Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Small Town Horror

H.P. Lovecraft’s collaborations with other writers are very interesting.  Part of the enjoyment comes from detecting the influence of the other contributor on Lovecraft’s typical style and content, and observing the elements that make a story particularly “Lovecraftian”.  It appears that Lovecraft used various collaborations as opportunities to reprise some of his favorite concepts.  The Horror in the Burying-Ground (1937) is one of these cooperative ventures, this time with Hazel Heald.  According to S.T. Joshi,   Heald was a regular supplier of revision work to H.P. Lovecraft, and he helped her complete and publish this story and four others.   The Horror in the Burying-Ground originally appeared in Weird Tales.

One can see Lovecraft’s recycling of his favorite ideas in the description of the dismal town of Stillwater, which recalls similar material in both The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow over Innsmouth.  There is the village idiot Johnny Dow, assistant to the town’s undertaker, who talks and listens to gravestones, as the young Jervas Dudley does in The Tomb.  There is also a disparaging remark about the Puritans and their lingering influence on the region:  “One feels profoundly the quintessential horror that lurks behind the isolated Puritan and his strange repressions—feels it, and longs to escape precipitately into clearer air.”  This echoes a very similar sentiment expressed in The Unnamable.

The Horror in the Burying-Ground—there are actually two—may have been intended as a parody.  This is not an especially scary story, because the ending is predictable almost from the start.  Certainly there are aspects of the story that lend themselves to gallows humor.  Heald uses the device of having different characters, “loungers” at Peck’s general store and filling station, tell portions of the tale.  Each is remembering the disturbing tale of what happened to Tom Sprague, his rival Henry Thorndike, and Tom’s sister Sophie, back in the summer of ’86.  That would be 1886.

Sophie’s brother Tom was a brutish lout, prone to drinking and fighting.  He terrorized Sophie, and forbade her to leave their home, mainly because he did not want to split the property with her.  Henry Thorndike, the town’s undertaker, was fond of Sophie, but the two men hated each other with a passion.  While Sprague is away, Thorndike spends time with his sister. 

When Tom Sprague returns from an alcoholic bender in nearby Rutland, Henry Thorndike uses a special embalming concoction on him while he is recovering in bed.  By accident, he injects himself with the chemical, too.  It has a slow, powerfully sedating effect that mimics death.  His plan was to have Sprague buried alive; justice will have it that he will have the same fate.

But the townspeople seem horribly eager to bury them both, despite ample signs that the two men may still be alive.  This is the most preposterous part of the story.  In case the townspeople miss the signs that the two are still on this side of the veil, crazy Johnny Dow, the undertaker’s assistant and a sort of local Cassandra, rants and raves that his boss is actually still alive.  No one believes him, except perhaps for Sophie Sprague, who does not let on.

And this is the most interesting and chilling part of the story.  Sophie knows what has happened to her brother and to her unwanted suitor, and apparently uses the mishap as an opportunity to dispense with them both.  However, justice must be done here as well, as crazy Johnny prophesized.  For her complicity in the two men’s awful deaths, she will be haunted by their vengeful ghosts.

This must certainly be Hazel Heald’s contribution, that of an oppressed woman who schemes—through inactivity and uninformativeness—to deliver herself from her predicament.  The focus of the story clearly shifts to this woman at the end.  That there is a shift at all in perspective is also Heald’s influence on the story.  Other unLovecraftian features  include the complete absence of any scholarly antiquarian character, the peopling of her story with a variety of distinctive characters, and the interest in working class folk as opposed to wanna-be intelligentsia.

Reading this story reminded me of a wonderful black comedy from 1964, The Comedy of Terrors which I strongly recommend.  The cast is quite a line-up of early to mid 20th Century horror movie stars.  Vincent Price plays an unscrupulous undertaker, Peter Lorre is his bumbling assistant, Boris Karloff is the intended murder victim, and Basil Rathbone is the Shakespeare-quoting corpse that will not stay dead.  The movie is set in the same time period as The Horror in the Burying-Ground, and both the story and the film seem to play on Victorian squeamishness about death.  Another black comedy in this vein is the 1966 film The Wrong Box.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your interest in The R'lyeh Tribune! Comments and suggestions are always welcome.