Saturday, November 2, 2013

‘The Whisperer’—One of Lovecraft’s Best

Despite its flaws, The Whisperer in Darkness is one of H.P. Lovecraft’s best stories.  It was published in Weird Tales in 1931.  A novella, it is one of his later works, and shows his nearly complete transformation from horror writer to science fiction writer.  Although worship and evocation  of the Old Ones is referenced through mention of the Necronomicon and its principle deities—making this solidly a Cthulhu Mythos story—the emphasis is on the natural history and malign intent of extraterrestrials, whom Lovecraft connects with “the hellish Himalayan Mi-Go.”  However, the preoccupation with primordial religion is still present, as it is in much of what the supposedly materialist author wrote. 

The Whisperer in Darkness is an effective forerunner to all the science fiction entertainments that have dealt with extraterrestrial invasion, conspiracy, and human-alien collaboration.  The increasing suspense and paranoia in Lovecraft’s tale may remind some readers of the original versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Invaders From Mars (1953).  It is not a comfort that the aliens come from the planet Yuggoth, also known as Pluto—not really that far away in the cosmic order of things.

Following catastrophic flooding in Vermont, a specialist in antiquarian  New England folklore at Miskatonic University becomes interested in reports of strange animal carcasses found among the wreckage:  “They were pinkish things about five feet long; with crustaceous bodies bearing vast pairs of dorsal fins or membranous wings and several sets of articulated limbs…”  Wilmarth, the folklorist is initially bemused—the descriptions are roughly congruent with old legends told by the local Indian tribes and stories passed down from the early settlers.

Wilmarth responds to letters in the local papers, sharing his expertise and perhaps challenging some of the more outrageous claims of some of the correspondents.  But one letter stands out:  a gentleman named Akeley has additional information and some compelling speculations.  The two begin to correspond and it soon becomes apparent that Akeley ‘knows too much’ about the presence of extraterrestrials in the remoter hills of Vermont.  From a distance, Wilmarth grows increasingly concerned, his bemusement changing to suspicion and then alarm.   

Here we see an echo of Lovecraft’s early enthusiasm for writing letters to the editors of newspapers and other periodicals.  S.T. Joshi, in his wonderful two volume biography of Lovecraft, describes two particular incidences of this very early in the author’s career.  In 1913 Lovecraft wrote a series of letters highly critical of a popular genre writer who had been published in Argosy, incurring the epistolary wrath of his fans. 

The next year Lovecraft engaged in a letter writing skirmish with a local astrologer whose world view aggravated Lovecraft’s commitment to science and materialism.  Joshi credits experiences like this to Lovecraft’s discovery of amateur journalism, and his subsequent emergence from the trauma and depression caused by his family’s financial misfortunes.  His letter writing, which only intensified over the years with various colleagues, became one of his principle means of communication and forms the bulk of his output as a writer.  And it led to the initial publication of his fictional work beginning around 1916.

(Given his earlier interests in self-publishing his own periodicals as well as his enthusiasm for correspondence, one wonders what H.P. Lovecraft would have done with the technology of blogging, had it been available in his time.)

The Whisperer in Darkness is told almost entirely in a series of letters from the increasingly beleaguered Akeley, who must struggle alone against the encroaching alien presence as well as the activities of their human collaborators.  Akeley has proof—and here is one strength of the story:  Lovecraft relies on actual contemporary technology to shore up the believability of the tale, rather than the pseudo-scientific paraphernalia common in pulp science fiction of the time.  Akeley has recorded a sample of the speech of one of the aliens—“…I took a phonograph there—with a dictaphone attachment and wax blank…”—and he also has Kodak photographs. 

But most importantly, he has retrieved a mysterious black stone from near the site of extraterrestrial activity.  It is covered with strange hieroglyphics that may yield valuable insights if they can be translated.   Will he be able to send this evidence to Wilmarth in time?

Another strength of The Whisperer in Darkness and of Lovecraft’s fiction in general, is the unique depiction of the alien species.  They are not like earth life at all, and their motives and intentions are barely comprehensible.  Visual, auditory and biological details are provided—“They are more vegetable than animal…and have a somewhat fungoid structure; though the presence of a chlorophyll-like substance and a very singular nutritive system differentiate them altogether…”—allowing the reader to imagine a completely unknown life form.  

Do they just want to be left alone and allowed to mine the hills of Vermont for specific metals, or do they have other plans?  Also appealing, and lending some verisimilitude to their existence, is Akeley’s observation that the aliens are clumsy, hate dogs, and cannot fly very well despite having wings.

Things go from bad to worse at Akeley’s house, and he is not sure how much longer he can hold out against the extraterrestrials that are besieging him nightly.  But then the tone of his letters abruptly changes and he invites Wilmarth to the homestead for a complete explanation of what he has discovered.  Wilmarth is suspicious and disturbed, but acquiesces.  This being a Lovecraft story, we already know that the visit is unlikely to be pleasant or calming.

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