Who Goes There?
I’m about to talk some shit. I can’t say I’m a fan of H. P. Lovecraft, even though I’ve read a good portion of his work at this point and have liked some of it. Lovecraft, when he’s really up my alley, is pretty good: “The Rats in the Walls,” “Cool Air,” and “The Shadow Out of Time” are all bangers for me, with that last one especially standing out for its marrying of cosmic wonder with an equally strong dose of cosmic anxiety. But Lovecraft, IN MY OPINION, can also be pretty boring and full of himself, never mind his other limitations. You may notice for instance, especially in his later stories, that Lovecraft hates writing dialogue and will do anything to get around having to write basic human conversation. The irony is that, at least regarding his letter-writing, Lovecraft was very talkative; indeed the only reason we laymen even know about Lovecraft is because he formed several connections that proved valuable for preserving his work after his death. Based on his fiction alone, Lovecraft should have by all rights stayed as obscure as his close contemporary Clark Ashton Smith, whose stories are often more entertaining and who was overall the more elegant writer.
This, of course, is all just opinion, because the objective reality is that Lovecraft is the most influential horror writer of the 20th century and it’s not even close. Oh sure, Stephen King is the most popular, but popularity does not equate to influence and if we’re talking about authors whose tangibly left an impact on other authors, Lovecraft’s only serious rival would be Edgar Allan Poe. Everyone who even dabbles in cosmic horror must contend with Lovecraft’s legacy and it’s no coincidence that “Lovecraftian” horror is used interchangeably with cosmic horror; he didn’t invent the subgenre (Lovecraft made it clear that he was not the first), but he was, more than anyone, the guy who connected the dots and brought clarity to what must have seemed to a lot of people like just a bunch of stories written at different times by different people. His long essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” is arguably the single most important document on the history of horror fiction, and it also gives us precious insight into how Lovecraft himself—that is to say, as a keeper of the flame that is horror fiction.
A little bit of bashing, a good deal more of praise. I’m putting all this upfront because there’s gonna be more bashing to come: today’s story is… not fun. “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (the hyphen removed for reprints) is a later Lovecraft story, set in what we now call the Cthulhu Mythos, and it’s what we might also call a noble failure. See, people called this story a turkey before it was even published: August Derleth admitted to not liking it, which didn’t stop him from submitting it to Farnsworth Wright, who promptly bought it. “The Dreams in the Witch-House” was written a year after At the Mountains of Madness, but was published three years before that short novel on account of the latter being rejected by Wright and collecting dust. I find this all ironic since while I think At the Mountains of Madness is unspeakably boring, the poor editing of “The Dreams in the Witch-House” strikes me as less excusable.
First published in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. You may notice that the aura of these Weird Tales covers has changed radically since last time we saw them, the greys being replaced with an erotic blueness. Margaret Brundage did basically all of the covers for the magazine at the very height of its popularity, so from about to 1933 to 1937, and she sure did love her female nudes. Anyway, because this is a Lovecraft story, it’s very easy to find. You can read an easily legible online version via the H. P. Lovecraft Archive, found here. “The Dreams in the Witch-House” has been collected and anthologized many times over the years, despite opinion on its quality being widely varied; if you look up a given Lovecraft collection it’s probably in there.
Before I dig into this piece of shit, there are a few nuggets in the opening stretch that may trick you into thinking you’re about to read a good Lovecraft story, like “The Dunwich Horror” or “The Colour Out of Space.” For one, this is one of the few Cthulhu Mythos stories where Arkham is the main setting, whereas more often it’s simply alluded to. If you’re a Mythos fan there are chestnuts of the series you’ll notice quickly, such as the Necronomicon and that classic college for goths and edgy white dudes everywhere, Miskatonic University. Lovecraft even tips his hat to Robert E. Howard by including Von Junzt’s book (see my review of Howard’s “The Black Stone”), albeit under a different title. These Mythos stories all radiate Lovecraft’s undying love for New Endland, and “The Dreams in the Witch-House” might be the most New England-y of them all, not only taking place in Arkham but referencing Salem, that real-life eldritch location, heavily.
Speaking of Salem, the keyword for today is “witchcraft.” The villain of the story, Keziah Mason, is a 17th century witch whose exploits very much interest our hapless protagonist, Walter Gilman, a Miskatonic student who has rented a room in the house where Keziah had lived. The house, lorded over by unhinged Christian Joe Mazurewicz, is unique both for its history (having harbored a known witch and all) and its architecture, which Gilman finds to be… a little odd. The walls and ceiling of Gilman’s room are at odd angles, and I have to wonder if Lovecraft was inspired by the angular set design of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or if he had even seen that movie. (As weird as it sounds, Lovecraft really enjoyed movies, and on at least a couple occasions, including his late masterpiece “The Shadow Out of Time,” he was apparently inspired by movies he saw.) Any reasonable person would have rented some other goddamn house, but as the omniscient narrator makes clear, Gilman is not a reasonable man, with his closest ally, housemate Frank Elwood, also being a bit of an eccentric.
Back to witchcraft, Keziah was tried in Salem, in the court of one Judge Hathorne, a name that will ring a weird bell for some people. Hathorne was a real person in 17th century Salem, and was indeed the direct ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who changed his last name slightly to distant himself as a descendant of someone who persecuted innocent people under the guise of Puritan justice. Lovecraft was a devotee of horror literature and he sure knew his Hawthorne; indeed his enthusiasm as a student of weird and macabre fiction is what I like most about him. Keziah was set to be executed, but by means incomprehensible to normal humans was able to escape her jail cell, never to be seen again, as explained here:
She had told Judge Hathome of lines and curves that could be made to point out directions leading through the walls of space to other spaces beyond, and had implied that such lines and curves were frequently used at certain midnight meetings in the dark valley of the white stone beyond Meadow Hill and on the unpeopled island in the river. She had spoken also of the Black Man, of her oath, and of her new secret name of Nahab. Then she had drawn those devices on the walls of her cell and vanished.
A few things to unpack here…
The gimmick of “The Dreams in the Witch-House,” aside from the feverish dreams that Gilman has, is the way in which Keziah conducts her witchcraft, because it’s not the usual toil-and-trouble routine. Lovecraft’s writing increasingly delved into the cosmic as his career progressed, and in that sense I can believe “The Dreams in the Witch-House” was written after At the Mountains of Madness; there’s a preoccupation with geometry and special awareness here that is simply not present in Lovecraft’s fiction from a decade earlier. I dare say it makes sense that an eccentric college boy would rent a space with weird dimensions so that he could study this nifty bit of local history. Besides, the witch is surely dead by now, no harm can come from it, just don’t think too much about the sleepwalking.
The other thing is that Keziah is in cahoots with what Lovecraft calls “the Black Man,” although after a certain point he stops capitalizing for no reason and calls him “the black man.” Okay. So the Black Man is a Mythos character, he’s mentioned in the Necronomicon, and contrary to what his title would imply, he’s not black: he has charcoal skin but is supposed to have “white” features, “a tall, lean man of dead black coloration but without the slightest sign of negroid features.” First off, oof. Second, I know what we’re all thinking: Lovecraft is being his usual racist self again. To an extent that’s true, because it seems he goes out of his way to word things a certain way, and also the people who are clearly of Eastern European background in the story are described in unflattering terms, but it would be a mistake to call the story racist, for reasons I don’t feel like getting too much into.
The thing about Lovecraft is that if we’re talking about his fiction, and for this site that’s mostly what we’re talking about, his racism is not exceptional, even for ’30s pulp fiction—especially for ’30s pulp fiction, considering the myriad Yellow Peril narratives from the era that were deemed perfectly acceptable. Hell, Howard’s “The Black Stone” has some rather conspicuous racist underones, as indeed does a good deal of Howard’s other fiction. The difference between Lovecraft and Howard, though, is that the latter was actually willing to depict POC… at all? And not just that but as flesh-and-blood people when he wasn’t using racist tropes. Howard being a proud Irishman, at a time when the Irish being treated by WASPs as “unclean” whites was still recent history, definitely also informs his views on race and particularly his imperfect but sympathetic views of non-white peoples; meanwhile Lovecraft grew up in a WASP bubble and he never entirely broke out of said bubble, though he did eventually try.
I’m getting sidetracked, but then this story’s not terribly interesting.
Something I should’ve mentioned earlier is Keziah’s familiar, Brown Jenkin, a half-man half-rat thing with a human face and hands/feet but the body of a rat, which admittedly is an uncanny creature design. The problem is that none of this is scary; if anything it’s a bit silly. I don’t understand why Lovecraft, a known heathen, would indulge in tropes about witches that would’ve been old hat even when he wrote this story. Of course Keziah is an ugly old hag, because she must either be that or Marilyn goddamn Monroe, and of course the ugly old hag is up to no good. I’m sorry, is the implication here that the Salem witch trials were justified? It’s such an odd marriage, between old-timey witchcraft and a subgenre of horror that was comparatively young and less superstitious. The weirdest thing of all is that the aforementioned Eastern Europeans, who are rabidly Christian and thus would discomfort Lovecraft for both their religion and their ethnicity, are obviously in the right when they shun the witch-house.
Before I head into spoilers (not that there’s much that can actually be spoiled) I wanna let you know that this story took me THREE DAYS to get through. Technically two, but I took a day off from reading before finishing it, which for a short story is damning; of course I say that, but this is a long novelette, close to 15,000 words, and it really needn’t be that long. I criticized Hao Jinfang’s “Folding Beijing” (review here) for feeling bloated to mine eyes, but let it be known that while Jingfang’s story is about a thousand words longer than Lovecraft’s, the latter still felt longer. Gilman has several acid trip dream sessions with Keziah and Brown Jenkin and soon these scenes become reptitive, with little progress outside the dreams being made, not to mention the reliance on dreams gives the whole ordeal chopped-up pacing that makes it feel longer than it is. And then there’s what I said at the beginning, with Lovecraft summarizing (not concisely, mind you) conversations rather than actually writing them. I’m amazed Wright readily accepted this, because it so obviously could’ve used an editor’s blue pen.
There Be Spoilers Here
A lot happens, but deceptively little of it is proves to be concequential. Gilman keeps having these dreams with increasing vividness, to the point where a couple of drunkards claim to have witnessed one of his sleepwalking sessions—only this time he’s accompanied by Keziah and the Black Man. It’s pretty clear to us but not to Gilman what is happening, until it’s almost too late. In his dreams, in that other dimension, Gilman finally takes the initiative and tries to stop the blood sacrifice of a child, using the crucifix Mazurewicz gave him to stun Keziah momentarily before strangling her.
I have a couple questions…
Gilman pulling out the crucifix and it actually spooking Keziah is one of the most baffling things to happen in a Lovecraft story, and as far as I can tell there’s no defense for this. Lovecraft, an avowed atheist, uses a crucifix as a deus ex machina against a witch who by all logic should not be spooked by Christian iconography, on account of her being able to, ya know, travel between dimensions and cheat death literally for centuries. I’m also baffled by the fact that there’s not a single actual subversion of what Puritans thought witchcraft to be like, even down to witches sacrificing childen to what may as well be the devil. Oh sure, the Black Man is not Satan, but the result is exactly the same.
It seems that Lovecraft wanted to elevate what would otherwise be a standard evil witch narrative with a dash of cosmic horror, but if I’m being honest this is the least convincing use of the Necronomicon, the Old Ones, and so on that I’ve seen in a Lovecraft story. Arkham may as well be Salem, and while it seems at first like Lovecraft might be setting up what would’ve been standard witch hijinks only to subvert our expectations, he ultimately chooses to play everything straight—albeit more gruesomely than one would expect. Gilman kills the witch, but Brown Jenkin kills the child and completes the sacrifice, not to mention gets out alive. The climax is a bittersweet one, with Gilman daring to be heroic and partly succeeding but still failing to save the day to an extent.
Elwood finds Gilman in his bed, dazed. “On his throat were the marks of murderous hands, and on his left ankle was a distressing rat-bite. His clothing was badly rumpled, and Joe’s crucifix was missing.” Gilman, soon rendered deaf by an unearthly sound, never regains full lucidity—and in typical fashion for a Lovecraft protagonist, he will not live much longer. One day Elwood finds him very much dead, his chest having been eaten through by what is clearly meant to be Brown Jenkin; again this is gorier than is typical for Lovecraft, but the effect is hollow. Quite reasonably, this experience drives Elwood to madness temporarily (he gets better), and Mazurewicz soon abandons the house. The old damned place is evacuated, and as far we’re concerned this is where the story ends.
BUT WAIT, WE’RE NOT DONE YET!
The house is condemned, then partly demolished. The attic, which had been kept a mystery up to this point, collapses and covers the upper level of the house, no doubt killing anyone who would have been where Gilman was. I get that this collapse could have only happened after Gilman killed the witch, but I like to think of an alternate ending where Brown Jenkin doesn’t kill Gilman and instead Our Hero™ dies in some freak accident. Would that ending make the story better? Hmmm. Nobody wants to scavenge the remains, except someone has to; and the results will be shocking to the remaining townspeople, if not to us.
Among the rubbish which had crashed through the ancient slanting ceiling were several things which made the workmen pause and call in the police. Later the police in turn called in the coroner and several professors from the university. There were bones—badly crushed and splintered, but clearly recognizable as human—whose manifestly modern date conflicted puzzlingly with the remote period at which their only possible lurking place, the low, slant-floored loft overhead, had supposedly been sealed from all human access. The coroner’s physician decided that some belonged to a small child, while certain others—found mixed with shreds of rotten brownish cloth—belonged to a rather undersized, bent female of advanced years. Careful sifting of debris also disclosed many tiny bones of rats caught in the collapse, as well as older rat-bones gnawed by small fangs in a fashion now and then highly productive of controversy and reflection.
They then find what we know to be the skeleton of Brown Jenkin, since all the features match: unusually large rodent body, but with what appear to be humanoid hands and feet. The implication is that Keziah and Brown Jenkin have been dead in this dimension for centuries, but have stayed alive in that other dimension thanks to evil maths. We also get hard evidence that what Gilman had been experiencing was real and not a dream, even though we already would’ve figured a normal rat could not have eaten through his chest like it did. It’s only here, after this lengthy epilogue, that the story actually ends and by extension ends my suffering.
Something to keep in mind is that this final scene changes NOTHING. What useful information do we get here that we did not know about before? More importantly, all the characters have by this point left the scene, so we’re not attached to the people who find the hard evidence of supernatural shenanigans. If this was supposed to be confirmation of things that were “ambiguous” before, it fails because the aforementioned happenings were not ambiguous. If Lovecraft meant it to be a twist, it fell flat.
A Step Farther Out
There you have it, the second story I’ve reviewed for this site that I just don’t like; and unlike Tanith Lee’s “Bite-Me-Not or, Fleur de Feu” (review here), where it was my first story of hers and so I gave her the benefit of the doubt, I know I caught Lovecraft on a bad day with this one. “The Dreams in the Witch-House” is tedious, overly long, and more than a bit hackneyed, not so much Lovecraft repeating himself (which he does sometimes) as taking cues from older, more superstitious horror fiction. Despite enhancing the affair with some neat cosmic imagery, and treating witchcraft as like a sort of perverted mathematics, Lovecraft still plays the evil witch narrative straight from start to finish. What interests me is that Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories, despite sharing continuity, run the gamut from occult horror to outright science fiction, with “The Dreams in the Witch-House” falling into the former end with a few hints of the latter, and if you know me then you know which end of the spectrum I prefer. Point being, this was a chore to get through; the chances of me ever rereading it are low.
See you next time.