Continuing my tradition of reading more Lovecraftian weird tales over the festive break, I thought I’d provide another run-down of the stories I’ve been enjoying in the third annual ‘Mythos delvings’ blog entry!
The bulk of this year’s reading has been taken up with The King in Yellow, RW Chambers’ collection of short stories that revolve around the mysterious, diabolical play that has the power to drive people to insanity just by reading it. The book is a collection of ten stories that reference to a varying extent the play, and was published in 1895, when Lovecraft was just 5 years old. The stories vary considerably, but I have to say that my stand-out favourite is the first, The Repairer of Reputations. It’s a story that has all of the hallmarks of the classic weird tale, with a narrator that slides into insanity over his perceived rank of the King of Carcosa. The story has got an element of early science fiction to it, set in 1920s New York and contains startling reference to America’s victory over Germany in a world war, as well as describing America as having produced a nobility following some kind of cleansing of foreign elements. A particularly morbid aspect is the legalisation of suicide, and the story involves the opening of a “lethal chamber” where folks can go to kill themselves with ease. We follow the narrator, Hildred Castaigne, as he seeks to secure his succession as king in the Imperial Dynasty of America, with the help of the eponymous Repairer of Reputations, Dr Wilde. Hildred seeks to remove his cousin Louis from the “succession”, but is thwarted and cast into an asylum, where he dies. The story is an excellent study in weird fiction, and the horror comes out as we see Hildred slowly spiral into madness. There’s an excellent description of a mechanical safe that he uses to store his diadem, but which Louis dismisses as a biscuit box, and I’ve subsequently read that the lethal chamber could actually be a subway station, as seen through the deluded eyes of Hildred. It’s certainly one of the best short stories I’ve read in a long while!
While I did like the stories in this book, it was more because I’m a longtime Lovecraftian gamer, and so got to see who these people are who turn up in the games, such as the aforementioned Hildred Castaigne, Jeanne d’Ys, et al. However, it has very little in common with the Mythos overall, except for the odd exclamation about the lake of Hali and whatnot. Hastur is just another of these exclamations, and it doesn’t feel like Chambers really had any sort of idea for the concepts other than throwing them out as weird-sounding stuff. Of course, Lovecraft used the word as well, without much expansion, and it was August Derleth who eventually turned him into the elder god that we gamers are familiar with today. The concept of The King in Yellow as a play that causes insanity is interesting, but again, isn’t really fleshed out other than mentioning it offhandedly. It’s something very similar to Lovecraft’s own Necronomicon, which also causes madness in its readers, though I do feel that Lovecraft provides more meat for those bones. Perhaps it’s just my over-familiarity with Lovecraft as opposed to having just last week read Chambers.
Lovecraft hasn’t been neglected, of course, as I’ve been reading quite a few of his shorter stories. To start with, The Tree is perhaps one of the most un-Lovecraftian stories I’ve ever read, dealing with a pair of sculptors in ancient Greece. As a classicist, I liked it, but as a fan of weird fiction, it didn’t really feel all that, well, weird. It’s a short story, though. The Cats of Ulthar is perhaps one of Lovecraft’s more famous stories, showcasing his love of felines in a creepy little tale about the community of Ulthar, where an elderly couple kill any cats that turn up near their hovel. When a traveler’s kitten disappears, this couple is suspected, and the guy calls down a curse on the two; all of the cats in Ulthar disappear for a day, then return much fatter than they were previously. Turns out this mysterious traveler caused the cats to eat the couple…
We’re off to Kingsport for the next couple of stories, starting with The Terrible Old Man, which tells of an attempted robbery on one of the denizens of the town, only for the robbers to disappear, turning up as mutilated corpses in the sea. The story is nice and short, and has just the right amount of suspense and creepiness to it that makes it delightful. The Strange High House in the Mist is almost a sequel, dealing with the philosopher Thomas Olsen’s intrepid exploration of the strange house of the title. Olsen is hosted by the weird occupant for several hours, as he talks of the past and whatnot, before having a fantastical encounter with the god Nodens. Olsen returns to Kingsport, but even the Terrible Old Man notices the difference in him. It’s an odd story, again fairly replete with lore for an enthusiastic Arkham Horror player!
The Horror at Red Hook is a tale I’ve read before, and features our good friend Thomas Malone from the Arkham Horror base game. The story details some black magic goings-on in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn, and revolves around the strange case of Robert Suydam, who is revealed to be an occult practitioner using magic and human sacrifice to retain his youth. As one does. The story is interesting to me, as it features a police inspector as the main protagonist rather than the usual idle intellectual; I’ve mentioned before how many of Lovecraft’s stories usually derive their horror from the fact that these intellectual types are at risk of losing their mind, a much more valuable commodity than physical harm. The story is an interesting one, though does suffer from some of Lovecraft’s strident racism. As with most of these things, though, I read them for the enjoyment of seeing stuff from the board/card game universe.
The Rats in the Walls is another that I’ve read before, and reminds me of a somewhat disastrous date I was on back in 2011 or 2012. The story, anyway, is set in England, in the wonderfully gothic “Exham Priory”. The tale basically deals with rats in the walls, which prompt the unnamed narrator to dream of his family’s ancient and morbid history. Basically, the De La Poer family kept human cattle in an underground city to serve as a stock of flesh to satisfy their cannibalistic urges. The narrator, following an expedition into the lower levels of the house, goes insane at the revelations of his family’s history, and is committed to an asylum, shortly after which the Priory collapses. It’s got perhaps more of the gothic horror to it than the more usual cosmic horror, though we do get a gasp of Nyarlathotep towards the end. The expedition under the Priory has all the suspense of classic Lovecraft, however, and the physical descent beneath the foundations nicely mirrors the figurative descent into the family history – and into madness.
I’ll finish with The Shunned House, which is another of these classic horror story types that Lovecraft does so well. The unnamed protagonist becomes fascinated by the history of a house on Benefit Street in Providence, RI. Along with his uncle, he looks into the history of the Harris family, and discovers all kinds of peculiar goings-on with the members of that family. Turns out the house is built on top of the burial site of a French daemon-worshiper, who has been leeching the souls of the house’s inhabitants since the eighteenth century. The protagonist and his uncle spend the night in the cellar, and his uncle is claimed by this diabolist, leading the protagonist to pour a load of sulfuric acid into the hell-pit, cleansing the house. The story is just great, with the sort of increasing build-up of suspense that Lovecraft does so well. It’s a straight-up ghost story, without any of the cosmic horror attributes of the Cthulhu mythos around it, but even so, it’s definitely worth having a read!