The Dreams of the Witch House : TCL 62

In terms of Lovecraft stories The Dreams of the Witch House is a little odd due to its mixing the cosmic horror that is Lovecraft’s staple with hints of Judo-Christian concept of the devil. It stands out as the only real example of Lovecraft doing this in any of his cosmic horror tales. Rooting aspects of this story in pseudo Judo-Christianity should work well, there is a logic to it, after all explaining things in terms of religion is what humanity has been doing for thousands of years, so seeing the devil in a manifestation of cosmic horror, or the roots of judo-christian myth laying in aspects of Lovecraft’s myths is not only logical but enticing as a concept. Doing so in a story that involves witch craft and witches, those traditional worshipers of the devil, is also logical. After all, who is to say if a witch is praying to the devil or some cosmic horror that takes on that aspect. there si so much that could be done with this idea… Unfortunately given the way it was done, there are also troubling questions raised by his doing so, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The story itself centers are William Gilman a student of mathematics and, of all things, folklore at dear old Miskatonic University. Probably the only University in the world where such a odd pairing for a joint degree could be studied… As such Gilman takes an attic room in The Mason House in Arkham, a house that bears the local nickname, ‘The Witch House’ as one of its former residents was Kexith Mason, who was to be tried for witchcraft in 1692 when he mysteriously disappeared from a jail cell in Salem. His former residence developed a reputation as being haunted that persists to the present day in the way such rumors do. Rumors linked to the premature deaths of several residents over the last couple of centuries. Residents who all occupied the same attic room Gilman find himself living in. A room that he soon realizes is distinctly odd, with strange almost unearthly geometry.

It is then Gilman starts to dream, and such odd dreams they are…

In his dreams Gilman is witness to cities of elder things, strange impossible geometric shapes that communicate with him, and other oddities. He also encounters a witch called Keziah and her strange rat like familiar Brown Jenkins which while having a rodent body has a human face. But this is only the start, the dreams escalate as does the effect these dreams are having upon Gilman in the physical world. Among other things he goes deaf due to the inhuman sounds he hears in his dreams. Eventually Keziah takes him to meet ‘The Black Man’ a who makes him sign ‘The book of Azathoth’ whence he is taken to the throne of Asathoth and forced to kidnap a child for sacrifice in the dream…

And here is where the issues starts …

‘The Black Man’ is the allegory for the devil. The epitome of evil. He is also Nyarlathotep, the crawling chaos, the harbinger of Asathoth who will usher in the age of chaos and destroy human civilization. Now, in aspect, that is all well and good, but specifically throughout this story the coven hoofed devil is called ‘The Black Man’ and ‘The Black Man’ is therefore the harbinger of chaos and destruction in the form of Azathoth. Remember this was written by H P Lovecraft in 1932, the era of Jim Crow laws, Nazism coming to power in Europe, and Lovecraft’s racist views, opinions and rhetoric are well documented. The subtext whether intentionally or otherwise is obvious.

…a tall, lean man of dead black colouration but without the slightest sign of negroid features: wholly devoid of either hair or beard, and wearing as his only garment a shapeless robe of some heavy black fabric.

In fairness, Lovecraft’s description of ‘The Black Man’ states he does not have negroid features. It could be argued that this distances the character from any obvious allegory of Lovecraft’s views on what he calls elsewhere in his letters and writings ‘The negro Problem’. But that’s a thin defense when Lovecraft’s views are well established and the portrayal of ‘The Black Man’ as the Judo-Christian Satan was problematic at best even in 1932. Its difficult to read the story and put that on one side. It is in fact possibly the most obnoxious bit of racism in all of Lovecraft’s writing. In previous stories the case, no matter how loosely, could be made that racist opinions and views expressed were the views of the narrators of those stories. Here however it is clearly a view expressed by the writer himself, as here it is the subtext which is expressing the abhorrent views. Perhaps all the worse for the literary slight of hand in that description above.

The ‘Black man’ controversy and the desire of those who have drawn upon this story to distance that controversy from the story as a whole is mostly the reason why the picture above shows a devil figure bedecked with horns. It’s also why when the Lovecraft historical Society commissioned a Rock opera of the dreams of the witch house ‘The Black Man’ was somewhat overtly replaced with Satan in the story.

That album is rather good all considered, if you like operatic rock music with a entwined story. Its not up there with Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, or likely to inspire me, in part at least, to write a novel as Jeff’s album did, but what is? If you like the genre there are worse ways to enjoy the story… Such as reading Lovecraft’s original.

The complete playlist for the Lovecraft Historical Society Rock Opera ‘dreams of the Witch House’, if you like that kind of thing (I do but I am aware I may be in a minority )

Putting the controversy of ‘the Black man’ to one side, (and frankly everything about this story could have been better, or at least less horrifying for the wrong reasons, if he was described and refereed to differently throughout,) the story is a reasonable read. There is a certain obviousness about the ending, and some of the imagery early on in the dreamscape sequences is tedious, but that may be just me, I have never fully got along with Lovecraft dreamland’s fiction. Certainly there are aspects of horror that are visceral images that are horrifying in the sense you want. Brown Jenkins the man faced rat eating his way out of Gilman, for example, is particularly nasty bit of imagery in the good way. But the final ending has a predictability about it, there were other ways he could have gone with it which would have been far more interesting. But that last is perhaps a niggle of my own . Its a solid enough ending but its a solid ending to a fairly weak story.

Of all Lovecraft’s later works this is one of, if not the, weakest. Perhaps it better than I give it credit for, but I find it hard to get past the whole ‘The Black Man’ problem, particularity in light of the world as it is today and all that is going on. But even in better times I doubt I would find it easy to stomach the racist subtext. Because of that but mostly because its just not the best of stories it gets a lowly two tentacles. Read it if you feel you must, but if you want my advice, stick on the rock opera, crank the speakers up to eleven and enjoy the story in a much better way…

Further Lovecraftian witterings as ever can be found here

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1 Response to The Dreams of the Witch House : TCL 62

  1. Pingback: The Thing On The Doorstep : TCL 64 | The Passing Place

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