Saturday, June 29, 2013

"Nibiru, My Name Is" (2013)

"Nibiru,  My Name Is"



Jordan S. Bassior

No, it isn’t.

“Nibiru” is what it wants to do to your world.  And trust me, you wouldn’t like that..

My name?

Names have power, and I don’t want my power at your call.

No offense.  I’m sure that you’re a nice enough human, when something isn’t trying to use you.  But I don’t want you to have my power at your call.

This form tells me that she doesn’t mind if you know her name.  You can’t control her with it, so I suppose that’s all right.  You couldn’t have controlled her even before I expanded her mind, and now she’s at least the mental equal of one of your kind.

You may call us “Nova.”

The Entity?  I know Its name, but I won’t tell you.  I especially don’t want you calling on Its  power.

Oh, I know that you think it would be useful.  They all do.  But that’s because It wants you to think It would serve you.  It wouldn’t.  It might pretend to, for a while, until It manipulated you into doing exactly what It wanted, and then It would devour you.

Give up your quest.  I know you want to use It against the Unspeakable, but It would only use you.  There are other ways of defeating your foe.

No, you couldn’t contain It.  You think you could because It wants you to think you could.

Your friends think they could because this is why … It’s done this before.

It’s escaped before.

It didn’t destroy the world because my … you call us the Elder Gods … because Our traps are subtler than you think, and sometimes, we can even turn back time so that things can unhappen.

But there’s a cost.  To the souls of those it touched.

There’s a rich man here in Crystal Cove who winces in pain every time he sees a snake, and he doesn’t remember why.  There’s a brilliant young woman who startles every time she hears a string of fireworks.  And nobody in town will eat calamari, and only one will keep a parrot, and the parrot himself is more than a little bit crazy.

Some things can’t be forgotten, even if we turn back time so they never happened.  So don’t ever let them happen again.

The Unspeakable?

I know that humans can defeat Him.  They’ve done so before.  And as I said, Our traps are subtle, and ready to be primed by the right mortals.


I can’t tell you, directly.  It’s against the Rules.

I’m sorry that it has to be a mystery.  A mystery … yes, that’s your answer.

Go to Miskatonic University, in Arkham, Massachusetts.  There are five mortals there:  four young humans, and a very special dog.  They can help you.  Ask Professor Ellison … he knows them.  I'm sure they'll help you.  They like to meddle.

And …

… Give the dog my love.

Oh, you’ll know which dog. 

He’s unforgettable.


All the characters of "Scooby-Doo," in all its incarnations, including the Scooby gang, the Nibiru Entity, Nova (both dog and Elder Goddess), Ricky Owens, Marcie "Hot Dog Water" Fleach, and Professor Pericles, are the property of Hanna-Barbera Inc, as is this version of the real-life science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison.  My thanks to H. P. Lovecraft for creating the Cthulhu Mythos, and Eddy C. Bertin for writing "Darkness, My Name Is" ©  1976, which of course inspired this fan fiction.

Friday, June 21, 2013

"The Horror-Horn" (1923) by E. F. Benson, with Notes and Comments

“The Horror-Horn”

© 1923


E. F. Benson

The past ten days Alhubel had basked in the radiant midwinter weather proper to its eminence of over 6,000 feet. From rising to setting the sun (so surprising to those who have hitherto associated it with a pale, tepid plate indistinctly shining through the murky air of England) had blazed its way across the sparkling blue, and every night the serene and windless frost had made the stars sparkle like illuminated diamond dust. Sufficient snow had fallen before Christmas to content the skiers, and the big rink, sprinkled every evening, had given the skaters each morning a fresh surface on which to perform their slippery antics. Bridge and dancing served to while away the greater part of the night, and to me, now for the first time tasting the joys of a winter in the Engadine, it seemed that a new heaven and a new earth had been lighted, warmed, and refrigerated for the special benefit of those who like myself had been wise enough to save up their days of holiday for the winter.

But a break came in these ideal conditions: one afternoon the sun grew vapour-veiled and up the valley from the north-west a wind frozen with miles of travel over ice-bound hill-sides began scouting through the calm halls of the heavens. Soon it grew dusted with snow, first in small flakes driven almost horizontally before its congealing breath and then in larger tufts as of swans-down. And though all day for a fortnight before the fate of nations and life and death had seemed to me of far less importance than to get certain tracings of the skate-blades on the ice of proper shape and size, it now seemed that the one paramount consideration was to hurry back to the hotel for shelter: it was wiser to leave rocking-turns alone than to be frozen in their quest.

I had come out here with my cousin, Professor Ingram, the celebrated physiologist and Alpine climber. During the serenity of the last fortnight he had made a couple of notable winter ascents, but this morning his weather-wisdom had mistrusted the signs of the heavens, and instead of attempting the ascent of the Piz Passug he had waited to see whether his misgivings justified themselves. So there he sat now in the hall of the admirable hotel with his feet on the hot-water pipes and the latest delivery of the English post in his hands. This contained a pamphlet concerning the result of the Mount Everest expedition, of which he had just finished the perusal when I entered.

"A very interesting report," he said, passing it to me, "and they certainly deserve to succeed next year. But who can tell, what that final six thousand feet may entail? Six thousand feet more when you have already accomplished twenty-three thousand does not seem much, but at present no one knows whether the human frame can stand exertion at such a height. It may affect not the lungs and heart only, but possibly the brain. Delirious hallucinations may occur. In fact, if I did not know better, I should have said that one such hallucination had occurred to the climbers already." (1)

"And what was that?" I asked.

"You will find that they thought they came across the tracks of some naked human foot at a great altitude. That looks at first sight like an hallucination. What more natural than that a brain excited and exhilarated by the extreme height should have interpreted certain marks in the snow as the footprints of a human being? Every bodily organ at these altitudes is exerting itself to the utmost to do its work, and the brain seizes on those marks in the snow and says 'Yes, I'm all right, I'm doing my job, and I perceive marks in the snow which I affirm are human footprints.' You know, even at this altitude, how restless and eager the brain is, how vividly, as you told me, you dream at night. Multiply that stimulus and that consequent eagerness and restlessness by three, and how natural that the brain should harbour illusions!

What after all is the delirium which often accompanies high fever but the effort of the brain to do its work under the pressure of feverish conditions? It is so eager to continue perceiving that it perceives things which have no existence!"

"And yet you don't think that these naked human footprints were illusions," said I. "You told me you would have thought so, if you had not known better."

He shifted in his chair and looked out of the window a moment. The air was thick now with the density of the big snow-flakes that were driven along by the squealing north-west gale.

"Quite so," he said. "In all probability the human footprints were real human footprints. I expect that they were the footprints, anyhow, of a being more nearly a man than anything else. My reason for saying so is that I know such beings exist. I have even seen quite near at hand—and I assure you I did not wish to be nearer in spite of my intense curiosity—the creature, shall we say, which would make such footprints. And if the snow was not so dense, I could show you the place where I saw him."

He pointed straight out of the window, where across the valley lies the huge tower of the Ungeheuerhorn with the carved pinnacle of rock at the top like some gigantic rhinoceros-horn. On one side only, as I knew, was the mountain practicable, and that for none but the finest climbers; on the other three a succession of ledges and precipices rendered it unscalable. Two thousand feet of sheer rock form the tower; below are five hundred feet of fallen boulders, up to the edge of which grow dense woods of larch and pine.

"Upon the Ungeheuerhorn?" I asked.

"Yes. Up till twenty years ago it had never been ascended, and I, like several others, spent a lot of time in trying to find a route up it. My guide and I sometimes spent three nights together at the hut beside the Blumen glacier, prowling round it, and it was by luck really that we found the route, for the mountain looks even more impracticable from the far side than it does from this. But one day we found a long, transverse fissure in the side which led to a negotiable ledge; then there came a slanting ice couloir which you could not see till you got to the foot of it. However, I need not go into that."

The big room where we sat was filling up with cheerful groups driven indoors by this sudden gale and snowfall, and the cackle of merry tongues grew loud. The band, too, that invariable appanage of tea-time at Swiss resorts, had begun to tune up for the usual potpourri from the works of Puccini. Next moment the sugary, sentimental melodies began.

"Strange contrast!" said Ingram. "Here are we sitting warm and cosy, our ears pleasantly tickled with these little baby tunes and outside is the great storm growing more violent every moment, and swirling round the austere cliffs of the Ungeheuerhorn: the Horror-Horn, as indeed it was to me."

"I want to hear all about it," I said. "Every detail: make a short story long, if it's short. I want to know why it's your Horror-Horn?"

"Well, Chanton and I (he was my guide) used to spend days prowling about the cliffs, making a little progress on one side and then being stopped, and gaining perhaps five hundred feet on another side and then being confronted by some insuperable obstacle, till the day when by luck we found the route. Chanton never liked the job, for some reason that I could not fathom. It was not because of the difficulty or danger of the climbing, for he was he most fearless man I have ever met when dealing with rocks and ice, but he was always insistent that we should get off the mountain and back to the Blumen hut before sunset. He was scarcely easy even when we had got back to shelter and locked and barred the door, and I well remember one night when, as we ate our supper, we heard some animal, a wolf probably, howling somewhere out in the night. A positive panic seized him, and I don't think he closed his eyes till morning. It struck me then that there might be some grisly legend about the mountain, connected possibly with its name, and next day I asked him why the peak was called the Horror Horn. He put the question off at first, and said that, like the Schreckhorn, its name was due to its precipices and falling stones; but when I pressed him further he acknowledged that there was a legend about it, which his father had told him. 

There were creatures, so it was supposed, that lived in its caves, things human in shape, and covered, except for the face and hands, with long black hair. They were dwarfs in size, four feet high or thereabouts, but of prodigious strength and agility, remnants of some wild primeval race. It seemed that they were still in an upward stage of evolution, or so I guessed, for the story ran that sometimes girls had been carried off by them, not as prey, and not for any such fate as for those captured by cannibals, but to be bred from. Young men also had been raped by them (2), to be mated with the females of their tribe. All this looked as if the creatures, as I said, were tending towards humanity (3). But naturally I did not believe a word of it, as applied to the conditions of the present day. Centuries ago, conceivably, there may have been such beings (4), and, with the extraordinary tenacity of tradition, the news of this had been handed down and was still current round the hearths of the peasants. As for their numbers, Chanton told me that three had been once seen together by a man who owing to his swiftness on skis had escaped to tell the tale. This man, he averred, was no other than his grand-father, who had been benighted one winter evening as he passed through the dense woods below the Ungeheuerhorn, and Chanton supposed that they had been driven down to these lower altitudes in search of food during severe winter weather, for otherwise the recorded sights of them had always taken place among the rocks of the peak itself. They had pursued his grandfather, then a young man, at an extraordinarily swift canter, running sometimes upright as men run, sometimes on all-fours in the manner of beasts, and their howls were just such as that we had heard that night in the Blumen hut. Such at any rate was the story Chanton told me, and, I like you, I regarded it as the very moonshine of superstition. But the very next day I had reason to reconsider my judgment about it.
"It was on that day that after a week of exploration we hit on the only route at present known to the top of our peak. We started as soon as there was light enough to climb by, for, as you may guess, on very difficult rocks it is impossible to climb by lantern or moonlight. We hit on the long fissure I have spoken of, we explored the ledge which from below seemed to end in nothingness, and with an hour's step-cutting ascended the couloir which led upwards from it. From there onwards it was a rock-climb, certainly of considerable difficulty, but with no heart-breaking discoveries ahead, and it was about nine in the morning that we stood on the top. We did not wait there long, for that side of the mountain is raked by falling stones loosened, when the sun grows hot, from the ice that holds them, and we made haste to pass the ledge where the falls are most frequent. After that there was the long fissure to descend, a matter of no great difficulty, and we were at the end of our work by midday, both of us, as you may imagine, in the state of the highest elation.
"A long and tiresome scramble among the huge boulders at the foot of the cliff then lay before us. Here the hill-side is very porous and great caves extend far into the mountain. We had unroped at the base of the fissure, and were picking our way as seemed good to either of us among these fallen rocks, many of them bigger than an ordinary house, when, on coming round the corner of one of these, I saw that which made it clear that the stories Chanton had told me were no figment of traditional superstition.

"Not twenty yards in front of me lay one of the beings of which he had spoken. There it sprawled naked and basking on its back with face turned up to the sun, which its narrow eyes regarded unwinking. In form it was completely human, but the growth of hair that covered limbs and trunk alike almost completely hid the sun-tanned skin beneath. But its face, save for the down on its cheeks and chin, was hairless, and I looked on a countenance the sensual and malevolent bestiality of which froze me with horror. Had the creature been an animal, one would have felt scarcely a shudder at the gross animalism of it; the horror lay in the fact that it was a man. There lay by it a couple of gnawed bones, and, its meal finished, it was lazily licking its protuberant lips, from which came a purring murmur of content. With one hand it scratched the thick hair on its belly, in the other it held one of these bones, which presently split in half beneath the pressure of its finger and thumb. But my horror was not based on the information of what happened to those men whom these creatures caught, it was due only to my proximity to a thing so human and so infernal. The peak, of which the ascent had a moment ago filled us with such elated satisfaction, because to me to me an Ungeheuerhorn indeed, for it was the home of beings more awful than the delirium of nightmare could ever have conceived.
"Chanton was a dozen paces behind me, and with a backward wave of my hand I caused him to halt. Then withdrawing myself with infinite precaution, so as not to attract the gaze of that basking creature, I slipped back round the rock, whispered to him what I had seen, and with blanched faces we made a long detour, peering round every corner, and crouching low, not knowing that at any step we might not come upon another of these beings, or that from the mouth of one of these caves in the mountain-side there might not appear another of those hairless and dreadful faces, with perhaps this time the breasts and insignia of womanhood. That would have been the worst of all (5).

"Luck favoured us, for we made our way among the boulders and shifting stones, the rattle of which might at any moment have betrayed us, without a repetition of my experience, and once among the trees we ran as if the Furies themselves were in pursuit. Well now did I understand, though I dare say I cannot convey, the qualms of Chanton's mind when he spoke to me of these creatures. Their very humanity was what made them so terrible, the fact that they were of the same race as ourselves, but of a type so abysmally degraded that the most brutal and inhuman of men would have seemed angelic in comparison."
The music of the small band was over before he had finished the narrative, and the chattering groups round the tea-table had dispersed. He paused a moment.

"There was a horror of the spirit," he said, "which I experienced then, from which, I verily believe, I have never entirely recovered. I saw then how terrible a living thing could be, and how terrible, in consequence, was life itself. In us all I suppose lurks some inherited germ of that ineffable bestiality, and who knows whether, sterile as it has apparently become in the course of centuries, it might no fructify again (6). When I saw that creature sun itself, I looked into the abyss out of which we have crawled. And these creatures are trying to crawl out of it now, if they exist any longer. Certainly for the last twenty years there has been no record of their being seen, until we come to this story of the footprint seen by the climbers on Everest. If that is authentic, if the party did no mistake the footprint of some bear, or what not, for a human tread, it seems as if still this bestranded remnant of mankind is in existence."
Now, Ingram, had told his story well; but sitting in this warm and civilised room, the horror which he had clearly felt had not communicated itself to me in any very vivid manner. Intellectually, I agreed, I could appreciate his horror, but certainly my spirit felt no shudder of interior comprehension.
"But it is odd," I said, "that your keen interest in physiology did not disperse your qualms. You were looking, so I take it, at some form of man more remote probably than the earliest human remains. Did not something inside you say 'This is of absorbing significance'?"

He shook his head.

"No: I only wanted to get away," said he. "It was not, as I have told you, the terror of what according to Chanton's story, might await us if we were captured; it was sheer horror at the creature itself. I quaked at it."

The snowstorm and the gale increased in violence that night, and I slept uneasily, plucked again and again from slumber by the fierce battling of the wind that shook my windows as if with an imperious demand for admittance. It came in billowy gusts, with strange noises intermingled with it as for a moment it abated, with flutings and moanings that rose to shrieks as the fury of it returned. These noises, no doubt, mingled themselves with my drowsed and sleepy consciousness, and once I tore myself out of nightmare, imagining that the creatures of the Horror-horn had gained footing on my balcony and were rattling at the window-bolts. But before morning the gale had died away, and I awoke to see the snow falling dense and fast in a windless air. For three days it continued, without intermission, and with its cessation there came a frost such as I have never felt before. Fifty degrees were registered one night, and more the next, and what the cold must have been on the cliffs of the Ungeheuerhorn I cannot imagine. Sufficient, so I thought, to have made an end altogether of its secret inhabitants: my cousin, on that day twenty years ago, had missed an opportunity for study which would probably never fall again either to him or another.

I received one morning a letter from a friend saying that he had arrived at the neighbouring winter resort of St. Luigi, and proposing that I should come over for a morning's skating and lunch afterwards. The place was not more than a couple of miles off, if one took the path over the low, pine-clad foot-hills above which lay the steep woods below the first rocky slopes of the Ungeheuerhorn; and accordingly, with a knapsack containing skates on my back, I went on skis over the wooded slopes and down by an easy descent again on to St. Luigi. The day was overcast, clouds entirely obscured the higher peaks though the sun was visible, pale and unluminous, through the mists. But as the morning went on, it gained the upper hand, and I slid down into St. Luigi beneath a sparkling firmament. We skated and lunched, and then, since it looked as if thick weather was coming up again, I set out early about three o'clock for my return journey.

Hardly had I got into the woods when the clouds gathered thick above, and streamers and skeins of them began to descend among the pines through which my path threaded its way. In ten minutes more their opacity had so increased that I could hardly see a couple of yards in front of me. Very soon I became aware that I must have got off the path, for snow-cowled shrubs lay directly in my way, and, casting back to find it again, I got altogether confused as to direction. But, though progress was difficult, I knew I had only to keep on the ascent, and presently I should come to the brow of these low foot-hills, and descend into the open valley where Alhubel stood. So on I went, stumbling and sliding over obstacles, and unable, owing to the thickness of the snow, to take off my skis, for I should have sunk over the knees at each step. Still the ascent continued, and looking at my watch I saw that I had already been near an hour on my way from St. Luigi, a period more than sufficient to complete my whole journey. But still I stuck to my idea that though I had certainly strayed far from my proper route a few minutes more must surely see me over the top of the upward way, and I should find the ground declining into the next valley. About now, too, I noticed that the mists were growing suffused with rose-colour, and, though the inference was that it must be dose on sunset, there was consolation in the fact that they were there and might lift at any moment and disclose to me my whereabouts. But the fact that night would soon be on me made it needful to bar my mind against that despair of loneliness which so eats out the heart of a man who is lost in woods or on mountain-side, that, though still there is plenty of vigour in his limbs, his nervous force is sapped, and he can do no more than lie down and abandon himself to whatever fate may await him . . . And then I heard that which made the thought of loneliness seem bliss indeed, for there was a worse fate than loneliness. What I heard resembled the howl of a wolf, and it came from not far in front of me where the ridge—was it a ridge?—still rose higher in vestment of pines.

From behind me came a sudden puff of wind, which shook the frozen snow from the drooping pine-branches, and swept away the mists as a broom sweeps the dust from the floor. Radiant above me were the unclouded skies, already charged with the red of the sunset, and in front I saw that I had come to the very edge of the wood through which I had wandered so long. But it was no valley into which I had penetrated, for there right ahead of me rose the steep slope of boulders and rocks soaring upwards to the foot of the Ungeheuerhorn. What, then, was that cry of a wolf which had made my heart stand still? I saw.

Not twenty yards from me was a fallen tree, and leaning against the trunk of it was one of the denizens of the Horror-Horn, and it was a woman. She was enveloped in a thick growth of hair grey and tufted, and from her head it streamed down over her shoulders and her bosom, from which hung withered and pendulous breasts. And looking on her face I comprehended not with my mind alone, but with a shudder of my spirit, what Ingram had felt. Never had nightmare fashioned so terrible a countenance; the beauty of sun and stars and of the beasts of the field and the kindly race of men could not atone for so hellish an incarnation of the spirit of life. A fathomless bestiality modelled the slavering mouth and the narrow eyes; I looked into the abyss itself and knew that out of that abyss on the edge of which I leaned the generations of men had climbed. What if that ledge crumbled in front of me and pitched me headlong into its nethermost depths?  . . . (7)

In one hand she held by the horns a chamois that kicked and struggled. A blow from its hindleg caught her withered thigh, and with a grunt of anger she seized the leg in her other hand, and, as a man may pull from its sheath a stem of meadow-grass, she plucked it off the body, leaving the torn skin hanging round the gaping wound. Then putting the red, bleeding member to her mouth she sucked at it as a child sucks a stick of sweetmeat. Through flesh and gristle her short, brown teeth penetrated, and she licked her lips with a sound of purring. Then dropping the leg by her side, she looked again at the body of the prey now quivering in its death-convulsion, and with finger and thumb gouged out one of its eyes. She snapped her teeth on it, and it cracked like a soft-shelled nut.
It must have been but a few seconds that I stood watching her, in some indescribable catalepsy of terror, while through my brain there pealed the panic-command of my mind to my stricken limbs "Begone, begone, while there is time." Then, recovering the power of my joints and muscles, I tried to slip behind a tree and hide myself from this apparition. But the woman—shall I say?—must have caught my stir of movement, for she raised her eyes from her living feast and saw me. She craned forward her neck, she dropped her prey, and half rising began to move towards me. As she did this, she opened her mouth, and gave forth a howl such as I had heard a moment before. It was answered by another, but faintly and distantly.

Sliding and slipping, with the toes of my skis tripping in the obstacles below the snow, I plunged forward down the hill between the pine-trunks. The low sun already sinking behind some rampart of mountain in the west reddened the snow and the pines with its ultimate rays. My knapsack with the skates in it swung to and fro on my back, one ski-stick had already been twitched out of my hand by a fallen branch of pine, but not a second's pause could I allow myself to recover it. I gave no glance behind, and I knew not at what pace my pursuer was on my track, or indeed whether any pursued at all, for my whole mind and energy, now working at full power again under the stress of my panic, was devoted to getting away down the hill and out of the wood as swiftly as my limbs could bear me. For a little while I heard nothing but the hissing snow of my headlong passage, and the rustle of the covered undergrowth beneath my feet, and then, from dose at hand behind me, once more the wolf-howl sounded and I heard the plunging of footsteps other than my own.
The strap of my knapsack had shifted, and as my skates swung to and fro on my back it chafed and pressed on my throat, hindering free passage of air, of which, God knew, my labouring lungs were in dire need, and without pausing I slipped it free from my neck, and held it in the hand from which my ski-stick had been jerked. I seemed to go a little more easily for this adjustment, and now, not so far distant, I could see below me the path from which I had strayed. If only I could reach that, the smoother going would surely enable me to outdistance my pursuer, who even on the rougher ground was but slowly overhauling me, and at the sight of that riband stretching unimpeded downhill, a ray of hope pierced the black panic of my soul. With that came the desire, keen and insistent, to see who or what it was that was on my tracks, and I spared a backward glance. It was she, the hag whom I had seen at her gruesome meal; her long grey hair flew out behind her, her mouth chattered and gibbered, her fingers made grabbing movements, as if already they closed on me.

But the path was now at hand, and the nearness of it I suppose made me incautious. A hump of snow-covered bush lay in my path, and, thinking I could jump over it, I tripped and fell, smothering myself in snow. I heard a maniac noise, half scream, half laugh, from close behind, and before I could recover myself the grabbing fingers were at my neck, as if a steel vice had closed there. But my right hand in which I held my knapsack of skates was free, and with a blind back-handed movement I whirled it behind me at the full length of its strap, and knew that my desperate blow had found its billet somewhere. Even before I could look round I felt the grip on my neck relax, and something subsided into the very bush which had entangled me. I recovered my feet and turned.

There she lay, twitching and quivering. The heel of one of my skates piercing the thin alpaca of the knapsack had hit her full on the temple, from which the blood was pouring, but a hundred yards away I could see another such figure coming downwards on my tracks, leaping and bounding. At that panic rose again within me, and I sped off down the white smooth path that led to the lights of the village already beckoning. Never once did I pause in my headlong going: there was no safety until I was back among the haunts of men. I flung myself against the door of the hotel, and screamed for admittance, though I had but to turn the handle and enter; and once more as when Ingram had told his tale, there was the sound of the band, and the chatter of voices, and there, too, was he himself, who looked up and then rose swiftly to his feet as I made my clattering entrance.

"I have seen them too," I cried. "Look at my knapsack. Is there not blood on it? It is the blood of one of them, a woman, a hag, who tore off the leg of a chamois as I looked, and pursued me through the accursed wood. I—"

Whether it was I who spun round, or the room which seemed to spin round me, I knew not, but I heard myself falling, collapsed on the floor, and the next time that I was conscious at all I was in bed. There was Ingram there, who told me that I was quite safe, and another man, a stranger, who pricked my arm with the nozzle of a syringe, and reassured me . . .

A day or two later I gave a coherent account of my adventure, and three or four men, armed with guns, went over my traces. They found the bush in which I had stumbled, with a pool of blood which had soaked into the snow, and, still following my ski-tracks, they came on the body of a chamois, from which had been torn one of its hindlegs and one eye-socket was empty. That is all the corroboration of my story that I can give the reader, and for myself I imagine that the creature which pursued me was either not killed by my blow or that her fellows removed her body . . . Anyhow, it is open to the incredulous to prowl about the caves of the Ungeheuerhorn, and see if anything occurs that may convince them.


(1) - Mt. Everest's summit was not successfully reached until 1953.  During the Interwar Era and immediate Postwar Era, therefore, speculation as to just what lay at its top excited science-fiction writers.  One of the giants of the Golden Age, Isaac Asimov, in his story "Everest," postulated a Martian base as the reason why expeditions kept failing to reach the height:  unfortunately, the story was not published until after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay attained the summit.

(2) - "Rape" is here being used in the old sense of "steal" -- the mountain-creatures kidnap humans -- though since the purpose is forced mating, it ultimately also leads to "rape" in the modern sense as well.

(3) - Strongly directional theories of evolution, under which some mysterious force beyond mere natural selection pushed species to evolve, were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  What's more, it was assumed that species could advance to higher forms, or degenerate to lower forms, by the appropriate choices of hybridization:  hence the mountain-hominids in this story are driven by an obscure compulsion to mate with humans in order to attain a higher type.

(4) - The extremely-short timescale presumed for prehistory is also characteristic of earlier science-fiction.  Benson's narrator believes that it is ridiculous to imagine mountain-beasts existing today (in the early 20th century) but allows they might have existed "centuries" ago.  Even if he means "tens of centuries," he is still putting the time frame within that of civilization in the area (specifically, Celtic, Roman and Medieval civilization), and long after the extinction of (for example) the Neanderthals.  This is because, until the development and application of radioisotopic dating in the 1950's through 1970's, prehistoric dates were only known in vague and relative terms:  when E. F. Benson (born in 1867) was educated (the 1870's to 1880's) the Earth was generally assumed to be mere millions of years old, and hence the Pleistocene would have started mere tens of thousands of years ago.

 (5) - Benson's formative years were the Late Victorian Era, in which it was held that women were supposed to be elevated and refined creatures:  seeing something bestial with a resemblance to a human woman would have been profoundly disgusting from Benson's point of view:  even worse than seeing a male of the species.

(6) - The revulsion Professor Ingram feels at seeing the mountain-hominid stems from the fact that the sentiments of the era had not yet caught up to the reality of evolutionary biology:  it was still seen as profoundly shocking, even to the well-educated to reflect that humans were descended from nonhuman great apes.  Some of this horror came from the echoes of the earlier belief that humans had been specially created by God; some came from the prevalent assumptions regarding the strict heritability of all traits, including moral ones.  Given the assumption that one was doomed to recapitulate the vices of one's ancestors, the horror at realizing that those ancestors included nonhuman great apes is understandable.  This is what also drives Lovecraft's "Arthur Jermyn" (which I also recommend). 

There was a tremendous fear that atavistic bestial traits might re-emerge, Mankind would regress to ape-like savagery.  Given what had happened to Europe in 1914-18, and would happen again in 1939-45, I can well understand the trepidation of the Interwar Era writers.

(7) - This passage strongly highlights that the narrator's fear at viewing the mountain-hominid woman is at least partly sexual in nature.  This is not unreasonable, as he has been told that her kind sometimes kidnap men as mates.  Note that he worries about a ledge crumbling and causing him to fall into an abyss -- he is afraid of literally "falling for her."

It only makes things worse that, both in appearance and action, she is described as utterly-repulsive (though, mind you, such is the nature of survival as a wild woman on an Alpine slope).  But then the worst sort of attraction is when one is drawn subconsciously toward something which one consciously finds disgusting.


This is an effective tale of terror:  I felt my own pulse race as the hero fought and fled for his freedom.  It's of course based on numerous tales of shaggy wild folk living in the remote hill countries of at least three continents:  the Woods-Wosen of Europe (from which, incidentally, J. R.R. Tolkien got his "woses" and  Grimm gets its "wesen"); the Yeti and other hill-apes of Asian legend; and the Bigfoots or Sasquatches of North America.  It's also quite plausible:  there's no particular reason why a small, secretive, normally-shy and very-cunning remnant of some earlier human subspecies or species couldn't survive in some remote area, with humans unable to confirm their existence.

We never actually learn why the wild-woman wanted him.  One obvious possiblity is predation:  she must be pretty hungry if she's not even bothering to kill a chamois before starting to consume it.  The other and darker possibility is that she wanted to rape him:  this is more than hinted at in Ingram's earlier description of the legend.  The description of her is repulsive and quite realistically-so:  quite aside from the fact that her kind has probably evolved to meet different standards of beauty, she's been living rough on the mountain with her people her whole life.

For a very different take on the same basic concept, try R. Crumb's Whiteman Meets Bigfoot, which has much the same sequence of events with a very different outcome.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"The Picture in the House" (1921) by H. P. Lovecraft, with Notes and Comments

"The Picture in the House"

© 1921


H. P. Lovecraft

Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous (1).
Most horrible of all sights are the little unpainted wooden houses remote from travelled ways, usually squatted upon some damp, grassy slope or leaning against some gigantic outcropping of rock. Two hundred years and more (2) they have leaned or squatted there, while the vines have crawled and the trees have swelled and spread. They are almost hidden now in lawless luxuriances of green and guardian shrouds of shadow; but the small-paned windows still stare shockingly, as if blinking through a lethal stupor which wards off madness by dulling the memory of unutterable things (3).
In such houses have dwelt generations of strange people, whose like the world has never seen. Seized with a gloomy and fanatical belief which exiled them from their kind, their ancestors sought the wilderness for freedom. There the scions of a conquering race indeed flourished free from the restrictions of their fellows, but cowered in an appalling slavery to the dismal phantasms of their own minds. Divorced from the enlightenment of civilisation, the strength of these Puritans turned into singular channels; and in their isolation, morbid self-repression, and struggle for life with relentless Nature, there came to them dark furtive traits from the prehistoric depths of their cold Northern heritage. By necessity practical and by philosophy stern, these folk were not beautiful in their sins. Erring as all mortals must, they were forced by their rigid code to seek concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed. Only the silent, sleepy, staring houses in the backwoods can tell all that has lain hidden since the early days; and they are not communicative, being loath to shake off the drowsiness which helps them forget. Sometimes one feels that it would be merciful to tear down these houses, for they must often dream (4).
It was to a time-battered edifice of this description that I was driven one afternoon in November, 1896, by a rain of such chilling copiousness that any shelter was preferable to exposure. I had been travelling for some time amongst the people of the Miskatonic Valley in quest of certain genealogical data (5); and from the remote, devious, and problematical nature of my course, had deemed it convenient to employ a bicycle despite the lateness of the season. Now I found myself upon an apparently abandoned road which I had chosen as the shortest cut to Arkham; overtaken by the storm at a point far from any town, and confronted with no refuge save the antique and repellent wooden building which blinked with bleared windows from between two huge leafless elms near the foot of a rocky hill. Distant though it was from the remnant of a road, the house none the less impressed me unfavourably the very moment I espied it. Honest, wholesome structures do not stare at travellers so slyly and hauntingly, and in my genealogical researches I had encountered legends of a century before which biassed me against places of this kind (6). Yet the force of the elements was such as to overcome my scruples, and I did not hesitate to wheel my machine up the weedy rise to the closed door which seemed at once so suggestive and secretive.
I had somehow taken it for granted that the house was abandoned, yet as I approached it I was not so sure; for though the walks were indeed overgrown with weeds, they seemed to retain their nature a little too well to argue complete desertion. Therefore instead of trying the door I knocked, feeling as I did so a trepidation I could scarcely explain. As I waited on the rough, mossy rock which served as a doorstep, I glanced at the neighbouring windows and the panes of the transom above me, and noticed that although old, rattling, and almost opaque with dirt, they were not broken. The building, then, must still be inhabited, despite its isolation and general neglect. However, my rapping evoked no response, so after repeating the summons I tried the rusty latch and found the door unfastened. Inside was a little vestibule with walls from which the plaster was falling, and through the doorway came a faint but peculiarly hateful odour (8). I entered, carrying my bicycle, and closed the door behind me. Ahead rose a narrow staircase, flanked by a small door probably leading to the cellar, while to the left and right were closed doors leading to rooms on the ground floor.
Leaning my cycle against the wall I opened the door at the left, and crossed into a small low-ceiled chamber but dimly lighted by its two dusty windows and furnished in the barest and most primitive possible way. It appeared to be a kind of sitting-room, for it had a table and several chairs, and an immense fireplace above which ticked an antique clock on a mantel. Books and papers were very few, and in the prevailing gloom I could not readily discern the titles. What interested me was the uniform air of archaism as displayed in every visible detail. Most of the houses in this region I had found rich in relics of the past, but here the antiquity was curiously complete; for in all the room I could not discover a single article of definitely post-revolutionary date. Had the furnishings been less humble, the place would have been a collector’s paradise (9).
As I surveyed this quaint apartment, I felt an increase in that aversion first excited by the bleak exterior of the house. Just what it was that I feared or loathed, I could by no means define; but something in the whole atmosphere seemed redolent of unhallowed age, of unpleasant crudeness, and of secrets which should be forgotten. I felt disinclined to sit down, and wandered about examining the various articles which I had noticed. The first object of my curiosity was a book of medium size lying upon the table and presenting such an antediluvian aspect that I marvelled at beholding it outside a museum or library. It was bound in leather with metal fittings, and was in an excellent state of preservation; being altogether an unusual sort of volume to encounter in an abode so lowly. When I opened it to the title page my wonder grew even greater, for it proved to be nothing less rare than Pigafetta’s account of the Congo region, written in Latin from the notes of the sailor Lopez and printed at Frankfort in 1598 (10). I had often heard of this work, with its curious illustrations by the brothers De Bry, hence for a moment forgot my uneasiness in my desire to turn the pages before me. The engravings were indeed interesting, drawn wholly from imagination and careless descriptions, and represented negroes with white skins and Caucasian features; nor would I soon have closed the book had not an exceedingly trivial circumstance upset my tired nerves and revived my sensation of disquiet. What annoyed me was merely the persistent way in which the volume tended to fall open of itself at Plate XII, which represented in gruesome detail a butcher’s shop of the cannibal Anziques. I experienced some shame at my susceptibility to so slight a thing, but the drawing nevertheless disturbed me, especially in connexion with some adjacent passages descriptive of Anzique gastronomy (11).
I had turned to a neighbouring shelf and was examining its meagre literary contents—an eighteenth-century Bible, a Pilgrim’s Progress of like period, illustrated with grotesque woodcuts and printed by the almanack-maker Isaiah Thomas, the rotting bulk of Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (12), and a few other books of evidently equal age—when my attention was aroused by the unmistakable sound of walking in the room overhead. At first astonished and startled, considering the lack of response to my recent knocking at the door, I immediately afterward concluded that the walker had just awakened from a sound sleep; and listened with less surprise as the footsteps sounded on the creaking stairs. The tread was heavy, yet seemed to contain a curious quality of cautiousness; a quality which I disliked the more because the tread was heavy. When I had entered the room I had shut the door behind me. Now, after a moment of silence during which the walker may have been inspecting my bicycle in the hall, I heard a fumbling at the latch and saw the panelled portal swing open again.
In the doorway stood a person of such singular appearance that I should have exclaimed aloud but for the restraints of good breeding. Old, white-bearded, and ragged, my host possessed a countenance and physique which inspired equal wonder and respect. His height could not have been less than six feet, and despite a general air of age and poverty he was stout and powerful in proportion. His face, almost hidden by a long beard which grew high on the cheeks, seemed abnormally ruddy and less wrinkled than one might expect; while over a high forehead fell a shock of white hair little thinned by the years. His blue eyes, though a trifle bloodshot, seemed inexplicably keen and burning. But for his horrible unkemptness the man would have been as distinguished-looking as he was impressive. This unkemptness, however, made him offensive despite his face and figure. Of what his clothing consisted I could hardly tell, for it seemed to me no more than a mass of tatters surmounting a pair of high, heavy boots; and his lack of cleanliness surpassed description (13).
The appearance of this man, and the instinctive fear he inspired, prepared me for something like enmity; so that I almost shuddered through surprise and a sense of uncanny incongruity when he motioned me to a chair and addressed me in a thin, weak voice full of fawning respect and ingratiating hospitality. His speech was very curious, an extreme form of Yankee dialect I had thought long extinct; and I studied it closely as he sat down opposite me for conversation (14).
“Ketched in the rain, be ye?” he greeted. “Glad ye was nigh the haouse en’ hed the sense ta come right in. I calc’late I was asleep, else I’d a heerd ye—I ain’t as young as I uster be, an’ I need a paowerful sight o’ naps naowadays. Trav’lin’ fur? I hain’t seed many folks ’long this rud sence they tuk off the Arkham stage.”
I replied that I was going to Arkham, and apologised for my rude entry into his domicile, whereupon he continued.
“Glad ta see ye, young Sir—new faces is scurce arount here, an’ I hain’t got much ta cheer me up these days. Guess yew hail from Bosting, don’t ye? I never ben thar, but I kin tell a taown man when I see ’im—we hed one fer deestrick schoolmaster in ’eighty-four, but he quit suddent an’ no one never heerd on ’im sence—” Here the old man lapsed into a kind of chuckle, and made no explanation when I questioned him (15). He seemed to be in an aboundingly good humour, yet to possess those eccentricities which one might guess from his grooming. For some time he rambled on with an almost feverish geniality, when it struck me to ask him how he came by so rare a book as Pigafetta’s Regnum Congo. The effect of this volume had not left me, and I felt a certain hesitancy in speaking of it; but curiosity overmastered all the vague fears which had steadily accumulated since my first glimpse of the house. To my relief, the question did not seem an awkward one; for the old man answered freely and volubly.
“Oh, thet Afriky book? Cap’n Ebenezer Holt traded me thet in ’sixty-eight—him as was kilt in the war.”(16)  Something about the name of Ebenezer Holt caused me to look up sharply. I had encountered it in my genealogical work, but not in any record since the Revolution (17). I wondered if my host could help me in the task at which I was labouring, and resolved to ask him about it later on. He continued.
“Ebenezer was on a Salem merchantman for years, an’ picked up a sight o’ queer stuff in every port. He got this in London, I guess—he uster like ter buy things at the shops. I was up ta his haouse onct, on the hill, tradin’ hosses, when I see this book. I relished the picters, so he give it in on a swap. ’Tis a queer book—here, leave me git on my spectacles—” The old man fumbled among his rags, producing a pair of dirty and amazingly antique glasses with small octagonal lenses and steel bows. Donning these, he reached for the volume on the table and turned the pages lovingly.
“Ebenezer cud read a leetle o’ this—’tis Latin—but I can’t. I hed two er three schoolmasters read me a bit, and Passon Clark, him they say got draownded in the pond (18)—kin yew make anything outen it?” I told him that I could, and translated for his benefit a paragraph near the beginning. If I erred, he was not scholar enough to correct me; for he seemed childishly pleased at my English version. His proximity was becoming rather obnoxious, yet I saw no way to escape without offending him. I was amused at the childish fondness of this ignorant old man for the pictures in a book he could not read, and wondered how much better he could read the few books in English which adorned the room. This revelation of simplicity removed much of the ill-defined apprehension I had felt, and I smiled as my host rambled on:
“Queer haow picters kin set a body thinkin’. Take this un here near the front. Hev yew ever seed trees like thet, with big leaves a-floppin’ over an’ daown? And them men—them can’t be niggers—they dew beat all. Kinder like Injuns, I guess, even ef they be in Afriky (19). Some o’ these here critters looks like monkeys, or half monkeys an’ half men, but I never heerd o’ nothing like this un.” Here he pointed to a fabulous creature of the artist, which one might describe as a sort of dragon with the head of an alligator (20).
“But naow I’ll shew ye the best un—over here nigh the middle—” The old man’s speech grew a trifle thicker and his eyes assumed a brighter glow; but his fumbling hands, though seemingly clumsier than before, were entirely adequate to their mission. The book fell open, almost of its own accord and as if from frequent consultation at this place, to the repellent twelfth plate shewing a butcher’s shop amongst the Anzique cannibals. My sense of restlessness returned, though I did not exhibit it. The especially bizarre thing was that the artist had made his Africans look like white men—the limbs and quarters hanging about the walls of the shop were ghastly, while the butcher with his axe was hideously incongruous. But my host seemed to relish the view as much as I disliked it.
“What d’ye think o’ this—ain’t never see the like hereabouts, eh? When I see this I telled Eb Holt, ‘That’s suthin’ ta stir ye up an’ make yer blood tickle!’ When I read in Scripter about slayin’—like them Midianites was slew—I kinder think things, but I ain’t got no picter of it. Here a body kin see all they is to it—I s’pose ’tis sinful, but ain’t we all born an’ livin’ in sin?—Thet feller bein’ chopped up gives me a tickle every time I look at ’im—I hev ta keep lookin’ at ’im—see whar the butcher cut off his feet? Thar’s his head on thet bench, with one arm side of it, an’ t’other arm’s on the graound side o’ the meat block.” (21)
As the man mumbled on in his shocking ecstasy the expression on his hairy, spectacled face became indescribable, but his voice sank rather than mounted. My own sensations can scarcely be recorded. All the terror I had dimly felt before rushed upon me actively and vividly, and I knew that I loathed the ancient and abhorrent creature so near me with an infinite intensity. His madness, or at least his partial perversion, seemed beyond dispute. He was almost whispering now, with a huskiness more terrible than a scream, and I trembled as I listened.
“As I says, ’tis queer haow picters sets ye thinkin’. D’ye know, young Sir, I’m right sot on this un here. Arter I got the book off Eb I uster look at it a lot, especial when I’d heerd Passon Clark rant o’ Sundays in his big wig (22). Onct I tried suthin’ funny—here, young Sir, don’t git skeert—all I done was ter look at the picter afore I kilt the sheep for market—killin’ sheep was kinder more fun arter lookin’ at it—” (23) The tone of the old man now sank very low, sometimes becoming so faint that his words were hardly audible. I listened to the rain, and to the rattling of the bleared, small-paned windows, and marked a rumbling of approaching thunder quite unusual for the season. Once a terrific flash and peal shook the frail house to its foundations, but the whisperer seemed not to notice it.
“Killin’ sheep was kinder more fun—but d’ye know, ’twan’t quite satisfyin’. Queer haow a cravin’ gits a holt on ye— As ye love the Almighty, young man, don’t tell nobody, but I swar ter Gawd thet picter begun ta make me hungry fer victuals I couldn’t raise nor buy—here, set still, what’s ailin’ ye?—I didn’t do nothin’, only I wondered haow ’twud be ef I did— They say meat makes blood an’ flesh, an’ gives ye new life, so I wondered ef ’twudn’t make a man live longer an’ longer ef ’twas more the same—” (24) But the whisperer never continued. The interruption was not produced by my fright, nor by the rapidly increasing storm amidst whose fury I was presently to open my eyes on a smoky solitude of blackened ruins. It was produced by a very simple though somewhat unusual happening.
The open book lay flat between us, with the picture staring repulsively upward. As the old man whispered the words “more the same” a tiny spattering impact was heard, and something shewed on the yellowed paper of the upturned volume. I thought of the rain and of a leaky roof, but rain is not red. On the butcher’s shop of the Anzique cannibals a small red spattering glistened picturesquely, lending vividness to the horror of the engraving. The old man saw it, and stopped whispering even before my expression of horror made it necessary; saw it and glanced quickly toward the floor of the room he had left an hour before. I followed his glance, and beheld just above us on the loose plaster of the ancient ceiling a large irregular spot of wet crimson which seemed to spread even as I viewed it (25). I did not shriek or move, but merely shut my eyes. A moment later came the titanic thunderbolt of thunderbolts; blasting that accursed house of unutterable secrets and bringing the oblivion which alone saved my mind (26).



(1) - As I will discuss at length in the Comments, this was then an unusual setting for horror fiction.

(2) - Since Lovecraft is writing in 1919 about an incident which happens in 1896, "two hundred years and more" means roughly "1700 and earlier," meaning that some of these houses were built during the creepy Puritan late 17th century of witch-hunts and other religious manias which Lovecraft was to mine so effectively in his later work.

(3) - To translate from the Lovecraftian, these houses were badly-maintained, practically falling down.  Lovecraft was pointing out that the rural life was also one of decay, once one got off the main roads.

(4) - In the time when Lovecraft was writing, the New England Puritans were mostly also seen as the epitome of good rock-ribbed American wholesomeness (even though Hawthorne had discussed the dark side of this as early as the 1830's).  Lovecraft (an atheist brought up by two highly-religious aunts of dubious sanity) is pointing out that religious manias can go in some very strange directions, and foreshadowing the very strange man whom the narrator will encounter in the tale.

(5) - This is the first mention of the Miskatonic Valley in any of Lovecraft's fiction. 

(6) - This hint is left completely open:  we never find out just what fearful family legends he discovered.

(7) - Why is the narrator willing to approach this strange and possibly-abandoned house?  He's caught in a downpour, he wants shelter from the storm, and people in 1896 were both less afraid of getting injured in abandoned houses and more willing to ask for or give shelter in these sort of situations than most Americans are today.

(8) - Given what is later implied to be in the upper storey, this might be a "hateful odor" indeed.

(9) - He did knock, and it was raining hard, but searching the premises may be imposing more than a bit on even c. 1900 rural New England presumptions of hospitality.  On the other hand, this is a Lovecraft antiquarian character, and he's just entered a room out of one of his wildest fantasies.  When he says that there's nothing in the room of definitely post-Revolutionary origin, he's saying that he's in a room full of artifacts all of which are over a hundred years old.

(10) - Antonio Pigafetta (c. 1491 - c. 1531) was real:  he was Magellan's assistant and chronicler on the first circumnavigation of the Earth.  The book's full title is (in English) A Report of the Kingdom of Congo, and the Surrounding Countries, Drawn Out of the Writings and Discourses of the Portuguese, Duarte Lopez, according to the Miskatonic Museum website.

(11) - Books do tend to fall open on the favorite pages of the readers.

(12) - Both real books:  Pilgrim's Progress (John Bunyan, 1678) and Magnalia Christi Americana (Cotton Mather, 1702).  The first is easy to find in reprints, and the second is available online here.  These books are ironic, given the nature of their owner, who is certainly no true Christian any more, and has made a personal pilgrimage into utter depravity.

(13) - In other words, he looks both disgustingly-decrepit and terrifyingly-healthy, which makes perfect sense given that he's an immortal sustained by dark culinary alchemy.

(14) - This is a clue as to the man's true age:  he's speaking the dialect common at the time of his youth.  This is obvious in hindsight, but of course you wouldn't think it if you didn't know the truth about him.

(15) - I guess the old man invited him over for dinner.  (*cue Cryptkeeper chuckling*)

(16) - Lovecraft deliberately if briefly misleads his audience here.  Anyone saying that a year was "sixty-eight" in 1896 or reading this in 1921 would, naturally, think that the old man was talking about 1868, in which case "the war" couldn't be  the Civil War (because Holt is alive in "68" and the Civil War ended in 1865); nor could it be the Spanish-American War nor the Great War, because neither had yet started by 1896 -- so the "war" would have to be some Indian War.  But then why would the old man say "the war?" 
Of course the answer, as Lovecraft hints in the very next sentence ...

(17) - ... is that the old man means 1768, and "the war" in question is the American Revolutionary War (1775 to 1783), which means that the old man has to be something like a century and a half old to be saying this in 1896.  But of course if you haven't read this story before, and aren't all that familiar with the Really Seven Hundred Years Old trope (as Lovecraft's initial readers wouldn't have been) it's not so obvious.  The effect is one of chronological disorientation, which is exactly at what Lovecraft was aiming.

(18) - Visiting the old man would seem to be a high-risk occupation.  Note that the old man isn't directly lying -- his exact words are "... him they say got draownded in the pond ..." (emphasis mine).  Nice to know that even depraved immortal cannibals appreciate the virtue of honesty!

(19) - This might be due to ignorance on the part of the artist, or something more.  When Lovecraft wrote this, it was common to assume that only "higher" races (those that looked "white," or at worst "yellow") could possibly have cultures advanced in any way.  So if there were African cannibals who had learned a culinary spell which granted immortal life, by this logic they ought to be some lost white race who happened to live in Sub-Saharan Africa, rather than actual black Africans.  There is not enough information in the story to determine if this is what Lovecraft meant to imply.

(20) - This being Lovecraft, one suspects that the "fabulous" creature might have been drawn from a living model.

(21) - This is a pretty clear depiction of the more violent aspects of the Old Testament inspiring a sociopathic sadist to pseudo-sexual excitement at the thought of bloodshed, and hence religious mania feeding homicidal mania, and thus turning the religious sentiment in darker directions.  This follows the theme of the work as expressed in the story's initial paragraphs.

(22) - Another clue that the old man met Ebenezer Holt in the 18th rather than 19th centuries -- clergymen still wore "big wigs" in the late 18th century, but certainly not in the late 19th.

(23) - When a man tells you that killing sheep is fun, you know that it's time to leave his house.  The problem is that by that point he may not let you leave.

(24) - Mmm, delish.

(25) - A scene which has been much-copied in later horror fiction.

(26) - Saved by the deus ex machina.  There may have been something which saved the narrator beyond incredibly well-timed and well-aimed dumb luck:  but if so, there is no textual clue as to the reason.


This story is significant because it is the story which introduced "Lovecraft Country" to the world.  Indeed, it introduced not merely Lovecraft Country but the whole idea of a writer setting stories in a fictionalized version of his home region, complete with Houses and Towns with Dark Secrets.

In the very first paragraph, Lovecraft's narrator argues that true horror need not be found in exotic European locales, but can be found in the countryside right at home in New England.  This is an important statement, because Lovecraft was writing in the Gothic tradition of Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe, and in that tradition true romantic horror is supposed to be found in Europe, preferably in some ancient ancestral castle with dark secrets in the vaults below.  Later stories in that tradition, by such writers as Algernon Blackwood, Bram Stoker and Lord Dunsany, located the realms of mystery in the deep wilderness, Eastern Europe, or the Orient.  Lovecraft grew up loving these stories set in strange lands, and he wrote some of them, but here he is trying something different.

Lovecraft is staking the claim that you can find true horror anywhere, and he's going to show you a tale of true horror in as mundane (to Lovecraft) a place as the Massachusetts back country.  Indeed, to the popular fiction of the 1900's and 1910's, rural America was not merely not supposed to be a horrific place, but even a wholesome one, full of good, "salt-of-the-earth" people who at worst might occasionally figure in a murder or other scandal.  Ambrose Bierce had played around with the notion of rural horror in some of his sarcastic tales:  Lovecraft would take the idea and run with it.  And it started with this story.

The story makes some valid points.  It really is easy for someone living along a seldom-frequented stretch of rural road to be utterly-mad; even to waylay and kill strangers, provided that he is careful about it.  It's probably easier to do this and get away with it in the country than in the city, because the crimes are less likely to be witnessed.  This was even more true a century or more ago, when rural life was far more isolated:  no cars, no cell phones, in fact normally no phones or electricity outside of town.  Isolated, sometimes inbred country folk can become quite strange.

In this story, the resident of the house, who was even more isolated in the mid to late 18th century than he would have been in the mid to late 19th century, and who was obviously more than a bit insane to begin with, was driven completely mad by the revelations of the cannibal cult described in Regnum Congo, which had an unwholesome synergy with his previous religious mania.  The effect was to turn him into a compulsive cannibal, and what's worse:  the ritual actually worked, making him effectively emmortal as long as he regularly maintained his cannibal feasts.

And nobody noticed.  Is this plausible, for over a century?  Yes, if the old man was very isolated (and who would want to know him?) and was very careful about whom, where and how he killed.  It would be hard for him to get away with a similar string of murders today, but in the 19th century, village constabularies and state troopers were not equipped either technologically or mentally to detect and catch serial killers.  In fact the general concept of a "serial killer" was not widely grasped until the murders of Jack the Ripper -- which took place only eight years before the story's setting.

This leads to a moment of Fridge Horror.  The old man has been carrying out his cannibal feasts for a period stretching from sometime after 1768 to the narrator's encounter with him in 1896.  This is a period of roughly a century.  Even if the old man only kills one person a year to (literally) feed his unholy appetites, that means he's murdered around 100 human beings.  And given that when the narrator encounters the old man, he is obviously preparing one such feast (and thinking about picking up some extra meat in the form of the narrator), there is no reason to think that he limits himself to just 1 victim a year.

Somewhere near that old house, there are buried a lot of human bones.  Assuming, that is, that the old man doesn't somehow render those down too, to make other victuals (one can boil bones down into a sort of edible paste -- takes a while, but the old man has nothing but time on his hands -- he probably doesn't need to work for a living, if you consider just how long he's had to draw interest on his savings).

Which leads to another moment of Fridge Horror, picked up on and run with by Sandy Peterson of Chaosium Games in one of the Call of Cthulhu Lovecraft Country supplements.  There's absolutely no reason to assume that the old man is dead:  there is no mention of any corpse having been found, and we know that he has preternatural vitality.  He may be holing up somewhere, rebuilding his equipment, and preparing more cannibal feasts.  For all we know, he may have decided to train an apprentice ...

Lovecraft was to repeatedly re-use this basic background:  both the geographical one of the Miskatonic Valley and Arkham; and the plot background of Horror From Abroad Infects American Home (or Community) leading to it possessing a Dark Secret (note that the old man learned of the cannibal feasts from a book describing the Congo).  He did this most famously in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," where Obed Marsh learns of the Deep Ones and the cult of Dagon from Polynesian half-human hybrids, and uses them to take over a Massachusetts seaport for some eighty years (interestingly, a full Strauss-Howe Cycle).

Other writers, too, would adopt the basic idea of creating a fictional version of one's own home region and using it as a horror setting.  The big advantage of doing this is that one is writing what one knows, and so the fictional towns, counties and so forth can seem very real, greatly aiding verisimilitude when the fantastic elements are introduced.  Most famously, Ramsey Campbell set many of his Cuthlhu Mythos stories in a fictional Severn Valley, modeled after the vinicity of his native Liverpool; and Stephen King (many of whose stories are loosely tied to the Mythos) in a fictional version of Western Maine.

Another interesting thing is that this may be one of the first Cthulhu Mythos stories, since it takes place in the Miskatonic Valley setting, but there's no actual reference to any Mythos beings.  Even the cannibal cuisine which confers long life may simply be some sort of alchemical or shamanic secret.  The only religion mentioned in the tale is Puritan Protestant Christianity:  the cult of the Congo cannibals remains undefined. 

This may be quite deliberate:  Lovecraft was only 20 when he wrote this story, and this may have been a way for the young atheist to express rebellion against his religious aunts, who had raised him since the age of three.  There are at least two points in which the cannibal directly refers to (a warped version of) Puritan Christianity as fueling or excusing his actions, which certainly seems like a Take That to me.

This was not quite Lovecraft's first story, but it was his first story to really succeed both as prose poetry and straight narrative.  It clearly showed the talent which would make him the early 20th-century American master of horror fiction.