“Dunwich Horror, The“


“Dunwich Horror, The“
   Novelette (17,590 words); written in August 1928. First published in WT(April 1929); first collected in O; corrected text in DH; annotated version in An1and TD.
   In the seedy area of Dunwich in “north central Massachusetts” live a number of backwoods farmers. One family, the Whateleys, has been the source of particular suspicion ever since the birth, on Candlemas 1913, of Wilbur Whateley, the offspring of an albino woman and an unknown father. Lavinia’s father, Old Whateley, shortly after the birth makes an ominous prediction: “some day yew folks‘ll hear a child o’ Lavinny’s a-callin’ its father’s name on the top o’ Sentinel Hill!”Wilbur grows anomalously fast, and by age thirteen is nearly seven feet tall. He is intellectually precocious, having been educated by the books in Old Whateley’s shabby library. In 1924 Old Whateley dies, but manages to instruct his grandson to consult “page 751 of the complete edition” of some book so that he can “open up the gates to Yog-Sothoth.” Two years later Lavinia disappears and is never seen again. In the winter of 1927 Wilbur makes his first trip out of Dunwich, to consult the Latin edition of the Necronomiconat the Miskatonic University Library; but when he asks to borrow the volume, he is denied by the old librarian Henry Armitage. He tries to do the same at Harvard but is similarly rebuffed. Then, in the late spring of 1928, Wilbur breaks into the Miskatonic library to steal the book, but is killed by the vicious guard-dog. His death is very repulsive: “…it is permissible to say that, aside from the external appearance of face and hands, the really human element in Wilbur Whateley must have been very small. When the medical examiner came, there was only a sticky whitish mass on the painted boards, and the monstrous odour had nearly disappeared. Apparently Whateley had no skull or bony skeleton; at least, in any true or stable sense. He had taken somewhat after his unknown father.”
   Meanwhile bizarre things are happening elsewhere. The monstrous entity the Whateleys had evidently been raising bursts forth, having no one to feed or tend to it. It creates havoc throughout the town, crushing houses as if they were matchsticks. Worst of all, it is completely invisible, leaving only huge footprints to indicate its presence. It descends into a ravine called the Bear’s Den, then later emerges and causes hideous devastation. Armitage has in the meantime been decoding the diary in cipher that Wilbur had kept and finally learns the true state of affairs: “His [Armitage’s] wilder wanderings were very startling indeed, including…fantastic references to some plan for the extirpation of the entire human race and all animal and vegetable life from the earth by some terrible elder race of beings from another dimension.” Armitage knows how to stop it, and he and two colleagues ascend a small hill facing Sentinel Hill, where the monster appears to be heading. They are armed with an incantation to send the creature back to the dimension it came from, as well as a sprayer containing a powder that will make it visible for an instant. The incantation and powder both work as planned, and the entity is seen to be a huge, ropy, tentacled monstrosity that shouts, “HELP! HELP!… ff— ff— ff—FATHER! FATHER! YOG-SOTHOTH!” and is completely obliterated. It was Wilbur Whateley’s twin brother.
   There are several significant literary influences on the tale. The central premise—the sexual union of a “god” or monster (in this case Yog-Sothoth, the entity first cited rather nebulously in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward) with a human woman—is taken from Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan”; HPL makes no secret of it, having Armitage say of the Dunwich people at one point, “Great God, what simpletons! Shew them Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan and they’ll think it a common Dunwich scandal!” The use of bizarre footsteps to indicate the presence of an otherwise undetectable entity is borrowed from Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo.” HPL knew well the celebrated tales featuring invisible monsters— Maupassant’s “The Horla” (certain features of which he had adapted for “The Call of Cthulhu”); Fitz James O’Brien’s “What Was It?”; Bierce’s “The Damned Thing”—and derived hints from each of them in his own creation. A less well-known tale, Anthony M.Rud’s “Ooze” ( WT,March 1923; rpt. The Moon Terror and Storiesby A.G.Birch et al. [1927]), also deals with an invisible monster that eventually bursts forth from the house in which it is trapped. A still more obscure work, Harper Williams’s The Thing in the Woods (1924) — read by HPL in the fall of 1924 — involves a pair of twins, one of whom (a werewolf) is locked in a shed. In addition, the story may derive from an entry (\#162) in HPL’s commonplace book: “Ultimate horror—grandfather returns from strange trip— mystery in house—wind & darkness—grandf. & mother engulfed—questions forbidden—somnolence —investigation—cataclysm—screams overheard—.” It was shortly after writing “The Curse of Yig” for Zealia Bishop that HPL wrote “The Dunwich Horror,” a somewhat more satisfying story of his own devising about a “god” mating with humans.
   HPL acknowledged (see SL3.432–33) that Dunwich was in the Wilbraham area, and it is clear that the topography and some of the folklore (whippoorwills as psychopomps of the dead) were derived from eight days (June 29–July 7, 1928) spent with Edith Miniter in Wilbraham. But, if Wilbraham is roughly the setting for Dunwich, why does HPL declare in the story that the town is located in north central Massachusetts? Some parts of the locale are taken from that region, specifically the Bear’s Den, an actual locale near Athol to which HPL was taken by his friend H.Warner Munn on June 28. HPL describes the site vividly in a letter to his aunt: “There is a deep forest gorge there; approached dramatically from a rising path ending in a cleft boulder, & containing a magnificent terraced waterfall over the sheer bed-rock. Above the tumbling stream rise high rock precipices crusted with strange lichens & honeycombed with alluring caves. Of the latter several extend far into the hillside, though too narrowly to admit a human being beyond a few yards” (HPL to Lillian D.Clark, July 1, 1928; ms., JHL). The name Sentinel Hill is taken from a Sentinel Elm Farm in Athol.
   Although very popular with readers, the story has been criticized for being an obvious good-vs.-evil tale with Armitage representing the forces of good and the Whateley family representing the forces of evil. Donald R.Burleson suggests that the tale be read as a satire or parody, pointing out that it is the Whateley twins (regarded as a single entity) who, in mythic terms, fulfill the traditional role of the “hero” much more than Armitage does (e.g., the mythic hero’s descent to the underworld is paralleled by the twin’s descent into the Bear’s Den), and pointing out also that the passage from the Necronomiconcited in the tale—“Man rules now where They [the Old Ones] ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now”—makes Armitage’s “defeat” of the Whateleys merely a temporary staving off of the inevitable. These points are well taken, but HPL offers no evidence that the tale was meant parodically (i.e., as a satire on immature readers of the pulp magazines) or that the figure of Armitage is meant anything but seriously. He suggests the reverse when he writes: “ found myself psychologically identifying with one of the characters (an aged scholar who finally combats the menace) toward the end” (HPL to August Derleth, [September 1928]; ms., SHSW). Armitage is clearly modeled upon Marinus Bicknell Willett of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward:he defeats the “villains” by incantations, and he is susceptible to the same flaws— pomposity, arrogance, self-importance—that can be seen in Willett.
   The popularity of the tale can be seen both in its wide reprinting in anthologies (most notably in Herbert A.Wise and Phyllis Fraser’s [i]Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural [Random House/Modern Library, 1944]) and in a film adaptation of 1970.
   See Donald R.Burleson, “Humour Beneath Horror: Some Sources for ‘The Dunwich Horror’ and ‘The Whisperer in Darkness,’” LS No. 2 (Spring 1980): 5–15; Robert M.Price, “The Pine Barrens Horror,” Crypt No. 7 (Lammas 1982): 27–30; Donald R.Burleson, “The Mythic Hero Archetype in ‘The Dunwich Horror,’” LSNo. 4 (Spring 1981): 3–9; Will Murray, “The Dunwich Chimera and Others,” LS No. 8 (Spring 1984): 10–24; Peter H.Cannon, “Call Me Wizard Whateley: Echoes of Moby Dickin ‘The Dunwich Horror,’” Crypt No. 49 (Lammas 1987): 21–23; Donald R.Burleson, “Lovecraft and the World as Cryptogram,” LSNo. 16 (Spring 1988): 14–18; Robert M.Price, “Not in the Spaces We Know but Between Them: ‘The Dunwich Horror’ as an Allegory of Reading,” Crypt No. 83 (Eastertide 1993): 22–24; Donald R.Burleson, “A Note on Metaphor vs. Metonymy in ‘The Dunwich Horror,’” LS No. 38 (Spring 1998): 16–17.

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