Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Brother of the Old Ones

Henry Kuttner was among the several writers who corresponded with H.P. Lovecraft and comprised the “Lovecraft Circle” in the 1930s.  He contributed a number of his own stories to the Cthulhu Mythos, of which The Salem Horror is one.  The story was published in Weird Tales in May of 1937.  Kuttner’s tale shared that issue with the Hazel Heald/H.P. Lovecraft collaboration The Horror in the Burying Ground, and Jack Williamson’s The Mark of the Monster, among others.

S.T. Joshi, in volume two of his foundational biography of H.P. Lovecraft, reports that Kuttner received extensive criticism from Lovecraft, especially for his geographic, historical and architectural inaccuracies about Salem.  Joshi relates how Henry Kuttner and his wife initially met:  Lovecraft asked Kuttner to pass on some photographs of Salem to C.L. Moore once Kuttner was done with them, and this is how the two became acquainted.
Kuttner and Moore often collaborated on numerous works throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and were associated with John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, during the “Golden Age of Science Fiction”.  Kuttner was an important influence on several well-known science fiction writers, among them Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson.  Matheson dedicated his famous novel I Am Legend (1954) to Kuttner.  The author died in 1958 at the age of 42.

In The Salem Horror, a writer of romance novels named Carson takes up residence in an ancient house.  The place was once occupied by the notorious Abigail Prinn, a witch who terrorized old Salem until she mysteriously died in 1692.  Carson is looking for a quiet place to work on his next novel, but almost as soon as he moves in, weird things begin to happen.

A rat—probably the witch’s familiar—leads Carson down into the cellar and then vanishes into a hole in the wall.  There is an amusing bit where Carson scratches a cross on the floor near the rat hole to mark where to set a trap.  The rat cannot leave his hole at this point, but the rodent has accomplished his mission nevertheless.  Carson discovers a secret passageway leading to an underground chamber, where he finds—an even more excellent place to write his book!

Carson positions his writing desk in the center of an ornate circular floor, decorated with a “mosaic of varicolored stone, in which blues and greens and purples predominated—indeed, there were none of the warmer colors.”  There are vaguely familiar but indecipherable symbols and script on the floor and walls of the chamber.  Carson finds that by working in the center of the room, directly over a circular black stone, he is better able to come up with ideas for his novel.

Somehow word gets out about the discovery of the secret underground chamber, and Carson is bothered by a stream of local historians and occultists.  One in particular, a man named Leigh, tries to warn Carson of the insidious effects of the room in which Carson is spending more and more of his time.  The author begins to experience odd dreams and memory lapses, while strange and frightening events begin to happen in his neighborhood.  Something is being re-invoked with his unconscious assistance.

There is another example of the Kuttner’s sense of humor near the end of the tale.  It turns out that malevolent forces, besides employing the author as a sort of automaton to do their bidding, have also impacted his typical fiction genre.  Ordinarily a writer of romance novels, Carson’s final book is Black God of Madness, a work he is sadly unable to sell to his publisher.

The Salem Horror is a tale of psychic possession similar in many ways to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch-House (1933).  Lovecraft’s story is more elaborate and ambitious, with a leisurely but foreboding accumulation of horrific events that build the sense of dread.  In comparison, Kuttner’s story unfolds pretty rapidly, and readers may wonder why the principle character is so oblivious of what is happening to him.   It is clearly a Cthulhu Mythos story because of its reference to the Necronomican.  The name of the witch, Abigail Prinn, may be a connection with Ludvig Prinn, Lovecraft’s fictional author of De Vermis Mysteriis.  Kuttner adds ‘Nyogtha’, a sibling of the Old Ones, (“the Dweller in Darkness”), to the pantheon.  He is “the Thing that should not be.”  At least not in the basement.

The Salem Horror will be interesting and entertaining for readers who enjoy stories in the Mythos tradition, despite some lapses in believability.  Seriously, would you set up your office in an airless, lightless underground chamber that you discovered by chasing a rat?

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