Dec 10 2009 2:00pm

12 Days of Lovecraft: “The Dunwich Horror”

Greetings from scenic Dunwich, Massachusetts, home of degenerate inbreds, a few standing stones, and unspeakable horrors from beyond! Read it here.

The Story:

Dunwich, a New England backwater populated chiefly by degenerate inbreds, is shocked when a “somewhat deformed” albino woman gives birth to a dark,  goatish son who proceeds to grow and mature at superhuman rates.

Cattle disappear, said deformed albino mom dies, as does her father, and the goatish boy, Wilbur, seeks out a copy of the Necronomicon more complete than his own. Thwarted by noble librarians, Wilbur eventually breaks into a university library and, shockingly for a figure of menace, is dispatched by the watchdog in short order. The noble librarians head to Dunwich where an invisible and very large horror is rampaging through the countryside wrecking stuff, and dispatch it with what appears to be very little effort, thus saving the entire earth from becoming Yog-Sothoth’s barren playground. Or something.

What’s Awesome:

Heroic librarians. Come on. Also, this time it’s not just some fishy creatures menacing one town: the future of the earth hangs in the balance. Wilbur’s preturnatural growth rate is creepy, and his journal entry really helps build suspense and horror. It’s also a tough task to describe a nightmarish horror from another dimension, but he actually does a great job with that here. When the invisible horror is briefly revealed, it’s described by a gibbering inbred in a way that actually provoked disgust and horror in me. All good stuff. Finally, though he doesn’t seem to have had the stones to play this out fully, this is basically an anti-gospel story where a woman is impregnated by a god and bears a child with supernatural powers. Only this time, it’s a malevolent God determined to strip earth of all life and do something with it, but we don’t know what. (Eat it, like Galactus? Melt it down and send it to Cash 4 Planets? Since ol’ Yog-Sothoth is thwarted, we’ll never know.)

What’s Horrible:

Once again there’s a really disturbing preoccupation with racial purity here. “The natives are now repellently decadent...They have come to form a race by themselves, with the well-defined mental and physical stigmata of degeneracy and inbreeding.”  Since one of these decadent natives interbreeds with a monster from another dimension, it seems pretty clear that, to H.P.’s way of thinking, one pretty much leads to the other. That is to say, without proper attention to the maintenance of racial purity, the race degrades and the world ends. Cue cuckoo clock sound.

There’s also some weirdness in the way the story is constructed. At the beginning of the story, we know that the Dunwich Horror is already over, so the fate of the world is never really in question. Also, in the climactic battle with the invisible horror, H.P. abandons his heroic librarians frantically working spells on a mountaintop and pulls us down to the bottom of the mountain with the decadent natives watching the proceedings through a muddy telescope. Again, this kinda kills the power of the moment, but I guess maybe it was the only way he felt he could work the description of a gibbering witness into the story.

Next time, we’ll investigate The Pretentious British Spelling—er, I mean, “The Colour Out of Space!

Illustration by Scott Altmann.

Seamus Cooper is the author of The Mall of Cthulhu. (Night Shade Books, 2009). He lives in Boston and is totally going to Harvard’s Widener Library this afternoon to check out their Necronomicon.

This article is part of December Belongs To Cthulhu: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Michael Grosberg
1. Michael_GR
I think this is the only Lovecraft tale where the good guys win.

My favorite bit is when Wilbur's body is discovered and they see his... "unique" anatomy. I'm a pretty visual sort of person, so saying "it was too horrible to describe" does nothing for. But give me a really creepy description and I'm hooked, and Wilbur Whatley is one of the creepiest things Lovecraft ever came up with.
2. First Selector
Yay for 12 days of Lovecraft reviews! I hope At the Mountains of Madness is included. :)

I thought the choice for the PoV at the end was interesting...and a good choice I think. In many of Lovecraft's stories, we get the perspective of a librarian/historian/researcher coming face to face with horrors. So it was nice to get a different PoV.

I recently noticed a Dunwich Horror made for TV movie coming on. Although I should know better, I watched it. I'm not one to say a movie should be just like the book, but this really should've had a different title. My advice: don't watch!
3. MatsVS
Are you people going to harp about the racism in EVERY SINGLE REVIEW? You've made your point, now it's just getting droll. Also, seeing as inbreeding is the surest way of maintaining racial purity, your observation makes no sense.
David Levinson
4. DemetriosX
With the racial purity thing, you have to remember that eugenics was a really hot topic pretty much throughout the first half of the 20th century. Look up the Kallikaks sometime. Also, the people of Dunwich have taken racial purity to whole new heights (at least until Wilbur and his brother). That's basically what inbreeding is.

This is really more a case of classism. These people are so far down the inbred yokel scale that the banjo player from Deliverance would sneer at them as inbred yokels.
5. firkin
@3, i suppose you missed the first post, where the author said he was going to pay explicit attention to that very thing?

4: "the people of Dunwich have taken racial purity to whole new heights"
maybe. though i noted that the Whateleys (Lavinia, Wilbur, and "that upstairs") are all described as having coarse, "crinkly" hair. to me this sounds like a suggestion of African ancestry, though it's obviously a very slight reference and mostly notable for me after all the "mongrel" and "half-caste" business in "Call of Cthulhu."

random question, would most households in rural massachusetts have had a telephone in 1925?
6. 123Arthu
Hey, Tor guys. Can you go back to doing Steampunk? I mean, I personally don't give a toss about steampunky things but at least there you were (presumably) able to find people who (a) knew what the fuck they were talking about and (b) didn't hate it.

BTW For a better story-by-story analysis of Lovecrafst work I would thoroughly recommend the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast:

Gary Schaper
7. Garyfury
@6: Personally, I look forward to the article on non-Euclidean costuming.
Seamus Cooper
8. Seamuscooper
@3 Ahhh...only 41 years as a straight white man, and I've finally been referred to as "you people." Thanks! I thought that was a door that was closed to me! (BTW, I only mention racism in the stories where I find it. Which, shockingly, is not all of 'em. Keep readin'!)

@6 Well, I thought it was clear that I don't hate it. As for knowing what I'm talking, I did read the story. I submit that constitutes knowing what I'm talking about. Still, I knew my smartassed attitude would annoy some people, so I guess I'm succeeding. Thanks!
Wesley Osam
9. Wesley
"The Dunwich Horror" was also filmed in 1970, with Sandra Dee, Sam Jaffe, Ed Begley as Henry Armitage, and Dean Stockwell as Wilbur Whately. Not a particularly good movie, but not as bad as you might assume. Occasionally there's a striking shot, and sometimes the scenes of the invisible horror wandering the countryside, an effect achieved solely with a wind machine, rise to the level of creepy.
10. MatsVS

Ah, my apoligies, sir. For some reason, I presumed the reviews were done by several people, hence the designation. And for the record, I support all things Lovecraft, this undertaking included. The work is appreciated, though perhaps not exclusively so. ;)
Maiane Bakroeva
11. Isilel
Well, finally a pretty frightening story with effective and mostly not too ovewritten prose. Despite the let-down of what is essentially an Antichrist completely borking a simple theft and getting killed by a dog (sic!). I guess that he wasn't sufficiently gorilla-like or he would have torn it apart...

I don't mind the heroic librarians dispatching the horror either - after all, Armitage seemed already conversant with related matters and spent some time on figuring it all out. Also, the horror's connection to earth would have been tenious of necessity.

What I don't get is what could motivate people like Old Whateley to engineer the end of the world? Or Chuthluists to carry on with their secret cult for millenia? I mean, at least with the Deep Ones you get gold, fish and immortality...
12. cuchlann
I'm not trying to say Lovecraft wasn't racist -- Jeez, but he was, and how. But that line you're quoting isn't really about how they're failing to keep the race pure. They *are* keeping the race pure, that's the problem. It's a bit like "The Rats in the Walls," that families can turn in on themselves and degenerate because they're not adapting. Lovecraft was a bit of a holdover from the era of the Naturalist concern with atavism, degeneracy, and the risks of evolution to modern society.

I mean, the real problem, if there's any, is classism. They're poor, (probably-)white trash yokels inbreeding, furthering their own strain without ever taking in anything from outside to improve themselves.
jon meltzer
13. jmeltzer
Yeah, it's classism. Lovecraft the Providence/Boston city boy with genteel-family pretensions is out in north central Massachusetts, a depressed area now and certainly a depressed area then, and is horrified.
14. TheFolklorist
I love the fact that TOR is doing a month centered around Lovecraft, but I do have to agree with some of the other comments here that Mr. Cooper's preoccupation with Lovecraft's xenophobia (not racism) is a bit tiring. I enjoyed his original post where he talked about how it's important to talk about these things especially when introducing new people to Lovecraft's work but we also need not dwell on it. Concerns about purity (be it racial, genetic, social, or spiritual) is a big theme in horror fiction and always has been. When I read a story like The Call of Cthulhu or Shadow Over Innsmouth or Dunwich Horror I don't even notice/think twice about the "apparent racism" in the story. Also I think that writers who exclude such notions from their Lovecraft pastiches lose something of the spirit of the work especially if its set in the 1920s or 30s. Anyway I'm rambling but in short I'd appreciate it if Mr. Cooper would stop "looking" for racism in every Lovecraft story he reviews.

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