Friday, March 21, 2014

Lovecraft 101 - The Shunned House

The Shunned House
Let's get one thing straight. Despite author Robert Weinberg's claims that The Shunned House is "one of Lovecraft's best short novels", it isn't. It is far from the horror-filled story I think HPL had intended when he wrote it. This one is dry and excruciating to slog through. Trust me, I will not hold it against you if you skip this one. I have spent weeks reading and re-reading this story just to write this. I will admit, I love Lovecraft, but I have certainly never said that everything he has written was a gem. There is often a reason that a few of his works rarely get reprinted in collections. Perhaps my overview of the story will be enough to satisfy the curious.

The Shunned House was a novelette written in October of 1924. It did see printing as a booklet in 1928, but wasn't printed in larger read publications, like Weird Tales, until a few months after Lovecraft's death. The printed booklet however were intended to be Lovecraft's first printed book, but the pages ended up sitting around, never to be bound. In the '50s these pages would go to the publisher Arkham House, and would see proper printing along with all of Lovecraft's work.
The house of the title is actually a real place. It was built in 1763 in Providence, Rhode Island where it still stands. HPL's aunt lived there in 1919. In fact much of this story is based around real history. Lovecraft gets utterly bogged down in the background of it all. As is often the case, Lovecract incorporates real world history into his stories to give it a grounding in reality. In The Shunned House, however, this idea gets a little carried away.

Broken into five parts, much of this story is made up of the backstory of the house. Who has lived there, and what ill fates has befallen them. We are introduced to the narrator's uncle, Dr. Elihu Whipple, who is modeled after Lovecraft's real uncle, but whose name comes from his grandfather Whipple Phillips.
In part one, we learn that Uncle Whipple is investigating the house and the strange circumstances surrounding it. No record exists of a ghost or haunting, but the residents of the house seem to have their existing illnesses and maladies accelerated. Most unsettling of this is the strange screaming of the French language by those who have never learned it. Perhaps the deaths and illnesses can be explained by the odd fungal growths in the basement. Peculiar mould that seems to almost take on a human shape.
In part two, we get the full on history of the house and its residents. The narrator states that he is told a "dry" geneology by his uncle. This would be humorous if not for the fact that Lovecraft then dives in headfirst into an incredibly dry geneology. But for the sake of completeness and to truly get into this story we do need to explore it. Most synopses skip over this, telling the story in a far more succinct way that ultimately tells us how vital this is to the story. Not very. It is one of those circumstances where HPL could have used a more critical editor, and it is possibly the reason Weird Tales refused to publish the story until well after his death.
The history of the house is based partly on its real world residents as well as a blending of other real world events. I am sure the intention was to build an air of mystery around the house, begging the reader to try and think of a reason for the deaths and ailments.
The house was built by the Harris family. William Harris, a historical person, was a master shipman and quite wealthy. He had the place built to house his wife, children and servants. A few of the children and many of the servants die, though William is spared this fate, he does later die somewhere else. The story misses an opportunity here as the death of William seems unimportant or interesting, while in real life, Harris was captured by pirates and died from malnutrition at their hands.
One of the sons also remains unaffected by the strange events as he spends much of his time abroad, fighting in the military. Harris' wife however begins spending her time in the top floors shouting out in bouts of French. And so it goes through the generations for over a hundred years, sparking the interest of the narrator's uncle to investigate what he saw as more than a string of coincidental deaths.
By part three, at the end of this long geneology, we learn that the uncle has thoughts that the troubles in the house could possibly be caused by some supernatural being. Looking at the evidence presented to him about the manner of deaths, he begins to speculate that is could be a vampire. Many of the victims had a loss of blood, felt as if the very breath of life were being sucked from them, or were seen trying to bite at the doctors who helped them.
But the issue of the random bits of French dialogue still seem to bother him. Digging deeper into the past, he finds that while the Harris family built the house, the land they had built it upon was once owned by a French immigrant family and could possibly have been used by the Protestant family as a graveyard. An interesting note is that the French family is given their land by a man named Tillinghast, perhaps a connection to the character of the same name in From Beyond. The French family was known as the Roulet family. They were a group of Huguenots that came from France to America fleeing the persecution of the Protestants. For monster history fans out there, this name may ring familiar. Lovecraft then goes on to connect the Roulet family of this story with the infamous Roulets who lived in Caude, France.  In 1598, a young boy was found killed. The one under suspicion of the murder was Jacques Roulet, who was believed to have killed the boy while in the guise of a wolf. This was one of the huge incidents that fueled the werewolf scare of 16th and 17th century Europe.
So could if it wasn't a vampire causing people's deaths, could it be an ancient French werewolf? Well we get to find out. The narrator and his uncle are too curious. They need to know the answer to this riddle. And as is always the case in a Lovecraft story, doing research and seeking knowledge leads to bad things.
The remainder of the tale plays out much like Rats in the Walls, without the better writing or racial epithet felines. Our two protagonists camp out in the cellar to catch whatever it is that is causing the disturbance. They don't go unprepared however. They are armed to the teeth. Even though they do not believe that it is a werewolf or vampire, that doesn't stop them from packing the one thing said to be the weakness of both creatures. Fire. They bring into the house full flamethrowers, weapons and even a newly invented piece of technology, the Crookes Tube. This device, which would go on to help discover x-rays, and is an early form of the cathode ray tube which used to be used in televisions, may have been the weapon of choice against the supernatural. Think ghostbuster's proton pack.
The real house in Providence. It is far less shunned and has
never been left vacant, unlike in the story.
It is then that dear Uncle Whipple has an epiphany. This creature must not be some thing from legend or folklore, it must be some creature of the newest sciences. He theorizes that it is some interdimensional being interacting with the living matter of the mould with in the cellar. And though he has no evidence or observation to make this outlandish theory, it proves to be correct.
The two take watches in shifts, and as the uncle sleeps, he begins to call out in French. When he awakes, he claims to have felt a presence pulling at the very breath in his lungs. Somehow, our narrator seems to care little about this event and settles down to sleep himself. Once sleeping he dreams of horrible places and the screaming faces of the dead. It is then that the monster attacks. As he awakens, he sees that his uncle is being consumed by the monster, which is transforming the man into a being of "blackened, decaying features" and dripping black claws. He escapes just as his uncle's body dissolves. Returning later he finds everything left untouched, but no sign of his uncle's remains.
Not one to give up lightly, the narrator gathers his tools. He gets a gas mask and several barrels of acid. If he is going to do this, he is going to overdo this. Digging into the house he discovers something strange. A blue-white translucent tube about two feet thick, bent in the middle, buried below the cellar. In a moment of horrible realization he understands, this is but the creature's elbow!
In a panic he dumps in most of the acid, attacking the evil appendage. But, as all good Lovecraft protagonists do, he faints before he finishes. When he wakes up, there is no sign of the creature. He pours in the remaining acid and covers it over with dirt. He is saddened at the loss of his uncle (a rare sign of emotion from Lovecraft), but all seems to be right again. The home is occupied again and nothing sinister seems to happen again. Strangely enough we get a happy ending in this Lovecraftian tale.

Though the elements are better used in other stories, like Rats in the Walls or Under the Pyramids, it is not the idea behind the story that causes it to suffer. A lack of editing and trimming of the text leaves this story bloated and dry. When first glancing over the synopsis of this story, even its strange reveal at the climax, it sounds like an interesting tale. But when tackling the full text, you quickly realize it is not as taught and suspenseful as you would hope. If you want to check out the full text, you can read it here: HPL's The Shunned House

There is also a somewhat cheesy yet entertaining Italian splatterhouse movie that is very very very loosely based on this story with the same title. It has some interesting Lovecraft connections and can be a fun watch if you are like me and into those sorts of movies even though they are terrible.

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