Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Dunwich Horror

"The Dunwich Horror", first published in Weird Tales, April 1929.

This is the the twenty-first entry in my read-through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.
This is definitely the first HPL story I ever read, regardless of whatever else I might have previously said on the subject. I remember very distinctly the weird cover in an anthology called 11 Great Horror Stories that was in the book box in room six, Greenacres School in 1979. It made a big impression on me at the time. I can't remember the other stories in that collection – the internet confirms my recollection that they're stories by Poe, J P Hartley and the like – but this vivid and bizarre tale stuck with me long after I first read it. I found the image of the hideous Wilbur Whately and the last desperate attempt to banish his twin truly terrifying.

Reading it again now (I have read it many times since then, of course) it's still gripping and terrifying. As in The Colour Out of Space, the opening chapter lays on the atmosphere as effectively as anywhere in HPL's writing, and he then goes on to populate this vividly evoked place with a cast of almost caricature hill billies and, of course, the utterly grotesque Whately clan. The build up to the death of Wilbur is thrilling, mysterious and urgent, and the final reveal at the end of chapter six is fully the equal of the dark hints that have been dropped thus far.

After this, the story loses a bit of its momentum, and in fact it's almost a separate tale. The story of Wilbur Whately is a deeply personal one, shot through with considerations of class, otherness and the tension between the autodidact and the academy. The second part is more of an environmental horror similar to The Colour Out of Space or, perhaps more pertinently, The Lurking Fear. The change in atmosphere isn't entirely successful, but the careful build up of suspense through the clever use of the party line (HPL once more basing his story firmly in the contemporary world) gets things going again for a terrific climax.

Joshi is somewhat dismissive of this story. In The Annotated H P Lovecraft, he calls it “simply an aesthetic mistake on Lovecraft's part”, while in A Life he says, after describing the story, that “it should be clear from this narration that many points of plotting and characterisation in the story are painfully inept”. His criticism focuses more on the point that The Dunwich Horror doesn't fit with Lovecraft's stated aesthetic goals, that it's a a story of good (Armitage and chums) versus evil (the Whatelys) rather than cosmic horror, and that such a na├»ve premise is unworthy of HPL. It's hardly an aberration in his output, however; in many ways the final sequence is like a re-run of The Lurking Fear, and The Shunned House and The Horror At RedHook, have a similarly dualistic approach to good and evil.

Johsi quotes (and dismisses, somewhat unwillingly) a critique of the story suggesting that it's a parody on the basis that it is the Whately twins who “in mythic terms, fulfil the traditional role of the 'hero' much more than Armitage does”. It seems strange to make the jump from there parody, but I think it is correct that this is far more the story of the Whately twins than it is of Armitage, who is a pretty dull character all things considered, just as in The Horror At Red Hook, Robert Suydam is a more interesting character than the detective Malone. Like Suydam, Wilbur is a classic Lovecraftian outsider, and in many ways a dark reflection of HPL himself – a prodigy, an autodidact, haughtily dismissive of the common herd with pseudo-aristocratic airs. It's not a parody, but Wilbur seems to embody the reversal of many of HPL's values: erudition turned bad, a mockery of aristocratic heritage, and goatish, animalistic physicality – it tells us something, I think, that Wilbur's most appalling deformities are hidden in his trousers.

The horror here is not that inflicted upon the unfortunate residents of Dunwich, nor the potential destruction of the Earth by the arrival of Yog Sothoth, but the personal horror of Wilbur Whately and his twin brother. The world is entirely against them from the start; he's illegitimate and the subject of malicious gossip from the day he's born. He grows up in poverty dedicating his life to contacting his absent father boasting, in the way that fatherless boys will, that his absent dad is the biggest, toughest guy there is. The twin's final plaintive cry is highlighted by Joshi as a possible parody of the crucifixion, but it sounds to me more like the desperate cry of a fatherless child searching for their daddy.

The Dunwich Horror is also one of HPL's most popular tales. It was qucikly snapped up by Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales, and HPL received a healthy cheque for it. It was immediately popular with the readership and is one of the most anthologised of HPL's tales. It also has the dubious accolade of a movie version:

Hm, well, Dean Stockwell's always worth a look, but one has to wonder what Sandra Dee's doing in there! If you're looking for an interesting version of the tale, I'd suggest turning to the internet and looking out for David McCallum's audio version. Not sure on the legality – proceed with caution! - but it's a cracking recording!

Next up: The Whisperer in Darkness


  1. I enjoy this story too. I think Joshi's dislike seems to be based on how it breaks away from the more cliched aspects of Lovecraft's writing rather than the actual weaknesses of the story.

    Nice critique of the story too Patrick. Recently the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast covered it and I'd say their episodes about the Dunwich Horror are worth listening to.

  2. Thanks, Dave.

    I'm little shy of saying Joshi has a blind-spot here, as his erudition and critical insights are almost always (IMO) pretty much right on, but this... I just can't understand the negative assessment.

  3. I've seen the film. Taped it off the telly, in fact.
    It's... less than chilling, although it's horrific in some ways.

    Some choice lines:

    "Ah, Nancy, could you just run the Necronomicon back to the library for me?"

    and later, during a romantic picnic:
    Nancy: So... do you like sex?
    Wilbur: ... yeah. Yeah. I like sex.

  4. I was quite excited when it turned up on the Sunday Horrors many, many moons ago, but... well. Hm! I like Dean Stockwell quite a bit but that's not Wilbur Whately! And his house is way too clean and nice. OTOH, I quite liked the reinvention of him as a psychedelic smoothy, the role Dean Stockwell seemed made for back in 69 or so.

    I sort of skim watched it on youtube while I was writing this. It's interesting that in the movie they avoid the change of gears between the death of WW and The Dunwich Horror, proper by having the monster escape immediately and run amok after WW dies.

    I wonder why HPL didn't just do that? I mean, we know there's something locked up in the house and there's no reason to be shy about it. OTOH, I do like all the business with the party lines and all of the stuff about the residents of Dunwich generally, both around Wilbur's birth and later on.


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