Monday, May 3, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Dunwich Horror

Though his stories are typically collected under the sobriquet of "the Cthulhu Mythos," I think it's reasonable to suggest that H.P. Lovecraft's April 1929 story "The Dunwich Horror" is much more widely read and beloved than the previous year's "The Call of Cthulhu." I think it's also reasonable to suggest that, in practical terms, "The Dunwich Horror" has probably exerted greater influence over subsequent "Lovecraftian" or "Mythos" stories than has almost any other tale the Old Gent wrote. By many accounts, August Derleth judged this tale one of Lovecraft's best and among his personal favorites. Meanwhile, prominent HPL scholar S.T. Joshi considers "The Dunwich Horror" a lurid melodrama whose "naive moral dichotomy" was the foundation upon which later -- and, in his opinion, lesser -- writers would build their own Mythos pastiches. As with many such disagreements, I think there's truth in each perspective and how one ultimately views the story depends largely upon factors outside Lovecraft's text.

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.

23 comments:

  1. 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.

    *****

    Okay, I found this funny too, but only because Lovecraft could have actually been describing a scene at virtually any university library in the United States in 2010!

    Sure, today's entitled delinquents don't want the Necronomicon, but they sure do want that rare textbook on reserve at the circulation desk when it needs to be shared among a class of 50.

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  2. One man's "stark nihilism" is another man's cosmicism. :-)

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  3. One man's "stark nihilism" is another man's cosmicism. :-)

    That's more or less my point, especially when Lovecraft himself provides us with the tools to advance either perspective as the "right" one.

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  4. I can't believe that anyone would think of Call of Cthulhu as subtle. I've always thought of it as a let-down in comparison with works like Dunwich.

    CoC presents a giant, rather feeble, rubber monster. Dunwich presents a threat to everything in the world. For me there's no comparison.

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  5. I always had the sense that the Mythos didn't really exist until Derleth took over the publication of Lovecraft's stories (and wrote his own). There was a similar theme to most of Lovecraft's stories (the cosmic insignificance of certain self-important primates), but the cosmic horrors that featured in them were relatively independent of each other. Of course, reading them now as most of us do, in collections with the foreknowledge that he created the Mythos, we get the sense they are in fact closely connected, when that may not actually be the case.

    YMMV.

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  6. I agree. From what I recall, Lovecraft's idea of the "mythos" was to simply plant consistent references in his stories while getting some of his writer buddies - like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard - to include similar references in their stories to try and trick gullible readers into thinking such references were part of a real yet forgotten mythology. Consistency wasn't especially important to Lovecraft.

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  7. Doesn't the existance (or meta-existance) of Nyarlothotep prove a lot of the "mythos" is connected?

    HP's Necronomicon itself mentions many of the entities and connections to each other. So it kind of started before Derleth or anyone else tried to "put 2 and 2" together.

    I love the feeling of unconnected comics horrors as much as the next guy, but I think Lovecraft had many connections between the entities in mind at certain points.

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  8. I just read Chaosium's Dunwich sourcebook and it is quite good for those interested in "sandbox" games--basically it describes every single building and resident (300+) in the village, but doesn't otherwise try to force a particular story. It's a great place for a group of investigators to stumble into trouble simply by knocking on doors . .

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  9. I always had the sense that the Mythos didn't really exist until Derleth took over the publication of Lovecraft's stories (and wrote his own).

    Yes and no.

    I think you're right that "the Cthulhu Mythos" as a codified thing with a canon didn't exist until Derleth did his thing. However, I do think HPL himself had a sense of his stories as a "body" that existed within the same "universe." He talks, for example, of his "Arkham cycle" in one of his letters (although he doesn't explain his meaning) and, of course, he refers to his overall mythology as "Yog-Sothothery."

    At the same time, there's also a sense that HPL wasn't overall concerned with "orthodoxy" and "catechisms" in the way Derleth was. He mixed and matched his ideas, borrowing some from others as well, to create tales that were all related in some fashion, even if they don't always quite sync with one another in terms of mood and content. That's why I think it's truer to say that there are many Cthulhu Mythoi than just a single, overriding one.

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  10. Consistency wasn't especially important to Lovecraft.

    Correct. I personally think the only "mistake" one can make in interpreting Lovecraft is in assuming that all his stories are utterly consistent with one another and that they all existed within the same universe. They might, but I think it more likely that each story should be taken on its own and every one of them could be used as the basis for describing a wider world outside the story itself. They're all different takes on similar kinds of stories and themes but each one has its own consistency rather than being bound by what's established elsewhere.

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  11. I love the feeling of unconnected comics horrors as much as the next guy, but I think Lovecraft had many connections between the entities in mind at certain points.

    I think HPL's stories have as much connection between them as the various Greek myths do with one another. They both draw upon common pools of characters, places, and ideas, and many are more or less compatible with one another, but I'm not sure there was any systematic attempt by Lovecraft at relating them to one another except in a vague fashion.

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  12. There is even a fair amount of "evolution" (i.e. reshuffling) in Lovecraft's own conception of his cosmic horrors over time. Compare for instance the undiluted horror of all things alien in his early work (Call of Cthulhu, Colour out of Space) with the subtly altered conception in At the Mountains of Madness... the surviving members of the Antarctic Expedition come to appreciate that the Primordial Ones are "men" on some level. Lovecraft had less of an attachment to presenting a coherent and consistent "mythos" in his fiction than others that followed would attempt to impose on it.

    That having been said, I think there's still a case to be made that The Dunwich Horror needs to be ranked with The Lurking Fear, the Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and some of his other pieces as a lesser but still notable work. To me, however effective they might be otherwise, there's a certain sense that they didn't have that extra spark (maybe the cosmicism) that makes some of his other stuff unique.

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  13. "..personally think the only "mistake" one can make in interpreting Lovecraft is in assuming that all his stories are utterly consistent with one another and that they all existed within the same universe. They might, but I think it more likely that each story should be taken on its own.."

    Thank Phillip Farmer for putting me in a mind to "Wold Newtonize" everything. Marvel Comics did a bit of that to me too.

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  14. I'm sure I'm not alone in wondering what the heck that means....

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  15. Wilbur Whateley, like Cthulhu himself, was a bit of a let-down as a kind of cosmic anti-Christ. Killed by a dog?

    Yeah... not so scary.

    I think the best Lovecraft tale to serve as a model for gaming (and one that I've adopted loosely into many systems, including D&D) is "The Shadow Over Innesmouth."

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  16. I'm fascinated by how many people take mere mortality as a sign of the presence or absence of horror. One might call that the "slasher film" variety of horror, and it is hardly the only sort that exists. It is especially interesting in that among the ideas of "cosmic horror" is the idea that humanity and its frailties are not the subject of truly horrific writing, but rather that the inability of our limited intellects to comprehend the vast infinities of the universe is rightly the most horrific thing. "Cosmic horror", then, is horror for nerds*, while what might be called "body horrors", such as slasher films, are more horrors for jocks (to artificially, and in a knowingly overgeneralizing fashion, divide the world into the two camps of the Revenge of the Nerds films). There is a third category of horror one might include, similar to but distinct from "cosmic horror", which we could call "soul horror", but now we are departing from the topics at hand.

    People above variously interpret the apparent frailty of Wilbur Whateley or the descriptive appearance of the "mountain" that "walked or stumbled" as the primary instances of the cosmic horrors which were the subject of Lovecraft's writing. They leave out the goal (attainable or not) of Whateley and why he chose it or thought it possible, or the implications of the worldwide impact of Cthulhu and the nightmares connected to it (as well, there is no evidence in the story itself that the "mountain" that "walked or stumbled" is Cthulhu, only an indication that it is somehow connected to that name in some way).


    *Among whom I proudly, if perhaps vainly, count myself.

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  17. It's one of my preferred tales since it marries quite well pulp action with cosmic horror. A very effective blend.

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  18. I don't see why HPL stories should be consistent at all. Consistency would be a weakness of the whole, considering that the Mythos are supposed to be essentially alien in all their aspects.

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  20. The Dunwich Horror is too long, but otherwise an excellent example of how the Call of Cthulhu rpg should work. I know why they include The Call of Cthulhu in modern printings of the game, but it's not quite as clear an example of what the game is about; to my eye, it's more of an explanation of the setting than of what play might be like.

    Joshua, while Innsmouth is one of HPL's better stories, I'm not sure that it serves as a good gaming model, simply because of the ending!

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  21. Correct. I personally think the only "mistake" one can make in interpreting Lovecraft is in assuming that all his stories are utterly consistent with one another and that they all existed within the same universe.

    I'm not sure that the two necessarily go together. I prefer to think that his stories are not utterly consistent with one another and that they, nonetheless, all existed within the same universe. With the sort of the weirdness afoot in Lovecraft, why should we expect consistency as understood by humans to be a necessary part of the universe?

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  22. Inconsistencies among stories set in the same “universe” actually makes them seem more real. Just as different stories of the real world are often inconsistent.

    ^_^

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  23. Joshua, while Innsmouth is one of HPL's better stories, I'm not sure that it serves as a good gaming model, simply because of the ending!

    It would probably best be modeled using the BECMI "Immortals" ruleset.

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