Monday, 27 June 2011

The Whisperer In Darkness

"The Whisperer In Darkness", first published in Weird Tales, August 1931.

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

While reading this story again, I have in the back of my mind, the gaming supplement Delta Green , which re-imagines the Fungi of Yuggoth through the lens of contemporary UFO mythology. The supplement takes in Majestic 12, Roswell, greys, Project Blue book and secret government UFO files and places them in the context of decades of contact with the Fungi to great effect. Even allowing for the cleverness of Delta Green, it's surprising how close the fit is.

The most important name in the story in this regard is that of Charles Fort, name-dropped at the end of the first section, while Wilmarth is still sceptical about the stories coming out of Vermont: 
“Two or three fanatical extremists went so far as to hint at possible meanings in the ancient Indian tales which gave the hidden beings a non-terrestrial origin; citing the extravagant books of Charles Fort with their claims that voyagers from other worlds and outer space have often visited earth.”
I'm a bit of a Fortean myself, I have been since before I knew there was a word for such a thing aside from “weirdo”, “geek” or “loony”. HPL's writing is definitely part of something that I wouldn't call a genre as such, but an identifiable trend that I might call “Fortean literature”. Fortean literature is that which finds alternative explanations for the world. Fortean literarture includes Ayn Rand, Helena Blatavatsky, Philip K Dick and Thomas Pynchon, a range that includes writers who clearly mean it at one end, and those that just like to play at the other.

Alien contact is a big theme of Fortean literature, suggesting as it does that the world is at the mercy of powers we cannot comprehend, and The Whisperer In Darkness seems to pre-figure a lot of the contact narratives that have come from both the community of UFO believers and the fiction that addresses the subject. Like Adamski's Venusians, the Fungi claim to approaching people selectively to prepare human kind for greater contact. Like the Venusians, they take their agents for visits to their home world, although it's nothing as simple as hitching a ride on a flying saucer. The creatures hidden our midsts bring to mind the Invaders From Mars or the strange machinations of This Island Earth.

All that's missing is the kind of anti-nuclear or environmental warning that the fictional and folkloric aliens often bring with them. The Fungi are at best disinterested in human affairs, and in fact seem to have a malevolent curiosity about us and perhaps an interest in enslaving the human race to work in their mines.

HPL looks backwards to folklore and oral history for evidence of his visitors, associating them with mythical faeries and nature spirits (Arthur Machen also gets a name check), which is not far from the Atlantean speculations of Ignatius Donnelly and James Churchward but anticipates a strong current in UFO myth, typified by the work of Erich von Daniken.

I think these types of myth have the effect, not always unforseen, of undermining human agency in a way that's close to HPL's intentions of cosmic horror, and this story benefits from some of HPL's best writing on the subject so far. HPL lovingly describes the black empty abyss of space, the creatures that reside there and spaces beyond human perception that exist further out.
The main body of the beings inhabits strangely organised abysses wholly beyond the utmost reach of any human imagination. The space-time globule which we recognise as the totality of all cosmic entity is only an atom in the genuine infinity which is theirs. And as much of this infinity as any human brain can hold is eventually to be opened up to me, as it has been to not more than fifty other men since the human race has existed.”
I also like the way HPL slips his manufactured occult figures into the back ground. The nature of the threat in the Vermont hills goes from folklore to sci fi and then back to magic and superstition as their nature passes beyond the ken of humans. This blend of science fiction and the fantastic is the distinguishing feature in weird fiction, those worlds of forgotten antiquity, the remote future or the depths of space where science and sorcery exist in parallel. It's quite a chilling moment that tips the Fungi beyond being mere aliens and hinting at an extra-dimensional nature inimical to humanity.

All of this is brilliantly expounded, and there's also some great landscape writing of the type familiar from The Dunwich Horror and The Colour Out of Space, but for all these great moments, the story as a whole doesn't quite work. Joshi notes in A Life that HPL had a great deal of trouble getting this one right, in particular making Wilmarth appear less gullible. Despite his struggles, Wilmarth's naivety in travelling to Akeley's farm after the last peculiar letter is hard to credit – it's so obvious what's happened that one wonders what he could have hoped to achieve. In many ways, Akeley succumbing to the Fungi is the big reveal, and the problem is not that this is too obvious, but that the story carries on as if it's not.

I feel as if HPL is too attached to a lot of the material that comes after Wilmarth arrrives in Vermont: the malevolent hills and forests, the description black abysses beyond space, and the image of discarded face and hands. None of this takes us any further than the final Akeley letter, as chilling as it all is, and Wilmarth has to be forced to behave in ways that defy credibility and ignore the danger that is plainly clear to the reader.

What would Wilmarth do if he realised the true meaning of the letter? Maybe this question takes the story in a direction that HPL didn't wanted go, something like the ending of The Dunwich Horror with the Fungi defeated for the time being at least. As with the latter story, Joshi criticises The Whisperer in Darkness as having an overly dualistic approach to good and evil, but I think that's less of a problem than the execution.

Of course, the end is only a part of the whole that goes up to make up a short story. We get addicted to a certain sort of ending, and when it doesn't arrive we feel cheated. HPL's clearly struggling for that sort of ending, but the real achievement here is the atmosphere along the way. HPL handles the pace of revelation about the creatures really well, and all the hooking up of the brain jars sticks just this side of the ghoulish thanks to an absolutely deadpan delivery. I'd say in this one the journey is well worth the effort, even if the destination is a bit of a let down.

Next up: The Strange High House in the Mist

The image for this post comes from flickr user ~prescott and is used under the  terms of the creative commons attribution and non-commercial use license.

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