Dissecting Lovecraft Part 5: Home Again, Home Again, Cthulhu Fhtagn

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

In March 1926, a little over 2 years since he hopped off to New York to get married, Lovecraft accepted an invitation from his aunt Lillian to come back to Providence and live there again, returning in April. This brought a de facto end to his marriage, even if it took some time to actually legally dissolve (and indeed, even after the legal procedures had been carried out Lovecraft was tardy about signing the final decrees, meaning that Sonia’s subsequent marriage was inadvertently bigamous). Lillian’s invitation came in part from the urging of Frank Belknap Long and his family, who had observed Lovecraft’s increasingly miserable state and were afraid of what would happen if he stayed in the city. (Long’s reports on this are inconsistent on whether it was him or his mother who wrote to Lillian imploring her to take Lovecraft back – Joshi points out that it is quite possible that they both worked on the letter in question.)

We’ve previously seen how prior to moving to New York Lovecraft had developed his craft to a high level of accomplishment, only for his New York-era stories to reflect either a glum lack of inspiration at best or bigoted axe-grinding at worst. Back in his habitual stamping ground, however, Lovecraft would begin a productive period of his writing. We get an early look at where his thinking is at in The Materialist Today. In this essay, Lovecraft expresses the view that people, whoever they are, are better off practicing the cultures of their forefathers. In this ethnoseparatist worldview, cultural diversity is fine in theory but in practice can be maintained only by careful segregation; cultural mingling and experimentation leads to disaster.

This is obnoxious stuff; the sort of thing that far-right sorts spout today when they want to disingenuously claim that they aren’t really racist or that racial separatists are the people who really care about diversity and multiculturalism is a homogenising force. However, the culture shock Lovecraft experienced in New York seems to have shaken him here and prompted a shift in his reasons for arguing this. Whereas in earlier years Lovecraft seemed reasonably secure in his claims of “Aryan” or “Nordic” or “Teutonic” superiority (he was never especially consistent about his terminology there), by this point this assumption seems to have been badly shaken, and may even have collapsed entirely.

As the essay’s title implies, Lovecraft is outlining a materialistic philosophical outlook, and as a materialist he believes that any particular ethical stance is a mere cultural construct, and that as such it is an illusion which will crumble if you poke it hard enough and has force only to the extent that people believe in and invest importance in it. His argument for people practising the culture of their ancestors is based not on any assertion of their intrinsic validity, but is based entirely on the premise that any such traditional set of cultural mores that parents rear their children in from birth will always and inevitably carry more force and seem more “natural” to people than an artificial, newly-minted morality.

It is easy, of course, to point out the flaws in this argument; in particular, it assumes that these traditional values will always seem relevant and significant and largely overlooks the fact that social change and shifts in values take place all the time. A generation which grows up in a time of scarcity will hold all sorts of values which make no sense to a generation brought up in an era of plenty. Cultural practices and ideas which disenfranchise and disempower entire classes of people are hardly going to be regarded with affection by those who end up suffering as a result of them, especially if they become aware that other possibilities exist. And if the worldview of your forebears relies on a conception of humanity’s place in the universe which you discover to be demonstrably false, then it’s obviously going to be difficult to give that much credence.

To be fair to Lovecraft, he seems entirely aware of this, and this may have fed into his sense that the pillars of society were more fragile and finely-balanced than they looked. At the same time, this flaw does not quite undermine the other part of his argument, as enunciated elsewhere, that once you have kicked over one system of ethics and values, there is no guarantee that anything approximating an improvement will replace it. Just as Lovecraft could look to history and point to events like the descent of the French Revolution into secret police terror and the rise of Napoleon, so too have subsequent events made this point. The rise of cults of personality entirely alien to anything which can really be attributed to Marx in Stalinist Russia or North Korea, or the descent of Syria into anarchy, or any number of other disasters demonstrate how in the gap between an old way of doing things being swept away and a new one coming in, all sorts of turns for the worst can occur. The hijacking of movements with the best of intentions by predatory people with the worst of ambitions is a genuine problem for anyone advocating social change, and coming up with a new framework for society which is genuinely better for everyone is harder than it looks.

Moreover, as a pessimistic materialist Lovecraft believed that no cultural or ethical model had any more resilience to the nihilistic implications of scientific discovery than any other. Arguably anticipating in some respects the development from modernism into post-modernism, Lovecraft seems to have recognised that once you’ve peeped into Pandora’s Box and recognised the truth that there is no grand narrative of the Universe, not only will your traditional ways seem hollow and less intrinsically true to you, but so too will anything adopted to replace them. He anticipated that as this truth propagated out from the few scientifically-trained people who could presently appreciate it to the general public, society was undergoing an awful shock as a result of it, and now that the veil was torn it could never quite be repaired again. In the long term, he expected that humanity would become increasingly consumed by nihilism, and his clinging to traditional values could slow down the pace of that but ultimately not stop it. This theme of ethical and cultural flux and disintegration as a result of the increasing appreciation of our true insignificance would form the thematic heart of his most famous story.

The plot of The Call of Cthulhu was outlined by Lovecraft whilst he was in New York, but it was only when he had returned to Providence for a few months that he actually tackled the idea. (Indeed, the idea of an artist crafting an artwork through some psychic inspiration harking to the distant past, which forms the basis of the first part of the triptych, came up in a dream in 1920.) That Lovecraft waited before tackling it is doubtless to the story’s benefit. There are numerous instances of Lovecraftian racism in the story as it stands, with “mongrel” Louisiana cultists, sinister Inuit devil-worshippers, deathless Chinese masterminds and others all featuring in the Cthulhu Cult. Had Lovecraft written this whilst in New York itself I fear it would have turned into The Horror at Red Hook 2: Eldritch Boogaloo, and there’s points where it comes perilously close to doing just that.

However, there are certain nuances to the tale which allow me to see past its racist aspects. Part of this is that it is a first-person account of an individual’s investigations into these matters, and as such represents a laying-out of facts from which the reader is invited to draw their own conclusions, with Lovecraftian racism admittedly creeping into the authorial voice but with the facts themselves not necessarily supporting that racism. The story very deliberately concerns a terrible secret which cuts across all social, cultural, and national boundaries, and in the face of which the distinctions between peoples become irrelevant – because the cult does not originate within any particular human culture, but is imposed upon our cultures by an alien force bent on shaping humanity itself into an image more pleasing to it.

Simply taking the axioms of the story as a given and following them through leads the reader to the inescapable conclusion that white Anglo-American culture is in no sense immune to the titular Call. Poets and artists of all cultures and races are receptive to Cthulhu’s telepathic dream-sendings, and that there are hints that groups of theosophists – as whitebread a gang of middle-to-upper-class cultural appropriators as it was possible to find back in the day – may be being moulded into being newly-minted cultists. (The reference to “deathless Chinamen” as sources of the cult’s knowledge has been argued as being a nod to theosophists’ claims that Blavatsky got her stuff from secret masters based out of Tibet rather than just making her stuff up.) Furthermore, Lovecraft actually goes out of his way to suggest that in whichever culture it arises, the cult of Cthulhu is seen as a monstrous perversion; he specifically notes that the Inuit Cthulhu worshippers are reviled by other Inuit, and the Louisiana cult is exposed to the world by other swamp-dwellers who assert that if it what the cult is practising is some sort of voodoo then it’s nothing like they are used to, and they want nothing to do with it.

What truly subverts Lovecraft’s antiquated notions of white supremacy and leaves him uncomfortably confronting the stark truth represented by Cthulhu and his fellow Great Old Ones is this: the Cthulhu cult is undeniably, itself, the product of a process of missionary conversion and cultural imposition enacted on humanity as a whole by Cthulhu. The practices, rites, and sacred icons of the cult have no precedent in the cultures in which the cult takes seed; they are not even the product of a new ethical philosophy or deliberate and conscious nihilism on the part of the cultists. They are imposed on the cult through dreams transmitted by Cthulhu himself, and we are explicitly told that Cthulhu and the Old Ones will gain their final triumph once humanity has become like they are.

This takes Lovecraft’s fear in The Materialist Today and takes it one step further into total cosmic paranoia; if, at the end of the day, all of our values and ethics are cultural constructs which cannot survive forever, who or what might step into the vacuum left behind when they finally collapse? Moreover, this implication turns the supposed domination of Anglo-American society that Lovecraft had previously been so dedicated to into an utter sham, just as vulnerable to being colonised by a society with better technological, sociological, or strategic advantages as any other. A sophisticated materialist might be able to read between the lines and see that Cthulhu and his ilk are basically aliens who are sleeping in suspended animation for a while until the right opportunity to blast off to a different star system is done (the geological improbability of R’lyeh is largely resolved if you assume it isn’t a terrestrial land mass but a becalmed spaceship, in fact), but that doesn’t do the materialist much good; it still means that humanity are little more than cockroaches inhabiting a world formerly belonging to these titans, with parts of us (perhaps even all of us) reared solely to provide a means of maybe helping Cthulhu and the gang wake up when they are good and ready.

I say maybe there because it’s entirely possible to come to a reading of the story where Cthulhu doesn’t need his cult at all – that his psychic sendings are not a deliberate imposition but a mere side-effect of his presence nearby, and that there is absolutely no connection between the rise and fall of R’lyeh any any human activity, and that the Cthulhu cult is basically the same sort of thing as what would be dubbed a “cargo cult” in the wake of World War II – a collection of people with a shared experience well outside of their day-to-day experience which they try to explain by resorting to religious analogies.

Even if the cult is a mere side effect of Cthulhu’s presence rather than a thing he is deliberately pushing, that doesn’t constitute a cause for hope. By the end of the story Cthulhu is not destroyed (and it is implied he cannot be), and the cult is still out there. Nor could the cult ever be suppressed; if you killed every single cultist in the world, Cthulhu would just make more through his dream-sendings the next time the rising and falling of R’lyeh permits him to do so (and it’s implied that some groups, like those theosophists, are being primed for this already, and that in fact the Cthulhu cult has a global cell structure with Cthulhu himself being the only linking point between different manifestations of the cult). Perhaps the only way to stop him would be to destroy our capability to dream, which would be as grotesque an injury to humanity as any Cthulhu is attempting. When one considers too the sacred place Lovecraft had previously ascribed to dreams, Cthulhu’s corruption of them is particularly harsh.

The Call of Cthulhu represents, to my mind, Lovecraft’s final acceptance of the true import of his New York experiences: that everything he valued would pass one day, not because of the deliberate or malicious actions of people of other races, but because of the imperfection and transient mortality of humans in specific and humanity in general. Its major flaw is that it carries over some of the xenophobia of the author towards other humans, a concern which undermines the core ideas of the story. It is almost as though Lovecraft is protesting too much by trying to play down to the extent to which people of his ethnicity and social class are influenced by and work for the Old Ones, a flaw he would somewhat rectify in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward – and, for that matter, in his next story.

Pickman’s Model is both a gruesome joke and a piece in defence of supposedly “morbid” art, offering in fictional form a take on aesthetic arguments Lovecraft was simultaneously developing in his essay Supernatural Horror In Literature – indeed, the narrator mentions that he’d been working on a monograph on weird art. It’s particularly interesting in that it’s written as a monologue, in a believable voice with suitable (if posh) colloquialisms, to the extent that you can almost imagine Lovecraft narrating it to you.

Racism manifests itself once again, but only tangentially in the form of Pickman’s dismissive attitude towards other races and claims of Nordic supremacy – part of a rant, reported by the narrator, which in context feels like protesting too much. The whole point of the story, after all, is that Pickman – for all his sophistication, for all his erudition, for all his old Colonial roots – is in the process of going to pieces, and that’s happening not because of any heritage of his but because of the society he keeps and the things he is doing with them.

The other thing I really enjoy about the story is how much we learn about the ghouls from the narrator’s paraphrases of Pickman’s depictions of them; in particular, there’s one illustration that suggests that the ghouls are not only literate, but have a morbid sense of humour.

Though Pickman and his buddies could sustain themselves on corpses harvested for free from the graveyards of Boston, Lovecraft needed to buy his food, and that meant he had to keep working on ghostwriting and revision work. Two Black Bottles is a revision of a story by Wilfred Branch Talman, a buddy of Lovecraft he met during his New York years. The dialogue in the story, particularly the rural colloquialisms, seems to be Lovecraft’s major identifiable contribution, and was a bit of a point of dissatisfaction on Talman’s part. (It isn’t bad as such, just a bit dull and generic.) It’s a story of necromantic dabbling and Satanic corruption that is somewhat undermined by neither Talman nor Lovecraft being able to make the character of Reverend Vanderhoof as interesting as he might have been. Had we known more about him or been painted a more vivid picture of what he was like, we might find more horror and outrage in what has happened to him. The story is notable mainly for being adapted as a text adventure (The Awakening, by Dennis Matheson) which in this case I actually think is more atmospheric and interesting than the source material.

In late 1926 the death of Houdini would derail The Cancer of Superstition, a project that Houdini had planned with Lovecraft and CM Eddy Jr. The idea was to produce a book giving a popular history of the sociological and anthropological origins of superstition, Lovecraft and Houdini of course having common ground in their distaste for spiritualist hoaxes and misinformation. (Lovecraft had in fact reported working on a very similar-sounding project – though with no mention of a Houdini connection – in the first half of 1924, as part of his efforts to find work in New York.) Lovecraft, acting as researcher had got as far as penning a synopsis, and Eddy had started on the writing, but Houdini’s widow decided to cancel the project.

At around this time Lovecraft found himself harking back to the Dunsanian fantasy he had previously written, revisiting many of its ideas in a new clutch of tales. The Silver Key finds Lovecraft ruefully contemplating, through the device of his self-insert Randolph Carter, his own intellectual development from a child to whom fantasy and whimsy came easily to an adult who knew too much science to accept the fables of religion but was too aware of the social good that generally agreed-on systems of ethics provide to become a full-on nihilist. Here the recovery of the “key to dreams” involves a deliberate reversion to childhood, which in the light of Lovecraft’s return to old haunts and retreat from both married life and modern city living feels more than a bit autobiographical.

The Strange High House In the Mist takes the Dunsany still further, and where The Silver Key made do with occasional nods to Ulthar or the events of The Statement of Randolph Carter or The Unnameable, House In the Mist is nigh-obsessed with the Dreamlands, the titular house being a sort of outpost thereof where one day, if too many dreamers turn their attention to outer matters (the very matters Lovecraft was writing about now!) the house would become inhabited by the Other Gods themselves, come down from Kadath.

Lovecraft would take a break from fiction to compose Cats and Dogs, an odd little essay submitted for a debate on the subject held by a Boston amateur journalism group (the Blue Pencil Club). Here Lovecraft is firmly in the cat corner, and all his prejudices are on display; one particularly distasteful passage goes “I have no active dislike for dogs, any more than I have for monkeys, human beings, negroes, cows, sheep, or pterodactyls…”, plus he bangs on about the cat being a symbol of aristocratic pre-Victorian values which hopefully the rise of fascism will bring back.

The centrepiece of Lovecraft’s Dunsanian writing at his time, and the culmination of all his Dreamlands stories to date, was The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Randolph Carter has dreamed of a marvellous city, but the dream has been stolen from him by the gods; thus, he resolves to descend in his dreams to the Gate of Deeper Slumber to enter the Dreamlands, there to seek Kadath where the gods dwell. However, the Other Gods – and our old buddy Nyarlathotep, who is their soul and messenger and the only one of them who has a mind and a personality – are protective of their pets. Carter will have to rely on a range of strange allies as he proceeds – and in doing so, tackle the conspiracies of the terrible toad-like moon-beasts and the satyrs from Leng that are their slaves.

The Dream-Quest was penned by Lovecraft apparently as practice for writing longer-length material, and he never attempted to get it published in his lifetime. This kind of shows; it reads a bit like a NaNoWriMo draft where the writer just plunged ahead writing without much of a firm plan of a plot. Especially obnoxious is the way it is entirely devoid of chapter breaks or any other sensible stopping-points, which not only makes it more of a chore to read than it needs to be but also hurts the flow of the story, since it just presents incident after incident without allowing any of those incidents room to breathe and with little regard to pacing. What’s more, though Carter converses with a range of characters over the course of the story, there literally no dialogue; the only actual speech of any sort presented in the text is a supervillain monologue offered up by Nyarlathotep toward the end. All this, plus the extensive travelogue sections and repeated motifs, makes the story incredibly hard going; less so than, say, the interminable textwalls of Morris’s The Well at the World’s End or Hodgson’s The Night Land, but getting there.

At the same time, there’s something genuinely interesting and pleasurable with the spectacle of Lovecraft going full-on Dungeons & Dragons with his writing. For a start, The Dream-Quest is an interesting illustration of how world-building through storytelling can create a tapestry which feels richer than world-building through just sitting down and vomiting forth setting details. More or less all of Lovecraft’s Dunsanian stories from Polaris and The White Ship onwards are referenced here and there, and nods are also give to a wide expanse of the rest of his fiction – Pickman from Pickman’s Model, having fully become a ghoul, lurks about here, and of course Nyarlathotep was namedropped in The Rats In the Walls which deals with a descent to hidden underground realms much like the Great Abyss of the Dreamlands, which explicitly have links to the waking world via the ghouls’ burrowing.

(It’s also notable that this is the first story where we are told of Azathoth being the mindless daemon-sultan at the heart of the universe, a role taken by Nyarlathotep in The Rats In the Walls before he got definitively given the “soul and messenger of the Outer Gods” portfolio; part of me wonders whether The Dream-Quest actually represents Lovecraft’s plans for his abortive novel Azathoth at last come to fruition, especially since the final crisis involves Carter being given a one-way ticket to Azathoth which he must escape lest he be utterly destroyed.)

The overall impression is that Randolph Carter is exploring a world with a rich and detailed history – and in fact it kind of does, since much of that history was in fact chronicled by Lovecraft in his previous stories. This is a mode of worldbuilding not a million miles away from the typical way people develop their homebrew D&D worlds, with an early sketch filled in bit by bit as adventures happen, so it’s perhaps appropriate that the Dreamlands have ended up becoming a beloved alternate setting for the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG.

Another thing which is quite fun about The Dream-Quest is the way it really teases out what is unique about the Dreamlands setting. On an aesthetic level Lovecraft’s powerful imagination, with its extremes of beauty and grotesqueness, ensures that this setting has a particularly bizarre aesthetic style, quite strikingly different from the cod-medievalisms and Tolkien pastiche of generic fantasy. Thematically, by taking these settings of his old fantasy stories and explicitly setting them in a world of dream common to all humanity accessed via the Gates of Deeper Slumber, Lovecraft presents a world which can not only explicitly depart from the expectations of the waking world, but which also can be subjected to an extent to the will of dreamers. At one point Carter encounters Kuranes, the central character from Celephais, who is such an accomplished dreamer that he is able to conjure up entire landscapes to his liking.

The conclusion of the novel is an actually quite successful exercise in taking “And then he woke up and it turned out the whole thing was a dream” and making it an exciting climax rather than a risible anticlimax, as Carter, reminded by Nyarlathotep’s gloating of the fact that he is in a dreamworld, manages to escape being express mailed to Azathoth effectively by dreaming his way out of the dilemma and waking up. The punchline that Carter was really just questing for his own home town must be seen as being at least a little autobiographical, given Lovecraft’s joy at being back home in Providence after his depressing stay in New York, and there’s definitely something to the argument that the rather repetitive structure of the novel (which involves Carter regularly returning to places he has already been) is meant to be a nod to this; the Kuranes encounter, for that matter, more or less explicitly sets up this conclusion. (The connection between this and the ideas in The Materialist Today should be obvious.)

On a more whimsical autobiographical note, Carter’s alliance with the cats of the Dreamlands recalls both Lovecraft’s affection for cats and his own real-life way with them: many of his friends noted that he had a near-uncanny ability to get on with kitties, even those that were hostile to all others. Likewise, he draws here on his childhood nightmares to depict the hideous night-gaunts as recurring figures; they are rendered especially creepy by the revelation that they tickle their captives before spiriting them off to baleful fates.

You would think that, what with the story entirely taking place in the lands of dream, it would keep Lovecraft away from the dubious political areas which would often mar the rest of his fiction – though unfortunately, that doesn’t quite pan out. Aside from Nyarlathotep, the only black people who appear in the story are slaves, and I would argue that Nyarlathotep doesn’t really count because he’s not human and he pretty much admits the Pharaonic body he manifests with is only a mask. You would think that among the ranks of Earth’s great dreamers there’d be a range of people from different ethnicities, but if this is the case Lovecraft is not interested in depicting them. The running subplot about the conspiracy of moon-beasts and their horned underlings who subvert decent societies through dubious merchantile activity is sufficiently bizarre enough that it doesn’t overtly read onto any particular Earthly race, though goodness knows you could read an antisemitic spin onto it if you wanted.

Also, there is a plot point where Carter must seek out a likeness of the gods of Earth carved into the side of a mountain, working on the basis that the gods are horny devils and would doubtless have sired a bunch of kids in the general vicinity of Kadath, so that if Carter can find a locale where the people have a familial resemblance to the gods he’d know he was on the right track. This has shades of cranky racial theories about Ultima Thule, although ultimately these are subverted when the true utter north turns out to be a terrifying play-palace constructed by Nyarlathotep and the Other Gods to keep their pets amused.

Speaking of Nyarlathotep, his speech at the end is a perfect example of my issues with the character. On the face of it, the idea that Nyarlathotep is the only one of Azathoth’s court who has anything approaching what humans would recognise as cognition or a personality is an interesting one. In practice, I find that Mythos writers, whether they work in fiction or games, are a bit too keen to use him as a smug untouchable supervillain, which humanises him (and through him those he represents and speaks for) waaaay too much. It kind of works here solely because he’s the big bad in a fantasy novel; it doesn’t work nearly so well for horror. (Indeed, in The Haunter of the Dark Lovecraft would deploy Nyarlathotep in a form much better suited for Mythos horror, being both mute and entirely inhuman.)

A last point on the placement of this story in the Randolph Carter stories. There has been a tendency to follow Derleth in placing the action of this tale before that of The Silver Key; however, early on there is a reference to a “far, forgotten first youth”, which considering the implied cyclical nature of Carter’s life story in The Silver Key suggests that this story actually happens after the bulk of action of The Silver Key, at least as far as Carter’s subjective experience goes, with Carter having already undergone several life-cycles in the time loop established in the earlier story. In fact, The Silver Key concludes with more or less the same “back to your familiar home where you belong” angle that the Dream-Quest does, which makes me feel that The Silver Key was the public-facing expression of the idea and the Dream-Quest, as a private exercise in novel-writing, recycled the concept with no real expectation of publishing the material to the general public.

The Dream-Quest isn’t a complete disaster and I do quite like some aspects of it, but at the same time its merits can’t entirely correct for its awkward presentation, repetitiveness, and the fact that it basically tries to stretch its ideas out to novel length and ends up spreading them too thin. But as practice in writing novel-length works, it was extremely valuable, because Lovecraft’s next project, which is probably my second favourite of all of his works.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is, in some respects, an extensive fictionalised autobiography, right down to the title character sharing Lovecraft’s Providence origins, antiquarian interests mingled with scientific curiosity (including an interest in chemistry which extends to antisocial experiments in his room), and sudden withdrawal from the world into eccentric hermitude at end of high school. Ward’s life does differ from Lovecraft’s own in some respects; under the “wishful thinking” column, Ward’s parents are alive and healthy and well-heeled, and Ward’s own means are sufficient to fund him going on an extensive tour of Europe of a sort that Lovecraft would have loved to go on but never did. The other major difference is that Ward becomes obsessively interested in one, specific ancestor of his – Joseph Curwen, one of the most well-realised villains in the whole of the Lovecraftian canon, not least because Curwen was a product not of Lovecraft’s xenophobic fear of the other, but instead Lovecraft imagining the sort of Colonial-era gentleman he liked to daydream about being and then painting a remorselessly critical picture of the darkness behind that figure.

Joseph Curwen was a Colonial gentleman of English extraction, with impeccable social standing. He contributed to his local church and Providence society to extent expected of a man of his social class in his day. Ethnically and socially speaking, he was exactly what Lovecraft looked up to and exactly how he wanted to present himself; but Curwen also represents absolute evil, and evil in a way specifically cutting to the very basis of the old-time Rhode Island society Lovecraft was so proud of his descent from.

Curwen, like Ward and Lovecraft, had a great deal of scientific and historical interests – and in the pursuit of those interests, he was happy to resort to murder, abduction, blackmail, and dire supernatural activities. Most of all, he was a slaver, importing numerous slaves simply to provide fodder for his blood-soaked occult practices (including invocations to Yog-Sothoth, a recurring Lovecraftian entity making its eldritch debut here). After much grotesque experimentation, he hit on his great discovery: a form of necromancy combining aspects of occultism and science, which he used to practice a form of intellectual and physical slavery from which death was no escape for his subjects. Lovecraft’s fancy of speaking to a long-dead individual which inspired The Tomb is Curwen’s motivator, and eventually Ward’s too. Even the snatches of Curwen’s correspondence that gets presented to us in the course of the book ends up being a bit reminiscent of the sort of in-jokey letters Lovecraft and his correspondents were exchanging, and there’s a plot point around a change in behaviour and speech pattern observed in Ward by others that is reminiscent of Lovecraft’s playful posing as an immortal from a past era in A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson and in some of his private letters.

In short, Curwen is the best Lovecraftian villain in part because he is so much like Lovecraft himself, and the novel stands out because, in opting to depict an evil originating not from outside the society and culture that he had wanted to preserve but emerging from within its ranks, and therefore impossible to entirely disavow, Lovecraft not only was running directly counter to much of his previous work but he also turns out a work which is far less problematic than much of his usual fare. Yes, Curwen has a fair number of black and foreign employees, and at least some are painted evil, but in fact most are in terror of him – he blackmails and bullies them to keep them in line, and predates upon those at the periphery of society without mercy. In the present day, the incidental characters include a black couple presented as perfectly unobjectionable working class people, at least one of whom is astute enough to express entirely legitimate worries about Ward’s well-being without a hint of superstition Lovecraft would have otherwise ascribed to them. (Given how specific Lovecraft is about where they live and what they are like, I have to wonder whether they are based on real acquaintances – Lovecraft, as we have seen in his interactions with Greene, was entirely capable of writing off entire races in general whilst being more forgiving of specific, individual members of those races he made the acquaintance of.)

Structurally, the novel exhibits a massive improvement over Kadath, with every aspect of story developed with great care, Lovecraft taking great pains to lay out the facts in the order which produces the greatest effect on the reader. It is another instance of the pseudo-documentary approach, in which he approaches fiction as though he were writing non-fiction that Lovecraft embarked on with The Call of Cthulhu; although the narrator is not a developed character, the style of narration is very much designed to resemble as closely as possible an account of real events.

Cunningly, this helps Lovecraft avoid the issues that regularly arose with his clumsiness with dialogue, because you would not expect such an account to purport to present the exact words used in a conversation. This style does not merely paper over the weaknesses of Lovecraft’s style, but plays to its strengths; it allows him to back up the events of the story with fragments of real local history and geography, interweaving the factual and the fictional to such an extent as to make it masterpiece of the pseudo-documentary approach, which Lovecraft aptly described in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith:

My own rule is that no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax. The author must forget all about “short story technique” and build up a stark simple account, full of homely corroborative details, just as if he were actually trying to “put across” a deception in real life… as carefully as a crooked witness prepares a line of testimony with cross-examining lawyers in his mind. I take the place of the lawyers now and then – finding false spots in the original testimony, and thereupon rearranging details and motivations with a greater care for probability.

As part of Lovecraft’s writing technique, he would construct two timelines; the first a chronological timeline of the events of a story in the order they happen within the scenario presented, and the second a timeline of the order in which those events would be narrsted to the reader. Charles Dexter Ward is clearly the product of such a careful approach, with a rigorously constructed timeline of events that any author of detective fiction would take pride in. The end result combines the drama of the best sensation novels and the attention to detail of the best true crime narratives, like an occult spin on In Cold Blood. Whenever Lovecraft doubles down on this style it’s usually a treat, and it also beneficially makes the occasional outburst of Lovecraftian elitism – generally greatly muted here – a little more palatable in that, as in The Call of Cthulhu, the reader is left with the impression that they have been presented with a set of facts that somehow stand apart from the judgements made in the narrative.

Not, mind, that the story is especially dry as a result of this style. The extensive underground exploration of Curwen’s excavated laboratories is one of the most sinister sequences in Lovecraftian fiction, and Lovecraft also earns gold stars for the dire implications of the original raid on Curwen farm (of which we only hear of sounds and things witnessed from afar) and the accounts of Ward’s increasingly bizarre experiments in his attic. It’s ultimately the necromancy which is the really disturbing bit of the story, though, largely for the sheer I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream powerlessness that the victims of it find themselves in, brought back again and again to be interrogated and tortured for Curwen’s research purposes and at the ever-present risk of being brought back incomplete through a fit of cruelty or for the purpose of acting as abhorrent guardians of the depths.

There is a plot point in the story revolving around a portrait of Curwen, and the striking resemblance between him and Ward it reveals, that has been noted as owing more than a little to The Picture of Dorian Gray. This may well be a conscious parallel, especially considering that Lovecraft had spoken highly of the story in Supernatural Horror In Literature, was an enthusiastic proponent of Wilde’s positions about art as espoused in the preface provided in most book publications of the novel, and specifically compares the bad reputation of Joseph Curwen and the concerted cover-up surrounding his activities to Wilde’s disgrace and unmentionability in polite society in the wake of his legal disasters and criminal conviction in 1895.

I would go so far, in fact, to suggest that The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was basically Lovecraft’s exercise in producing his own conceptual spin on The Picture of Dorian Gray. Not in the sense of producing something in the same style – Lovecraft could never have written in Wilde’s voice and was wise enough not to attempt it – but to apply the same sort of approach and motifs to a different subject. Both stories feature characters who in their attitudes and interests possess numerous parallels with the author, and in both stories those interests become central to the plot. Both stories involve the central character living a sort of double life. Most significantly, both stories involve the authors in question taking the interests they have in common with the characters and looking at them through a twisted lens, presenting them not in an approving, propagandistic manner, but using them as the basis of extremes of horror.

A major difference lies in how explicit the extremes the characters go to are. Dorian Gray plunges through life and leaves behind him a broad wake of destroyed lives and ruined reputations, delving into sins which, whilst clearly intended to be allusions to sexual behaviour unacceptable to the era in which it was written, end up with a curious power to them precisely because they are described so amazingly vaguely. (The novel would have dated much worse had it explicitly presented behaviour which we would find entirely unobjectionable today.) Charles Dexter Ward, though, ends up becoming a perpetrator of and accomplice in crimes which are only too clearly illuminated here, and which I would even propose that readers of any era would find disturbing.

If we see this as an attempt to do justice to Wilde, Lovecraft’s failure to push the novel and get it published in his own lifetime becomes all the more understandable, because whilst in the body of his own work and judged on its own terms it is quite excellent, if you attempted to read it as a sequel or tribute to Dorian Gray it wouldn’t quite work, having as it does a somewhat different emphasis and set of underlying aesthetic and cultural interests.

Lovecraft’s return to short stories, The Colour Out of Space was an attempt to come up with an alien which was truly alien rather than just a human or animal in a funny costume. The titular colour is an entity which seems at least in some sense alive, but the basis of its existence is entirely different from the biochemical processes that underpin life as we know it, and it’s entirely possible that it’s not so much a living thing as an inexplicable physical process. Arriving to Earth at a meteor, it infests a farmstead outside of Arkham, manifesting primarily as an eerie colour which infects things and mutates them and sucks the life out of them. The tale constitutes perhaps the first major post-Shelley revival of the science fiction horror story, presenting a narrative with no basis in mysticism whatsoever and whose main speculative element is discussed in scientific terms as opposed to supernatural ones.

Lovecraft does end working into the story a suggestion that immigrant populations know better than to live near the blasted heath due to their superstitious folklore, but to my eye this doesn’t quite end up marring the story to the extent that it might because what Lovecraft is essentially saying here is that people from other cultures know better than to live in a toxic radiation pit. In fact, objectively speaking, their belief that the area is tainted isn’t superstition, but merely a willingness to acknowledge undeniable facts that dominant culture chooses to repress, and it’s kind of a shame that Lovecraft didn’t quite seem to recognise that.

Lovecraft actually succeeded in selling the story to Hugo Gernsback at Amazing Stories, though Gernsback paid Lovecraft so little for it and was so unacceptably late about the payment that Lovecraft didn’t bother writing for him again and would refer to Gernsback as “Hugo the Rat” ever after. This sounds harsh (and may have been informed slightly by Lovecraft’s anti-semitism), but for once Lovecraft’s scorn was well-deserved: Gernsback was infamous for paying well below the rate of other pulps and for being incredibly late about payments to writers, to the point where in the 1930s at least one attorney made a specialty of helping authors extract owed money out of him.

The Descendant is a fragment tentatively dated to about this time – the opening movements of a story that Lovecraft never continued. It concerns the mysterious Lord Northam, who lives as a recluse in Gray’s Inn and tries desperately to keep his mind focused on meaningless trivialities and screams whenever the church bells ring. His neighbour, a young man by the name of Williams, obtains a copy of the Necronomicon from a Jewish bookseller (who smiles at the purchase in a manner which I think is supposed to have antisemitic implications), which so disturbs Lord Northam that he decides to break his silence and tell Williams his terrible story.

We don’t get much of a clue as to where this all was going, mind, but my personal hunch is that this story was headed underground once again. Lord Northam’s backstory has him coming from an ancient family whose home has been rumoured since Roman times to conceal an underground temple in a cave dedicated to elder things; this is so similar to the concept of The Rats In the Walls that some sort of tie-in may have been anticipated. Lord Northam also mentions going on an expedition to find the Nameless City of the short story of the same name – another tale of a supposedly sophisticated edifice hiding and being corrupted by an underground realm with a baleful influence. (Part of me wonders, in fact, whether he is meant to be the protagonist of that story.)

My personal theory, given that Joshi notes that Lovecraft had purportedly been researching London for the purposes of a story at around this time, is that The Descendant was going to be about the discovery of some sort of sinister underworld beneath London itself. With the sewers and Tube in operation at this time numerous opportunities for linkages to the underworld would have been presented, and we know from Pickman’s Model that Lovecraft found the idea of monsters invading an underground station a striking one; Lord Northam’s desperate attempts to keep himself distracted may be an effort to avoid thinking about a horrible underworld honeycombing London at the least, and maybe even Britain as a whole, and his horror of bells may come down to some encounter with a dire bell in the underground realm – or a fear that sooner or later its inhabitants must hear the bells of London and decide to come up and investigate, prompting an invasion of the upper world that would plunge the Empire into darkness.

Such a concept would form a sort of loose trilogy with The Nameless City and The Rats In the Walls; the first would tell of the debasement of a pre-human city through the strange action of chthonic influences, the second would bring things closer to home by finding a locale in good old England which offers us further insights into what that corruption actually entailed, and then this story would have the horror take place not in prehistory, not in history, but in the present day, right underneath the capital of the pre-eminent world power of the time.

If this were so, however, Lovecraft would have had a challenge on his hands. By far the bulk of his fiction had taken place in invented locales – either in fantasy realms or in out-of-the-way corners of the real world – or in places that Lovecraft knew quite well, like Providence, Boston, or New York. Lovecraft, however, had never been to London, and whilst guidebooks and histories can offer you plenty of details about the place – the precise sort of details which Lovecraft used so effectively in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, in fact – still, you don’t quite get the sense of a place until you have actually visited and spent time there, preferably having lived there for a bit. Charles Dexter Ward got to go on a European tour on his inheritance; Lovecraft’s finances were vastly more modest, and so he never got to take such a trip. Part of me wonders whether this was, in fact, the reason why this story wasn’t developed: Lovecraft felt, rightly or wrongly, that he couldn’t evoke London without visiting, so shunted the idea to the back burner until such time as he could take a trip which a combination of his ever-present money problems and his early death ensured he would never take.

With this, Lovecraft would round off an incredibly accomplished run of writing, which yielded some of the absolute best work of his career. His material from the time period was not free of his prejudices, and his prose style remained, as it always wood, a little bit wooden. But he had finally found a mode of writing which really brought out the absolute best in his skills, allowing him to bring to fruition ideas sketched out in a more rudimentary fashion in earlier work. After this, Lovecraft would take the summer off from fiction-writing, embarking on travels which would inform the next round of his writing.

3 thoughts on “Dissecting Lovecraft Part 5: Home Again, Home Again, Cthulhu Fhtagn

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