Saturday, June 8, 2013

Negotium Perambulans in Tenebris

You had better learn the meaning of these Latin words—sinner!—if you ever contemplate doing anything evil.  The phrase is not to be confused with the more upbeat Calvinist line ‘post tenebras lux’, or even ‘et lux in tenebris lucet’.  There is no lux here, not even a smidgin, only tenebris.  E.F. Benson published his well known horror short story, Negotium Perambulans in 1922, just as Lovecraft was beginning his career.  (Lovecraft published Herbert West—Reanimator, that same year.).  The Latin phrase is a reference to a line in the the 91st Psalm, which you may want to read and commit to memory after you have read Benson’s tale.  Or perhaps before.   

E.F. Benson was better known as a comedic writer, creating a series of popular novels featuring the character  Emmeline “Lucia” Lucas, whose various misadventures poked gentle fun at social climbers in early 20th century England.  Negotium Perambulans is way, way off the beaten path from his usual fiction.

Benson’s story takes place in Polearn, an isolated little fishing village, very difficult to get to, and generally avoided.  It is a lot like Innsmouth, but in Cornwall, England.  There is nothing really there to attract visitors, not even the old church, “of no particular interest except for certain carved and wooden panels, (originally belonging to an earlier edifice)…”  The narrator reminisces about his boyhood in that town, where his wealthy father sent him to recover from pulmonary problems. 

He stays with his aunt and uncle, and is free on most days to explore the village and surrounding hills after he finishes his lessons.  Sundays are a different matter, for his uncle is the fire and brimstone vicar of Polearn. In the church there are four panels depicting the angel of the Annunciation, (check), the angel of the Resurrection, (check), the witch of Endor, (uh-oh…), and… “the pestilence that walketh in darkness”, (yikes!).

As with the singular people of Innsmouth, the inhabitants of Polearn, because of their centuries old isolation, “…are linked together, so it has always seemed to me, by some mysterious comprehension:  it is as if they had all been initiated into some ancient rite, inspired and framed by forces visible and invisible.”  There is some dark history about an earlier church that had been torn down and replaced by the dwelling of a rapacious gambler, who even played dice games on the old altar.  You can imagine what became of him, but as in Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark, so much depended in the end on him having a reliable source of light.  He didn’t.

Twenty years later, the narrator returns to Polearn.  He is now a successful barrister, but feels a powerful urge to go back to the peaceful solitude of this mysterious little village.  He stays with his now widowed aunt, who briefs him on all the events that have occurred in the village while he was away.  Old Mr. Doolis, the second owner of the “quarry house” has met pretty much the same fate as the previous owner.  In a fit of drunken rage one night, he attempted to destroy the fourth panel in the church, for which sacrilege he met a predictable, if ghastly end.  This panel, depicting Negotium Perambulans, miraculously repairs itself the next day.

The narrator learns that an old childhood friend, a man named John Evans, now occupies the quarry house.  He is an artist but also a drinker and a braggart.  Evans invites him to the quarry house to see his studio.  The narrator notes that the garden is untended and overgrown, and that his friend does not dilute his drinks but has his liquor straight.  Inside, there is still evidence in the architecture of the artist’s home that this was once a church.  There are carved mouldings, fragments of gargoyles and sculptures, and the image of an angel. 

The narrator admires the artist’s work, but is appalled at the underlying “inexplicable hellishness” present in every work.  This tour of Evans’ studio will remind Lovecraft readers of the artist in Pickman’s Model, who also ‘painted from life’.  Evans summarizes his entire attitude like this:  “I try to paint the essence of what I see, not the mere husk and skin of it, but its nature, where it comes from and what gave it birth…Everything came out of the slime of the pit, and it’s all going back there.”   Imagine Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, but with an enormous blood sucking mollusk lingering nearby. 

It is not clear what Evans’ terrible sin was, or what warranted his untimely demise.  Choice of subject matter?  Heavy drinking?  Because this story is strongly informed by Calvinism and predestination, we can only watch, as the narrator does, while his old friend succumbs to a relentless doom.

As is often the case with Loveraft, that doom comes from the sea.  Both Benson and Lovecraft seem often disturbed by marine invertebrates.  In Lovecraft, a marauding creature is likely an amalgamation of mollusk, jellyfish, or echinoderm.  Expect tentacles, rubberiness, gelatinousness, and odd numbers of appendages, as in starfish, octopus, or “crinoid things”.  (Why is it never a giant crab or a lobster, or even a big shark or whale?)  The title of Benson’s story and the name of its creature sound like the scientific label for a newly discovered species.  But this monster was known very well by the ancients of Polearn, and has merely been forgotten.

A good depiction of the likely biology of Negotium Perambulans is the 1957 science fiction film, The Monster That Challenged the World.  In that film, remarkably gruesome for its time, scientists discover a giant prehistoric mollusk, released from the ocean floor by an undersea earthquake.  The creature soon gets out of hand, threatening to infest all the nation’s waterways and eat anyone who goes near the beach.  The monster has arthropod features—ant-like pincer jaws—that make it slightly more evolved than Benson’s creation.  The military is called in to destroy it, but not before the female lead character and her young daughter are threatened by a giant phallic symbol in the scientists’ laboratory, (“I told you not to mess with the temperature controls!”).  At the end of the movie it is still a question whether all of the creatures have been destroyed, (shades of Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear).

However, there is a crucial difference in Benson’s story.  Unlike one of Lovecraft’s stories, or The Monster That Challenged the World, not everyone is at equal risk of annihilation from Negotium Perambulans.  The good people, the elect, will not be harmed as long as they follow the rules.  Only the evil among us, the social deviants, the artists and outcasts, must keep the lights on all night.  Lovecraft would dismiss all of this as childish and ignorant fear mongering—the horror will come for us no matter what our moral standing, and whether the lights are on or off.  

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