused, turned to see what Lewis was pointing at. A large figure limped towards them.
“Who…” Whemple began, but Lewis grabbed him in a bear hug trapping his arms to his sides.
“Lewis! What is the meaning of this!”
The Mummy opened its rotten mouth and a scarab crawled out of it. Whemple screamed.