Lovecraft reading group


'what to eat' fan
Mar 13, 2007
sometimes the Answer is right under your nose how
Yes,folks,your eyes are not deceiving you:a bunch of people have decided
to give a very classical (and classy) horror/fantasy writer cum poet the Chronicles treatment.
We have agreed on "The Dreams in the Witch House",and JD has kindly provided relevant links.Those of you who have never read Lovecraft before,be
warned,and be very,very,afraid.
This being a novelette,it won't take up huge amounts of your time,so give it a go.
I am ready,willing and able to start today......
PS I can unflinchingly say that ,if you're a newcomer to Lovecraft,you can expect a masterful command of mood and language,and an uncanny knack for the buildup of eerie,nay,horrific,tension.
Well, as no one has posted any thoughts so far, I'll get the ball rolling on a general aspect: What are your thoughts on HPL's handling of hyperspace or dimension-traveling in this story; do you think it's an intriguing idea, simple but elegant, clumsy, thought-provoking, etc.? And I'd also be curious about everyone's thoughts on Lovecraft's blurring of the boundaries of "dream" and "reality"; both this tale specifically, and in other stories. Any thoughts on his use of dream as an alternative reality, in such works as The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, etc.?
I don't think I'll be able to read it for several days now (have an essay to write, then I'm off back to university, then I'll be thrown back into studies straight away) so I might be a little late in adding any comments! I will definitely endeavour to read it, though, because I certainly want to take part in this group (and at the very worse, I'll just have to miss this one and join in with the next story)!
I must say I enjoyed this story but with Lovecraft I usually do but it is up there with one of the best I've read. I do find his ideas on time and space travel quite good the early part of the story reminded me of sci-fi novels of the 60's so it would put him well ahead of his time using ideas that were not too common in the 20's.

I think his biggest problems when writing was that these outer gods are so unfathomable to the human mind it is hard to put through the concept of them in a way the reader could both understand and yet still be uncomprehending in that they are so alien his human characters can only give vague and simple descriptions to fit human understanding. I can only relate it to the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant (a.k.a., "Blindmen") (by John Godfrey Saxe). we can only get a small understanding of the true horrors beyond our comprehension.

I did like the way the dream/reality border blurred from being very distinct at the start till they were totally merged come the climax switching between easily.

I have a question that is bugging me, I first started in the mythos by playing the CoC RPG a few years before I read any of his stories and the smaller creature in his dreamlands I recognise from the game but its name eludes me
bubble-mass and the small polyhedron
I know the first is Yog-Sothoth but the second eludes me can anyone enlighten or will I have to dig through piles of stuff to try to find the rule book with the picture?
As I have mentioned in another thread, I'm still a Lovecraft rookie, this being my fifth short story. I appreciated the dimension travelling...particularly how he gives the skeptic allowance to suspend disbelief in witch craft/ancient myths/religions by using modern mathematics as justification. He lost me a little during his descriptions of the transitions into the twilight and his description of the abysses, etc.

After sucking me in with his use of language and the ability to make me see things as I read in the first four I read, I was a little disappointed this time. I "saw" the house, Walter, Keziah, Brown Jenkins, and to a lesser extent I "saw" Elwood and the other tenants in the house...but the "Black Man" and the other beings that were represented on the little carving Walter brought back, he just didn't conjur them for me. Maybe it is because he writes much more of them in other works and you need to draw on that?
Okay... SA, the "little polyhedron" was Brown Jenkin as it appeared in hyperspace. TT: the creatures seen in the alien city (the little figurine of which Walter Gilman finds he has brought out of his dreams into the waking world) are originally dealt with in At the Mountains of Madness. However, their use here is, I think, not intended to rely too much on that story but to be somewhat discrete (not entirely, by any means; Lovecraft's work is, in many ways, too unified for that); and I'd read them as representative of the truly alien doing things which only human beings have been wont to do... in other words, a genuinely alien being with absolutely no human characteristics or psychology, yet showing undeniable evidence not only of intelligence, but a high level of civilization. This is due, in part, to the fact that -- at this period in sf's history -- almost all "aliens" either appeared very humanoid, or had stereotypical human psychology; something which irked Lovecraft no end (his essay on the writing of "interplanetary fiction" rakes that one over the coals by presenting its ludicrousness in no uncertain terms).

As for the "Black Man"... Nyarlathotep is dealt with in several places, but is a very ambiguous character, rather Protean in nature, from the itinerant showman of the prose-poem "Nyarlathotep" (where he/it is introduced) to the "young Pharaoh" of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, to the utterly alien entity of "The Haunter of the Dark". Here Lovecraft makes it into the traditional "Black Man" of the witch coven, a figure that comes from genuine historical sources dealing with beliefs concerning witchcraft -- most especially the Salem witch trials. This would make sense, as he is thus seen as the sort of figure with which Keziah Mason would be familiar (and Gilman through his researches into the seventeenth-century witchcraft lore), yet with it being a "mask" of something much more potent -- the alien universe given a (somewhat) human face: our tendency to see the universe through anthropocentric eyes. There are other aspects to his use of the Black Man as an avatar of Nyarlathotep, too, I think; but in this case, at least, I'd be very dubious about any "racist" element, as he is both using a genuine figure out of historical beliefs, and he also makes it quite clear that the being's features are not negroid... caucasoid but coal black in pigment.

So... yes, he deals with Nyarlathotep elsewhere, but not in this form.
At the same time, the appearance of the Old Ones in the story can be seen as a weakness, detracting from their wholly sympathetic portrayal in At the Mountains od Madness. They serve no real purpose to the story, they do not advance it, and their appearance here detracts from the pathos of the earlier novel.

At the same time, Lovecraft errs in making Keziah Mason, even Brown Jenkins into almost pulplike figures of conventionalised evil. She can traverse time and space, but for what? To kill babies at superstitious occasions.

Although Lovecraft's conception does redeem the tale, the bulk of it is lacklustre, and goes against his brand of cosmic indifferentism. This is actually one of his weaker stories, for the cod-evil of the witch only serves as a plot device to lead to Gilman's (admittedly gruesome) death.
First,a question.Is the absence of conversation(no """" whatsoever)
a hallmark of Lovecraft?It certainly engenders a certain detached,brooding eerie atmosphere.

Indeed, Lovecraft usually (though not always) eschewed dialogue, though he did include monologues by various characters in his stories ("The Dunwich Horror", "The Picture in the House", "The Shadow over Innsmouth" The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath). When he included dialogue, it was to play up a point (at least, that is my impression), such as between Joseph Curwen and Dr. Willett in Ward. Even when he used monologues, it was very pointedly used to add to the building of the atmosphere, as the alterations in Harley Warren's speech patterns in "The Statement of Randolph Carter" or the archaism of various characters to indicate either their own existence far beyond their allotted span or to indicate the region itself was "out of Space, out of Time", as it were... that there was a rupture in the normal flow of time in these places, and that (once again) there was, in Donald Burleson's phrase, "unwholesome survival" here.
At the same time, the appearance of the Old Ones in the story can be seen as a weakness, detracting from their wholly sympathetic portrayal in At the Mountains od Madness. They serve no real purpose to the story, they do not advance it, and their appearance here detracts from the pathos of the earlier novel.

Phillip -- I'm not sure I quite agree with you on some of these points. While I would agree that the perception of the Old Ones is altered in "Witch House", I'm not convinced that "[t]hey serve no real purpose in the story". I've indicated some of the reasons I see above. I do feel that Lovecraft was not explicit on some points -- either through a desire to suggest rather than spell out, or because he himself was acting on more-or-less unconscious reasoning when including them -- but personally I get the feeling that the link between the two tales is more than is apparent on the surface. Part of that is the idea that Gilman is not traveling only in space, but Time -- we may be seeing the Old Ones not as they are now, but millions or even billions of years ago, perhaps in their place of origin. If this is the case (the time-traveling aspect) then this would also explain some odd aspects concerning Keziah Mason's survival for such a long period. But I'd also say that he wanted beings that (for him, at least) had become sympathetic -- they certainly did not begin with a sympathetic potrayal in Mountains, becoming so only gradually... the real turning point being when he used "unhuman" instead of "inhuman" to describe their actions -- that were nonetheless completely and totally alien, and would have the effect on Gilman they did: to me they symbolized Gilman's (and humankind's) reaction to an alien universe as menacing, without it actually being so. There are other points here, but -- as many of the people here are only beginning to read HPL, I won't go into more at this point, as I'd rather not spoil anything for them -- or influence their own take on stories they've not yet read by having my views out there ahead of time.

At the same time, Lovecraft errs in making Keziah Mason, even Brown Jenkins into almost pulplike figures of conventionalised evil. She can traverse time and space, but for what? To kill babies at superstitious occasions.

Although Lovecraft's conception does redeem the tale, the bulk of it is lacklustre, and goes against his brand of cosmic indifferentism. This is actually one of his weaker stories, for the cod-evil of the witch only serves as a plot device to lead to Gilman's (admittedly gruesome) death.

Also, though I, too, find this to be one of Lovecraft's weaker efforts, I think there's more to his use of Keziah Mason than is given credit for. For one thing, I think she is used as part of that fusing of the older tales of witches (from Ainsworth's The Lancashire Witches -- or even earlier -- on, including elements of Hawthorne) with his own approach to science fiction-style horror. She is also, despite her peculiar abilities, a product of her time, and carries it with her. Thus, I would say, the controversial note about the crucifix. Yes, it does come across as conventional and even stereotyped. Yet I'd say this is more because of the way it is handled rather than in concept. One thing to keep in mind is that, no matter how much she's experienced since then, early emotional reactions on a near-instinctive level, things instilled pre-speech in her Puritan environment, will still kick in momentarily. This ties in with something I've been debating with others on about Heinlein's The Puppet Masters -- Mary's reaction to Sam's ordering her back in the car. My contention there is that there would be at least a momentary (and more-or-less instantaneous) flash of anger because of a normally independent personality who had a lifetime of learned survival techniques predating even verbalization skills, and these were being overridden by a man who was still relatively new to her life, however important. It might be on an almost subliminal level, but it would be there. Human beings simply do not alter such reactions soon, if at all. That they can entirely "unlearn" such gut-level reactions is a very debatable point. They may not even be consciously aware of their reaction... but it is almost certainly there. So with Keziah Mason and the crucifix. I've always seen that as a very brief flash from a mental/emotional level that goes to a very early learned fear response from that stern, Calvinistic upbringing, but enough to give that momentary chance for Gilman to break her grip. In Lovecraft's words, she "seemed struck with panic, and her grip relaxed long enough to give Gilman a chance to break it entirely...." But "the claws received a fresh acces of strength and closed in again." Now, to me, that indicates (given the speed of the action of that particular moment) only an immediate, sub-cognitive emotional reaction of very brief duration, almost immediately overridden by her conscious mind. The problem is that the description becomes so lengthy that it gives the impression of taking much longer, so in turn Keziah seems affected longer than she actually is. I may well be stretching a point, but that is how it has always struck me, and that impression is certainly backed up by realistic psychology.

On her use of such powers -- there I'm rather on the fence. Again, the question comes down to how her psychology works: does she understand the actual advanced concepts she's using, or does she still see them in the framework of witchcraft, with all its superstitions, rituals, and reliance on supernatural forces (which would, again, have something to do with Nyarlathotep's appearance as the traditional Black Man of the coven... something also reinforced by Gilman's own coming to an understanding of these concepts via a connection -- albeit by no means as limited -- with the witchcraft beliefs as well).

However, this is one of those cases where the deemphasis on characterization works against him, and she does not come across as significant as she perhaps should.

On the "cosmic indifferentism" -- here I would largely agree with you, though I don't think it's entirely absent. I do believe that Lovecraft erred (where that is concerned, at any rate) in having Gilman see the Black Man as taking such an active role in the malignancy. Had it been simply Keziah and Brown Jenkin (who can be seen as yet another debasement of the human self-image... perhaps even a wryly humorous one [Hugo the Rat, anyone?:rolleyes: ]), then it would not have altered the vision of an indifferent cosmos, as all the actual maleficent actions would have been via human (or partially human) characters. But on this one, I think he slipped into something much like he did with "The Dunwich Horror", coming a bit too close to the traditional dichotomy in presentation, at least, which marred that aspect of the tale.
J. D.,

I understand your position more. We must remember, of course, that part of the psychological realism that Lovecraft sought was in that reaction to the unknown and unearthly (if I may be permitted that turn of phrase), so that your point regarding the Old Ones does make sense.

I am not sure that your points regarding the human nature of evil, as evinced through Keziah Mason, is not subverted by Brown Jenkins. Here is an obviously preternatural creature (those of us reading the tale should note cosely the description of his appearance) that partakes of an obviously human sense of evil. Malignant may be a more apt description, perhaps? This can lead us to question the motives of Nyarlathotep of course, as an agent or persoification of chaos (or should that be entropy?).

Of course that last point requires a sympatico with Lovecraft's conception as the "gods" as personifications of abstract forces. So that Nyarlathotep, as "The Crawling Chaos" is seen as a representation of the chaos that leads to disorder, rather than our contemporary view of it as leading into greater complexity.

I am not convinced that the evil intentions of the witch is more than a plot device that will lead into Gilman's damnation. It requires a degree of skill in human characterisation, at which Lovecraft was weak at, in my estimation, and so leads to Mason sharing a similar weakness in motivation to Joseph Curwen (he's in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, for those new to Lovecraft).

I am sure that we will agree to differ on our conception of this tale as one of Lovecraft's stronger or weaker stories. But Lovecraft's weaker original fiction (I won't discuss one or two of his revisions here) is still stronger than many other writers' best. In my estimation.
What I found curious is the way HPL strifes (seemingly at least)for a rational
explanation of witchcraft...There are stretches of text that would almost make this one SF.He mentioned de Sitter in the story,who was a Dutch geologist who wrote one of the better (and older)textbooks in structural geology.Have to see if there was a physicist by that name.
So the house was a sort of space/time nexus?
Have to agree though:L's worst is still a good read by any standard....:)
Languagewise,it is somewhat restrained for L...
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HSF: It's Willem de Sitter:

Willem de Sitter - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

and you might find this of interest:

De Sitter space - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

I'm assuming the one you're referring to is L. U. de Sitter -- Structural Geology? I know nothing whatsoever about this, but that's the only de Sitter name I've come across in connection with geology.... Oh, and yes, HPL was a pioneer there, at that transition from the supernatural tale to science fiction... quite a long transition period, I think, as it stretches back (at least in some form) to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and even beyond. Lovecraft himself used a quite a number of scientific ideas in his work, as he moved away from the traditional supernatural tale to (to use Onderdonk's phrase) the tale of the "supernormal".

Phillip -- No, I don't think we'll have to agree to differ. I do think this was one of his weaker stories; I was just addressing points that had hit me on this level. I tend to agree that -- generally speaking -- Lovecraft was weak on character. However, on those occasions where he did attempt to create memorable characters, I'd say that he did put in the effort to have their psychology be solidly grounded. Whether he succeeded or not is, of course, debatable. And, as Lovecraft himself wrote about sympathizing with Willett and Armitage, I'd say it's evident that, in such attempts at least, he let his desire to tell a story that appealed to him override his presentation of his philosophical points (at least to some degree -- enough to not fit in comfortably with his general approach). I wonder, though, if this wasn't the result of his trying to break away from his "typical" approach, as he often expressed dissatisfaction with that. I know that the evidence is that this is one of the reasons why "The Shadow out of Time" proved so difficult for him, as well as "The Shadow over Innsmouth". And, frankly, I think he was influenced to some degree by the dime novels and the stories he enjoyed so in the Munsey magazines -- or even those which he took some pleasure in by his contemporary writers. That this resulted in a dilution of his vision is, I'd say, quite true; but never a complete abandonment, I think.

As for Joseph Curwen... On that one, I can't quite agree, as Curwen fits in well with Lovecraft's use of hybris, and it is his exceeding his bounds (even temporarily) that results in his own utter destruction. His attempt to violate natural law, and (perhaps, as is hinted in the text) rule the universe, is simply too far outside the scope of even the greatest of human beings -- or any other living beings, for that matter; and it is that ego that, in the end, trips him up. This certainly gives a more humanocentric view to the work than is usual, but the cosmos itself remains indifferent; only the human characters here take on the attributes to which we assign the names "good" and "evil"... and Lovecraft was quite plain that these were human viewpoints; therefore I don't see a contradiction of his indifferentism in Curwen, as that remains at the human level, not the cosmic. But a full discussion of this one had best wait until we get to The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. (Difficult, that. HPL's work was so integrated -- including his poems, essays, and letters -- that it really is difficult to address one piece outside that framework, once one is aware of it. He is certainly one of the most self-aware and self-consistent writers of which I am aware, and it's quite amazing how even the tiniest of his pieces ties together with his greater. A good example for me is in that fifth volume of essays: that editor's introduction to "The Genesis of the Revolutionary War", which ties in with several other things he addresses at the same period... and both before and after, for that matter. Monolithic he was not, but unusually well-integrated... that he was.)
I understand what you mean by breaking away from his typical approach. He had expressed dissatisfaction, towards the end of his life, with his legacy from the pulps, complaining of a pernicuous influence upon his style. I can see your point about it being addressed in this story, and I am convinced that that has been the case.

I will leave Curwen aside for the appropriate time. That is -- in my opinion -- one of HPL's greater efforts, and reason at least to enjoy him. But enough for now.
I've always had mixed feelings about this story. I like some of the ideas a great deal - space/time travel though dimensional doorways, 'magic' as an advanced science, the glimpse of the Old Ones city, but think the execution lacked a bit. To me at least, the story seems rushed and I think it might have benefited from a longer length.

I don't think Keziah knew the concepts behind what she was using. She happened upon them and used them to further her goals which were anything but pure research into the sciences. And while I understand her instinctive reaction to the cross as a product of her upbringing, the way it's presented seems awkward and rough.

As for the Old Ones and their portrayal - Dyer came to seem them in a sympathetic light but who is to say they would see humans the same way? In any case, I think they show that time as well as space is involved in Keziah's traveling as well as establishing the high degree of civilization of an utterly alien species. While we don't know exactly all that was going on, I don't get the impression the Old Ones were following Keziah around on her baby-killing sprees.

Anyway, all this talk of Old Ones is making me anxious for Mountains...
I can't say much that hasn't really been said, but I'd like to add that, as a Lovecraftian character, Brown Jenkin seemed a bit mundane to me. I believe the character was based on a dream of his, and I'm sure what HP was imagining in his head when he wrote it was terrifying, but a rat with a man's head just seemed silly to me and ended up spoiling the mood a bit. The odd sense of detachment I get when reading really good Lovecraft is what attracted me to his work, and this is one of the few stories that fails in that department, unfortunately. That's not to say it's a poor story at all - I really enjoyed reading it - it just doesn't quite live up to his other later work.
Without meaning to end discussion -- which should certainly continue if anyone has more to add... what would be the next selection? Preferences?
Woo, I should be able to join in this time!

And if the story were to be one from The Call of Cthulhu or The Thing on the Doorstep anthologies then I have the books here and ready to be read *hint hint* :p

Heh, seriously now, I don't mind what we read next :)

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