"He" is firmly, inextricably rooted in New York history and topography -- like many other great ghost stories, it's about a place more than it is anything else. Hence, this is one of those stories I had to re-read after leaving Oklahoma City in order to fully appreciate it. For me, Chicago is Lovecraft's New York and Lovecraft's Providence in one. This passage, in particular, is exactly how Chicago hit me when I first crossed the Michigan Avenue bridge:
I had seen it in the sunset from a bridge, majestic above its waters, its incredible peaks and pyramids rising flowerlike and delicate from pools of violet mist to play with the flaming clouds and the first stars of evening. Then it had lighted up window by window above the shimmering tides where lanterns nodded and glided and deep horns bayed weird harmonies, and had itself become a starry firmament of dream, redolent of faery music, and one with the marvels of Carcassonne and Samarcand and El Dorado and all glorious and half-fabulous cities.For me, then, "He" is a profoundly true story. However, I differ from Lovecraft's narrator, or perhaps Chicago differs from New York:
I saw at last a fearful truth which no one had ever dared to breathe before - the unwhisperable secret of secrets - the fact that this city of stone and stridor is not a sentient perpetuation of Old New York as London is of Old London and Paris of Old Paris, but that it is in fact quite dead, its sprawling body imperfectly embalmed and infested with queer animate things which have nothing to do with it as it was in life.One of the many wonderful, terrifying things about Chicago is the degree to which Chicago is, indeed, a sentient perpetuation of its past. I tried to get that across in my Unknown Armies campaign, and in the pieces I contributed to the Unknown Armies 2nd Ed. corebook and to Chicago Workings for the World of Darkness.
Not that Chicago doesn't have its "imperfectly embalmed" bits, too.
The description of Lovecraftian magic in this tale is one of the best:
"To -- my ancestor ... there appeared to reside some very remarkable qualities in the will of mankind; qualities having a little-suspected dominance not only over the acts of one's self and of others, but over every variety of force and substance in Nature, and over many elements and dimensions deemed more universal than Nature herself."It is my profound hope that between "He" and "Dreams in the Witch-House" it will be possible to determine just what Lovecraftian sorcery is good for besides summoning things that will eat you.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Joshi, at least, thinks there might be a shoggoth there at the end: "a colossal, shapeless influx of inky substance starred with shining, malevolent eyes," although the story makes it fairly clear that it is the vengeance-spirit (the ghastly soul-symbol?) of the "half-breed red Indians" coming after the squire. This, by the way, is not one of those stories that particularly refutes Lovecraft's racism, although he interestingly borrows from Poe by describing the squire as "too white."
As I've mentioned before, I basically agree with Houellebecq's assessment of "He" as Lovecraft's autobiographical rejection letter to New York City. This is probably where I should grudgingly admit that H.P. Lovecraft would likely have made himself miserable in Chicago, if he'd taken the offer to become editor of Weird Tales in March of 1924. He certainly would have hated the weather, and sad to say, he might well have been blind to the glories of Chicago architecture. But still ... Competent editing for Weird Tales! Lovecraft in Chicago! If only ...
NEXT: "Cool Air"