Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Shunned House

"The Shunned House", first published in an amatuer booklet that was printed but not distributed in 1924, then in Weird Tales, October 1937.

This is the the nineteenth entry in my read-through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.

It's possible that to really know HPL, you must know Providence, at least in passing. Visiting gives you the scope of his territory, the physical constraints of his days, the shape of the streets and quality of the landscape that shaped his mind. The geography of a place defines it, after all, the places that are easy or hard to get to, the natural borders between districts or neighbourhoods marked by hills or valleys or streams and the agency of human civic planning.

Jane at The Shunned House, just about visible on the left

Places carry their history with them. They are constant and persist outside the scope of human lifetimes, even the changes we make to them persist for millennia, and old world cities are built around patterns set in place in time immemorial, perhaps all the way back to a circle of tents in the neolithic.

Beyond this material effect, though, our own experience of consciousness seems so intense, it seems impossible to believe that it does not impress itself on our surroundings like a finger print in putty. It's the basis of many tales of hauntings – a violent crime or horrific event, a place and personality somehow bound together for eternity.

Unfortunately, the evidence for this kind of psychic expression is pretty thin, but we do, of course, leave traces of a more mundane sort – historical records, official forms, newspapers, trails of ownership, a paper trail that's been building up since the discovery of writing. Many of HPL's stories are built around the process of piecing this type of material together, and The Shunned House feels like a real breakthrough in this regard.

The unpopular residence of the title is, as you probably know, a real house at 135 Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island. I visited it myself in 1998 (with my wife, see below!) and it recently went on sale, if you are interested.

 In A Life, Joshi praises the build up from a curious story told by the narrator's uncle Elihu Whipple to a confrontation with fiendish horror. HPL achieves this effect by applying a thick layer of material and historical detail. The house is as HPL describes it, with the characteristic basement built right on to the footpath. The history HPL gives of road widening and shifted graveyards is also accurate, as is much of the incidental historical detail. Around these facts, he weaves a tale of mounting dread as the implications come together.

From this remove, and for many of his contemporary readers, this careful weave of fact and fiction makes no difference to how we react to the story, but that's not quite the point. HPL isn't trying to convince the reader, he's trying to convince himself. It's a vital part of the writing process, I guess: the first person an author needs to convince, the person they need to scare, or charm or amuse or sadden, is themselves.

The level of detail in the history – an almost obsessive recitation of dates and names covering two centuries or more – anchors the story to a convincing real world narrative. It rings true because it is, by and large, true; it sounds like history because it is history. For good measure, HPL adds a few paragraphs speculating on possible “scientific” explanations to make the vampire monster seem a little more plausible.

“To say that we actually believed in vampires or werewolves would be a carelessly inclusive statement. Rather must it be said that we were not prepared to deny the possibility of certain unfamiliar and unclassified modifications of vital force and attenuated matter; existing very infrequently in three-dimensional space because of its intimate connection with other spatial units, yet close enough to the boundary of our own to furnish us occasional manifestations which we, from lack of a proper vantage-point, may never hope to comprehend.”

An H P Lovecraft Encyclopedia says that this pushes the story into the realm of quasi science fiction, and makes the point that the horror is killed finally with sulphuric acid rather than a stake through the heart or holy water and crucifix. HPL definitely used the new language of science to make his horrors sound plausible, but it's the same way the scientific vernacular was applied to other genres like pulp heroes, mysteries and adventure thrillers.

It's not science as we know it, and nor is the narrator as rational as he asserts – his drive to investigate the house is driven by his own youthful fascination with the place, and his apprehension of a strange shape in the fungus on the floor. I get the sense that his story doesn't so much reveal the truth to him, as confirm what he has known all along. On the other hand, perhaps this is just a function “dread”? For the sake of suspense a story of this type must forever hint that worse revelations are to come – in fact, this happens in the opening paragraph where HPL invokes the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe to suggest how terrible the coming events will be.

It's a kind of dreamy sense of the inevitable that's enhanced for me by yet another unnamed narrator. It keeps coming up, and now that I'm aware of it, it seems as if every other story has an anonymous narrator. It adds another level of creepiness, I think, a kind of hallucinatory state atmosphere. It's not a story about some other person, but asks the reader in to the story to take the part of the narrator themselves, drawn inexorably to the heart of the nightmare.

Next up: "The Silver Key"

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