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 “The Festival,” written in October 1923 and published in the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales. You can read the story here. Spoilers ahead.
Summary: Our narrator is far from home, approaching the ancient town to which his family’s ancient writings have called him for a festival held once a century. It’s Yuletide, which in truth is older than Christmas, older than mankind itself. Our narrator’s people are also old. They came from South America long ago, but scattered, retaining rituals for which no one living still understands the mysteries.
He’s the only one who’s come back tonight—no one else remembers. He reaches Kingsport, a snow-covered New England town full of “ancient” colonial buildings, with the church on the central hill untouched by time. Four of his kinsmen were hanged for witchcraft here in 1692, but he doesn’t know where they’re buried.
The town is silent—none of the sounds of merriment one might expect on Christmas Eve. He has maps, though, and knows where to go. He walks—they must have lied in Arkham about the trolley running here since there are no wires.
He finds the house. He’s afraid, and the fear grows worse when no footsteps precede the answer to his knock. But the old man in a dressing gown seems comfortingly harmless. He’s mute, but carries a wax tablet on which he pens a greeting.
The old man (but not, in spite of the setting, the Terrible Old Man) beckons him into a candle-lit room. An old woman spins beside the fireplace. There’s no fire and it seems damp. A high-backed settle faces the windows; it seems occupied though the narrator isn’t sure. He feels afraid again—moreso when he realizes that the man’s eyes never move and his skin appears made of wax. A mask? The man writes that they must wait, and seats him by a table with a pile of books.
And not just any books, but 16th and 17th century esoterica including a Necronomicon, which he’s never seen but of which he’s heard terrible things. He flips through it (Wouldn’t you?) and gets absorbed in a legend “too disturbing for sanity or consciousness.” (It really does make a great coffee table book; your guests will be thoroughly distracted. Though their conversation later may get a little odd.)
He hears the window by the settle close, and a strange whirring, and then it no longer feels like someone’s sitting there. At 11, the old man leads the narrator out into the snow. Cloaked figures pour silently from every doorway and process through the streets.
Fellow celebrants jostle him. Their limbs and torsos seem unnaturally pulpy and soft. No one speaks or shows their face as they head for the church on the central hill. The narrator hangs back and enters last. Turning back before he goes in, he shudders—there are no footprints in the snow, not even his own.
He follows the crowd into the vaults beneath the church, then down a staircase hidden in a tomb. The footfalls of those ahead make no sound. They come out in a deep cavern shimmering with pale light. Someone’s playing a thin, whining flute, and a wide oily river flows beside a fungous shore. A column of sick, greenish flame lights the scene.
The crowd gathers around the flaming column and performs the Yule rite “older than man and fated to survive him.” Something amorphous squats beyond the light, playing the flute. He hears fluttering. The old man stands beside the flame, holding up the Necronomicon, and the crowd grovels. Our narrator does the same, though he’s sick and afraid.
At a signal the music from the flute changes. Out of the darkness comes a horde of tame winged things: not quite like crows, nor moles, nor buzzards, nor ants, nor bats, nor decomposed human beings.
Celebrants seize and mount them, one by one, and fly away down the subterranean river. The narrator hangs back until only he and the old man remain. The man writes that he’s the true deputy of their forefathers, and that the most secret mysteries are yet to be performed. He shows a seal ring and a watch, both with the family arms, to prove it. The narrator recognizes the watch from family papers; it was buried with his great-great-great-great-grandfather in 1698.
The old man pulls back his hood and points to their family resemblance, but the narrator is sure now that it’s only a mask. The flopping animals are getting restless. When the old man reaches out to steady one he dislodges the mask, and what the narrator sees causes him to throw himself, screaming, into the putrescent river.
At the hospital they tell him that he was found half frozen in the harbor, clinging to a spar. Footprints show that he took a wrong turn on his way to Kingsport and fell off a cliff. Outside, only about one in five roofs look ancient, and trolleys and motors run through a perfectly modern town. He’s horrified to learn that the hospital is on the central hill, where once the old church stood. They send him to Saint Mary’s in Arkham, where he’s able to check the university’s Necronomicon. The chapter he recalls reading is, indeed, real. Where he saw it is best forgotten.
He’s willing to quote only one paragraph from Alhazred: it warns that where a wizard is buried, his body “fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws, till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.”
What’s Cyclopean: Nothing’s cyclopean, but this is still a festival of adjectives, of which “the putrescent juice of the earth’s inner horrors” may be the purplest, although “that unhallowed Erebus of titan toadstools, leprous fire, and slimy water” is also pretty impressive.
The Degenerate Dutch: The narrator describes his ancestors as “dark furtive folk from opiate southern gardens of orchids,” though these South American origins are basically forgotten for the entire rest of the story.
Mythos Making: We get Kingsport here, and the Necronomicon, but connections to Mythos canon are a bit tenuous.
Libronomicon: In the house where the narrator waits, coffee table books include Morryster’s Marvells of Science, Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus, Remigius’s Daemonolatreia, and “the unmentionable Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, in Olaus Wormius’ forbidden Latin translation.” None of which ought to be left lying around in a damp room, given that they’re editions from the 1500s and 1600s. That’s worse than Yithian marginalia, which at least have historic (and prophetic) interest.
Madness Takes Its Toll: At Saint Mary’s in Arkham, they know how to properly treat cases of exposure to eldritch horror.
Okay, call me slow—on previous readings I didn’t get the ending, parsing the Necronomicon quote as basically, “there are nasty things below the earth.” Yeah, thanks, tell me something I don’t know. This time I get it: his witchy ancestors are all dead, and the worms who fed on their bodies now carry on their traditions—or a twisted mockery thereof. Ew. That may be the… grossest… metaphor for cultural appropriation that I’ve ever encountered. Kind of a pity Lovecraft didn’t intend it that way.
Or maybe he did, though not in the way we tend to think about it nowadays—it’s not un-Lovecraft-ish to suggest that once-proud traditions are now carried out in degenerate form by those not worthy of them. And the seemingly kinda random opening quote suggests he knew what he was playing with here. Not being a Latin expert myself, I did a quick search and found this nifty discussion. In brief, the quote translates as: “Demons have the ability to cause people to see things that do not exist as if they did exist.” It’s ostensibly Lactantius, but the direct quote is actually from Cotton Mather. Cotton was quoting his dad, Increase Mather, who used it as an epigram for his book Cases of Conscience. Increase’s “quote” is a paraphrase of Nicolaus Remigius’ Daemonolatreia, which in turn paraphrases a longer and less directly-stated passage from Lactantius.
And given that the Daemonolatreia shows up amongst the World’s Worst Coffee Table Books, that’s probably not an accident. By the time the pure traditions of Christian Rome get to New England, they’re almost unrecognizable—but still presented as the unaltered wisdom of your forefathers. So Lovecraft may not be worried about other people taking over his ancestors’ traditions, but perhaps New England is to the Roman Empire as unholy worms are to our narrator’s all-but-forgotten familial rites. Huh.
On a different note, I’d forgotten that the narrator is ostensibly of indigenous South American ancestry. This is probably because it plays exactly no role in the story. The ancient rites center around Kingsport, the narrator has heard of the Necronomicon, his family puts coats of arms on seal rings and watches, and in general everything seems considerably less pluralistic than your average Cthulhu cult. The narrator’s increasing freak-outedness never comes across as “I don’t think this is what my forefathers were actually doing.” His motivations don’t match his supposed background, and he swiftly transforms into a standard Lovecraft protagonist fleeing the strange because it’s strange. Though I appreciate the story’s creepiness, it doesn’t really have the courage of its set-up.
Finally, let’s talk about Kingsport. Kingsport is the outlier in Lovecraft Country. Arkham and Dunwich and Innsmouth all have distinct personalities, and each instantly brings to mind a particular flavor of eldritch. But what’s in Kingsport? The Terrible Old Man protects it from thieves with dark poetic justice, or perhaps he lives in a Strange High House with a view of the abyssal mist. Ephraim-as-Asenath goes to school there. In “Festival,” we have a maybe-alternate-maybe-illusory town of wizard-eating worms. It’s not that these are incompatible, but they don’t add up to a clear picture either. Kingsport seems more surreal than its neighbors, and if you dare travel there repeatedly, there’s no predicting what will happen..
As the epigraph from Lacantius says, demons are tricky creatures, always making us silly humans see things that aren’t there. The way I read it, this tenth or twelfth time, the narrator may never actually descend the great ridge that separates Arkham and Kingsport. Instead, according to the evidence of snow-recorded footprints, he pauses on Orange Point, in sight of the ancient city of his ancestors, later to take a desperate plunge off the cliffs and into the harbor. The Kingsport he sees is a mirage, time-shifted back to the seventeenth century, and he apparently walks the illusion only in his mind. We have the option, as so often in Lovecraft’s stories, to believe the doctors who tell our narrator that he suffered a psychotic break. Just a momentary madness, no worries.
On the other hand, doctors who’d prescribe the Necronomicon as a way out of madness? Can’t trust them! And just because a journey took place only in the narrator’s mind, or via some form of astral projection, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a journey into the truth.
And what a truth here.
Something I’ve missed before—this narrator isn’t our usual WASP academic, professional, or student. His ancestors, at least, were a “dark, furtive folk from opiate southern gardens of orchids,” who had to learn the tongue (English) of the “blue-eyed fishers.” Hmm. I’m not sure these “dark, furtive folk” came from any particular place in the waking world. They sound more like denizens of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, which would be cool. But maybe some obscure Pacific island? Anyhow. Our narrator is a stranger to New England, and poor and lonely, but he does read Latin, hence well-educated. He’s also familiar with the names of esoteric tomes, which displays a prior interest in the occult. On the other hand, he doesn’t instantly associate that amorphous flute-player in the catacombs with Azathoth and the other Outer Gods, like any really deep scholar of arcane lore would do. But give him a break: This story was written in 1923, only three years after Lovecraft connected monotonously whining flutes with Nyarlathotep in the story of the same name. So word might not have gotten around yet.
I find the passage in which the narrator waits in the parlor of his ancestors’ house to be one of Lovecraft’s creepiest. The “dumb” man in the wax mask! The close-bonneted old woman who never stops spinning! Whoever or whatever is sitting on the settle facing the windows, unseen and unheard by the narrator, but not unfelt. And then something maybe whirs out the windows, and after that, the narrator feels the settle’s unoccupied. This is implied eeriness on an M. R. James level!
This time, well-acquainted with the secret of the worshippers, I admired the verbs Lovecraft uses to describe their movements and hint at their true natures: slithered, oozed, squirmed, wriggled. There are also the elbows that are preternaturally soft, the stomachs that are abnormally pulpy, the catacombs described as burrows maggoty with subterraneous evil. Slightly more oblique are references to decay, clamminess, corruption, fungus, lichens and disease. Call him mad all you want, once again Alhazred is right. Guys! These wizardly ancestors of the narrator, “devil-bought” as they were in life, have survived the grave by “instructing the very worm that gnaws”—that is, by transferring mind and will into maggots and swelling them to man-size! Now that’s awesomely gross. Plus Alhazred gets to close the story with another of his lusciously quotable lines: “Things have learned to walk that ought to crawl.”
Maggot revenants are just the start. There’s also the amorphous flutist which rolls out of sight. Rolls! And where there’s an amorphous and monotonously tooting flutist, there must be some avatar of the Outer Gods. Here I’d say it’s that pillar of cold green flame. Nyarlathotep, maybe? He could do the chilly fire thing, and he always looks great in green.
Last, the Lovecraft bestiary gets a worthy addition in the highly squicky, highly hybridized mounts that answer the flutist’s call. Here’s another big challenge for the illustrator: A thing that’s part crow, part mole, part buzzard, part ant, part bat and part rotted human. Brings to mind other less than savory transport animals, like the K’n-yan “mules” of “The Mound” and the Shantak-birds and night gaunts of “Unknown Kadath.” Um, thanks, but I think I’ll just call a cab.
Next week, step into the world of dreams for “The Doom That Came to Sarnath.”
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.” 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 “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.