Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Curse of ‘Chuckle-Head’

“…and through a small wicket in the gate he felt the sunken eyes of Surama and heard the echoes of a deep-voiced, blood freezing chuckle.”

Throughout his career, H.P. Lovecraft collaborated with several lesser known authors, often with mixed results.  In a few, the intermingling of his unique style and perspective with that of another author was fruitful.  This was the case in the creepy cosmicist tale The Mound, written in 1929 with Zealia Bishop, and the entertaining Imprisoned with the Pharaohs, written in 1924 with escape artist Harry Houdini.  But other joint efforts were much less successful, as in such preposterous stories as The Diary of Alonzo Typer (1938) and The Horror in the Burying-Ground (1937).

The Last Test is in this latter camp.  A collaboration between Adolphe de Castro and H.P. Lovecraft, The Last Test was published in Weird Tales in November of 1928.  According to S.T. Joshi, Lovecraft received $16.00 for his revision work, and de Castro received $175.00 from his sale of the story to the magazine.  Both were probably overpaid.  (Joshi quotes Lovecraft remarking that “I nearly exploded over the dragging monotony of the silly thing.”)

Even so, the less renowned collaborations are still interesting, if not always entertaining or satisfying.  They can reveal much of the author’s personality and points of view.  Devoted fans of H.P. Lovecraft may find The Last Test a worthwhile read despite its glaring faults.  Part of the fun comes from detecting the tension or influence of the other contributor on Lovecraft’s typical style and content.  It appears that Lovecraft used revision and ghostwriting as opportunities to recycle some of his favorite concepts.

The Last Test combines several of Lovecraft’s weaknesses as a writer with de Castro’s near absence of talent.  These include lengthy back story, stilted characters, a lack of dialogue or action, occasional melodramatic outbursts, and racial stereotypes.  The image of the malevolent oriental—think of the Emperor Ming in the old serial Flash Gordon—frequently occurs in pulp fiction of the time period.  An evil Asian, described as a Caucasion who resembles “a high-caste Hindoo” skulks about The Last Test, chuckling:

“Surama, he thought, appeared alarmed at recognizing him; though he had chuckled as usual when striding off again toward the clinic.  Dalton always recalled Surama’s stride and chuckle on the ominous night, for he was never to see the unearthly creature again.  As the chuckler entered the clinic vestibule his deep, guttural gurgles [i.e., chuckles] seemed to blend with some low mutterings of thunder which troubled the far horizon.”

The Last Test is a novella and tells the story of three individuals:  James Dalton, the governor of California (!), Georgina Clarendon, the woman he eventually marries, and Alfred Clarendon, her brilliant and fanatical microbiologist brother.  Alfred has been searching for a cure to ‘black fever”, but falls under the evil sway of the constantly chuckling Surama, a sort of witch doctor he met in northern Africa.  Surama may actually be a survivor of Atlantis. 

Governor Dalton and Dr. Clarendon are old boyhood friends; Dalton uses his influence to get Clarendon a job as medical director at San Quentin Prison.  Dr. Clarendon resumes his medical research, but the prisoners begin to die of a terrible fever, and the press spreads news of an impending epidemic in San Francisco.  (At this point in the story, I was hoping that I had found an early version of SyFy’s Helix, with the familiar plot of scientific research run amok and spawning a new and terrible disease.)

Clarendon is fired from his position at the prison because of the scandal.   To avoid further bad publicity, Alfred and Georgina retreat to an isolated mansion along with 8 black robed Tibetan monks, Georgina’s St. Bernard, and the ever chuckling Surama.  (This sounds like something that could happen in California.)

Weird cries and disappearances begin to happen in and around the makeshift “clinic” on the grounds of the Clarendon estate.  Among the victims are all the laboratory animals, Georgina’s St. Bernard, (“Dick”), and all of the Tibetans.  Georgina herself is next in line to be sacrificed to Surama’s and Alfred’s ministrations.  She is entirely passive and makes no effort to escape, but is saved by “the strength of the steel-firm, square jawed governor”, who is a sort of Dudley Do-Right character.  Surama and Alfred later perish in a cleansing fire that burns the evil clinic to the ground.

Alfred is the one who lights the fire, but just before he does, he offers Dalton a lengthy and incomprehensible explanation about what he and Surama have been up to—something about Atlantis, Yog-Sothoth, an infection from outer space, and worshipping “ancient, primordial and unholy gods...”  All of Alfred’s notes are destroyed, leaving no trace of his studies under Surama.  It is probably just as well.

The Last Test contains interesting commentary about the impact of the media on public opinion and public hysteria circa the late 1920s.  (Both Clarendon’s friends and foes make effective use of planted newspaper stories to sway public opinion about the doctor.)  Although the story begins as a straightforward melodrama with proto-science fiction elements, by the second half it morphs into a ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ tale, with re-heated leftovers about ‘The Old Ones’ with a dash of Atlantis thrown in.  (Lovecraft had published his classic The Call of Cthulhu in February of the same year.)   

Virtually all of Lovecraft’s stories contain autobiographical elements.  He is clearly sympathetic to the misunderstood and misguided Dr. Clarendon, a tormented genius in thrall to the search for knowledge no matter what the cost.  The maternal relationship depicted between Clarendon and his sister Georgina seems to mirror Lovecraft’s relationship with the two aunts he lived with.  Finally there is an interesting shift from ‘scientific research’ to the supernatural and occult by the end of the story—which reflects Lovecraft’s own preoccupation with religious themes despite his avowed materialism. 

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