Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Strange High House In The Mist

"The Strange High House In The Mist", first published Weird Tales October 1931.

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

We're back in a Dunsanian mood, this time in the made-up coastal town of Kingsport. The story is told in that archaic, declamatory tone that annoyed me so much about his previous ventures into the style. It clearly spoke to HPL, but it makes me cringe.

Great beach for wind surfing, Plimmerton, NZ

Here we have Thomas Olney, another sensitive soul whose mind is too beautiful for this harsh, materialistic world. He's a character in the same vein as the titular Outsider, Randolph Carter or the wee kitten that gets killed in The Cats of Ulthar. HPL seems to reserve this mode for a kind of mournful self-indulgence that always sounds a bit adolescent to brusque, stoic, kiwi old me.

Thomas Olney is also freighted with that great curse for the Truly Poetic Soul, a middle class job and a family: “he taught ponderous things in a college by Narragansett Bay. With stout wife and romping children he came, and his eyes were weary with seeing the same things for many years and thinking the same disciplined thoughts.” Olney prefers to ignore the blessings around his own table and instead  goes to visit a scary old hermit that lives in a ramshackle hut on a cliff overlooking the sea. He has a psychedelic experience and – psychically, at least – drops out.

The story seems is at once old fashioned, harking back to the decadent rebellion against the buttoned-up morés of the Edwardian age, and also seems to prefigure the mid-life crisis narrative of the 60s and 70s, when middle-aged academics started to drop acid, join communes and screw female students, all in the name of spiritual emancipation. Instead, Olney psychically checks out, and his soul spends eternity toking bongs and listening to Grateful Dead bootlegs while his body goes through the motions:

And ever since that hour, through dull dragging years of greyness and weariness, the philosopher has laboured and eaten and slept and done uncomplaining the suitable deeds of a citizen.  … The sameness of his days no longer gives him sorrow, and well-disciplined thoughts have grown enough for his imagination. His good wife waxes stouter and his children older and prosier and more useful, and he never fails to smile correctly with pride when the occasion calls for it. In his glance there is not any restless light.

These stories are an occasional indulgence for HPL, although I suspect there are more not included in this volume. These occasional melancholy outsiders are the benevolent versions of the actively evil types that HPL otherwise focuses on – most obviously Wilbur Whately, but also Robert Suydam, Richard Upton Pickman and the protagonists of The Hound. The ultimate outsiders in his fiction, I suppose, are the many creatures and aliens on which he lavishes such flamboyant imagination.

I suppose it's ever so that the devil has the best tunes. Maybe it's just my puritanical impulses, but Thomas Olney's efforts at taboo busting seem tame compared to the dreams of annihilation and moral destruction that appeals to even low-grade evils like the Martense clan and Dagon. Say what you like about the fungi from Yuggoth, as the saying goes, but at least they had an ideology.

Next up: The Dreams in the Witch House

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