Monday, September 5, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Dreams in the Witch House


Among the many ideas that H.P. Lovecraft popularized in the field of pulp fantasy is the notion that "magic" is nothing more than supremely advanced science as seen from the perspective of one who does not understand its workings. He returns to this idea again and again in his works, perhaps nowhere more explicitly -- and effectively -- than in "Dreams in the Witch House," first published in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales. The story takes its title from the disturbing dreams experienced by a mathematics student at Miskatonic University named Walter Gilman. Gilman has taken up residence in the former haunt of Keziah Mason, a woman reputed to have been a witch in the 17th century and who supposedly escaped capture by means of her black magic. The Witch House has an evil reputation and, over the course of the centuries since Mason's disappearance, its inhabitants have died under mysterious circumstances.

It's precisely for this reason that Gilman decides to rent a room in the Witch House.
Gilman believed strange things about Keziah, and had felt a queer thrill on learning that her dwelling was still standing after more than 235 years. When he heard the hushed Arkham whispers about Keziah's persistent presence in the old house and the narrow streets, about the irregular human tooth-marks left on certain sleepers in that and other houses, about the childish cries heard near May-Eve, and Hallowmass, about the stench often noted in the old house's attic just after those dreaded seasons, and about the small, furry, sharp-toothed thing which haunted the mouldering structure and the town and nuzzled people curiously in the black hours before dawn, he resolved to live in the place at any cost.
As it turns out, lodging at the Witch House is unpopular, owing to the dark legends associated with it, and he finds it easy to obtain a room there. Gilman's interest in Keziah Mason is at least partly "professional," for he had come "to connect his mathematics with the fantastic legends of elder magic" and to believe that "a mediocre old woman of the seventeenth century [had] an insight into mathematical depths perhaps beyond the utmost modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter."

The story's titular dreams are bizarre and frightful, filled with images and feelings Gilman cannot quite explain. Others seem almost real and feature not just the reputed witch Keziah Mason but also her grotesque familiar, Brown Jenkin, a huge rat with human hands and feet. While these dreams disturbed Gilman, they also seemed to have aided him in unexpected ways:
He was getting an intuitive knack for solving Riemannian equations, and astonished Professor Upham by his comprehension of fourth-dimensional and other problems which had floored all the rest of the class. One afternoon there was a discussion of possible freakish curvatures in space, and of theoretical points of approach or even contact between our part of the cosmos and various other regions as distant as the farthest stars or the trans-galactic gulfs between themselves -- or even as fabulously remote as the tentatively conceivable cosmic units beyond the whole Einsteinian space-time continuum. Gilman's handling of them filled everyone with admiration, even though some of his hypothetical illustrations caused an increase in the always plentiful gossip about his nervous and solitary eccentricity.
As his dreams take on an ever more nightmarish turn, Gilman discovers signs that he is sleepwalking and that, seemingly, Keziah Mason is urging him to join her in her dark activities, leading Gilman to question his sanity. "Dreams in the Witch House" continues on in this vein, leading to a conclusion that is far from satisfying as a piece of fiction, even if it does further advance Lovecraft's thesis that magic is nothing more than misunderstood advanced science.

I've always been fond of "Dreams in the Witch House" myself, but it's generally held to be one of HPL's weaker efforts, particularly among recent critics who (mistakenly in my view) see Lovecraft primarily as a cosmic "philosopher" rather than a pulp fantasist who used cosmicism to embellish his tales. For them, "Dreams in the Witch House" is too lurid and conventional in places -- a crucifix, given to Gilman by a Catholic priest, fends off Keziah Mason at one point -- to be a "true" Lovecraft story. Leaving that aside, there's no question that the story's plot is weak and characterizations thin, but, even so, its central ideas are compelling, compelling enough that I can find pleasure in it nonetheless. Is it one of Lovecraft's best? Certainly not but it's still an intriguing bit of fiction that I continue to find enormously inspiring.

33 comments:

  1. I've always been very fond of this one - for many years it was part of my Halloween night reading ritual (though I've started to change that up in recent years). I think some readers might not enjoy it as it lacks any sort of "tentacular" horrors and, at least on the surface, is more of a witch story than a mythos story.

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  2. I too have always had a soft spot for this story, having read it my first night in a college dorm room before my roommate moved in. Perfect.

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  3. It's what makes jack vance so fun--is rhialto the marvelous just the story of captain james t. Kirk told from the vantage point of cro-magnon mankind?

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  4. I think the conventionality of the crucifix is an in joke by Lovecraft- the cross is not just representational of Christianity but also Cartesian geometry. Given the context of the story displaying such a symbol -one that contains a basic assumption of the antithesis of the witch's non-euclidean existence- it actually makes a lot of sense that it would repel her.

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  5. Given the context of the story displaying such a symbol -one that contains a basic assumption of the antithesis of the witch's non-euclidean existence- it actually makes a lot of sense that it would repel her.

    For what it's worth, this is the way I've always interpreted it also. Can't get much more geometrically conventional than two lines intersecting.

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  6. I love the strategically placed smoke on the cover, lol.

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  7. "Dreams in the Witch House" is my favorite of Lovecraft's works. As a student of mathematics, theoretical physics and folklore myself, I find the ideas he explores in it so compelling that I've never noticed that its plot is weak, that its characterizations are thin, or that its conclusion is unsatisfying. They've always seemed strong, solid and satisfying to me.

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  8. And, for whatever it's worth, I've always understood the power of the cross against the witch to be due to its Cartesian geometry, not its Christian symbolism, too.

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  9. Considering the cross is a symbol used by the guys who almost killed her several times over her centuries of aberrant life, maybe it just has some bad associations for her? Keziah Mason is not presented as the most stable of individuals.

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  10. Timely, as I believe that this will be the next story discussed on the H. P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast. What's that, you haven't been foolowing that podcast? Well you should, you should! Go, listen now, whatever else you were doing can wait.

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  11. I *love* this story--I don't know why it's not esteemed more. I think the plot is interesting, the characters are pretty well drawn, and I find it far scarier and creepier than most of HPL's stuff.

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  12. "I don't know why it's not esteemed more."

    Maybe few people understand it well enough to esteem it. Most people don't esteem things they don't understand because they assume their inability to understand them means they don't make sense.

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  13. I always found a bit juvenile the hype he puts on some mathematics concept, like 4th dimension, freakish curvature etc. which seem to denote his probably scarce literacy in the argument, and are also probably a product of the times, when these concepts (already well established since the 19th century) were made public by physicists rather than mathematicians.

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  14. This is one of my favorite HPL tales and, like those above, I always associated the crucifix's effect as a combination fo the geometry and Mason's personal aversion to what it represents... not any implied divine force.

    And yeah, anyone who doesn't listen to the H.P. Lovecraft Literary podcast are really missing out.

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  16. Dreams in the Witch House is pretty brilliant. I think that it's almost as radical in its conception of horror as Call of Cthulhu. Imagine if a generation of writers had taken up Dreams as the story to emulate and expand upon. The closest modern equivalent to Dreams that I can think of is some of J.G. Ballard's work.

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  17. This story was turned into a dynamite episode of "Masters of Horror" by Stuart Gordon. He takes it in his own direction, of course, and that's bound to upset purists, but it makes a smashing 1-hour yarn.

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  18. "an insight into mathematical depths perhaps beyond the utmost modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter"? Maybe she also has literary skills beyond the greatest writings of Hitchcock, Lucas and Spielberg? Or painting skills beyond that greatest of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven?

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  19. @Prosfilaes

    Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein and de Sitter were physicists and mathematicians. They had to be because physics is the description of physical reality with mathematics. So insights in physics are based on insights in mathematics or lead to insights in mathematics or both.

    So, no -- Lovecraft didn't make an ignorant mistake.

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  20. @Prosfilaes

    Thank you very much for your examples! They enlight DitWH worst fault: its so-called "scientific" explanation mistakes physics with mathematics. AFAIK, this is a mistake sadly common between illustrated people. It's also entirely irrational, akin mistaking facts with fiction or life with literature.

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  22. I feel a deep aversion for DitWH because somehow it managed to ruin a perfectly good idea.

    Check the following link for an example of almost the same idea properly delivered (by Ambrose Bierce, no less):

    http://bierce.thefreelibrary.com/Present-At-A-Hanging-And-Other-Ghost-Stories/4-4

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  23. @Ed Dove: Physicists, like all scientists, use mathematics. They, as a rule of thumb, don't create mathematics. There are many exceptions, but Planck, Heisenberg, and Einstein weren't mathematics, and studied, didn't create, mathematics. If you want to talk about mathematical depths, talk about Poincaré, who actually did much of the math that Einstein used.

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  24. @Prosfilaes

    1) While it's true that all scientists do use mathematics, theoretical physicists do much more than just that. They try to figure out if there's any intrinsic relationship between any mathematics -- either already known or that they can devise -- and physical reality. So theoretical physics is about mathematics as much as it is about physical reality because it's the attempt to determine which mathematical principles, rather than being mere abstract concepts, actually manifest themselves in the form of physical reality. And Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein and de Sitter all were theoretical physicists.

    2) Neither Lovecraft nor I mentioned anything about any of those guys creating any mathematics. He wrote, "an insight into mathematical depths perhaps beyond the utmost modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter". So we're talking about "insight" from "delvings" "into mathematical depths", not creating mathematics. And, as some of the greatest of theoretical physicists, those guys certainly did have "insight" into the nature of physical reality from their "delvings" "into mathematical depths".

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  25. "...DitWH worst fault: its so-called 'scientific' explanation mistakes physics with mathematics. AFAIK, this is a mistake sadly common between illustrated people. It's also entirely irrational, akin mistaking facts with fiction or life with literature."--anonimous

    "Dreams in the Witch House" doesn't confuse physics with mathematics. It's about theoretical physics, which is also known as "mathematical physics".

    "Theoretical physics is a branch of physics which employs mathematical models and abstractions of physics to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena. The importance of mathematics in theoretical physics is sometimes emphasized by the expression 'mathematical physics'."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theoretical_physics

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  26. And I stand by my statement; maybe she also has literary skills beyond the greatest writings of Hitchcock, Lucas and Spielberg. All three of those people wrote major screenplays; you can't tell me the writing didn't matter. If you have a problem with comparing someone's literary skills to great movie people, maybe you should understand why comparing someone's mathematical skills to great physicists gets under my skin.

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  27. @Prosfilaes

    That's really reaching -- and grasping at straws.

    And it conveniently ignores your unrationalizable "painting skills beyond that greatest of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven" comparison too.

    And you're still talking about "skills" when what Lovecraft actually wrote was "insight" and "delvings".

    So what you're saying still doesn't make a wit of sense.

    And, even if all that weren't true, I still wouldn't understand why comparing someone's mathematical skills to those of great theoretical physicists would get under your skin anyway.

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  28. "Theoretical physics is (...) the attempt to determine which mathematical principles (...) actually manifest themselves in the form of physical reality."--Ed Dove

    OK, I think I've got it. My point is, in DitWH *every* conceivable mathematical principle manifests itself and affects the physical world. Since Maths are the language the Creation is written in, mastering Maths means that you can shape reality. V.gr. black holes being depicted in rightful mathematical terms (by Oppenheimer & Synder) would have made black holes real. Thus, Keziah Mason mathematical skills allow her to bend time and space by devising brand new theorems. She's a sorceress who casts equations rather than spells!

    This is an amusing concept for a tale if properly played with. But Lovecraft's treatment in DitWH is below my standarts.

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  29. @Ed Dove: You don't understand why someone who has devoted themselves to the study of mathematics, who has gloried over Cantor's handling of the infinite and been stunned by Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, might be a little miffed, if, on those rare occasions when the great mathematicians are actually lauded, to hear physicists lauded in their place?

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  30. "...in DitWH *every* conceivable mathematical principle manifests itself and affects the physical world."

    Well -- every mathematical principle that the story actually mentions -- yeah. But, of course, that can't even possibly be every *conceivable* mathematical principle. But I do think that Lovecraft probably did assume that every conceivable mathematical principle would manifest itself in the form of some physical reality within the story's milieu.


    "Since Maths are the language the Creation is written in, mastering Maths means that you can shape reality."

    Not exactly. It's not enough to master just mathematics. Nor is it necessary to master all mathematics. To shape reality in some way, you have to understand how some specific mathematical principle manifests itself in the form of physical reality. And the more mathematical principles you understand that way, the more you can shape reality.


    "...black holes being depicted in rightful mathematical terms (by Oppenheimer & Synder) would have made black holes real."

    Black holes already *are* real. But, if what you meant is that understanding how the mathematical principles that describe black holes manifest themselves in the form of actual black holes would allow one to make black holes, then yeah.


    "...Keziah Mason mathematical skills allow her to bend time and space by devising brand new theorems."

    Not exactly. Her understanding of how mathematical principles manifest themselves in the form of physical reality allows her to bend time and space by devising brand new theorems that she understands that way. Mathematics alone isn't enough. It's understanding the connection between mathematics and physical reality -- theoretical physics -- that's necessary.


    " She's a sorceress who casts equations rather than spells!"

    Exactly!


    "This is an amusing concept for a tale if properly played with."

    I agree.


    "But Lovecraft's treatment in DitWH is below my standards."

    Fair enough. Personal standards are just that -- personal.

    Myself -- I think DitWH is far from being the best possible treatment of this idea. But it's still good enough for me, personally, to enjoy though.

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  31. "You don't understand why someone who has devoted themselves to the study of mathematics, who has gloried over Cantor's handling of the infinite and been stunned by Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, might be a little miffed, if, on those rare occasions when the great mathematicians are actually lauded, to hear physicists lauded in their place?"

    When the physicists are lauded for their contributions to theoretical physics -- not mathematics -- no.

    It just sounds like you're peeved that DitWH is about something you don't know much about -- theoretical physics -- instead of something you know lots about -- mathematics. And there's just no point in getting upset about something being what it is instead of something completely different that you'd prefer. That's like getting upset because an apple isn't a ham sandwich.

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  32. Thanks to Ed Dove for his clarifications. Not that I like DitWH more than I used to do, but looks like my critics were misaimed.

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  33. @anonimous

    You're quite welcome!

    And thank you for not only being willing to consider the validity of positions other than your own, but also being persuadable by reason, and even graciously admitting when you've been mistaken, too! All those are admirable qualities that are sadly rare these days.

    (By the way, I read the Ambrose Bierce story you linked to and enjoyed it very much, too. Thanks!)

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