Friday, July 5, 2013

Off To St. Toad’s

Lovecraft wrote 36 poems that were assembled into a series called Fungi From Yuggoth.  Most of the poems were individually published in various places throughout the 1930s.  Two were published in the early 1920s, and several appeared in print after the author’s death.  The majority of poems appear to be re-workings of dream material, and have a nightmarish quality.

St. Toad’s is interesting in light of earlier posts concerning Lovecraft’s attitudes towards religion.  As the poet wanders “in labyrinths obscure and undefined”, he is warned three times by bedraggled old men to “Beware St. Toad’s cracked chimes!”  But he is unsuccessful.  He attempts to flee, but the direction he takes inadvertently leads him right to the church.  “Aghast, I fled—till suddenly that black spire loomed ahead.”

The poem shares some similarities with The Evil Clergyman.  Though the two were published and probably written at different times, the poem almost seems as if it is a prequel to the short story.  Both appear to be renderings of dream material and take place in or near a religious building.  Once again, an old man warns or guides the narrator—this figure is seen in numerous places in Lovecraft’s writings.  The old man seems represent the author’s grandfather Whipple Phillips, the family patriarch who sustained their upper class lifestyle until the collapse of the family business.

Ambivalence and Irony    

With respect to dream imagery, there is a wonderfully ambivalent line about his transit across the city:  “So still I burrowed onward in the night toward where more roof-lines rose, malign and jagged.”  Much of Lovecraft’s writing appears to involve either an upward or a downward movement.  The first half of the line implies descent in the word ‘burrowed’, but the second implies climbing.  The phrase ‘malign and jagged’ even suggests that mountains are being climbed.

In The Evil Clergyman, Lovecraft’s character struggles with an evil Anglican priest, and by the end of the story has become one, in appearance at least.  In St. Toad’s, he tries to abide the warnings of grandfatherly figures—three in a row—yet still winds up at the dreaded church with the “cracked chimes”.  There is a sense of irony in both works, given Lovecraft’s supposed atheism and materialism.  What is going on here?

So Many Churches, So Little Time

At least five Christian denominations are mentioned in Lovecraft’s fiction.  In The Haunter of the Dark, the character of Blake climbs Federal Hill to investigate an ancient abandoned cathedral that may once have been a Catholic church.  What was once a Catholic church, (Nestorian), is also the setting for occult worship services in The Horror at Red Hook.  In The Strange High House in the Mist, the character’s family prays “to the bland proper god of Baptists” for his safety.  (According to L. Sprague De Camp’s biography, Lovecraft once attended Baptist Sunday school).  In The Evil Clergyman the narrator takes on the likeness of an Anglican priest.

Lovecraft appears to have some fun as his protagonist surveys the town’s offerings on church row in The Shadow Over Innsmouth.  Three of the churches are now decrepit with once beautiful Georgian steeples, but the Esoteric Order of Dagon, a thriving faith community, now occupies the former Masonic Hall.  Not only that, but its worship style has begun to influence the other churches, so much so that their respective denominations have disowned them.  The narrator learns a lot about the town from a teenager who works in the local grocery store, (who does not have the ‘Innsmouth look’).  The youth has been warned by his Methodist-Episcopal pastor not to join any church in Innsmouth.  So much for the spirit of ecumenism!  Interestingly, the main character undergoes a kind of religious conversion at the end of the story.

Meanwhile, Underneath the Congregationalist Church

But it seems that membership in a Congregationalist church can be especially hazardous. In The Unnamable, Randolph Carter makes reference to an incident in which there is a horrible and vicious attack at a parsonage—“leaving not a soul alive or in one piece”.  Joel Manton, whom Randall Carter likes to argue metaphysics with, is a member of this denomination.   At the end of the story he is nearly torn to pieces by the ghost of a monstrosity, (probably a Lovecraftian ghoul).  In The Silver Key, the narrator remembers a story from childhood about how construction of the Congregational Hospital over the site of the old Congregational Church uncovered strange burrows and passages beneath the foundation.  This observation links the story to other tales in Lovecraft’s ghoul cycle, such as Pickman’s Model and The Lurking Fear.

Why are churches often focal points for interactions with the ‘Great Old Ones’?  Why are certain denominations vulnerable to subterranean attacks by ghouls?  Why does Lovecraft, an avowed atheist and materialist, know the names of so many different Christian denominations?  To be fair, it does seem that he is most interested in what goes on behind or below a church, rather than what goes on above it.


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