"It would be trite and not wholly accurate to say that no human pen could describe it, but one may properly say that it could not be vividly visualized by anyone whose ideas of aspect and contour are too closely bound up with the common life-forms of this planet and of the three know dimensions.“
- H. P Lovecraft The Dunwich Horror (1929)
This month, in the season of haunting, I’ve been reading HP Lovecraft again, this time delving into a couple of his more mature works; The Dunwich Horror (1929) and Dreams in the Witch House (1933). I had promised myself earlier in the summer that I would return to HPL in the hopes of better understanding him and his craft. I’d had a bad taste in my mouth from reading a few of his earlier tales, and then had been fairly impressed with The Color out of Space (1927). I wanted – and still want – to know what drove him as a writer, as well as what makes him so influential in horror literature and film.
Reading these two tales left me with some of the same questions and confusion as to his method, intentions and philosophy as did the earlier ones. Each story was well constructed in its way; each had a drive to a conclusion that the narration eventually reached. Each tale had its own interesting details and some swaths of vivid description that did not spill over into the purple vein. But then there is, in each story, a variety of ambiguities; there are ideas that seem to be at cross-purposes to each other—leaving me as the reader unsure of what the overall narrative impact is supposed to be. What am I supposed to take away from stories such as these?
The Dunwich Horror (published in Weird Tales in 1929) was the story of a village off-the-beaten-track where something horrendous happened in 1928 that has left the area in such a desolate state that travelers avoid it. The horror (attention: spoiler alert!) that took place involved a creature from another dimension breaking through into our four-dimensional world via the workings of an old wizard, his albino daughter and her ill-begotten son. These occultists are portrayed as being basically ignorant of the effect of their practices; they chant words from old, moldy, brown-paged books, believing they are calling on ancient supernatural forces; their ‘deities,’ perhaps? But what they are really doing is opening a portal between worlds that allow monstrous aliens to come through into our own world, and these aliens would destroy everything in our world if their invasion were to be successful.
At least_ this is what I think I am getting from the story, at one level.
It is interesting that the wizard (Old Whateley) and his daughter (Lavinia) are portrayed as ignorant and foolish. I have read that, while widely read in the occult, HPL was not a believer, and this story seems to bear that out. HPL uses occultism – accoutered with all the old trappings (esp. old books, decaying and fallen apart and barely readable) as the vehicle for the horror that ravages the locality of Dunwich and threatens the existence of our entire world. The wizard’s daughter becomes pregnant and gives birth to a strange boy (Wilbur) who grows preternaturally fast into maturity. No one, of course, knows who the father of the child is; and the locals believe it is some version of ‘the devil.’ HPL makes clear by the end of the story, however, that the father of Wilbur Whateley is none other than one of these aliens from another dimension that is trying to gain access to our four-dimensional world.
On the one hand, this sounds like a (by now) familiar science fiction theme. The monsters are not supernatural, but trans-dimensional. The occultists are unaware of the evil they are unleashing on our world. They end up dead by the end of the story, and the world is saved by erudite professors from Arhkam’s famous Miskatonic University. These academics had been approached by Wilbur in his obsessive desire to obtain copies of rare occult texts (ones that are not moldy, brown and falling apart). In the course of Wilbur’s researches at the library, one of the academics overhears what he is muttering, is able to translate what he says and later what he is reading, and realizes that something horrendous in unfolding in the little town of Dunwich. The academics go to Dunwich after Wilbur’s death and use the old occult text to drive “Yog-Sothoth” back across into its own dimension.
At one level, this seems a fairly ‘enlightened’ tale about educated people overcoming an alien threat to our world; it even ‘demythologizes’ the workings of occult practitioners and shows them to be ignorant of the real nature of their practices. On this level, the story reads fairly well, despite quite a lot of stilted descriptive prose and what seems to me, at least, as a very sluggish pace. The prose reminds me of dull-written research papers; first this happens, then this happens, then this happens, then this happens, then this happens_ you get the idea? The plot seems to be lethargically embedded in this pseudo-‘journalistic’ or perhaps banal ‘objectivist’ description of what is happening. It is almost a ‘clinical’ account, at some level, and stultifies me as a reader; I want it to be over—I want to get to the point of the story. Perhaps, as a long-time reader of horror, I get it_ I know what is going on and what’s going to happen, before the narrator ever tells me. I’m not in suspense about it. Yet I do find some of the details of the plot to be interesting.
Beyond this, some of the trappings of the story are off-putting. The tale plays out like a scenario from the superstitious era of the Witch Trails. HPL obviously knows the details of ‘Witchcraft’ (as portrayed in the propaganda of the superstitious Christian Middle Ages) very well; he had done a lot of reading in occult sources and often quotes famous occult texts in his epigraphs. HPL uses tropes and images from the Witch Craze Era as the set-dressing for his tale. Everything happens in the round of the old “Witches’ Sabbats” at places where circles of standing stones or table stones (attributed to ‘the Indians’) – stand on blasted heaths where nothing will grow. The story has all the trappings of mediaeval superstition, including bloody rites, orgies, human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of infants, the baying of dogs and foul weather as a bad omen, .
What is off-putting in all of these trappings is the association of atrocities with the four primary festivals of Candlemas, Beltaine, Lughnassadh and Samhain – the cross-quarters days of the Pagan Year. Of course, when HPL was writing, there was no Neo-Pagan Revival; Gerald Gardner’s work and that of his followers was still two decades in the future, not to mention the repeal of the Witchcraft Laws that made it possible for people to openly practice and revive genuine versions of the old Nature religions of Pre-Christian Europe and the Mediterranean region. While there were Pagans in the first half of the 20th century, working in secret in traditional covens, and while there was popular interest in spiritualism and such, all HPL could possibly have known – without initiation into a genuine Pagan coven – about the eight sabbats was what he learned from annals of the Witch Trials of the late Middle Ages.
Still, I think it must be hard for someone involved in modern day Paganism or Wicche to read a story like this one, where the four most wonderful sabbats of the year are associated with atrocities and an insipid occultism that has as its cloak and heart the worldview of a less-than-enlightened Christianity. Talk of “unhallowed rites and conclaves of the Indians” betrays an ethnocentrism that, while understandable (given HPL’s sociocultural context), makes this story difficult to digest. HPL’s repeated emphasis on “wild orgiastic rites” and “blood rites” and “foul odours” associated with “hill crowning circles of stone pillars” simply repeats the superstitions of a by-gone (even in HPL’s era) time. The first reference to a ‘sabbat’ comes at the beginning of part II, where Wilbur Whateley is said to have been born on Candlemas (2 February); a day associated with weird noises in the hills, strange, foul odors and the baying of dogs. Wilbur has all the usual marks of a “devil’s child,” including goatish features. HPL then ponders what strange and wild things must have been going on nine months earlier, when Wilbur was conceived; on Beltaine – 1 May – up on one of the strange hills (heaths) topped by standing stones or pillars. For someone who loves lithic structures (like dolmens and cromlechs), large stones and rock outcrops as symbols of the Earth and of the intersection of the human and divine dimensions of Earth & Cosmos, this constant harping on the ‘wickedness’ associated with such beautiful places must seem unenlightened; as it is.
This all reads to me like mediaeval Christian superstition re-worked for a 20th century audience. How anyone can read this and not laugh – or groan with unease – is beyond me. The whole story at this level is a reiteration of pre-Enlightenment religious nonsense. There is nothing really new or interesting about HPL’s use of mediaeval Witch rhetoric, nor does it further his narrative purpose. The use of the Witch Craze rhetoric makes it seem like the story is about something supernatural that should have happened in the 16th century. Yet, when you read closely, the story is actually about aliens and a trans-dimensional invasion from another realm. Wouldn’t he have been better to just drop the superstitious veil and write science fiction? The only reason I can think of for all this Witch Craze rhetoric is that HPL was poking fun at superstitious, uneducated country folk (such as those portrayed as living in Dunwich) for not realizing what was really happening around them. Was he doing this?
If so, he can be read as a critic of superstition and even of religious belief, while also seeming somewhat racist (e.g., consider all his comments about “the Indians”), if not actively then unconsciously. _And I don’t approve of making fun of people just because they are uneducated or ‘from the country.’ However, in other places (e.g., his essay on Supernatural Horror that I read last summer) he rails against people who are so ‘sophisticated’ that they cannot see the evil lurking amongst them. But doesn’t he extol education and don’t those who defeat the evil in Dunwich come from a university? Yes, but the ‘academics’ in this tale who manage to defeat Yog-Sothoth are able to do so only because they have a library full of old occult books and are able to read obscure foreign languages that no one else pays attention to. They are not your (in HPL’s eyes) ‘run-of-the-mill academics;’ they are versed in ancient lore and therefore able to see what other ‘educated’ and ’sophisticated’ are unable to see.
There is much more to be said about this story; a close reading would explore various narrative and ideological problems. However, I’ve said enough to show how and why I am confused and perplexed by HPL’s tale. Some of the same problems that I first found in his earlier stories persist (e.g., purple prose, lack of description at some points and over-description at others) while others have cropped up, especially this ambiguity as to what he is ultimately trying to say, especially regarding the educated versus uneducated characters in his tale. Yet there are themes in this story – especially that of ‘horrors beyond description’ and the confusion of aliens with supernaturalism – that I can see as common in the horror and science fiction genres today. To some extent, HPL, while perhaps not a great writer himself, set in motion ideas that later writers have brought to better fruition?