Tuesday, April 13, 2010

My Favourite Short Stories # 5: The Haunter of the Dark by HP Lovecraft

“Cautious investigators will hesitate to challenge the common belief that Robert Blake was killed by lightning, or by some profound nervous shock derived from an electrical discharge. It is true that the window he faced was unbroken, but nature has shown herself capable of many freakish performances. The expression on his face may easily have arisen from some obscure muscular source unrelated to anything he saw, while the entries in his diary are clearly the result of a fantastic imagination aroused by certain local superstitions and by certain old matters he had uncovered.”

Having waxed lyrical about the joys of Clark Ashton Smith, it only seems fair that I now mention the great H.P Lovecraft. As with CAS, it’s downright difficult to pick just one Lovecraft tale but, for me, The Haunter of the Dark has just the right mix of otherworldly horror and gothic SF sensibilities that HPL did so very, very well.

First published in Weird Tales (where else) in 1936, The Haunter of the Dark is something of a Lovecraftian in-joke, being a sequel and/or reply to Robert Bloch’s mythos tale "The Shambler from the Stars", while its protagonist – Robert Blake – is almost certainly a literary avatar of Bloch himself (with a little bit of Lovecraft and a generous dollop of Clark Ashton Smith thrown in for good measure) and the structure of the story mirrors H.H Ewers’ horror tale The Spider.

Add in Lovecraft’s consumate ability to create an ethereal, alien atmosphere in even the most seemingly ordinary of settings (in this case Providence, Rhode Island, a familiar enough stamping ground for HPL and his tales) and cosmic horror is almost inevitable.

When author and painter Robert Blake moves Providence he becomes obsessed with a deserted church on Federal Hill – “a certain huge, dark church most fascinated Blake. It stood out with especial distinctness at certain hours of the day, and at sunset the great tower and tapering steeple loomed blackly against the flaming sky.” – obsession leads to investigation and he discovers that “There had been a bad sect there in the old days- an outlaw sect that called up awful things from some unknown gulf of night.”

And when Blake decides to enter the church he discovers a notebook, “a metal box of peculiarly asymmetrical form”, a ‘Shining Trapezohedron’ and the “vaguely charred” corpse of the last person to enter the eldritch sanctum of the church.

Upon deciphering the notebook he discovers “references to a Haunter of the Dark awaked by gazing into the Shining Trapezohedron, and insane conjectures about the black gulfs of chaos from which it was called.“

Finally, on a stormy and lightning flashed night, something comes for the unfortunate Blake, his terror and inevitable doom recorded in his “final frenzied jottings”:

“... The thing is taking hold of my mind... I see things I never knew before. Other worlds and other galaxies... Dark... The lightning seems dark and the darkness seems light... What am I afraid of? Is it not an avatar of Nyarlathotep, who in antique and shadowy Khem even took the form of man? I remember Yuggoth, and more distant Shaggai, and the ultimate void of the black planets... Azathoth have mercy!- the lightning no longer flashes- horrible- I can see everything with a monstrous sense that is not sight- light is dark and dark is light... those people on the hill... guard... candles and charms... their priests... I am it and it is I - I want to get out... must get out and unify the forces... it knows where I am... I see it - coming here - hell-wind - titan blue - black wing - Yog Sothoth save me - the three-lobed burning eye...”

It is in these last few passages in particular where Lovecraft’s gift for horror really shines: the notion of great, unknowable, Things in the void and the sheer insignificance of human kind by comparison to them. When he was on form, no one could write quite like Lovecraft or conjure quite the same sense of creeping dread and approaching doom.

Azathoth have mercy, indeed.

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