(Post title brought to you with apologies to Marlon Brando…)
I recently bought yet another new collection of “scary stories” after reading Nina’s “Town of Cats” post at Multo (Ghost)
The book is titled “The Weird: A Compendium of Dark and Scary Stories.” (I couldn’t resist, as I really wanted to read the “Cats” story that was so similar in title to a Haruki Murakami story I read last year.) Of course, when I began looking through the table of contents, I first alighted on a different story, H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.”
I’ve read my share of Lovecraft over the years, and it seems I like him best in small servings. Reading this particular story, I think I have decided why. His stories, though among the best in setting a totally creepy, eerie, phantasmagoric atmosphere, rarely seem to get you very deeply sympathetic to the characters in them. This story is like that too.
In rural Massachusetts, an old family, the Whateleys, living in a “partially inhabited” farmhouse set against a hillside, have an addition (or two?) to their family. “Wilbur” Whateley’s parentage is vaguely questioned, and he matures at a much faster rate than a true human child would. His grandfather is a known “wizard” and Wilbur is clearly headed toward going into that “family business.” As Wilbur grew (at four and a half, he “looked like a lad of fifteen”), he became hated and dreaded in Dunwich “because of certain youthful disappearances that suspicion laid at his door.” Later, we learn more about how truly inhuman Wilbur was.
As he gets older, it seems clear that Wilbur is “working on something” – apparently having to do with opening a gateway for creatures of an older world to enter and conquer this world. Whatever his task, it involves frequent ‘renovations’ to their farmhouse – renovations whose purpose seems to be to make room for something, something that is… growing… He is aided by ancient spell books of his grandfather and libraries(!) with which he is in regular correspondence concerning even older, profane texts, such as the fabled “Necromicon,” which appears in many of Lovecraft’s writings.
Wilbur is able to nurture/summon/create a harbinger creature (the “Dunwich Horror” is the name which local legend has given to this creature) as a prelude to bringing a host of other “old ones” into this world. Lovecraft’s descriptions of The Horror are consistent with monsters in his other works. A patched-together, likely “tentacled” abomination that can also make itself invisible, it walks in the night destroying livestock and farmhouses, and apparently people. A team of “scholars” who understand from whence the Horror came are able to “save the world” though, partly by using spells, etc. from some of the same unclean sources Wilbur used to summon it.
The story is also remarkable by the presence of whip-poor-will’s throughout. These birds apparently have some link to the “old ones” and can also be harbingers of death, as evidenced by their singing vigil as Wilbur’s grandfather’s life force ebbs away and death approaches. Quite creepy. I should mention that I’m an amateur ornithologist myself and often go for long, birdwatching walks carrying my trusty binoculars. Sadly, there are no whip-poor-will’s in the areas I frequent. I do remember hearing them on summer camping trips my family took when I was growing up, though. After reading this story, I googled them and listened to their sound for the first time in years, and it is somewhat haunting…
Although I liked this story, it kind of ran out of steam for me, and The Horror didn’t put up enough of a fight when confronted with our heroes. What I liked best was Lovecraft’s setting the stage and describing the locale and it’s supernatural characteristics and history. I think locations that are kind of in the frontier, or “gray area” between civilization and wilderness are fertile ground for legends and stories and Lovecraft takes full advantage of this.
Are you a Lovecraft fan? What stories of his do you recommend?