Written a month after The Unnamable, Lovecraft was still deep in his readings of Machen and others. The story, The Festival, is as much influenced by Machen's "Little People" as it was by Lovecraft's reading of the controversial The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by Margaret Murray and Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana.
After a visit to Marblehead, Massachusetts, Lovecraft was inspired to write about an old New England town filled with a dark history. Marblehead had a huge influence on Lovecraft. It is perhaps the one thing that pushed Lovecraft to focus on a New England setting for his works. Lovecraft said of his visit that it was "the most powerful single emotional climax experienced during [his] nearly forty years of existence". The fleshed out and atmospheric town of Kingsport is a dark unwelcoming version of Marblehead.
Our narrator appears in the town of Kingsport (first briefly mentioned in TheTerrible Old Man) around Christmas time. Lead through the white snow by the strange residents of the town, he is pulled into a church at the centre of town. As the celebrants of some unknown ritual urge him forward, they descend down a hidden stair beneath the pulpit.
The Festival is a fantastically atmospheric tale. It includes one of my favorite elements of Lovecraftian fiction, the secret cult. The unknowable activities of the religious cult give this story a dark uneasiness that I so relish in these sorts of narratives. Who are these dark figures, what strange beliefs make up their undocumented religion, and are the participants of these esoteric rituals even human? Lovecraft answers none of these questions that our nagging fears are beckoning for. In fact, we are only greeted with even more questions. The story goes on to give us some background on the Necronomicon (such as how it came to be translated into English) and reveals some strange other-worldly secrets about the people of Kingsport. But we are left with a foreboding sense of mystery and dread.
As a flute is played (perhaps a connection to the flutes of Azathoth), the narrator, caught up in the full swing of this ancient ritual, hears something in the dark. Looking out toward the starlit sky, he witnesses the hideousness of one of the strangest and coolest creatures of the mythos stories. An odd amalgamation of beasts, these unnamed winged creatures show up to take away the cultists on the night of their festival. Now anyone more familiar with the writings that came after Lovecraft would possibly know the name of these things, given by August Derleth. The Byakhee grew to popularity in the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, but have also been depicted in numerous other works, including a handful of Conan stories.
As everything seems to go tits-up as they often do in these stories, our narrator flees only to awaken later in a hospital. Try as he might, he cannot make much sense, nor does he really want to, of what he had witnessed. Things are not much clearer when he reads from the Necronomicon, as it describes the evil things he had seen.
The Festival is a lot like many other Lovecraft stories that are almost poetic in its vocabulary flourishes. It is hard to really make sense of all that is happening or the purpose of it all, but it is equally as difficult to not be completely enraptured by the atmospheric language. The monsters were always what brought me to Lovecraft, and while this story has some good ones, it will always be the uniquely poetic way of writing a disturbing tale that keeps me coming back.
Check out the full text here: HPL's The Festival
Next time: The Shunned House