Bigger’n a barn!

After taking a look at the classic Lovecraftian tale Call of Cthulhu last week, I thought it’d be good to write up another blog on perhaps my all-time favourite story from Lovecraft that I have read so far, The Dunwich Horror.

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Another story that I first read in the summer of 2012, while Call of Cthulhu was a little surprising to me in being so disjointed and just not what I had been expecting at all, Dunwich Horror was a much more conventional story to me, I found myself instantly enjoying it for what it was.

The story involves the strange goings-on with the Whateley family of Dunwich, a small town in the upper Miskatonic valley. Not too long ago, Lavinia Whateley gave birth to the hideously malformed Wilbur, who has grown to adulthood in a shockingly short space of time. The Whateleys have been continually modifying and enlarging their farmhouse, and the mysterious Old Man Whateley has been buying increasingly large numbers of cattle, though his herd has not visibly increased in size as a result. Then Wilbur’s grandfather vanishes, followed not long after by his mother, and still the cattle keep disappearing…

Wilbur ventures to Miskatonic University to consult their copy of the Necronomicon, but the librarian Dr Henry Armitage refuses him permission, and also sends word to his colleagues to similar effect. Wilbur breaks into the library at night, but is mauled to death by a guard dog. Armitage and his colleagues Professors Rice and Morgan catch a glimpse of his goat-hoofed body before it melts into thin air before them. With Wilbur dead, the strange invisible entity in the Whateley farmhouse runs amok across Dunwich, leaving devastation in its wake. The three professors arrive on the scene with the necessary magical paraphernalia to combat the beast, and manage to render it visible just before they destroy it, with the realisation that it was in fact Wilbur’s brother…

The story is one of tremendous suspense as the nature of the beast is gradually revealed to us – though even in the end, we don’t really know for sure what it was the professors disposed of. The description is certainly what we’ve come to expect of something along the lines of Yog Sothoth in the years of RPGs and board games, of course – all tentacles and eyes and gelatinous form:

“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 hogsheads 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 stovepipes, an’ all a-tossin’ an’ openin’ an’ shuttin’… all grey, with kinder blue or purple rings… an’ Gawd in heaven – that haff face on top!…”

(I think it’s important to point out here that Lovecraft often employs dialects in his writing, and the above extract is intended to connote the sort of grungy local rather than the entire story being told in that manner!)

I mentioned in my Call of Cthulhu blog how much better an introduction to Lovecraft’s work this story would be, and I definitely stand by that here. It’s a more conventional story, for sure, but it gives you a better idea of the way Lovecraft writes, for instance his academic types as heroes, his wonderful word-painting when it comes to describing these otherworldly monsters.

The Dunwich Horror is definitely my favourite of Lovecraft’s stories that I’ve read so far, though I do admittedly have a lot of them that I’ve not yet read! But it’s highly worth getting a copy – the Penguin Modern Classics edition has also got a few other worthy mentions, including the delightfully creepy Thing on the Doorstep! Well worth a read!

Answer the Call!

I’m taking a break from my Star Wars reading schedule to talk about another branch of fiction that has held me in its sway, albeit only recently – weird fiction. The names of Lovecraft and Cthulhu are of course well-known in pop culture, and even beyond, but I only seriously decided to investigate what all the fuss was about in 2012. As it happens, I bought the first volume of Lovecraft tales and left it on a shelf for five months before actually looking to see what it was all about.

Call of Cthulhu

The first story I read was, naturally, The Call of Cthulhu itself. And I must admit, I was a bit disappointed. I suppose I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t that. Lovecraft has a wonderfully gothic, verbose manner that I really enjoyed from the off – lots of high-flung prose overflowing with adjectives and similes like nothing I’ve ever read before. While there is an uncomfortable undercurrent of racism to his works, such things must be looked at in context, and while this is not intended to excuse, I find it difficult to understand people who dismiss him now for writing what was accepted at the time. It’s the age-old thing of judging the past by the present.

However, what I found most unsatisfying with the tale was its presentation, I suppose. The story is basically one of the narrator’s investigation into the cult of Cthulhu, prompted following his discovery of some papers in the possession of his late uncle. As such, it jumps around a bit, from describing events in 1925, to events in 1908, then back to 1925. Essentially, the tale is one long report, because nothing really happens within the story itself – the narrator describes what he read among his uncle’s papers, which leads him on to describing a police raid some years previously, which leads him back to describing a diary he then read. While these events range from the bizarre to the terrifying, there is very little dynamism because we’re seeing them all through the narrator’s filter – and the narrator is clearly in no danger because the events did not feature him.

All in all, I was a little put-out. In particular, I failed to see how this tale could have proven to be the seminal work of gothic horror and weird fiction that it appears to have become, much less spawn an entire “Cthulhu mythos” around it.

That was all back in 2012.

Over the past two years I have, in fits and starts, returned to Lovecraft’s fiction, reading other tales from the three-volume Penguin series. In this time, I have come to gain a fantastic appreciation for Lovecraft as a writer, and also to completely re-evaluate my thoughts on this tale, which I read again this morning.

There are a couple of points which I think need to be understood about Lovecraft, in order for you to really appreciate his stories for the classics that they are. Aside from the fact that gothic horror, I would contend, is not meant to be ‘scary’ in the sense we have come to appreciate the word nowadays, a lot of Lovecraft’s work is first and foremost cosmic horror. He isn’t reliant on supernatural evil such as vampires and werewolves, but instead on the terror of the impossible made manifest, and the threat more to his protagonists’ sanity than to their actual physical well-being. Indeed, there aren’t a great many physical injuries described in the stories I have read thus far. Rather, it is the threat of insanity that is the biggest terror in his work. That, coupled with the fact that his protagonists are usually scholarly, professor-type characters, who are no doubt even more afraid to lose their grip on their mind, all adds to the creepiness.

We have become so much of a visual-based society in recent years that the power of words in the imagination seems to have lost its ability to work as effectively, I feel. Take, for instance, this first description of the god Cthulhu:

It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. […] A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.

Is that better at conveying the horror of the story than, say, this:

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Or this:

cthulhu_rising_by_somniturne1

Personally, I much prefer the written word. While it’s true that Cthulhu is a tentacle-faced demon god as per Lovecraft’s description, there are sufficient blanks in there to allow us to really creep ourselves out thinking about it. Particularly the eyes. But when we see it, it becomes a case of, “Oh, that’s freaky” and we move on. I’ve read a lot of criticism of Lovecraft’s stories that seems to centre on this fact: his stories lead up to a ‘big reveal’ that invariably isn’t fully described because of the horror that the protagonist is experiencing (so far, all of the stories I have read have been first-person narrations), which leads reviewers to feel cheated. To me, this misses the point. Lovecraft’s work allows us to exercise our imaginations in ways that horror nowadays doesn’t require. He gives us just enough that we are left with a sense of deep unease. But anyway.

The story is also one of suspense. Split into three ‘chapters’, the first deals with the narrator’s description of an earthquake, following which an outbreak of group mania occurred within the international artistic community, alongside unrest among what are clearly meant to be more primitive areas of the world. One artist somehow sculpted a bas-relief in his sleep of Cthulhu, and its appearance is strikingly similar to an idol recovered on a raid of a voodoo cult in the Deep South some years earlier. A cult is described as worshipping the Great Old Ones, who are said to lie dreaming, waiting for the stars to align before they return to conquer the earth in a fiery apocalypse. During the period of mania, it transpires that a boat was caught in a storm off New Zealand, and only one person survived. The sailor professed to not recall what happened during the maelstrom, but the fact that he came through it clutching at a similar idol spurs the narrator to find his diary, which describes the boat coming upon an uncharted island of weird geometrical proportions. Unwittingly, the sailors awaken Cthulhu, who chases the ship but is driven off by the one surviving sailor. His heroics unhinge his mind, and he mysteriously dies when he returns home. The narrator, convinced that what he has learnt of the cult of Cthulhu means he too is not long for this world, locks away what he has discovered in a box, hoping that, when he too is inevitably disposed of, his research will remain hidden.

The suspense that is built up from the description of the bas-relief and the inexplicable collective madness, through the voodoo cult ceremony in Louisiana, and culminating in the description of the discovery of R’lyeh and the awakening of Cthulhu himself is quite masterful. I’m only sorry that it took me two years to realise that! But as I said, I feel that it is a greater knowledge of Lovecraft’s work that has enabled me to appreciate this tale more for what it is. To that extent, I would probably not recommend this tale as an introduction to his work – either The Dunwich Horror or The Shadow over Innsmouth are much better in this regard, being more classically-proportioned horror stories. You also need to be prepared for the previously-mentioned prose – take the description of R’lyeh, for instance:

Johansen and his men landed at a sloping mud-bank on this monstrous Acropolis, and clambered slipperily up over titan oozy blocks which could have been no mortal staircase. The very sun of heaven seemed distorted when viewed through the polarising miasma welling out from this sea-soaked perversion, and twisted menace and suspense lurked leeringly in those crazily elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance shewed concavity after the first shewed convexity.

It is wonderful, I have to say! As another blogger puts it, the words flow ‘with a life of their own’, and the result is an imagery that really does leap off the page.

The biggest horror, for me at least, is not in the half-described Shoggoths or other weird creatures that torment Lovecraft’s characters, but in the Ancient Ones themselves, and the fact that they just don’t care about humanity. While later writers would attempt to create a pantheon out of Lovecraft’s gods, for Lovecraft himself, Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth and Azathoth have no interest in humanity. They will bring about the end of the world not because they’re evil, simply because they will. And often, there is little that can be done to stop them. In Call of Cthulhu, the Norwegian sailor manages to drive Cthulhu off while he escapes, and the subsequent storm once more pulls R’lyeh to the bottom of the ocean, but Cthulhu hasn’t been defeated – as the narrator himself tells us at the end of the tale:

Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cries of men.

Since Call of Cthulhu was published in 1928, there have been all sorts of tales published within the so-called Cthulhu mythos. While Lovecraft himself is reputed to have preferred the term “Yog-Sothothery” for his work, the label has stuck, and even today weird fiction is being produced that adds to the mythos. For me, my love of boardgames has brought me to such awesome incarnations as Arkham Horror, Mansions of Madness, Call of Cthulhu LCG, Elder Sign and Eldritch Horror, and it is a familiarity with the tales behind these games that makes them all the more enjoyable. It seems Lovecraft’s fiction has successfully permeated most aspects of pop-culture, frequently gaming, though he has never transcribed well to film. Perhaps because most of Lovecraft’s brilliance lies in the way he has crafted his stories through words?

Cthulhu

 

(All extracts are from the Penguin Modern Classics edition, 1999, ed. ST Joshi)