April 19th, 2007


[Tour de Lovecraft] The Dunwich Horror

"Melodrama is undeniably present, and coincidence is stretched to a length which appears absurd upon analysis; but in the malign witchery of the tale as a whole these trifles are forgotten..."
-- H.P. Lovecraft on "The Great God Pan" by Arthur Machen

This story is a bigger puzzle than it appears, since its immense popularity and undeniable effect stand squarely athwart the Higher Lovecraftian Criticism. To wit: It's a story of good vs. evil, in which good wins. This is nearly unforgiveable to critics like S.T. Joshi and Donald Burleson. The latter has even gone so far as to claim that "The Dunwich Horror" is self-parody, which Joshi correctly rejects on the face of it. Joshi simply thrashes around the story, unable to understand why Lovecraft's apparent abandoning of the philosophical core of his work produced such a successful Lovecraft story.

Joshi even tries to deny its success, but his criticisms are either misplaced or wrong-headed. He calls Henry Armitage unrealistically pompous, although one would imagine that S.T. Joshi has met even more tenured academics than I have. He questions the use of the Powder of Ibn-Ghazi, which seems to have no purpose except to make the Horror visible, although it's apparent enough from Armitage's lectures that the Horror can only be destroyed ("split up into what it was originally made of") if a sufficient portion exists in our universe to be affected by the rites. Joshi also questions Old Whateley's prediction that "yew folks'll hear a child o' Lavinny's a-callin' its father's name on the top o' Sentinel Hill," saying that it serves only as "purportedly clever foreshadowing," when it's obvious that Whateley is performing the role of prophet (Simeon in the Temple, if you will), seemingly predicting one thing -- the successful summoning of Yog-Sothoth by Wilbur and the concomitant end of the world -- while tragically predicting his own son's death. Just that prophetic element alone, tying as it does Christian parallelism (which we'll come to anon) and Greek tragic construction with a touch of Shakespearean malice, is one of the single best bits in all of Lovecraft, and it bespeaks an alarming (and unusual) failure of Joshi's critical faculty that he apparently can't get it. The same applies, almost as intensely, to Joshi's insistence that the distance of the climactic ritual (we see "three tiny figures" and hear only the natives' narration of the events) is comical rather than of a piece with almost every other HPL story. He even cavils at HPL's blending of the countryside around Wilbraham and that around Athol to create "Dunwich," when again it's what Lovecraft has done with all his fictional places. In short, Joshi just can't take the contradiction between Lovecraft's "mechanist materialism" and the heroic, almost salvific, narrative of the story.


Joshi is right, meanwhile, to point up the strong similarities between "The Dunwich Horror" and "The Great God Pan," which HPL even calls attention to in the text. Robert M. Price further notes borrowings in this story from "The White People" (especially the diaries) and "The Novel of the Black Seal" with its goatish-looking half-breed Jervase Cradock. The tale is very much a pastiche of Machen, much as T.E.D. Klein's The Ceremonies is. And like Klein's novel, it is a hugely successful pastiche, one that truly engages the original in the author's own voice and with the author's own concerns. It is both pastiche and original, as much Lovecraft as it is Machen, and it draws strength from both parents. If, as Joshi says, "The Dunwich Horror" made the rest of the Cthulhu Mythos possible, it was only because "they have eyes, but do not see." The resultant pastiches of Lovecraft are far less skilled (for the most part) than HPL's pastiche of Machen. The exceptions -- Ramsey Campbell, David Drake, Karl Edward Wagner, Nick Mamatas, Robert Charles Wilson, China Mieville, even Stephen King -- are those who respond to Lovecraft on their own terms and in their own voice.


So what's up with the moral polarity, then? Lovecraft takes it from Machen, for the most part, although the letter that Joshi cites in the notes is interesting:
'I found myself psychologically identifying with one of the characters (an aged scholar who finally combats the menace) toward the end.'
Lovecraft wrote this letter, interestingly, to August Derleth -- perhaps Derleth had just a trifle more justification for his Manichean Mythos than we like to think? In this mode, Price gleefully notes that the only actual Necronomicon quotation (besides Alhazred's couplet) that we have from the master's own hand (from, as it happens, this very story) strongly supports the "Derlethian" concept of a War in Heaven:
The ice desert of the South and the sunken isles of Ocean hold stones where Their seal is engraven, but who hath seen the deep frozen city or the sealed tower long garlanded with seaweed and barnacles? Great Cthulhu is Their cousin, yet can he spy Them only dimly.
If the "sealed tower" is R'lyeh, it implies that Cthulhu, "cousin" though he may be, is sealed in with the seal of the Old Ones, who also destroyed Kadath (most likely the crinoid city in Antarctica, in this context). This is still not very close to the pure Derlethian conception of the benevolent Elder Gods -- the "Old Ones" sound, if anything, even worse than Cthulhu and his ilk -- but it's far from the conventional wisdom which calls the whole Mythos the naïve deification of abstract or purely alien forces. Of course, one can salvage such a message by reminding the would-be neo-Derlethian that Abdul Alhazred was just such a naïve cultist, foolishly anthropomorphizing the cosmic history of Earth, and that we only see the true version dimly, as through a telescope trained on Sentinel Hill.


Once you realize that "The Dunwich Horror" is a Machen pastiche, the next step is to apply it to Machen's concepts of good and evil, not Lovecraft's. And as it happens, we have such a thing explicated, in perhaps the most brilliant philosophical dialogue in all weird fiction, namely the introit to "The White People." Although my favorite bit is Ambrose's famous question:
What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?
The actual answer to the question lies a little further in, when Ambrose says "[sin] is simply an attempt to penetrate into another and higher sphere in a forbidden manner." And there you have the sin of the Whateleys, and the equally necessary response of Armitage. Note that to Lovecraft, there is no forbidden manner of exploration, though some are very unwise. But to the exuberant, if eccentric, Christian Machen, the "forbidden" is very real.


So where do we find the Lovecraft in our Machen pastiche? In the structure of the story as, if you will, competing Gospels. Just as "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is a story of two colliding world-views (a Cargo Cult narrative, if you will), "The Dunwich Horror" is a story -- almost a holographic interface -- of two competing stories. Both the Horror and Armitage are Christ-figures. The Horror is explicitly, almost insultingly, Christological -- conceived by an infinite god, born of a virgin on a corner of the year, prodigiously learned at a young age, prophesied over, emerged from a backwater to challenge the priests of the Old Law. Then he dies like Dionysus or Osiris (torn to shreds by wild beasts) and like Christ (on a hilltop calling for his Father) -- and like them both, he will be resurrected when the End Times come. ("After summer is winter and after winter summer.") Like Christ, he has two natures, visible and invisible, god and man. Meanwhile, Armitage is a learned man, a man of (stereotypical) goodness, who rejects the Devil (in a library, pace our previous discussion about libraries as Lovecraftian gardens), who takes on his shoulders the burden of saving the world on a hilltop -- the image of three figures on a hill, rejected by those they would save, suffering for all mankind is not comical, regardless of what Joshi claims to think. Armitage is, admittedly, a kind of secular Christ -- his purity comes from age, tenure, art (he has a D. Litt.) and learning, not from God or Heaven. But then, he's a Lovecraftian Christ-figure.


So why does Good win, then? I think the secret here is in Lovecraft's discovery of identification with Armitage, which I mentioned above. Dunwich represents everything Lovecraft truly fears about society -- degeneration. Dunwich begins as a "saving remnant" fled from theocratic Salem, a shining city on Sentinel Hill. Its entire social development occurs during Lovecraft's beloved eighteenth century, but it falls, and its people (again, all whites of good stock) have "gone far along that path of retrogression" back to "almost unnameable violence and perversity." For Lovecraft, degeneration is tied in with a lot of freight -- his scientific, Progressive eugenic concerns (the Dunwich folk are Kallikaks, pure and simple), his love of the Edenic Augustan past and his hatred of mongrel modern culture, his discomfort (or at least bafflement) with sex and its associations, his own unfortunate family history of bankruptcy and madness, his actual trips to collapsed and broken New England towns, his fears (financial, social, political) of the future. These fears are clear and present in the Lovecraftian apocalypse of "Nyarlathotep," "He," and "Call of Cthulhu." ("The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy.") This is the future that Lovecraft's mechanist materialism sees coming, inevitably, fatally, and inescapably. All the world will be Dunwich, and Providence will fall.

In Armitage, he created a character with all those same concerns -- but with the knowledge and the willpower to reverse them. Armitage is doing what Lovecraft wishes he could, just as Randolph Carter does, and as his other Mary Sues -- Jervas Dudley, Charles Dexter Ward -- try to. Machen doesn't write tragedy, because Machen believes in redemption. Lovecraft, writing a Machen piece, found that he could believe in redemption from his own philosophy, at least for the length of a story. This poignance, perhaps more than any of the brilliant structure or haunting mood, makes "The Dunwich Horror" succeed. Despite the melodrama.

NEXT: "At the Mountains of Madness"