The Lovecraft Reread

It Was Seeing That Made Them Scream: “From Beyond”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories.

Today we’re looking at “From Beyond,” written in 1920 and first published in the June 1934 issue of Fantasy Fan—so don’t be so quick to trunk your early stories. You can read it here.

Spoilers ahead.

“It is not pleasant to see a stout man suddenly grown thin, and it is even worse when the baggy skin becomes yellowed or greyed, the eyes sunken, circled, and uncannily glowing, the forehead veined and corrugated, and the hands tremulous and twitching. And if added to this there be a repellent unkemptness; a wild disorder of dress, a bushiness of dark hair white at the roots, and an unchecked growth of pure white beard on a face once clean-shaven, the cumulative effect is quite shocking. But such was the aspect of Crawford Tillinghast on the night his half-coherent message brought me to his door after my weeks of exile.”

Summary: Crawford Tillinghast should never have studied science and philosophy, for he’s no cold and impersonal investigator. He means to “peer to the bottom of creation,” a grandiose goal baffled by the feebleness of human senses. But he believes we have atrophied or rudimentary senses beyond the five we know, which certain waves might activate, and so he’s built an electrical contraption to generate the waves. When his best friend, our narrator, cautions him against the experiment, Tillinghast flies into a fanatical rage and drives him off.

Ten weeks later, Tillinghast summons narrator back to his home. Narrator’s shocked by his friend’s emaciation and dishevelment, the manic glow in his sunken eyes, the whitening of his hair. Tillinghast trembles as he ushers narrator inside and leads him to his attic lab, a single candle in his hand. Is the electricity off? No, but Tillinghast dares not use it, for reasons unspecified.

He seats narrator near his electrical machine, which glows a sickly violet. When he switches it on, the glows turns to a color or colors indescribable. That’s ultraviolet, Tillinghast declares, rendered visible to their eyes by the action of the machine. Soon other dormant senses will awaken, via the pineal gland, and they will perceive things from beyond.

Narrator’s first outre perception is that he sits not in an attic but in a temple of dead gods, with black columns rising to a cloudy height. This yields to a sense of infinite space, sightless and soundless. Narrator is spooked enough to draw his revolver. Next comes a wild music, faint but torturing. He feels the scratch of ground glass, the touch of a cold draft.

Though Tillinghast grins at the drawn revolver, he warns narrator to remain quiet. In the rays of the machine, they not only see but can be seen. The servants found that out when the housekeeper forgot his instructions and turned on the lights downstairs. Something passed through the wires by sympathetic vibration, and then there were frightful screams. Later Tillinghast found three heaps of empty clothes. So narrator must remember — they’re dealing with forces before which they’re helpless!

Though frozen in fear, the narrator grows more receptive. The attic becomes a kaleidoscopic scene of sense-perceptions. He watches shining spheres resolve into a galaxy shaped like Tillinghast’s distorted face. He feels huge animate things drift past or through his body. Alien life occupies every particle of space around the familiar objects in the attic; chief among the organisms are “inky, jellyish monstrosities,” semi-fluid, ever-moving—and ravenous, for sometimes they devour each other.

The jellies, Tillinghast says, flounder around and through us always, harmless. He glares at narrator and speaks with hatred in his voice: Tillinghast has broken barriers and shown our narrator worlds no living men have seen, but narrator tried to stop him, to discourage him, was afraid of the cosmic truth. Now all space belongs to Tillinghast, and he knows how to evade the things that hunt him, that got the servants, that will soon get narrator. They devour and disintegrate. Disintegration is a painless process—it was the sight of them that made the servants scream. Tillinghast almost saw them, but he knew how to stop. They are coming. Look, look! Right over your shoulder!

Narrator doesn’t look. Instead he fires his revolver, not at Tillinghast but at his cursed machine. It shatters, and he loses consciousness. Police drawn by the shot find him unconscious and Tillinghast dead of apoplexy. The narrator says as little about his experience as possible, and the coroner concludes that he was hypnotized by the vindictive madman.

Narrator wishes he could believe the coroner, for it now unnerves him to think about the air around him, the sky above. He cannot feel alone or comfortable, and sometimes a sense of pursuit oppresses him. He can’t believe it was mere hypnotism, though, for the police never do find the bodies of the servants that Tillinghast supposedly murdered.

 

What’s Cyclopean: The adjectives this week are used well and in moderation.

The Degenerate Dutch: We avoid distressing glimpses of Lovecraft’s many prejudices this time out, thanks to the tight focus on the narrator’s relationship with Tillinghast.

Mythos Making: There’s no overt connection with the creatures and structures of the Mythos, but Tillinghast’s machine unquestionably reveals the terrible spaces through which Brown Jenkins travels, from which the Color comes, in the heart of which a monotonous flute pipes and Azathoth blazes. It’s all here, waiting.

Libronomicon: Tillinghast’s research doubtless draws on a fascinating library, which we unfortunately don’t see.

Madness Takes Its Toll: And Tillinghast has paid that toll.

 

Anne’s Commentary

This is the rare Lovecraft story I remember reading only once; while the inky jellies and hunter-disintegrators have their appeal, Crawford Tillinghast struck me as a total jerk. Definitely not someone I wanted to visit again. Our narrator’s more tolerant, perhaps due to our favorite emotional combo of repulsion and fascination. To be fair, Tillinghast might have been a decent guy before he became “the prey of success” (sweet turn of phrase) and started deteriorating into grandiose madness. Still, narrator got all the Lovecraftian warning signs of friend-turned-big trouble: barely recognizable handwriting, alarming physical changes, a hollow voice. Plus whitened hair and uncannily glowing eyes. Ocular glare is the surest sign of dangerous fanaticism in the Mythos world.

I do like the name “Tillinghast,” which is quintessentially Rhode Island. I wonder if Crawford was related to Dutee Tillinghast, whose daughter Eliza married Joseph Curwen. Probably, in which case he might have inherited Curwen’s affinity for cosmic horror.

In any case, “From Beyond” contains many fore-echoes. There’s the strange music narrator hears, like the music with which Erich Zann became so familiar. There’s the unplaceable color Tillinghast’s wave-generator emits. Tillinghast calls it ultraviolet, but it also looks forward to that even more ominous color outside Arkham, and narrator ends up with a chronic anxiety about the air and the sky. More important, this story is an early example of Lovecraft’s overarching fictional premise. Close to mundane reality – too close for the comfort of the preternaturally perceptive and recklessly curious – are myriad other realities. Some can be entered via the altered mental state of sleep, as in the Dreamlands tales. Some are accessible via applied hypergeometry, as in “Dreams in the Witch House” and last week’s “Hounds of Tindalos.” Past and future realities are the playground of time-masters like the Yith and all those who hold the necessary keys, silver or otherwise. Most terrifying are the hidden subrealities of our own continuum. You know, Cthulhu napping under the Pacific, and ghouls burrowing under Boston. Yuggoth fungi sojourning in Vermont. Yith marking up books in our great libraries. Deep Ones in Innsmouth, and shoggoths in the Antarctic, and flying polyps in Australia, and immortal wizards in Providence. And, and, and!

And, in “From Beyond” itself, those normally invisible jelly-amoebas which are always with us and those hunters which are always nearby and which, given proper conduits, do away with Tillinghast’s servants. Foreshades of the Tindalos hounds! I guess that these entities haunted me as they do our narrator, though semi-subconsciously, because on rereading I’m struck by the appearance their close relations make in my novel Summoned. Miskatonic University archivist Helen Arkwright takes a vision-enhancing potion to assist her in plumbing magically obscured marginalia in the Necronomicon. However, she’s distracted from the sacred book when she notices what swarms the rare book vault – what presumably swarms it all the time, unseen. Lean translucences with dozens of appendages, with which they climb up and down in the air. Gossamers whose feathery antennae yearn toward her with avid curiosity. One lands on her back. When she tries to crush it against the wall, it oozes whole through her chest, unharmed.

She realizes the gossamers are harmless, but her hypervision also detects patches of ethereal fabric that separate the vault from some very other place, against which something heaves an enormous gelatinous haunch and peers with glinting and clustered eyes.

Sounds hunterish to me. Good thing for Helen that if MU has acquired Tillinghast’s wave-generator, it hasn’t stored it in the tomes vault. Otherwise my deep memory would doubtless have had her stumble into the machine and turn it on, unleashing the things with the haunches and eyes. In which case my book would have ended neither with a bang nor a whimper, but with a resounding “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaagh—”

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Damn. This story would have delighted me any week, but it contrasts particularly sharply with last week’s “Hounds of Tindalos.” They have pretty much the same plot, save that Chambers is a jerk and Tillinghast is a murderous jerk. But where Long—or his narrator—wants to tell you at length about the metaphysical explanations for his enhanced perceptions, Lovecraft and Tillinghast show. Picture it now: the colors writhing just beyond vision, eager to be seen; the ghostly jellyfish moving around and through you, tentacles brushing your cheek… and the things that Tillinghast doesn’t see till the last, and so never shows or describes. Better not look behind you! Keep still. Don’t blink.

For once, one of Howard’s stories benefits from being the trope-maker. In later stories, he’ll depend at least somewhat on repetitive set pieces to try and invoke this same mood. The monotonous flute, the mindless gods, the non-Euclidean geometry… but every description here is new, and wildly strange, and so far as I can recall never gets reused. The end result convinces me that I really would be tempted to look, and that it really would be a terrible idea.

And the language is terrific, ornate enough to be evocative without going over the top. Not that I don’t love me some over-the-top Lovecraft, but: the jellyfish and other strange fauna are “…superimposed upon the usual terrestrial scene much as a cinema view may be thrown upon the painted curtain of a theatre.” I can imagine it perfectly—alas that the art coming up in an image search doesn’t seem to have taken the dare.

I find the psychological conceit here fascinating, even if Lovecraft framed it in a way that makes little sense by modern standards. Do we have atrophied and rudimentary senses that could be enhanced to show more of reality? Sort of. Scent’s a good candidate—we have less than most other mammals, and a good portion of what we get is non-conscious. The jelly-thing-sensing organ is less likely. The pineal gland—fallback explanation for unlikely abilities since Descartes—honestly has enough to do keeping everyone’s hormones in order, without also connecting us to reality’s other layers.

But humans are obsessed with expanding their senses, and it turns out we’re really quite good at it. You can get glasses that will let you pick up infrared (although it’ll look like an ordinary glowing light, sorry), or cataract surgery to see ultraviolet. Better yet, wear a belt that always vibrates at magnetic north, and within a few days you’ll have integrated a directional sense in with the sense you come by naturally. Then there are the people who implant magnets in their fingertips—I don’t think my keyboard would like it, but it’s tempting. Some of the more outre compensations for blindness involve translating the input from a camera into stimulation of the back or tonguea—visual input turns to touch, and given a little bit of time to adjust, the occipital lobe will use the new input as happily as it would the standard signals from rods and cones.

So if we actually had Tillinghast’s machine, it’s likely that we’d find a way to process the strange sense of the beyond as ordinary vision and hearing. And while it might be a bit creepy at first, I suspect we’d learn how to get along with it pretty well, after all. Humans are good at processing whatever we can get into our brains, and we’re always hungry for more.

 

Next week, Lovecraft warns us about the dangers of meddling in wetlands—no, not the ones near Innsmouth—in “The Moon-Bog.”

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land and “The Deepest Rift.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She lives in a large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. The second in the Redemption’s Heir series, Fathomless, will be published in October 2015. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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