Monday, June 20, 2011

Haunters of the Dark

It occurred to me yesterday, during a re-read of H.P. Lovecraft's story, The Haunter of the Dark, that this is the story that most inept pastichers have been rewriting for all these years. It's also what people probably mean when they refer to a 'typical' Lovecraft story. It does read rather like a template for the later pastiches. We have the writer protagonist, the New England setting, the crumbling structure, (a church in this one) the mention of a cult, and the references to an earlier tragedy of apparently supernatural origins. There is a scene where all the famous books of the Cthulhu mythos are cataloged. (The Necronomicon, Cultes des Goules, De Vermis Mysteriis, Nameless Cults, etc.) Then we have what became the standard plot, the protagonist finds an object that summons something nasty from the outer dark and dies a messy death. How many times have we read that one? (Keep in mind, Lovecraft didn't write this over and over, just his followers did. In fact, I think this was the last Cthulhu mythos story Lovecraft wrote.)
This is kind of interesting as Haunter was written as a response to a Lovecraft pastiche by Robert Bloch, later the writer of Psycho and other horror classics, but just a teenager when the story was written. Bloch, who in the 1930s was one of Lovecraft's many correspondents, had written to Lovecraft, asking if he might kill the writer in a Cthulhu mythos story. Lovecraft was reportedly delighted, sending Bloch a document giving him permission to destroy a fictional version of himself in any matter Bloch wished. Bloch did so in the story The Shambler from the Stars.
Lovecraft responded in kind by writing a direct sequel to Shambler where he killed off a writer and artist named Robert Harrison Blake, who shared an actual Wisconsin address with Bloch. Others have suggested that the character of Blake, while mostly a stand in for Bloch, had characteristics of Lovecraft himself and of writer/artist Clark Ashton Smith.
Now of course, Lovecraft didn't treat his story as a gag. This is as well written and as full of creepy ideas as anything Lovecraft wrote, but still I find it interesting that what was written as a response to a pastiche became the inspiration for hundreds of pastiches that followed.
There are a couple of other interesting bits to the story. There's a mention of the serpent-men of Valusia who feature in Robert E. Howard's King Kull stories. Howard was still alive when Lovecraft wrote Haunter in 1935, so it was a nice tip of the hat to Two-Gun Bob. Also several of the fictional books I mentioned above were the creations of Lovecraft's friends, including Howard, Bloch, and August Derleth.
As a stand alone Lovecraft tale, The Haunter of the Dark carries considerable chills. The titular Haunter cannot abide light of any sort and is trapped in the darkness of the ancient Church's boarded over steeple. But one fateful night a huge thunderstorm knocks out the electricity in the city and a terrified Blake can only wait in the darkness, knowing that the thing he has released knows where to find him.
Oh, and that reminds me of the last bit that has become a cliché in Lovecraft pastiches. The protagonist continues to write his thoughts down in a journal right up to the point where the messy death finds him. It's not quite that bad in Haunter, but it's there. At least he didn't write "Aaaaaaagh".
Fifteen years later, Robert Bloch wrote a sequel to the sequel called The Shadow from the Steeple. A fun evening of Lovecraft study would be to read all three tales back to back and try to find all the in-jokes and references. There are many.
Anyway, The Haunter of the Dark appeared in the December 1936 issue of Weird Tales. Other, usually lesser, writers have been haunting the same darkness ever since.

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