“Whisperer in Darkness, The“
- Novelette (26,700 words); written February 24–September 26, 1930. First published in WT (August 1931); first collected in O;corrected text in DH;annotated version in CCThe Vermont floods of November 3, 1927, cause great destruction in the rural parts of the state and also engender reports of strange bodies—not recognizably human or animal—floating down the floodchoked rivers. Albert N. Wilmarth, a professor of literature at Miskatonic University with an interest in folklore, dismisses these accounts as standard myth-making; but then he hears from a reclusive but evidently learned individual in Vermont, Henry Wentworth Akeley, who not only confirms the reports but also maintains there is an entire colony of extraterrestrials dwelling in the region, whose purpose is to mine a metal they cannot find on their own planet (which may be the recently discovered ninth planet of the solar system, called Yuggoth in various occult writings) and also, by means of a complicated mechanical device, to remove the brains of human beings from their bodies and to take them on fantastic cosmic voyagings. Wilmarth is skeptical of Akeley’s tale, but the latter sends him photographs of a hideous black stone with inexplicable hieroglyphs on it along with a phonograph recording he made of some sort of ritual in the woods near his home—a ritual in which both humans and (judging from the bizarre buzzing voice) some utterly nonhuman creatures participated. As their correspondence continues, Wilmarth slowly becomes convinced of the truth of Akeley’s claims—and is both wholly convinced and increasingly alarmed as some of their letters go unaccountably astray and Akeley finds himself embroiled in a battle with guns and dogs as the aliens besiege his house. Then, in a startling reversal, Akeley sends him a reassuring letter stating that he has come to terms with the aliens: he had misinterpreted their motives and now believes that they are merely trying to establish a workable rapport with human beings for mutual benefit. He is reconciled to the prospect of his brain being removed and taken to Yuggoth and beyond, for he will thereby acquire cosmic knowledge made available only to a handful of human beings since the beginning of civilization. He urges Wilmarth to visit him to discuss the matter, reminding him to bring all the papers and other materials he had sent so that they can be consulted if necessary. Wilmarth agrees, taking a spectral journey into the heart of the Vermont backwoods and meeting with Akeley, who has suffered some inexplicable malady: he can only speak in a whisper, and he is wrapped from head to foot with a blanket except for his face and hands. He tells Wilmarth wondrous tales of traveling faster than the speed of light and of the strange machines in the room used to transport brains through the cosmos. Numbed with astonishment, Wilmarth retires to bed, but hears a disturbing colloquy in Akeley’s room with several of the buzzing voices and other, human voices. But what makes him flee from the place is a very simple thing he sees as he sneaks down to Akeley’s room late at night: “For the things in the chair, perfect to the last, subtle detail of microscopic resemblance—or identity—were the face and hands of Henry Wentworth Akeley.”Without the necessity of stating it, HPL makes clear the true state of affairs: the last, reassuring letter by “Akeley” was in fact a forgery by the alien entities, written as a means of getting Wilmarth to come up to Vermont with all the evidence of his relations with Akeley; the speaker in the chair was not Akeley—whose brain had been removed from his body and placed in one of the machines— but one of the aliens, perhaps Nyarlathotep himself, whom they worship. The attempted “rapport” that the aliens claim to desire with human beings is a sham, and they in fact wish to enslave the human race; hence Wilmarth must write his account to warn the world of this lurking menace. There are numerous autobiographical details in the story. HPL knew of the Vermont floods of 1927, as they were extensively reported in newspapers across the East Coast. More generally, the Vermont background of the tale is clearly derived from HPL’s visits to the state in 1927 and 1928; whole passages of the essay “Vermont—A First Impression” (1927) appear in the text but subtly altered so as to emphasize both the terror and the fascination of the rustic landscape. Wilmarth’s ride into Vermont in a Ford car duplicates the ride HPL took to Vrest Orton’s farm in 1928: “We were met [in Brattleboro] with a Ford, owned by a neighbour, & hurried out of all earthly reality amongst the vivid hills & mystic winding roads of a land unchanged for a century” (HPL to Lillian D.Clark, [June 12, 1928]; ms., JHL). Henry Wentworth Akeley is based in part on the rustic Bert G.Akley whom HPL met on this trip. Akeley’s secluded farmhouse seems to be based on both the Orton residence in Brattleboro and Arthur Goodenough’s home farther north. There is a mention of “The Pendrifter” (the columnist for the Brattleboro Reformer) early in the story, and the later mention of “Lee’s Swamp” is a nod to the Lee boys who were Orton’s neighbors.Steven J.Mariconda has discussed in detail the particularly difficult genesis of the tale. As the manuscript states, it was “provisionally finished” in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 7, 1930, but underwent significant revision thereafter. HPL first took it to New York, where he read it to Frank Belknap Long. In his 1944 memoir, Long speaks of the matter; although parts of his account clearly are erroneous, there is perhaps a kernel of truth in his recollection of one point: “Howard’s voice becoming suddenly sepulchral: ‘And from the box a tortured voice spoke: “Go while there is still time —”’” (“Some Random Memories of H.P.L.,” Marginalia,p. 336). HPL then went to Kingston to visit Bernard Austin Dwyer and read him the story as well. In a letter HPL states: “My ‘Whisperer in Darkness’ has retrogressed to the constructional stage as a result of some extremely sound & penetrating criticism on Dwyer’s part. I shall not try to tinker with it during the residue of this trip, but shall make it the first item of work on my programme after I get home—which will no doubt be in less than a week now. There will be considerable condensation throughout, & a great deal of subtilisation at the end” (HPL to August Derleth, June 7, 1930; ms., SHSW). It appears that at least one point on which Dwyer suggested revision is this warning to Wilmarth (presumably by Akeley’s brain from one of the canisters), which is so obvious that it would dilute the purported “surprise” ending of the story (if indeed the story in this version ended as it did). It also appears that Dwyer recommended that Wilmarth be made to seem less gullible, but HPL did not much succeed in this area. Although he apparently inserted random details to heighten Wilmarth’s skepticism, especially in regard to the obviously forged final letter by “Akeley,” Wilmarth still seems very naive in proceeding blithely to Vermont despite all the documentary evidence he has received from Akeley.It cannot be said that the discovery of Pluto inspired the writing of the tale. C.W.Tombaugh had discovered the planet on February 18, 1930, after ten months of searching, but it was first announced on the front page of the New York Timesonly on March 14, to coincide with the 147th anniversary of the discovery of Uranus and the seventy-fifth anniversary of the birth of Percival Lowell, who had himself searched for a trans-Neptunian planet. HPL was tremendously captivated by the discovery: the day after its announcement he writes, “Whatcha thinka the NEW PLANET? HOT STUFF!!! It is probably Yuggoth” (HPL to James F.Morton, [March 15, 1930]; AHT). One point of controversy is the possibility that the false Akeley is not merely one of the fungi but is in fact Nyarlathotep himself. The evidence comes chiefly from the phonograph recording of the ritual in the woods made by Akeley, in which one of the fungi at one point declares, “To Nyarlathotep, Mighty Messenger, must all things be told. And He shall put on the semblance of men, the waxen mask and the robe that hides, and come down from the world of Seven Suns to mock….” This seems a clear allusion to Nyarlathotep disguised with Akeley’s face and hands; but if so, it means that at this time he actually is,in bodily form, one of the fungi—especially if, as seems likely, Nyarlathotep is one of the two buzzing voices Wilmarth overhears at the end (the one who “held an unmistakable note of authority”). There are, however, problems with this identification. Nyarlathotep has been regarded by some critics as a shapeshifter, but only because he appears in various stories in widely different forms—as an Egyptian pharaoh in the prose poem of 1920 and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,here as an extraterrestrial entity, as the “Black Man” in “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932), and so on; his “avatar” appears as a winged entity in “The Haunter of the Dark” (1935). But if Nyarlathotep were a true shapeshifter, why would he don the face and hands of Akeley instead of merely reshaping himself as Akeley?The story was readily accepted by Farnsworth Wright, who paid HPL $350 for it—the largest amount he ever received for a single work of fiction. Wright planned to run it as a two-part serial, but early in 1931 WTwas forced into bimonthly publication for about half a year, so that the story appeared complete in the August 1931 issue.See Fritz Leiber, “The Whisperer Re-examined,” Haunted2, No. 2 (December 1964): 22–25 (rpt. The Book of Fritz Leiber[New York: DAW, 1974]); Alan S.Wheelock, “Dark Mountain: H.P.Lovecraft and the ‘Vermont Horror,’” Vermont History 45 (1977): 221–28; Donald R.Burleson, “Humour Beneath Horror: Some Sources for ‘The Dunwich Horror’ and ‘The Whisperer in Darkness,’” LS No. 2 (Spring 1980): 5–15; Darrell Schweitzer, “About ‘The Whisperer in Darkness,’” LS No. 32 (Spring 1995): 8– 11; Steven J.Mariconda, “Tightening the Coil: The Revision of ‘The Whisperer in Darkness,’” LSNo. 32 (Spring 1995): 12–17; Robert M.Price, “The Pseudo-Akeley: A Tale of Two Brothers,” Crypt No. 97 (Hallowmas 1997): 3–5.
An H.P.Lovecraft encyclopedia. S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz.
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