Sunday, November 03, 2019

H. P. Lovecraft, The Whisperer in the Darkness


Opening Passage: From "Dagon", the first story in this collection:

I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more. Penniless, and at the end of my supply of the drug which alone makes life endurable, I can bear the torture no longer; and shall cast myself from this garret window into the squalid street below. Do not think from my slavery to morphine that I am a weakling or degenerate. When you have read these hastily scrawled pages you may guess, though never fully realise, why it is that I must have forgetfulness or death. (p. 3)

Summary: Lovecraft develops the horror atmosphere for his stories in three ways, all three of which are actually strengthened, I think, by his famous purpureal polysyllabery. First, there's the obvious attempt, sometimes successful, sometimes not, to appeal to disgust mechanisms. In "Dagon", for instance, we get "half sucked into a slimy expanse of hellish black mire", "rotting soil", "putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish", "nauseating fear", "dead things", "the odour of the fish", all setting the mood in the first couple of pages. He, of course, uses a very wide palette of the disgusting, including colors that probably did more to play to Lovecraft's own oddities than to most of his readers'; obviously his racial disgusts are not universals, but he has a number of others that have probably always been regarded by readers as curiosities despite being treated by him as a disgust-colors -- his treatment of any mathematics beyond the most simple as not just weird but disgusting and nauseating is a good example, since while I think his treatment of strange geometries has often helped increased the sense of the alien among his readers, I imagine very few have had the response of actual disgust for which he seems in some cases clearly to be aiming. The disgusting, of course, is a common way to try to make a story a horror story, but Lovecraft is genuinely quite good at it. He can lay it on thickly at times, but he makes no attempt to use it constantly. And his complicated and somewhat stilted prose does a lot to help it. I happened to re-watch the movie Alien while reading these stories, and was struck by how the movie, one of the best horror movies ever made, is, despite having a very non-Lovecraftian setting and characterization, nonetheless is an excellent attempt to capture the handling of disgust in a Lovecraftian way. Viewers don't get a constant stream; everything is built slowly, and by punctuating quiet stretches, which makes the disgust-episodes all the more effective. Lovecraft's style of prose works the same way to insulate his disgust-episodes so that each one counts all the more.

Second, while Lovecraft uses disgust-horror quite liberally, most of the actual horror is literary, not biological. Lovecraft's stories are not isolated units. They draw on a (mostly) literary background that is presumed to be shared. Lovecraft is specifically writing for an audience that loves an already existing literary genre of weird stories, and he layers his own tales with allusions and references to the corpus of that genre. At the Mountains of Madness is a really good example of this, with sentences like "Here sprawled a Paleaeogaean megalopolis compared with which the fabled Atlantis and Lemuria, Commoriom and Uzuldaroum, and Olathoe in the land of Lomar are recent things of today -- not even of yesterday; a megalopolis ranking with such whispered pre-human blasphemies as Valusia, R'lyeh, Ib in the land of Minar, and the Nameless City of Arabia" (p. 317). That's Theosophy (Atlantis and Lemuria), Clark Ashton Smith (Commoriom and Uzuldaroum), Lovecraft himself (Olathoe in Lomar, R'lyeh, Ib in the land of Minar, the Nameless City), and Robert E. Howard (Valusia) all in a single sentence. And of course, the novella is heavily inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, drawing from Ulalume and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. This intertextuality, of course, is the foundation for the 'Mythos' aspect of Lovecraft's work. Horror is a tree that grows from memory; it comes from suspense and disgust interacting with a sort of dark nostalgia by which one remembers previously scary events or tales of monsters. The frightening character of a monster story largely builds on the memory of frightening monster stories. But it takes a certain art to integrate this kind of nostalgic allusion, and Lovecraft's style helps him here, as well, by allowing endless name-dropping and allusion-dropping that doesn't seem out of place.

Third, Lovecraft is a genius at description of scenery. This is, I think, not sufficiently appreciated. People mock Lovecraft's thickly wrought prose, but there are kinds of description for which it is excellent, and there are very few people who are up to Lovecraft's level when it comes to describing scenery. It's a pity that he lived pretty much all of his life in New England, because he would have been a travel writer like no other. Scenes of mountains and villages and trees are not, as they would be in most writers, merely 'there'; they are active participants in the story, rich with mood, carrying a message.

Of the stories in this anthology, far and away the best is the "The Dunwich Horror". It has the richest story-structure, the most engaging characters, and the best use of Lovecraft's talent for scenery. It flows quite smoothly, lacking the occasional tediousness of the early parts of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and it strikes an excellent balance between the said and the unsayable (which I don't think At the Mountains of Madness quite manages). It also doesn't depend on gimmick quite as much as some of Lovecraft's other memorable stories. I particularly liked how it was layered, with the interwoven mysteries of Dunwich and the Whately family, and the mystery of Wilbur Whately building to the mystery of the thing in the house.

I addition to the reading itself, I listened to two radio adaptations. The first, one that was made relatively recently, was Atlanta Radio Theater Company's "The Call of Cthulhu", which was pretty straightforward and relatively faithful. They did a very good job with the first part, but not surprisingly had considerable difficulty once the story began getting to R'lyeh and Cthulhu himself. Nonetheless, it interested me enough that I will probably at some point listen to their versions of "The Dunwich Horror" and At the Mountains of Madness.

The second was the Suspense epsiode, "The Dunwich Horror", which starred Ronald Coleman and aired November 1, 1945:

It adapts quite freely and necessarily cuts much of the story out in order to fit it into half an hour, but it did an excellent job with the fragments it used.

If you're interested in just an overview, the Hodges recommended the following video, which I also found amusing:

Favorite Passage: From "The Dunwich Horror":

As the hills draw nearer, one heeds their wooded sides more than their stone-crowned tops. Those sides loom up so darkly and precipitously that one wishes they would keep their distance, but there is no road by which to escape them. Across a covered bridge one sees a small village huddled between the stream and teh vertical slope of Round Mountain, and wonders at the cluster of rotting gambrel roofs bespeaking an earlier architectural period than that of the neighbouring region. It is not reassuring to see, on a closer glance, that most of the houses are deserted and falling to ruin, and that the broken-steepled church now harbours the one slovenly mercantile establishment of the hamlet. One dreads to trust the tenebrous tunnel of the bridge, yet there is no way to avoid it. Once across, it is hard to prevent the impression of a faint, malign odour about the village street, as of the massed mould and decay of centuries. It is around the base of the hips and across the level country beyond till it rejoins the Aylesbury pike. Afterwards one sometimes learns that one has been through Dunwich. (p. 179)

Recommendation: The anthology as a whole is Recommended; of the parts, "The Dunwich Horror" is Highly Recommended and the rest is Recommended.


H. P. Lovecraft, The Whisperer in the Darkness, Elliott, ed. Wordsworth Editions (Ware, Hertfordshire: 2007).

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