Monday, 18 July 2011

The Dreams in the Witch House

"The Dreams in the Witch House", first published in Weird Tales, July 1933.

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

HPL based his fictional Arkham on Salem, the New England town that is most famous for its seventeenth century witch trials. The history and testimony of the Salem witches follow a pattern that was common at about the same time in Europe among the same religiously non-conformist communities that had fled to the New World in search of a new Jerusalem. The religious atmosphere of the seventeenth century in America that led to the witch trials still marks something about the American character: puritanical, literal-minded and keenly aware of sin and evil.

Far from being the fevered persecutions that sometimes attend high-school productions of The Crucible, the accounts of witch trials were always aggressively rational and – in their own way- materialistic. Witch hunters sought objective, material evidence of diabolism, and wrote scholarly texts filled with tortuous rationalisations for the influence of the diabolical on an otherwise prosaic world; the witch trials themselves followed complex forms of law and precedent that leant the proceedings an air impartial judgement as well as theological correctness.

This type of rationalisation of the uncanny fits in very neatly with HPL's own method of creating pseudo-historical and pseudo-scientific support for his horrors, and so this combination of the two works extremely well. Keziah Mason and Brown Jenkin are immediately familiar from the testimony of witches throughout the witch trial period and fairy tales, but HPL ties these folkloric elements in with ideas of advanced, mind-bending mathematics.

We've seen this marriage of occult and technology before, in The Whisperer in Darkness, but the stories come at the idea from opposite angles. The fungi from Yuggoth are hyper-advanced aliens, but the more we learn about their world, it seems to intersect with a universe of horrible magic and mystical malevolence. In this story, we start from tales of Keziah Mason's magic and the more we learn about her, the more this ancient knowledge fits in with the advanced maths and physics that Walter Gilman is studying.

This slippery merging of the rational and irrational marks this as one of HPL's most powerful tales of madness. Gilman's sudden apprehension of meaning and significance in everything is actually a lot like a psychedelic trip - “he began to read into the odd angles a mathematical significance which seemed to offer vague clues regarding their purpose.” As his paranoia grows he hears unidentified scrathing sounds in the walls and suffers acute anxiety and insomnia. Gilman's descent looks a lot like a stress-induced a psychotic episode, combined with a bad case of seasonal affective disorder.

HPL describes the symptoms with a conviction to reeks of personal experience.
“About this period his inability to concentrate on his formal studies worried him considerably, his apprehensions about the mid-year examinations being very acute. But the exaggerated sense of hearing was scarcely less annoying. Life had become an insistent and almost unendurable cacophony, and there was that constant, terrifying impression of other sounds―perhaps from regions beyond life―trembling on the very brink of audibility. So far as concrete noises went, the rats in the ancient partitions were the worst. Sometimes their scratching seemed not only furtive but deliberate.”

HPL suffered a massive anxiety attack in high school years and never returned to formal education. Joshi suggests in A Life, that it was a weakness in maths that led to HPL's breakdown: “My feeling is that Lovecraft's relative failure to master algebra made him gradually awaken to the realisation that he could never do serious professional work in chemistry or astronomy, and that therefore a career in those two fields was an impossibility.” (p82) Gilman also studies maths and is failing before the unholy influence of Keziah Mason and Brown Jenkin act as a kind of supernatural study aid and he suddenly masters “Riemannian equations” with ease. It's hard no see HPL's own anxieties reflected – decades later – in Gilman's breakdown.

That's the secret of fiction, though, of all art ultimately. We take the blind empty terrors that exist beneath the surface and give them life on the page, or through sound or in images. HPL doesn't seem to discuss his own work in this way. Although he acknowledges the importance of dreams in his creative process, he doesn't look to deeply for the sources of his dream inagery. His own explanation of his work is couched in the emerging narrative of genres – understanding the Gothic and it's key practitioners from the previous century, in particular. When I've finished with these stories I'm going to wrap my thoughts up around a reading of his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, and perhaps I'll look in more detail at what he has to say about this topic then.

Next up: From Beyond

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