Friday, May 16, 2008

The Dreams in the Witch House

I have often heard horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's prose described as labyrinthine or elaborate, and I'll have to admit that sometimes ole HPL did have a tendency to run on. He was also perhaps a bit overly fond of the words eldritch, gibbous, and squamous. But generally, I think folks making those claims simply haven't read that much Lovecraft. He had more than one style of writing and he varied it from tale to tale. I thought of this the other night when I was reading the Lovecraft story The Dreams in the Witch House, which is written in a fairly straightforward style, without many of the byzantine flourishes that HPL's critics so love to point out.
The story is also generally considered one of HPL's weaker efforts, but I rather enjoyed it. It's the story of college student Walter Gilman, a young man with an unhealthy interest in the occult, who takes a room in a house thought to have once been occupied by a witch. The witch, Keziah Mason, disappeared from a jail cell back in the 1600s apparently by using her knowledge of interdimensional geometry to cross over into another dimension. Gilman's room, which is the very one the witch occupied, has oddly angled walls that eventually allow Gilman to find his own way into other planes of existence. Of course, this being an H.P. Lovecraft story, that doesn't bode too well for Mr. Gilman. Seems old Keziah is still around.
This story, like much of Lovecraft's work, falls somewhere between horror and science fiction, because while it is very creepy and filled with horrific imagery, it also contains quite a bit of speculation about dimensions outside the three we know and the mathematics required to get there. Its strongest moments though, are probably when Gilman enters the dreamlike worlds of the other dimensions. Here Lovecraft is in his element, describing the strange, chaotic vistas in a way that seems almost believable. Lovecraft had the ability to make you believe that he had been to the weird places he writes about. I think that's one of the reasons his work has remained popular and in print for so long. He may be a little hard to follow sometimes, but he delivers the goods.
The out and out creepiest bit in the story to me was Keziah's familiar, Brown Jenkin, described as being about the size and form of a large rat, but having an almost human face and hands. The creature steals into the hapless Gilman's room in the night for sinister purposes, its long yellow canines gleaming in the half light. Later, Keziah and Brown Jenkin appear to Gilman in a strange violet light, which Gilman initially thinks is part of a dream, but in a particularly chilling moment, one of the other borders in the house mentions seeing the light in Gilman's window late at night.
Anyway, the story gave me a couple of decent shudders, and reminds me of why I like to read Lovecraft. As modern horror writers like Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell have noted, Lovecraft remains the most important and influential writer of horror fiction since Edgar Alan Poe. Considering that 'Dreams' was originally published in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales and can still be read and enjoyed today, I think that's a good sign of the staying power of the dark visions of H.P. Lovecraft.

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