The Festival: The Complete Lovecraft #40

“Efficiunt Daemones, ut quae non sunt, sic tamen
quasi sint, conspicienda hominibus exhibeant.”

(Devils so work, that things which are not, appear to men as if they were real.)

The mildly ominous quote above preludes a Lovecraft tale that is when you delve into it, complex and strange. Yet, on the face of it, it follows a path well trodden by old tentacle-hugger. The tale told in the first person, is entreated by a man who returns to his families native home of Kingsport, New England. A fictional town which grew out of a small fishing community on the coast north of the fictional city of Arkham. The tale itself was inspired by a visit by Lovecraft to a real town called Marblehead on the coast of Massachusetts, in late 1922. What Lovecraft had to say about that visit is interesting in itself…

It was the most powerful single emotional climax experienced during my nearly forty years of existence. In a flash all the past of New England–all the past of Old England–all the past of Anglo-Saxondom and the Western World–swept over me and identified me with the stupendous totality of all things in such a way as it never did before and never did again. That was the high tide of my life.

With a build-up like that inspiring a story you would expect the story itself to be something special would you not? Yet on the face of it, this is a straightforward, ‘other place’ tale, in which the narrator finds himself in a Kingsport which is not quite the real Kingsport. Drawn there by a family myth into the deep caves below to witness an ancient rite, which, unsurprisingly for a Lovecraft tale, drives him a little bit on the mad side of the spectrum… Which leaves the reader with a tale told by a man of questionable sanity in which much is more alluded to that really told.  Things which, in true Lovecraft fashion, we are told…

…that no sound eye could ever wholly grasp, or sound brain ever wholly remember.

So there nothing very special here, its Lovecraft writing Lovecraft by the numbers to an extent… and yet… when you delve a little deeper and read it a little more carefully there is a lot more going on here. A great deal in fact if your a Lover of the mythos around which much of Lovecraft’s universe is constructed, and the tale itself has something else as well. It is more powerful than most of Lovecraft earlier works, even if you’re a little jaded by them having read your way through 40 stories and blogged about them over the last year and a bit… While it follows the same path so often trodden it’s footsteps are surer, and more grounded in his own reality. This is in effect Lovecraft doing Lovecraft by the numbers perfectly… it’s the right length, it has the right kind of ominousness to it as it builds slowly, drawing the reader in. You don’t need to know what horrors are beheld by the narrator because by the time he beholds them you can see them in your imaginations eye for yourself, and nothing Lovecraft could have written would have been a match for your own imaginings… Which is the real trick when it comes down to it. A trick other writers occasionally make a mess of, but Lovecraft perfected at times, and this is one of this times.

As an aside, to illustrate my point, Stephen King whom’s novels I love, wrote on called ‘Needful Things’, which should be among my favourite King novels. Indeed it is, being as it is an exploration of some of the darkest nature’s of humanity at their worst. All driven by a little shop that appears one day in a small town offering people their hearts desires if only they will do a little mischief in return… Its a wonderful novel except at the end where the monster at the heart of all the evil that has torn the community of a sleepy little Maine town to shreds is revealed… And for me is the most disappointing of reveals. A nasty little goblin-like creature who giggles then runs away leaving the mayhem in its wake… Disappointing because I had imagined so much more, and if King had taken a leaf from Lovecraft’s playbook and left that reveal hanging my imagination would have filled in the blanks… For me it spoils the novel. But hey, that’s only my opinion…


But let get back to ‘The Festival’ and whats going on underneath that makes this such an engrossing read. Its the things alluded to which strike you, and cause you to read it back once more. The narrator, for example, is one of a people, a people who are possibly not entirely human. On the face of it, at first reading, he would seem to be talking of his people in the same way the descendants of European settlers talk of ‘the old country’. Yet you start to realise, with little quirks of language, his ‘people’ are not Italians or from some eastern European principality that cease to exist in the previous century. His people, as is mentioned half in passing, came out of the sea so many years ago… Sure he could be talking about the evolution path of the greater humanity from the first moments a few fish started to hang around on the shore and thought it would be a good idea to learn to breathe something less liquid.. But you know he’s not. His ‘people’ are similar to those of that other fictional seaport Innsmouth, which Lovecraft wrote of in later years. The kind of people who have webbed toes and occasionally go swimming late at night to visit their relatives below…


Just as the descendants of early Italian Americans are somewhat more removed from the ‘old country’ than their for-bearers were so the narrator is more human than those of the people in Kingsport. Yet at his core he knows he is still of ‘the people..’ even if he is not entirely sure what that really means… Perhaps the web-toes are now just a little bit of extra skin between his toes, and his eyes don’t bulge out so noticeably, but inside he knows that this is more than simply a family trait… So when the time comes to go back to the old town of his fore-bearers, he does just that. Knowing instinctively and through old family legends where to go. Indeed the locals recognise him as one of there kin, and he is welcomed to the fold if welcomed is the right word…

That old book of ‘ill-portent’ the Necronomicon turns up too. Twice in actuality, as the narrator comes across a copy with the ‘people’ and later when he finds himself in a hospital bed in Arkham, he is lent a copy once more. The latter is a trifle odd, as the hospital is a mental institution. Which does make you question why a member of staff has a copy to lend him…  Personally, anyone lending me a copy of the most infamous book of dark legend a wide birth… and in a fragile state of mind as the narrator no doubt is one way or another giving him that book as light night time reading seems downright peculiar…   For the first time however old tentacle huger actually gives us a direct passage from the Mad Arab’s opus…

 “The nethermost caverns, are not for the fathoming of eyes that see; for their marvels are strange and terrific. Cursed the ground where dead thoughts live new and oddly bodied, and evil the mind that is held by no head. Wisely did Ibn Schacabao say, that happy is the tomb where no wizard hath lain, and happy the town at night whose wizards are all ashes. For it is of old rumour that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnel clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.”

So that alright then, nothing to worry about there at all…

This whole story is steeped in Lovecraftian mythology. There is more within the text than I’ll elude to here. But written in 1923, still early in Lovecraft’s career. In many ways, it the most utterly mythos story to be written at that point. Which is a bit of an issue reading it now, as while originally it was a real tour-d-force for Lovecraft. A story that was as Lovecrafty as it was possible to be. It is now somewhat a forgotten cousin of ‘Shadows Over Innsmouth‘, written 8 years later, and it doesn’t fare entirely well in comparison. Which left me somewhat stumbling over the number of tentacles to give it. In truth, I like the story, and feel no reason to mark it down, except for all the things it isn’t, which is to say it isn’t ‘Shadows Over Innsmouth.‘ It’s also not really that interesting a story, except in the wider context. It is interesting for what it harbingers rather than in of itself. All of which would be entirely different if I had been reading this when it first appeared. In effect, I am marking it down for not being everything that came after it… It feels mean of me somehow in that regard. In the end, though I give it four slithering tentacles, reach out from the inky depths of the sea. Which isn’t a bad score all things considered…

4out 6

Regular readers will note this is the first of these I have done in a while, since last December in fact. This is because when I first read this back then, I was Lovecrafted out and had nothing much to say about it. Back then it would have got a mere two tentacles and miserly ones at that. Which is partly why the score stays low now. The complete Lovecraft side of the blog is back, however, and hopefully, I will get back up to a regular pace with it all… Even if I have to face ‘The Shunned House’ next, which was the straw which broke the camels back, back in the time of Yule… Which by coincidence is when this particular tales was set …

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