BY DAN ALBAN
“That is not dead which can eternal lie,And with strange aeons even death may die”- from The Necronomicon, as quoted in “The Nameless City” by H.P.
The approach of Halloween signals a few weeks when the otherwise deviant celebration of horror and the supernatural briefly becomes the socially accepted norm, and indulging one’s tastes for ghoulish or morbid entertainment is encouraged. Few things are scarier than tales of terror set in familiar local haunts, so this is the perfect time for New Englanders to become acquainted with the works of New England’s own master of the macabre, legendary author Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Viewed by many as the Edgar Allan Poe of the twentieth century, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) almost single-handedly popularized the genre of weird fiction (weird meaning “of a mysteriously strange and usually frightening nature,” not just peculiar), a meld of gothic horror, science fiction, and fantasy that emphasizes psychological terror in a dismal and unnerving atmosphere. Lovecraft’s stories are filled with discoveries of ancient secrets and unspeakable horrors, nightmares and eerie dreams, characters questioning their own sanity, and evil alien powers beyond human comprehension. An antiquarian and anglophile, Lovecraft wrote in an idiosyncratic and sometimes archaic style (he famously re-introduced the word “eldritch”) that may at first seem odd, but ultimately serves to heighten the dread-filled tone of his tales.
Spending most of his life in Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft set most of his dark tales in both real and fictional locations in his beloved New England. Many Lovecraft stories take place in “Lovecraft Country” – the fictional North Shore towns of Arkham, Innsmouth, Kingsport, and Dunwich (perhaps fictional equivalents of Ipswich, Salem/Danvers, Marblehead, or Newburyport). But Lovecraft’s tales also feature real nearby locations such as Boston’s North End, Salem, Danvers, Marblehead, Providence, Gloucester, and Newburyport. Some stories even mention such familiar places as Harvard’s Widener Library, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, and an early version of the MBTA’s Red Line: “Park Street Under-Kendall – Central – Harvard…the familiar stations of the Boston-Cambridge tunnel.”
Though he published numerous stories in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, Lovecraft never achieved widespread popularity in his lifetime, sometimes resorting to ghostwriting, most notably in the story “Under the Pyramids” for Harry Houdini. However, he did develop a widespread network of avid fans and collaborators with whom he corresponded in voluminous letters. This group included many prominent authors such as Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian) a teenage Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), and SF & Fantasy Grand Master Fritz Lieber. Two of these correspondents, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, formed the publishing company Arkham House after Lovecraft’s death to publish collections of his works in book form. Although early sales of his books were slow, but sales eventually took off and his stories have since become regarded as classics of the horror genre, influencing the work of artists such as H.R. Giger (art designer for Alien) and writers such as Neil Gaiman and Stephen King.
The Cthulhu Mythos & Miskatonic University
The characters, creatures, themes and other elements from the weird fiction of Lovecraft and his collaborators are often termed the Cthulhu Mythos, named after Cthulhu, a prominent alien god who slumbers in the sunken city of R’lyeh at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, awaiting the proper alignment of the stars to rise and wreak havoc on the world. A defining theme of the Cthulhu Mythos is what Lovecraft termed cosmicism: a bleak existential conception of humanity as being completely inconsequential in the grand scope of the universe, at the mercy of far more powerful alien creatures, like Cthulhu, who regard us as pawns or insignificant insects. This philosophy is perhaps best captured in the opening of “The Call of Cthulhu,” his most famous story: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far… but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
Lovecraft’s alien creatures are an essential element of the Mythos. Not content to creep out readers with chanting cultists, evil high priests, and warlocks, Lovecraft also introduced a full bestiary of monsters such as the shapeless protoplasmic Shuggoth, frog-like Deep Ones, pink flying fungi Mi-Gos, and blind, semi-ethereal Flying Polyps. These monsters are often controlled by a set of powerful alien entities, known as the Great Old Ones or Outer Gods, which include squid-like Cthulhu, crawling chaos Nyarlathotep, and Yog-Sothoth, a mass of glowing bubbles.
A famous location in the Cthulhu Mythos is Miskatonic University, a fictional Ivy League university in Arkham that figures in several Lovecraft stories, often as a source of funding for archeological expeditions. It is perhaps best known as the setting of the campy 1985 cult film Re-Animator, in which Miskatonic medical students re-animate the dead with a glowing green serum; the film was very loosely adapted from Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Re-Animator.” Miskatonic University has an extensive occult library, and is reportedly one of only five libraries worldwide that holds a genuine copy of the notorious Necronomicon.
The Necronomicon and Widener Library
The Necronomicon, or Book of the Dead, was purportedly originally written by “the mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred in Damascus in the 8th Century A.D. as Al Azif, translated many times over the years by scholars of the arcane, with only a few genuine copies still in existence. It supposedly contains many dark secrets and evil magic; it is considered dangerous to read, perhaps even driving readers insane. Though the Necronomicon was a fictional creation of H.P. Lovecraft, there are quite a few gullible people who think it’s real. This is partly because of the many copies of books called Necronomicon that have been distributed by a variety of publishers as hoaxes or novelty items. The Necronomicon gained further prominence when it was featured in the cult classic Evil Dead film trilogy.
In “The Dunwich Horror,” Harvard’s Widener Library is mentioned as being one of the five libraries worldwide with a genuine copy of the Necronomicon. And, indeed, Lovecraft was right! If you check the HOLLIS catalog, you will find that there are numerous copies of the Necronomicon – in a variety of languages – in the Widener holdings. For amusement, this author took a look at both of Widener’s English copies of the Necronomicon. Turns out neither was actually in Widener proper – one was in the depository and the other was deep in the bowels of Pusey 3, the underground library connected to Widener via a labyrinth of tunnels. Neither copy was particularly convincing as a genuine Necronomicon, though one turned out to be written in Sumerian with only the introduction in English (and even it was printed so that the pages were turned right to left.) But perhaps the genuine Harvard copy of the Necronomicon is kept under wraps – one could hardly expect Harvard librarians to leave an infamous evil book on the shelves in the general collection.
Arkham Asylum and Danvers State Hospital
Another famous creation linked to Lovecraft is Arkham Asylum of the Batman universe. Arkham Asylum was created by Batman writer Dennis O’Neil as a tribute to Lovecraft’s town of Arkham. In fact, Arkham Sanitarium actually is a setting in Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep.” Lovecraft reportedly drew inspiration for this creation from the Danvers State Hospital,
a massive red gothic castle complex that Lovecraft also references twice in his stories. The mental hospital, operational from 1878 to1992, is sometimes called “The Witches’ Castle” by locals due to its appearance and location on Hathorne Hill in Danvers, MA. Danvers was formerly known as Salem Village, the actual location of the 1692 Salem witch trials. Judge John Hathorne, the notorious “hanging judge” of the trials, and the only judge who remained unapologetic for the events in later years, once lived on a house at the top of Hathorne Hill where the old state hospital now stands. He is the great, great grandfather of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who changed the spelling of his name out of shame.
The impressive and creepy architectural spectacle of Danvers State Hospital was featured in the bone-chilling 2001 psychological horror film Session 9, about a doomed asbestos cleanup at the site. The grounds are closed to visitors and the combination of private security patrols and the presence of the state police barracks across the street make trespassing a risky proposition. It is visible from I-95 and Route 1, but this author suggests viewing the buildings from a cul-de-sac off of Dayton Street on a hill just south of the complex. Despite being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the property is scheduled to be sold to developer Avalon Bay this Friday, October 21. Avalon Bay plans to tear down 39 of the 40 buildings; two thirds of the main Kirkbride building will be demolished, while the remaining third will be modified for use as apartments and condos. However, a group called the Danvers Preservation Fund may attempt to obtain an injunction against the sale pending the outcome of a lawsuit that charges the Massachusetts Historical Commission failed to follow statutory requirements for public comment in its decision to green light the development.
Lovecraft Reading Recommendations Those interested in exploring Lovecraft’s fiction may want to begin with the following stories: “The Call of Cthulhu,” “Shadows Over Innsmouth,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and “Pickman’s Model.” Collections of his stories are available at most bookstores and libraries. Lovecraft’s stories are also available online at http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/index.html
Dan Alban is a 3L who recently played a nine-hour overnight session of the board game Arkham Horror; he anxiously waits for the stars to align so Cthulhu will awaken from his slumber in R’lyeh.