Well, I enjoyed out little sojourn Down Under, but let’s return to Massachusetts to discover “The Dreams in the Witch House”!
Our narrator rents a garret room in a house that superstitious locals shun because it was once the home of a witch and her hideous, rat-like familiar, a human-faced, sharp-toothed rodent hybrid known to the town as Brown Jenkin. Though the witch and Brown Jenkin are long disappeared, Arkham locals fancy that she’s not quite dead. Once our hero moves in, he delves into studies both mathematical and metaphysical, eventually proposing that if one could only calculate the angles properly, one could hop from one universe to another. Or something..
Anyway, he starts having ever stranger dreams of travels to strange lands. He is haunted by the figure of the witch and Brown Jenkin in the dreams, and sometimes wakes up with actual souvenirs of his dream travels, like a figurine that is alien in both figure and construction. The dreams grow more intense and worrisome as he’s taken to see a black man—not, he takes pains to tell us, an actual negro, but, rather, a man who is literally all black— and nearly forced to sign his name in the man’s book. Meanwhile, Walpurgis night, the witches’ Sabbath, approaches, and on this night our hero finally finds the strength to fight the witch as she raises a knife to sacrifice a local infant. He successfully stops the witch, but Brown Jenkin kills the baby anyway. A few nights later a ratlike creature we assume to be Brown Jenkin kills him by eating a hole through his chest. Whew.
I really enjoyed the idea that math and mysticism are closely linked, and I found our hero’s nocturnal travels to be fascinating, and unnerving. The figure of Brown Jenkin, besides having an awesome name, is really creepy—he does a lot of malevolent tittering that got under my skin. It’s nice to see how Lovecraft takes a familiar trope—the witch legend—and makes it his own. The witch is not really Satanic, but rather an agent of cosmic chaos from another dimension. She does a lot of dimension-hopping along with our hero, and in this story, knowing this dimension-hopping is linked to the malevolent figure of the witch made it far more sinister than the time-and-space travel in “The Shadow Out of Time,” for example.
What’s Less Than Awesome:
Of course we have to assume that the protagonist in a horror story is not going to behave sensibly, but why this guy continues to sleep in the witch house night after night when he’s barely able to function due to the horrifying “dreams” he’s having is a mystery the story leaves unaddressed.
Again we have the superstitious locals, this time Eastern European Catholics. And again they play a kind of strange role in the story—both the character and narrator hold them in evident disdain. the main character lives upstairs from a Pole who appears to do nothing but chant prayers, and these are always described as “whining.” The baby who disappears is described as belonging to a “clod-like” laborer. And yet the superstitious, irrational fears of the clod-like immigrants prove correct. It’s hard to know exactly what we’re to make of this. For our narrator would surely have survived had he but listened to the immigrant clods with their superstitions and whining prayers. In some ways, this is a tragedy of a guy who is killed by his prejudices, as his stubborn belief in a rational explanation for his horrible dreams and refusal to countenance the idea that immigrant superstition might be true are what cause his death. I found myself very frustrated with this character’s stupidity, but I don’t think Lovecraft intended me to be. How, after all, could any rational man of the early 20th century do otherwise but disregard the superstitions of immigrants? I guess I saw this death as avoidable, but I don’t think Lovecraft did.
Seamus Cooper is the author of The Mall of Cthulhu (Night Shade Books, 2009). He lives in Boston and really hopes the noises he’s hearing in his attic are being made by squirrels.