The Lovecraft Reread

Bad Solutions For Writer’s Block: Henry Kuttner’s “The Salem Horror”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

Today we’re looking at Henry Kuttner’s “The Salem Horror,” first published in the May 1937 issue of Weird Tales. Spoilers ahead.

“He became conscious that he was standing in the exact center of the chamber, in the circle of black stone where the odd design centered. Again he noticed the utter silence. On an impulse he clicked off the ray of his flashlight. Instantly he was in dead blackness.”

Summary

Narrator Carson, author of popular light romances, has retired to an ancient house in Salem, Massachusetts, to finish his latest novel. Locals shun the place because it originally belonged to Abigail Prinn, who sacrificed to a crescent-horned figure and worshiped a dark god who dwelt deep in the hills. She “disappeared” in the Witch Panic of 1692—oldsters whisper that flames could not burn her, so she went to her grave with a stake through her heart to keep her down. Carson scoffs at the stories, but he isn’t thrilled with the resident rats. At least not until one leads him to a hidden door in the basement. Carson shifts open the stone slab and discovers Prinn’s secret Witch Room, a circular chamber with an amazing mosaic floor. The design’s complex: purple curves intertwined with blue and green angles. At its center is a two-foot-wide black disc. An alcove has walls scrawled with indecipherable hieroglyphs. It features an eight-foot disc, iron, like a giant manhole cover, which Carson sees no way to move.

Impressed by the utter silence of the underground room, and apparently never having read in any genre other than his own, he decides it’s the perfect place to write—much better than anything the traffic-noisy house affords. He informs his Boston landlord of the find, gets the Witch Room wired, and sets up a table and chair—right above the black disc at the heart of the mosaic. There he writes easily, his mind clear, free, seemingly disassociated from other things.

Too bad his landlord gossips. Soon Carson’s besieged by historians and occultists eager to see the Witch Room. He’s turning away the latest visitor, occultist Michael Leigh, when Leigh takes him by the shoulders and stares into his eyes. (But sorry, we’re not about to switch over into Carson’s own romance genre.) Leigh apologizes, and his urbanity wins Carson over. They go to the Witch Room together. Leigh’s most interested in the alcove hieroglyphics, which he reads aloud. It’s gibberish to Carson, though he makes out the name “Nyogtha.”

Back upstairs Leigh asks if Carson’s been dreaming. Maybe, but Carson can’t remember anything salient. He rejects Leigh’s suggestion he move out, or at least not write in the Witch Room. Leigh persists: See, beyond human science is a greater science the average person can’t comprehend. Machen described a gulf between the world of consciousness and the world of material. The Witch Room may be a bridge between the worlds, a focal point for malign vibrations, even thought-commands. Will Carson at least let Leigh come again? Will he try to remember any dreams?

Carson nods. And that night he does dream, though waking in agitation, he can only remember an impression of running in darkness. He goes for an early morning walk, ends up at the Charter Street Burying Ground. A crowd’s gathered at its iron railing. They gawp at the dead man who still clutches the bars, face a rictus of terror. What did he see in the boneyard, or what, being one of these “superstitious Polish laborers,” did he imagine he saw?

Shaken, Carson returns home. Leigh’s already there, with news that overnight someone has robbed Prinn’s grave, removing the stake that pinned her and apparently making off with her remains. Maybe the macabre theft is what the dead Pole glimpsed.

Or maybe, Leigh says, Prinn hypnotized Carson into freeing her, so she can finally avenge herself on Salem. And what vengeance it would be! Leigh’s consulted the Necronomicon at the Kester Library. (Yup, yet another copy of this rarest of tomes.) He learned that Prinn’s master Nyogtha is one of the Old Ones, aka the Dweller in Darkness and the Thing That Should Not Be. His followers can summon Him from His subterranean lair; the only way to dismiss Him is to use the looped cross or ankh, the Vach-Viraj incantation, and the Tikkoun elixir. The elixir’s hard to get, but Leigh will seek it. Until he returns, Carson should stay out of the Witch Room!

Carson makes no promise. He has a nasty encounter with a neighbor, who accuses him of scaring her Sarah with a “brown thing” he let run into his house. Head aching, he retreats to the Witch Room and falls asleep at the center of the mosaic, to dream of a black horror rampaging through Salem and a skull-face peering into his own, eyes alight with a hellish glow.

He wakes to see a mummy-like thing emerge from another hidden door. Frozen in place, he watches it chant before the alcove. Slowly the iron disc rises. Black ooze wells “amoeboid” from below, then throws aside the massive disc. Shriveled Abigail Prinn lifts triumphant arms. Carson would scream if only he could.

Leigh rushes in, chanting, looped cross in hand. Nyogtha surges to meet him, but the cross and incantation aren’t Leigh’s only weapons. He throws a tiny glass vial into the monster’s protoplasmic bulk. Nyogtha hesitates, then retreats, shedding stinking chunks of black flesh. With one pseudopod, He seizes Prinn. With another, He pulls the iron disc back into place behind them.

Carson faints. He’s alive, but he’ll never finish his light romance, nor will he ever be able to sell the dark narratives he writes thereafter. Black God of Madness is too morbid, too horrible, his publisher claims. Carson tries to tell him the real story, only to shrink back from the publisher’s incredulity and agree he only dreamt the horror at the Witch House, will forget it in time.

But he won’t, especially not the last thing he saw as Leigh hustled him away: a withered claw of a hand protruding from under the iron disc, Abigail Prinn’s last salute and memento.

What’s Cyclopean: Abbie Prinn made sacrifices to “worm-eaten, crescent-horned” images. A dead body has an expression of “abysmal and utterly shocking horror.” (“Abysmal horror” later also freezes Carson in place at a pivotal moment.) An old graveyard has an “indefinable miasma of antiquity.”

The Degenerate Dutch: Superstitious Polish mill workers are superstitious. Also right. When people tell horror stories that hinge on Other People’s legends being accurate, is the horror in the monster, or in Those People being right about something?

Mythos Making: Leigh makes reference to Machen, and his gulfs between consciousness and matter. Then we get a brand new elder god, Nyogtha… though this may just be yet another face of the Big N himself. This would also fit with the general theme of this story being nearly identical to “The Dreams in the Witch House.”

Libronomicon: Nyogtha is pulled straight from the ever-fruitful and always-unpredictable Necronomicon.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Men called the author of the Necronomicon mad, but really he was just delving deeply into forbidden secrets. Carson’s sanity is also questioned, mostly because he can’t resist explaining his experiences to disinterested editors.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Henry Kuttner (often in collaboration with wife C. L. Moore) wrote stories across the SFF spectrum, as well as Mythos tales like “The Salem Horror.” He had almost as many pen names as Nyarlathotep has avatars, but I’m not sure he attached any of them to the kind of light romance Carson did so well before he lost all his amorous whimsy points to Nyogtha.

Meeting “living darkness” will do that to a person.

Speaking of Nyarlathotep’s avatars, Nyogtha might be one of them since the two entities share a nickname: “Dweller in Darkness.” And I daresay there are those who’d categorize Nyarlathotep as a “Thing That Should Not Be,” but they’re no fun, and we don’t really like them very much.

Avatar or stand-alone god, Nyogtha is Kuttner’s invention. So is Abigail Prinn, who shares a surname with dark mage Ludwig, author of De Vermis Mysteriis. If the two are related, Abigail went her infamous ancestor one better, for he ended up burned at the stake in Brussels while she proved inflammable in Salem. It’s interesting that the Puritans didn’t just hang Abigail, as they did their other “witches.” Maybe they tried to hang her and that didn’t work either. I can see her oscillating from the gallows tree like a pendulum, smirking all the time and refusing to die or even to be much incommoded. Could be the stake didn’t put out her lights either, just kept her safely underground. There’s a picturesque and gruesome scene for you: the bewigged judges, the soldiers, the 17th century mob in all its gradations of rank, gathered to see Abigail impaled, and she STILL refuses to “lie still,” probably even laughing through her screams like all high-end Mythos baddies who’ve got magical Get-Out-Of-Death-Eventually cards up their sleeves, a la Joseph Curwen. Then all those decades underground, waiting for a susceptible scribe to find her subcellar writer’s retreat. Keziah Mason had it better over in Arkham, since she got to travel around the cosmos with buddy Brown Jenkin while awaiting a physicist with whom to enjoy strange curves and angles.

Brown Jenkin was a smarter familiar than Abigail’s nameless rat minion. No way he would have quailed before a mere cross scratched in front of his burrow. The cross, as powerful Christian talisman, seems out of place in Kuttner’s story and doesn’t reappear. Later we get the crux ansata or ankh that Leigh wields. This gives the anti-Nyogtha spell a more exotic flavor. The Vash-Viraj incantation sounds like the work of Indian magicians, more flavor, and now for the final dash of Tikkoun elixir! “Tikkoun” is close to the Hebrew “Tikkun” or “fixing.” This elixir is supposed to be especially effective against Derleth’s earth elementals, of which Nyogtha is one. Is Kuttner its “inventor?” The same potent potion appears in Lumley, where it discourages Cthonians, and in Eddy C. Bertin’s Cyaegha origin-story, “Darkness, My Name Is.”

Note to self: Ask Mr. Geldman what is in this elixir; also, how much it costs per application.

Interesting that Kuttner chooses Salem as his setting, rather than Arkham (where I kept thinking we were.) Maybe he realized that you couldn’t have two witches as powerful as Abigail and Keziah in the same township—not without turf wars! The Charter Street Burying Ground’s a real Salem place, and plenty spooky enough to serve as Abigail’s not-so-last resting place. I think the Kester Library’s an invention. It just happens to shelve the Necronomicon, even though Lovecraft doesn’t mention that particular copy of the tome. I guess Salem was not to be outdone by Arkham. That, or Leigh didn’t want to drive up to Arkham to peruse Miskatonic’s copy.

This is a solid Mythos tale, but while it introduces a new Old One and a new supercultist, it treads familiar tropes. My favorite part is the Witch Room, insulated against all mundane influences, like traffic noise, barking dogs and yowling infants. Carson’s right—it’s the perfect place to write! I want one in my basement. Only problem, such subterranean retreats probably have bugs as well as rats. Creepy, long-leggedy albino bugs that crawl up your legs or drop onto your head from the fungoid ceiling. No, just no.

I’ll have to hold out for a deep room in a hobbit-hole, which would be similarly quiet, with the added advantage of ale barrels and wine-racks and no ends of worms sticking out of the walls. No ends of other things, either, however protoplasmic.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Did you like “The Dreams in the Witch House”? Would you like to read it again, only without the geometry-infested dreams or Brown Jenkins, and with more hyper-accurate Polish superstition? If so, “The Salem Horror” might be the story for you.

We read a certain amount of derivative stuff in this series. It’s sort of inevitable—Lovecraftian horror ranges from stories that get the mood pitch perfect and contain no Mythos references whatsoever, all the way down to stories that are half recap of Howard’s stuff. In between are awesomely original takes on Shub-Niggaroth, cheerful efforts to build brand new Mythos canon, pieces that depend entirely on the reader already being terrified of shoggothim, and attempts to recreate the frisson of Lovecraft’s originals by recreating their form. The latter were probably extremely welcome in the ’50s, but for the most part they just don’t work for me. This week’s story is a good example of why: it may have the form down to a clone, but it misses everything that was exultantly cool about the original.

See, “Witch House” wasn’t just a particularly spiffy haunted house story. It wasn’t just a fable about how you shouldn’t work in houses, rooms, or obvious occult diagrams that once belonged to a scary, scary witch. Walter Gilman wasn’t merely possessed, or trying to get through writer’s block—he was genuinely tempted by the mathematically enabled visions offered up to him. And we saw enough of them to get tempted ourselves. Wild rides through the space outside the universe? Glimpses of alien architecture? Souvenirs broken off from alien architecture by irresponsible tourists? More, please! Carson’s complete failure to remember his own dreams for most of “Salem” bespeaks a failure of imagination on someone’s part, and certainly a failure of temptation.

I did note something interesting, which is that our Reread’s traditional headers make a pretty good scale of Lovecraftian style. The easier it is to fill in a logical response to “What’s cyclopean?” and “Who’s degenerate this week?” the more the author is treading carefully in old Howie’s footsteps. I originally developed these categories partly as a coping strategy—making a game out of spotting this week’s racist invective made even the most obnoxious stories enjoyable on a geeky problem solving level. By now, I get a happy little shot of dopamine every time I spot a $50 adjective or someone being driven mad by a book. On that level, “The Salem Horror” was pretty rewarding. Truly Pavlov was a dude who knew what was up.

Another of “Salem’s” innovations over “Witch House” is the addition of The Guy Who Explains Things. Long a staple of genre fiction, the Occult Explainer is convenient if your protagonist just won’t put two and two together. Carson is a particularly passive protagonist, making little effort to resist Abbie’s mind control machinations even at the end, so he definitely needs an Explainer. But again, I rather miss Gilman, who at least made some effort to figure out what was going on for himself. If Leigh is going to do all the work, I’d honestly rather see the story from his perspective, without him having to as-you-know-Bob his way through someone else’s tale. The inclusion of Guys Who Explain Things as positive role models in fiction has probably not been a boon to civilization, and it does no one any favors here either.

 

Next week, Caitlín Kiernan offers another taste of ghoulish art in “Pickman’s Other Model.” You can find it in New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, among other places.

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” is now available from Macmillan’s Tor.com imprint. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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