"Whisperer in Darkness" -- why not a fave?


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Aug 21, 2010
I reviewed the thread about favorite stories. No one mentioned "Whisperer," unless I overlooked it.

I've always been fond of it even though it's perhaps drawn out, and the climactic revelation is no great surprise. I like the idea of the eerie recordings and the Vermont floods in which alien bodies are glimpsed (even though that's probably inspired by Blackwood's "Willows" rather than being an "original" idea).

Remember when Pluto was demoted to "dwarf planet" status a while back? To mark the event, my wife and I had a read-in. I read the story aloud to her. (She was a Lovecraft fan when she was a kid, like me.)
By the way, has anyone written a Lovecraftian story about the Oort Cloud (love that name) beyond the orbit of Pluto/Yuggoth?
Actually, the bit about the Vermont floods was based on fact. HPL had friends and correspondents in the area whom he had visited (in fact, Akeley's farmhouse is also based on a very real location which, I believe, is still standing -- Donald Burleson & others have visited it since; for details, you may want to look up his "Humour Beneath Horror: Some Sources for 'The Dunwich Horror' and 'The Whisperer in Darkness'", in the second issue of Lovecraft Studies, pp. 5-15). This was the sort of thing Lovecraft did quite a bit... The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and "The Shunned House" are heavily laced with genuine history and folklore concerning Providence & adjacent parts, including the attacks of vampirism from the nineteenth century; something J. Earl Clauson also wrote about in his column, "These Plantations"; you can find this in his collection, These Plantations (Roger Williams Press, 1937) pp. 67-69.
Fritz Leiber wrote a rather good essay on this story in The Whisperer Re-Examined. He considered it one of Lovecraft's finest stories, but doesn't fail to point out its many weak parts, namely the stunning gullibility of the narrator, and the melodramatic props the supposedly advanced space aliens employ to lure and befuddle him (fake telegrams, drugged coffee, wax masks etc). I mostly agree with this, though whilst Leiber was able to overlook these faults to appreciate the piece as a whole, I myself cannot. For me, the problems I see with the story detract from the general atmospheric tension, and interfere with my ability to immerse myself in the unfolding events. I do agree, however, that it includes some wonderfully eerie passages and some fine local and historical (and even contemporary scientific!) flavor.
My views on the story itself is that it is a wonderful, but seriously flawed, attempt. The behavior of the aliens, for instance, is a serious drawback, as it is petty and, worse, inept (the telegram, for instance). It simply reduces them too much to be genuinely awe-inspiring, and that gravely detracts from the atmosphere of the story. The same can be said for "The Dunwich Horror" in that the Old Ones there are presented as having much too "human" motivations, and the concept of evil is made too simplistic as a result.

Incidentally, though, the ending was never intended to be particularly revelatory, as it is strongly indicated from the very first page of the story. This is one of the many examples of what Henry Kuttner (if memory serves) rightly called HPL's "confirmational" rather than "revelational" endings. The effect is a subtler one, in that it relies not on providing a shock or surprise, but a gradual piling up of evidence to confirm what the reader has long since suspected to be the case, thus leaving no real outlet for avoiding the implications (both on the physical and emotional planes) of that fact.
My views on the story itself is that it is a wonderful, but seriously flawed, attempt. The behavior of the aliens, for instance, is a serious drawback, as it is petty and, worse, inept (the telegram, for instance). It simply reduces them too much to be genuinely awe-inspiring, and that gravely detracts from the atmosphere of the story. The same can be said for "The Dunwich Horror" in that the Old Ones there are presented as having much too "human" motivations, and the concept of evil is made too simplistic as a result.

True. The aliens are reduced to too human a role (and rather bungling humans at that) to really work on the level of threat which Lovecraft seems to want. I also found the notion of the brain jars to be incompatible with the generally advanced state of science and knowledge which the beings are said to possess. That these clunky cannisters are expected to make the journey beyond the edge of known space and the inconceivable gulfs beyond just doesn't ring true to me. Sort of like a far future society that has mastered hyperspace travel but still uses rocket jets.

Where the story really works I think is in its hints and implications. The phonograph record, the footprints, etc, all work to build a convincingly eerie atmosphere in the early stages, and later the false Akeley's passing revelations about the nature of its race and the vast multi dimensional reality of which we are a part helps in establishing a more cosmic background against which these events can take place.

Incidentally, though, the ending was never intended to be particularly revelatory, as it is strongly indicated from the very first page of the story. This is one of the many examples of what Henry Kuttner (if memory serves) rightly called HPL's "confirmational" rather than "revelational" endings. The effect is a subtler one, in that it relies not on providing a shock or surprise, but a gradual piling up of evidence to confirm what the reader has long since suspected to be the case, thus leaving no real outlet for avoiding the implications (both on the physical and emotional planes) of that fact.

Indeed. Lovecraft more or less confirms the ending on the opening page. But I still feel that he was, on some level, aiming to shock the reader with the final line in which he fails, because the nature of the false Akeley is so clearly evident long in advance. It's not so much a matter of technique as in handling, I think. The story bludgeons you over the head with so many clues that the sheer, almost willful, ignorance of the narrator becomes exasperating and the ending a relief. It overshoots the mark, in other words. Had there been a little more subtlety, a little less foreshadowing, the story may have been a better one I think.
On that last point I will, very slightly, disagree with you, I think. I feel that the last line was not only the clincher for all that had gone before -- something which, at that point, was scarcely needed -- but added the particularly horrific touch concerning the nature of that final confirmation: "For the things in the chair, perfect to the last, subtle detail of microscopic resemblance—or identity—were the face and hands of Henry Wentworth Akeley." Without being baldly stated, this puts a different, and rather gruesome, spin on the bit about Nyarlathotep putting on the "waxen mask", etc.; it also adds a touch of grim, ironic humor in that (in a sense), Wilmarth was talking to Akeley... or at least the part of him he saw was actually Akeley, or a part of Akeley. A touch of the conte cruel there, I think, and certainly in line with the sardonic humor Nyarlathotep displays elsewhere in Lovecraft's work.

Thus, I think the ending works very well on that level; that it not only resolves the question of the whisperer being an impostor, but of what has happened to Akeley, and of the game of cat-and-mouse which is being played out, not necessarily by the aliens themselves, but quite possibly by Nyarlathotep, perhaps for his (its?) own amusement....
I recall that my feelings on reading this for the first (and only) time were generally quite favourable. The extreme gullibility of the protagonist, whilst noticed, didn't spoil the story for me. Perhaps when I come to re-read it I will view it more critically.
I just finished this story, but it isn't one of my favorites because of the too obvious foreshadowing and extreme naivete of the narrator. However, it does have some positive points.

I actually rather liked the aliens in this story. They had been established as beings who dwelt on the Earth since before mankind. They allowed humans to develop and grow around them as long as they were not bothered. Even toward the end, the "whisperer" reveals many fascinating things about the nature of the universe and appears to offer a peaceful passage through space.

Even though the horror at the end was predictable, it also felt forced. Until then, there was nothing to indicate that these beings held any real malice toward humans. They even treated their human "spies" well. Although the story has the typical Lovecraft tropes, it really wouldn't feel like horror if told from a different perspective.
I'm inclined to agree that the story reads better if Nyarlothotep does not appear. It is clear that the Mi-go worship him, so it makes sense that they would attempt to imitate him. But the end reveal felt too crude to have been the work of Nyarlothotep. There are also frequent references to a "buzzing" sound in association with the whispers which point to the Mi-go.
Why does the thing posing as Akeley whisper in ye first place? If indeed it was Nyarlathotep in disguise, he would have been entirely able to mask his voice as he does his visage throughout ye aeons. Remember, there is another fungi from Yuggoth posing as human at the train depot, and the one aspect about him that is unnatural is his voice: "He had given the name of Stanley Adams, and had had such a queerly thick droning voice, that it made the clerk abnormally dizzy and sleepy to listen to him" If by Their smell we know ye Old Ones, then by their inhuman voice and its effect may we know ye Fungi. Thus ye Fungi disguised as Akeley, this whisperer in darkness, must clothe his voice with quiet speaking so as not to alert ye human of its cosmic inhuman nature.
By the way, has anyone written a Lovecraftian story about the Oort Cloud (love that name) beyond the orbit of Pluto/Yuggoth?
I have tried to write a short story on a space station orbiting a Kuiper belt object - the plot revolved around a man on the station slowly regaining his memory and realising he had unleashed a Nyarlathotep inspired plauge on the inhabitents. Basically it sucked, although I still have hopes for the idea: The Kuiper belt is essentially the home of relics from the very earliest days of the solar system, and it exists in a permanent half light. A few worlds out there are suspected to hide eternally dark oceans beneath miles of ice. It's a setting with Lovecraftian potential IMHO.
What with all the great stuff from Pluto lately, I'm going to reread HPL's Pluto story, "The Whisperer in Darkness," which I've always liked; but I'll try not to make a bunch of special pleading for it.

Some observations relating to the first few pages:

1.This story bears out my contention that a "Lovecraftian" story is going to develop a sense of place more deliberately than is typical for such fiction; this is Lovecraft's Pluto story but it's also his Vermont story. Here he gets at my interest in America before the changes brought by and after the Second World War (including, but not limited to, the "old weird America").

2.It's also Lovecraft's Machen's "Black Seal" story. You've got the scholar in the remote hills with folkloric interests, the mysterious black stone with hieroglyphic markings, and even a study with a bust in it -- in Machen's story a bust of Pitt figures in a loathsome incident, but here the bust is of Milton.

3.I've said recently that Lovecraft's writing can seem "laborious," and the first paragraphs of this story will bear out that generalization. You can see Lovecraft trying to build up the whole "sub-mythos" of this new story, but he struggles with his materials. He wants slowly to build up a sense of increasing revelation of the dreadful truth, but already by the fourth paragraph (p. 669) he's offering a rather too explicit description of the creatures. In other words, the desire to concoct a detailed alien realm (a key purpose of other stories, such as "The Shadow Out of Time" and At the Mountains of Madness) seems out of harmony with the desire to provoke the reader with subtle suggestion. You can see the conflict in this paragraph, which begins "What people thought they saw were organic shapes not quite like any they had ever seen before" (the suggestion register), and is soon pretty exact: "pinkish things about five feet long; with crustaceous bodies bearing vast pairs of dorsal fins or membraneous wings and several sets of articulated limbs, and with a sort of convoluted ellipsoid, covered with multititudes of very short antennae" (the objective science-fictional register). Narrator Wilmarth gives us a long letter from Akeley (pp. 674-677), which he is able to reproduce because he has memorized it. I suppose other readers than I have also found that contrivance unconvincing. There's no necessity in the story for Wilmarth to possess a prodigious power of memory; it's just there because Lovecraft wants to have it both ways: that the letter is no longer extant but yet its contents can be faithfully reproduced.

4.The notion (p. 676) that the creatures fly through interstellar space, beating their "clumsy, powerful wings," evokes a weird image (it reminds me of Marvel comics' artist Jack Kirby's panels),* but cannot fail to confound a reader who knows anything about space as a vacuum or the enormous distances involved. It won't do to say this is Akeley's surmise not that of an omniscient narrator, since Akeley is (as I recall) always right in the "facts" he proffers about the creatures.

5.But I'm enjoying the story once again, as I did for the first time around 45 years ago. I've just put my finger on one reason why: the story is so old-time fannish in the way that trips to the post office and the excitement of getting mail are important in the plot. Some younger Chronsfolk may have no idea of what I'm referring to. Older ones may know what I mean: those days of typing long letters to be sent to other fans, letters with references to authors, stories, fictional names, etc. that were "unsuspected" by most. If it's exciting for Wilmarth and Akeley to discuss the weird goings-on in the Vermont hills, it was also exciting, when we were young sf and fantasy fans, to write to pen-friends far away about our used book discoveries, or our current story-writing, or what we were drawing, etc. How exciting it was to stop by the post office (my family had a P. O. box downtown and I was the one who usually picked up our mail) and find, perhaps, a plump envelope with a nice long letter from someone you were trying to persuade to read Tolkien, and maybe there'd also be a mimeographed fanzine with reviews of entries in the Ballantine fantasy series, etc. To this day I'd hardly be exaggerating if I were to steal a phrase from Wordsworth and say "my heart leaps up" when I see a mail truck in a neighborhood, or when I pass a post office. Of course this nostalgic element isn't properly a part of Lovecraft's story, but it's part of the experience of reading it for me.

My page references will be to the Barnes and Noble corrected edition (2011) of Lovecraft's complete fiction.

*I think the elephant-creatures in Howard's "The Tower of the Elephant" also flew to Earth.
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I agree that Nyarlathotep isn't in the story at all. My interpretation is that the Mi-Go merely worship him (either sincerely or to obtain his help) and the whispered is a Mi-Go in disguise. I also assumed that they had human helpers, and everyone else that Akeley meets at Wilmarth's house is human.

I think you're right, Extollager, that it does have a pretty clunky start, and too much is given away at the beginning (after all, it's not as if the mythos stuff is going to turn out to be a mistake...). The flying thing is just odd - I imagine that they have some kind of hyperspace organ, or they teleport through dimensions with Nyarlathotep's help - as is the Yeti aspect. I also love the image of this guy hiding a massive phonograph in the forest. Presumably he disguised it as an orchid.

But it's one of my favourites. I think the exchange of letters, with their rising panic and sudden change, is very powerful. Likewise the transcription of the recording. Lovecraft seemed to understand the power of hearing a voice speaking English that clearly wasn't human. All through the story, it's what isn't being seen or told that pulls the reader on. HPL raises a lot of questions in the course of the story and keeps things very sinister. Like The Shadow Over Innsmouth, it doesn't have the same sense of following a formula that some of the others do.

Also, the ending ties into something I find very sinister in horror fiction: the villain that doesn't quite manage to pass itself off as human. I think we see this in robots (like the one in Alien) and in zombies. It would also explain why the aliens' deception is a bit clumsy at points, rather like those moments where the Terminator has to interact with people. I would imagine that an image of the whisperer would be deep in uncanny valley.
6.Another thing that appeals to me in the story is the idea (not very much developed by HPL -- if he'd spent even more time on the story, he might have described some of the incidents more dramatically) is the siege of the Akeley place. This idea connects with a lot of men pretty immediately, the idea of turning one's residence into a place of refuge to be defended from attackers by night. You get this all the way back in Beowulf to a degree, but an analogue for Lovecraft could have been the pig-creatures in Hodgson's House on the Borderland trying to get into the narrator's house. This is a book HPL knew and relished -- my old Ace paperback includes a blurb from Lovecraft.


I think this kind of scenario does appeal to some men rather a lot. You get a bit of it in Household's Rogue Male, too, don't you? I'm not saying that women don't have an imaginative attraction to the scenario, but if they do no examples come to mind right away; rather, you have the scenario of the woman being held prisoner in the house and needing to escape, e.g. Anne Radcliffe's Castle of Otranto or McKnight Malmar's "The Storm." The first scenario comes up in the movie Signs, with the Mel Gibson character and his brother boarding up their farmhouse to keep the aliens in the cornfield from getting inside. I couldn't find a picture of them actually boarding up the windows...

I think also of the farmhouse in Alan Garner's exciting children's book The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, the big dog barking, Farmer Mossock concerned... this is when Grimnir is trying to get inside, I think, perhaps with some of the morthbrood...
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7.You see Lovecraft moving emphatically towards science fiction in this one. The Yuggoth creatures aren't magical monsters; they are, emphatically, aliens, interested in colonizing the earth for its resources.

I said this was Lovecraft's Machen's "Black Seal" story. In that one, the bizarre creature is accounted for in connection with supposed evolutionary atavism -- although the story doesn't have a science-fictional atmosphere, science fiction is what it amounts to. Lovecraft has taken the other option for a naturalistic origin for his dreadful creatures by making them extraterrestrial colonists. In both cases the bizarre creatures are enveloped in the idea of folklore, of the explanation of tales of harmful supernatural beings such as bad fairies turning out to be something accountable for in scientific terms, but also horrifying.
8.In my message #14 above I refer to the sense of place and the Machen influence. These two elements come together in Chapter VI of "The Whisperer in Darkness." While some readers may feel impatient about a "travelogue" slowing down the story's motion towards a horror payoff, I enjoy these paragraphs. Lovecraft is probably influenced by Machen's evocation of rural Wales (in "The Black Seal") here. Read again Lovecraft evoking the beauty, antiquarian charm, and suggestions of the strange at the beginning of Chapter VI. Then read from Machen's story. The narrator is the secretary/governess hired by Professor Gregg. She has never seen this Welsh landscape before, just as Wilmarth has never seen Vermont.


e set out at mid-day, and it was in the dusk of the evening that we arrived at a little country station. I was tired, and excited, and the drive through, the lanes seems all a dream. First the deserted streets of a forgotten village, while I heard Professor Gregg's voice talking of the Augustan Legion and the clash of arms, and all the tremendous pomp that followed the eagles; then the broad river swimming to full tide with the last afterglow glimmering duskily in the yellow water, the wide meadows, and the cornfields whitening, and the deep lane winding on the slope between the hills and the water. At last we began to ascend, and the air grew rarer; I looked down and saw the pure white mist tracking the outline of the river like a shroud, and a vague and shadowy country, imaginations and fantasy of swelling hills and hanging woods, and half-shaped outlines of hills beyond, stand in the distance the glare of the furnace fire on the mountain, growing by turns a pillar of shining flame, and fading to a dull point of red. We were slowly mounting a carriage drive, and then there came to me the cool breath and the scent of the great wood that was above us; I seemed to wander in its deepest depths, and there was the sound of trickling water, the scent of the green leaves, and the breath of the summer night. The carriage stopped at last, and I could scarcely distinguish the form of the house as I waited a moment at the pillared porch; and the rest of the evening seemed a dream of strange things bounded by the great silence of the wood and the valley and the river.

The next morning when I awoke and looked out of the bow window of the big old-fashioned bedroom, I saw under a gray sky a country that was still all mystery. The long, lovely valley, with the river winding in and out below, crossed, in mid vision by a mediæval bridge of vaulted and buttressed stone, the clear presence of the rising ground beyond, and the woods that I had only seen in shadow the night before, seemed tinged with enchantment, and the soft breath, of air that sighed in at the opened pane was like no other wind. I looked across the valley, and beyond, hill followed on hill as wave on wave, and here a faint blue pillar of smoke rose still in the morning air from the chimney of an ancient gray farmhouse, there was a rugged height crowned with dark firs, and in the distance I saw the white streak of a road that climbed and vanished into some unimagined country. But the boundary of all was a great wall of mountain, vast in the west, and ending like a fortress with a steep ascent and a domed tumulus clear against the sky. ...

Above the faded house on the hillside began the great forest; a long dark line seen from the opposing hills, stretching above the river for many a mile from north to south, and yielding in the north to even wilder country, barren and savage hills, and ragged common land, a territory all strange and unvisited, and more unknown to Englishmen than the very heart of Africa. The space of a couple of steep fields alone separated the house from the wood ... etc. [end of Machen excerpts]

9.A few years ago I came across an article by John Rateliff (from Tolkien Studies #6), who wrote as follows:

first I want to draw attention to Tolkien’s own description of how his prose works, of what he was trying to achieve. In one of the endnotes appended to “On Fairy-stories,” he includes the following revealing passage setting forth his narrative method, in which he makes clear his goal of writing in such a way as to draw in his readers, making them participate in the creation of the fictional world by encouraging them to draw on their own personal memories when reading one of his evocative passages:

[quoting Tolkien:]..... If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below,” the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but specially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word. ....


Tolkien’s contrast here of a single image presented to the passive viewer with the internal personalized visualization of a reader, who thus participates in the (sub)creation of the work, is of a piece with his championing, in the Foreword of the second edition to The Lord of the Rings, of what he calls applicability: his refusal to impose a single authorial or “allegorical” meaning on a work. I would argue that the style in which he chose to write, which he painstakingly developed over several decades until it reached its peak in The Hobbit and Farmer Giles of Ham and The Lord of the Rings and some of the late Silmarillion material, is deliberately crafted to spark reader participation. That many readers do get drawn in is witnessed by the intense investment so many people have in these books, the strong personal connection they form with the story, the almost visceral rejection of illustrations or dramatizations that do not fit their own inner vision of the characters, the returning to reread the books again and again to renew our acquaintance with the imaginary world.

[Rateliff quotes a Tolkien passage and a John Bellairs passage. He comments:]

note that in the passage from Tolkien, he does not describe every detail—what color were the rocks? who was on either side of Frodo as he sat huddled against the bitter cold? But Tolkien does tell us everything we need to know, in general terms with just enough specific detail to bring the scene home, to guide the reader’s imagination, to draw on our own memories of being cold and frozen, exhausted and miserable. We do not need to know what Frodo looked like, because we are looking through his eyes; too much detail would actually limit the applicability......

.....he often describes a scene not as you would experience it but as you would remember it afterwards. That is, his prose assumes the tone of things which have already happened, as they are stored in our memory. Thus the “walking bits,” which have so annoyed impatient readers who are only reading for the plot, do not in fact detail every day of Frodo’s year-long journey but instead are rendered down to a relatively few vivid images, such as would linger in the memory long after the event. After you have read these passages and think back on them, they very strongly resemble your actual memories of similar events (in fact, the very ones that provided the mental images that flashed through your mind when reading them) : a general recollection of where you were and what you were doing anchored by a few sharp, vivid, specific details that stand out. Thus the memory of reading the story gains the associations of events in the reader’s own life, because the one has already drawn upon the other.

[Extollager returns:]

I don't know that I would say that the above sentences quite nail it for me -- but perhaps they come closer than anything I remember, to suggesting how Tolkien's prose -- and Machen's prose at its best -- works. For years I have circled around the idea that there is some affinity between passages of the "Machen that matters" (to me) and Tolkien, and I think perhaps Rateliff's remarks on Tolkien's prose help with that.

And I'd add that at the beginning of "Whisperer" Chapter VI it seems Lovecraft may have been reaching for something of the same quality. I may try to work up some of this in an article someday, so I suppose I'd better say (c) 2015. But does anyone want to discuss any of these points?
I probably won't have a chance to give a full response to the above posts until Monday (my work week being what it has been for a goodly while now), but I thought, in connection with the "sense of place" you mention, that you might be interested in knowing that in his description of the Vermont countryside, Lovecraft is almost quoting his essay "Vermont -- A First Impression" verbatim at times. I say "almost" because he recasts the language just slightly in order to bring out the sinister rather than the more benign mythic aspects of the place. You might find it worthwhile to look up a copy of that essay sometime and compare it with these passages in the story....

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