Weird #18: “The Dunwich Horror” by H. P. Lovecraft (1929)

H. P. Lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft may often be thought of as the father of weird fiction for the scale of his influence. He is certainly one of the most important and central writers in the twisted bouquet of texts gathered in the VanderMeers’ anthology. However, he is not so much the founder of weird fiction than one of its first self-professed authors.

The scale of Lovecraft’s influence was felt by his contemporaries and vastly more so by his successors. But it is also reflected on the literary histories that were later made. Jorge Luis Borges might have been speaking of the author of “The Dunwich Horror” and “Supernatural Horror in Literature” when he said, in “Kafka and His Predecessors,” “His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” (On Writing 87).

Like Kafka, Lovecraft created his own predecessors. Understood in Lovecraft’s own terms, they stretch back not only as far as Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and Edgar Allan Poe, but as far back as the early Gothic writers. In fact, they could be said to go back far earlier, to the earliest superstitions of our human ancestors.

In his “Afterweird” to the VanderMeers’ anthology, China Miéville describes the indefinite nature of the weird canon, saying that its

edges are as protean, its membranes as permeable and oozing as the breaching biology of Lovecraft’s Dunwich Horror. We interpret it, of course: our minds are meaning-factories. But the ground below them is hole-y. There are cracks and chaos, meaningquakes. The metaphors we walk on are

scree

(1115)

The terrifying, invisible abomination of form that lies at the centre of Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” is thus metonymic for the (highly permeable) form of weird fiction itself. For Mieville, the weird is an “affect,” not bound by the categories of high or low literature, genre, nationality, subject matter, or even the category of supernatural fiction (1115). It defies our capacity for description through language. Like the worms that were around before the human race came to be and will still be here when it is gone, the weird is about that which exists separately from human affairs.

In “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft charts the historical development of the weird tale. He defines his subject as such:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a serious and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

(“Introduction”)

This definition contains the essence of the literary history he traces in “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” The early Gothic writers who often included a rational, natural explanation of a ghostly haunting do not earn Lovecraft’s admiration, though he does commend writers who experiment with a certain sense of breathlessness in their style. The key figure separating these early experiments from the vein of horror Lovecraft finds most inspiring is Edgar Allan Poe, to whom “we owe the modern horror-story in its final and perfected state” (“Edgar Allan Poe”).

For Lovecraft, the psychological realism of horror was crucial for the weird tale, as was the avoidance of any pandering to “the majority’s artificial ideas” such as genre conventions, happy endings, and moral or social lessons (“Introduction”). Lovecraft goes on to mention various authors in Britain and America whose work follows in the supernatural tradition, ranging from Rudyard Kipling, Lafcadio Hearn, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Bram Stoker, George MacDonald, and William Hope Hodgson.

(He even includes Joseph Conrad in this list, who “often wrote of the dark secrets of the sea, and the of the daemoniac driving power of Fate as influencing the lives of lonely and maniacally resolute men” (“The Weird Tradition in the British Isles”). Parallels between the nautical aspects of “The Call of Cthulhu,” “Dagon,” and Hodgson’s nautical tales of discovery are considered one with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the tradition of terror.)

“The Dunwich Horror,” can be read as the culmination of the literary values described in “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” This weird tale contains a gradual unveiling of an invisible horror, culminating in the revelation of the formless, shapeless monster at its heart.

Lovecraft’s debt to Poe can be seen in the first paragraphs, in which the tiny New England community of Dunwich Village is described as impossibly ancient in comparison to the lands around it. Dunwich fell long ago into decadence and decline, much like the House of Usher. Dunwich was apparently settled long ago by residents of Salem who fled the witch trials. As such, no building in the entire village was built more recently than the early 1800s and many of them date back to the 1600s.

Degeneracy as a result of strict endogamy plagues the “repellently decadent” natives of Dunwich (160). The albino Lavinia Wateley gives birth to a “dark, goatish-looking infant” who matures with an unusual speed (161). Young Wilbur Whateley soon becomes the apprentice of his father, Old Whateley, a sorcerer. By the age of four and a half, he resembles a fifteen-year-old boy and can speak fluently, becoming learned in the dark arts his father teaches him.

Artistic rendering of Wilbur Whateley by Reuben C. Dodd

On feast days, he and his father perform secret rites on the site of an altar on Sentinel Hill, performing occult ceremonies. Earthquakes and explosive sounds are heard coming from underground. The villagers fear and avoid the Whateley’s and their house; the dogs bark at the boy, who speaks with a voice that one suspects is produced by more than human vocal organs. Everywhere the rites are practiced, a peculiar stench can be detected. Furthermore, he is never seen without a tightly, buttoned-up shirt, as though his clothes are hiding the monstrous body beneath them.

Before his father dies, he tells his son to “Open up the gates to Yog-Sothoth with the long chant that ye’ll find on page 751 of the complete edition,” which is later revealed to be a reference to the Necronomicon (165). Wilbur seeks the Necronomicon at Miskatonic University, asking the librarian Henry Armitage to bring it back to Dunwich. Armitage catches a glimpse of the text and immediately forbids it.

This is what Armitage reads:

Nor is it to be thought that man is either the oldest or the last of earth’s masters, or that the common bulk of life and substance walks alone. The old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen. […] By Their smell can men sometimes know them near, but of their semblance can no man know, saving only in the features of those They have begotten on mankind. […] They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites. […] Man rules now where They ruled once They shall soon rule where man rules now.

(167)

Taking into account all that he knows about goat-faced Wilbur, Armitage reaches the terrible conclusion that he has been plotting the annihilation of the entire human race by attempting to summon Yog-Sothoth from the depths of interdimensional space. He decides that Wilbur must never be allowed to consult the Necronomicon, under any circumstances, for the good of the human race. He forbids Wilbur and phones ahead to warn the library staff at Harvard, where he goes searching for the forbidden tome next.

In the end, Wilbur breaks into Miskatonic Universtiy to steal the cursed book. Armitage hears a terrible scream and finds the body of Wilbur Whateley, mauled by a guard dog. His clothes have been torn, exposing the true form of his “teratologically fabulous” body:

Above the waist it was semi-anthropomorphic; though its chest, where the dog’s rending paws still rested watchfuly, had the leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator. The back was pie-bald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes. Below the waist, though, it was the worst; for here all human resemblance left off and sheer phantasy began. The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply.

Their arrangement was odd, and seemed to follow the symmetries of some cosmic geometry unknown to earth or the solar system. On each of the hips, deep set in a kind of pinkish, ciliated orbit, was what seemed to be a rudimentary eye; whilst in lieu of a tail there depended a kind of trunk or feeler with purple annular markings, wound with many evidences of being an undeveloped mouth or throat.

(169)

This description is worth quoting in full because of the expert way in which Lovecraft attempts to use language to describe not merely what “no human pen” can describe, but a body that cannot even be visualized “by anyone whose ideas of aspect and contour are too closely bound up with the common life-forms of this planet and of the three known dimensions” (169).

The description gains the reader’s trust with the easier-to-grasp image of the slightly anomalous torso, but then becomes gradually more outrageous. How could it be that this creature has dark, coarse fur on its tentacles? Is it a bear-like mammal or is it more like a cephalopod? It clearly has something of both categories, indicating how useless our categories are to defining the sheer Otherness of this being.

Even the eyes on the “hips” of the tentacles only seem to be undeveloped eyes. The tail is not really a tail but a feeler or trunk–the author isn’t sure which. The coup-de-grace comes when the annular markings around the trunk/feeler give some kind of evidence indicating they are mouths–or throats. But to make that visualization, the reader must forever abandon the limitations on their understanding of what could constitute a “mouth.”

As Graham Harman remarks in Lovecraft and Philosophy, this is “one of the greatest and most important of all Lovecraft passages” (161). Rather than succumb to a pulp trope and leave the description simply at “no human pen could describe it” (Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror” 169), Lovecraft chooses to describe “the specific manner in which the corpse resists description” using a “cubist” and “Husserlian” technique in which he multiplies “an absurd number of concrete features that are nearly impossible to unify” (161). In this way, Harman says, “language is overloaded by a gluttonous excess of surfaces and aspects of the thing” (25). This description foregrounds how human perceptions are always filtered by our eyes, by the dimensions we know, and the categories in which we sort the sensuous data with which we perceive the world.

All this is merely the prologue to the real Dunwich horror–which begins to unravel the moment Armitage gets on the case. Armitage becomes the protagonist, tasked with saving the planet from the apocalypse that Wilbur, the spawn of Yog-Sothoth himself, nearly succeeds at initiating before his death.

An invisible giant whose elephant-like footsteps are all that is visible of it wrecks the house of the Elmer Fryes, extinguishing the entire family line. Armitage rallies a competent team of men to track down the entity and stop it with a spell. Like one of Conrad’s duty-bound protagonists, Armitage chases after Yog-Sothoth to the peak of Sentinel Hill. Though competent, he is constantly aware of the unknown nature of the threat and the fact that all their tools and weapons are insignificant compared to the Dunwich horror’s size and power.

It is here that Curtis Whateley, part of the “undecayed” branch of Wilbur’s family, glimpses the terrible form of Yog-Sothoth himself. Lovecraft delivers the description in what can only be described as an unreadable mess, Lovecraft’s indefensible attempt at a transcription of an (albeit obscure) rural New England dialect.

Feel free to skip to the “translation” I’ve provided two paragraphs down from it, but the original text is here:

‘Bigger’n a barn… all made o’ squirmin’ ropes… hull thing sort o’ shaped like a hen’s egg bigger’n anything with dozens o’ legs like hogsheads that haff shut up when they step… nothin’ solid abaout it–all like jelly, an’ made o’ sep’rit wrigglin’ ropes pushed close together… great bulgin’ eyes all over it… ten or twenty maouths or trunks a-stickin’ aout all along the sides, big as stove-pipes an all a-tossin’ an openin’ an’ shuttin’ … all grey, with kinder blue or purple rings… an’ Gawd in Heaven–that haff face on top…’

In On Writing, Stephen King calls Lovecraft “a terrible dialogue writer” (180). Lovecraft only wrote about 5,000 words of dialogue in his entire career, according to King–a mercy to the human race, whose minds still remain sensible because of it. Even in this 1.88% concentration, a dose can be fatal to a reader’s sanity. However, translating this classist, country bumpkin-ese into the kind of plain English Lovecraft is fully capable of writing when more educated, privileged characters are speaking, the above passage would read like this:

‘Bigger than a barn … all made of squirming ropes … the whole thing sort of shaped like a hen’s egg bigger than anything with dozens of legs like hogsheads that half shut up when they step. Nothing solid about it–all like jelly, and made of separate wriggling ropes pushed close together. Great bulging eyes all over it… Ten or twenty mouths or trunks sticking out all along the sides, big as stove-pipes and all tossing and opening and shutting. All grey, with kinder blue or purple rings. And God in Heaven–that half-face on top…’

The body of the Old One is undefined, barely contained, filled with moving parts that are anything but stable. What strikes me most about this passage is the sense of the Old One’s body being formed of ropes bound together. Wilbur’s family resemblance to this entity is apparent in the eyes that he shares with Wilbur, and in the ambiguity of whether the things sticking out from its body are mouths or trunks.

According to Miéville, the Dunwich horror, as described by Curtis Whateley, is a metaphor, or metonymy, for the boundaries of the weird as a genre. Each text, or perhaps each group of texts, is like a tightly bound “rope” that forms part of the amorphous body of the creature. The weird, like the Dunwich horror, walks the earth as if it had no care for the human race at all. Its worm-like trunk-eyes are looking at us, but “that they watch us is as random as a rip” (Miéville, “Afterweird” 1115). The affect that defines the weird for Mieville is equivalent to the sensation of being watched by those rope-like, or perhaps worm-like, eyes.

The end of “The Dunwich Horror” was a little disappointing to me. Essentially, the invisible entity returns to the dimension from whence it came after shouting the name of its father, Yog-Sothoth. No action is needed from Armitage and his team. The daemon is revealed to be the twin brother of Wilbur Whateley, spawned from the same father, the Old One, Yog-Sothoth.

While it does not provide a happy ending, like much of the supernatural fiction that Lovecraft disliked, “The Dunwich Horror” does fail at creating a satisfying non-conclusion. The explanation that the Dunwich horror was actually Wilbur’s twin brother seems extraneous and bizarre.

It would have been far more interesting had Wilbur not truly “died” but become the Dunwich horror himself.

After all, the dog only destroys the physical, visible body of Wilbur, and the entire point of the story is that there exists a realm of invisible, incorporeal monsters who have existed since before the dawn of time. Perhaps Wilbur, despite being half-human, has retained these incorporeal abilities. Perhaps he could have become united in some way to the beast he had summoned.

Making Wilbur the Dunwich horror itself, Lovecraft could have at least avoided drawing upon extraneous information to explain to the reader what the Dunwich horror was. In this case, learning the explanation frankly dulled the affect of the horror. At least, that was the effect the story had on me.

I could have pointed out half a dozen other strengths to this story, despite its glaring faults. For one, the gradual revelation of the horror through the dispensation of information, clues, and connections was expertly done. I could see at once how effective this technique was, especially since it has been borrowed by Lovecraft’s modern-day imitators. For instance, Usman Malik does much the same trick in “In the Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro” during his buildup to an unspeakable blood sacrifice beneath a Buddhist stupa.

Next week, I’ll be discussing Margaret Irwin’s “The Book” (1930), which Mieville and writer Joanna Russ both call one of the most interesting supernatural stories they’ve ever read.

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