The Haunter of the Dark and Other Stories: collected short stories, volume three by H. P. Lovecraft; selected and introduced by M. J. Elliott
Once again, we are reading the Wordsworth Editions printing.
The title story, dedicated to Robert Bloch, leads off. Bloch, as I have noted before, is the writer responsible for the story that led to the movie Psycho; at the time he encountered Lovecraft he was much younger. In 1935 he wrote a story called “The Shambler from the Stars”, in which the narrator pays a visit to an older man, a recluse living in the hills above Providence, RI, obviously a slightly satirical version of Lovecraft himself. The story ended in the recluse’s horrible death at the tentacles of a monster from beyond space and, before trying to publish it, Bloch made sure to ask Lovecraft’s permission for his literary murder, which Lovecraft graciously, and humorously, granted.
This tale was an obvious reply. A young poet, writer and painter named Robert Blake, from Milwaukee, returns to Providence (his previous visit having “ended amidst death and flame”) and rents some rooms, in which we are informed at the very start of the story, he is eventually found dead. From his window he can see across the city to a strange dark church-like spire that he would swear birds flying nearby change their flight path to avoid. It keeps drawing his attention so he sets off on various jaunts across town to try to find it. Local people swear ignorance of it or will not speak at all, but eventually he finds it: a large, dark abandoned building, standing alone on a small park in the centre of a square. He breaks in and finds everything dusty and dark. There are a collection of occult books, from which he takes an encrypted book for later study and hopefully decrypting, and in the tower he finds a room which had been fitted with screens to block off the windows (the screens have rotted and fallen off), a small pillar in the middle holding a metal box with a hinged lid, which in turn holds “an egg-shaped or irregularly spherical object” and oh yes, the skeletal remains of a reporter from sometime in the late 19th century who had been investigating the “Starry Wisdom Church” who occupied the building in those days. Looking into the strange stone in the box he sees strange visions, and then flees the building, accidentally knocking the cover on the box closed.
This proves to be a mistake. Staring into the stone (The Shining Trapezohedron) and then leaving it in the dark summons the titular creature which spends the rest of the story trying to get to him. It cannot cross any light, but it can sort of summon him to it while he’s sleeping (there is a nice bit where Blake awakens in the church, on his way up the steps to the tower and has to flee through the darkened building, not knowing what might be behind him) and of course if the power goes out, as it does during a great storm at the climax of the story, only the local people gathering in the street outside the church with lanterns and candles can hold it back. And if rain or wind should get to those lights . . . well, we know what happened to Blake, after all.
After Lovecraft’s death Bloch wrote a final reply that showed he didn’t understand how the Shining Trapezohedron worked. Still, “The Haunter of the Dark” is one of Lovecraft’s best stories, and gets the collection off to a good start.
“Polaris”, on the other hand, is a weird little thing told by a man who dreamed that he was a watchman for a city at war who fell asleep and thus doomed his people; he believes that he is dreaming now, under the influence of the titular star, and that if he awakes he can still give the warning . . . not one of Lovecraft’s best and further harmed by an ending in which we find out that the “Inutos” who threatened the city were in fact Inuit and that the city he dreamed of was in the distant past.
“The Doom That Came to Sarnath” was one of the stories that Lovecraft wrote under the influence of Lord Dunsany, whose poetic fantasy is still worth seeking out, a hundred years later. The Dunsanian-influenced stories have mostly been folded into Lovecraft’s Dreamland cycle, for reasons we shall see later in this volume. Basically, the people of Sarnath overthrew the oddly-shaped people of the city of Ib and built their city near its ruins, by the shore of a great, still lake in the land of Mnar. A thousand years Sarnath stood, yet after one terrible night Sarnath is no more. This is a short, very atmospheric story, and definitely one of Lovecraft’s best.
“The Statement of Randolph Carter” is what you get when you directly transcribe a dream without putting in the effort to provide a background and such. Carter is trying to explain to a collection of judges (that is, probably police and psychiatrists) what happened to Harley Warren, with whom Carter was seen before Warren’s disappearance. The problem is Carter doesn’t really know. The two of them went into a graveyard and Warren descended a series of steps below a crypt, taking with him a telephone headset and playing out wire behind him, allowing the two of them to stay in touch (Carter doesn’t remember why they were doing this, either: one of the weaknesses of dream transcription I mentioned above). Of course, Warren never came back, but there was one final message . . .
“The Cats of Ulthar” opens with the sentence: “It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat” and the rest of the story tells us how this peculiar legal situation came about (hint: it’s because Lovecraft was a cat lover). Despite the presence of dark-skinned, mystically-inclined wandering folk (who are not the bad guys) this is another very good Dunsanian/Dreamlands fable.
“Celephais”, on the other hand, is a mawkishly-sentmental story of a man who dreamed of a beautiful city and how he found his way to it full-time. The story of a dreamer who is ignored by the real world and finds his preferred home elsewhere is one that Lovecraft returned to over and over, and for the most part those are not his best stories.
“The Other Gods” tells of how Earth’s Gods have always liked to dance on mountain peaks but have been pushed away from them all by men who like to explore and climb mountains (the Gods prefer not to be seen by mortals) till their last home on Kadath in the Cold Wastes is all that remains to them. Still, they sometimes return to the higher peaks, when the weather is right, to dance again. The priest known as Barzai the Wise, who dwelt in Ulthar, decided to climb the mountain that the Gods would next dance on and look upon their faces himself, for he was wiser perhaps than they. But he didn’t consider: would the Gods of Earth necessarily be alone? To some extent, this is a much better re-telling of “the Statement of Randolph Carter”.
“Herbert West — Reanimator” is actually a collection of very short interlinked pieces about the titular character, originally a medical student at Miskatonic University, Arkham, and his obsession with raising, or at least re-animating, the dead. None of his efforts work out exactly as planned. Most, in fact, go horribly wrong . . . a problem that he blames ever on the lack of fresh samples.
Reanimator was made into one of the few successful Lovecraft film adaptations, its success being in no small part due to the fact that Lovecraft really cut loose with a focus more on grand-guignol-style bloodshed than his usual cosmic horror. This is basically Lovecraft having fun and playing with our expectations of him . . . but, sadly, in the midst of it all, a giant racist stereotype comes a-shambling in. Pity, really.
“The Unnameable” has its first-person narrator trying to convince a skeptical friend of the necessity of calling some of the monsters in his fiction by terms such as unnameable or indescribable and succeeding, though at great cost. This is another of Lovecraft’s lesser stories, most notable for having been adapted to film by the same people who did “Reanimator”, and who turned it into a slasher flick involving horny college students. The monster is not only shown in the film (it’s basically a Jersey Devil) but, if you read the ending credits, given a name!
“The Shunned House” is based on a real house in Providence at Lovecraft’s time. It can’t be rented out any more; too many people have died in it over the years. The narrator and his beloved, elderly uncle do some research and decide to stay overnight in the house and confront whatever might be there. A decent story, but I’m not sure that the monster is sold well, if you get my meaning.
“The Horror at Red Hook” was written or at least conceived while Lovecraft was in New York, failing at marriage. It’s frankly a confused mess, and even its creator didn’t like it much.
“Pickman’s Model” tells the story of how the narrator took up with an artist named Richard Upton Pickman, who painted horrible pictures of strange, ghoulish monsters in and around the Boston area. After visiting Pickman’s hidden gallery showing modern-era paintings, the narrator can no longer go on the subway or spend much time in basements, and he has to explain to his friend why. Especially given Pickman’s recent vanishing. You can probably spot the climax coming before it arrives, but this is still a really good story and ties in to the Dreamlands cycle by unexpected means.
“The Silver Key” brings back Randolph Carter for another mawkish tale of a man who would rather live in dreams than prosaic reality.
“The Strange High House in the Mist” is a story of a man who visits the titular house, which sits on the cliffs above Kingsport (another fictional town of Lovecraft’s invention; I believe this is one of two times in Lovecraft’s work that we actually visit it) and what he finds there. Sadly, what he finds there isn’t very interesting.
“The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” is one of Lovecraft’s longer stories, and the one that ties most of the Dunsanian stories into the Dreamlands–indeed, it brings us the Dreamlands as such. Randolph Carter has been dreaming of a golden, beautiful city (hey! There’s that theme again!) but it keeps getting snatched away from him and all his prayers to the Gods on distant, unknown Kadath in the Cold Wastes gain him nothing. At last, Carter, who is an experienced dreamer, decides he will seek out Kadath and demand that the Gods restore to him his city. His quest takes him across the entire dreamworld, from Ulthar to the Vale of Pnoth, from Celephais to the dark side of the Moon, in and out of danger, finding unexpected allies and always facing the agents of Nyarlathotep, who for some reason wants him. And that is a meeting which Carter, sensibly, would like to put off as long as possible.
“Dream-Quest” is one of Lovecraft’s best stories and, possibly, his only contribution to the realm of heroic fantasy.
And it’s followed by “The Colour Out of Space”, my absolute favourite of his stories. The narrator is a surveyor, working on what will soon be the new reservoir for Arkham, Mass. He is warned of the Blasted Heath, “five acres of grey desolation” in which no plants grow, “only a fine grey dust or ash which no wind seemed ever to blow about”. He finds an elderly local man, Ammi Pierce, who was there when the Heath was formed, and he tells him a tale of a meteorite that fell on a farm. When it was dug up it slowly melted away; scientists from Arkham who tested it found it to be more plastic than metal, and it reacted strangely to glass. There were also unknown colours in its spectrum, and the meteorite itself was found to contain at least one odd, hollow sphere in the same, for lack of a better word, colour as the spectrum showed. During an overnight storm the stone is hit by lightning multiple times and is completely gone the next morning.
Soon plants on the farm are coming in bigger and more beautiful than ever, but just aren’t edible. The farmer suspects that the meteorite somehow poisoned the soil. Local wild animals are beginning to look and act a bit weird, and horses prefer to avoid the whole area. The affect on humans is slower, and more frightening. Something came to Earth in that meteorite something not quite material. And it’s feeding.
This was adapted for film in the 60s, under the title Die, Monster, Die!. It was not a particularly successful adaptation, in my opinion, but is considered a minor classic of 60s horror.
“The History of the Necronomicon” is a very brief essay on Lovecraft’s most famous fictional tome. Only two pages long, it contains little detail and probably many historical errors.
“Fungi From Yuggoth” is a collection of short poems, which in turn are a portion of the poems collected in the Arkham House volume of the same name. Some of them are quite good, others not so much. Due to their brevity and poetic nature, though, they can’t go too far wrong.
“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” begins in media res with the news that the narrator will at last reveal to us the cause of a series of mysterious raids by the Feds on the titular town in 1927-28, including the destruction by fire and dynamite of a number of abandoned buildings and a submarine firing torpedoes into the sea off the nearby reef. The narrator knows what happened because he caused it all.
That year he had been celebrating his coming-of-age by going on an antiquarian and genealogical tour of New England, and had intended to go from Newburyport straight to Arkham; but when he confronted the high cost of a train ticket he was told about an old bus that drove along the coast, stopping at Innsmouth (of which he had never heard before that). The bus was run by an Innsmouth man mostly for the convenience of the Innsmouth people, who were odd-looking and antisocial, but if he didn’t mind the extra time it would get him to Arkham.
Long story short, he arrives in Innsmouth and, due to the stopover, has time to look around. Observing the strange churches and general air of abandonment, he seeks out an elderly drunk who was around back in the day, when things went wrong for Innsmouth. In the shortest possible terms: the Marsh family used to trade with the natives in the south pacific and learned from them how to contact mysterious, humanoid fish-frog things who can bring up strangely-worked gold art from the ocean’s depth and ensure that the fisheries in Innsmouth never go dry; in return they want our women! Gasp!
Okay, to be fair, they also want our men. Humans and Deep Ones (as they are called) can interbreed; the ensuing children eventually change into Deep Ones and potentially live forever. They have taken over the town and it isn’t as deserted as it seems. The narrator and the drunk are spotted, and the narrator has to flee the town in a nicely tense scene (Lovecraft could probably have written some exciting suspense-thrillers, if he had set his mind to it). But after all the excitement, the narrator finishes up his genealogical researches and comes across some uncomfortable discrepancies in his grandmother’s history . . .
While some have used the twist Lovecraft pulls at the end of the story shows that his xenophobia was relaxing towards the end of his life, the fact is that this is another story in which the true horror is miscegenation, a theme which consumed Lovecraft throughout his career. Taking that into account, this is still one of Lovecraft’s better-written stories, a solid piece of story-telling even allowing for his stylistic oddities.
“The Dreams In The Witch House” is the story of Walter Gilman, a physics major at Miskatonic University who for reasons of economy rents a room in a run-down house that was the last living place of Keziah Mason, a for-sure witch who vanished from her cell before her execution, drawing strange angles on the walls. Gilman has strange dreams involving travel through odd regions of space and time, accompanied by an old woman a strange rat-like creature that matches the description of Mason’s alleged familiar. Gilman of course, comes to a bad end, though not without doing some good first. Though long enough, I’d call this one of the minor mythos stories and not without its racial stereotypes.
“The Thing On The Doorstep” features Lovecraft’s only in-depth female character (or does it?). Basically, the narrator’s friend Edward Derby, a weak-willed fellow, falls in with Asenath Waite, one of the Innsmouth Waites, a very strong-willed young woman, who separates him from his friends and family. Edward then undergoes some strange personality shifts: our narrator eventually finds out that Asenath is taking over Edward’s body and doing unpleasant, occult things while in it (there is reason to believe that Asenath has, in her turn, been taken over by her domineering father). Then Asenath vanishes — gone home, Edward says — and Edward at first returns to his old ways but then seemingly goes crazy and has to be put away. Just as it seems he is recovering, though,the narrator receives a midnight visit from an incredible visitor, with a badly-written message . . . Again, it’s a well-written story, but not one of Lovecraft’s best.
“The Shadow Out of Time”‘s narrator loses several years out of his life when a second personality seems to emerge, one amnesiac to details of the early twentieth century, but eager to learn just about everything. His original personality eventually comes back and puts his life back together, but has strange dreams of living in the distant past, in the body of a race of creatures calling themselves “the Great Race” who can switch minds with people throughout time and space. Of course, while engaging in archaeological diggings in Australia, our narrator finds evidence suggesting that the dreams are all true, gasp, shock, awe. I’m making this sound worse than it is; at worst it’s kind of underwhelming, not because it’s badly written but because it just kind or reworks themes that were done better elsewhere. The climax is a lot like “At the Mountains of Madness”, except that we’ve already been there.
The rest of the book, about 75 pages, is taken up with Lovecraft’s long essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. Given the focus of the piece (supernatural horror), it makes sense to find Lovecraft writing in disparaging terms of those who “[injure their] creations by natural explanations”, but it is funny, given that Lovecraft is so much these days pushed as an atheist and materialist.
Basically, he runs through a history of the genre, going from folk-tales and the book of Enoch through to the Gothics and eventually up to the modern (that is, 1930s) period, not without a nod or two at racism and the spurious witch-cult of Margaret Murray along the way. He does not include himself (he would have been surprised to be called a major influence upon the future of horror) or his circle, but that seems to be about all he misses. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking essay, if you’re interested in the history of horror (and if you’re not, why read Lovecraft at all?).