Friday, December 27, 2013

1. H.P. Lovecraft, Ethnographer of Doom

“Make no mistake—Oklahoma is a lot more than a mere pioneers’ and promoters’ frontier.”
—from The Mound by Zealia Bishop, (with H.P. Lovecraft ghostwriting)

It certainly is.  Unlike In the Walls of Eryx, a collaboration reviewed in an earlier post, The Mound clearly shows H.P. Lovecraft’s influence and control of the material.  It contains many elements that place it solidly among his ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ stories.  The Mound was co-written with Zealia Bishop in 1929-1930, but published much later.  An abridged version appeared in Weird Tales in 1940, several years after Lovecraft’s death.  The version I have is from The Horror in the Museum (2007), a fascinating collection of “primary” and “secondary” revisions that Lovecraft completed of other authors’ work.  Those who helped restore the original version of The Mound certainly did Lovecraft scholars a valuable service. 

Though the original idea for the story is nominally ascribed to Zealia Bishop, it is clear that Lovecraft ghostwrote most of the novella.  According to introductory notes by S.T. Joshi and August Derleth, Bishop admitted as much, and described in a memoir how her returned drafts were so thoroughly revised by Lovecraft “…that I felt I was a complete failure as a writer.”  The Mound is very much a Lovecraft story, and not only that; it is an impressive consolidation and culmination of many themes in his work—there is a lot here.  Readers will find echoes of later works such as The Shadow Out of Time, and At the Mountains of Madness as well as earlier stories—The Nameless City comes to mind.

As in several of Lovecraft’s stories, The Mound opens with careful attention to historical events and documentation.  The author’s antiquarian interests are in full view, although in this story, the setting is unique: Oklahoma!  The only other story I can recall of Lovecraft’s that takes place out west is The Transformation of Juan Romero (published posthumously in 1944).  Much of The Mound is a story-within-a-story, based on the translation of an antique parchment describing the terrifying adventure of one of Coronado’s men in the 16th Century. 

In The Mound, an American Indian ethnologist investigates strange reports and legends surrounding an ancient artificial hill that superficially resembles an Indian mound.  The locals describe a haunting by a male and female ghost—the latter, headless—as well as inexplicable disappearances, maiming and insanity among those foolish enough to visit or excavate the mound.

The narrator consults the local Wichita Indian chief, old Grey Eagle.  Grey Eagle knows more than he will tell the narrator about the mound, but gives him an unusual talisman to wear for protection.  The Indian character is depicted as a fairly stereotypical Native American, but in this story there is more affection and respect shown an ethnic minority than is usual in Lovecraft’s writing.  It is because of this talisman, formed of metal that turns out to be extra-terrestrial in origin, that the narrator is able to survive at the end to tell the story.  
The ethnographer surveys the disturbing historical record, including that of the Spanish explorer Zamacona, who was part of Coronado’s expedition to the New World in the 1540s.  Zamacona’s descent and discovery of a vast subterranean world is reminiscent of several Lovecraft tales, among them, The Rats in the Walls, The Horror at Red Hook, and The Festival.  The explorer is captured and taken to the amazing underground metropolis of Tsath, where as a prisoner he is taught the history and culture of the inhabitants.  He is treated well, as long as he makes no attempt to escape—which of course, he later does.  Much of The Mound has the feel of a ‘lost civilization’ adventure story. 

The ethnographer completes his translation of Zamacona’s chronicle—which is the whale of the story—and then makes his own wildly incautious entry into the mound.  This is the most suspenseful part, given all that has gone before.  Details provided at the beginning of the novella are cleverly and powerfully linked with what the narrator finds as he enters the mound.  He does not get far, but far enough to learn of Zamacona’s awful fate.
Some readers may find the extensive back story a bit long and tiresome, but it seems an integral part of this ambitious tale.  Lovecraft effectively ties together aspects of his extraterrestrial cosmology, the origins of humanity, and North American history, among other big subjects. It is impressive how he transfers motifs typically associated with his New England settings to the American West. 

There are references to the Necronomicon, Cthulhu, Shub-Niggurath, Azathoth, and Nyarlathotep—and to the Native American serpent deities Quetzalcoatl (Aztec) and Kukulcan (Mayan).  There are also remarkable sections later in the story where Lovecraft speculates on alternative political and economic systems, social arrangements that take the place of marriage and family, and the impact of decadence and ennui on the culture of a subterranean civilization.

Characterization is better in The Mound than in most of Lovecraft’s fiction and seems to show some evolution of skill in this area.  The characters are more memorable and more easily distinguished from each other.  The narrator is not as brooding or as passive as is typical of a Lovecraftian protagonist—he is much less like the author than in other stories.  In my opinion, The Mound is well worth spending time with, given its connections with much of what Lovecraft wrote earlier and later on in his career.

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