The Weird – The Dunwich Horror – H P Lovecraft

Back to my project of Blogging the Weird, I reach ‘The Dunwich Horror’ by H.P. Lovecraft, the grandfather of the pulp weird story, perhaps. Except, as we have already seen, he is now but one among many, and the name people reach for when they talk about weird fiction. I was not, when younger, a huge fan of Lovecraft. It wasn’t the language, I think, as I loved the flood of words, but I think I recognised instinctively that while he could describe things he could not make you see them, and he wasn’t much of a story-teller. Historically, he is in his way interesting and a necessary participant in the history of the weird, but he is too a man of his times and by our lights frequently racist and anti-semitic, snobbish and, to judge by his fiction, obsessed with purity and terrified of anything vaguely monstrous. I cannot think of another writer who has used the word ‘degenerate’ as often. One should endeavour to separate fiction from biography but the frequent recurrence of certain themes in this work makes it almost impossible to do so.

I wonder what it says about this story that the first moment that genuinely shocked me was when Wilbur Whateley gallops into the village to use the telephoneto call for a doctor. There is no reason why it should be so much of a surprise. Lovecraft hasn’t been coy with dates. This event occurs at a point in the story that the reader is actually told is post-1923. One of the small features of this story is its scrupulous historical accounting. World War One is acknowledged as happening, while government officials, reporters and cameramen have visited the area; there is a sense of a paraphernalia of organisation in existence. As we will see later in the narrative, the telephone is at the heart of one of its more frightening moments. The story is unequivocally ‘modern’, and yet that telephone … why does it bother me so much? Perhaps it is that Wilbur Whateley suddenly emerges of his own volition into the contemporary world. Which perhaps says a good deal about what Lovecraft has been doing in the previous five pages of the story.

For now skipping the quotation from Charles Lamb’s ‘Witches and Other Night-Fears, the first sentence of this story is quite arresting: “When a traveller in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean’s Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country’ (159). There is the geographical precision of ‘north central Massachusetts’ and ‘Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean’s Corners’, but even the ‘wrong fork’ seems to be a recognised feature, even if the country beyond it is ‘lonely’ and curious’. And there is a sense that this is a well-marked turn off the mapped and familiar, as if there were some rite of passage involved in taking the wrong turn.

Whatever else one may feel about Lovecraft, he had a certain skill in building a sense of unease from topographical description. I love the way the walls ‘press closer and closer’, while the trees are ‘too large’ and the vegetation has an unnerving ‘luxuriance’. Are these the fears of the townie lost in the country, afraid of everything, or the concerns of the countryman who suddenly knows that things are not quite right. No one seems to feel easy in this landscape, dotted with ‘gnarled solitary figures […] so silent and furtive that one feels somehow confronted by forbidden things with which it would be better to have nothing to do’ (159). With mountain summits that are ‘too rounded and symmetrical to give a sense of comfort and naturalness’, there is a sense that there is nothing right about this landscape at all, and indeed that it has all been shaped by some unnatural force, and that’s before we get to ‘the queer circles of tall stone pillars’ which crown the mountain tops.

However, if there is one thing that Lovecraft was incapable of doing in his descriptive writing, it was knowing when to stop. Two well-observed paragraphs of topographical dread become four distinctly over-egged paragraphs. Suddenly, nothing at all is right about this place. Ravines are ‘problematical’ in their depth, while bridges are ‘crude’ and ‘dubious’,  and the sides of the mountains ‘loom up […] darkly and precipitously’. It goes on and on. One might say it represents the burgeoning fears of the nervous traveller in an inimical landscape, his imagination beginning to run riot, but there is a dry precision about these descriptions, more evident if you hear them read out loud, that suggests otherwise. This is Lovecraft hammering home his point, just in case you missed it. And not just hammering home his point. Reading ‘The Dunwich Horror’, I am struck by how manipulative a writer Lovecraft is. He is absolutely determined that the reader will hears story the way he wants it to be heard. He is like an imp sitting on the reader’s shoulder, whispering into his ear. It becomes easier to understand why Lovecraft is parodied so much; so prescriptive an approach is in some respects very simple to imitate. It is what lurks behind the impulse to write like this that is harder to gauge.

But back to the ‘tenebrous tunnel of the bridge’ (160) and other such joys. Having finally arrived in Dunwich, with its ‘faint, malign odour about the village street, as of the massed mould and decay of centuries’ (160), one should be clear by now that this is not a good place be. In case there is any doubt, the story’s narrator reaches back into history to establish that people have been avoiding it for centuries, thanks to claims of ‘witch-blood, Satan-worship and strange forest presences’ (160), making the point that as we reach the modern day, they still shun the place but no longer have an explanation for why. Modern science has perhaps stripped away the older superstitious frames of reference, so the narrator offers another, scientific framework, degeneracy arising from inbreeding.

They have come to form a race by themselves, with the well-defined mental and physical stigmata of degeneracy and inbreeding. The average of their intelligence is woefully low, while their annals reek of overt viciousness and of half-hidden murders, incests, and deeds of almost unnameable violence and perversity.

Even the gentry, and Lovecraft seems to have a certain preoccupation with ‘gentry’, are not immune. Some ‘have kept somewhat about the general level of decay; though many branches are sunk into the sordid populace so deeply that only their names remain as a key to the origin they disgrace’ (160).

At the same time, Lovecraft as narrator seems able to absolve them to some degree for being responsible for their own degeneracy, pushing it back further in time, blaming the Native American population and their strange ceremonies for the wrongness. It being New England there are of course no longer any visible Native Americans so they can be conveniently maligned, not least because theirs is the oldest historical presence in the area. The key points, though, are that this community in this ‘lonely and curious country’ is and always has been different. This sense of difference and distance is further emphasised by the Whateley farmhouse, the main setting of this story, being some distance outside the village of Dunwich itself. Beyond the farmhouse is the hill, the ultimate symbol of otherness and wrongness. Indeed, this point is emphasised by the farmhouse being ‘set against’ the hillside. The connection couldn’t be made more specific.

Candlemas, 2nd February 1913, is the birthday of Wilbur Whateley, son of Lavinia Whateley and an unknown father. In Christian terms, Candlemas is the feast of the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the presentation of Jesus in the temple. But Candlemas, one of the cross-quarter days, halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, is also associated with older festivals marking the beginning of spring and celebrating fertility. Lovecraft’s story hints that the inhabitants of Dunwich celebrate it under a different name. Whatever the festival, it is made plain that Wilbur Whateley’s birth is ‘special’, to his family at least. Old Whateley himself has a reputation as a wizard, and Wilbur’s birth is attended by strange noises and other mysterious signs. Wilbur himself is a ‘dark, goatish-looking infant’, forming a stark contrast to his mother’s ‘sickly and pink-eyed albinism’ (161. His family show an immense amount of pride in him, and are inclined to make puzzling statements about his future.

It perhaps comes as no surprise to anyone that Wilbur develops at a prodigious rate: ‘within three months of his birth he had attained a size and muscular power not usually found in infants under a full year of age’ (162). Everything about him signals that something is wrong, and Lovecraft goes to immense lengths to establish this in his descriptions of the boy. On the one hand, ‘his firm and precociously shaped nose united with the expression of his large, dark, almost Latin eyes […] give him an air of quasi-adulthood and well-nigh preternatural intelligence’ (163), while on the other he is described as being:

exceedingly ugly despite his appearance of brilliancy; there being something almost goatish or animalistic about his thick lips, large-pored, yellowish skin, coarse crinkly hair, and oddly elongated ears. (163)

Given Lovecraft’s own well-documented views on race, it’s difficult not to feel he is pouring all his feelings about non-Caucasians into that one short passage.

So, by now we have a situation where on the one hand the young but apparently gifted Wilbur is hard at work, studying his grandfather’s eclectic library and stuffing his head full of arcane knowledge, while on the other hand, his grandfather is renovating the farm, the barns in particular, and buying astonishing quantities of local cattle, paying for them with gold coins. The cattle themselves appear to be ‘anaemic, bloodless-looking specimens’ (162).Twice a year mysterious ceremonies occur on Sentinel Hill, behind the house. In 1917 the family is the subject of outside attention from newspaper reporters but are apparently left to their own devices again. It is obvious that the inhabitants of Dunwich know perfectly well what is going on but choose, for whatever reasons, to overlook the matter, either out of fear or else misplaced pride.

But equally, I can’t help feeling that Lovecraft himself is playing games. I can’t quite decide whether he is toying with the reader, signalling the outcome of the story with outrageously visible clues, or whether he is subtly mocking the yokels for their failure to take action, suggesting their complicity in what is to come, while avoiding discussion of what it means to live in such a remote community. Either way, it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, and one that persists as Lovecraft recounts Wilbur’s adventures in scholarship. There is a certain element of tragedy in his struggles to collate the information he has in the piles of decaying books that belonged to his grandfather and his bruising encounters with academe as he searches for the books he needs. There is, on the one hand, the invisible corresponding scholar who displays great erudition and then the shabby and peculiar-seeming young man who arrives at university libraries, struggling to cross-reference the material they hold with his own collection, and earnestly hoping to borrow valuable books. Which is not to say that, if we are to believe the narrator, Wilbur is not an unpleasant young man but one also has a sense of him as now considerably out of his depth, reflected not least in the fact that he is driven to visit libraries in person.

Seen through the superior eyes of Dr Armitage, fully aware of the stories from Dunwich, Wilbur Whateley is presented now as being like ‘the spawn of another planet or dimension; like something only partly of mankind, and linked to black gulfs of essence and entity that stretch like titan phantasms beyond all spheres of force and matter, time and space’ (167) rather than as the mere product of inbreeding. There is a new sense of sniffy superiority in this assessment and the nature of the story shifts too, from scared tolerance to outright concern as Armitage makes more enquires about Wilbur.

Matters are brought to a head when Wilbur raids the library in his desperation to get his hands on the Necronomiconand dies. Lovecraft is lavish in his revelatory description of the true physical nature of Wilbur. One honestly wonders how, in sheer physical terms, this creature could actually have existed from one day to the next, but Lovecraft is clearly enjoying himself so it would be perhaps churlish to quibble. Wilbur’s death is the turning point of the story. As Lovecraft himself notes, this is but a prologue to the actual horror which is, of course, the rampaging horror itself, tramping invisibly round Dunwich, leaving huge footprints, crushing and devouring all living things in its path.

It would almost be risible – and indeed, the story written up for the newspaper wire, takes precisely that tone – but there are moments when Lovecraft catches the sheer raw horror of there being something in the people’s midst that they can’t identify or deal with. In many ways, the most horrific moments come when the village people attempt to keep in touch by telephone and there is either no answer or else the line suddenly goes dead. So much is achieved in such economy, far more than in lavish descriptions of the footprints. The sense of desperation and uncertainty experienced by the villagers is never plainer than here. And finally, indirectly, the telephone is the instrument of their salvation when Armitage sees the newspaper report and realises that his half-formed plans to do something about Wilbur’s papers need to be accelerated.

We are now back in a world of scholar-heroes, with Armitage working long nights to decode Wilbur’s diary, work out what he’d done and then come up with a solution. It’s a familiar world of competent men undoing the mistakes of ill-informed dabblers. One has the feeling that Lovecraft himself is more secure here. The yokels can stand by and watch while the university men sort things out, make reparation, explain, tell the locals what to do to make things safe, and admonish them not to do it again. There is an underlying implication that knowledge should not be left in the hands of the ignorant because they cannot make proper use of it, which is to make no use of it at all but to instead appreciate its aesthetic properties. One can see why, on the one hand, having Yog Shothoth roaming the countryside is not the best thing ever, but so many questions remain unanswered about for example, the Whateley family got as far as they did in establishing contact, creating Wilbur and his brother. This was not an accident. Were they guided by some other force or was this an original experiment? We will never find out. ‘We have no business calling in such things from outside’ (182) says Armitage, exhibiting his own kind of parochialism perhaps, and that is that.

Yet, going back to the epigraph taken from Lamb, does it not imply that there is something deeper even than the understanding of Armitage can fully grasp, that can suddenly appear like a flower emerging from a crack in the pavement. And that, perhaps, is the weirdest thing about this story. It’s not the odd happenings themselves, which are expected, it being Dunwich, but those little inexplicable moments, such as how the Whateleys came by their knowledge, the strange little hints that Wilbur is not quite master of all, the mundane intrusions like the rush for the telephone, that make this story really weird. It’s not about fulsome language or overwhelming scenery, it is about the still moments of wondering.