Tuesday, July 23, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "The Dunwich Horror"

Spooky Synopsis: Few outsiders come to Dunwich any more. It was never visited much in its heyday, being situated in rough Massachusetts hill country whose only match for cragginess is its own uncouth, inbred inhabitants. But something happened in 1928, something so bad that nearby municipalities removed all signs pointing to the small town. Not that you could get much from the Dunwich dwellers themselves. Though none would qualify as Rhodes Scholars, they know enough to keep their mouths shut. The most you might learn is that the trouble started with the birth of Wilbur Whateley on February 2, 1913. Though his mother was an albino, Wilbur had a swarthy complexion that must've come from his father. And his father must've also been developmentally advanced, because Wilbur's growth and intellect are years ahead of his actual age. But that's all guesswork, because no one knows precisely who sired the boy.

Lovecraftian Language: "When a traveler in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of the Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean's Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country. The ground gets higher, and the brier-bordered stone walls press closer and closer against the ruts of the dusty, curving road. The trees of the frequent forest belts seem too large, and the wild weeds, brambles, and grasses attain a luxuriance not often found in settled regions. At the same time the planted fields appear singularly few and barren; while the sparsely scattered houses wear a surprisingly uniform aspect of age, squalor, and dilapidation. Without knowing why, one hesitates to ask directions from the gnarled, solitary figures spied now and then on crumbling doorsteps or on the sloping, rock-strown meadows. Those figures are so silent and furtive that one feels somehow confronted by forbidden things, with which it would be better to have nothing to do."

Eerie Evaluation: S.T. Joshi, the editor of my edition, notes that "The Dunwich Horror" has been "very popular with readers." No wonder. Yes, Lovecraft penned large sections in dialect, a truly abominable habit. (Consider this oh-so-easy-to-read example: "An' then she let aout a terrible yell, an' says the shed daown the rud had jest caved in like the storm hed blowed it over, only the wind wa'n't strong enough to dew that.") But I found it hard to care since the rest of the story proved so uniformly good. Paced like a slow-burn thriller, it stacks layer after layer of carefully chosen detail, so that the initial insinuating threads of unease stretch garrote-taut by the final few pages. Also, Lovecraft did something in "The Dunwich Horror" I've yet to see him try in any other story: He gives us not one, but two good looks at the otherworldly terror. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King argued that old Howard Phillips staked his career on never letting readers glimpse the monster, and that's usually true. Here Lovecraft violates his own compositional code, and the story is all the more gripping for it.

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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