Spooky Synopsis: For most of his life, Francis Wayland Thurston considered himself a thorough-going materialist, a man unconcerned with the occult fascinations of the mystical theosophists. All that changed with the death of his granduncle, a professor of some renown who perished under mysterious circumstances. As executor of the estate, Thurston had to sort through his documents and discovered during his review that his uncle had begun an association with a strange artist named Henry Anthony Wilcox in 1925. Thurston's uncle left notes about Wilcox's bizarre nocturnal visions of massive, grim metropolises through which endlessly echoed a jangle of syllables best approximated by the words "Cthulhu fhtagn." Then on March 22 of that year, Wilcox suffered a psychic break, raving for days in something like a waking fever dream about a gargantuan monstrosity squelching across the face of the earth. Oddly enough, others suffered similar, if less intense, afflictions on the exact same date, mostly poets and artists and one popular architect went stark raving mad. Thurston's uncle was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, and so was Thurston himself, although he didn't know at the time that his investigation would tie his relative's death to human sacrifices in the swamps of Louisiana and a watery horror brooding beneath the tossing waves of the Pacific.
Lovecraftian Language: "Above these apparent hieroglyphics was a figure of evidently pictorial intent, thought its impressionistic execution forbade a very clear idea of its nature. It seemed to be a sort of monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacle head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful."
Eerie Evaluation: This is it, the first story that ties together all the disparate elements of Lovecraft's work here to date. Traditional slow-burn horror-story structure? Check. An obsessive fear of the sea, the warping of space and time, and knowledge so immense it brings madness? Check. An overwhelming cosmic nihilism where death alone brings solace? Check. Lovecraft pulls it all together here, even managing to weave in references to voodoo, pirates, surreptitious poisonings, extraterrestrial travel, and the lost city of Atlantis. Given that breadth of subject matter, it's amazing that the story flows so smoothly, and its climax is an absolute corker, filled desperate deeds against a sun-blotting, sanity-crushing evil. It's bleak. It's nasty. And, most of all, it's effective. Many of Lovecraft's stories are in the public domain (including this one), so get thee to reading.
Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):
To visit the story index for “An Eldritch Education” (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.