You may have never considered reading this author's work because, as it were, horror or fantasy or some hybrid of these two genres with particularly impassioned readerships has never appealed to your aesthetic enjoyment. And while such a prejudice may be accurate for the vast majority of such writers, missing out on Lovecraft would be criminal. His style is utterly and invariably impeccable; he may often employ old and arcane words, but his subjects are often old and arcane. And while he aims at horror, he does not aim at gore or hideous violence: his achievement, even more remarkable for someone who always insisted that he had no faith whatsoever in the supernatural, was to dissect in all seriousness the wicked portals of eternal evil and their occasional manifestations in our realm. That type of Herculean task is so easily butchered by the melodramatic hack and shunned by writers of true genius as beneath their artistic ambition, which makes Lovecraft an even rarer bird, as his absolutely first-rate prose gleams with precision and beauty at every indentation. And among the many masterpieces he composed, this tale is certainly one of the finest.
We begin with a confession that will turn out to be more of a McGuffin – and I give nothing away with such a disclosure. A man in his fifties, but twelve years older than his victim and best friend Edward Derby, has killed Derby with a full revolver round to the head. The murderer, Daniel Upton, also happens to be our narrator. The motive for such a slaying is poorly secreted from first to last paragraph, as the person Upton murders is not Edward Derby at all – and perhaps, in the strict physiological sense, not quite a person, either. We are eventually led to believe that the being inside of Derby may be the bizarre creature he chooses as his wife; I should say, it is the wife who chooses Derby:
Edward was thirty-eight when he met Asenath Waite. She was, I judge, about twenty-three at the time .... She was dark, smallish, and very good-looking except for overprotuberant eyes; but something in her expression alienated extremely sensitive people .... Asenath, it seemed, had posed as a kind of magician at school; and had really seemed able to accomplish some highly baffling marvels. She professed to be able to raise thunderstorms, though her seeming success was generally laid to some uncanny knack at prediction. All animals markedly disliked her, and she could make any dog howl by certain motions of her right hand. There were times when she displayed snatches of knowledge and language very singular – and very shocking – for a young girl; when she would frighten her schoolmates with leers and winks of an inexplicable kind, and would seem to extract an obscene and zestful irony from her present situation. Most unusual, though, were the well-attested cases of her influence over other persons. She was, beyond question, a genuine hypnotist. By gazing peculiarly at a fellow-student she would often give the latter a distinct feeling of exchanged personality – as if the subject were placed momentarily in the magician’s body and able to stare half across the room at her real body, whose eyes blazed and protruded with an alien expression.
There are many other unsettling facts about Asenath, not the least of which is her provenance. She hails from Innsmouth, a "run-down fishing port" around which rumors have swirled about the cause of its depopulation – something involving the breeding of human residents with some inhuman marine visitors, but I digress. That Asenath is a demon, or at least of demon stock, is never doubted by Upton or the reader; perhaps it is not even doubted by Derby himself, although he seems inexorably drawn to Asenath as a great mind can be lured by commensurate evil. As in many formidable Gothic tales, we the readers know that a certain acquaintance is bad news and the end of hope in one package. Yet we sadistically flip the pages forth in wonderment over what precisely will befall him who has chosen so unwisely.
What becomes of Edward Derby is already revealed on the opening page, and still the suspense of how he achieves his wicked fate is as tremendous as in any whodunit or thriller. Along the way, those who admire the sublimity of the English language sweeping dust off old tomes and vile images will surely be engaged by Upton's report. There are myriad examples of this perfection: "I perceived," says a worried Upton about this new, horrible couple, "that their intimacy was beyond untangling"; "Occasionally the Derbys would go on long trips – ostensibly to Europe, though Edward sometimes hinted at obscurer destinations"; "He repeated names which I recognized from bygone browsings in forbidden volumes, and at times made me shudder with a certain thread of mythological consistency – of convincing coherence – which ran through his maundering." But I have been omitting the meat dish from our courses. Asenath comes from a long line of Waites, nefarious the whole lot of them, with the primary malefactor having been none other than her father Ephraim, a wizard of some significance. Father, like daughter, was a student of magic with some alleged command over the elements and willpower that exceeded all known human exertions:
The old man was known to have been a prodigious magical student in his day, and legend averred that he could raise or quell storms at sea according to his whim. I had seen him once or twice in my youth as he came to Arkham to consult forbidden tomes at the college library, and had hated his wolfish, saturnine face with its tangle of iron-grey beard. He had died insane – under rather queer circumstances – just before his daughter (by his will made a nominal ward of the principal) entered the Hall School, but she had been his morbidly avid pupil and looked fiendishly like him at times.
I suppose it is natural enough to abhor someone whose soul you somehow sense has long since been blackened by ambition and pacts; but Upton's reaction may be a mild case of twenty-twenty hindsight. After all, don't daughter and father resemble each other, at times more than just physically, and wasn't Asenath "very good-looking"? And we haven't even mentioned Edward's long, fast drives down Innsmouth road.