“The dreams were wholly beyond the pale of sanity, and Gilman felt that they must be a result, jointly, of his studies in mathematics and in folklore. He had been thinking too much about the vague regions which his formulae told him must lie beyond the three dimensions we know, and about the possibility that old Keziah Mason – guided by some influence past all conjecture – had actually found the gate to those regions.”
- H. P Lovecraft Dreams in the Witch House (1932)
This story comes at the whole superstitious, medieval idea of witches and the occult from a different angle; one in which mathematics and science are employed to open up a portal between our world and a trans-dimensional world where monstrous beings wait to invade. The ‘witch’ of the “Witch House’ is said to a woman tried and imprisoned at Salem for witchcraft who, because she knew certain mathematical formulae, was able to escape. She told the judges that “lines and curves could be made to point out directions leading through the walls of space to other spaces beyond.” An interesting idea, as fantastic stories go. She escaped, and went to Arkham, MA, where she took up residence in an old gabled house and (apparently) lived out her years there. Or did she?
The high gabled house had a garret in it, in which the old ‘witch’ is said to have lived. Over the years the whole neighborhood of the gabled house then became decrepit and oppressive, obviously because of her ‘wicked ways’. By the time of this story, it is a dilapidated neighborhood in which only ‘foreigners’ and other poverty stricken people live.
Enter Gilman, a student studying at good old Miskatonic University, where he has taken up all kinds of ‘esoteric’ subjects, from mathematics to quantum mechanics. I had to laugh out loud when I read: “Possibly Gilman ought not to have studied so hard. Non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics are enough to stretch any brain,” (lol), but then comes the ‘modus operandi’ of the story: “and when one mixes them with folklore, and tries to trace a strange background of multidimensional reality behind the ghoulish tales of the Gothic tales and the wild whispers of the chimney corner, one can hardly expect to be wholly free from mental tension.” Again, interesting idea.
Whereas in The Dunwich Horror we were dealing largely with folk magic tinged with and aided by old books, here we have a much clearer representation of ceremonial magic, in which elements of math and science were sometimes used in the hopes of effecting occult goals. It is through working with equations (lol; HPL mentions both Reimann equations and differential equations) that Gilman hopes to find his way through to other dimensions. But like his counterparts in The Dunwich Horror, Gilman does not comprehend the danger with which he is dabbling. Here again we have HPL’s ambiguous attitude toward education. Gilman, who is portrayed as intelligent enough to study quantum physics and higher maths, is also enamoured of the occult and of the story of the witch: old Keziah Mason. It seems he wants to live in her old garret apartment in order to figure out how the witch escaped from Salem, and whether it is possible to move through solid walls using geometrical methods. An interesting and even ‘scientific’ goal; trying to understand something from superstitious sources in more rational, scientific terms. However_
In “the brooding, festering horror of the ancient town,” and in “the mouldy, unhallowed garret gable” Gilman’s studies of math and folklore lead to strange experiences. He hears strange mumbling from the little room above him. He begins to have dreams, and then he begins to see things (e.g., a strange rat coming and going from his room) and have waking vision (e.g., seeing an old woman in town and then dreaming about her)). These dreams intensity and Gilman is afraid he is going to have a nervous breakdown. (I laughed at the character’s repeated exclamation that he is going to go see the “nerve doctor” – but he never does). Eventually, he is feeling ‘drawn out’ of our four-dimensional universe into another reality. First, it seems, he is being drawn up into the heavens, but later he realizes he is travelling through the walls of his rooms into a hideous dimension (full of geometric shapes; how horrible can it get, yes?).
All the while he is engaged in this ‘mathematical experiment’ he is seen interacting with various neighbors; he is not alone in the Witch House. His neighbors are an eclectic mix of ethic types; “superstitious foreigners” – amongst whom were Mauriewicz, who is always praying and trying to give Gilman a crucifix, Paul Choynski and Mrs Dombrowski. HPL’s ambiguity toward ‘foreigners’ comes out through his use of these characters; on the one had they are portrayed as simple folk, uneducated and superstitious. On the other hand, they seem ‘in touch’ with the lingering horror that is present in the old house, and do all kinds of superstitious things to ward off the effects of the evil. In the end, however, their superstition is ineffectual against the monster (i.e., alien being); called Aza-Thoth in this story.
The ethnocentrism manifesting here becomes clearest when you realize that that only other person Gilman can rely on is Frank Ellman; who is also a student at the university (albeit poverty stricken, so that he has to live in the Witch House; for him it was not a choice). Is he Gilman’s equal because of being another white New Englander, and as such on the same ‘social level’ as Gilman? Gilman eventually goes to Ellman for help after his dreams begin to undermine his sanity. All that his other neighbors seem capable of doing throughout the story is wailing and crying out loud prayers and offering him superstitious observations, protections and predictions, which have no effect except to say “there is danger here,”.
Gilman’s dreams, the reader finally realizes, are about visiting another dimension; being drawn there by some force that is apparently aware that he is engaged in ‘mystical mathematics.’ _And they want him to join their ranks. He sees ‘strange’ geometrical shapes in his dreams, and is apparently terrified by polygons (lol!). Eventually, he meets a black priest (who has no “negroid” features, we are told—just so we know he is not of African descent) and an old woman. There is a rat featured heavily in the story; it has human hands and face, and may be old Keziah’s familiar. (Rats become an obsession of Gilman’s; he is always trying to get his landlord to poison them.) After many nights of dreams and strange visions and visitations, he is brought to a place where he is shown a book and told to sign his name—he is making a ‘pact with the devil,’ except that the devil here is an alien, and its servants are trans-dimensional travelers. When he refuses to sign the book, the rat-thing climbs up his body and down his arm and forces his hand. (One of the more powerful images in the story.) _But did he really sign the old book? He is not sure, though later events would convince him that he did.
After this episode, he becomes involved in criminal escapades. These happen all in his dreams, though some seem to happen out in the normal day-to-day world, too, or to have their effect or be mirrored there. All of the 'evil activity’ throughout the story is once again couched in the set-dressing of the ‘witches’ sabbats,’ especially Beltaine and All Hallows. The narrator reports that children in Arkham go missing every year in the days before these ‘sabbats,’ and then are sacrificed on these ‘unhallowed’ nights. The police never investigate these disappearances, it seems, as they are reported by the superstitious foreigners (!?!?). In one dream, Gilman attends one of these ‘sacrifices,’ and is impelled to murder a little child. When he refuses, the rat-thing does the deed. Because of his refusal, Gilman is soon killed in the Witch House by the rat-thing, who eats his heart out (literally).
While there are some interesting science fiction and horror motifs in this story, the whole is undermined by HPL’s usual use of the same tired-out occult trappings and all of the superstitious ‘witch sabbat’ rhetoric from the Middle Ages. Once again, HPL’s use of these themes doesn’t strike me as in any way new or innovative. There is some hint that the sabbats are actually the vehicles of ‘alien’ invasion (as in The Dunwich Horror), but over-all the motif of the sabbats is used to incite fear-by-association in the reader and little more. There is the same association here with standing stones, stone pillars and table stones as in The Dunwich Horror. Again, this is a sad depreciation of the Pagan tradition of associated lithic structures and rock outcrops with a manifestation of the Earth. The whole idea of signing the ‘black’ man’s book, for instance, is just a ‘Pact with the Devil’ scene from the old Christian ‘Witch’ Trial lore. As in this same lore, the ‘initiate’ is then forced to commit atrocities. The name of the monstrous alien; Aza-Thoth—reminds me of the names of devils and demons in mediaeval lore. Though the story uses themes drawn from modern science and mathematics (e.g., Riemannian and differential equations), real science here is negated by its being undermined for superstitious, occult purposes. All of this set-dressing diminishes the effect of any actually interesting ideas.
After Gilman’s death, there is the usual end-material in such stories. The house in which he lived is never rented again, and there are “always unexplained stenches upstairs in the Witch-House just after May-Eve and Hallowmas.” There were, of course, strange bones found behind the walls of the garret room that had a resemblance to human bones, as well as the ubiquitous (in HPL) “mangled fragments of many books and papers” filled with “crabbed archaic writing.” All of this esoterica has little import and means less, as HPL is trying to imply too much with stock props. But perhaps they are only stock props, now, because of HPL’s influence in the horror genre, in film as well as in novels and short stories? Still, it is hard to read, and harder to digest. There is always the allusion to erudite knowledge in these stories, but it has all come to naught_ or at least close to it. This story and the last both play on the theme of “ancients with profound knowledge that we have lost,” except that the said knowledge would lead to our world’s destruction were it employed as intended.
There may be some indication in these stories that the ancient humans who had this original ‘occult knowledge’ were possibly trying to keep the Olde Ones – who were actually evil aliens – at bay through their rituals and prayers, but I would have to look more closely for actual narrative evidence of such a theme. I also see in this story HPL’s fear that mathematics and science, if taken too far, will open a door to another dimension and end in our destruction. While science and mathematics should always proceed cautiously, this kind of paranoia in HPL’s stories is similar to – and perhaps an early version of – the kind of fears people had when we first went into space (i.e., “we’ll poke a hole in the atmosphere and that’ll be the end of everything”) or when CERN’s latest accelerator came on line (“it’ll create a Black Hole and that’ll be the end of everything.”). Rational caution and care – as is largely practiced by scientists in all fields – are much different from the kind of superstitious fears stories like this are intended to generate.
After reading these tales, where do I stand with HPL?
I feel that I have been wading through a lot of dross and confused meanderings in order to see a handful of possibly interesting ideas. I find HPL’s use of the standard occult tropes understandable, given his time (as I said earlier, there was as yet no Neo-Pagan Revival; so all he really had available to him were the old accounts of Witch Trials and various studies of the Witch Craze). However, as someone who has kept the Eight Sabbats of the Year and grown spiritually through the practice and understanding of Neo-Pagan mysticism, I find the rhetoric and tropes of mediaeval ‘witchcraft’ alternately tiresome, laughable and – in less generous moods – offensive. _Though again I acknowledge that HPL could not have known better (unless he had been initiated into some old secretive traditional coven; but these were few and far between by all accounts).
I also feel that I am reading someone very prudish and possibly even sexually repressed; though I have no actual evidence of this—it may just be his constant association of sex with monsters, deviance and orgies. There is no mention of sex or sexuality apart from what happens on the stone-topped hills where wizards and others get together at ‘unhallowed sabbats.’ It was on one such hilltop that Lavinia had ‘relations’ with a monstrous alien and conceived her ill-born son Wilbur, who was born nine months later on yet another ‘sabbat.’ Nowhere in the stories I’ve read does HPL portray positive sexual relations or even positive emotional ties between characters.
The more I have read about HPL and discussed these stories with people, the more I have come to think that HPL’s influence may well be due more to the world and creatures and ideas he created, than to the actual prose he produced. Admittedly, I have not yet read his letters or poetry; so perhaps I am missing the best of his output—but there is just so much in these stories that I’ve now read that leaves me flat and wanting to go read a better writer. Though there are some good science fiction and horror ideas and themes here, I found myself slogging through the text, trying to get to the end.
HPL, though, was forging a new horizon in the writing of horror, and moving toward a kind of ‘cosmic science fiction’ that is still being written today and has become a staple of the genre. The idea that ‘what were once thought to be supernatural beings (devils, demons and angels) are actually aliens from another planet, galaxy, dimension, universe’—is found in various stories, including the TV series,’ Babylon-5 and Stargate. I think of Stephen King’s IT and the clown in this context, who appears as some kind of spirit haunting Derry, which who is actually an ancient alien trapped beneath the surface; IT is so sublime that humans cannot see it in its actual form—rather, they see it in terms they can understand. This all, to me, now seems very Lovecraftian. The idea of aliens crossing-over from another dimension is also present in Babylon-5, in the TV movie “Third Space,” in which the hubris of the Vorlons [http://babylon5.wikia.com/ wiki/Vorlon] led to them building a giant gate that they thought would enable them to colonize other dimensions, but which actually led to an invasion from another dimension. Finally, I think of the first two ALIEN movies, and the aliens portrayed their, created by Giger that seem so much like Cthulhu, Aza-Thoth, Yog-Sothoth and their kind.
Yet is HPL to be credited with initiating all of this; or was he just living at a time when old superstitions were fading and new science-based fictions were beginning to come to the fore in popular literature? Like other writers of his time – J. R. R. Tolkein William Faulkner and Thomas Hardy – HPL was also a world-builder, which is something that has become much more prominent in fantasy and science fiction literature since the mid-20th century. It seems to me, at this still early stage in my engagement with HPL, that his world-building, his attempt to transform traditional characters from horror into science-fiction characters, and his working with multiple dimensions are his three key contributions to his genre. Are their stories better written than the two I have delved into here? The Colour out of Space is probably the best tale I’ve read.
In the final analysis, there is little or nothing to keep me reading HPL. If anyone would like to convince me to read other stories by him or even his poems – I am open to persuasion. If not, I will shelve my volume of HPL’s tales and move on. I will still play Mansions of Madness and other games with Lovecraftian themes. I will still enjoy stories and films that deal with the consequences of science (and even mathematics, were I to find a good story that has this as its theme) and seek out new tales in the horror and science fiction genres that inspire, enlighten, frighten and make me think on any number of levels. As to HPL_ he is perhaps a powerful inspiration behind many writers and filmmakers today, and for that he may be lauded, if not for being a necessarily great writer himself.
Enough said, for now.