Friday, May 31, 2013

The Lurking Fear and the Prodigal Son

In the beginning of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Lurking Fear, (originally published in 1923), the intrepid narrator has brought two strong men with him to spend the night in the shunned and deserted Martense Mansion.  The ruins of this once great house perch near the top of Tempest Mountain, so named for the unusual frequency of dangerous weather.  There has been a terrible conflagration in nearby Leffert’s Corner, where a storm and the collapse of an underground cavern have left 75 of the villagers horribly dead or missing. 

The narrator describes his career as “a series of quests for strange horrors in literature and in life.”  With his assistants, he plans to spend the night in the very bedroom of Jan Martense, a member of the doomed clan who was mysteriously murdered back in 1763.  It is clear, even from the first section of the story, (“The Shadow on the Chimney”), that the narrator’s career is about to take off in new directions.

The room where they will spend the night—two of them, their last night—is on the second storey, on the southeast corner of the house.  The narrator surveys his surroundings, a decrepit old room filled with debris.  Lovecraft describes the room carefully and attends to details.  He wants to construct the scene in such a way that “The Shadow on the Chimney” will actually fall on the chimney.  But before that unsettling event appears, there is another unusual feature of the fireplace and chimney:

“Opposite the large window was an enormous Dutch fireplace with scriptural tiles
representing the prodigal son…” (emphasis added)

The story of the prodigal son, which comes from the New Testament, is in the book of Luke, chapter 15, vs. 11-32.  In the biblical story, a young man, eager to leave the family farm, asks for his inheritance, and later squanders all of it on wild living.  Destitute, he returns to his father, asks him for forgiveness, and is welcomed back with a celebration.  (“For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”)   Jesus uses this parable to show what the Kingdom of God is like, at least with respect to forgiveness and repentance.  But what is this Christian reference doing in the middle of a Lovecraft story about underground flesh eating ghouls?

The fireplace is not mentioned again, but this detail about scriptural tiles, though minor, is striking.  Lovecraft is not known for his religious piety.  The worlds he created in his fiction are almost completely devoid of grace, salvation, and hope.  (Exactly why this should be would be fruitful to explore further.)  It seems unlikely that this mention of the prodigal son is accidental.

The reason for the appearance of the scriptural reference becomes clearer later in the story.  After the early demise of his two friends, and the gruesome death of a reporter who joins in the investigation later on—this occurs in the second section, entitled “A Passer in the Storm”—the narrator descends into a compulsive madness as he continues his search for the lurking fear.

In the third section of the story, (“What the Red Glare Meant”), a story-within-a-story is told about Jan Martense, the descendent who is doomed to an early and violent death.  Lovecraft describes Martense as a young man who

“…from some kind of restlessness joined the colonial army when news of the Albany Convention reached Tempest Mountain.  He was the first of Gerrit’s descendants to see much of the world; when he returned in 1760 after six years of campaigning, he was hated as an outsider by his father, uncles and brothers, in spite of his dissimilar Martense eyes.  No longer could he share the peculiarities and prejudices of the Martenses, while the very mountain thunderstorms failed to intoxicate him as they had before.  Instead, his surroundings depressed him; and he frequently wrote to a friend of plans to leave the paternal roof.”

Which he is never able to do, because it becomes clear that his family murdered him not long after his return from military service.  Even in death, he receives no consideration or justice.  The loyal friend of Jan Martense later arrives looking for him, exhumes the grave, and finds proof of the murder.  He presses charges, but to no avail.  Evidence linking the crime to his family is meager.
Jan Martense, then, is the prodigal son that Lovecraft refers to in the beginning of the story when he describes the scriptural tiles decorating the fireplace.  It is a foreshadowing of what might have been, if grace had existed in the universe that Lovecraft depicts.  Unlike the biblical tale, the young Martense does not return to forgiveness and celebration, much less to a feast and reconciliation.  Lovecraft has reversed the outcome of the original parable, and offered an alternate lesson.

In the fourth and final section of Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear, “The Horror in the Eyes”, the implications of the narrator’s terrible discoveries are revealed.  “The thing will haunt me”, he has the narrator say near the end, “for who can say the extermination is complete, and that analogous phenomena do not exist all over the world?  Who can, with my knowledge, think of the earth’s unknown caverns without a nightmare dread of future possibilities?”

With this knowledge in mind the narrator has come to a new and frightful understanding of the nature of the world.  Why is Lovecraft so enthralled with this dark, pitiless world, riddled with loathsome tunnels, and “endless ensanguined corridors”, filled with demonic creatures?  Why are we?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your interest in The R'lyeh Tribune! Comments and suggestions are always welcome.