Sunday, January 19, 2014

Howard and Frank vs. the Brain Eaters

Frank Belknap Long was a friend and colleague of H.P. Lovecraft.  The two first met as members of an amateur press association sometime around 1920.  S.T. Joshi notes that the two were different in temperament and in world view—these differences often formed the basis for friendly debate between the two.  That spirited conversation continues in Frank Belknap Long’s The Space-Eaters, originally published in Weird Tales in 1928.

Not coincidentally, the two principle characters are ‘Howard’ and ‘Frank’.  The story opens with a dialogue between the two regarding the “ultimate horror”.  This is something Howard is trying to render in his latest story, which he is trying to work on as the two men talk.  They are sitting in a rustic house not far from the bay, near farms and the mysterious Mulligan Woods.  “…I mean the horror that transcends everything”, Howard says, “that is more terrible and impossible than everything.”  This horror is wholly unknown and undetectable by ordinary human perception. 

But the problem then becomes:  how can the author convey this to the reader or as Frank reasonably asks: “…how can he describe it if he doesn’t know its shape—or size or color?”  Logically, can one be frightened by something that cannot be observed through the five senses?  This conundrum is the underlying theme of the story, which is essentially a thought experiment that speculates about what form an ultimate horror could take.  Reading this conversation between Howard and Frank, one can imagine similar ‘shop talk’ between Lovecraft and Long.

Howard and Frank go on to discuss what amounts to a theory of horror criticism.  Howard rattles off the names of a number of authors, starting with gothic writers (Poe, Maturin, Radcliffe) and working his way through to his contemporaries, (Blackwood, Wells).  He dismisses them all as being too preoccupied with ‘prosaic horrors’:  sin, fear of death and decay, and primordial memories of being captured and eaten by predators.  Howard wants to write instead about “that thing from another universe,” alien entities that can be “…felt in a new and strange and unspeakable way.”  Howard’s hunch is that these aliens, possibly multi-dimensional in form, would be detectable as a kind of pain.

Helpfully, one of these entities is in nearby Mulligan Wood, and has just attacked a neighbor of Frank’s, a man named Henry Wells.  The unfortunate Wells was driving his horse drawn wagon through the woods when something dropped on him from above—what may be a bit of liver, or calf’s brain, or something else.  He also has a small round hole in his head, through which the other two can peer inside his skull.  While in the woods, Wells had experienced unusual pain inside his brain—some of which is now missing.  His symptoms suddenly return, and he flees back outside, thinking that whatever attacked him has returned.

Hearing terrible screams coming from Mulligan Woods, Howard and Frank rush to find Wells crumpled under a tree.  A mysterious droning sound announces the predatory nearness of the alien.  It is clear all three are now being pursued.   The trio takes shelter in a nearby farmhouse where there is a lull in the danger.  A doctor is called—finally!—but Dr. Smith is frightened about what he detects in Wells’ brain during some improvised surgery, and he also flees. 

Wells, now mostly brainless, viciously attacks Howard.  The two leave him behind and run to Frank’s boat.  Relatively safe out in the bay, they can dimly perceive the alien entity hovering over Mulligan Woods, which are now inexplicably on fire.  Amazingly, Howard and Frank use bits of flaming cotton to make repeated signs of the cross—this effectively wards off the evil that is seeking them.

Three weeks later, Howard is trying to incorporate their experience into the new story he is writing.  The two are now in Manhattan, where Howard evidently has an office.  Frank peppers him with questions, thinking that his friend is concealing important information.  It turns out that Wells was the second victim; it was that person’s brains that had fallen on him in his wagon. 

But the question that bothers both Howard and Frank is why the horror has not spread much beyond the locale of Partridgeville.  Frank recommends that Howard not write about the horror in his story, but his friend is adamant—his egotistical goal is to “…surpass Poe…I shall surpass all the masters.”  Not much later, Howard has accomplished his goal, and shows his finished story to Frank in his Manhattan office. 

But there is a catch: in creating an effective image of the alien entity in his fiction, Howard has also invoked it—and he realizes that he has “become a priest of the Devil.”  The entity has singled him out and finds him in the big city.  The sign of the cross will no longer save him, though it saves his friend Frank at the climax of the story.  In response to Frank’s desperate prayer, “a white and cleansing flame” purifies Howard’s office and vanquishes the evil entity.  But his friend Howard is left dead and presumably consumed by the alien.

Frank Belknap Long’s story is interesting in revealing the person of H.P. Lovecraft, as seen through the eyes of one of his admiring colleagues.  The Space-Eaters is mostly about Lovecraft, and several vignettes seem intended as sketches of his physical appearance, personality quirks, and psychology.  That making the sign of the cross turns out to be the only effective defense speaks volumes about another likely subject of debate between Long and his older friend: the possibility of salvation through Christian religion.  


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