Dissecting Lovecraft Part 6: From Providence To Antarctica

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.

After the burst of fiction-writing which followed his return to Providence, Lovecraft would take the summer (and a good chunk of the spring) of 1927 off, though he was by no means idle. Stepping back into the world of amateur journalism, he offered up A Matter of Uniteds, his most even-handed account of the schism of 1912 and the two UAPAs that were born from it. His diplomatic stance and repudiation of inter-faction mud-slinging was a far cry from the more stalwartly defiant pose he’d adopted a decade earlier, but then again the circumstances of both UAPAs had greatly changed since then, with both factions suffering a crisis of low membership and limited output. (In fact, at the time of writing Lovecraft’s UAPA had basically collapsed.) Lovecraft candidly acknowledges that the Uniteds are in trouble, and urges a reconciliation to ensure the continued existence of an APA dedicated to prioritising actual writing over socialisation.

Not that Lovecraft had become a homebody again – quite the opposite. Whilst theoretically based once again in Providence, his unhappy experiences in New York and inability to visit England did not dissuade him from undertaking what travels he could, and for all that he claimed to be a hermit more interested in topography and architecture than people he certainly had plenty of friends that he spent much time visiting. Having already written a lot of accounts of his travels in letters to his aunts, in mid-1927 he began, with the brief The Trip of Theobald, to commence writing travelogues as standalone essays, opening up a new strand in his writing. Naturally, he would quickly mar this body of work with his racist rants; Vermont – A First Impression kicks off with an ugly tantrum about foreigners and dark-skinned people and industrialisation wrecking the southern portions of New England. (I mistyped that at first as Jew England and heard a distant howling from the general direction of Lovecraft’s grave.)

That said, it can’t be said to be a waste of time, even if the essay does mostly consist of gushing about how pretty Vermont is, if it helped Lovecraft get a feel for the local landscape he used so effectively in The Whisperer In Darkness. Some have bemoaned the amount of effort Lovecraft put into his travel writing, wishing he had produced more stories instead, but I am with Joshi on this one in thinking that Lovecraft’s travel writing was an important part of him assimilating and processing the impressions he had picked up on his journeys – and since those selfsame impressions ended up feeding into his stories, then writing about them was arguably a necessary part of the creative process that yielded them. The travel writing was doubtless useful to Lovecraft, but by goodness it makes at best utterly tedious and at worst infuriatingly narrow-minded reading, and out of all the volumes in the Collected Essays I would say the travel one is by far the least interesting.

Come autumn, Lovecraft was back at the fiction. History of the Necronomicon is pure worldbuilding, an account of the sinister tome’s origins and publishing history in the style of an entry in some bibliographically-focused encyclopedia which seems to have been written mostly to allow Lovecraft to keep his references to the tome straight, and to provide a bedrock of facts for other authors to use in riffing on it. What is particularly interesting is not just the nods to existing stories in Lovecraft’s canon, but also references to stories that I cannot place – for instance, Lovecraft insinuates that a famous American millionaire owns a copy, but if he ever wrote a story about said millionaire I am not aware of it. It is also interesting for the way you can almost watch Lovecraft in the process of stitching the disparate parts of what others would dub the Cthulhu Mythos together. For instance, it’s the first piece in which Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth are mentioned together, establishing them as existing in the same cosmology.

On that front, it is notable that the History was constructed a bit after – and probably in response to – Frank Belknap Long writing The Space Eaters, which believed to be the first time a writer other than Lovecraft attempted their hand at Yog-Sothothery; Long tied the story into the nascent Mythos by leading with a quote from a version of the Necronomicon translated by John Dee. Lovecraft in turn liked the Dee connection enough that he mentions in History of the Necronomicon the existence of this translation, and thus the game of trading references and ideas was afoot and building on one another’s concepts was born.

The other thing worth saying about the History is that it defines the origins of the Necronomicon but doesn’t make the slightest attempt to precisely define and catalogue its contents; the result is that it creates a plot artifact which anyone can use in their own work, but which needn’t limit the direction their work goes in. This is a point which Derleth and others intent on trying to wiki-whack the Cthulhu Mythos into a consistent mythology from story to story miss: part of the reason it’s viable for other writers to do their own take on the whole thing is that Lovecraft specifically built in these ambiguities to allow for that, so by trying to reconcile the various contradictions and fill in all the gaps all they end up doing is sabotaging the work he and others did in creating the space for subsequent authors to work in.

Having planted this seed, Lovecraft pulled his sleeves up and attended to some revision work. The Last Test was a substantial revision of a story at first penned by Adolphe de Castro, who is otherwise mainly notable for having been an acquaintance of Ambrose Bierce. There’s a funny anecdote about how the two parted on such bad terms that on their last meeting Bierce cracked his cane over de Castro’s head; Lovecraft would ruefully joke that after seeing de Castro’s fiction, he wishes Bierce had used a crowbar instead, and in truth it seems like Lovecraft was able to do little to improve the story – not for the modest rate he was paid, at least.

As de Castro penned it, The Last Test was a rather simple story of a doctor who, appointed medical director at San Quentin Penitentiary, uses it as a testbed for infecting people with black fever out of a twisted impulse to use them for research. (Given what we now know about the dodgy medical ethics of the era, we should probably give de Castro some credit for stumbling on through fiction a plot which would actually be put into practice through, for instance, the US government’s syphilis experiments). Lovecraft thoroughly revised it and doubled the length; the rather clumsy romance plot is presumably de Castro’s, but the wild stuff about the strain Dr Clarendon spreads actually being an alien virus provided by the sinister not-quite-human Atlantean Surama is quite another matter.

It’s a story more interesting for being a trivia quiz answer (“Which story in order of writing saw the first mention of Shub-Niggurath?”) than its actual content. There’s some interest to be had in the perils of Clarendon’s sister Georgina, trapped in Clarendon’s estate with Surama and the eight sinister Tibetan assistants Clarendon brought back from his travels, and the air of increasing dread as she tries to piece together what is going on is probably the best part of the story. That said, it seems to suffer from Lovecraft apparently being totally disinterested in some strands (the stuff with Dr Jones, Clarendon’s jealous underling at San Quentin who gets the authorities to fire him, kind of just peters out pointlessly, and doesn’t read like Lovecraft even touched it).

Furthermore, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with some of the characters, with Surama in particular starting out as a sinister mastermind, then apparently developing a sympathetic streak, then apparently being the big bad after all. Several sections of the story seem ineptly crowbarred in – all the Mythos allusions, for starters, and especially Clarendon’s big monologue where he lays out a basic FAQ about the Cthulhu Mythos. In short, this reads like Lovecraft was phoning it in, though given that he was paid a pittance for it I guess you get what you pay for, and given some of the ridiculous melodramatic flourishes the story includes it may be a case of garbage in, garbage out.

The Very Old Folk is basically an account of a dream which Lovecraft found so astonishingly detailed that he decided to jot down and send to his correspondents. (Joshi chooses to present the version sent to Donald Wandrei; Frank Belknap Long incorporated the entire text of the version sent to him in one of his novels.) It is notable for almost resembling a Robert E. Howard story of the Bran Mac Morn mode well before Lovecraft and Howard began corresponding; Lovecraft dreamed he was an ancient Roman who was leading a mission to protect a colony in Spain from dark rites perpetuated by an ancient people who predated most of the local cultures, when shit of a violent and possibly supernatural nature hit the fan whilst Lovecraft was leading his forces into the hill country. The account is very detailed, and one wonders how much was actually dreamed and how much Lovecraft filled in afterwards, since he did contemplate making a fully developed story out of it; eventually, he decided against doing so, but allowed Long to incorporate it into The Horror From the Hills, perhaps Long’s most extensive piece of Yog-Sothothery.

Another account of a dream that Lovecraft sent to Wandrei around this time formed the basis of the spurious story The Thing In the Moonlight, which was lifted from the letter, revised for modern spelling (Lovecraft having used his customary archaic prose), and had a limp, pointless noodle of a framing narrative tacked on. Joshi does not include it in The Complete Fiction and I concur with his decision to excise it from the canon, since it is really just a brief little note in a letter; unlike The Very Old Folk, it is really quite insubstantial and there is no indication that Lovecraft ever intended to make a full story out of it or to allow others to use it in such a fashion.

The Curse of Yig was a “revision” for Zealia Bishop which is basically all Lovecraft’s own work, Bishop offering merely an idea for a distinctive scene and Lovecraft providing all the rest. It tells of old-timey settlers in Nevada who fall afoul of the legends of the snake deity Yig (later tied into the Cthulhu Mythos in subsequent stories), the humanoid king of snakes who inflicts his titular curse (and a bit of implied rape for an extra cheap shock) on those who mistreat his children. Much of the story purports to be based around native American folklore, which is unfortunate since much of said folklore is made up, and whilst Lovecraft’s racism doesn’t manifest itself in overt hostility here it does offer up a thick get of patronising paternalism; Lovecraft presents the First Nations peoples in the area as being basically good-natured sorts who genuinely seem to be trying to help and apparently have a decent understanding of what the deal is with Yig, but he can’t quite hold off on making cheap shots about alcoholism and he uses their rituals as a source of tension and fear. Moreover, had the concluding snakespawn angle not provided a strong implication that Yig was real after all, it would be viable to read the story as suggesting that it’s the protagonist’s very willingness to listen to local folklore which is to blame for everything bad that happens.

Ibid is a joke story – a fictional biography of Ibidus, a late Roman chronicler and author of the classic reference work Op. Cit.; it’s essentially an in-joke between Lovecraft and Maurice Moe, mistaking the term “ibid” for the name of a real author being the sort of error Moe as a school teacher must have encountered his students making fairly regularly.

Lovecraft’s summer perambulations of 1928 were noted in Observations On Several Parts of America, written in the archaic Georgian style he used for private and personal notes and correspondence. This offers some interesting anecdotes (including mentions of his gathering of local folklore for use in The Dunwich Horror), but also finds his racism in full display, with particular approval given to the exclusion of foreigners and segregation of black people in the South. Lovecraft is particularly hypocritical in griping about the influx of Jews into the New York suburb of Flatbush, since the purpose of his Flatbush trip was at least in theory to help Sonia set up a hat shop there – thus by his own hand Lovecraft was aiding that which he was objecting to.

The Dunwich Horror itself is at least partly driven by snobbery, of course, centring as it does on a cult of inbred hicks out to help Yog-Sothoth clear off the Earth for the return of the Old Ones. That said, Lovecraft treats the inhabitants of Dunwich with a bit more love than he did the inhabitants of Red Hook – perhaps having warmed to some country folk on his travels. The story is very specific in stating that some branches of the Whateleys are alright, and in fact despite Dunwich having been revisited to exhaustion by subsequent Mythos authors to such an extent that you’d think it were a completely subverted community on the scale of Innsmouth, actually Lovecraft depicts it as nothing of the sort – he is dismissive of the breeding and intellectual capability of the locals, but it’s clear that the black sheep of the Whately clan are aberrations rather than representing the local norm.

And, of course, it’s another story like The Lurking Fear where degeneracy arises not from race-mixing but from inbreeding among Anglo types, at least on the face of it. Mentions of Lavinia Whately having “crinkly hair” could be interpreted as suggesting she has some black heritage, though my hunch is that if that were really the case, Lovecraft would have way more of a big deal of it, and since the Whatelys in general are meant to have frizzy red hair this seems more reminiscent of Celtic ancestry to me, which might another manifestation of Lovecraft’s self-hating Welshness. (For that matter, Wilbur’s satyr-like features call to mind Lovecraft’s admission that in his childhood pagan phase he wanted to become a satyr so badly that he fancied he could feel himself changing into one gradually. But we surely shouldn’t draw a connection between that and the way the cultists’ activities revolve around building fires at hilltops in ways which recall Lovecraft’s hill-walking activities in Vermont earlier in the year.)

On a more encouraging note, The Dunwich Horror is an interesting instance of a devil-child story where there genuinely doesn’t seem to be any rapey overtones to the child’s conception, Lavinia having actively sought out the dark wisdom which would make Yog-Senpai notice her, and (at least at first) pleased with and proud of what she had accomplished, only having second thoughts once a rapidly-maturing Wilbur starts to become abusive towards her because he sees no point in her continued existence. And as a whole, the story does manage to create a curiously effective impression that the goings-on in this out-of-the-way rural backwater might conceivably be part of a puzzle on a cosmic scale. (The references to Wilbur being somehow in contact with lost polar cities could be callbacks to Polaris or foreshadowings of At the Mountains of Madness; either way, they create the impression that his reach goes way further than his little home village.)

The Wood is a story-poem briefly telling of a forest cut down to make way for a city, only to return and reclaim its territory after a bard of the city foolishly speaks of elder things that had hitherto not been mentioned within its walls. It’s basically one of Lovecraft’s riffs on his “transience of humanity on a cosmic scale” theme, though it’s a pretty effective one.

Travels In the Provinces of America is another account of Lovecraft’s perambulations, taking in his tourism in the spring of 1929. It is interminably dull, thanks in part to his archaic affectations, and includes much overtly racist gushing about how lovely the South is. Lovecraft throws in this absurd crank theory about how Anglo-Saxon civilisation thrives in Virginia because it belongs there, and it belongs there because it’s existed and thrived there for a long time. It is exasperating to see someone with as an acute a sense of the grand scale of things speak of a mere handful of centuries as though it were a long time, and just as frustrating to see someone supposedly buying into scientific inquiry come up with such a weirdly superstitious theory about who belongs where. The essay’s major point of interest is Lovecraft’s account of a fellow coach passenger, an eccentric German who started accosting those around him with odd proclamations – Lovecraft would be inspired by this when writing The Electric Executioner.

In July 1929 Lovecraft produced E’ch-Pi-El Speaks!, a biographical sketch sent to an unknown correspondent which provides an interesting snapshot of his conception of himself at the time. As well as acknowledging, as he had for some time, that he clung to conservative views purely for aesthetic reasons because he could not find any other suitable basis to order his existence in an irrational universe on, he also greatly reiterated his stance that he was a bad poet and would have never been a success in that vein. He also claimed that he only wrote when inspiration took him, despising commercial writing, which given his revision services for clients seems an outright lie.

The Electric Executioner is another revision for Adolphe de Castro, essentially a yarn about the narrator’s encounter with a mad scientist jazzed up by Lovecraft working in some contempt for Mexicans, hints of Mythos worship in certain Aztec communities, a reference to “Nigurat-Yig” which suggests either a connection between Yig and Shub-Niggurath or that “Niggurath” is a title and a bit of character depth by riffing on the eccentricities of the German fellow Lovecraft encountered on that coach trip. As with The Last Test, it feels like Lovecraft was making the best of a bad draft by using it as a dumping ground for ideas. Apparently, the bizarre astral projection plot twist was in fact in the original, but it was the narrator who projected, not the villain; this makes appallingly little sense, so by allowing the projection to be a conscious and deliberate magical act on the part of the bad guy – plus adding all the Cthulhu stuff to suggest where he got such powers from – was probably the best way Lovecraft could salvage this work.

The winter of 1929 saw a sudden outburst of poetry from Lovecraft, much of it with a supernatural bent, though not all. (For instance, Lines Upon the Magnates of the Pulp finds Lovecraft snarling at the hand that feeds him as he decries both writers who sell their wares commercially instead of adhering to the starving artist ideal and the publishers who grow rich off their work.) The first of the weird poems from this era, The Outpost, is a surprising instance of Lovecraft telling a tale with a black protagonist who is not demonised, shunted into irrelevance, or made a clown of in the slightest – specifically, it deals with a king of Zimbabwe who stumbles across an ancient city and recognises it as an alien abomination, and suffers the same dreadful fears and lasting worries that afflict, say, the protagonists of The Nameless City or At the Mountains of Madness.

The Ancient Track has a narrator who goes on a stroll in the countryside around Dunwich, only to have the awful epiphany that the delightful past he was so taken with never existed. (Another sign of Lovecraft acknowledging that his conservativism is an affectation?) The Messenger is a sonnet telling a story of a foretold demonic visitation, and represents a successful exercise in establishing atmosphere quickly.

This poetic outburst reached its culmination at the turn of the year, when Lovecraft produced the sonnet cycle Fungi From Yuggoth. Beginning with a triptych of sonnets about a protagonist who steals a book of ancient lore, the rest of the sonnets either concern the protagonist’s adventures throughout the universe projected by the book’s magic, or visions evoked by the book, or anecdotes written in the book – it is hard to say which – combined towards the end with some philosophical ruminations.

As far as poetry goes, it just isn’t that great – the sonnet format seems to have allowed Lovecraft to turn out a bunch of material in a short space of time, but even by the very modest standards of Lovecraft’s poetry it’s merely above average. It is more interesting to Lovecraft readers less for its own merits and more for the way that it seems to be a sort of poetic crossroads of Lovecraft’s fiction. The sheer breadth of Mythos stories written prior to and subsequent to the its composition that Fungi From Yuggoth touches on is impressive; the titular fungi would star in The Whisperer In Darkness, there’s nods to shoggoths and Antarctic menaces that prefigure At the Mountains of Madness, and there’s a trip to Innsmouth well predating the writing of The Shadow Over Innsmouth and a nod to Yaddith of Through the Gates of the Silver Key. In terms of references to stories already written, the most evident references (glancing references to Arham asie) are a little prequel incident to The Dunwich Horror and a clutch of sonnets about Nyarlathotep where the Nyarly dude is rude about his boss Azathoth.

The term “Yuggoth” itself would be very significant to The Whisperer In Darkness, though whether Lovecraft had entirely decided on its significance or the nature of the fungi found there by this point is an open question. Joshi seems to think the poem alludes to Yuggoth being a region of the world of Nithon, rather than a distinct world, but the relevant sonnet (The Star Winds) is specifically about the wind that blows between the worlds and so I read it as Yuggoth and Nithon as being two different planets with the star-winds blowing between them and Earth.

The Mound was an epic-length story ghostwritten for Zealia Bishop, who gave Lovecraft the idea of a burial mound in Oklahoma haunted by a warrior’s ghost by day and a headless woman by night, and then let him go to town with it. Writing from the point of view of an out-of-town narrator come to investigate the mound, Lovecraft uses the opportunity to produce the first of a model of story he would return to regularly in his late career – namely, a story in which a major part of the narrative involves not a conventional plot so much as the account of the way of life of an alien civilisation. The Nameless City was an early take on the form, and At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time would continue it; one other thing that The Mound has in common with The Nameless City and Mountains of Madness (but not Shadow) is that there’s a dystopian streak to the fiction, depicting the decline and fall of the civilisation as its animating vital force drains away.

The narrator’s explorations form a framing story, in the first part of which he recaps the known history of the mound and discovers upon it an old manuscript stashed in a curious cylinder, and then in the concluding part of the story the narrator returns to find hideous proof of the truth of the manuscript and evidence of the awful fate of its author. The centrepiece of the story is presented not as a direct transcript of the manuscript – it’s supposed to be in archaic Spanish, after all – so much as the narrator’s paraphrasing of it. The manuscript tells the story of Zamacona, a conquistador whose explorations lead him into the blue-litten underground realm of K’n-yan, which the mound is one of the entrances to. There he discovers the decadent inhabitants of the city of Tsath – telepathic humans of incredible scientific accomplishment who, growing increasingly jaded with existence, are on the verge of abandoning the flesh altogether once they get bored of all the fun they can have with it.

(Note that these features – underground realms, apparently human residents with amazing telepathic powers, and all that – reveal that The Mound is a late example of a particular subgenre of stories about subterranean lost civilisations that can be traced back to Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril: the Power of the Coming Race and ultimately gave rise after Lovecraft’s time to the bizarre farce of the Shaver Mystery.)

Worshipping Cthulhu, Yig, Shub-Niggurath, and the Not-To-Be-Named One (identified with Hastur by later Mythos authors), the people of Tsath present the only example we are given in Lovecraft of a human culture where worshipping the Old Ones is done overtly by the dominant culture, rather than being a practice of furtive individuals and cults here and there. And yet this worship is merely an aesthetic gesture on the part of the Tsathians, the inhabitants of K’n-yan not really believing in the supernatural (until recently, with a new rise of superstition) but trying on religious practices simply for the sake of novelty and feeling something in the ennui of their existence.

No, what is at the root of the decadence of Tsath is not some sort of active Cthulhu Cult-type subversion but something much more basic: they are Lovecraft’s depiction of a society without illusions, which has integrated the stark, nihilistic revelations of materialist science into their worldview and whose inhabitants know that culture and ethics are human Inventions – and which in response to that have discarded all that in favour of pleasure-seeking and transhumanist ascendance to an immaterial state, due to their failure to construct a way of life that makes sense in the face of a universe that does not and will never make sense. This, in short, is where Lovecraft feared and expected society would go when the piecing together of dissociated knowledge which had already convinced him of the empty absurdity of existence was propagated broadly enough to become the dominant paradigm. The overall picture is not unlike that of Moorcock’s Meniboné, since both cultures are urbane, decadent, sophisticated city-states commanding strange forces who while away their time in sadistic practices and toying with their slaves in various fashions.

The world of K’n-yan and the connected worlds of red-litten Yoth and lightless N’kai, along with the history of the people of Tsath, are suggestive of numerous intricate links to other parts of the Mythos, to the point where The Mound is almost a skeleton key to a large chunk of the mysteries in Lovecraft’s fiction. For instance, the reptilian entities in The Nameless City went through a similar period of casting off old cultural norms before dematerialising themselves to exist as energy beings after they found their own strangely-lit subterranean realm; the practice in K’n-yan of rearing a slave race of docile, domesticated humans like farm animals is much like that of the de la Pore family cult in The Rats In the Walls, the close of which hinted at further subterranean depths not explored in that tale from which this horror could have arisen. Likewise, the mention of gold being very common in Tsath makes me think of the mysterious gold sources cultists are able to call on in The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

A particularly interesting riddle is set by the history of the people of Tsath. They are referred to by the local Native Americans as the Old Ones, and they seem to be in some respects another iteration of the idea which Lovecraft deliberately varied from story to story. The Old Ones are described as being basically immaterial in The Dunwich Horror, which suggests the dematerialisation process the Tsathians seem to be in the middle of here, and the Tsathian themselves claim to be the first humans, brought to Earth by Cthulhu as Cthulhu is supposed to have brought the Old Ones to Earth in The Call of Cthulhu. They also claim to have a city in the Antarctic near a mountain called Kadath, hinting at both The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and At the Mountains of Madness.

However, there are suggestions that the chroniclers of Tsath haven’t quite got it right. In the realm of Yoth they found a quadrupedal race of entities which seemed to belong to the former owners of Yoth, a civilisation adept at creating new life; the quadrupeds crossbred with the slave-race quite neatly to form quasi-human steeds. Aside from the fact that the original rulers of Yoth were believed to be quadrupeds (though the Tsathian records may have goofed), I wonder whether Yoth was not in fact a habitation of the Old Ones as depicted in At the Mountains of Madness – called the Elder Things in Lovecraft fandom to distinguish these spacefaring makers of Prometheus-style biochemical horror from the more deific Old Ones. Perhaps the humans of K’n-yan are mere descendants of humans made as slaves by the Elder Things, who found their way back into K’n-yan after the fall of Yoth. Perhaps their belief that they are the Old Ones who came with Cthulhu has it backwards – that Cthulhu is instead nudging their society very subtly to become like that of the Old Ones (as it is hinted he wants in The Call of Cthulhu), with their killing and orgiastic frenzies and their transition to an immaterial state part of making them suitable to come fly with Cthulhu when he wakes up?

(And below Yoth, of course, is N’kai, sacred to Tsathoggua. Given that, despite being different in some respects, the amorphous followers of Tsathoggua and the shoggoths made by the Elder Things are rather similar, perhaps shoggoths were originally made from enslaved Tsathoggua spawn – so maybe the shoggoth revolt came about in part from Tsathoggua taking his toys back.)

What racism there is in the story generally comes in the form of dialogue attributed to Native Americans, which is in the sort of appalling “Me speak English second language, me have poor grammar and vocabulary” mode which might conceivably ring true when spoken by a character who had only taken a few rudimentary lessons in a pidgin dialect but seems less credible originating from a character who has had to live alongside and negotiate with English-speakers for decades. Still, the local tribes turn out to have an essentially accurate understanding of what the deal is with the mound, and are justified in shunning it. Moreover, Lovecraft has his narrator note early in his investigations of the mound that the strange figure doesn’t actually resemble a Native American that closely in either his features or his trappings, the villagers presumably referring to him as an “Indian” because that’s what they default to when describing someone of that particular skin tone. (Of course, Lovecraft’s thought process there seems in part to have been “Pfft, there’s no way actual Native Americans could have made a great civilisation down there, so I’d better make it clear that the people from the mound aren’t related to the local tribes.”)

Despite this racist note, and the fact that Lovecraft more or less ignored Zealia Bishop’s basic idea for the story and then crowbarred it in awkwardly to fit the story he was more interested in telling, I have a lot of fondness for The Mound. It certainly isn’t the best of Lovecraft’s longer stories, but it is far from the worst, and contains too much in the way of awesome secrets and lore to overlook.

Lovecraft’s next ghostwriting piece for Zealia Bishop was written in the wake of a visit to Charleston, whose Confederate history must have helped Lovecraft get in the mood for the Southern Gothic stylings of Medusa’s Coil. This reads like another story where Bishop came up with a fun idea for a haunting scenario and Lovecraft did the heavy lifting of writing it up and injected a bunch of Mythos material into it.

Specifically, it’s the story of a gruesome tragedy and a terrible haunting in the wake of it, which befalls an old-timey plantation in Missouri when Denis, heir to the family fortune, comes home from France with his new wife, the beautiful Marceline, who he met in decadent and occultic artistic circles where she had gained some infamy as “Tanit-Isis”, some manner of high priestess or living goddess. A string of events surrounding the attempt by Frank Marsh, a close friend of Denis’ to paint a portrait of Marceline, leads to the devastating revelation of Marceline’s connections to Great Cthulhu himself, and the portrait and Marceline’s well-tended hair prove to be unexpectedly active after the murderous tragedy that results from people seeing the portrait.

This is a story which is deservedly infamous for its final plot twist, in which the narrator reveals to us that on looking at Marceline’s portrait he realises that – horror of horrors! – she was black. (This is presented as though it weren’t common knowledge during her lifetime, which suggests that she was either naturally white-passing or used makeup to lighten her skin – the latter would be supported by the mentions of Marceline taking a lot of time about doing her makeup.) This is explicitly presented as the crowning horror, the final revelation which makes a whole bunch of things click into place and which is the most terrible revelation the story has to offer – more so than the fact that Marceline may well have been an immortal Cthulhu cultist, or maybe even a pre-human entity who taught the worship of the Old Ones to early humans, and whose hair had this quasi-independent existence as her familiar.

The fact that the plot twist is that she was black is not only an awful ending to the story, but it makes all sorts of aspects of the tale repugnant in the light of it. Sinister hair can be used as the basis for horror, as The Grudge taught us, and the idea of this mass of hair crawling around like a snake has potential, but given the history of dismissing and/or fetishising black women’s hair it just heightens the insult. (Though part of me does like the idea of a sequel story in which Marceline’s hair goes around strangling reprobates who think it is OK to randomly touch black people’s hair without permission.)

The fact that, based on Lovecraft’s notes for the story, the use of Marceline’s ethnicity as a twist ending seems to have been Zealia Bishop’s own idea (since he refers to this being a “surprise to [the] reader as in [the] original text”) is hardly an excuse when you take into account the considerable latitude Lovecraft seems to have had in revising this and other stories; clearly, he thought this was horrifying enough to merit being the final shock, because if he didn’t I am sure he would have just moved the information elsewhere in the story. (Remember, this is the same revision client who was apparently satisfied with The Mound, so Bishop evident gave Lovecraft a pretty free hand in adapting her ideas.).

If you took out the plot twist the story would still be replete with problematic elements, of course. You have the plantation where the antebellum social order is maintained for no adequately examined reason, you have the character of Sophonisba, a very elderly member of the plantation staff who remembers being abducted from Africa by slavers, where she served the Great Old Ones in the vicinity of Zimbabwe, you have a snootily dismissive attitude towards the black farm workers which is never really challenged or undermined.

You also have Lovecraft trying to write a love triangle, which is about as clumsy and awkward as you can imagine with a side order of mild terror at female sexuality. There’s probably a decent love story in there if you dig down – Marceline liked Denis enough that she thought she could set aside her Yog-Sothothery for him for at least a while, but Frank sees the true erotic eldritchness of her and makes her want to be naughty again, etc. – but Lovecraft alternates between shying away from it and being freaked by how forward Marceline is with her desires. (Recall that Sonia Greene reported that she usually had to take the lead to make sex happen between them.)

And yet the story also, by having much of the action set in the right era, calls up Lovecraft’s sneaking fascination with the late 19th Century decadents. Lovecraft, remember, was a great admirer of Robert Chambers’ The King In Yellow, which includes a brace of stories focused on the intertwined relationships of art students in Paris and their paramours. Baudelaire is explicitly cited (as is Clark Ashton Smith, a great Baudelaire fan), and of course the portrait that shows the subject’s true nature and has some supernatural attributes is familiar from Wilde. Between this and The Mound and Lovecraft’s various assertions about how he tries to stick to conservative values because he is terrified about what would happen were he to come unmoored, and Lovecraft begins to sound like he sneakily kind of wanted to be a decadent but was afraid of the consequences, or at the very least was interested in decadence in a theoretical, detached sort of way.

Lovecraft’s Charleston trip would also yield a tediously dry history and tour guide of the area, much given to his archaic Georgian writing style and random elitism and racism. (He suggests that the rise of a class of black artisans and mechanics in the early 19th Century resulted in a marked decline in the quality of work produced, for instance.) It is more interesting for its insights offered into Lovecraft’s elitism and his distaste for the hustle and bustle of modernity than it is for anything it has to say about Charleston itself. His travel writing would, however, bear fruit in providing important local colour for what is, by a fair margin, my absolute favourite of all of Lovecraft’s works.

That story is The Whisperer In Darkness, which ranks alongside L. Ron Hubbard’s Fear and the work of Philip K. Dick when it comes to great studies of paranoia in a science fiction/horror context. Wilmarth, our narrator, is a literature professor at Miskatonic University who, pooh-poohing superstitious-sounding rumours of strange creatures spotted in the hills of Vermont, is drawn into a newspaper letters-page debate on the subject (much as in real life Lovecraft had previously been drawn into newspaper controversies about astrology). His writing on the subject brings him to the attention of Henry Akeley, a sophisticated folklorist who lives alone with his doggies in his ancestral home out in those selfsame hills. “Publicly I am on your side” says Akeley in his first letter… but privately, he discloses to Wilmarth various pieces of anecdotal evidence which suggests that there may be some truth to the stories – and a darker, untold story behind them.

Wilmarth’s natural scepticism is shaken by how Akeley is able to sound so sensible and rational whilst offering a story that sounds so fantastic and paranoid, but as the evidence piles up – the photographs of strange sites, the weird interception of a package Akeley tried to send to Wilmarth, and perhaps most of all a covert audio recording of a strange ritual – Wilmarth comes to believe in Akeley’s theory that aliens from some far-off region of space have established some sort of strange outpost on Earth, and are aided and abetted in their efforts to remain undisturbed by an extensive network of human collaborators. Wilmarth is interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable – that is why he is corresponding with Akeley. Then a breakthrough occurs and for the first time Akeley claims he can tell to Wilmarth the full story of what is happening. Wilmarth lays out for the reader all the evidence, based on his experience of this terrible ordeal. The incidents, the places – Wilmarth cannot keep this a secret any longer. My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts about Fungi From Yuggoth???


One positive note is that Lovecraft’s habitual racism is more or less absent from this story. There’s a lone reference to “Savage Indians” in one of the letters, Wilmarth receives, but in context this is a letter whose contents we are expected to deeply distrust, since it’s specifically trying to dismiss and discredit the local Native American lore about the nefarious intentions of the nefarious Mi-Go. Lovecraft works on the basis that the Mi-Go have been active worldwide for centuries, with different cultures having different reports of them filtered through their own cultural assumptions, but as it turns out the Native Americans seem to have come the closest to the truth by far, perhaps because they’ve lived in the vicinity of the Mi-Go’s operations longer than anybody else. Perhaps the best indication that Lovecraft is treating the local First Nations peoples with more respect than he typically offers other cultures is the fact that the Mi-Go bother to try and discredit them in the first place.

As well as avoiding Lovecraft’s more noxious faults as a writer, the story also finds him playing to his strengths masterfully. It’s an absolutely exceptional example of Lovecraft’s pseudo-documentary style, even better than Charles Dexter Ward, and in my view also sees him accomplish his avowed intent to try and depict people with reasonable, realistic motivations and reactions in an extraordinary situation; sure, Wilmarth gets gulled into almost walking into a trap, but he pulls out at a logically appropriate time and in general any time someone in the story behaves in an unusual or apparently unrealistic manner it turns out it’s because they have been subverted in some fashion.

The story is particularly interesting as an early example of alien abduction fiction – and specifically, alien abduction fiction which is accompanied by secret bases, outrageous surgical violations, conspiratorial links with human collaborators, and a hinted-at colonisation program which when you take them all together begins to resemble a microcosm of the various directions that UFO conspiracy theories would develop in over the next 80 years, like Lovecraft had reached out through time in order to take in some X-Files boxed sets or something. Lovecraft does an incredible job of presenting a breadcrumb trail of little bits of evidence here and there, until from small signs he is able to build up a big picture that is completely, audaciously off-the-wall in a way in which each step along the path that takes you there seems perfectly reasonable. Precisely because it seems so reasonable, the story manages to retain a genuinely disturbing and creepy atmosphere, never lapsing into the campy or comedic which it could so easily have done.

This may just be me seeing things, but I wonder whether Lovecraft was able to make the Mi-Go conspiracy so bizarrely plausible because of his interest in Roman history. After all, the Roman process of colonisation ideally didn’t involve a sudden, immediate invasion straight off the bat. Instead, the Romans would develop a relationship with client rulers and groups in the areas they wanted to extend their sphere of influence into, until eventually they would be invited in to take charge by their local allies. The basis of the Mi-Go collaboration with human Mythos cultists seems to be based on a certain religious compatibility, the Mi-Go apparently deciding that human cults who serve entities like Shub-Niggurath are an appropriate group of people to make contact with and support from the shadows. There is a tantalisingly real possibility that the Mi-Go have no particular affection for the deities these cults worship, but consider the cultists’ off-kilter worldview to be sufficiently close to theirs to make it easier to talk to them. At any rate, there is a certain terror in the idea that if aliens decided to come and talk to human beings, the human beings they choose to talk to might not be those we’d choose to speak for us, and that cuts to the same general fear that underpins most “aliens are talking to evil government factions/secret societies/Satanist cults/whatever” conspiracy theories.

Part of what makes the story so vivid is that the Mi-Go haunt the selfsame hills that Lovecraft made lone explorations of during his Vermont trips. Another horror classic about mysterious forces lurking in hill country, Arthur Machen’s Novel of the Black Seal, seems to have been a minor influence on the story (thought he Mi-Go’s operations and the presentation of the facts are very different here), and the prominent inclusion of an unusual black stone and an explicit namedropping of Machen seems to have been Lovecraft’s way of acknowledging this.

Joshi finds The Whisperer In Darkness a flawed story, mostly because he thinks the aliens have excessively human flaws, pointing to a misspelled telegram and a forged letter as examples of this. I can’t follow him here; to me, it seems overwhelmingly likely that these slips by the Mi-Go can be attributed less to themselves than their human agents; the ill-educated farmer in their employ could very believably have misspelled Akeley’s name on a telegram, for instance, but it is harder to imagine a Mi-Go fluttering into a Western Union office to send a telegram. As far as I am concerned, Lovecraft’s material simply doesn’t get better than this.

Lovecraft followed up The Whisperer In Darkness with the longest single item he ever wrote – an interminably long Quebec travelogue that thanks to being written in the mock-Georgian style he used for his private writing is a tedious chore to read. This apparently let him flex his muscles to tackle another novel. At the Mountains of Madness was Lovecraft’s last especially long work. It concerns an Antarctic expedition which stumbles across an abandoned pre-human city built in the titular mountains, in which ancient wall inscriptions record such secrets as the decline and fall of the aliens who built the city and the terrible revelation that all terrestrial life is to one extent or another descended from the aliens’ polymorphic slave species, the shoggoths.

One thing that’s notable about this story is that it provides another mutually exclusive definition of the term “Old Ones”; whereas in The Call of Cthulhu the Old Ones were Cthulhu and his gang snoozing in R’lyeh and in The Dunwich Horror they are immaterial entities from another dimension entirely and in The Mound they are the apparently-human residents of Tsath, here they are once again material aliens of this dimension – but this time opponents of Cthulhu, as well as being the creators of life on Earth in a Chariots of the Gods sort of a way. (The novel is either the origin of the “Ancient Astronauts” idea, or at least is one of the first popular presentations of it.) The term “Elder Things” is also used in the story a couple of times to allude to them and has, thanks to the Call of Cthulhu RPG embracing its usage, has been adopted by the fandom to denote these creatures as opposed to any of the other things referred to by Lovecraft as Old Ones.

Not that Lovecraft had set his previous work to one side when devising this story – far from it. As well as fighting wars with Cthulhu, the Elder Things also had territorial squabbles with the Mi-Go, making this story a bit crossover-tastic. These references to other monsters crop up as a result of the extensive description of Elder Thing society and history that takes up a great deal of space in the novel. Indeed, I am going to commit fandom heresy here and suggest that At the Mountains of Madness is at best a good-but-not great Lovecraft effort and doesn’t really deserve the grand reputation it enjoys as some sort of amazing classic, and the long history section is one of the story’s major structural problems.

Specifically, I feel like Lovecraft here is succumbing to an error often made by second-rate Mythos pastische authors but which he personally tended to be less guilty of, which is the fallacy of imagining that you can do without an actual plot in a story if you just squirt in a lot of worldbuilding. In effect, the story exists at least to a certain extent to provide Lovecraft with a platform to say “here, look at these setting details I have come up with”. The novel is somewhat salvaged by the fact that admittedly the details involved are quite fun and imaginative, being as they are a description of an alien species which focuses on their history and culture more than the biological.novelty of their existence. The fact remains, though, that it is still basically a large info-dump spread out over a substantial portion of the text. (It also calls out for a fat dose of suspension of disbelief, since it requires the reader to believe that the Elder Thing wall carvings are clear and understandable enough to humans with no prior contact with Elder Thing culture that the explorers can infer an absolutely staggering amount of detail from them in the time available to study them.)

Two things make this info-dump more interesting than it might otherwise have been. The first is that Lovecraft is able to express an enormous amount of sympathy for the Elder Things, possibly because as socialistic-aristocratic space scientists who aren’t averse to letting a slave race do their heavy lifting they resemble Lovecraft. At points, the narrative makes them sound positively cute – I think it’s the bit where Lovecraft talks about them wearing little jumpers when it’s cold that gets to me. Though they undergo a cultural decline much like that depicted in The Mound, the tone of the narration is less “boo to this degeneracy” and more “that’s just kind of how it is” – it’s not so much moral panic as it is moral resignation.

(Then again, precisely because Lovecraft gave the Elder Things motivations and a model of social progress he considered equally applicable to humanity, I have to look a bit askance at his handling of the shoggoths. In particular, we seem to be told that after the shoggoths revolt they try to mimic Elder Thing culture but are kind of bad and unsophisticated at it, which cuts uncomfortably close to Lovecraft’s attitude that black people were OK at manual labour but couldn’t produce anything requiring genuine craftsmanship.)

The other thing which is interesting about the Elder Thing history is what is missing from it. In particular, Tsathoggua is notable by his absence. Not only had Lovecraft run with the idea that Tsathoggua had come to Earth in primal times (in keeping with the Clark Ashton Smith that introduced the sleepy bat-toad deity) in other stories, such as The Mound, but Tsathoggua is specifically alluded to as featuring in the old tomes that some on the expedition had read and which apparently alluded to the Elder Things and the shoggoths. This is especially interesting because the shoggoths’ formless nature is extremely reminiscent of the formless spawn of Tsathoggua himself – and Lovecraft’s notes for the story explicitly compare them to such. It’s enough to make me wonder whether their failure to mention Tsathoggua is deliberate. Maybe the vast mountain beyond the range the Elder City is built in, which was the subject of a curious taboo, is an abode of Tsathoggua? Or maybe the shoggoths are not inventions of the Elder Things at all, but were stolen from Tsathoggua? These are both possible, but Lovecraft is so frustratingly vague about these matters that it’s hard to say – though if something like this were not intended, the multiple Tsathoggua references seem pointless.

Another point Lovecraft is excessively vague on is the whatever-it-is that Danforth saw when he looks back as he and the narrator fly away from the Elder Thing city at the end of the story. This is meant to be some crowning horror, but to my mind Lovecraft doesn’t provide enough hints about it to really help the reader’s imagination kick in. (In fact, reading his notes for the story, I kind of think he hadn’t actually any clear idea of what it was, which would rather break one of his rules for writing weird tales – namely, that the author should have a handle on what is going on, even if they never clearly share that with the reader.)

As far as my pet theories go: it could just be a horde of shoggoths pouring out of the abandoned city, heightening the horror by underscoring that it’s not just a lone shoggothy survivor but a whole army down there. Or it could be a vision of the forbidden mountain swarming with shoggoths, its secrets theirs for the taking. Or given the Kadath-esque resonances of the abandoned polar city it could be Nyarlathotep or a gateway to the court of Azathoth. Or – and this is my favourite of my various theories – it could be the pursuing shoggoth beginning to mimic the form of human beings, suggesting that by the very act of visiting the explorers have inadvertently alerted the shoggoths to the existence of humanity and given them what they need to imitate and infiltrate us.

This last bit would at least mean that the polymorphic capability of the shoggoths did finally become relevant to the story; it’s kind of a shame that Lovecraft makes so much of it but doesn’t really use it for very much. The problem with Lovecraft’s use of his shoggoths is that he keeps referring to them in this and other stories as being especially horrid but never seems to follow up on the full John Carpenter’s The Thing potential of them. (Or rather, since when discovered they are mimicing the calls of the penguins, maybe they’re more like the Pingu version of The Thing, though the end of the story would come across differently if instead of the Poe-referencing “Tekeli-li!” noise the shoggoths went “Noot noot!”)

One last amusing point I want to make before I conclude: much is made in the story of certain star-shaped stones discovered near where some of the dormant Elder Things are sat in their frozen comas, and I suspect it is these stones that gave August Derleth the inspiration for the “Mnar stones” and Elder Signs that are used in his Lovecraft pastiches to ward off Mythos monsters like vampires being held at bay by a crucifix in a Hammer horror movie. (I think Derleth’s interpretation was that these stones were keeping them prisoner somehow.) Unfortunately for Derleth, he seems to have jumped on this idea without reading around it in detail, because in context it is made clear that these stones were in fact the Elder Things’ currency, so if you’ve picked up on that all the scenes in Derleth’s stories (or similar characters in stories by writers following Derleth’s lead) become inadvertently comical, because in trying to ward off monsters with tokens such as these what they’re really just doing is waving a bribe at the beasties.

The bottom line on At the Mountains of Madness is that whilst it certainly shows Lovecraft’s creativity and an extensive amount of worldbuilding, the attached story is slow and clunky, to a point where I find it’s a bit of a shame that the Call of Cthulhu RPG hadn’t come out in Lovecraft’s time so he could just write this worldbuilding stuff when the mood took him and then he’d be relieved of the obligation to write a vestigial story attached to it.

It is little surprise to me, in fact, that Lovecraft struggled a lot to find a publisher for the tale, because whilst I do like it despite all the efforts it undertakes to make me dislike it the fact is that it’s a turn for the worse in Lovecraft’s writing, a shift in the balance between worldbuilding and storytelling which Lovecraft had got more or less perfect in The Whisperer In Darkness and which is off-kilter here. Lovecraft was greatly discouraged by his failure to find a buyer for the novel, and ended up seriously questioning the viability of his work.

Whilst he had always tended to second-guess his own work, to my eye in the span of works from The Call of Cthulhu to At the Mountains of Madness he seemed to have a new confidence in his writing, wherein whilst his revisions were made on a mercenary-minded basis the work he produced under his own name was extremely true to his own voice, each story embracing the particular style it is written in and turning it up to 11 without commercial compromise or excessive pastiche of previous authors. This confidence in the power of his own vision seems to have faded by this point, after which his production of his own work would tail off markedly, and his stories would increasingly include stylistic experiments with throwing in conventional action scenes (already dabbled in slightly in At the Mountains of Madness) or motifs of more conventional supernatural horror fiction as he tried to produce work which met the demands of the market without betraying his loyalty to his muse.

One thought on “Dissecting Lovecraft Part 6: From Providence To Antarctica

  1. Pingback: Dissecting Lovecraft Part 7: Innsmouth, Heald, and Hitler – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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