Because of its popularity, the basic outlines of "The Dunwich Horror" are well known. In north central Massachusetts, there is a village called Dunwich, which "outsiders visit ... as seldom as possible," owing to its dire reputation of "witch-blood, Satan-worship, and strange forest presences." Living in Dunwich is the degenerate Whateley family, long a source of suspicion and fear but all the moreso in recent years for
It was in the township of Dunwich, in a large and partly inhabited farmhouse set against a hillside four miles from the village and a mile and a half from any other dwelling, that Wilbur Whateley was born at 5 a.m. on Sunday, the second of February, 1913. This date was recalled because it was Candlemas, which people in Dunwich curiously observe under another name; and because the noises in the hills had sounded, and all the dogs of the countryside barked persistently, throughout the night before.Of particular interest is that Wilbur was born to Lavinia Whateley, "a somewhat deformed, unattractive albino woman of thirty-five" who "had no known husband, but according to the custom of the region made no attempt to disavow the child." Indeed, Lavinia
seemed strangely proud of the dark, goatish-looking infant who formed such a contrast to her own sickly and pink-eyed albinism, and was heard to mutter many curious prophecies about its unusual powers and tremendous future.Wilbur grows quickly and prodigiously, standing nearly eight feet tale by the time he is 14 years old. Unlike his mother and grandfather, with whom he lives, the boy is never "seen alive and conscious without complete and buttoned attire" for "the most valid of reasons." Wilbur is also uncommonly intelligent, "a scholar of really tremendous erudition in his one-sided way, and was quietly known by correspondence to many librarians in distant places where rare and forbidden books of old days are kept."
Unfortunately, these exchanges of letters do not give Wilbur what he seeks.
Correspondence with the Widener Library at Harvard, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the British Museum, the University of Bueons Ayres [sic], and the Library of Miskatonic University of Arkham had failed to get him the loan of a book he desperately wanted; so at length he set out in person, shabby, dirty, bearded, and uncouth of dialect, to consult the copy at Miskatonic, which was the nearest to him geographically.One need not be a Lovecraft scholar to guess the title of the book Wilbur Whateley wishes to consult -- the Necronomicon. In fact, he wishes to do more than consult it; he wants to take it home with him to Dunwich, as he explains his peculiar speech to Henry Armitage, the university librarian:
"Mr. Armitage," he said, "I calc'late I've got to take that book home. They's things in it I've got to try under sarten conditions that I can't git here, an' it 'ud be a mortal sin to let a red-tape rule hold me up. Let me take it along, Sir, an' I'll swar they wun't nobody know the difference. I dun't need to tell ye I'll take good keer of it. It wa'n't me that put this Dee copy in the shape it is ..."Armitage denies Wilbur's request, worried about "giving such a being the key to such blasphemous outer spheres." Wilbur leaves Miskatonic University in a huff, stating "Maybe Harvard wun't be so fussy as yew be." I found it hard not to laugh at this line, not merely because it's funny but also because it reveals, in a strange way, that, despite his huge size and intellect, Wilbur Whateley is still very much a child, which I think goes some way toward explaining his subsequent ill-conceived plan to break into the library and simply steal the Necronomicon for himself.
Wilbur's actions only add to Armitage's existing fears. Overcome, he lapses into a near-comatose state and rants of "some plan for the extirpation of the entire human race and all animal and vegetable life from the earth by some terrible elder race of beings from another dimension." He eventually regains his senses and vitality, gathers some knowledgeable colleagues and equipment, and decides to head off to Dunwich to confront the horror that threatens not just the area but, if he is right, the entire world.
If ever there were a Lovecraft tale that clearly inspired the Call of Cthulhu RPG, "The Dunwich Horror" is it. As already noted, it clearly inspired August Derleth and others who imitated Lovecraft. The tale provides a blueprint for a thriller in which ordinary if scholarly people unearth evidence that unsavory individuals in league with otherworldly powers seek to bring about the downfall of humanity and act to stop them. Consciously or not, many a later writer -- and gamer -- has been writing a pastiche of "The Dunwich Horror."
Consequently, Joshi and others argue that the tale is a failure and a deviation from "subtler" works like "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Colour out of Space," which are deemed truer representations of HPL's overall philosophy. I'm not sure I'd call "The Dunwich Horror" a failure, but I agree that it's quite different from some of Lovecraft's other stories. Though there are cosmic implications in its events, humanity nevertheless remains important, even central. Likewise, the ability of Armitage and his companions -- armed with both technological and magical weapons -- to end the Dunwich horror gives the reader cause for optimism. It's a lifeline to hope and I can't fault anyone for holding on to it rather than embracing the stark nihilism found in other tales. I also think that it suggests that there is no single "Mythos" but rather many variations on it, even within Lovecraft's own stories and, depending upon one's predilections, it's possible to construct one that suits. To me, this is a strength of HPL (and the Mythos) rather than a weakness and likely explains the lasting appeal of his writings.