Here’s part three of my review collection of the complete H.P. Lovecraft. As stated in part one, I’d planned to base my reading order on the Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural editions. With this post, I have now read the contents of the first volume from the Wordsworth collections.
At the moment, I’m planning to read each of the rest of the stories chronologically, but I’ll see how it goes… I may need to take a break between groups of stories because I don’t want to fall into the indescribable and unnameable madness of over-exposure to Lovecraft. In the meantime, here are my reviews of The Dunwich Horror, The Whisperer in Darkness and At the Mountains of Madness.
The Dunwich Horror (Written 1928, published 1929)
The town of Dunwich, located in a particularly unpleasant area of Massachusetts, is home to the Whateley family, infamous amongst the townspeople as a family with decadent and occult interests. Lavinia Whateley, a deformed albino spinster, gives birth to Wilbur Whateley in 1913. Wilbur, a “dark, goatish-looking infant”, matures at a highly accelerated rate, much to the dislike of the townspeople. Wilbur, along with his mother and grandfather Old Whateley, studies and researches ancient incantations and witchcraft in his decrepit barn at the foot of Sentinel Hill. When Old Whateley and Lavinia die, Wilbur pursues his occult interests with increased passion, alerting Dr. Armitage at Miskatonic University to unsavoury suggestions of unknowable evil.
I first read this about six or seven years ago and it was interesting to see how much my visualisation of Dunwich and the Whateleys has changed in that time – from reading the other stories in Volume I of his collected fiction, Lovecraft’s alternate New England is much more accessible to me now. This story features Yog-Sothoth in a much more prominent, yet still unseen role as compared with his/its mention in Charles Dexter Ward, and the tale also includes many more primary elements of the entire Mythos, like The Necronomicon, Arkham and Miskatonic University, as though Lovecraft had more fully realised his plan for the extended Mythos by the time of writing. I think this is a strong Lovecraft tale, with increasingly clear (yet still occasionally vague) descriptions of the unknown cosmic magic that permeates his writing.
I particularly enjoyed the first section of the tale, where we are introduced to the decadent branch of the Whateley line and the strange, dark town of Dunwich. This section reads almost like a New England folk tale – unsettling and strange even before Lovecraft introduces his signature cosmic horror into the text. The suspicion of the townspeople towards the mysterious Whateleys, and the sinister presence of Sentinel Hill, with the ancient cairns and stones that crown it, make for a chilling introduction. Even more frightening is the quick growth rate on the strange-looking Wilbur, who sprouts up to almost eight feet in height by age fifteen, and who carries a strange odour and aura of dread with him wherever he goes. It’s probably around halfway through the tale that the Lovecraftian cosmic terror becomes apparent, especially with the suggestion of some giant, unknown being which is being kept in the Whateleys’ barn’s loft.
The description of Wilbur’s corpse as found in the library after a failed attempt to steal the Necronomicon is typically Lovecraftian, with hints of the cadaver’s “cosmic geometry” and the strange textures of the creature’s skin. These sections of the story are particularly effective and horrifying, but can also be frustrating. It’s not made clear on discovery of the corpse that it belonged to Wilbur Whateley, just that the face had “the mark of the Whateleys upon it”, and that did make me pause whilst I checked back a page or so in case I missed any details. It’s probably to Lovecraft’s credit that the identity of the corpse is left ambiguous but I’ll admit that at first I thought it was part of some unnecessary narrative U-turn. Still, it’s a horrific section, and the first piece of evidence the reader is given that Wilbur is certainly, at least in part, non-human.
Another slightly frustrating aspect for me was the lack of exposition on the cosmic conception of Wilbur – in the text it’s suggested that he is the child of Lavinia and terrible Yog-Sothoth, though no clear explanation is given as to how this was achieved. I suppose the reader is left to surmise that it’s the Whateley family’s knowledge of esoteric magic which allowed this abomination to come into being, but as I read more of Lovecraft’s tales and so become more aware of his expanded “Yog-Sothery”, I would have been pleased to read more about the strange terrors which allowed this being to come into existence. Again, as with a lot of horror, not knowing is possibly the most horrific thing.
I really enjoyed the eventual, if brief, reveal of the unseen monster’s appearance after it has terrorised Dunwich and slowly makes its way towards the top of Sentinel Hill, pursed by Armitage and his associates. The idea that a brief glimpse of the being through a telescope is enough to send the witness babbling and comatose is Lovecraft’s tried-and-true method of describing something, well, indescribable… but it’s effective. Curtis Whateley (of the “non-decadent” Whateleys) describes what he sees through the telescope as:
“Bigger’n a barn… all made o’ squirmin’ ropes… hull thing sort o’ shaped like a hen’s egg bigger’n anything with dozens o’ legs like hogs-heads that haff shut up when they step… nothin’ solid abaout it – all like jelly, an’ made o’ sep’rit wrigglin’ ropes pushed clost together… great bulgin’ eyes all over it… ten or twenty maouths or trunks a-stickin’ aout all along the sides, big as stove-pipes an all a-tossin’ an openin’ an’ shuttin’… all grey, with kinder blue or purple rings… an’ Gawd it Heaven – that haff face on top…”
I thought this section was very enjoyable – I’ve not yet read a Lovecraft tale where the monstrous evil is described through the eyes and mouth of a layman, rather than a Doctor or Historian, or even Lovecraft as narrator, but it works very well, and the element of horror and surprise in Curtis’s explanation make the climax all the more terrifying. Also I found it very effective and surprising to find that the three academics who have resolved to try the ancient magic on the monster in an attempt to banish it from the earth are suddenly removed somewhat from the narrative, leaving the townspeople and their curious dialects to describe their ascent and subsequent incantations for us. Unusually for Lovecraft, “good” triumphs over “evil” here, and the Dunwich horror is bettered by three academic men who have cracked Wilbur’s codes. Initially I thought this was a let-down, if we consider the beings in Lovecraft’s “Yog-Sothery” as infinitely powerful, potentially evil creatures, but given that the monster is not strictly an Old God, but part human also (as outlined in the story), perhaps it doesn’t have the same omnipotent evil power of the other entities in the Mythos.
I’m not sure if the last sentence in the story qualifies as a “twist” as such, but the vagaries of the Whateleys’ doings that came into play around halfway into the story are clarified here, with Armitage’s explanation that the monster was not actually Wilbur after all.
The Whisperer in Darkness (Written 1930, published 1931)
A flood in Vermont causes local newspapers to print reports of strange alien creatures which have been sighted in the state’s rivers. This piques the interest of Albert Wilmarth, a professor at Miskatonic University. Wilmarth’s public reactions to the sightings causes a Mr. Henry Akeley, an elderly recluse living in Vermont to contact him directly explaining that he has proof of the existence of these strange creatures living in the local woodlands and mountains. Wilmarth and Akeley enter into a long period of correspondence, which reveals more sinister details regarding the alien race and their purpose on Earth. Wilmarth is horrified but still curious, and he begins to make plans to travel to Akeley’s house to examine the evidence for himself.
This story is a significant entry into the Cthulhu canon, but it’s also strong enough to be read as a standalone horror/sci-fi tale – although it’s certainly not without its flaws. I think it’s very effective, especially the last act and the conclusion, but there are elements throughout the narrative that halt the flow of the plot development somewhat. This was the first time I’d read this story and whilst I think it’s a good example of Lovecraft’s slightly longer fiction, I didn’t find it as engaging as Charles Dexter Ward, or Dunwich for example.
Lovecraft uses Wilmarth and Akeley’s correspondence as a very effective method of gradually revealing to the reader the more sinister details of the alien race. As the story progresses, Akeley explains to Wilmarth that he has tangible proof of the beings, in the form of a strange rock (possibly an altar or monolith) and a phonograph record containing the voices and strange noises of the creatures, mingled with the voices of men. The descriptions of the noises on the record are unsettling, even if Lovecraft’s (Wilmarth’s?) transcriptions of the sounds fall slightly flat. It also appears that Akeley had tried to photograph the creatures, but they do not appear in the pictures when developed. I thought this was a strange supernatural aspect of Lovecraft’s monsters – the classic trope of the partially-visible vampire, which gives the reader the ability to connect to the monstrous beings without being typically “indescribable” by Lovecraft.
One of the weaker aspects of the tale occurs when Wilmarth travels to Akeley’s home. Lovecraft takes the time to wax lyrical about the Vermont countryside and whilst the descriptions of unease and suspicion of the surroundings are typical to the author, I felt as though this section momentarily halted the plot too suddenly. The exchange of letters in the first half of the story allowed the plot to develop with a real sense of dread and mystery, but when Wilmarth decides to travel to visit Akeley, it’s as if Lovecraft wanted to suspend the plot development to make way for some Lovecraftian quasi-pastoralism.
However, the climax of the story is wonderfully creepy and by all accounts a forerunner to an important science fiction trope. Wilmarth’s experiences of Akeley’s home and Akeley himself is unsettling, given that the reader (as well as Wilmarth) has been made aware of the clandestine activities of the alien race and can begin to complete the puzzle of Akeley’s condition and mysterious buzzing voice. (Note: I normally try my hardest not to predict the outcomes of any story I am reading, but it’s as though this tale was designed so that the reader is made aware of the truth before Wilmarth is). Lovecraft creates a supreme sense of unease in this final chapter, and as I have said before, the author owes a great debt to classic supernatural horror in his descriptions of haunted houses and mysterious voices through the walls.
The aliens’ ultimate goal, as outlined in this final chapter, concerns the acquisition of human brains, kept in dark metal jars, to accompany the beings on their interstellar travel – though the aliens’ moral leanings are still unclear. The brain-jars are augmented by other mechanical devices, to allow the brain to “see” and to “speak”. It’s written that this is one of the earliest examples of the “brain-in-the-jar” tropes and whilst that particular device has grown tired and cliché, Lovecraft uses it very effectively here. Wilmarth’s ultimate realisation that he was not in fact conversing with the “real” Akeley the night before confirms the reader’s earlier predictions, but this does not detract from the macabre shock and ghastly horror of the climax.
At the Mountains of Madness (Written 1931, published 1936)
Geologist William Dyer recounts the story of an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica comprising a group of scholars from Miskatonic University, in order to dissuade the members of another scientific expedition due to explore the same area. His tale concerns this team’s discovery of some ancient architecture among an enormously tall, previously undiscovered mountain range. A member of the group, Lake, explores further, and discovers the remains of fourteen alien life-forms which are taken back to a base camp for scientific research. Lake begins to report his findings over to the group’s main headquarters by radio, but becomes unresponsive overnight. Dyer, along with a graduate named Danforth, decides to fly one of their planes to Lake’s location to discover the truth of the findings and Lake’s disappearance.
Usually considered to be one of Lovecraft’s finest stories, At the Mountains of Madness is definitely one of the most enjoyable tales of his that I’ve read – though it does feel somewhat flabby and meandering at times. Still, the tale is engaging and even the more bloated passages are interesting, mostly due to the terrifyingly vibrant locations – the barren Antarctic wastes, the dark looming mountains in the distance, and the labyrinthine lost city beneath the earth.
Lake’s initial discovery of the prehistoric, alien beings is a somewhat subdued affair, considering Lovecraft’s usual predilection for presenting the reader with violent, unspeakable cosmic entities. Lake dissects the creatures as best he can, and relays the information by radio back to Dyer. This gives the reader a great opportunity to discover, along with Dyer, the aspects of these mysterious beings. They are described as:
“Six feet end to end, 3.5 feet central diameter, tapering to 1 foot at each end. Like a barrel with five bulging ridges in place of staves. Lateral breakages, as of thinnish stalks, are at equator in middle of these ridges. In furrows between ridges are curious growths. Combs or wings that fold out and spread out like fans.”
I found this section quite jarring. The quasi-scientific language that Lovecraft uses to present these creatures gives the story a strange angle – the creatures are not unnameable, shadowy horrors living at the fringes of human comprehension, they’re simply presented as life-forms from a prehistoric age with curious physical attributes. Even so, there’s plenty in these descriptions to engender a sense of cosmic horror.
Dyer and Danforth’s discovery of the remains of Lake’s camp is another effective section. The spattered blood and body parts strewn around the snow is a grisly scene, but Lovecraft does not allow the text to become too graphic. The same sense of growing, creeping dread permeates these pages and whilst I was still very much engaged in the story, I felt at times as though the sense of horror was deliberately subdued by Lovecraft so that the reader has time to absorb the terrible mystery of the missing explorers and their specimens. The image of the blood soaked snowbanks, the discovery of an alien life-form and the sense of complete isolation in this section made me immediately recall John Carpenter’s The Thing (and I must be about the ten thousandth person to have made that connection so far). Whilst I haven’t really researched this story and its influence in any detail, I assume Carpenter was at least partly inspired by these horrific images when creating his classic horror film.
The second half of the text is what make this such a successful horror story, and what cements it as one of Lovecraft’s major works. Dyer and Danforth’s inevitable exploration of the titular mountains and their subsequent discovery of the vast, labyrinthine subterranean network of tunnels and rooms is truly unsettling and genuinely scary, but what was also interesting to me is that this is the first time I’d read any kind of exposition of Lovecraft’s canon appearing within his fiction. On discovering the myriad stone reliefs within the walls of the underground caverns, Dyer gives the reader his interpretation of the history of this alien race, their civilisation and their place on Earth. This section neatly outlines the coming of these “Elder Things”, as well as the creation of their abominable slave-creatures, plus their eventual clashes with other races like the “star-spawn of Cthulhu” and the “Mi-go” (which appear prominently in The Whisperer in Darkness). Again, I sensed a strange dynamic shift within the text during this section. Lovecraft seems content to put the horror in the background, making room for extended explanations of his expanded mythos. Whilst I did enjoy these sections very much, I suppose anyone who is not familiar with the mythos would find these sections extremely tedious, especially considering they appear to take precedence over the atmosphere of total alienation and terror.
The narrator’s discovery of giant, blind, albino penguins was initially very strange to me (possibly one of the most infamous aspects of this story). It seemed almost humorous to have the narrator discover a bunch of typically clumsy arctic creatures who seem apparently quite content in their subterranean home, but as the text lurched towards its climax I found myself recalling these monstrous birds and again I began to think of the subtle horror that had been weaved into the text. I personally consider this section a very effective piece of misdirection, although I obviously can’t say for certain whether that was Lovecraft’s intention.
The climax to the story is very good, and a very effective end to this tale, though I did think it fell into the same traps as many other Lovecraft stories. I felt as though the eventual discovery and revelation of the monstrous Shoggoth was perhaps too sudden and kind of rushed, and so the power of the text became somewhat diminished. Dyer and Danforth’s escape from this grotesque being is handled in much the same way as other Lovecraft tales – the narrators simply, well, escape. Whilst the description of the bubbling, black, gigantic Shoggoth is effective, I can see how some readers might feel cheated by once again reading how man is able to simply get away from such an ancient and inexplicable evil.
However, the final passages of the book are very good, and they fall into line with what readers might have come to expect from Lovecraft. Dyer and Danforth have managed to escape, but on their flight away from the dreaded mountains, Danforth looks back and sees something which instantly causes him to become insane. Once again we can see a very typical Lovecraftian technique – the suggestion of something so mind-bendingly grotesque or unknowable having the ability to snap a person’s sanity in one instant. I think this “true” ending is an excellent ending to the story, especially given that the narrators had already given us numerous details regarding the lives and fate of the Elder Things and their enemies, but still there exists within the Mountains of Madness something so utterly foul and monstrous that it could cause a man to lose his sanity in the blink of an eye.