“Shunned House, The“


“Shunned House, The“
   Novelette (10,840 words); written in mid-October 1924. First published as a booklet (Athol, Mass.: W.Paul Cook, 1928 [printed but not bound or distributed]); rpt. WT(October 1937); first collected in O;corrected text in MM;annotated version in An2
   On Benefit Street in Providence, there is a peculiar house about which rumors have long been whispered. This house, occupied by several generations of the Harris family, is never considered “haunted” by the local citizens but merely “unlucky”: people simply seem to have an uncanny habit of dying there, or at least of being afflicted with anemia or consumption. Neighboring houses are free of any such taint. It had lain deserted— because of the impossibility of renting it—since the Civil War. The narrator had known of this house since boyhood, when some of his childhood friends would fearfully explore it, sometimes even boldly entering through the unlocked front door “in quest of shudders.” As he grows older, he discovers that his uncle, Elihu Whipple, had done considerable research on the house and its tenants, and he finds his seemingly dry genealogical record full of sinister suggestion. He comes to suspect that some nameless object or entity is causing the deaths by somehow sucking the vitality out of the house’s occupants; perhaps it has some connection with a strange thing in the cellar, “a vague, shifting deposit of mould or nitre…[that] bore an uncanny resemblance to a doubled-up human figure.” After telling, at some length, the history of the house since 1763, the narrator finds himself puzzled on several fronts; in particular, he cannot account for why some of the occupants, just prior to their deaths, would cry out in a coarse and idiomatic form of French, a language they did not know. As he explores town records, he seems at last to have come upon the “French element.” A sinister figure named Etienne Roulet had come from France to East Greenwich, R.I., in 1686; he was a Huguenot and fled France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, moving to Providence ten years later in spite of much opposition from the town fathers. What particularly intrigues the narrator is his possible connection with an even more dubious figure, Jacques Roulet of Caude, who in 1598 was accused of lycanthropy.
   Finally the narrator and his uncle decide to “test—and if possible destroy—the horror of the house.” They come one evening in 1919, armed with both a Crookes tube (a device invented by Sir William Crookes that emits electrons between two electrodes) and a flame-thrower. The two men take turns resting; both experience hideous and disturbing dreams. When the narrator wakes up from his dream, he finds that some nameless entity has utterly engulfed his uncle, “who with blackening and decaying features leered and gibbered at me, and reached out dripping claws to rend me in the fury which this horror had brought.” Realizing that his uncle is past help, he aims the Crookes tube at him. A further demoniac sight appears to him: the object seems to liquefy and adopt various temporary forms (“He was at once a devil and a multitude, a charnel-house and a pageant”); then the features of the Harris line seem to mingle with his uncle’s. The narrator flees down College Hill to the modern downtown business district; when he returns, hours later, the nebulous entity is gone. Later that day he brings six carboys of sulfuric acid to the house, digs up the earth where the doubled-up anthropomorphic shape lies, and pours the acid down the hole—realizing only then that the shape was merely the “titan elbow” of some huge and hideous monster.
   The story is based upon an actual house in Providence, at 135 Benefit Street; but the writing of the story was triggered by HPL’s seeing a similar house in Elizabeth, N.J., in early October 1924. HPL describes the house as follows (HPL to Lillian D.Clark, November 4–6, 1924; ms., JHL): “…on the northeast corner of Bridge St. & Elizabeth Ave. is a terrible old house—a hellish place where nightblack deeds must have been done in the early seventeen-hundreds—with a blackish unpainted surface, unnaturally steep roof, & an outside flight of steps leading to the second story, suffocatingly embowered in a tangle of ivy so dense that one cannot but imagine it accursed or corpse-fed. It reminded me of the Babbitt house in Benefit St., which as you recall made me write those lines entitled ‘The House’ in 1920.” (HPL refers to his poem “The House,“ published in the Philosopherfor December 1920.) This house in Elizabeth is no longer standing. HPL’s aunt Lillian had resided in the Providence house in 1919–20 as a companion for Mrs. C.H.Babbitt, and HPL may well have seen its interior at that time. This house, built around 1763, has a basement, two stories, and attic built on the rising hill, with shuttered doors in the basement leading directly out into the sidewalk. In contrast to HPL’s comment in the story, it has never been unoccupied. Otherwise, much of the history of the house, as told in the story, is real. The figure of Elihu Whipple appears to be modeled upon that of HPL’s own uncle, Franklin Chase Clark.
   Other details of Providence history are also authentic: the straightening of Benefit Street after the removal of the graves of the oldest settlers to the North Burial Ground; the great floods of 1815; even the random mention of the fact that “As lately as 1892 an Exeter community exhumed a dead body and ceremoniously burnt its heart in order to prevent certain alleged visitations injurious to the public health and peace.” This last point has recently been studied by Faye Ringel Hazel, who notes that several articles on this subject appeared in the Providence Journalin March 1892, and goes on to examine the vampire legendry of Exeter (in Washington County, south of Providence) and the neighboring area.
   The most interesting elaboration upon history in the story is the figure of Etienne Roulet. This figure is mythical, but Jacques Roulet of Caude is real. HPL’s brief mention of him is taken almost verbatim from the account in John Fiske’s Myths and Myth-Makers(1872), which he owned and which was a significant source of his early views on the anthropology of religion. Part of Fiske’s account of Roulet is a direct quotation from S.Baring-Gould’s A Book of Were-wolves(1865); but HPL had not read this book at this time (he would do so only a decade or so later), so his information on Jacques Roulet must have come from Fiske.
   The story shifts from the supernatural to quasi-science-fiction by asserting that the existence of the vampire and its effects may be accounted for by appealing to advanced scientific conceptions: “Such a thing was surely not a physical or biochemical impossibility in the light of a newer science which includes the theories of relativity and intra-atomic action.” HPL refers to Einstein’s theory of relativity (about which, only a year and a half earlier, he had expressed considerable bafflement and perturbation [see SL1.231] because of its defiance of nineteenth-century conceptions of physics) and to the quantum theory. That the entity is killed not by driving a stake through its heart but by sulfuric acid is telling. The “titan elbow” seems an adaptation of the ending of “Under the Pyramids,” where what appeared to be a five-headed hippopotamus proves to be the paw of an immense monster.
   W.Paul Cook wished to print the story as a chapbook (with a preface by Frank Belknap Long), but his financial and physical collapse in 1928 prevented the binding and distribution of the book, although 300 copies had been printed.
   In 1934 R.H.Barlow secured about 265 of those copies and over the next year bound and distributed fewer then ten; he also distributed some copies of the unbound sheets. The remaining copies (about 150) eventually ended up in the hands of August Derleth of Arkham House, who in 1959 distributed 50 unbound copies and in 1961 about 100 copies bound in black cloth. A forgery of this edition, probably emerging in England, was issued in 1965.
   See Faye Ringel Hazel, “Some Strange New England Mortuary Practices: Lovecraft Was Right,” LSNo. 29 (Fall 1993): 13–18.

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