Monday, July 17, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Shambler from the Stars

Robert Bloch's youthful friendship with H.P. Lovecraft is an important and well-known part of his biography. It was Lovecraft, after all, who not only encouraged him in his early efforts at writing fiction but who also introduced him to his circle of friends and colleagues, like August Derleth, Clask Ashton Smith, and Donald Wandrei, many of whom would, in turn, play significant roles in his subsequent growth as a writer. Despite this, it was HPL whom Bloch most admired and whom he considered his true mentor, so much so that news of Lovecraft's death in 1937 came as "a shattering blow" that caused him much distress. 

Ironically, less than two years earlier, in the September 1935 issue of Weird Tales, Bloch jokingly killed Lovecraft – or rather his fictional avatar – in a short story entitled "The Shambler from the Stars." The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator living in Milwaukee who is attempting to make a living as "a writer of weird fiction." However, we soon learn that the narrator is not a very good writer.

My first attempts soon convinced me how utterly I had failed. Sadly, miserably, I fell short of my aspired goal. My vivid dreams became on paper merely meaningless jumbles of ponderous adjectives, and I found no ordinary words to express the wondrous terror of the unknown. My first manuscripts were miserable and futile documents; the few magazines using such material being unanimous in their rejections.

Bloch is poking fun at himself and his own early efforts to become a writer after the fashion of his idol, H.P. Lovecraft. Indeed, what makes this story so charming are its passion and its sincerity. It seems quite clear to me that Bloch is using "The Shambler from the Stars" to tell, in fictional and darkly humorous form, the story of his struggles to become a journeyman writer of the weird.

I wanted to write a real story; not the stereotyped, ephemeral sort of tale I turned out for the magazines, but a real work of art. The creation of such a masterpiece became my ideal. I was not a good writer, but that was not entirely due to my errors in mechanical style. It was, I felt, the fault of my subject matter. Vampires, werewolves, ghouls, logical monsters—these things constituted material of little merit. Commonplace imagery, ordinary adjectival treatment, and a prosaically anthropocentric point of view were the chief detriments to the production of a really good weird tale.

I must have new subject matter, truly unusual plot material. If only I could conceive of something utterly ultra-mundane, something truly macrocosmic, something that was teratologically incredible!

I longed to learn the songs the demons sing as they swoop between the stars, or hear the voices of the olden gods as they whisper their secrets to the echoing void. I yearned to know the terrors of the grave; the kiss of maggots on my tongue, the cold caress of a rotting shroud upon my body. I thirsted for the knowledge that lies in the pits of mummied eyes, and burned for wisdom known only to the worm. Then I could really write, and my hopes be truly realized.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I find the above paragraphs quite moving – and beautiful. They speak eloquently of the insatiable, almost destructive, drive felt by anyone who's ever desired to create something of last value. In the case of the story's narrator, the drive soon proves to be destructive indeed. He seeks out "correspondence with isolated thinkers and dreamers all over the country to aid him in his quest for "something utterly ultra-mundane" to serve as the basis for the "real story" he longed to write.

There was a hermit in the western hills, a savant in the northern wilds, a mystic dreamer in New England. It was from the latter that I learned of the ancient books that hold strange lore. He quoted guardedly from the legendary Necronomicon, and spoke timidly of a certain Book of Eibon that was reputed to surpass it in the utter wildness of its blasphemy. He himself had been a student of these volumes of primal dread, but he did not want me to search too far. He had heard many strange things as a boy in witch-haunted Arkham, where the old shadows still leer and creep, and since then he had wisely shunned the blacker knowledge of the forbidden.

 Again, Bloch draws on his own life, fictionalizing his correspondence with Lovecraft and the role the Old Gent played, metaphorically, in opening his eyes to the "strange lore" and "primal dread" of the universe. The New England dreamer provides the unnamed narrator with "the names of certain persons" he thought helpful to his quest. Unfortunately, none of these contacts, whether "universities, private libraries, reputed seers, and the leaders of carefully hidden and obscurely designated cults" was willing to aid him. Their replies to his queries "definitely unfriendly, almost hostile" and he almost abandons all hope of ever learning anything "truly macrocosmic" on which to draw for his weird fiction.

The narrator does not give up, however. He travels to Chicago and finds "a little old shop on South Dearborn Street," which contains "a great black volume with iron facings." The book bears the title De Vermis Mysteriis – "Mysteries of the Worm" – and was written by a Belgian sorcerer named Ludvig Prinn. Though a truly "phenomenal find," as it is precisely the kind of blasphemous tome his New England correspondent recommended he seek out, the narrator cannot read it, because its contents are entirely in Latin, a language he could not understand. So close and yet so far!

For a moment I despaired, since I was unwilling to approach any local classical or Latin scholar in connection with so hideous and blasphemous a text. Then came an inspiration. Why not take it east and seek the aid of my friend? He was a student of the classics, and would be less likely to be shocked by the horrors of Prinn's baleful revelations. Accordingly I addressed a hasty letter to him, and shortly thereafter received my reply. He would be glad to assist me—I must by all means come at once.

It should come as no surprise to learn that his meeting with his correspondent at his home – in Providence, Rhode Island, no less! – does not go well, particularly for his correspondent, as I mentioned at the start of this post. Nevertheless, Bloch does a creditable job of holding the reader's attention as he describes the inevitable disaster that unfolds when the two men finally meet in person – a meeting that never occurred in the case of Bloch and Lovecraft, I should add, to the former's lifelong regret. 

Much like Derleth's "The Lamp of Alhazred," "The Shambler from the Stars" serves as a tribute to Lovecraft and his role in fostering the career of a younger contemporary. As a result, the grisly demise of his literary stand-in was intended affectionately, which exactly how HPL did take it. In fact, Lovecraft was so taken with Bloch's yarn that he would pen a sequel, "The Haunter of the Dark," that would appear a little over a year later and be the very last original story he'd ever write.

1 comment:

  1. "Ah! Woe is me! I am unable to write skin-crawling, bone-chilling prose!"

    [proceeds to write skin-crawling, bone-chilling prose]