Continuing with my tradition of reading Lovecraft at Christmas, I thought I’d present another little look here at some of the tales that I’ve been enjoying this year!
To start with, I’ve had a look at Under the Pyramids, a tale ghost-written by Lovecraft for Harry Houdini in 1924. My main reason for this was the purchase of the expansion to Eldritch Horror for Christmas, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The story isn’t too bad, a classic Lovecraftian story that sees the protagonist (Houdini himself) exploring Egypt on his way to an Australian tour, only to be bound and gagged by a band of Arabs and dropped into a cleft in the earth. Being Houdini, of course, he manages to escape, whereupon he wanders the dark corridors underneath an ancient temple, and encounters the horrible mutant-mummies worshipping the fearsome monster that inspired the building of the sphinx. Lovecraft’s usual protagonists tend to be bookish professor-types, so having the celebrated magician is a novelty. Overall, a fairly enjoyable tale, though I can’t say it was as good as some of Lovecraft’s other stories. Despite an obvious knowledge of Egypt, I feel that the attempt to superimpose his usual brand of cosmic horror onto an established culture fell a little short.
Continuing with reading the “collaborations”, I’ve also taken a look at The Horror in the Museum, one of Lovecraft’s “revisions” to a story by Hazel Heald. This story is a curious beast, describing the protagonist Stephen Jones as he accepts an offer to spend the night in the waxwork museum of George Rogers. Rogers attacks Jones, before being himself killed by the elder god Rhan-Tegoth, to whom Rogers had been sacrificing his “guests” for years. The story ends as Rogers becomes another exhibit in the museum. I say it’s a curious beast because the inclusion of the elder god seemed a bit strange, almost forced, when considered around the story of the museum. However, it’s an enjoyable-enough story, and one that fans of Lovecraftian boardgames will no doubt appreciate for its tale of Rhan-Tegoth, who was featured in Innsmouth Horror. I also feel that it’s something of an important story in the wider terms of the mythos – Lovecraft made his living through revising other peoples’ work as much as selling his own to magazines such as Weird Tales, and this story seems to be one of the more prevalent ones. The contents of the museum are equally like a roll-call of the mythos, featuring statues of Night Gaunts, Chaugnar Faugn, and Cthulhu himself.
Back to Lovecraft’s own work now, and let’s start with Cool Air. It’s a fairly creepy tale, while remaining quite innocuous at the same time. It tells the story of a chap who moves into an apartment in New York underneath a doctor, and the two hit it off after the narrator is treated for a heart attack. The doctor lives in an apartment that is entirely refrigerated, and when the system breaks down, it eventually transpires that the doctor died 18 years previously, and had managed to cling on to life by keeping his apartment so cold. It’s a fairly straightforward story, and to some extent you can totally see the end coming. But yeah, it’s certainly an interesting story.
While Cool Air might seem less like a Lovecraft story simply because of its lack of mythos-related stuff, Pickman’s Model is certainly more on track. We follow the narrator, Thurber, as he visits his artist friend, Richard Upton Pickman, in his Boston studio. Pickman is famous for his grotesque faces, much like Goya, but part of this story involves a visit to his basement studio, where the proceedings are interrupted by a weird scratching sound. Pickman discharges a revolver at whatever it is that makes a scratching, while the narrator checks out Pickman’s latest work, a diabolical image, the model for whom apparently exists as a real entity. It’s the usual suspenseful story with a mind-bending denouement, as the narrator finds a photograph of a monster Pickman was using to paint the work from. It’s a short, yet really good story, one that I can definitely recommend. Pickman himself is figure so closely connected to the mythos in the boardgaming world that I was just as excited to finally learn about as for reading the story on its own merits!
Beyond the Wall of Sleep involves an intern at a mental hospital where a murderer is brought in, who turns out to be having some disturbing dreams. The intern uses some telepathic radio equipment he built in college to try to communicate with the man, and learns he is playing host to an extra-terrestrial being. It’s an interesting story, with some really interesting ideas, though it does seem a little off somehow. I think the idea of strapping these radio things to their heads and communicating telepathically is a bit goofy, but the whole thing about a patient at an asylum being possessed by a star-being is very Lovecraftian, and very much in keeping with the whole gothic horror stuff. Definitely worth checking out at least the once.
Returning to Eldritch Horror tie-ins, The Outsider is a curious tale that seems to recount a dream, having a healthy dose of horror and non-sequiturs. The Outsider of the title narrates a tale of loneliness, as he lives alone in a vast, crumbling castle. One day, he climbs to the top of one of the towers, where he enters a strange, marbled world of an old churchyard. Exploring his surroundings, he finds a strangely familiar castle, full of the sounds of revelry. However, upon climbing through the window, the revelers scatter in terror. It turns out there’s a disgusting abhuman creature in there. The twist is that he was looking in a mirror, of course. The story is one of Lovecraft’s most-reprinted, apparently, the dream-like quality accounting for reams of commentary. I quite liked it, for my part – the twist at the end is masterful, explaining a lot of the earlier dream-like story and tying it all together quite neatly. At the end, a couple of references are made to Nephren-ka and Nitocris, the latter having appeared in Under the Pyramids in the underground chamber scene.
Finally, and something of the main event of this season, was The Haunter of the Dark. Lovecraft wrote this story in 1935, in response to a letter in the Weird Tales magazine that suggested he wrote a story killing off the author Robert Bloch (author of Psycho, among other things), who had himself killed off a Lovecraft-inspired character in his own story, The Shambler from the Stars. The author Robert Blake moves to College Hill in Providence, RI, and is drawn to the steeple of an old church he can see across town. He investigates the dilapidated church, discovering a curious stone among some other occult artifacts, along with the classic Lovecraftian library of books such as the Necronomicon and Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Following this expedition, Blake comes increasingly under the spell of a mysterious entity that only comes out in the dark. After a series of storms knock out the electricity in the town, some sinister activity at the church precedes the discovery of Blake dead, presumed of electric shock. This one is what I would call classic Lovecraft. The suspense that comes through as Blake explores the church, then the tension during the night of storms – it’s all just classic gothic horror!
A great selection this time round, I have to say!