"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Re-reading Lovecraft: The Thing on the Doorstep [1933]

Have I read "The Thing on the Doorstep" before? I'm sure I did at some point in high school. I remember the man-pretending-to-be-a-woman psychic takeover body-swap of the daughter by her old dead wizard father. It shocked me that once Ephraim Waite was ensconced in Asenath Waite's body and vice versa, he murdered his daughter with poison.

Prior to this Asenath was a headstrong young student of her father's arts, a social oddball straight out of a Shirley Jackson short story. A young woman who pined to be male. (Apparently only the male brain can ultimately master the occult.)

"The Thing on the Doorstep" is an occult thriller. A singularly odd choice for Thirties Lovecraft, who was supposed aesthetically to be producing masterpieces of cosmicism, not good-versus-evil yarns like this. But it has its moments, and Lovecraft does not stint.

Narrator Daniel Upton chronicles the nightmarish reversals suffered by his friend Edward Pickman Derby (a decadent trust-fund aesthete) at the hands of daughter and father Waite.  I doubt I'm spoiling the tale to report it ends in tears for one and all.


But along the way Lovecraft gives a few paragraphs to Chesuncook, Maine. They are fascinating because they are suggestive and not fully spelled-out.

....Edward's calls now grew a trifle more frequent, and his hints occasionally became concrete. What he said was not to be believed, even in centuried and legend-haunted Arkham; but he threw out his dark lore with a sincerity and convincingness which made one fear for his sanity. He talked about terrible meetings in lonely places, of cyclopean ruins in the heart of the Maine woods beneath which vast staircases led down to abysses of nighted secrets, of complex angles that led through invisible walls to other regions of space and time, and of hideous exchanges of personality that permitted explorations in remote and forbidden places, on other worlds, and in different space-time continua.

He would now and then back up certain crazy hints by exhibiting objects which utterly nonplussed me — elusively coloured and bafflingly textured objects like nothing ever heard of on earth, whose insane curves and surfaces answered no conceivable purpose, and followed no conceivable geometry. These things, he said, came "from outside"; and his wife knew how to get them. Sometimes — but always in frightened and ambiguous whisper — he would suggest things about old Ephraim Waite, whom he had seen occasionally at the college library in the old days. These adumbrations were never specific, but seemed to revolve around some especially horrible doubt as to whether the old wizard were really dead — in a spiritual as well as corporeal sense....

Derby had been married more than three years on that August day when I got that telegram from Maine. I had not seen him for two months, but had heard he was away "on business." Asenath was supposed to be with him, though watchful gossip declared there was someone upstairs in the house behind the doubly curtained windows. They had watched the purchases made by the servants. And now the town marshal of Chesuncook had wired of the draggled madman who stumbled out of the woods with delirious ravings and screamed to me for protection. It was Edward — and he had been just able to recall his own name and address.

Chesuncook is close to the wildest, deepest, and least explored forest belt in Maine, and it took a whole day of feverish jolting through fantastic and forbidding scenery to get there in a car. I found Derby in a cell at the town farm, vacillating between frenzy and apathy. He knew me at once, and began pouring out a meaningless, half-incoherent torrent of words in my direction.

"Dan, for God's sake! The pit of the shoggoths! Down the six thousand steps . . . the abomination of abominations . . . I never would let her take me, and then I found myself there — Ia! Shub–Niggurath! — The shape rose up from the altar, and there were five hundred that howled — The Hooded Thing bleated 'Kamog! Kamog!'— that was old Ephraim's secret name in the coven — I was there, where she promised she wouldn't take me — A minute before I was locked in the library, and then I was there where she had gone with my body — in the place of utter blasphemy, the unholy pit where the black realm begins and the watcher guards the gate — I saw a shoggoth — it changed shape — I can't stand it — I'll kill her if she ever sends me there again — I'll kill that entity — her, him, it — I'll kill it! I'll kill it with my own hands!

30 June 2019

Re-reading Lovecraft: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927).

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte 

by Karl Marx (1852)

* * *

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Requiem for a Nun by William Faulkner (1951

I've read The Case of Charles Dexter Ward [1927] more often than any other piece by Lovecraft. It grows in richness each time an older me comes to it. The family's tragedy, and young Ward's own tragedy, returns to me at quiet moments for weeks after a rereading.

In the first chapter, Lovecraft writes about Ward the child and youth. These pages recall the early sections of Machen's 1907 novel The Hill of Dreams ("There was a glow in the sky as if great furnace doors were opened."):

....His walks were always adventures in antiquity, during which he managed to recapture from the myriad relics of a glamorous old city a vivid and connected picture of the centuries before. His home was a great Georgian mansion atop the well-nigh precipitous hill that rises just east of the river; and from the rear windows of its rambling wings he could look dizzily out over all the clustered spires, domes, roofs, and skyscraper summits of the lower town to the purple hills of the countryside beyond. Here he was born, and from the lovely classic porch of the double-bayed brick facade his nurse had first wheeled him in his carriage; past the little white farmhouse of two hundred years before that the town had long ago overtaken, and on toward the stately colleges along the shady, sumptuous street, whose old square brick mansions and smaller wooden houses with narrow, heavy-columned Doric porches dreamed solid and exclusive amidst their generous yards and gardens.

He had been wheeled, too, along sleepy Congdon Street, one tier lower down on the steep hill, and with all its eastern homes on high terraces. The small wooden houses averaged a greater age here, for it was up this hill that the growing town had climbed; and in these rides he had imbibed something of the colour of a quaint colonial village. The nurse used to stop and sit on the benches of Prospect Terrace to chat with policemen; and one of the child's first memories was of the great westward sea of hazy roofs and domes and steeples and far hills which he saw one winter afternoon from that great railed embankment, all violet and mystic against a fevered, apocalyptic sunset of reds and golds and purples and curious greens. The vast marble dome of the State House stood out in massive silhouette, its crowning statue haloed fantastically by a break in one of the tinted stratus clouds that barred the flaming sky.

When he was larger his famous walks began; first with his impatiently dragged nurse, and then alone in dreamy meditation. Farther and farther down that almost perpendicular hill he would venture, each time reaching older and quainter levels of the ancient city. He would hesitate gingerly down vertical Jenckes Street with its bank walls and colonial gables to the shady Benefit Street corner, where before him was a wooden antique with an Ionic-pilastered pair of doorways, and beside him a prehistoric gambrel-roofer with a bit of primal farmyard remaining, and the great Judge Durfee house with its fallen vestiges of Georgian grandeur. It was getting to be a slum here; but the titan elms cast a restoring shadow over the place, and the boy used to stroll south past the long lines of the preRevolutionary homes with their great central chimneys and classic portals. On the eastern side they were set high over basements with railed double flights of stone steps, and the young Charles could picture them as they were when the street was new, and red heels and periwigs set off the painted pediments whose signs of wear were now becoming so visible.

Westward the hill dropped almost as steeply as above, down to the old "Town Street" that the founders had laid out at the river's edge in 1636. Here ran innumerable little lanes with leaning, huddled houses of immense antiquity; and fascinated though he was, it was long before he dared to thread their archaic verticality for fear they would turn out a dream or a gateway to unknown terrors. He found it much less formidable to continue along Benefit Street past the iron fence of St. John's hidden churchyard and the rear of the 1761 Colony House and the mouldering bulk of the Golden Ball Inn where Washington stopped. At Meeting Street — the successive Gaol Lane and King Street of other periods — he would look upward to the east and see the arched flight of steps to which the highway had to resort in climbing the slope, and downward to the west, glimpsing the old brick colonial schoolhouse that smiles across the road at the ancient Sign of Shakespeare's Head where the Providence Gazette and Country–Journal was printed before the Revolution. Then came the exquisite First Baptist Church of 1775, luxurious with its matchless Gibbs steeple, and the Georgian roofs and cupolas hovering by. Here and to the southward the neighbourhood became better, flowering at last into a marvellous group of early mansions; but still the little ancient lanes led off down the precipice to the west, spectral in their many-gabled archaism and dipping to a riot of iridescent decay where the wicked old water-front recalls its proud East India days amidst polyglot vice and squalor, rotting wharves, and blear-eyed ship-chandleries, with such surviving alley names as Packet, Bullion, Gold, Silver, Coin, Doubloon, Sovereign, Guilder, Dollar, Dime, and Cent.

Sometimes, as he grew taller and more adventurous, young Ward would venture down into this maelstrom of tottering houses, broken transoms, tumbling steps, twisted balustrades, swarthy faces, and nameless odours; winding from South Main to South Water, searching out the docks where the bay and sound steamers still touched, and returning northward at this lower level past the steep-roofed 1816 warehouses and the broad square at the Great Bridge, where the 1773 Market House still stands firm on its ancient arches. In that square he would pause to drink in the bewildering beauty of the old town as it rises on its eastward bluff, decked with its two Georgian spires and crowned by the vast new Christian Science dome as London is crowned by St. Paul's. He like mostly to reach this point in the late afternoon, when the slanting sunlight touches the Market House and the ancient hill roofs and belfries with gold, and throws magic around the dreaming wharves where Providence Indiamen used to ride at anchor. After a long look he would grow almost dizzy with a poet's love for the sight, and then he would scale the slope homeward in the dusk past the old white church and up the narrow precipitous ways where yellow gleams would begin to peep out in small-paned windows and through fanlights set high over double flights of steps with curious wrought-iron railings....

The magnificent second chapter is Lovecraft's most ambitious and compelling. He gives us Colonial Providence and Pawtuxet, where Ward's ancestor Joseph Curwen found refuge from the Salem Witch Trials, and thrived with his fleet of merchant ships.

....Private letters and diaries of the period reveal, too, a multitude of other reasons why Joseph Curwen was marvelled at, feared, and finally shunned like a plague. His passion for graveyards, in which he was glimpsed at all hours, and under all conditions, was notorious; though no one had witnessed any deed on his part which could actually be termed ghoulish. On the Pawtuxet Road he had a farm, at which he generally lived during the summer, and to which he would frequently be seen riding at various odd times of the day or night. Here his only visible servants, farmers, and caretakers were a sullen pair of aged Narragansett Indians; the husband dumb and curiously scarred, and the wife of a very repulsive cast of countenance, probably due to a mixture of negro blood. In the lean-to of this house was the laboratory where most of the chemical experiments were conducted. Curious porters and teamers who delivered bottles, bags, or boxes at the small rear door would exchange accounts of the fantastic flasks, crucibles, alembics, and furnaces they saw in the low shelved room; and prophesied in whispers that the close-mouthed "chymist"— by which they meant alchemist — would not be long in finding the Philosopher's Stone. The nearest neighbours to this farm — the Fenners, a quarter of a mile away — had still queerer things to tell of certain sounds which they insisted came from the Curwen place in the night. There were cries, they said, and sustained howlings; and they did not like the large numbers of livestock which thronged the pastures, for no such amount was needed to keep a lone old man and a very few servants in meat, milk, and wool. The identity of the stock seemed to change from week to week as new droves were purchased from the Kingstown farmers. Then, too, there was something very obnoxious about a certain great stone outbuilding with only high narrow slits for windows….

The extent of Curwen's occult and everyday transgressions eventually leads to his lynching by the seamen, mechanics, and select grandees of the Rhode Island colony. This is the pinnacle of Lovecraft's fiction-making art. The excitement and drama of these few pages are never surpassed in the remainder of his output.

Ward hunts through archives at many Providence institutions for clues to the whereabouts of Curwen's grave. He recapitulates Curwen's own occult studies and experiments. He discovers a trove of documents Curwen himself prepared for a descendent who might become obsessed with his legend.

Charles Dexter Ward, once Curwen's remains are located, succeeds in restoring his nefarious ancestor to life. But the youth quickly comes to realize the appalling consequences of his actions. He writes to physician and family friend Dr. Willett:

....I feel that at last the time has come for me to make the disclosures which I have so long promised you, and for which you have pressed me so often. The patience you have shewn in waiting, and the confidence you have shewn in my mind and integrity, are things I shall never cease to appreciate.

And now that I am ready to speak, I must own with humiliation that no triumph such as I dreamed of can ever be mine. Instead of triumph I have found terror, and my talk with you will not be a boast of victory but a plea for help and advice in saving both myself and the world from a horror beyond all human conception or calculation. You recall what those Fenner letters said of the old raiding party at Pawtuxet. That must all be done again, and quickly. Upon us depends more than can be put into words — all civilisation, all natural law, perhaps even the fate of the solar system and the universe. I have brought to light a monstrous abnormality, but I did it for the sake of knowledge. Now for the sake of all life and Nature you must help me thrust it back into the dark again.

I have left that Pawtuxet place forever, and we must extirpate everything existing there, alive or dead. I shall not go there again, and you must not believe it if you ever hear that I am there. I will tell you why I say this when I see you. I have come home for good, and wish you would call on me at the very first moment that you can spare five or six hours continuously to hear what I have to say. It will take that long — and believe me when I tell you that you never had a more genuine professional duty than this. My life and reason are the very least things which hang in the balance.

I dare not tell my father, for he could not grasp the whole thing. But I have told him of my danger, and he has four men from a detective agency watching the house. I don't know how much good they can do, for they have against them forces which even you could scarcely envisage or acknowledge. So come quickly if you wish to see me alive and hear how you may help to save the cosmos from stark hell....

This is the tragedy of Charles Dexter Ward. His fate is sealed the moment he recalls Curwen to life. The remainder of the novel unfolds depicting Curwen's new infamies, and the efforts of Willett to permanently thwart the evil wizard.

I think often about Ward's parents, who survived the death of their precocious son, the apple of their eye.

30 June 2019

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Re-reading Lovecraft: Machenean Perichoresis in The Music of Eric Zann and He.

From the article Some Thoughts on 'N' By Thomas Kent Miller (Copyright © 2012-2018 All Rights Reserved):

….in 1936 Machen declared (albeit through a character's conviction at the end of one of his last stories, 'N'):

I believe that there is a perichoresis, an interpenetration. —which is a state of being, not a state of mind. However, in the same story, he has another character reflect: Has it ever been your fortune . . . to rise in the earliest dawning of a summer day, ere yet the radiant beams of the sun have done more than touch with light the domes and spires of the great city? . . . If this has been your lot, have you not observed that magic powers have apparently been at work? The accustomed scene has lost its familiar appearance. The houses which you have passed daily . . . now seem as if you beheld them for the first time. They have suffered a mysterious change, into something rich and strange [and] now 'stand in glory, shine like stars, apparelled in a light serene.'

They have become magical habitations, supernal dwellings, more desirable to the eye than the fabled pleasure dome of the Eastern potentate, or the bejewelled hall built by the Genie for Aladdin in the Arabian tale.

This latter passage, in my view, is an example of that subtle and transitory enhancement in perception that many of us have experienced, and which can be precipitated by anything from various kinds of intoxicants and hallucinogens to being vouchsafed exceedingly good news.

In other words, over the decades Machen's mystical pronouncements seemed to vacillate between cheerful metaphors on the one hand and virtual acceptance of rips in the universe on the other—though the language and vocabulary were sufficiently similar to obviate the differences without especial scrutiny. Was this conscious obfuscation or was he himself unsure? How does the reader decide which had more validity for Machen—the 'belief in a world' or the 'pattern in the carpet'?

I am of the opinion that Arthur Machen gravitated more to the belief in the reality of connected . . . well . . . dimensions, insofar as it seemed to be, over a 50-year literary period, his predominant theme ('the intermingling of this world and another of far vaster significance', per Machen biographer Mark Valentine.) From first to last he succeeded in imbuing nearly all his fiction (and much nonfiction) with successive variations of that one theme—a belief that he in all likelihood absorbed by virtue of his youth and upbringing in the folklore and myth-immersed border region of Gwent. Howard says (paraphrasing critic Joseph Wood Krutch) that 'Machen had only one main plot in his fiction, that of "rending the veil"'.

Machen's "N" is about a great many things. One thing is a North London flat whose window does not always look out on London. The complication is that men who have visited that neighborhood cannot seem to find it again.

I have a recurring dream about not being able to find a neighborhood in Marion, Ohio, so I'm completely sympathetic to Machen's protagonists.

In re-reading some H.P. Lovecraft stories this week I was happy to find two tales of a similar perichoresis. Both predate "N" by about a decade. (By stating this I don't suggest Lovecraft has sole right to all royalties for the concept of perichoresis. Simply an interesting item of chronology).

The Music of Erich Zann [1921].

....I have examined maps of the city with the greatest care, yet have never again found the Rue d'Auseil. These maps have not been modern maps alone, for I know that names change. I have, on the contrary, delved deeply into all the antiquities of the place, and have personally explored every region, of whatever name, which could possibly answer to the street I knew as the Rue d'Auseil.

....I do not know how I came to live on such a street, but I was not myself when I moved there. I had been living in many poor places, always evicted for want of money; until at last I came upon that tottering house in the Rue d'Auseil....

....He did not employ the music-rack, but, offering no choice and playing from memory, enchanted me for over an hour with strains I had never heard before; strains which must have been of his own devising. To describe their exact nature is impossible for one unversed in music. They were a kind of fugue, with recurrent passages of the most captivating quality, but to me were notable for the absence of any of the weird notes I had overheard from my room below on other occasions.

....There in the narrow hall, outside the bolted door with the covered keyhole, I often heard sounds which filled me with an indefinable dread — the dread of vague wonder and brooding mystery. It was not that the sounds were hideous, for they were not; but that they held vibrations suggesting nothing on this globe of earth, and that at certain intervals they assumed a symphonic quality which I could hardly conceive as produced by one player. Certainly, Erich Zann was a genius of wild power. As the weeks passed, the playing grew wilder, whilst the old musician acquired an increasing haggardness and furtiveness pitiful to behold....

He sat for some time inactive, nodding oddly, but having a paradoxical suggestion of intense and frightened listening. Subsequently he seemed to be satisfied, and crossing to a chair by the table wrote a brief note, handed it to me, and returned to the table, where he began to write rapidly and incessantly. The note implored me in the name of mercy, and for the sake of my own curiosity, to wait where I was while he prepared a full account in German of all the marvels and terrors which beset him. I waited, and the dumb man's pencil flew.

....the playing of Erich Zann on that dreadful night. It was more horrible than anything I had ever overheard, because I could now see the expression of his face, and could realize that this time the motive was stark fear. He was trying to make a noise; to ward something off or drown something out — what, I could not imagine, awesome though I felt it must be. The playing grew fantastic, dehnous, and hysterical, yet kept to the last the qualities of supreme genius which I knew this strange old man possessed. I recognized the air — it was a wild Hungarian dance popular in the theaters, and I reflected for a moment that this was the first time I had ever heard Zann play the work of another composer.

....In his frenzied strains I could almost see shadowy satyrs and bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of clouds and smoke and lightning. And then I thought I heard a shriller, steadier note that was not from the viol; a calm, deliberate, purposeful, mocking note from far away in the West.
    I remembered my old wish to gaze from this window, the only window in the Rue d'Auseil from which one might see the slope beyond the wall, and the city outspread beneath. It was very dark, but the city's lights always burned, and I expected to see them there amidst the rain and wind. Yet when I looked from that highest of all gable windows, looked while the candles sputtered and the insane viol howled with the night-wind, I saw no city spread below, and no friendly lights gleamed from remembered streets, but only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance of anything on earth. And as I stood there looking in terror, the wind blew out both the candles in that ancient peaked garret, leaving me in savage and impenetrable darkness with chaos and pandemonium before me, and the demon madness of that night-baying viol behind me....

He [1925].

(Lovecraft wrote "He" in the same summer he wrote "The Horror at Red Hook." Both I am Providence and An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia usefully detail its composition.)

Our narrator meets a man during a midnight tour of Greenwich Village architecture. The man shows the narrator many more such wonders off the beaten path. They end up at the man's mansion.

.... I had no choice save to follow him and slake my sense of wonder on whatever he might have to offer. So I listened.
    "To—my ancestor—" he softly continued, "there appeared to reside some very remarkable qualities in the will of mankind; qualities having a little-suspected dominance not only over the acts of one's self and of others, but over every variety of force and substance in Nature, and over many elements and dimensions deemed more univarsal than Nature herself. May I say that he flouted the sanctity of things as great as space and time, and that he put to strange uses the rites of sartain half-breed red Indians once encamped upon this hill? These Indians shewed choler when the place was built, and were plaguy pestilent in asking to visit the grounds at the full of the moon. For years they stole over the wall each month when they could, and by stealth performed sartain acts. Then, in '68, the new squire catched them at their doings, and stood still at what he saw. Thereafter he bargained with them and exchanged the free access of his grounds for the exact inwardness of what they did; larning that their grandfathers got part of their custom from red ancestors and part from an old Dutchman in the time of the States-General. And pox on him, I'm afeared the squire must have sarved them monstrous bad rum—whether or not by intent—for a week after he larnt the secret he was the only man living that knew it. You, Sir, are the first outsider to be told there is a secret, and split me if I'd have risked tampering that much with—the powers—had ye not been so hot after bygone things."
    I shuddered as the man grew colloquial—and with familiar speech of another day. He went on.
    "But you must know, Sir, that what—the squire—got from those mongrel salvages was but a small part of the larning he came to have. He had not been at Oxford for nothing, nor talked to no account with an ancient chymist and astrologer in Paris. He was, in fine, made sensible that all the world is but the smoke of our intellects; past the bidding of the vulgar, but by the wise to be puffed out and drawn in like any cloud of prime Virginia tobacco. What we want, we may make about us; and what we don't want, we may sweep away. I won't say that all this is wholly true in body, but 'tis sufficient true to furnish a very pretty spectacle now and then. You, I conceive, would be tickled by a better sight of sartain other years than your fancy affords you; so be pleased to hold back any fright at what I design to shew. Come to the window and be quiet."
    My host now took my hand to draw me to one of the two windows on the long side of the malodorous room, and at the first touch of his ungloved fingers I turned cold. His flesh, though dry and firm, was of the quality of ice; and I almost shrank away from his pulling. But again I thought of the emptiness and horror of reality, and boldly prepared to follow whithersoever I might be led. Once at the window, the man drew apart the yellow silk curtains and directed my stare into the blackness outside. For a moment I saw nothing save a myriad of tiny dancing lights, far, far before me. Then, as if in response to an insidious motion of my host's hand, a flash of heat-lightning played over the scene, and I looked out upon a sea of luxuriant foliage—foliage unpolluted, and not the sea of roofs to be expected by any normal mind. On my right the Hudson glittered wickedly, and in the distance ahead I saw the unhealthy shimmer of a vast salt marsh constellated with nervous fireflies. The flash died, and an evil smile illumined the waxy face of the aged necromancer.
    "That was before my time—before the new squire's time. Pray let us try again."
    I was faint, even fainter than the hateful modernity of that accursed city had made me.
    "Good God!" I whispered, "can you do that for any time?" And as he nodded, and bared the black stumps of what had once been yellow fangs, I clutched at the curtains to prevent myself from falling. But he steadied me with that terrible, ice-cold claw, and once more made his insidious gesture.
    Again the lightning flashed—but this time upon a scene not wholly strange. It was Greenwich, the Greenwich that used to be, with here and there a roof or row of houses as we see it now, yet with lovely green lanes and fields and bits of grassy common. The marsh still glittered beyond, but in the farther distance I saw the steeples of what was then all of New York; Trinity and St. Paul's and the Brick Church dominating their sisters, and a faint haze of wood smoke hovering over the whole. I breathed hard, but not so much from the sight itself as from the possibilities my imagination terrifiedly conjured up.
    "Can you—dare you—go far?" I spoke with awe, and I think he shared it for a second, but the evil grin returned.
    "Far? What I have seen would blast ye to a mad statue of stone! Back, back—forward, forward—look, ye puling lack-wit!"
    And as he snarled the phrase under his breath he gestured anew; bringing to the sky a flash more blinding than either which had come before. For full three seconds I could glimpse that pandaemoniac sight, and in those seconds I saw a vista which will ever afterward torment me in dreams. I saw the heavens verminous with strange flying things, and beneath them a hellish black city of giant stone terraces with impious pyramids flung savagely to the moon, and devil-lights burning from unnumbered windows. And swarming loathsomely on aërial galleries I saw the yellow, squint-eyed people of that city, robed horribly in orange and red, and dancing insanely to the pounding of fevered kettle-drums, the clatter of obscene crotala, and the maniacal moaning of muted horns whose ceaseless dirges rose and fell undulantly like the waves of an unhallowed ocean of bitumen.
    I saw this vista, I say, and heard as with the mind's ear the blasphemous domdaniel of cacophony which companioned it. It was the shrieking fulfilment of all the horror which that corpse-city had ever stirred in my soul, and forgetting every injunction to silence I screamed and screamed and screamed as my nerves gave way and the walls quivered about me....

Our narrator leaves NYC without ever wanting to find his way back to that mansion, that window, that man. He ends up back in the bosom of New England.

23 June 2019

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Re-reading Lovecraft: The Colour out of Space [1927].

....They were failing curiously both physically and mentally, and no one was surprised when the news of Mrs. Gardner's madness stole around.

It happened in June, about the anniversary of the meteor's fall, and the poor woman screamed about things in the air which she could not describe. In her raving there was not a single specific noun, but only verbs and pronouns. Things moved and changed and fluttered, and ears tingled to impulses which were not wholly sounds. Something was taken away — she was being drained of something — something was fastening itself on her that ought not to be — someone must make it keep off — nothing was ever still in the night — the walls and windows shifted. Nahum did not send her to the county asylum, but let her wander about the house as long as she was harmless to herself and others. Even when her expression changed he did nothing. But when the boys grew afraid of her, and Thaddeus nearly fainted at the way she made faces at him, he decided to keep her locked in the attic. By July she had ceased to speak and crawled on all fours, and before that month was over Nahum got the mad notion that she was slightly luminous in the dark....

"The Colour out of Space" is Lovecraft at his best. Controlled, calculated, architectural in its groundwork, here the author never lets the old easy pulpish rhetoric drown his material.

In 1945 Edmund Wilson wrote:

....One of Lovecraft's worst faults is his incessant effort to work up the expectations of the reader by sprinkling his stories with such adjectives as 'horrible,' 'terrible,' 'frightful,' 'awesome,' 'eerie,' 'weird,' 'forbidden,' 'unhallowed,' 'unholy,' 'blasphemous,' 'hellish' and 'infernal.' Surely one of the primary rules for writing an effective tale of horror is never to use any of these words....

Wilson makes a serious point, and "The Colour out of Space" is the strongest story where Lovecraft is victorious over his own authorial vices. Granted, there are other ambitious stories of similar finished authority, but "Colour" is the one where brevity is matched with simplicity and real emotional poignancy.

Our narrator at the end is not dragged off while putting the finishing touches on his last journal entry. Beyond "Don't drink the tap water in Arkham," there is no panicky warning to the world. There is only heartrending summation:

....Something terrible came to the hills and valleys on that meteor, and something terrible — though I know not in what proportion — still remains. I shall be glad to see the water come. Meanwhile I hope nothing will happen to Ammi. He saw so much of the thing — and its influence was so insidious. Why has he never been able to move away? How clearly he recalled those dying words of Nahum's —"Can't git away — draws ye — ye know summ'at's comin' but tain't no use —". Ammi is such a good old man....

22 June 2019

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Re-reading Lovecraft: The Horror at Red Hook [1925]

Red Hand and Red Hook

Lovecraft begins "The Horror at Red Hook" [1925] with this epigram from Machen:

"There are sacraments of evil as well as of good about us, and we live and move to my belief in an unknown world, a place where there are caves and shadows and dwellers in twilight. It is possible that man may sometimes return on the track of evolution, and it is my belief that an awful lore is not yet dead."

Those lines are from Machen's 1895 story "The Red Hand."  It is a Dyson story, a London adventure in which a murder with a flint knife is unraveled by Dyson, with assistance (or at least attendance) from his duller friend Phillipps.

That story begins with a wager between Dyson and Phillipps:

....'I have some respect, Dyson, for your literary abilities, but your knowledge of ethnology is insignificant, or rather non-existent. These fish-hooks satisfy every test; they are perfectly genuine.'

'Possibly, but as I said just now, you go to work at the wrong end. You neglect the opportunities that confront you and await you, obvious, at every corner; you positively shrink from the chance of encountering primitive man in this whirling and mysterious city, and you pass the weary hours in your agreeable retirement of Red Lion Square fumbling with bits of flint, which are, as I said, in all probability, rank forgeries.'

....'I wish, Phillipps, you would not rationalize my remarks. If, I recollect the phrases correctly, I hinted that you shrank from the chance of encountering primitive man in this whirling and mysterious city, and I meant exactly what I said. Who can limit the age of survival? The troglodyte and the lake-dweller, perhaps representatives of yet darker races, may very probably be lurking in our midst, rubbing shoulders with frock-coated and finely draped humanity, ravening like wolves at heart and boiling with the foul passions of the swamp and the black cave. Now and then as I walk in Holborn or Fleet Street I see a face which I pronounce abhorred, and yet I could not give a reason for the thrill of loathing that stirs within me.'

'My dear Dyson, I refuse to enter myself in your literary "trying-on" department. I know that survivals do exist, but all things have a limit, and your speculations are absurd. You must catch me your troglodyte before I will believe in him.'

All of which is prelude to their mystery, and to the lines used by Lovecraft to kick-off "The Horror of Red Hook."

Dyson solves his case by leveraging his knowledge of London, and of probability.

"Red Hook" is set up by Lovecraft from the start as a mystery: why would a vacationing police detective walking through a peaceful Rhode Island village have a breakdown at the sight of brick buildings?  

Irish-American poet and NYC police detective Thomas F. Malone ended-up buried alive under some old and crumbling brick houses in Red Hook, Brooklyn, at the climax of an investigation of cult and criminal activities related to the actions of Robert Suydam. Suydam was the penniless scion of an Old Dutch family. He "crossed-over" into the lumpen world of criminal gangs of immigrant Lilith-worshippers.

The punch-line at the end of "The Red Hand" is delivered by poor Selby when he makes a last visit to Dyson's rooms:

'Well, well,' said Dyson, 'I dare say you have done comfortably.'

'Comfortably,' Selby went on, constraining himself with an effort, 'yes, so comfortably that hell burns hot within me for ever. I only brought one thing away from that awful house within the hills; it was lying just beyond the spot where I found the flint knife.'

'Why did you not bring more?'

The whole bodily frame of the wretched man visibly shrank and wasted; his face grew yellow as tallow, and the sweat dropped from his brows. The spectacle was both revolting and terrible, and when the voice came it sounded like the hissing of a snake.

'Because the keepers are still there, and I saw them, and because of this,' and he pulled out a small piece of curious gold-work and held it up.

'There,' he said, 'that is the Pain of the Goat.'

Phillipps and Dyson cried out together in horror at the revolting obscenity of the thing.

'Put it away, man; hide it, for Heaven's sake, hide it!'

Malone's final experiences below the basements of Suydam's Red Hook bolt-hole houses - which a psychiatrist later writes-off as a dream – are delivered more graphically than poor Selby's, but I'm sure if the two compared notes the PTSD would be the same.

..... Somewhere dark sticky water was lapping at onyx piers, and once the shivery tinkle of raucous little bells pealed out to greet the insane titter of a naked phosphorescent thing which swam into sight, scrambled ashore, and climbed up to squat leeringly on a carved golden pedestal in the background.

....Suddenly a ray of physical light shot through these phantasms, and Malone heard the sound of oars amidst the blasphemies of things that should be dead. A boat with a lantern in its prow darted into sight, made fast to an iron ring in the slimy stone pier, and vomited forth several dark men bearing a long burden swathed in bedding. They took it to the naked phosphorescent thing on the carved golden pedestal, and the thing tittered and pawed at the bedding. Then they unswathed it, and propped upright before the pedestal the gangrenous corpse of a corpulent old man with stubbly beard and unkempt white hair. The phosphorescent thing tittered again, and the men produced bottles from their pockets and anointed its feet with red, whilst they afterward gave the bottles to the thing to drink from.

All at once, from an arcaded avenue leading endlessly away, there came the daemoniac rattle and wheeze of a blasphemous organ, choking and rumbling out the mockeries of hell in a cracked, sardonic bass. In an instant every moving entity was electrified; and forming at once into a ceremonial procession, the nightmare horde slithered away in quest of the sound—goat, satyr, and Ægypan, incubus, succuba and lemur, twisted toad and shapeless elemental, dog-faced howler and silent strutter in darkness—all led by the abominable naked phosphorescent thing that had squatted on the carved golden throne, and that now strode insolently bearing in its arms the glassy-eyed corpse of the corpulent old man. The strange dark men danced in the rear, and the whole column skipped and leaped with Dionysiac fury. Malone staggered after them a few steps, delirious and hazy, and doubtful of his place in this or in any world. Then he turned, faltered, and sank down on the cold damp stone, gasping and shivering as the daemon organ croaked on, and the howling and drumming and tinkling of the mad procession grew fainter and fainter.

Vaguely he was conscious of chanted horrors and shocking croakings afar off. Now and then a wail or whine of ceremonial devotion would float to him through the black arcade, whilst eventually there rose the dreadful Greek incantation whose text he had read above the pulpit of that dance-hall church.

"O friend and companion of night, thou who rejoicest in the baying of dogs (here a hideous howl bust forth) and spilt blood (here nameless sounds vied with morbid shriekings) who wanderest in the midst of shades among the tombs, (here a whistling sigh occurred) who longest for blood and bringest terror to mortals, (short, sharp cries from myriad throats) Gorgo, (repeated as response) Mormo, (repeated with ecstasy) thousand-faced moon, (sighs and flute notes) look favourably on our sacrifices!"

As the chant closed, a general shout went up, and hissing sounds nearly drowned the croaking of the cracked bass organ. Then a gasp as from many throats, and a babel of barked and bleated words—"Lilith, Great Lilith, behold the Bridegroom!" More cries, a clamour of rioting, and the sharp, clicking footfalls of a running figure. The footfalls approached, and Malone raised himself to his elbow to look.

The luminosity of the crypt, lately diminished, had now slightly increased; and in that devil-light there appeared the fleeing form of that which should not flee or feel or breathe—the glassy-eyed, gangrenous corpse of the corpulent old man, now needing no support, but animated by some infernal sorcery of the rite just closed. After it raced the naked, tittering, phosphorescent thing that belonged on the carven pedestal, and still farther behind panted the dark men, and all the dread crew of sentient loathsomenesses. The corpse was gaining on its pursuers, and seemed bent on a definite object, straining with every rotting muscle toward the carved golden pedestal, whose necromantic importance was evidently so great. Another moment and it had reached its goal, whilst the trailing throng laboured on with more frantic speed. But they were too late, for in one final spurt of strength which ripped tendon from tendon and sent its noisome bulk floundering to the floor in a state of jellyish dissolution, the staring corpse which had been Robert Suydam achieved its object and its triumph....

Lovecraft is clearly interested in the same survivals that Machen wrote about in many of his tales.  "The Horror at Red Hook" would be an excellent example of this, to be read with profit and interest despite its pot-boiling style.  Were it not so deeply imbued with Lovecraft's conscious use of racist vocabulary about immigrants and other avatars of what he saw as social degeneration.  [Joshi covers the whole issue, from story genesis to controversy, in I Am Providence.]

For that reason, although I enjoyed "Red Hook," it will exist politically under a shadow forever.


20 June 2019

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Re-reading Lovecraft: Diary of Alonzo Typer [1935].

I'm surprised some enterprising fan has not given us a "Casebook of Alonzo Typer," since prior to being dragged off to the Van Der Heyl's cellar in 1908 he seems to have had an active career.

....All his life was spent as a student; the field of his researches including many obscure and generally feared borderlands of human knowledge. His papers on vampirism, ghouls, and poltergeist phenomena were privately printed after rejection by many publishers. He resigned from the Society for Psychical Research in 1902 after a series of peculiarly bitter controversies.

At various times Mr. Typer travelled extensively, sometimes dropping out of sight for long periods. He is known to have visited obscure spots in Nepal, India, Thibet, and Indo-China, and passed most of the year 1899 on mysterious Easter Island. ...

"The Diary of Alonzo Typer" is one of the first-rate second-rate Lovecraft stories, ghostwritten for one William Lumley, whose initial draft Joshi tells us was "hopelessly illiterate." [I Am Providence]. Like "The Lurking Fear," [1922] it is an upstate New York story, far from the urban "pest zone" of NYC.  Not that everything was eugenically kosher on the Van Der Heyl estate:

.... Around the dreaded house a straggling village arose, populated by Indians and later by renegades from the surrounding country, which bore the dubious name of Chorazin. Of the singular hereditary strains which afterward appeared in the mixed Chorazin villagers, several monographs have been written by ethnologists.

Those familiar with the peripeteia of Count Magnus will get a slight horripilation at the name Chorazin.  The Van Der Heyl's must indeed have been an ambitious clan of saurian sorcerers.

The diary begins with Typer's arrival at the manse on April 17, 1908, and is the record of a countdown to May Eve.  The interior atmosphere of moldy age, deep shadows, and macabre family portraits is well-sketched. Typer quickly finds himself isolated and unable to leave the house in any direction except the toward a circle of standing stones on the nearby hill.

....Drawn toward the hill by a sinister fascination, I found the briers giving way before me, but in that direction only. There is a ruined gate, and beneath the bushes the traces of the old path no doubt exist. The briers extend part way up and all around the hill, though the summit with the standing stones bears only a curious growth of moss and stunted grass. I climbed the hill and spent several hours there, noticing a strange wind which seems always to sweep around the forbidding monoliths and which sometimes seems to whisper in an oddly articulate though darkly cryptic fashion.

These stones, both in colour and in texture, resemble nothing I have seen elsewhere. They are neither brown nor grey, but rather of a dirty yellow merging into an evil green and having a suggestion of chameleon-like variability. Their texture is queerly like that of a scaled serpent, and is inexplicably nauseous to the touch—being as cold and clammy as the skin of a toad or other reptile. Near the central menhir is a singular stone-rimmed hollow which I cannot explain, but which may possibly form the entrance to a long-choked well or tunnel. When I sought to descend the hill at points away from the house I found the briers intercepting me as before, though the path toward the house was easily retraceable....

The climax of "The Diary of Alonzo Typer" strikes the reader today as an example of the writer throwing up his hands and deciding to do whatever it takes to get the draft off his desk and into the mail before more of his time is consumed.  

Typer, the Van Der Heyl family, and the Chorazin estate still seem like a promising vein of material, rather like matter Joyce Carol Oates shaped into Mysteries of Winterthurn.


19 June 2019