There is no drawing a line betwixt what is to be called extreme fantasy of a traditional type and what is to be called surrealism; and I have no doubt but that the nightmare landscapes of some of the surrealists correspond, as well as any actual creations could, to the iconographic horrors attributed by sundry fictioneers to mad or daemon-haunted artists. If there were a real Richard Upton Pickman ... I am sure he would have been represented in the recent exhibition by several blasphemous and abhorrent canvases!Robert Blake, in addition to being a manque for Robert Bloch, is a painter, and this may partially explain Lovecraft's Expressionist, almost surrealistic, approach to this story. (Part of it is also no doubt that he dashed it off in four days as a kind of inside joke.)
For example, the normally exquisitely meticulous Lovecraft shows a shocking lack of concern about the effects of light on the Haunter -- a little light (filtered through the steeple windows into the open box) keeps the Haunter at bay, but Blake writes "of the duty of burying the Shining Trapezohedron and of banishing what he had evoked by letting daylight into the hideous spire." To the contrary, Blake apparently summons the thing by closing the box and thus cutting the Trapezohedron (both "Shining" and the source of an ultimate fuligin darkness) off from the light. At the end, lightning banishes the Haunter, but the good "Dr. Dexter" buries the box in constant darkness, in "the deepest channel of Narragansett Bay." This is consistent with the Trapezohedron's history -- it's inactive while underwater -- but not with Blake's experience. (Bloch had fun with this inconsistency in his own sequel to the story, "The Shadow From the Steeple.")
Elsewhere, there's the tendency of the Trapezohedron to move around the church at random; the ridiculous amount of time and effort Blake takes to walk two miles across town (even while dying of cancer, HPL rambled for miles at a time on a whim); the intrepid and surprisingly chatty (or at least informative) skeleton; the Cook's Tour of Ancient Times; the beautiful Gothic ending complete with Poe reference, blackout, and lightning-storm (although Lovecraft's instinctual verisimilitude forced him -- or allowed him -- to use a real, historical thunderstorm); and the surfeit of magical texts just lying around in the Starry Wisdom church. ("He wondered how they could have remained undisturbed for so long." No kidding.) Not the language (which is relatively restrained even for late Lovecraft) but the incidents of the story are highly colored, exaggerated for effect. And as Lovecraft reminds us, this is the "artist's version" of the story. The 'real' facts implicate hoaxing and hysteria.
And since the story is actually a jape -- HPL killing off his friend Robert Bloch in "revenge" for Bloch doing the same to HPL in his own story "The Shambler From the Stars" -- this 'hoax' narrative may be HPL's meta-commentary on his own Mythos, which after all has managed to hoax a lot of people into believing that thre are actual Necronomicons lying around abandoned in Rhode Island churches.
The unreliable narrator "adrift" from his normal course, the dreamlike landscape, the Monster From the Temple, the allusions to antiquity, even the doom at the window and the panicked written climax strongly echo "Dagon," Lovecraft's first story.
I will briefly interrupt the flow of this thought, such as it is, to express my irritation at being misled by Anton LaVey. LaVey founded the "Order of the Trapezoid," which he borrowed from Lovecraft's "Shining Trapezohedron." Well, turns out that a trapezohedron has nothing to do with trapezoids at all. A trapezohedron is a solid whose faces are kite-shaped quadrilaterals, like a 10-sided die. What I (and apparently LaVey) thought was a trapezohedron -- a polyhedron with trapezoids for sides -- is actually a frustum. So the Hancock Building, which so delightfully crouches on LaVey's birthplace, is not, despite what I've said in person and print for the better part of 20 years now, the world's largest trapezohedron. It's the world's four largest trapezoids, leaned up to make a frustum. Stupid Satanists, wrecking it for everybody.
But math-crazy Lovecraft would have known that a trapezohedron is an "antiprism." Something, in other words, that sucks up all colors and melds them into darkness.
At any rate, the story also, as I re-read it for this exercise, seemed to hint at another set of echoes, although I can't quite explain them. This, then, is not even the kind of tossed-off literary criticism I've engaged in above; it's completely unjustified, Suppressed-Transmission-level silliness.
But ... isn't the Trapezohedron an awful lot like the Grail? It's found in a Perilous Chapel, which seems to exist in an Otherworld ("he half fancied that the Federal Hill of that distant view was a dream-world never to be trod by living human feet"), by a young and inexperienced quester who doesn't even know what he's looking for. (Not to beat this to death, but "Edmund Fiske," the Fritz Leiber manque from Bloch's sequel, has a sort of Gawain-esque irascibility to him, just as "Blake" has a Percival-like simplicity. There don't seem to be any Galahads in the Mythos.) The Grail vouchsafes visions, specifically processions and hallows, to the quester. (In addition to "processions of robed, hooded figures," Blake has a vision of Azathoth -- the inverse of the Grail's vision of God.)
The Grail is tied to some sort of god-king (Haunter/Nyarlathotep), who when the quester finds him, is faint and feeble. (For more Jessie Weston-osity, Blake arrives in the winter, enters the church in spring -- "late in April" -- and the Haunter emerges at full strength in high summer.) The quester gains wisdom from an old man (either Lillibridge's skeleton, or perhaps even the Lovecraft-manque from "Shambler") and returns to the Castle able to answer the questions (after learning the Trapezohedron's history, Blake sleepwalks back to the church and dreams the truth) and achieves the Grail, being adopted into its lineage and taken into the Otherworld (Blake joins minds with the Haunter and dies); the Grail is taken up into Heaven (dropped into the deepest channel of the Sea, a clear anti-Ascension). Like I say, I have no evidence that this is what Lovecraft means -- he doesn't seem to have owned a copy of Jessie Weston, I haven't turned up any evidence that he ever bothered much with Grail lore, and his letters make plain his belief that Arthur was a Britanno-Roman cataphract -- but it's suggestive, as we say in the dark hintings biz.
NEXT: We've finished the first volume, so it's off to volume two in the Penguin Lovecraft series, The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, specifically "The Tomb"