Sunday, September 22, 2013

Lovecraft’s Haunted Houses

H.P. Lovecraft wrote at least two stories in the haunted house genre.  One of these, He (1926), was discussed in a post last July, ("With Him, in New York City").  The other is his better known The Shunned House (1928).  Both are effective, though with some flaws.  Given Lovecraft’s considerable skill with creating ominous moods and settings in his stories, it seems he would have been a ‘natural’ at writing ghost stories.  Perhaps it was his eventual rejection of supernaturalism that limited his forays into this territory of weird fiction. 

The Role of Landscaping
In The Shunned House, Lovecraft carefully sets the scene with details about the structure and history of the house.   His model for the residence is an actual house located on Benefit Street in Providence, in an historic district of the city.   He even gives attention to the landscaping, in particular the vegetation and the oddly shaped forms of trees and tree roots.  There are “nightmarishly misshapen weeds”, “queerly pale grass”, and “barren, gnarled and terrible old trees”. 

The description is a microcosm of the more terrifying landscapes readers will find in other Lovecraft stories such as The Colour Out of Space, The Dunwich Horror and The Lurking Fear, among others.  Lovecraft is a master at imbuing an entire geographic region with evil and menace through the description of its terrain and vegetation.  Here his attention is focused on the yard of a haunted house.

There is a nice touch at the very beginning of the story.  Lovecraft imagines his mentor, Edgar Allen Poe—“the world’s greatest master of the terrible and the bizarre”—strolling by ‘the shunned house’ on his way along Benefit Street to visit his love interest, a poetess named Mrs. Whitman. 

Caveat emptor
When the narrator is telling the story, the house is dilapidated and abandoned, and occasionally explored by inquisitive neighborhood boys.  While the attic is relatively uninteresting, the basement is a very scary place.  On the floor are weird growths of fungus and nitre that form patterns suggesting a doubled up human form.  There is also a noxious vapor that hangs over the cellar floor at times. An evil smell pervades the house.

The story contains the familiar trope of a home built over an ancient graveyard.  The Shunned House is an earlier version of a theme used later in stories and movies such as The Amityville Horror (1979).  In that film, a key discovery of the new owners is that the afflicted house is build over a tribal burial ground.  Not only that, but it was once the home of a notorious devil worshiper.  Buyer beware!

History Lesson
Easily two thirds of The Shunned House is involved with creating setting through extensive physical and historical details.   Less stalwart readers may wonder if they can obtain academic credit for their efforts in this section.  The back story concerns various previous tenants who experienced failing health not long after moving into the house.  Some ascribe this to the bad air in the house, the dampness, or the quality of the well water.  (An echo here of Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, which was published the year before.)  Numerous residents suffer sickness, anemia, consumption, and madness. 

The narrator first summarizes in detail the work of his antiquarian uncle, and then continues the research on his own for a couple more pages.  He finally discovers a connection to an old French family of occultists and demoniacs.   One can see why this story was rejected by the editor of Weird Tales—it is almost all back story and little narrative.  With skillful editing this story might have achieved a more powerful effect on readers as a short story, or else could have been fleshed out into a gloomy, disturbing novel.  Besides all the exhaustive research, not much actually happens in The Shunned House until the narrator and his uncle decide to investigate the phenomena directly…

Pseudo Scientific Weaponry
…but not before an extensive pseudo-scientific explanation of the likely origin of the phenomenon is offered.  This is one of the weaker aspects of Lovecraft’s story.  William Hope Hodgson’s character of Carnacki the occult detective would approve.  So would George Allan England, who encouraged would-be pulp fiction writers to include a heavy dose of “science-faking” in their work.  It has something to do with emanations, ether, and “intra-atomic action”.     

The narrator and his uncle spend the night in the cellar of the house.  (Who in their right mind would camp out in the basement of any house, let alone a haunted one?)  They are armed with flamethrowers—if the entity is of a material nature—and a “specially fitted Crookes tube operated by powerful storage batteries and provided with screens and reflectors”—in case it is not.  They take turns sleeping, each having bizarre, disorienting and frightful dreams.  The narrator awakes to his uncle’s screaming—he has been absorbed into “a dimly phosphorescent cloud of fungous loathsomeness.”  The “Crookes tube apparatus” has no effect.  The narrator flees when he realizes his uncle is beyond saving.

Apply Disinfectant
He returns soon afterward, digs a deep hole in the cellar and uncovers just a portion of the monstrosity.  A prodigious amount of sulphuric acid is dumped into the pit, which causes a violent but ultimately successful reaction.  The metaphor is one of disinfection.  A kind of chronic festering growth is destroyed through antiseptic procedures.   It is clear from Lovecraft’s final description of the landscape that the horror is gone and normalcy is returning.

In The Shunned House, the entity is not quite a vampire or a ghost, but a gelatinous apparition that engulfs its victims, body and soul—the victim’s spirit becoming a part of the entity.  A similar species of this apparition can be found in Lovecraft’s other haunted house tale He, (1926).  In that story, the supernaturally aged owner of an ancient house—this one built over Indian sacred land—is consumed by a dark, viscous, multi-eyed apparition in an apparent act of centuries old vengeance.

Other Commentary
In his review of the story, Phillip A. Shreffler writes that although Lovecraft strongly implies the presence of vampirism in The Shunned House, he strove to avoid mere imitation of popular works in the genre, especially Bran Stoker’s Dracula.   With the exception of work that was influenced by Dunsany and Poe, Lovecraft was not typically imitative of other authors.  But the comparison to Stoker’s Dracula is inescapable. 

In Lovecraft’s story, there is also strong suggestion of spiritual possession, as when several of the inhabitants are reported to speak French and engage in strangely homicidal behaviors.  He would go on to develop this concept in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, a story he was working on around this time, and which was later published posthumously.   

Both Shreffler and L. Sprague de Camp point out that Lovecraft developed his tale from two earlier “urban legends”.    In one of these, it is noted that the actual house on Benefit Street was reportedly built over an old cemetery, in which all but two of the graves were later transferred to North Burial Ground.  The two remaining graves contained a French man and his wife.  Mrs. Stephen Harris, a future occupant, was heard to cry out in French from an upper window when hysterical with grief over the deaths of two of her children. 

Also referenced in Lovecraft’s story is a report from New York State of a house in which the cellar floor was encrusted in white mold that took the shape of a human being.  The mold could not be scrubbed out, (they evidently had not tried sulphuric acid). The humanoid pattern of the mold was interpreted as evidence that a vampire buried beneath the cellar floor was trying to escape, though held in place by a spell.

Though he described Lovecraft’s story as a “good yarn”, de Camp criticized it for being too slow, wordy and full of adjectives.  De Camp may be of the ‘Adjectives are Evil’ school of writing, though.  In particular, he dislikes the “rambling, philosophical” beginning.

In my view, both He and The Shunned House are more authentically Lovecraftian than the author’s later attempts at 1930s era science fiction.  Here he gives full rein to his strengths as an antiquarian and creator of disturbing moods and settings.  The story is ambitious in its melding of vampire traditions, ghosts, and pseudo scientific theories in which the theory of relativity is applied to occult phenomena. 

It is also striking that characters in the story are named in ways that overtly reference the author’s maternal grandparents.  This, and the incessant reference to illness, infirmity and death—both of Lovecraft’s parents died young—surely make one wonder if The Shunned House is in some sense Lovecraft’s own.

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