“The Dunwich Horror” is another long short story often considered to be one of the core tales of the Cthulhu Mythos; I disagree. In terms of concrete Mythos connexions, it has only the name “Yog-Sothoth”, the ubiquitous “Necronomicon”, and the idea of “Old Ones”. Yet these “Old Ones” can’t easily be assimilated to either obvious category: the “Great Old Ones” of “the Call of Cthulhu” and elsewhere, or the “Elder Things” of “At the Mountains of Madness”. They are said here to be kin to Cthulhu, but they are greatly unlike him, and even Cthulhu is said not to be able to see them. On the other hand, they seem distinctly more powerful and alien than the Elder Things. It is possible, given that they are mentioned has having placed their seal both upon the R’lyeh and on the Elder city of Antarctica (an impressive reference to Mountains, as the latter was written several years later), that the Elder Thing / Great Old One distinction had not been fully made at this time. Alternatively, the city mentioned could be a reference to the ‘second city’ of Mountains.
In any case, Dunwich feels different in tone both from the earlier Lovecraft and from the later, more science-based tales. It is clear that it owes much of its legacy to the dark fairy tale, and in particular it is considered heavily influenced by Arthur Machen – it has been called anything from an ‘homage’ to a ‘retelling’ of Machen’s The Great God Pan, a story which is explicitly referenced in the text itself. In that light, I think Dunwich can be seen as an experiment, telling Cthulhu stories in the tone of Machen; some parts of that experiment were expanded upon later, while others have become less relevant. I don’t think it wise to spend too much time trying to find a way to fit Dunwich into a single coherent mythology with the other stories.
The story itself continues the racist themes of “The Call of Cthulhu”; indeed, race is the entire issue here. Out in the “degenerate” and “inbred” rural parts of New England, a child is born with strange qualities, including precocious intelligence and unnatural growth – a child who may in fact be the very opposite of “inbred”. Yes, it’s another story about miscegenation, the greatest horror Lovecraft could imagine. However, this is less of an obstacle than in “The Call of Cthulhu”, because here the problem is not literal miscegenation between races, but a metaphorical miscegenation, which the squeemish reader may attempt to read without inquiring into its symbolic purpose – although there remain distasteful comments on the ‘decayed’ families of the area, they feel more the work of a patronising urbanite than of a committed white supremacist.
In terms of its positive qualities: I think the prose was fairly firm throughout, although obviously still overly purple. Some passages were actually quite well written. Although the main horror is too obvious, there is a bit of a red herring along the way, and if you’re a patient reader the slow build-up could be seen as tense. The whippoorwills are… really rather creepy. The later sequences are impressively, chillingly, callous, and the monster revealed near the end is actually quite disgusting/horrifying (the description strongly suggests a shoggoth in its appearance, although the context makes this impossible – another experiment, I think). Unfortunately, while the ‘chase’ scenes do have a degree of tension and ickiness, the hyperbolic writing and the laughably wooden hero bring too much of a “hunting of the snark” feel to proceedings, and make clear why Lovecraft has been such a temptation for parody and comic retellings. There are times when the story feels like a parody itself – which is a pity, as it does have some effective elements, which bode well for the later stories.
In particular, the monsters are a lot more horrible than Cthulhu, and the threat they pose feels more immediate, even though, for most of the story, they are rather less described than their more famous cousin. Indeed, although the description of the villain at the end works well, the general tendency to explain things, while theoretically making the threat greater, in fact makes everything less frightening.
One final note: it is often thought that Yog-Sothoth is the father of a character in this story, but that wasn’t the impression I got. When a character calls out both “Father!” and “Yog-Sothoth!”, I don’t see that the two must be addressing the same person, given that the characters has reasons to shout out to both their father AND to Yog-Sothoth. That, however, may be my preconceptions about the Mythos talking.
Next up: “The Whisperer in Darkness”, one of the three stories in this collection for which I have high hopes. Unfortunately, I know the ending…
“Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end” – I can’t tell you what a relief these opening words to “The Whisperer in Darkness” were. They promised a tale more toned-down, more subtle, less prone to mad hysteria, than Lovecraft’s usual fare – and the promise was indeed borne out.
The Whisperer in Darkness was written in 1930 – shortly after his “Fungi from Yuggoth” poem-cycle, to which it makes considerable reference. Like “The Dunwich Horror”, the story is in debt to Arthur Machen, this time his The Novel of the Black Seal – but unlike “The Dunwich Horror”, this time Lovecraft truly makes the story his own. Gone are all the remnants of the “Little People” of Machen (referenced explicitly in the text); gone are the dark fairy-tale sensibilities; the cabals of miscegenated cultists are replaced by a variety of human ‘allies’, which include even urbane Bostonians. The patronising attitude toward the rural population remains, but now it has become more of a ‘noble savage’ attitude, with the older and less educated farmers being more accepting of the terrible theories of Akeley than the intellectuals are. What we have, in short, is a definite movement away from the old and the occult toward the new and scientific: “The Whisperer in Darkness” is a genuine science fiction horror story.
It feels as though Lovecraft was aware of this shift in direction; there is an atmosphere of challenge and change throughout the book. The protagonists – the narrator, Albert Wilmarth, and his correspondant, Henry Akeley – are not the naive and uninformed inhabitants of Lovecraft’s usual stories – both, in their way, are experts in folklore, who take for granted knowledge of the basis of the Cthulhu Mythos: Akeley even says to Wilmarth, and by extension to the reader, “I suppose you know all about the fearful myths antedating the coming of man to the earth – the Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu cycles – which are hinted at in the Necronomicon.” It is plain that these are not the sort of men who go mad simply by reading that horrible book – indeed, both protagonists display a commendable degree of sanity and levelheadedness throughout, barring a few moments of hysterical vocabulary, and the prose, while rich and ornate, is decidely more spartan than in many of his tales – some parts (particularly a long car-ride that seems autobiographical in its sincerity) actually rise to the level of admirable writing. Moreover, just as this overt and nonchalent mention of Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth seems to be a promise to the reader, “oh, it’s not just more of that stuff”, so too Lovecraft doesn’t hide the Mythos elements away until the end. Normally, the Mythos elements ARE the horror, revealed gradually and then in a moment of revelation that is meant to disturb and sicken the reader; here, Lovecraft throws the mythos at us from the firing gun, neutered in the dispassionate summaries of Wilmarth, as if proving that he can write a story that doesn’t rely on such things for its effect.
The key difference is that Whisperer is not a horror story simply because of its mythos – it is a horror story that just happens to use the mythos as its background. By not loading too much expectation on the mythos elements, the story frees them to act as a disturbing atmospheric note – in which function they are far more effective. Instead, Lovecraft builds up a chilling story in two acts – the first act tense and exciting, the second skin-crawling. Maybe it hits a sore note with me, but I found the final two ideas (the cylinders and the final scene) both itchingly repellent, in a good way.
That said, the story has flaws. Biggest of these is the slow start, with far too much folklore thrust at us with too little passion. The prose, while good in places and generally adequate, is still prone to painful lapses like a man startling at a car backfire – Wilmarth cannot say, for instance, that two things are simply “one and the same” without making it “one and the same order of incarnated nightmare”. There are too many adjectives, and too many of them (usually things like ‘horrible’, ‘hellish’ and the like) have no apparent purpose or motivation. The structure of the story, which is full of foreshadowing, which ends on a flashback, and which has a total shift in tone halfway through just as the excitement is reaching its climax, is ingenious, but may disrupt the flow for some and cause disengagement. There are several points where characters in a modern horror story would have acted differently, and as a result a few more plot twists would be required – but this perhaps we can put down to the naivity of Lovecraft, who did not have the same advantage of learning from a century of horror films as modern readers. As a result, some elements may be predictable to those familiar with the genre – in particular, some foreshadowings are probably more obvious now than they were at the time. I choose to consider that these flaws, both in foreshadowing and in the believability of the actions of the characters, are fairly superficial and could easily be rectified.
Overall, “The Whisperer in Darkness” was a very effective story – at least for a reader not well-versed in horror. From this, one can see why Lovecraft has had such influence over horror writers since. By itself, it probably doesn’t make this book worthwhile… but it certainly helps.
Adrenaline: 3/4. Dunwich is reasonably effective in grabbing the attention, particular toward the end; Whisperer is positively exciting, at least in parts – I could feel my pulse and I read into the night to finish it, despite having intended read only the first half.
Emotion: 2/3. Both stories provoke a certain visceral reaction; the more sober Whisperer, with its smaller and more personal scale, more empathetic and convincing characters, and lesser degree of silliness, is more affecting. Neither, however, are all that emotional, as the characters are all somewhat cold and distant; the prevailing emotion is a horrified revulsion, although Whisperer also succeeded in provoking a small degree of concern for one of the characters.
Thought: 2/2. Both are rather too didactic concerning their mythos to actually provoke much thought, although both are good enough stories to have one thinking ahead throughout. Whisperer is the better of the two, as its innovative conceit (the cylinders) is actually quite interesting – but not really explored.
Beauty: 2/4. Dunwich is dragged down by moments of excessive prose and by silliness, but does have some really effective imagery (in particular, the fireflies and the whippoorwills). Whisperer may be given the benefit of the doubt here – I do like purple prose, and I think that this story shows how Lovecraft was often only a few notches beyond beauty. Dialled down, he hits the mark here – but not consistently. The images are also, while often horrible, nonetheless elegant and memorable.
Craft: 3/3. Both stories are constructed well and innovatively. Both have better prose than “The Call of Cthulhu”. Both are not so silly. Whisperer in particular is more sturdy in construction – but still, he’s not quite there. At times, the restraint of the prose slips, and at times there are small plot holes (well, maybe not holes, exactly – but distinct weak points that could develop into holes), and at times the control of tone and tension is lacking.
Endearingness: 2/3. Neither is entirely hateful. Whisperer is more appealing, but still – is it appealling enough, given its length? I will continue to think well of it, but I don’t think it’ll be near the top of the pile for casual rereading, as it’s too slow and heavy for what it delivers.
Originality: 2/4. Dunwich is not entirely quotidian, as it takes the story in unexpected directions, even if the core is fairly familiar. Whisperer, on the other hand, is actively unusual, in its plot structure, its antagonists, its conclusion, and the conceit of the cylinders. Unlike Dunwich, it feels like the beginning of a genre, not the end of one.
“The Dunwich Horror” Overall: Bad but with redeeming features
“The Whisperer in Darkness” Overall: Good!