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Entries in Lovecraft (7)

Sunday
Jul302017

Beyond the Wall of Sleep

An old rule about short fiction asserts that a story should not quote its title because it will have a false clang (even more true of a film as those being filmed should not be aware that they have an audience). While numerous great works defy such wisdom – those whose main character gets top billing do not really count in this regard – the sentiment contains more than a few kernels of truth. Philosophy, as many who don't understand a lick of it have said, is a pursuit of the rich. The put-upon, the oppressed, and the marginalized have no time for the distant diatribes of the ivory tower. How could the meaning of the universe or even simply earthbound life resonate with those who struggle for daily necessities? Yet in stories of horror, incorporating the title verbatim into the narrative does not result in a wooden echo, but an omen. It becomes a chant, a legend, a premonition of unspeakable evil prophesied in riddles and warnings which any normal, reasonable mind would interpret as unbesought mercy. And despite all good sense to the contrary, we see another learned man lured into the fantastic in this story.

Our narrator identifies himself only as an intern in "the state psychopathic institution," the state in question being New York since we will be patrolling these mountains. Literary doctors always need literary patients, otherwise they cease to be of any interest at all, and our narrator's subject was foisted upon him by chance itself:

His name, as given on the records, was Joe Slater, or Slaader, and his appearance was that of the typical denizen of the Catskill Mountain region; one of those strange, repellent scions of a primitive colonial peasant stock whose isolation for nearly three centuries in the hilly fastnesses of a little-travelled countryside has caused them to sink to a kind of barbaric degeneracy, rather than advance with their more fortunately placed brethren of the thickly settled districts .... This man, a vagabond, hunter, and trapper, had always been strange in the eyes of his primitive associates. He had habitually slept at night beyond the ordinary time, and upon waking would often talk of unknown things in a manner so bizarre as to inspire fear even in the hearts of an unimaginative populace. Not that his form of language was at all unusual, for he never spoke save in the debased patois of his environment; but the tone and tenor of his utterances were of such mysterious wildness, that none might listen without apprehension. He himself was generally as terrified and baffled as his auditors, and within an hour after awakening would forget all that he had said, or at least all that had caused him to say what he did.

As well it should be forgotten, since Slater will commit a hideous crime against a man called Slader, a likely cousin amidst all this "degeneracy," and leave behind "an unrecognisable pulp-like thing." Acquitted of murder on grounds of insanity, Slater, an illiterate who "had apparently never heard a legend or fairy tale," will come under the examination of our fascinated narrator. Fascinated by what, you ask? By the fact that Slater's visions imply an ocular homologue of glossolalia, of sights his dim realm could not possibly know. Our intern explains:

The man himself was pitiably inferior in mentality and language alike; but his glowing, titanic visions, though described in a barbarous and disjointed jargon, were assuredly things which only a superior or even exceptional brain could conceive. How, I often asked myself, could the stolid imagination of a Catskill degenerate conjure up sights whose very possession argued a lurking spark of genius? How could any backwoods dullard have gained so much as an idea of those glittering realms of supernal radiance and space about which Slater ranted in his furious delirium? More and more I inclined to the belief that in the pitiful personality who cringed before me lay the disordered nucleus of something beyond my comprehension; something infinitely beyond the comprehension of my more experienced but less imaginative medical and scientific colleagues.

Experience has a rather unfortunate tendency to diminish imagination, and not only that of otherwise blithe and hopeful scientists. One wonders whether our intern would have been so keen on learning the secrets housed in Joe Slater's terrestrial form had his fellow boffins been more receptive to those "great edifices of light, oceans of space, strange music, and shadowy mountains and valleys." He does not relent in his aims, which means that he will have his chance alone with his "barbarian" of a patient, should that really be Joe Slater behind those blue eyes. 

Lovecraft was a stylist of indefinite genius often waylaid by his own nightmares and henchmen. And while the detail he lends his descriptions bespeaks the idolater, it is perhaps even more impressive that no one could ever deem his krakens and godlets familiar. How can prose convey the eerie sensations that linger in the crevasses of a sleep-flushed brain, how can wickedness in its most awesome manifestations possibly jostle our spines? The monsters of most horror tales are but ghoulish parodies of homines sapientes: it is through our own reflections, our solipsistic urgings, that we imagine life corrupted and distorted. But what if we heard a voice insist, Watch me in the sky beside the Daemon-Star, what then? Would we, akin to our ever-curious narrator, be so inclined as to gaze upon the firmament in search of signs and wonders? Not if our idea of fun is a "plain tale of science," and our reaction merely a dismissive shrug of the shoulders. 

Tuesday
Apr042017

The Thing on the Doorstep

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.  

Wednesday
Feb222017

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Without some mild prompting, horror fans may not be able to confirm that there exist two types of scare tales: those about the unfamiliar awash in the shadows and tricks of the light, and those about very familiar things that turn out to be not what they seem. For whatever reason, I have on numerous occasions toyed with scenarios from the latter grouping and they have invariably resulted in dissatisfaction. Why is our first type so superior? Perhaps because in our second, there is no suspense, no chance for understanding when something you have always treated as safe is transformed into a parlous and despicable trap (zombies, those beloved catch-all cannibals, come to mind). And while many a work has been constructed on the premise that someone – a family member, a co-worker, a respected citizen – is not what he or she appears to be, a pervasive obliviousness is the only plausible explanation; otherwise, we would simply have random whims and haphazard betrayal. It is this first premise that both makes this work so outstanding and reduces numerous whodunits to a pure guessing game. And yet there is also another genre that borrows liberally from both these types, a perfect example of which careens through the pages of this short novel.

Our eponymous character is a young man in Rhode Island; the time is that brief, sweet lull between the twentieth century's two European cataclysms. The young man has been diagnosed by alienists and other nostrum-peddlers as mentally ill, but the cause of his malady is never ascertained by modern science (and since we are reading this author, we know it never will be). No, our man is ill all right, but his is the illness of having crossed boundaries of human experiences that should remain just that, boundaries. Boundaries, as it were, to gaze upon from a comfortable distance and then be forever shown the backs of us. Young Ward's life was changed in dramatic fashion by uncovering a hitherto unknown ancestor with the ominous name of Curwen, a corruption of the Latin word for this bird. Joseph Curwen, as his forebear was called, seemed to have lived a very long and ignominious life in the region, and was somehow implicated in the witch trials that devoured Puritan England over two centuries before. And yet, chroniclers maintain that Curwen didn't age, or at least, not enough ("this strange, pallid man, hardly middle-aged in aspect yet certainly not less than a full century old"). Stranger still is this greedy and reclusive hermit's Georgian habitat, from where the wickedest midnight sounds and smells are said to emerge. This attracts the attention of local law enforcement, who choose to do nothing that could repercuss in their disfavor. Instead, one dark night they assemble an extrajudicial band and invade the premises. What they find is never made explicit, but we gather they may have been better off not interfering in such machinations:   

It was just before dawn that a single haggard messenger with wild eyes and a hideous unknown odor about his clothing appeared and told the detachment to disperse quietly to their homes and never think or speak of the night's doings or of him who had been Joseph Curwen. Something about the bearing of the messenger carried a conviction which his mere words could never have conveyed; for though he was a seaman well known to many of them, there was something obscurely lost or gained in his soul which set him evermore apart.

Curwen may well represent Poe's ancestry to Lovecraft since the latter considered the author of The Raven to be the greatest of all literary influences on his artistic development, but Poe's worlds are small and self-destructive. They collapse upon themselves like tombs or old, creaking houses, with a character or two invariably trapped within. Lovecraft's work is, however, about the abyss, the immensity of horror that is only intensified by our basal apprehensions about hell or nothingness or an oblivion that will consume us over the course of millions of years. How much better then to leave undescribed what these soldiers saw that fateful night in what they had expected would be a warlock's cave, a night during which Joseph Curwen – ageless, baleful, deal-hungry Joseph Curwen – was at last destroyed.

This terrible event, of course, does nothing to dissuade young Ward, who is under the care of a certain Dr. Willett. Willett, true to his oaths, likes facts and treatments. He is averse to the spiritual in the same way that one can be allergic to something as fundamental as milk. Even when Ward betakes himself for three years to Europe to visit notorious black magic practitioners, Willett implies that Ward could be actively mimicking his ancestor's activities and language in his correspondence out of some kind of obsessive fascination. There is, of course, another explanation, and one that has to do with the menacing portrait of Joseph Curwen uncovered at the house that Ward will soon inhabit. Giving away too much of Ward's psychic shift would be unfair to the tale's future readers, but we can mention Willett's venture to the house that Curwen built:    

It is hard to explain just how a single sight of a tangible object with measurable dimensions could so shake and change a man; and we may only say that there is about certain outlines and entities a power of symbolism and suggestion which acts frightfully on a sensitive thinker's perspective and whispers terrible hints of obscure cosmic relationships and unnamable realities behind the protective illusions of common vision.

What would be the most earth-shattering vision one could imagine? Many works have tapped into the personal, that which is unknowable except to the visionary himself, as in this incredible masterpiece, but this is not the picture painted here. What our doctor sees is objectively horrendous, not simply a byproduct of an active imagination and a few too many late night readings; in fact, Willett absconds from the house with the firm conviction that he may never sleep well again.   

What remains valuable in reading something like Charles Dexter Ward (not that there is much like it) is the holistic notion of terror that can grip any mind, non-believing or staunchly devout, broad enough to allow its horizon to expand to the width of our ignorance. Any stab at that ignorance, any advance in the ways of realm and reason, must be attributed to otherworldly sources, even if this has evolved in contemporary literature into a variant of deus ex machina, an extraterrestrial. Lovecraft enjoyed the world in its crevices and secrets and did not care much for justifying his nightmares; he dreamt up savage lands and weird chants and thought little of their implications. In this way his art is the finest of its kind: visions without egoism, fears without psychobabble, evil without redemption. His worlds cannot be captioned as the neuroses of a single, fretful mind, and not only because they draw upon centuries of lore. His truth is a hellish abyss, and one of luxurious malevolence where things that seem foul are undoubtedly foul, fouler than one could have ever feared. Too bad no one told young Ward.       

Sunday
Sep132015

At the Mountains of Madness

Imagination could conceive almost anything in connexion with this place.

                                                                                                            Professor William Dyer

It spoils almost nothing to mention that this classic tale of horror has been declaimed by some abler-minded cineastes as the glorious forerunner to this recent film. I have not seen Prometheus, nor do I anticipate doing so; but if its online summaries are remotely accurate, the comparison may not be specious. There would appear to be, however, at least one very important difference: regardless of the science fiction component of both works, for which I care little, the motif of At the Mountains of Madness does not involve knowledge or the discovery of the origins of mankind. Its anthem is a sheer, relentless dread at the demonic roots of our realm, at hundreds of millions of years of ignorance that dwarf those worthless atheist claims of two thousand years of deception. No, only those who admit that the ineluctable modality of the visible cannot be our only reality are not deceived by it. Which brings us to the baleful travelogue of Professor William Dyer.

Dyer introduces himself as a survivor and geologist, "forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow [his] advice." His advice, as we soon shall see, will consist of henceforth avoiding anything to do with the ice continent of Antarctica. His reason? Something which will be fleshed out in agonizing slowness over the course of our narrative, and which can only be suggested here:

The sheer appalling antiquity and lethal desolation of the place were enough to overwhelm almost any sensitive person, but added to these elements were the recent unexplained horror at the camp, and the revelations all too soon effected by the terrible mural sculptures around us. The moment we came upon a perfect section of carving, where no ambiguity of interpretation could exist, it took only a brief study to give us the hideous truth – a truth which it would be naive to claim Danforth and I had not independently suspected before, though we had carefully refrained from even hinting it to each other. There could now be no merciful doubt about the nature of the beings which had built and inhabited this monstrous dead city millions of years ago, when man's ancestors were primitive archaic mammals, and vast dinosaurs roamed the tropical steppes of Europe and Asia.

This passage leaps forward a few steps, but it typifies Dyer's attempts to caption the unearthliness he has witnessed (one quickly loses count of how often "nameless," "decadent," "horrible," "terrible," and "monstrous" recur throughout the whole story). Given that our journey is an antarctic expedition, the "recent unexplained horror at the camp" can only mean a blizzard, cannibalism, or an inhuman phenomenon. What does occur there is never really described perhaps because it is never really understood by Dyer and his much younger colleague Danforth. When, very late in our tale, two missing members of the party turn up unexpectedly, we gain more information as to the details of the rest of the party's demise, at which point, of course, it is far too late for salvation.

Why have I omitted such a wealth of detail? What city could be millions of years old if we homines sapientes were merely "primitive archaic mammals" at the time? Danforth and Dyer do "a good deal of indecisive whispering" as they wander about the South Pole in search of – and here is where our doubts accumulate.  That a group of scholars and crewmen intended on "securing deep-level specimens of rock and soil from various parts of the antarctic continent" might seem plausible if oddly ambitious; that such an expedition was sponsored by Miskatonic University, the hub of abnormal behavior in the world of this author, will explain what actually transpires, especially the enthusiasm on the part of a biology professor by the name of Lake. Lake's curiosity ("the lure of the unplumbed is stronger in certain persons than most suspect") is transmitted over radio, in what we know will be a doomed broadcast, to many of his colleagues as his party stumbles upon what can only be termed the greatest scientific discovery in the history of mankind. Lake vanishes from the airwaves soon thereafter and, just as predictably, it is his camp and allies who fall victim to the "recent unexplained horror." Dyer and Danforth seek out their fellow explorers with solemn hope; this is, after all, the deadest patch of the globe, and Lake was indeed elbow-deep in – well, we don't really know, but "existing biology would have to be wholly revised." The creature or creatures in question possess attributes that promote a human fear that should not, and thankfully is not, ever fully verbalized, and about biology and its revisions we should now be silent.

Lovecraft has engendered a mass following owing to the slime-and-scare aspects of his fictional creations, but his foremost contribution remains his inimitable and gorgeous style. For perhaps precisely these reasons, At the Mountains of Madness, while clearly a work of genius, is ultimately less satisfying than his pieces on individual characters and their dark pacts. Too many turns of phrase echo prior sentiments; too many of those sentiments entail pseudoscientific reports on subjects well beyond science's scope; and too many times are we told that our author doesn't want to tell us anything at all, but is simply compelled to do so to avert further adventure in the region ("It would be tragic if any were to be allured to that realm of death and horror by the very warning meant to discourage them"). Yet our tale has been consistently included among his masterpieces adapted into various media including a much-ballyhooed screen version that, allegedly because of the release of Prometheus, has been scrapped indefinitely. The text is itself an overlapping labyrinth of ineffable shocks and wonders that results in one rather repulsive conclusion regarding those very mountains in the title. The same mountains, mind you, whose height we have been chary of discussing because much like the "specimens" that Lake uncovers, the mountains and their configurations make no sense at all. At least not to homines sapientes.

Wednesday
Sep252013

The Temple

What do we know about war?  If we are fortunate, only the most attenuated of yarns, the most remote of whispers.  We do not wish to learn what powers or prophecies make men murder men, goad an otherwise upstanding people to thirst for the blood of another region's equally respectable denizens, and entomb those replete with a long and hopeful future in the lineaments of permanent youth.  Every historian by dint of his vocation must review the slaughters, the mayhem, the depravity of nations whose bare traces of civilization he likely plans to chronicle.  What remains after war?  Some say once you have lived through a war, you never live again.  Life becomes the endless repetition, both in sleep and waking, of the horrors witnessed and unimaginable wickedness done unto others.  Unto others?  Well, if we have survived, then necessarily unto others, because whatever was done unto us clearly failed in its intent.  Which brings us to a topical work of unforeseen literary endurance.

Our time is a century ago – the last months of the most destructive war Europe had ever seen, if merely a foretaste of an even vaster calamity – and our place is the Yucatán, where a singular item has washed ashore.  A bottled message written by a German U-boat commander who has outlived his entire crew just to be able to communicate a story that has little place in our reality and has nudged the commander's towards a veritable pandemonium.  Any preface to the brutality, however, should come from his own pen:

On the afternoon of June 18, as reported by wireless to the U-61, bound for Kiel, we torpedoed the British freighter Victory, New York to Liverpool, in N. Latitude 45 degrees 16 minutes, W. Longitude 28 degrees 34 minutes, permitting the crew to leave in boats in order to obtain a good cinema view for the admiralty records. The ship sank quite picturesquely, bow first, the stern rising high out of the water whilst the hull shot down perpendicularly to the bottom of the sea.  Our camera missed nothing, and I regret that so fine a reel of film should never reach Berlin.  After that we sank the lifeboats with our guns and submerged. 

The ruthlessness of such an act is worsted by the appearance of a seaman's corpse, "young, rather dark, and very handsome; probably an Italian or Greek, and undoubtedly of the Victory's crew," atop the resurfacing submarine.  Why would someone blown off a boat seek refuge on the vessel responsible for his doom?  An answer to that question may lie in the "very odd bit of ivory carved to represent a youth's head crowned with laurel" found on the body.  The trinket is seized by the commander's deputy, a certain Lieutenant Klenze, who deems it "of great age and artistic value," although he does not wonder long at how such an object might have come into the possession of an impecunious mariner.    

What happens next should not be revealed on these pages, because the narrative rarely yields asides to contemplate the beautiful and the elevated (our commander is not a sentimental man).  The mischief begins with the very seaman whose charm so attracted the expert eyes of Lieutenant Klenze.  According to Müller (whom the commander, a Prussian, swiftly dismisses as a "superstitious Alsatian swine"), that same beautiful lad so callously murdered by the cowardly superiority of a German submarine did not plummet to Davy Jones's locker when thrown overboard, but "drew its limbs into a swimming position and sped away to the south."  Our commander can barely tolerate normal, hard-working soldiers, so we know Müller's time on our earth is short.  Again we must defer to the narrator:

What worried us more was the talk of Boatswain Müller, which grew wilder as night came on.  He was in a detestably childish state, and babbled of some illusion of dead bodies drifting past the undersea portholes; bodies which looked at him intensely, and which he recognized in spite of bloating as having seen dying during some of our victorious German exploits.  And he said that the young man we had found and tossed overboard was their leader. This was very gruesome and abnormal, so we confined Müller in irons and had him soundly whipped.  The men were not pleased at his punishment, but discipline was necessary.  We also denied the request of a delegation headed by Seaman Zimmer, that the curious carved ivory head be cast into the sea.

Those who admire modern horror films will find in The Temple a blueprint for such entertainment that, when the story was composed in 1920 and published five years later, could not possibly be more prescient.  That the tale turned out to be its author's first professional publication may seem even more ironic considering Lovecraft's subsequent transformation of the field of supernatural and science fiction.  As he plots his own demise, and abets others in theirs, suspicions linger and swirl around the commander's wilful mind, suspicions that are not as easily dismissed as a superstitious Alsatian.  He ponders the strangeness of his predicament as, in very contemporary fashion, his crew members fall prey to a variety of bitter ends, some even emanating from the tip of his pistol.        

A reader not attuned to the sentiments of the period – although written some five years afterwards, one may safely conclude that the anti-German tone reflects Lovecraft's outrage over this infamous torpedoing – may find the whole business offensive, but our commander may still be pitied.  After all, he is a learned man who has stocked his quarters with reference books on oceanic flora and fauna to be browsed during "spare moments."  He categorically refuses to surrender to an American warship even at the behest of one unfortunate seaman, "who urged this un-German act with especial violence."  His own U-boat, that terrible shark of war, is incapacitated and herded further and further south by, he notes (he has studied those fauna texts all too well), a school of dolphins to depths these cetacea could not possibly probe.  And what then of our story's title?  We may be reminded of a term for something so vile that it must remain before the temple gates, never to enter.  And we may also think of our commander, for all his faults, as the lesser of two evils.     

Monday
Jan162012

The Dunwich Horror

What is the Dunwich Horror?  It surfaces late in the eponymous tale, and whether it meets the reader's expectations cannot be determined until one determines the reader.  There are many people who worship Lovecraft for his style; indefinitely more who just like him because, well, he writes about gooey stuff; still others who may be seeking what his characters invariably seek, which cannot under any circumstances be recommended.  Indeed, Lovecraft's style sets him distantly apart from other purveyors of the fantastic, with the possible exception of James, although James's cobwebbed ghouls could not be any more distinct from Lovecraft's extragalactic behemoths.  Which brings us to a wretched little town in Northern Massachusetts by the name of Dunwich.

Dunwich, now and then (to wit, at the time of "the Horror," the Fall of 1928), cannot pride itself on its hospitality.  It is rather the type of place you approach in slow dread, sensing somehow that evil's winds caress more than chimes and porch lights.  An early description confirms the narrator's fears:

Without knowing why, one hesitates to ask directions from the gnarled, solitary figures spied now and then on crumbling doorsteps or on the sloping, rock-strown meadows .... Outsiders visit Dunwich as seldom as possible, and since a certain season of horror, all the signboards pointing toward it have been taken down.  The scenery, judged by any ordinary aesthetic canon, is more than commonly beautiful; yet there is no influx of artists or summer tourists.  Two centuries ago, when talk of witch-blood, Satan-worship, and strange forest presences was not laughed at, it was the custom to give reasons for avoiding the locality.

The kinship with these trials is hardly coincidence, and Dunwich's actual proximity to Salem suggests that inexplicable phenomena were a daily occurrence in this troubled region.  One of these phenomena will be the birth of Wilbur Whateley on Feb 2, 1913, a "date recalled because it was Candlemas, which people in Dunwich curiously observe under another name," and what name this may be needs no mention here.  Young Wilbur – he will remain ever young despite the astounding growth he will evince – develops both height and speech of near-inhuman dimensions, as guided by his maternal grandfather (as it were, his paternal ancestry is more than hinted at from the very beginning of the tale: "he was ... extremely ugly ... there being something almost goatish or animalistic about his thick lips, large-pored yellowish skin, coarse crinkly hair, and oddly elongated ears").  As we learn more about Wilbur, about the nightly shrieks that rattle a clapboarded attic, about his vanished, hysterical mother, about the nature of the types of books he wishes to borrow from some of the world's finest libraries, we understand as much as can be understood from the situation.  Namely, that a smart person should walk quickly away, and if to speculate, then very far away as well. 

Alas, we cannot help but read on.  At length an old professor called Henry Armitage, a scholar at this fictional university, rejects Wilbur's in-person request for a Latin copy of the Necronomicon, a wicked tome Hellenists can tell you bodes poorly for all of us.  Wilbur, at this point, a "bent, goatish giant .... [and] probable matricide .... almost eight feet tall," retreats to his hellish estate with little argument.  His next appearance, in the same library, will be somewhat more dramatic, as Armitage and two other university professors can attest:

It was partly human, beyond a doubt, with very man-like hands and head, and the goatish, chinless face had the stamp of the Whateleys upon it.  But the torso and lower parts of the body were teratologically fabulous, so that only generous clothing could ever have enabled it to walk on earth unchallenged or uneradicated.  Above the waist it was semi-anthropomorphic; though its chest ... had the leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator.  The back was piebald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes.  Below the waist, though, it was the worst; for here all human resemblance left off and sheer phantasy began.  The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply.  Their arrangement was odd, and seemed to follow the symmetries of some cosmic geometry unknown to earth or the solar system.  On each of the hips, deep set in a kind of pinkish, ciliated orbit, was what seemed to be a rudimentary eye; whilst in lieu of a tail there depended a kind of trunk or feeler with purple annular markings, and with many evidences of being an undeveloped mouth or throat.  The limbs, save for their black fur, roughly resembled the hind legs of prehistoric earth’s giant saurians; and terminated in ridgy-veined pads that were neither hooves nor claws.  When the thing breathed, its tail and tentacles rhythmically changed colour, as if from some circulatory cause normal to the non-human side of its ancestry .... Of genuine blood there was none; only the foetid greenish-yellow ichor which trickled along the painted floor beyond the radius of the stickiness, and left a curious discolouration behind it.

What is described in the above passage is very much Wilbur Whateley in the earthly form he bore for the duration of his life in Dunwich; it is his genetic admixture that we cannot ascertain.  Armitage does not really want to know, either, but takes it upon himself to decipher an ancient text and,with the horrible knowledge therefrom obtained, avert a catastrophe. 

The curious will already have used another intergalactic tool, Google, and acquired a notion if not a rendering of the beast, and so be it.  The Dunwich Horror, while suffering through far too many paragraphs in what Lovecraft concocted as a northern Massachusetts dialect, represents his genius at its peak, even if the plot has much of the straight path of destiny.  These types of stories engage the fancifulness of the curious, because it is only through re-imagination, through the reasoned categorization of images and meanings in the conscious and well-tuned brain that permits that same brain to become saturated with fear.  Such is Lovecraft's gift: even when his characters could not possibly be of benevolent origin, real suspense nevertheless builds as to the degree of their evil.  Some agenda-toting critics have alleged that for all his sublime sense of the eerie and the otherworldly, Lovecraft himself could not believe in anything greater than the coarse desert sands of the mirage-plagued materialist.   While we may accept his own doubts (these same critics declaim all Lovecraft's quotes that even imply a hesitation in this regard) as to his faith in something akin to a monotheistic deity, to insist that Lovecraft believed in nothing greater than the ambition of his five senses would be blasphemy itself.   No writer has ever portrayed the demonic undercurrent of horror with as much verve and composure.  And no one could imbue his reader with as much apprehension of what "kind of force ... doesn't belong in our part of space," and instead exists "not in the spaces we know, but between them."  And even if you turn to Lovecraft for the gooey stuff, I think you know exactly what I mean. 

Saturday
Feb132010

Under the Pyramids

When I first encountered the name of this author in the context of this film, I quite logically assumed it to be a pseudonym; I would marvel at one of literature's finest aptronyms only much later.  And while Re-animator horrified me as a child, I did not approach Lovecraft for many years for the simple reason that he was always recommended to me by the oddest among my classmates.  His creations appeared to inhabit the same escapist realm as the machinations of endless role-playing games and works of high fantasy, epitomized by the writings of this famous author.  Now I never played Dungeons and Dragons and other such time-gobblers, nor could I really read much Tolkien without drifting off in inattention.  But Lovecraft has gained in appeal, as in the terrible weirdness of this story

Our narrator is alleged to be none other than this renowned illusionist, which will explain presently the odd course of events.  Seeking a respite from his fame, Houdini and his wife travel to Egypt before the discovery of this tomb, with the mystery surrounding its ancient secrets at its hoopla's height.  Equally secret and equally publicized was Houdini's identity, which he takes pains to conceal until at length a mediocre magician evokes the perfectionist in the master and prods him to reveal his skills.  This proves to be a fateful error of pride.  Houdini finds a tour guide in "a shaven, peculiarly hollow-voiced, and relatively cleanly fellow who looked like a Pharaoh, called himself 'Adbul Reis el Drogman,' [and] appeared to have much power over others of his kind."  Abdul Reis takes the foreigners on a broad tour of Egypt's sacred sites, and the descriptions regale themselves on lush details apparently only gleaned from academic and travel books – a most incredible feat of literary imagination.  He glimpses the Libyan desert, thinks himself again in "the extinct capital Memphis," and contemplates what had been erased from the countenance of the most famous of all monoliths and replaced four thousand five hundred years ago by King Khephren.  And it is in this last monument that Houdini senses an implacable power:

Presently we descended toward the Sphinx, and sat silent beneath the spell of those terrible unseeing eyes.  On the vast stone breast we faintly discerned the emblem of Re-Harakhte, for whose image the Sphinx was mistaken in a late dynasty; and though sand covered the tablet between the great paws, we recalled what Thutmosis IV inscribed thereon, and the dream he had when a prince.  It was then that the smile of the Sphinx vaguely displeased us, and made us wonder about the legends of subterranean passages beneath the monstrous creature, leading down, down, to depths none might dare hint at depths connected with mysteries older than the dynastic Egypt we excavate, and having a sinister relation to the persistence of abnormal, animal-headed gods in the ancient Nilotic pantheon.  Then, too, it was I who asked myself an idle question whose hideous significance was not to appear for many an hour.

Combine these observations with Houdini's anxiety regarding what a German team of archaeologists might be hiding from public consumption, "a certain well in a transverse gallery where statues of the Pharaoh were found in curious juxtaposition to the statues of baboons," and you have what is plainly known as a conundrum, and what others may view as a conspiracy.  A conspiracy of what, precisely?  Conspiracy is hardly the right term; rather, it is the perception which has crossed far greater minds than Houdini's that the original civilizations may have worshipped things not altogether benevolent to the affairs of man.  These thoughts are safely stowed away by nightfall as the Houdinis retreat to their hotel.  At which point, of course, the illusionist begins another adventure.

A militant anti-spiritualist and among the least susceptible to the wiles of mediums and necromancers, Houdini the historical figure might never have been affected by the arcana of Ancient Egypt in the way his ghostwritten counterpart suffers and muses.  So when Lovecraft's Houdini decides to reenter the night in the company of the unscrupulous Abdul Reis – Arabic for "slave of the leader" – the latter gets into a scuffle whose only resolution turns out to be a fistfight on the raised mesa of the Great Pyramid.  From there we proceed to an inevitability that someone like Houdini would surely have foreseen, and what happens could be deemed a nightmare, although it is depicted in colors and sounds unlike what we might encounter in the peaceful darkness of sleep:

From some still lower chasm in earth's bowels were proceeding certain sounds, measured and definite, and like nothing I had ever heard before.  That they were very ancient and distinctly ceremonial, I felt almost intuitively; and much reading in Egyptology led me to associate them with the flute, the sambuke, the sistrum, and the tympanum.  In their rhythmic piping, droning, rattling, and beating, I felt an element of terror beyond all the known terrors of earth a terror peculiarly dissociated from personal fear, and taking the form of a sort of objective pity for our planet, that it should hold within its depths such horrors as must lie beyond these aegipanic cacophonies.  The sounds increased in volume, and I felt that they were approaching.  Then and may all the gods of all pantheons unite to keep the likes from my ears again I began to hear, faintly and far off, the morbid and millennial tramping of the marching things.

Passages like these challenge the claims – buttressed by statements from Lovecraft himself, a notorious obfuscator – that our author did not believe in anything beyond himself, but let us not digress.  The fictional Houdini by dint of his reputation suddenly endures a test that the historical Houdini might not have survived, and we gain an impression of an ending that will not satisfy the reader (I must admit I guessed that we would wake up on a stage in one of Houdini's European parlors).  Lovecraft's prose is worthy of Houdini's legerdemain, and we would do well to accept that some tricks are not available for mass explanation.  Nor should we forget just how far the Sphinx's feet extend.