This Week’s Prompt:86. To find something horrible in a (perhaps familiar) book, and not to be able to find it again.
The Resulting Story: FORTHCOMING
This is going to be a different article then most. Normally, I try and connect the prompt to folklore in someway—both because it interests me, and because I’m aware that many people are invested in it. This week, while folklore will be mentioned, I’m going to be talking more about modern horror. In particular, this week I’m going to print a portion of an essay on The House of Leaves—given our prompt, this will be a section on the House of Leaves and Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s own work. The full essay, when complete, will be included on my Patreon—it is both too long and more in-depth then this site normally goes, and still progressing. That said, given the House’s own references, folklore and the like will probably still drift into the piece. For now, the below will be part of our work.
In His House Cthulhu Lies Dreaming1
From Witch House to Ryleh to Innsmouth
If there is a man who’s shadow has grown outside his form moreso then Mr. Lovecraft’s, it is probably limited to Tolkien—but the difference between what is meant by Tolkien-esque and what Tolkien actually wrote is for another occasion. Still, just as Tolkien has become the name for fantasy, Mr. Lovecraft has become synonymous with cosmic and existential horror. Talking about the House of Leaves in the context of Lovecraft quickly leads us into the murky place of definitions of what we mean by “Lovecraftian”. Certaintly, it is not a story Lovecraft could have written. It is a manuscript that employs a number of modern techniques and styles, playing with the distance between the viewer and the original, making use of dialouge and characters more realized then Lovecraft’s protagonists and work. No one reading the House can easily mistake it for some work out of the 1920s, let alone Lovecraft’s. While Johnny Truant has rambling sentences, they are not in the style of Lovecraftian purple prose—if anything, they remind me of noir pulp. Overly descriptive, yes, but to be frank–no protagonist of Lovecraft’s has that sort of appreciation for women, drugs, or weapons. We’ll come back to that.
Well, is it a Mythos story? The winding mass of work that was started by Lovecraft–arguably–and cultivated since then? This one can also be dismissed easily. While a truly determined reader can tie the Navidson Record into that mythology, it is an extraneous in the extereme2. There are no gibbering cultists, there are no tendrils. But yet! It is a very Lovecraft story, in a way. It hinges and touches very similar themes—some of which I have discussed in detail above. But for here, I’ll focus on some similar themes in both the Navidson Record—or at least, what we can guess from it’s echoes—and the House proper.
The very first layer to move through is the nature of the text. It is a found text, a tradition that is quite literally as old as the Gothic genre—which is certainly what I would call a large bulk of Lovecrafts work. We have here a text that we receive after multiple transmissions—just as we do in many of Lovecraft’s stories. While some of his work is in the third person omniscient, a number are presented by second hand accounts and witnesses–the most clear example being the Call of Cthulhu, which is centered on a mass of papers, letters, and journals. However, here attention is always called to the artifice. We are told by Editors, by Johnny, and sometimes by Zampano that there have been edits, omissions, lost information, and a creation of genuine distance from the truth. In Lovecraft, the transmission by a second person is sometimes a filter–but just as often, it is a means to reinforce the reality. To suggest that the author has something genuine on their hands.
The second area of blending is the notion of a cursed text. The nature of a cursed text to read—and of an alien world, which we will return to—is a theme in Lovecraft. But here, the texts infectious nature, which draws Johnny’s life into a downward spiral, is questionable. If there is a thing Johnny is confronting, it’s certainty not so dangerous as to infect the entire text—right? His symptoms at least at first appear unique but…well. We can consider that a number of viewings of the media produced effects on those who saw it, as reported towards the end of Zampano’s review. We can even consider how the text haunts us as readers—for we have been in the house, in a way, and I have been more on edge since. After all. I felt compelled to create this.
The notion of a secret room or doorway that leads to haunting revelations of the past is a Lovecraftian trope if there was one. It plays into a universal fear he has–the revelation, the remembering of the past that lets it loose again to devour and unmake the present. Like the found text trope, this isn’t unique to his writing. However, it is something of a stand by in his more racist stories. How many Lovecraftian protagonists find dark and monstrous things by following up there family tree and descending down into the basement? From cannibals to fornicating with apes to great rites to witch gods. But the House is a different, primal unknown. What lurks in that house is…unsavory. It is a history—as I argued in the section on the Minotaur, there are terrifying implications there—but it is a more primal history.
And in fact, in that regard, it is a Lovecraft story—the house is a fearsome and alien place, that bends and shifts in impossible ways. It captures the impression that we received from a frozen Norwegian. The feeling that we have entered somewhere not made from human habitation, that is now awake and lurking after us. We shouldn’t forget—just as Johnny suspects there is something pursuing him after finding the old man’s notes, the Cult of Cthulhu is lurking just around the corner for those who know of he who lies dreaming in his house. It is a hungry place as well, devouring those who explore it. I said, I warned at the start. We must descend into the house with clear intentions–or else we will be lost in it’s labyrinth.
One of which is Johnny.
Johnny’s nature is one that I have spent an entire section on—he is a strange man, an odd creature. His guilts, regrets, lies, and losses shape much of the story. What struck me about Johnny, however, was a two fold concern. First, his family. Johnny, a consummate liar, reveals feelings of inhumanity in the text that to me bear more than a passing resemblance to the fears of Lovecraft. Not the miscegenation fears—those are rampant in Lovecraft, but lacking here. No, no we can consider instead the portions of the text where Johnny or his mother tell him of his inheritance, of feeling like a dark and monstrous creature. Johnny suspects, as I have said, that he is a beast. Or wishes to appear as a beast. While Lovecraft’s own fears might be less clear then this, there is a recurring theme in Lovecraft’s writing about discovering (with horror) the true monstrous nature of aristocracy and of the self.
The other connection is one of family. Both Lovecraft and Johnny lost their fathers early in life–Lovecraft’s was placed in a mental asylum, Johnny’s appears to have perished in an airplane crash. Both also had mothers that doted on them through out their lives–or in Johnny’s case attempted to. And both saw their mothers sent to an asylum for a pathological fear of the dark. This incident, coupled with the death of Susan Lovecraft, is suggested by some to be the cause of Mr. Lovecraft’s writing of the Call of Cthulhu–a story that has odd resemblances to the House as we will see.
Johnny as a person is very different then the sex averse, drug averse, cloistered Lovecraft, but they share this fear of where they are from. And it is interesting to consider, his work consumed him into an isolated and fearful man—perhaps even going straight edge. Lovecraft, according to popular rumor, wrote the story of Shadows over Innsmouth after learning of his ancestry—notably, this is the last story he wrote that saw publication, and is the only one where the narrator is directly confronting the horror that is themselves. Most comparable stories, the hero’s companion finds the truth of their self. Shadows over Innsmouth centers on the narrator as the discoverer. On the revelation of his roots, on his dark Johnny likewise wonders aloud—is he the victim of a monster, or is he the victim of his blood. We follow his search for origins, across the country. And we might find it…intriguing what he finds.
Perhaps most interesting to us is how both Lovecraft and Johnny presented works of fiction tied to their origins and their loss. We know that Johnny engaged with the work of Zampano as a creative endeavor—he edits, he elides, he repairs, he transalates3. He, in a very real way, creates and changes the narrative. And always, we are reminded of his loss, of his terrible childhood, of women who he never really knew. And he comes back to this house. This house that, in a very real way, is overtaking his house. As I discussed in my section on Johnny earlier, we can never be clear—how much of the House is Johnny’s sickness and how much is an actual haunting.
As I mentioned, a popular story suggests Lovecraft wrote Shadows Over Innsmouth due to discovering his own heritage. But that is not the principle Lovecraft story I would discuss. Instead, I would point to Ryleh. A story that has consumed and overshadowed it’s author’s intentions—Lovecraft was not fond of Cthulhu, and while he produced sketches, he was focused more ‘Yog-Sothery’. But that is not the mythos name, and if any force has become the face of Lovecraft’s brand, it is Cthulhu and Ryleh.
This is a story that is told to us by complied documents and fake citations, of a group of travelers entering into the sleeping place of an ancient evil. We can even look closely at how these men, who dig deep into an isle and meddle with it, perish. Several die at the hand claws of Cthulhu, while others are trapped by the strange architecture. One, upon reaching apparent safety, kills himself. And one is found, at last, adrift and freezing.
The story is related by a dangerous text, found abandoned. But not a singular text. Like Zampano, the manuscript is in pieces, and must be collected and restored to something readable–and the character travels the world even to reach all the pieces. As an aside. an interpretation of the Lovecraft canon as a series of found texts might be interesting—considering what edits were made to Innsmouth’s description, in order to back a government sponsored extermination, or the incident at Red Hook to play into fears of the local population. That sort of thing. I suspect it has been done.
Johnny’s fears of the text—that it is dangerous to hold, and that it opens to a dangerous place—resemble the fears of Rylehian scholar but enlarged. They also are akin to the symptoms of the Witch House. Johnny begins to have trouble working—his sense of hearing grows, he has distrubed dreams. He does not recall his dreams, a conceit around the indescribably of Mr. Gilman. Gilman and Truant both acquire knowledge through their work, in their own way—certainly, Truant visits libraries frequently to create his translations. Both engage in unknown behavior in their sleep—Johnny screams, Gilman walks, both attracting rumors and neighbors form their isolation. The strange sounds, the invading sights, many are present. Even the notion of the House that is larger or warped spatial is found here.
Johnny is not a Lovecraftian protagonist—he plays into his own machismo in ways that Lovecraft’s play into their academic knowledge, he womanizes when Lovecraft’s flee sexuality it seems, and he uses a cocktail of drugs when Lovecraft’s despise anything that addles their mind. Johnny is however, motivated by many of the same fears of a Lovecraft protagonist. He fears the unknown. He fears the places of domesticity. He fears the text he writes and works through. He fears the old. He is consumed by his work, in the way many a Lovecraft character is—and becomes convinced at its haunting power.
Unlike a Lovecraftian character, Johnny calls attention to his artifice. Lovecraft’s narrators present themselves as arbiters of truth—Johnny is a liar, and reminds us regularly that he is a liar. That he lies, edits and alters.
There is one more thing to discuss when dealing with Mr. Lovecraft and the house. We must discuss the fear of the elder. As I discussed in Twins, there is a strong theme in the house—fear and oppression of the old. Johnny calls attention to a feeling of an oppressive man weighing down on him. While his mother fears the ominous New Director, we can find this anomalous at best. The New Director, after all, is the Old Director—even when he is not. We have instances of pairs, in which the Older of the pair is considered with caution. The image of the father as danger—especially in Johnny’s narrative—is prominent. Among the two Navidson brothers, Navidson and Tom make a comparable pair—and here Navidson occupies a danger seeking and danger drawing roll. Holloway, the oldest of those to descend into the house, is the least stable and most dangerous man in the entirety of the cast. The swearing to commit infanticide that might escape a readers notice. And of course, there is the House—and the Book. The First Edition. The Old is dangerous. The Old is powerful, haunting, and consuming.
And that is what Lovecraft fears most—that the Old is not old. It is not dead, it is only dreaming. Yes, much ink has been spilt over this particular fear manifesting as fear of the unknown or fear of the other—and this is correct! Yes, Lovecraft’s fear of modernity seems backwards with a fear of the past. After all, how could a man who dreaded the ancients so seem to loath New York city?
We cannot forget that Lovecraft and several of his contemporaries positioned time and space differently. To view from the post of Lovecraft, there is no future. There is no movement forward, there is only decay. Backwards, forwards, you fall into the waiting jaws of ‘savagery’. Lovecraft presents and believes in no bright city on a hill—or if he does, it is the result of an endless fight with the forces of the Cosmos. He can join the author of the Golden Bough, in suspecting that in the depths of the world of humanity, so-called savagery is the true state. The Old World, that Modernity and the Enlightenment abhor, will consume the new.
The House asserts something similar—a fear of the assertion of the old over the new, the elder brother over the younger—but at the same time, it situates itself in the reverse. As I discussed in the section on Echoes and Ruins, there is a profound fear not only of the past over powering the present, but of the past being entirely lost. Lovecraft fears his origins will become him—that in truth, he is secretly some descendant of a monster and not of the Rhode Island pseudo-nobility. We can even compare his belief in his own heritage with the statements of Ms. Truant regarding her sons character. But the House is also afraid of being lost over time—repeatedly, images, ideas, themes, entire places are intentionally erased. Some deliberately, some by accident. Some without any explanation at all. The House itself is like the panther. To forget it is not to be saved from it.
Lovecraft is afraid of remembering, of the Old returning because we can see it—a fear that is perhaps reasonable in a time of Modernism, where a sharp break from the barbarous past was presented. Lovecraft fears that we will find the unknown, confront it, and be found wanting. But the house? The House knows—the panther will remain, forgotten or no. To forget the beast is not to leave it dreaming—it is to allow it to devour you.
So what does this mean, for creative works? For our writing next week? Well, this time I have evaded folklore—the horror of hidden places we’ve discussed here. The idea of a dangerous text we’ve discussed here. And while there is a history of labyrinths, I think a discussion of them wouldn’t be quite what we are looking for.
Instead, this rumination on the house has given me the notion of things be remembered. Things arising from the text itself. I toyed with the idea of playing with the text here—telling a story in the same meta way that the house did. But that notion seemed difficult to succeed at. We have something like the opposite of an earlier incident—where a memory was aroused by a book. Here we have lost a vital, but dreadful thing we can’t place. It might serve well to play with what connections this discovery has—we perhaps fear the book, but also the hill were the dreadful thing was described. We will have to see.
1With apologies to Filamena for including such a section, hastily hidden at the end of the essay.
2For what it is worth, the easiest way is to employ the most boring reading of the growls in the house, and then take hold of the Haunter of the Dark—but again. Extraneous. Like these foot notes.
3And to translate is fundamentally to change.