Saturday, October 17, 2015

All About Family

Except for a few remarkable exceptions, most of the stories H.P. Lovecraft produced in collaboration with others were of low quality and have not endured.  Nevertheless they are interesting pieces because they often contain elements that prefigure or echo the content of his better known work.  One can see in these joint efforts the gradual development and application of several of Lovecraft’s ideas.  It is fascinating, to compare some of these collaborative projects with stories that were entirely Lovecraft’s own.  For example, there are interesting similarities between Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann (1922) and the “secondary revision” he did with C.M. Eddy’s Deaf, Dumb and Blind (1925).  The latter story also appears to have a connection with a much later work by Lovecraft, his well known The Haunter of the Dark (1936).

C. M. Eddy, Jr. published several stories in Weird Tales in the mid-1920s.  Some of the other work that Eddy completed with Lovecraft’s help included Ashes, The Ghost Eater and a personal favorite, The Loved Dead, all published in 1924.  (See also Lovecraft’s Brush with Necrophilia.)  S.T. Joshi considers all four stories to be revisions and not collaborations—Lovecraft worked with an already produced draft—but acknowledges the difficulty of separating Lovecraft’s editing from his wholesale rewriting of the piece.  The biographer reports that Lovecraft, being a friend of Eddy and his wife, did not charge for his revision work and instead had them both type some of his manuscripts as compensation.  Eddy apparently typed Lovecraft’s The Hound (1924) in exchange for Lovecraft’s revision work on The Ghost Eater.    

Deaf, Dumb and Blind is a pre-Mythos story.  At this point in his career Lovecraft was just beginning to develop concepts that would eventually coalesce into what some would later call his Cthulhu Mythos.  There is no mention of the Great Old Ones or unholy scriptures like the Necronomicon.  But Lovecraft enthusiasts will observe a number of other familiar Lovecraftian motifs.

The story opens with the discovery of a dead man in an isolated cottage sitting at the edge of swamp.  Horror readers know intuitively that the psycho-geography of such a location—on a border where solid land dissolves into a mysterious aquatic realm—indicates that something is going to cross over that thin, transitional space and upset the familiar routine.  The cottage is “the old Tanner home”, occupied long ago by Simeon Tanner, whose secretive habits frightened his neighbors for many years. Tanner’s body had to be burned back in 1819 because of some disturbing physical abnormalities.  These are dismissed by Dr. Morehouse, one of the investigators:

…for trifling bony protuberances on the fore part of the skull are of no significance, and often observable in bald-headed men. 

Especially if they are inhabited by demons.  Some helpful backstory is provided:  the Tanner family had an ancestor who was hanged as a witch in Salem back in 1692.  It is also disclosed that a grandfather of Dr. Morehouse participated in the incineration of Simeon Tanner’s remains about a century earlier.  The attention to family interactions across history recalls similar elements in such Lovecraft tales as The Lurking Fear (1923), The Rats in the Walls (1924), and Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family (1921), among others.  Lovecraft powerfully returns to this theme of doomed families in his late career masterpiece The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, published about four years after his death.

Several of these stories, including the Eddy revision, were published at a very difficult time in Lovecraft’s life, though likely were written earlier.  The period saw his brief and unhappy marriage to Sonia Greene, his disastrous move to New York City, and his humiliating return to Providence to live again with his aunts.  Was this fictional preoccupation with the terrors of family history an expression of Lovecraft’s own anxiety about his troubled past and uncertain future?         

Richard Blake, the current occupant the old Tanner home is discovered to be dead and in a dreadful physical condition.  Blake was a scholar and veteran of World War I, whose battle injuries left him “deaf, dumb and blind”, but perhaps with a heightened sensitivity to other phenomena.  The shocking state of his body, the disquieting report of the servant who fled the house in panic, and the contents of the last few pages of a manuscript Blake had been working on are so horrifying that Dr. Morehead suffers a nervous breakdown.  He later attempts to obliterate all trace of the incident and its awful implications.  The second half of the story is the presentation of Blake’s manuscript, which hints at but does not explain what finally happened to him.    

Lovecraft readers may suspect that the Richard Blake of Deaf, Dumb and Blind is related somehow to Robert Blake, who perished in a similar fashion in The Haunter of the Dark (1936).  Both men died while writing, their last words a series of staggered phrases of “perfervid free association”, as S.T. Joshi terms it.  Eddy’s story is marred by conventional hellfire and satanic imagery at the very end, which is also how an earlier collaboration between Lovecraft and Eddy, The Loved Dead (1924), concludes.  Eddy seems enthusiastic about having the protagonist of his stories dragged to hell at the end, like an occult Don Giovanni.  This is most certainly not a contribution from Lovecraft, who throughout his writings remained unimpressed with traditional notions of justice, good and evil in horror.  That said, it is still not clear in Deaf, Dumb and Blind why the noble and innocent Blake should suffer his particular fate. 
Another Lovecraft character who died in the midst of plying his trade is of course the doomed musician in The Music of Erich Zann (1922).  Blake keeps typing, and Zann keeps playing his viola for several more measures, even though he is already dead of fright.  There are some interesting similarities between the two stories.  Both Mr. Zann and Mr. Blake are unable to speak, which adds a poignancy to their demise.  Each experiences a terror that they cannot easily communicate to others.  Mr. Blake is also blind and deaf, which would seem to render him oblivious of any approaching horror.  But the author has in mind a spiritual, nonmaterial evil that Blake becomes intensely and unavoidably aware of. 

Which terror is nebulous and undefined, as was the case with Lovecraft’s tormented musician.  In the case of The Music of Erich Zann, Joshi suspects that Lovecraft “did not have a fully conceived understanding of what the central weird phenomenon of the story is actually meant to be.”  This seems also to be the case in Deaf, Dumb and Blind.  It may be that both men were still developing and crystalizing what it was they intended to frighten their readers with. 

Eddy makes unfortunate overuse of alliteration to dramatize a diffuse approaching horror—my favorite line in Deaf, Dumb and Blind has to do with the “lecherous buzzing of bestial blowflies…Satanic humming of libidinous bees…sibilant hissing of obscene reptiles…”  Eddy also makes ample use of the afore-mentioned “perfervid free association” and Lovecraft’s trademark italicization for dramatic emphasis.    

There is some pathos in the helplessness and terror of the disabled protagonist, and the setting and back story make parts of Eddy’s story intriguing and compelling.  It appears as if there should have been more—the piece seems fragmentary, and might have made an interesting beginning or an episode in a longer work, perhaps even a novel.  It might have been interesting to see the character of Dr. Morehouse developed further as another “psychic detective”, a popular character type in the pulp fiction of the time.

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