Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Haunter in the Dark

"The Haunter in the Dark", first published in Weird Tales, December 1936.

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

This is HPL's last story. Just over a year after finishing this, he was dead from cancer of the smaller intestine and that was that. He seems to have spent those last months in a doldrum, unable to work and convinced his fiction days were over, even before it became clear he was dying. Joshi quotes him in A Life: “I may be experimenting in the wrong medium altogether. It may be that poetry instead of fiction is the only effective vehicle to put such expression across.”

Maybe he was right: I've often commented here that his stories have magnificent passages of brilliant writing, but they are often don't quite work due to structural issues. He seemed to be getting there for a while at least, but by this time he was a couple of years out from the incredible streak between 1926 and 1933, and I know only too well what it can feel like when everything else you touch seems to turn to shit (I haven't written anything worth a damn since 2009). Maybe he just needed to work it out, find a new creative direction; we'll never know.

I suppose it's fitting that his life end on this note of despair – he seems to have been only fitfully happy at the best of times, which were few and far between. Joshi doesn't give us much information on his interior like in the final months or what he made of his own life as he faced the end. I wonder if he felt he was a success or failure, if he achieved any of what he had set out to do?

HPL didn't know he was dying when he wrote this story – or at least, any more than we're all heading to the grave one step at a time – but even so, it has an elegiac quality. HPL indulgences his architectural impulses and provides numerous call-outs for his friends. The history of the Starry Wisdom cult and the Shining Trapezohedron are tied into his existing mythos, although perhaps with less enthusiasm than the previous few stories. However, I think it demonstrates once again how the mythos had moved on from being a collection of mysteriously allusive details to a more substantially concrete setting.

Perhaps it was this self-imposed mundanity of his creations that was beginning to pall for the writer of dream narratives? There are signs of a re-emergence his more poetical mode of storytelling in this one. Blake's quest to gain egress to the mysterious church on Federal Hill has a yearning quality that is particularly dreamlike. It's that mood, the eternal middle of a dream wrapped in sensation and atmosphere never intended to reach a climax.
“Nowhere could he find any of the objects he had seen from afar; so that once more he half fancied that the Federal Hill of that distant view was a dream-world never to be trod by living human feet.”
It's like Randolph Carter's search for Celephais, or the land of his youth, or Thomas Olney's attempts to reach The Strange High House in the Mist, but here it ends not in a rhapsody of joy, but a terrifying death. Both are a sort of annihilation, a theme that was picked up decades later by Clive Barker. Blake is a portrait of Robert Bloch, of course, but he reminds me a little of Clive. Both are sensitive writers and painters of the weird and macabre, and Blake is swept in to the strange geography of Arkham that seems to trap time in its meanders in the way that Barker's protagonists get lost in puzzles and patterns that lead to revelations both horrible and wonderful.

In good horror story fashion, Blake records his own moment of death in his journal, and HPL meets it with a typically baroque flourish. I wonder what he saw as he passed beyond the wall of sleep? A vision of rapture like Randolph Carter? Or something like the final fragmentary visions of Robert Blake?
I see it—coming here—hell-wind—titan blur—black wings—Yog-Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye...
Next: The Thing on The Doorstep

Photo of HPL's gravestone is by flickr user strangeinterlude and used under the terms of the Creative Commons license.

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