Friday, November 1, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "The Shunned House"

Spooky Synopsis: People die in the shunned house, but not in the way that you might think. It prompts no lingering psychic trauma, no bloody outbursts of violence, no bizarre exhibits of paranormal activity. Instead, they simply wilt like plants deprived of water or seeded in salt-strewn soil. The trouble seems to predate the American Union, starting with the arrival of the Roulet family in 1697. Persecuted Huguenots, they had fled their native France to escape sectarian violence, but they may have brought something with them other than fiercely Protestant sensibilities.

Lovecraftian Language: "The general fact is, that the house was never regarded by the solid part of the community as in any real sense 'haunted'. There were no widespread tales of rattling chains, cold currents of air, extinguished lights, or faces at the window. Extremists sometimes said the house was 'unlucky', but that is as far as even they went. What was really beyond dispute is that a frightful proportion of persons died there; or more accurately, had died there, since after some peculiar happenings over sixty years ago the building had become deserted through the sheer impossibility of renting it. These persons were not all cut off suddenly by any one cause; rather did it seem that their vitality was insidiously sapped, so that each one died the sooner from whatever tendency to weakness he may have naturally had."

Eerie Evaluation: Though editors Farnsworth Wright and Edwin Baird were both favorably disposed to Lovecraft's fiction (and had both helmed Weird Tales at various times during his life), they rejected "The Shunned House," saying "that it began too gradually." That's a fair enough critique. The story moseys along like a stroll through the country for its first third, sauntering by the titular pile for a bit and then loitering at several centuries' worth of related history. Yes, the pacing isn't great -- but the rest of it certainly is. Lovecraft strikes that delicate balance between supernatural horror and scientific naturalism that defines his best work, musing about atomic theory one moment and the next prodding readers with noxious descriptions of some unnamed evil accreting in the house's basement. He also adapts the well-worn vampire mythos in a rather brilliant way that I have never seen before. The climax is deliciously splattery, and the final moments manage a shock similar to the excellent end of "Under the Pyramids." Moving slowly doesn't mean shirking the good stuff.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):

 photo 4_shoggoths_zpse7ab3635.png

To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education" (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.

2 comments:

Nathaniel Lee said...

Also, having your terrifying reveal be a giant elbow takes balls, metaphorically speaking. I love that it actually IS creepy when it's revealed, too.

Loren Eaton said...

Yeah, it's just like the five-tentacled baddie at the end of "Under the Pyramids," only you realize later that the huge creature is only a paw of something even more massive. It sounds incredibly cheesy when described, but it's surprisingly effective in action.