Monday, December 30, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "The Dreams in the Witch House"

Spooky Synopsis: Exam time approaches, and student Walter Gilman has a fever. Incipient sickness never bodes well for the academically stressed, but Gilman faces other challenges that might derail his semester. Not only has his hearing grown painfully acute, he has begun having strange dreams, nocturnal visions where he imagines himself sliding into a void filled with bizarrely precise geographical forms -- sliding somewhere else. A fellow lodger in the rickety boarding house where Gilman lives claims that must sleepwalk, because he rarely seems to be in his room at night. A drunken laborer in the same tenement warns that one should be careful of such things this time of year since bloodthirsty witches lurk about in the world's dark places. Hardly a house conducive for studying, but Gilman chose it for a reason. He believes that complex theorems can explain the mysteries of ancient folklore, and hundreds of year ago, the property housed a woman accused of communing with dark forces.

Lovecraftian Language: "Whether the dreams brought on the fever or the fever brought on the dreams Walter Gilman did not know. Behind everything crouched the brooding, festering horror of the ancient town, and of the mouldy, unhallowed garret gable where he wrote and studied and wrestled with figures and formulae when he was not tossing on the meagre iron bed. His ears were growing sensitive to a preternatural and intolerable degree, and he had long ago stopped the cheap mantel clock whose ticking had come to seem like a thunder of artillery. At night the subtle stirring of the black city outside, the sinister scurrying of rats in the wormy partitions, and the creaking of hidden timbers in the centuried house, were enough to give him a sense of strident pandemonium."

Eerie Evaluation: Scholar S.T. Joshi derides the "plot holes and florid prose" of "The Dreams in the Witch House," concluding that it "cannot be ranked among [Lovecraft's] better later efforts." His evaluation surprised me. "Witch House" isn't without woes, but it has far fewer linguistic excesses than a number of Lovecraft's more celebrated tales. Also, evaluating the plot problems largely depends on how one interprets Gilman's fugue states. (Once their nature becomes clear, you realize that Lovecraft kept them vague enough to accommodate an awful lot.) No, the real problem with the story is the geometry. Bloody murder, flesh-eating vermin, unraveling psyches, and honest-to-goodness fight scenes add a lot of spice, but whenever the plot veers toward abstract calculations, it gets a bit bland. Fortunately, "Witch House" does so sporadically and mostly proves fascinating. Only Lovecraft (and perhaps those of us who studied literature in college) would think to link higher math with human sacrifice.

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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