Sunday, October 11, 2009

Our Lovecraftian World: Is The Kingdom Opening? Pt.6

Many modern horror writers, including Stephen King, Bentley Little, Joe R. Lansdale, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, have cited Lovecraft as their primary influence. Lovecraft himself was relatively unknown during his day. His stories appeared in the pages of prominent pulp magazines, such as Weird Tales (often eliciting letters of outrage from regular readers of the magazines), not many knew his name. He corresponded regularly with other comtemporary writers, such as Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth, people who became good friends of his, even though they never met in person. This group of correspondents became known as the "Lovecraft Circle," since they all freely borrowed elements of Lovecraft's stories-the mysterious books with disturbing names-the pantheon of ancient alien gods, such as Cthulu and Azathoth and "eldritch" places, such as the New England town of Arkham and its Miskatonic University-for use in their own works with Lovecraft's blessing and encouragement.

After Lovecraft's death, the Lovecraft Circle carried on, August Derleth was probably the most prolific of these writers, having added to and expanded on Lovecraft's vision. Derleth's contributions have been controversial to say the least; while Lovecraft never considered his panthon of alien gods more than a mere plot device, Derleth created an entire alien cosmology, complete with a war between the good "Elder Gods" and the evil "Outer Gods" (such as Cthulu and his ilk), which the 'good' gods were supposed to have won, locking Cthulu and others up beneath the earth, in the ocean etc., and went on to associate different gods with the traditional 4 elements. Lovecraft's fiction has been grouped into three categories by some critics. While Lovecraft did not refer to these categories himself, he did once write, "There are my 'Poe' pieces and my 'Dunsany' pieces-but where are my Lovecraft pieces?"

1) Macabre Stories (approx 1905 to 1920) 2) Dream Cycle Stories (approx. 1920 to 1927) 3) Cthulu Mythos/Lovecraft Myths Stories (approx. 1925-1935). Some critics see little difference between the Dream Cycle and Mythos, after pointing to the recurring Necronomicon and subsequent "gods." A frequently given explanation is that the Dream Cycle belongs more ot the genre of fantasy, while the Mythos is science-fiction. Also, much of the supernatural elements in the Dream Cycle takes place in its own sphere or mythological dimension separated from our own level of existence. The Mythos on the other hand, is placed within the same reality and cosmos that humans live in.

In "The Dreams in the Witch House," a witch named Keziah Mason is imprisoned in the Salem jail. However, she escapes from this cell by drawing a strange design in blood on the wall of her cell. This type of magical representation is a common motif in horror fiction. However, there is a fascinating twist to the Keziah Mason story. The "witch" Mason's control over space and time is not due to any knowledge of magic in the traditional sense. This unique witch enters other dimensions through her use of advanced mathematics and geometry, and comes back to our world centuries later to find converts and sacrifices. She decides that a mathematics student would be the perfect acolyte, and uses her powers and those of her familiar-the rat-like Brown Jenkin to draw him deeper into her web of sorcery. Fritz Leiber, a well-known science fiction and fantasy author, pointed out that this story contained one of the first uses of the concept of "hyperspace" in fiction.

"The Shunned House" is not by any means, Lovecraft's most famous story. However, it does embrace one of the most impressive uses of folklore in a horror story. Lovecraft didn't write about any aspect of the story from just one source, but put together various elements to fit the needs of his tales. The Shunned House is about a building on Benefit Street in Providence that is remarked about because of the ill health of its tenants. The narrator of the story begins his tale at a time when the house has been abandoned. He visited the place as a child and noticed its foresaken atomosphere and a strange man-shaped patch of phosphorescent mold in the basement. As he digs deeper into the house's past he finds stories of lurking madness and physical illness that have overcome its inhabitants through the years going back to the days of the house's builders. Xenoglossy is employed in this story and I wonder if Lovecraft heard about this concept from Charles Fort, as former tenants of the house spoke in French, a language of which they have no knowledge. Later in his investigation, the narrator of the story discovers that the house was built on top of the Roulet family graveyard-which unfortunately for the future tenants wasn't moved when Benefit Street was straightened.

He tells his uncle, who is a historian of the eerie results of his investigations. In an older-day version of "Ghost Hunters" the two pay a visit to the house with scientific instruments, and one item I've not seen the kids at Paranormal State carry-flamethrowers! They mean to take the spirit of the shunned house our or put it to rest, yet the spirit that resides there isn't so easily dislodged.

In one of his letters, Lovecraft mentions a house that one of his aunts lived in that had a dark atmosphere. One might expect this to be a place that no longer exists or is an eerie tumbled-down ruin by now. Nothing could be further from the truth. The house is now painted a bright cheerful yellow, its cellar doors still open directly onto the sidewalk, and part of the house's overgrown yard is now a community garden. An American "76" flag hangs over the front door which is reached by a steep walkway. If anything the place looks quite inviting, and I wonder if it is a private residence or a bed and breakfast?

Many scholars thought the tale of The Shunned House could have been inspired by local legends of vampirism. An example of this that Lovecraft would definitely have known of is the Brown family of Exeter, Rhode Island. The "Mercy Brown" case is mentioned on this blog under the label "Fortean History"-a 14 March 2009 entry. The Brown family from this 1892 case is now thought to have been hit by tuberculosis. But the Brown father and the locals had become convinced that the dead family members were spiritually feeding on the living to eventually bring them to the Land of the Dead too. When Mercy Brown's corpse was exhumed, her body was found to be fresh and oozing blood (this aspect of the case is now thought to be from the fact that she was buried in the dead of winter-no pun intended-and the cold had preserved her corpse well.) The family burned the corpses heart to ahses and fed them to her young brother in a quest to save his life. This effort failed and the young man died a short time later.

Interestingly, neither the house that Lovecraft's aunt stayed in for a short time nor the Brown (and other New England vampire legends) played any part in Lovecraft's construction of The Shunned House story. Lovecraft actually demolishes these theories in one sentence, a sentence that paraphrases a book of folklore in his own library, Charles M. Skinner's Myths and Legends of Our Own Land (1896). When this volume is studied more closely a much more likely source of Lovecraft's inspiration turns up. Skinner tells of a house on Green Street in Schenectady, New York, said to have an area of mold shaped like a human body. Other details in The Shunned House story can be found in this same entry in Skinner's book: the illness of the tenants and the unearthed and forgotten body below. How do we account for the terrifying nature of the lost tomb's occupant in the story?

Here again Lovecraft had been inspired by a legend in a book. John Fiske's Myths and Mythmakers (1872) recounts an event that is said to have happened near the French town of Caude in 1598. A group of men said they saw two wolves devouring the body of a young boy. The men gave chase and they found a man stained with blood and guts all over his body hiding in the woods. This man's name was found to be none other than Jacques Roulet, who claimed to use an ointment to shapeshift into a wolf. Roulet was convicted of murder and sentenced to be executed, but before this happened the French government intervened and put him in an insane asylum instead.

Part of Lovecraft's genius was to find inspiration and ideas for his stories in books about folklore, the esoteric and occult and real historical sources and to use them as ideas or even the foundation of his own stories, although he had no belief whatsoever in the paranormal aspects of these cases. Lovecraft's "The Horror at Red Hook" was his first tale to use genuine magical beliefs as the basis of his story. Witchcraft, vampirism, black magic and forbidden books have been a common theme in European folklore for centuries. Once Lovecraft saw the power of using these ideas in his stories there was no turning back. His tales could now have plots where magical keys opened doors to other dimensions, ageless wizards plot revenge against their enemies and a book called the Necronomicon prophesies the doom of the human race by the tentacles of the "Old Ones." The Horror at Red Hook is about a policeman's fight against an evil cult based in Brooklyn's seedy Red Hook district, which of course, Lovecraft had personal knowledge of from living there at one time. The cult uses a variety of diverse belief systems such as Nestorian Christianity and Tibetan shamanism and welds them together somewhat like the Santeria religion in parts of Africa, the Carribbean and the southern United States.

OK-can't type anymore! Peace and be well to anyone stopping by and this series is going to go on a bit more about HP Lovecraft and his writing and his circle of friends-before getting into what I hope will be some actual articles about "Lovecraftian" events happening in our world today. I hope to have more here tomorrow if all goes well.


Autumnforest said...

I really appreciate you giving some background on the stories. Now I have a better sense of what I want to read first...second...third...

Devin said...

Haha thanks so much for stopping by Autumnforest!! I am learning about 90 percent of his background right now for this series
i had read a few of his stories and always knew about the cthulu mythos and things like that and thought -hey some of these things happen in real life! sorry i couldnt answer your comment better-very tired -but i do hope to be online tomorrow-I am so glad some people are enjoying this series-i was wondering if this was not going to appeal to anyone
best to you as always!!

X. Dell said...

Interesting chronicle of this literary development. It's also good to know where a writer get's his influences from.

Devin said...

I super enjoyed doing this series -and wish I had read more of Lovecraft -am going to try again when I can get his books
Haha-even Gore Vidal mentions Lovecraft obliquely in the latest interview I have seen with him -best to you as always Xdell and thanks for stopping by!!