“Two Black Bottles“


“Two Black Bottles“
   Short story (4,870 words); written in collaboration with Wilfred Blanch Talman, June–October 1926. First published in WT(August 1927); first collected in HM(1970 ed.); corrected text in HM The first-person narrator, a man named Hoffman, comes to examine the estate of his uncle, Dominie Johannes Vanderhoof, who has just died. Vanderhoof was the pastor of the small town of Daalbergen in the Ramapo Mountains (located in northern New Jersey and extending into New York State), and strange tales were told of him. He had fallen under the influence of an aged sexton, Abel Foster, and had taken to delivering fiery and daemoniac sermons to an everdwindling congregation. Hoffman, investigating the matter, finds Foster in the church, drunk and frightened. Foster tells a strange tale of the first pastor of the church, Dominie Guilliam Slott, who in the early eighteenth century had amassed a collection of esoteric volumes and appeared to practice some form of demonology. Foster reads these books himself and follows in Slott’s footsteps—to the point that, when Vanderhoof dies, he takes his soul from his body and puts it in a little black bottle. But Vanderhoof, now caught between heaven and hell, rests uneasily in his grave, and there are indications that he is trying to emerge from it. Hoffman, scarcely knowing what to make of this wild story, now sees the cross on Vanderhoof’s grave tilting perceptibly. Then seeing two black bottles on the table near Foster, he reaches for one of them, and in a scuffle with Foster one of them breaks. Foster shrieks: “I’m done fer! That one in there was mine! Dominie Slott took it out two hundred years ago!” Foster’s body crumbles rapidly into dust.
   Judging from HPL’s letters to Talman, it seems clear that HPL has not only written some of the tale— especially the parts in dialect—but also made significant suggestions regarding its structure. Talman had evidently sent HPL both a draft and a synopsis—or, perhaps, a draft of only the beginning and a synopsis of the rest. HPL recommended a simplification of the structure so that all the events are seen through the eyes of Hoffman. In terms of the diction, HPL writes: “As for what I’ve done to the MS.—I am sure you’ll find nothing to interfere with your sense of creation. My changes are in virtually every case merely verbal, and all in the interest of finish and fluency of style” ( SL2.61). In his 1973 memoir Talman reveals some irritation at HPL’s revisions: “He did some minor gratuitous editing, particularly of dialog… After re-reading it in print, I wish Lovecraft hadn’t changed the dialog, for his use of dialect was stilted” ( The Normal Lovecraft[Gerry de la Ree, 1973], p. 8). This may have led Talman to downplay HPL’s role in the work, for there are many passages beyond the dialect parts that clearly reveal his hand.

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