664, 665, hew, where did No. 666 go? – Ah well – 667, 668…

As long as I’ve worked on the apocalyptic in fiction, I’ve always considered it not so much as a set of plot items chronicling various stages of destruction and salvation, but rather a distinct way of giving structure to the plot’s timeline, a part of the story, but not necessarily of the plot. It’s a distinct interpretation of the timeline, uniting stories as widely different as, say, Melville’s The Confidence Man, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, and Lovecraft’s stories, of course. He seldom goes ahead to unroll his apocalypse to a full extent, the destruction of the planet and all included, although every now and then total destruction is a possibility – in The Doom that came to Sarnath, for example, or in small gemstones in prose like Nyarlathotep, where the speaker seems to be the last survivor after Nyarlathotep (a veritable AntiChrist figure anticipating the configurations that modern evangelist preachers on the last things give their main antagonist) gave the planet a not so very favorable makeover into chaos.

More often than not, however, Lovecraft’s apocalypse doesn’t entail destruction – but it always features decay to indicate that something is dangerously wrong with the timeline. Decay’s everywhere, percolated into society and carried away with its dynamics – and Dunwich, see the previous post, is so deeply invested in it that salvation is so far off that it cannot even be satirized. It’s not just the Whateleys that don’t quite conform with any conventional timeline – young Wilbur’s growth into preternatural adulthood takes only about 12 years (and at that age, he’s able to dig into the library archives of Harvard to unearth a complete copy of the Necronomicon).

The rest of the place joins the spiral. The most recent update to the town’s (infra-) structure seems to be a building from 1806. Most of the buildings are far older, musty colonial shacks that, for some reason, refuse to crumble as they should. The residents, that much is sure, don’t get very much done (and refurbishing that place would be a task for a legion of heavily tooled DIY kings), except the elementary basics required to keep the place going at least at some pace and integrated into New England economy, but then, wouldn’t you know it, the only mercantile enterprise of the place is hosted in what was once the town church.

There seems to be an unlimited supply of cattle around to sell and feed to the only resident of the heavy petting zoo that the Whateley clan-of-three installs in their mansion, the even more freakish brother of already freakish Wilbur that will one day not too far off help to usher a selected draft of Old Ones into the New England site, once the time is right.

Lovecraft was not the first to paint decay into the New England site like a busted pest sore, of course – but, Jeez, how far more radical in his will to decay he is than, say, Hawthorne, who situates the locus of decay into the individuum, from where it eventually transpires into the surroundings. The Dunwich Horror bears obvious debts, or: parallels, deliberate or not, to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter – the more often I re-read the story, the more poignantly it seems to me like a festering, morbid version of the Hawthorne novel.

It’s all there – the secluded township, the uncomely offspring with uncanny abilities (Wilbur and his brother are naturally not nearly as endearing as little Pearl), the desire to circumscribe the other as closely as possible (a scarlet letter and a remote abode here, another remote abode there – and in both cases, the inhabitants are under constant scrutiny for every step they make) – with the only difference that Hester Prynne faces a community that may be corrupt and mendacious, but still operating on a scale of functional social contexts: there’s a communal tribunal that hands the scarlet letter to her, there’s a community that listens when Dimmsdale enters the scaffold to confess their unruly liaison, there’s a community to answer to and be answered by.

Not so in Lovecraft’s story – it’s not just simple inertia that keeps the townsfolk relatively still during the Whateleys’ exchanges with the Old Ones and their spawn – rather, it is the lack of social quantifiers to regulate responses to these forces. Dunwich, after all, is a god-less outcast village…of individuals. If these endure the decay they’re living in, they also endure the apocalypse at its tail end, and it is an absolutely private and subjective apocalypse.

Armitage, having read the hideous diary, knew painfully well what kind of a manifestation to expect; but he did not add to the fright of the Dunwich people by giving any hints or clues.

Armitage, the scientist-protagonist tasked with reading Wilbur’s unwholesome diaries detailing on the invocation rites necessary to call up the visitors from beyond, little later leads on a small troop of villagers in a concerted last effort to hunt down and destroy the thing [that] is a thing of wizardry. The Dunwich stormtroopers of death are not a little challenged with their new situation (emphasis mine) –

Then the germ of panic seemed to spread among the seekers. It was one thing to chase the nameless entity, but quite another to find it. Spells might be all right – but suppose they weren’t? Voices began questioning Armitage about what he knew of the thing, and no reply seemed quite to satisfy. Everyone seemed to feel himself in close proximity to phases of Nature and of being utterly forbidden and wholly outside the sane experience of mankind.

The only feasible way of solving the dilemma is to send those who are wholly outside the sane experience of mankind by definition, anyway, the scientists –

In the end the three men from Arkham – old, white-bearded Dr Armitage, stocky, iron-grey Professor Rice, and lean, youngish Dr Morgan, ascended the mountain alone.

The situation is absurd, in a slapstick-ish way – I mean, this bunch of stocky villagers is standing and waiting (and doing nothing in any way useful to find and fight what has escaped from the Whateley domain), and rather than getting out the guns (it’s 1928, they’re comfortable using telephones, as the story tells us, and sure it must be possible to procure some artillery to shell the monster back into his abyss), they’re sending a group of three scientists, two of them quite aged and the third a rookie, to ramble up the hill to do their job – how godawfully sluggish can you be?

[to be continued]

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6 Comments

  1. There’s quite a bit of decay and on it in “The Custom-House,” for what it’s worth to your argument. Could Lovecraft be positing entropy as the 20th C’s version of innate depravity?

  2. That’s an excellent pointer…maybe I should stop my habit of not reading prefaces and forewords. I’ll re-scrutinize my copy of The Scarlet Letter, then.

    As a concept of apocalyptic fiction, entropy is, I think, a later development, isn’t it? In all these turn-of-the-century apocalypses, in the widest sense that the term allows (and I include Lovecraft here), there’s still a movement toward some state of order, balance – as in Henry Adams’ or Brooks Adams’ writings. The same could be said about the English side – in novels like Jefferies’ After London (1895), there’s always a successful effort toward re-building and re-ordering the world. The exception I can think of is MP Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1899?), and even there chaos is like a violent afterthought that the narrator executes when he finds he’s, supposedly, the last human on earth, the last person to turn this world-wide immediate and unexpected natural disaster into some purposeful, apocalyptic scheme.

    Lovecraft’s driving his stories. I don’t think they have quite the tenor of entropic stories like Shute’s On the Beach or Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle – if you understand by “entropy” roughly something like “a descent to chaos, degeneracy, a loss of energy, but not one you can do anything about” – even these sluggish Dunwichians are not quite there, yet. They may dwell in decay but it’s a cultivated, decadent, decay – the place seems to have existed as is through the ages, there are various cultic sites around the place (stone circles) where decadence is habitually renewed, if you will, and the protagonists join in these, if furtively.

    These people (and the same can be said about most other Lovecraft characters – it doesn’t even matter that the inhabitants of Dunwich or Innsmouth or whatever are clearly delineated as the decadent other, as no outside non-decadent experience is offered.) take a part in the apocalypse – and there is a telos pushing the characters (and, in particular, the scientist-narrators) towards it. To have continously steered around that telos is one of the more dubious achievements of previous Lovecraft scholarship, the way I see it.

  3. I see what you’re saying. Given he was writing during the height of racial science (before the Nazis discredited it so thoroughly), now I’m wondering if the decay can be linked to “degeneration” and the Gobineau-style stylings of the people Du Bois and Locke were writing against most fo their lives and folks like Lee Baker, Elazar Barkan, Thomas Gossett, Matthew Frye Jacobson, and Walter Benn Michaels have analyzed so productively (and which I allude to here)–Grant, Stoddard, and the not-so-genteel racists of the NE. (George Hutchinson, by the way, does a great genealogy of alternatives to them in The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White.)

    Or am I cheating, having looked at your later not-quite-outline already?

  4. First, let me begin by saying that your bibliographical advice is precious & very welcome – Lothrop and Hutchinson, in particular, were complete blanks in my register, I admit.

    Then – yes, he was aware of Gobineau. He didn’t believe, however, as did Gobineau, that race was formative of culture – in fact, he placed some weight on the notion of American culture as an equalizer, a creator of culture, and in that understanding the immigrant, from wheresoever, was most compliant when he/she adapted as thoroughly as possible.

    Degeneration – there is a difference, a crucial one, I would think, in Lovecraft between the racial other and the alien other. These two occasionally interact – there are, to pick out an example, these references in “The Call of Cthulhu” to the “negro”-swamp-cults in adoration of great Cthulhu, and if here the racial other is maligned, it is exactly because it (unlike the narrator) has found a way to deal with the alien other, a way to continue history and move it on under the auspices of alien overlords (who hardly ever do anything – lurking in the earth, they are more theoretical aliens, or ideas of aliens) – something that the white narrators/characters are unable to do. In that respect, the racial other comes to be real important – to the white narrators, the two others mutually define each other as a continuation of history.

    Degeneration is a white specialty in Lovecraft, and these two others don’t necessarily have a hand in it.

    I find it important to somehow link his use of race to the analysis of his plots and narrations – because, quite frankly, more often than not this use is so blandly stereotyped that you can tell he went for it because he believed it was the due thing to do for a New England gentleman. There just is not much thorough reflection of race, as in “racial science”, in his prose. Often, the racial other is simply a catch-all-term for “evil”, and you get these snide punches at “nautical-looking negroes”, and so on.

    That’s not saying something about the moral quality, of course – I don’t think, well-informed racism is any better than ill-informed racism. His is ill-informed, blunt, and not very subtle.

    Or am I cheating, having looked at your later not-quite-outline already?

    Feel free to do so. I’ll make some more remarks, come time, on why L scholarship has been so apt at staying clear of the topic – the cosmicist dilemma…

  5. […] removed from the place of evil, implicitly less decayed. I made that point some time ago in my reading of The Dunwich Horror – decay in Lovecraft is voyeuristic and staged all for the audience: a thing […]

  6. […] Dunwich, Innsmouth is a tradition-laden, history-burdened New England town whose city boundaries are also […]


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