I am providence the life.., p.107

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 107


I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)

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  . . . it is permissible to say that, aside from the external appearance of face and hands, the really human element in Wilbur Whateley must have been very small. When the medical examiner came, there was only a sticky whitish mass on the painted boards, and the monstrous odour had nearly disappeared. Apparently Whateley had no skull or bony skeleton; at least, in any true or stable sense. He had taken somewhat after his unknown father.

  Meanwhile bizarre things are happening elsewhere. Some monstrous entity whom the Whateleys had evidently been raising in their home now bursts forth, having no one to feed or tend to it. It creates havoc throughout the town, crushing houses as if they were matchsticks. Worst of all, it is completely invisible, leaving only huge footprints to indicate its presence. It descends into a ravine called the Bear’s Den, then later comes up again and causes hideous devastation. Armitage has in the meantime been decoding the diary in cipher that Wilbur had kept, and finally learns what the true state of affairs is:

  His wilder wanderings were very startling indeed, including . . . fantastic references to some plan for the extirpation of the entire human race and all animal and vegetable life from the earth by some terrible elder race of beings from another dimension. He would shout that the world was in danger, since the Elder Things wished to strip it and drag it away from the solar system and cosmos of matter into some other plane or phase of entity from which it had once fallen, vigintillions of years ago.

  But he knows how to stop it, and he and two colleagues go to the top of a small hill facing Sentinel Hill, where the monster appears to be heading. They are armed with an incantation to send the creature back to the other dimension it came from, as well as a sprayer containing a powder that will make it visible for an instant. Sure enough, both the incantation and the powder work, and the entity is seen to be a huge, ropy, tentacled monstrosity that shouts, “HELP! HELP! . . . ff—ff—ff—FATHER! FATHER! YOG-SOTHOTH!” and is completely obliterated. It was Wilbur Whateley’s twin brother.

  It should be evident even from this narration that many points of plotting and characterisation in the story are painfully inept. Let us first contrast the moral implications of “The Dunwich Horror” with those of “The Colour out of Space.” We have seen that it is nearly impossible to deem the entities in the earlier story “evil” by any conventional standard; but the Whateleys—especially Wilbur and his twin—are clearly meant to be perceived as evil because of their plans to destroy the human race. And yet, was it not Lovecraft himself who, five years earlier, had whimsically written the following to Edwin Baird of Weird Tales?

  Popular authors do not and apparently cannot appreciate the fact that true art is obtainable only by rejecting normality and conventionality in toto, and approaching a theme purged utterly of any usual or preconceived point of view. Wild and “different” as they may consider their quasi-weird products, it remains a fact that the bizarrerie is on the surface alone; and that basically they reiterate the same old conventional values and motives and perspectives. Good and evil, teleological illusion, sugary sentiment, anthropocentric psychology—the usual superficial stock in trade, all shot through with the eternal and inescapable commonplace. . . . Who ever wrote a story from the point of view that man is a blemish on the cosmos, who ought to be eradicated?[25]

  This criticism applies perfectly to “The Dunwich Horror.” What we have here is an elementary “good vs. evil” struggle between Armitage and the Whateleys. The only way around this conclusion is to assume that “The Dunwich Horror” is a parody of some sort; this is, indeed, exactly what Donald R. Burleson has done in an interesting essay,[26] pointing out that it is the Whateley twins (regarded as a single entity) who, in mythic terms, fulfil the traditional role of the “hero” much more than Armitage does (e.g., the mythic hero’s descent to the underworld is paralleled by the twin’s descent into the Bear’s Den), and pointing out also that the passage from the Necronomicon cited in the tale—“Man rules now where They [the Old Ones] ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now”—makes Armitage’s “defeat” of the Whateleys a mere temporary staving off of the inevitable. These points are well taken, but there is no evidence in Lovecraft’s letters that “The Dunwich Horror” was meant parodically (i.e., as a satire on immature readers of the pulp magazines) or that the figure of Armitage is meant anything but seriously. Indeed, Lovecraft clearly suggests the reverse when he says in a letter to Derleth that “[I] found myself psychologically identifying with one of the characters (an aged scholar who finally combats the menace) toward the end.”[27]

  Armitage is, indeed, clearly modelled upon Willett of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward: he defeats the “villains” by incantations, and he is susceptible to the same flaws—pomposity, arrogance, self-importance—that can be seen in Willett. Armitage is, indeed, the prize buffoon in all Lovecraft, and some of his statements—such as the melodramatic “But what, in God’s name, can we do?”—make painful reading, as does the silly lecture he delivers to the Dunwich folk at the end: “We have no business calling in such things from outside, and only very wicked people and very wicked cults ever try to.”

  There are problems of plot, also. What, exactly, is the purpose of the “powder” Armitage uses to make the creature visible for an instant? What is to be gained by this procedure? It seems to be used simply to allow Lovecraft to write luridly about ropy tentacles and the like. The spectacle of three small human figures—Armitage and his stalwart cohorts—waving their arms about and shouting incantations on the top of a hill is so comical that it seems incredible that Lovecraft could have missed the humour in it; but he seems to have done so, for this is presumably the climactic scene in the story.

  What “The Dunwich Horror” did was, in effect, to make possible the rest of the “Cthulhu Mythos” (i.e., the contributions by other and less skilful hands). Its luridness, melodrama, and naive moral dichotomy were picked up by later writers (it was, not surprisingly, one of Derleth’s favourite tales) rather than the subtler work embodied in “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Colour out of Space,” and others. In a sense, then, Lovecraft bears some responsibility for bringing the “Cthulhu Mythos” and some of its unfortunate results upon his own head.

  In an important sense, indeed, “The Dunwich Horror” itself turns out to be not much more than a pastiche. The central premise—the sexual union of a “god” or monster with a human woman—is taken directly from Machen’s “The Great God Pan”; Lovecraft makes no secret of the borrowing, having Armitage say of the Dunwich people at one point, “Great God, what simpletons! Shew them Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan and they’ll think it a common Dunwich scandal!” The use of bizarre footsteps to indicate the presence of an otherwise undetectable entity is borrowed from Blackwood’s “The Wendigo.” Lovecraft was clearly aware of the number of tales featuring invisible monsters—Maupassant’s “The Horla” (certain features of which, as we have seen, had already been adapted for “The Call of Cthulhu”); Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was it?”; Bierce’s “The Damned Thing”—and derived hints from each of them in his own creation. The fact that Lovecraft on occasion borrowed from previous sources need not be a source of criticism, for he ordinarily made exhaustive alterations in what he borrowed; but in this case the borrowings go beyond mere surface details of imagery to the very core of the plot.

  “The Dunwich Horror” is, of course, not a complete failure. Its portrayal of the decaying backwoods Massachusetts terrain is vivid and memorable, even if a little more hyperbolic than that of “The Colour out of Space”; and it is, as should now be evident, largely the result of personal experience. Lovecraft later admitted that Dunwich was located in the Wilbraham area, and it is clear that both the topography and some of the folklore (whippoorwills as psychopomps of the dead) are in large part derived from his two weeks with Edith Miniter. But, if Wilbraham is roughly the setting for Dunwich, why does Lovecraft in the very first sentence of the story declare that the town is located in “north central Massachusetts
”? Some parts of the locale are indeed taken from that region, specifically the Bear’s Den, which Lovecraft describes vividly in a letter to Lillian:

  There is a deep forest gorge there; approached dramatically from a rising path ending in a cleft boulder, & containing a magnificent terraced waterfall over the sheer bed-rock. Above the tumbling stream rise high rock precipices crusted with strange lichens & honeycombed with alluring caves. Of the latter several extend far into the hillside, though too narrowly to admit a human being beyond a few yards.[28]

  The site is very much the same today. And just as H. Warner Munn took Lovecraft there in 1928, so about fifty years later he helped to lead Donald R. Burleson to the place.[29] The name Sentinel Hill is taken from a Sentinel Elm Farm in Athol.[30] Lovecraft has, in other words, mingled topographical impressions from various sites and coalesced them into a single imagined locale.

  For those interested in following the surface details of the “Cthulhu Mythos,” “The Dunwich Horror” offers much fodder for argument. That it builds in part upon “The Call of Cthulhu” and other tales is clear from the mentions of Cthulhu, Kadath, and other terms in the lengthy quotation from the Necronomicon in the story; but the term “Old Ones” is ambiguous, and it does not appear to refer to the “Great Old Ones” of “The Call of Cthulhu,” nor is it clear whether Yog-Sothoth—who never recurs as a major figure in any subsequent Lovecraft tale—is one of the Old Ones or not. Probably Lovecraft did not expect his casually coined terms to be sifted and analysed by later critics as if they were biblical texts, and he threw them off largely for the sake of resonance and atmosphere. As will become manifestly evident, Lovecraft not only did not plan out all (or any) of the details of his pseudomythology in advance, but also had no compunction whatever in altering its details when it suited him, never being bound by previous usage—something that later critics have also found infuriating, as if it were some violation of the sanctity or unity of a mythos that never had any sanctity or unity to begin with. It should also be pointed out that this is the only story that contains a lengthy extract from the Necronomicon; later writers have not been so reticent, but their bungling quotations—written with a lamentable lack of subtlety and (in Derleth’s case especially) a pitiable ignorance of archaic diction—have resulted in the watering down of the potentially powerful conception of a book of “forbidden” knowledge.

  Lovecraft’s most interesting comment in this regard is his casual remark, just after finishing the story, that it “belongs to the Arkham cycle.”[31] He does not explain this expression here, nor does he ever use it again. It at least suggests that Lovecraft was by now aware that some of his tales (he doesn’t say which) form some sort of pattern or sequence. The term is clearly topographical in connotation, as if Lovecraft believed that all the tales of his fictitious New England geography (including such things as “The Picture in the House,” which no later critic includes within the scope of the “Cthulhu Mythos”) are linked; or perhaps it refers to the fact that Arkham is the defining point for the other mythical towns. One simply does not know.

  A brief note as to the name Dunwich may be in order. It has been pointed out that there is a real town in England with this name—or, rather, that there was such a town on the southeast coast of the island, a town that suffered inexorable desertion as the sea washed away more and more of the coastal terrain on which it stood. It was the subject of Swinburne’s memorable poem “By the North Sea” (although it is never mentioned by name there), and is cited in Arthur Machen’s The Terror (1917). The curious thing, however, is that the English Dunwich is more similar to Lovecraft’s decaying seaport of Innsmouth than it is to the inland town of Dunwich; nevertheless, it is likely enough that the name alone was indeed derived from this English counterpart. There are, of course, any number of towns in New England with the -wich ending (e.g., Greenwich, one of the Massachusetts towns evacuated to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir).

  It is not at all surprising either that “The Dunwich Horror” was snapped up by Weird Tales (Lovecraft received $240.00 for it, the largest single cheque for original fiction he had ever received) or that, when it appeared in the April 1929 issue, its praises were sung by the readership. A. V. Pershing, boasting that he has read “some ‘real’ authors” like Shakespeare and Poe, wrote: “I say that Lovecraft has an uncanny, nearly superhuman power of transporting one bodily to scenes of his unparalleled ‘horrors’ and forcing upon his the exquisite pleasure of ‘living the story . . .’” Lovecraft’s friend Bernard Austin Dwyer, praising Clark Ashton Smith and Wandrei in passing, stated: “I can not find words sufficiently to declare my admiration of his virginity [sic] of conception—the weird, the outré, unhackneyed, fully satisfying depth of colorful imagery and fantasy—as strange, as terrible, and as alien to the land of our everyday experiences as a fever-dream.” These two letters appeared in the June 1929 issue; in the August issue E. L. Mengshoel anticipated the queries of many by remarking: “I would like to ask [Lovecraft] if there has not really existed an old work of writing named the Necronomicon, which is mentioned in ‘The Dunwich Horror.’” These and other comments are a sad verification of the low esteem in which Lovecraft held what he would later call the “‘Eyrie’-bombarding proletariat.”[32]

  The rest of 1928 was quiescent. Lovecraft wrote a poem toward the end of the year; it survives under two titles. The autograph manuscript gives the title as “To a Sophisticated Young Gentleman, Presented by His Grandfather with a Volume of Contemporary Literature”; in a letter to Maurice Moe we find the title “An Epistle to Francis, Ld. Belknap, With a Volume of Proust, Presented to Him by His Aged Grandsire, Lewis Theobald, Jun.” In other words, Lovecraft was giving Frank Long a copy of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past. In the process he reveals considerable familiarity with contemporary phenomena, both popular (“Devoid of Pomp as Woolworth’s or McCrory’s, / And cerebral as Vogue and Snappy-Stories”) and elevated (“Cubist and Futurist combine to shew / Sublimer Heights in Kreymborg and Cocteau”); and yet, these references are encased in a delectable pastiche—or parody—of the eighteenth-century idiom. It is a delightful piece of work.

  One other piece of fiction appears to have been written around this time, “Ibid.” In a letter of 1931 Lovecraft dated this piece to 1927,[33] but several comments by Maurice W. Moe seem to date it to 1928. The first we hear of it is in a letter by Moe dated August 3, 1928, when he mentions “that delightful Spectator paper on the marvellous history of old man Ibid.”[34] It is, I suppose, still possible the piece was written considerably before this mention, so a date of 1927 is conceivable.

  “Ibid” was either included in a letter to Moe or was a separate enclosure in a letter to him; whether its epigraph (“‘. . . As Ibid says in his famous Lives of the Poets.’—From a student theme”) refers to some actual statement found in a paper by one of Moe’s students, I do not know; I think it quite likely. In any event, Lovecraft uses this real or fabricated piece of fatuity as the springboard for an exquisite tongue-in-cheek “biography” of the celebrated Ibidus, whose masterpiece was not the Lives of the Poets but in fact the famous “Op. Cit. wherein all the significant undercurrents of Graeco-Roman expression were crystallised once for all.”

  But the real target of the satire in “Ibid”—the third of Lovecraft’s comic tales, along with “A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson” and “Sweet Ermengarde”—is not so much the follies of grammar-school students as the pomposity of academic scholarship. In this sense “Ibid” is more timely today than when it was first written. Full of learned but preposterous footnotes, the piece traces the life of Ibid to his death in 587, then the fortunes of his skull—which proved, among other things, to be the vessel with which Pope Leo administered the royal unction to Charlemagne—from antiquity to the twentieth century. Its deadpan tone is flawless:

  It was captured by the private soldier Read-’em-and-Weep Hopkins, who not long after traded it to Rest-in-Jehovah Stubbs for a quid of n
ew Virginia weed. Stubbs, upon sending forth his son Zerubbabel to seek his fortune in New England in 1661 (for he thought ill of the Restoration atmosphere for a pious young yeoman), gave him St. Ibid’s—or rather Brother Ibid’s, for he abhorred all that was Popish—skull as a talisman. Upon landing in Salem Zerubbabel set it up in his cupboard beside the chimney, he having built a modest house near the town pump. However, he had not been wholly unaffected by the Restoration influence; and having become addicted to gaming, lost the skull to one Epenetus Dexter, a visiting freeman of Providence.

  Moe was considering submitting the sketch to the American Mercury or some such journal, and apparently asked Lovecraft to revise it slightly; but nothing seems to have been done, and in late January Moe (who had typed the piece and sent it to Lovecraft) agreed that revision for a commercial magazine was not possible, and that the work “would have to be content with private circulation.”[35] That publication did not occur until 1938, when it appeared in the amateur journal, the O-Wash-Ta-Nong, edited by Lovecraft’s old friend George W. Macauley.

  Toward the end of the year Lovecraft heard from an anthologist, T. Everett Harré, who wished to reprint “The Call of Cthulhu” for a volume entitled Beware After Dark! Lovecraft felt obligated to bring the matter up with Farnsworth Wright, since “Cthulhu” was evidently being considered as a centrepiece to his proposed collection of tales. We have seen that Lovecraft had recommended “The Colour out of Space” over “Cthulhu” as the main novelette to be used; but Wright presumably chose the latter, perhaps because it had actually been published in Weird Tales whereas “Colour” had not been. In any event, Wright allowed the release of the story; perhaps, as Lovecraft was coming to suspect, he had already come to think it very unlikely that the Popular Fiction Publishing Company would ever issue a volume of Lovecraft’s stories.

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