“After twenty-two years of nightmare and terror, saved only by a desperate conviction of the mythical source of certain impressions, I am unwilling to vouch for the truth of that which I think I found in Western Australia on the night of July 17-18, 1935.”
This is a story/novella about a library, but not like any library I have ever visited. The story was originally published in the comic Astounding Stories in June 1936. In the Lovecraft collection I read it in, however, The Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales, there were no pictures, so I was able to work out the appearance of the creatures myself; the author describes them well and it’s good to see an artist taking the time to follow that description.
A brief synopsis (no spoilers)
After suddenly lapsing into a five-year coma, in the middle of giving a lecture, our narrator, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, regains consciousness with a changed personality. He seems to have to relearn how to speak fluently and to use his arms and legs properly. He becomes a cause célèbre for the psychologists who come to the conclusion that he has a second personality, but that personality is very strange.
He starts to go on long visits to remote and desolate places, but does not recall what he did there. He seems to know more than he should about historical periods in the distant past and future and tries to influence the thoughts of others.
“My sojourns at universities were marked by abnormally rapid assimilation, as if the secondary personality has an intelligence enormously superior to my own. I have found, also, that my rate of reading and solitary study was phenomenal. I could master every detail of a book merely by glancing over it as fast as I could turn the leaves; while my skill at interpreting complex figures in an instant was veritably awesome.” (p.559)
This sounds like a wonderful anomaly to me! He also reads occult books, including “the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred”. This amused me as the story is included in a huge collection of Lovecraft’s stories called, you’ve guessed it, The Necronomicon. Undoubtedly there is a reason for this, but I haven’t investigated beyond the Wikipedia entry. Apparently this ‘Book of the Dead’ is referred to occasionally throughout Lovecraft’s work as if it were a real occult book.
After he has returned to ‘normal’, Peaslee is haunted by unusually clear dreams of moving around in a stone building, built in curves and arches on an inhuman scale, as if for giants, sometimes feeling that he is floating or suspended. Often he sees an unknown curvilinear script; he uses the word curvilinear regularly. In the building, he sees enormous books on the shelves and giant stone pillar-like desks with jars of rods that appear to be used as writing implements.
As time goes on, he sees more detail, going outside, where he sees colossal buildings surrounded by lush wild gardens. The buildings have rooftop gardens with topiary, fernlike plants and giant varied fungi. There are also tall dark square-built basalt towers with a door but no windows and domed roofs, as well as other smaller squarish houses that have fallen into ruin. These black buildings somehow fill him with fear, as do sealed trapdoors in the basement of the original.
When he wakes from these dreams, he has a strange feeling of dread and disgust at his own body which he can’t place. Trying to make sense of all this, he researches other cases of people who seem to have had similar experiences. He comes up with a theory about a Great Race that learned to control time and were able to swap individual minds with peoples from other races and other times. In turn, they are scared of the malignant force hidden beneath the trapdoors. Yet he also theorises that all these dreams could come from his subconscious memories of myths he absorbed whilst studying under the influence of one of this Great Race. He is desperate to prove that he has really experienced what he dreams about, yet he is afraid to find out it is true. At least, I think that’s what happened. I became really confused about the timeframe and what he believed when.
This story is a strange mix of both extended vague psychologising/ theorising about what might have been going on on the one hand and oddly specific detailed listing on the other. Supposedly he gains more insight over time, but it could of course just be our protagonist Nathanial building up his psychotic dream into a more solid theory. This means that after pages of hallucinogenic theories about the Great Race exchanging minds in order to learn more about the universe, Lovecraft then launched into lists of races they have found out about:
“There was a mind from the planet we know as Venus, which would live incalculable epochs to come, and one from an outer moon of Jupiter six million years in the past. Of earthly minds there were some from the winged, star-headed, half-vegetable race of paleogean Antarctica; one from the reptile people of fabled Valusia; three from the furry prehuman Hyperborean worshippers of Tsathoggua; one from the wholly abominable Tcho-Tchos; two from the Arachnid denizens of Earth’s last age… […] I talked with…”
No! It can type this no longer! A picture is worth a thousand words.
This story is supposedly Nathaniel Peaslee’s full account to his son as he flees Australia by ship, fearing for his sanity. This after exploring a buried city covered by sand in the Australian desert that bears a remarkable resemblance to the city of his nightmares. As he visits alone, at night, with an inadequate torch, instead of waiting for morning and taking his team with him, his state of mind is hardly surprising. Of course, that makes it all the more creepy and racks up the tension.
Lovecraft’s writing style
This is the first Lovecraft I have read but I do know him by reputation. One of the issues mentioned by critics is his racism, but his attitudes were normal in his time, sadly. In Australia, he refers to blackfellows and natives and one of the characters who invites Nathanial to Australa dismisses their stories as nonsense. That is as far as it goes in this story. The other thing I had expected was purple prose. His style reminds me of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, from the excerpts I have read, but there are certain phrases that I feel are particularly Lovecraftian: leprous moonlight; the bloated, fungoid moon; malignant myth; eldritch; cyclopean. This story seems less leaden than the first one of his stories published in 1936 in this volume, The Mountains of Madness, which also mentions Abdul Alhazred. In fact, the writing style was so archaic that I had to keep reminding myself that it was written in 1936 and not by someone in the 19th century or earlier. That, I must say, is quite a feat, though it doesn’t make for easy reading.
Creepy not gory
As for the subject matter, horror is not a genre I usually read, but I would say this is more suspense than horror. I’m sure it could be extremely creepy if you read it on your own in a tent at night, by candlelight. There is nothing gory or gruesome about the story. The horror effect comes more from the way that he builds up the tension with his word choice, the repetition of detail and the fear of the unknown in the storyline, gradually unfolding.
I’m not sure why Lovecraft has such a following, given that the style is so Victorian. I suspect it’s partly that some people are attracted to his mythos-making powers; the sort of people who are attracted to the occult. But he also has a legacy in the authors who cite him as an influence (including Stephen King) and books and bands who use his characters as inspiration. My son was recently listening to a band called Leprous, for instance, one of his favourite words judging by this story. I have a sneaking suspicion the name may have been inspired by Lovecraft, back when the musicians were teenagers aspiring to be a ‘black metal’ band, whatever that means. They have evolved into more melodious prog rock, if you’re interested.
If I’m in the right mood for something weird, I might return to this Lovecraft collection in the future, but only because my son owns it. I was going to say that I only read it because I stubbornly finish what I’ve started reading, but that isn’t entirely true. I read it because I wanted to know what happened, so I was pulled in to the story. And although this is a standalone story, it was open-ended enough for me to suspect he continued to build on it in later stories, but I shan’t necessarily be following up that hunch.
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. In fact, I’m more inclined to follow this by reading something more derivative. While I was writing this review, I checked Goodreads and up popped the suggestion of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, that I had already added to my wishlist after a friend’s enthusiastic review. Ruff’s book has also been made into a television series. Rather than simply rehashing Lovecraftian characters or themes, it combines them in the story of a Black family travelling in the USA during the Jim Crow era. It sounds fascinating. As I haven’t read it, I’ll link to a community review by Bill Kerwin. Incidentally, I’ve now realised this is where I had heard about the Safe Negro Travel Guide I wrote about in my 1936 Club overview post. That’s one more thing my brain doesn’t have to puzzle over!
Kraken by China Mieville and The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham. Another book that references Lovecraft’s Cthulhu is China Mieville’s Kraken, described by reviewer Lyn as a tribute to Lovecraft in the style of Monty Python. I already have it on my shelf after trawling the fantasy shelves of Waterstones looking for a Christmas present for my son in less Covid-ridden times. When I get round to reading it, I will definitely be pairing it with John Wyndham’s classic, The Kraken Wakes. And that may be just the moment to read Lovecraft’s 1936 short novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth, also included in the Necronomicon.