The Festival is unique among Lovecraft’s stories. Of all things, the word ‘Christmas’ shows up in the opening lines. Its purpose is merely to serve as a contrast to the more ancient holiday of Yule, which is the author’s primary interest. This holiday season is less about ‘cheer’ and more about ‘fear’. The Festival was published in 1925, while Lovecraft lived in New York, a difficult and challenging time in the author’s life. The story shares interesting similarities with other work from this time period, especially The Horror at Red Hook, and He.
As in the other two stories, there is concern about racial and ethnic difference, but unlike the other two—where racial prejudice and hatred is overt—The Festival contains a lead character who is a member of a minority, one of the “dark furtive folk”. In a sense, the character who represents Lovecraft—as nearly all his characters do—has become ‘the other’. In The Evil Clergyman, discussed in an earlier post, Lovecraft, officially an atheist and materialist, has his character take on the likeness of an Anglican Priest. What is going on here? It is interesting to me how Lovecraft seems to use his characters to explore alternate ways of being or thinking.
As with so many of his stories, The Festival reads like an entry in a dream journal. The base material seems to be a nightmare that Lovecraft has transmuted into the semblance of a Christmas homecoming gone horrifically awry. Called to his ancestral home of Kingsport for a religious ritual that occurs once every century, the narrator locates an ancient house containing two of his people. As he traverses the older section of the town, Lovecraft skillfully manipulates architectural details to suggest that his character is going back in time as he is going back home. As in He, and in the brighter The Silver Key, he is leaving modernity behind him.
The people in the house appear not to be all there—that is, they seem to be incredibly aged, ghostlike creatures, although this is very subtly conveyed. The house contains a small occult library which includes a Necronomicon—shouldn’t every home have one?—which the character is allowed to peruse. Some uneasy attention is given to the old man who receives the narrator. He is mute and wears a mysterious mask. He serves as a guide to the narrator, voicelessly encouraging him and tugging him along. (Compare his behavior to the cadaverous old man in He.) In future posts I would like to explore this recurring motif in Lovecraft’s stories: the sometimes treacherous old man who serves as a supernatural mentor.
The narrator is led up a hill to an ancient church. He is joined along the way by the townspeople in an eerie procession. Something is not right in their silent, shambling gait, and their less than material presence. The denomination of the church ahead is unclear, although the star called Aldebaran, (Arabic for “the follower”), appears to position itself at the top of the steeple. This is a wonderful touch of Lovecraft’s—this is no star of Bethlehem leading the worshippers to the holy place. The whole scene is like an anti-Christmas card, snow without sparkle, cold without beckoning warmth and cheer.
The procession enters the church, and goes up the aisle to where an altar might have been at one time. Instead, there is a trapdoor and a vault leading ever downwards. Eventually, the narrator finds himself in a vast subterranean world, filled with mysterious, evil beings, where a terrifying religious ritual is taking place. The scene is reminiscent of the immense cavern beneath Suydam’s house in The Horror at Red Hook, but much larger, almost a world of its own. A sunless river and endless catacombs link this dark place with the sea and the city’s underground spaces.
The narrator, overwhelmed by fear, balks at joining the masked man in flying some “hybrid winged things" ever deeper into this dark world. The anxiety and ambivalence over joining his relations, present at the very beginning of the tale, now overflows as terror and flight. There is a scuffle and the mask is dislodged from the old man’s face and “what should have been his head.” The narrator escapes by throwing himself into the underground river.
He awakes in a hospital in modern Kingsport. As in the other two “New York City” stories, the narrator is found physically and psychologically injured, and must be rehabilitated. In The Festival, after transfer to what is probably a psychiatric hospital, doctors thoughtfully provide him a copy of the Necronomicon to read as he recuperates. A paragraph in this terrible book provides insight into what he has just experienced. It is not clear at the end of the story whether he will become a long term psychiatric invalid, which was Detective Malone’s fate in The Horror at Red Hook.
All three stories, The Horror at Red Hook, He, and The Festival, seem to reflect the author’s awful anxiety and despair about his present and future prospects, as well as his ambivalence about going backwards to revisit a problematic past. There is an awkward but telling line near the end of The Festival, when the narrator is describing how he came to survive and be rescued from the water: “…I had been found frozen in Kingsport Harbour at dawn, clinging to the drifting spar that accident sent to save me.” Not a happy Christmas.