Tuesday, May 21, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "The Whisperer in Darkness"

Spooky Synopsis: Miskatonic University professor Albert Wilmarth always considered himself a man devoted to rationality and the rigors of logic. He would never allow himself to get carried away with folklore dressed up as fact, which is what many rustics appear to have done after the Vermont floods on November 3, 1927. A terrible tragedy, one with a great cost in both human and animal life. But reports of the corpses of strange, crablike creatures rushing through swollen rivers annoyed Wilmarth. While such stories bore passing resemblance to tales told by Puritans, Irish, and American Indians alike, science surely must dictate that these oddities were the result of injury and putrefaction. Wilmarth believed this until he began corresponding with Henry Wentworth Akeley, a learned man who lived near the flooded area and insisted he had irrefutable proof of a race of fungal beings from beyond the stars.

Lovecraftian Language: "There were awesome sweeps of vivid valley where great cliffs rose, New England’s virgin granite shewing grey and austere through the verdure that scaled the crests. There were gorges where untamed streams leaped, bearing down toward the river the unimagined secretes of a thousand pathless peaks. Branching away now and then were narrow, half-concealed roads that bored their way through solid, luxuriant masses of forest among whose primal trees whole armies of elemental spirits might well lurk. As I saw these I thought of how Akeley had been molested by unseen agencies on his drives along this very route, and did not wonder that such things could be."

Eerie Evaluation: Part of me wants "The Whisperer in Darkness" to succeed. It’s well-paced, lacks Lovecraft’s usual adjectival excess, and contains a pleasingly grim ending. But for all that, the story falls apart when it comes to suspending one’s disbelief. Editor ST Joshi notes how Wilmarth appears "very na├»ve" during a crucial moment in the plot, but that’s putting it kindly. Wilmarth flips from ironclad skeptic to credulous believer on the basis of nothing more than the tone of "sanity and sincerity" in Akeley’s letter. (Mind you, this letter starts talking extraterrestrials by the halfway point.) He makes countless costly decisions on vague emotional impressions and the flimsiest of evidence. For his part, Akeley also behaves in an amazingly boneheaded manner, clinging to his homestead against hails of bullets every moonless night simply because he doesn’t want to live in California with his son. Pure silliness that degrades an otherwise engaging piece.

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

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

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