Another Summer Sequel

The sweltering heat of midsummer now torments us in the northern hemisphere, and it is a maddening sort of affliction – more to be borne than truly remedied. Still, hope of a antidote beyond central air conditioning may send some in search of metaphorical chills – such as those that course down the spine when one encounters true horror.

We have re-opened Vacation Necronomicon School for a second term just for those seekers – call it a sequel, if you will.

It’s true that film sequels tend to have a higher body count and more explosions, but literary sequels need not be so unimaginative. We do have many returning cast members (if you’ll pardon the term) and a formula to follow, but the similarities mostly end there. However, I think it’s fitting that our first Lovecraft story up for discussion is a sequel of sorts.

“The Haunter of the Dark” was a response to another writer’s story – Robert Bloch’s “The Shambler from the Stars,” which was a mythos-type tale, and dedicated to H. P. Lovecraft. However, Bloch killed off his Lovecraft-inspired character, so Lovecraft correspondingly killed his Bloch-inspired character in today’s story, a move I choose to interpret as genteel ribbing between the two authors. (Though of course my interpretation may not be correct.)

In “The Haunter of the Dark” we encounter another facet of the ever-fascinating (and terrifying) Nyarlathotep and witness yet another unsuspecting man’s descent into madness. Your assignment today is to discuss insanity as an inevitable consequence of encountering the unknown. Are these characters actually mad if they have actually encountered such things? Why is loss of rationality so often the horrifying result? Is disbelief of others the key? If a normal condition such as darkness can become a living presence that means literal harm, is madness a rational response rather than an irrational one? Ponder an aspect of this, in 300 words or less.

Welcome back to Vacation Necronomicon School!

Note: Neither Bloch’s “Shambler from the Stars” nor the subsequent “The Shadow from the Steeple” (which he wrote to complete the trilogy), are in the public domain and are therefore unavailable online. However, all three tales in the cycle are included in the Del Rey edition of “Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos.”

Reading Assignment: The Haunter of the Dark
Task: 300 words or less on madness and the unknown

About Headmistress

Sarah L. Crowder, current headmistress of Vacation Necronomicon School, was once a pupil at the prestigious Miskatonic Academy for Girls -- though she did not graduate, as the school closed under mysterious circumstances shortly before her studies were completed. She spent many years contemplating both the arcane arts and hidden dimensions of commonplace life, and now lends her talents to our little online haven for workaday scholars.
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12 Responses to Another Summer Sequel

  1. Pingback: Summer School: Assignment One « TENTACLII :: H.P. Lovecraft blog

  2. Headmistress says:

    @Borrowind – I wrote a short story about “maddening winds” as a teenager, though I confess I was more inspired by my step-mother’s impressive (and very loud) wind chime collection than the wind itself. However, my personal anecdote does not negate your premise! I am also very intrigued by the novel you mentioned. I live in Texas (though in the east, not the western setting of “The Wind”), and we are currently in the middle of a very severe drought. Texas can still be a very harsh place (both physically and culturally) – though hopefully not as harsh as one imagines it was in the 1880s setting portrayed in the 1925 novel.

    Thank you!

  3. Nina says:

    When confronted with the unknown in Lovecraft’s world, your reaction will depend on who you are. 1) If you are a half-caste or Lascar*, you may be unfit for Rhode Island society, but you will nevertheless have some dim inkling of hidden horrors, and your coping strategy will be to worship stone idols and sacrifice people. You may go insane or get eaten, but given your tribe or cult has continued to exist for centuries, you must be doing something right. 2) If you are an artist or writer, you are exquisitely sensitive, and if an Elder God mutters in its sleep, you will wilt like a daisy. 3) If you are a professor from Miskatonic University, you will try to use logic and reason to understand hidden worlds, but you will fail.

    In “The Haunter in the Dark”, how do we stand? 1) Lovecraft seems to feel that Italians don’t quite meet the mark for polite society; the narrator has never seen any reason to visit the Italian section of town. In addition, Italians seem to have that dim inkling of danger that foreigners seem to have. On the other hand, they are undeniably brave and resourceful in trying to defend the town. 2) The narrator is both an artist *and* a writer, he senses the unknown, is drawn to it and ultimately killed by it. 3) The closest thing to a scientist in this story is the intrepid reporter,
    but when we meet him he is a pile of bones.

    I should point out the obvious: that the vast majority of humanity in any Lovecraft tale is unaware of nameless horror and quite sane. Does Lovecraft envy them or pity them? I suspect he’d rather climb the stairs and gaze into the mysterious stone than never know the wonder of the alien orbs with great stone towers.

    *a sailor or militiaman from South Asia, in case you wondered.

  4. Pingback: Once Upon a Time in the West of London | Scrivenings and scribblings by writer and artist Paul Anderson

  5. Paul says:

    I’m over the word count, which is par for the course on all my assignments…

    http://www.paulanderson.org.uk/2011/07/vns-on-madness/

  6. Headmistress says:

    @Nina – Excellent points, one and all. I have to say that I sympathize with the Italians, as I fear I would not quite be fit for polite Rhode Island society myself. I particularly love this: “If you are an artist or writer, you are exquisitely sensitive, and if an Elder God mutters in its sleep, you will wilt like a daisy.” Earlier this summer I dreamt that a glittery black beast – nearly like a whale, but not quite – rose from the sea. I was told it was named “Pebther.” I hope I don’t start wilting!

    @Paul – I suspect you are right about Blake – the fact that he had already read many of those forbidden volumes is rather damning. Very nicely done!

    Thank you!

  7. Resa says:

    @Nina– brilliant observations. Much of that shows the racist underthought of Lovecraft writings. Even so, I think he was more of a misanthrope than anything else. Yes, he didn’t seem to have much respect for “foreigners”, but he had no respect for those fine old inbred New England families either. Was anyone good enough for him, really?

    I was very much in the shallow end of the comment pool with this assignment. So much of the being driven mad by the horrible truth of the universe seems to be borne of Lovecraft’s own sense of anomie. Insanity might not be a truly rational response, but it might be a last grasp for control in the hopeless situation.

  8. Nina says:

    I unwittingly studied for Vacation Necronomicon School by watching this documentary over the winter: “Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown” (available on Netflix). We’ve all guessed that he was racist against African-Americans, but it turns out he was uncomfortable with all sorts of immigrants and hated living in New York City. However, as he got older Lovecraft appears to have tried to overcome his prejudices.

  9. Headmistress says:

    @Resa – That rings true, I think – that “last grasp for control” in an out of control situation. So much of Lovecraft’s madness represents a public (and very shameful) loss of control.

    @Nina – I had planned on including that documentary in the curriculum this year, but ran out of time to watch it. (I will add it to my Netflix queue, though.) There is some autobiographical material from his time in New York in the short story “He,” including his discomfort with all kinds of people who didn’t measure up to his ideas of purity. I have often wondered if Lovecraft lived now, would he be obsessed with GM food and the like? Would he simply have transferred his horror at the Other to a more socially acceptable form? I don’t know. But I’ve thought about it.

    Thanks!

  10. Kit says:

    In the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, ignorance is in fact bliss — or at the very least, sanity. Challenging the unknown — making it known — is a nearly sure way to a bad end; dead, insane, or both.

    Unlike most people in his stories, who go through life safely blinkered, Lovecraft’s doomed protagonists are unable to resist poking into non-Euclidean corners and shining lights into tenebrous places.

    One might ask why, in the face of danger to life, limb,and sanity, Lovecraft’s doomed protagonists persist in heading into the unknown. One answer might be that, having grown in ignorance, they don’t know the danger that they face until it’s too late, and they have crossed an invisible, but irrevocable, line between the safety and sanity of ignorance and the dangers of knowing too much.

    But this answer only raises another one; why do Lovecraft’s protagonists defy what is, in the Mythos, literally common sense.

    An answer to that could come from the archetype of the tragic hero who is led to his doom by his fatal flaw. In Lovecraft’s stories, that flaw is curiosity. It is not a surprise that so many of Lovecraft’s stories feature students or teachers at Miskatonic University.

    But not all students or teachers fall victim to the lure of forbidden knowledge. Lovecraft’s tragic heroes also possess a sensitivity that predisposes them to madness. Many of his heroes are writers or artists.

    This leads to a chicken-or-egg question; are Lovecraft’s protagonists doomed because they seek out the unknown … or do they seek out the unknown because they are doomed?

  11. Headmistress says:

    @Kit – It does seem to be the combination of curiosity and sensitivity that dooms a Lovecraftian character, and as for your final question…well, that is a very good question, indeed.

    Thank you!

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