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 Whisperer in Darkness,” written in 1930 and first published in the August 1931 issue of Weird Tales. You can read the story here. Spoilers ahead.
“I found myself faced by names and terms that I had heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connexions—Yuggoth, Great Cthulhu, Tsathoggua, Yog-Sothoth, R’lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Hastur, Yian, Leng, the Lake of Hali, Bethmoora, the Yellow Sign, L’mur-Kathulos, Bran, and the Magnum Innominandum—and was drawn back through nameless aeons and inconceivable dimensions to worlds of elder, outer entity at which the crazed author of the Necronomicon had only guessed in the vaguest way. I was told of the pits of primal life, and of the streams that had trickled down therefrom; and finally, of the tiny rivulet from one of those streams which had become entangled with the destinies of our own earth.”
Summary: The 1928 floods bring rumors of strange bodies in the swollen rivers of rural Vermont. These rumors build on older stories about winged, crab-like beings from the stars with an outpost in the hills. Albert Wilmarth, folklore professor at Miskatonic University, writes editorials arguing that these are merely the local instantiation of a standard myth.
Henry Akeley, an educated Vermont farmer, writes to insist that he has evidence of the rumors’ truth. He’s seen the creatures, taken photographs of their prints, even made a recording and found a strange black stone covered with their hieroglyphs—evidence that he offers to share. But the creatures and their human spies now hound him, trying to reclaim these objects.
Wilmarth, inexplicably convinced of Akeley’s sanity and sincerity, now believes the stories are backed by real, though mundane, phenomenon. Akeley next sends photographs of crablike footprints—clawprints, rather—from no known species, and of the alien-looking black stone. Its hieroglyphs appear linked to the Necronomicon, and hint of half-mad things from before the Earth’s formation. The accompanying letter transcribes buzzing conversations overheard in the woods at night, and inferences about the creatures’ connections with the hideous names and places of the Mythos.
Wilmarth finds these persuasive. Even now, when time has dulled his impressions, he’d do anything to keep people away from those Vermont hills. The discovery of a world beyond Neptune worries him deeply, as do recent explorations of the Himalayas. He and Akeley determined that legends there of the Mi-Go are connected to the Vermont creatures.
Akeley and Wilmarth continue trying to decipher the stone. On Akeley’s insistence, they tell no one. Akeley sends the phonograph, shipping it from Brattleboro since he believes the northern lines compromised. He made the recording on May Eve, 1915, knowing that the strange voices were more likely to be heard on the sabbath night. Wilmarth reads the transcript, then listens to the inhuman, buzzing voices, along with the voice of a human who carries out with them a ritual praising Cthulhu, Shub-Niggurath, and Nyarlathotep. Wilmarth shares the words now from memory, for he no longer has either record or transcript.
The two men analyze the recording, concluding that it hints at repulsive ancient alliances between humans and the fungoid inhabitants of Yuggoth, a planet at the edge of the solar system. Yuggoth itself is merely an outpost of the widespread alien race of Outer Ones. They strategize about how to mail the black stone without Outer interference—a more urgent concern since some of their letters never arrive. Indeed, when Akeley finally sends the stone, it goes missing. An otherwise trustworthy clerk apparently handed it over to a persuasive stranger.
Akeley now writes that the creatures are closing in, and his letters grow frantic. His phone lines are regularly cut, and his guard dogs killed. He talks of moving to live with his son in California, but something beyond his attachment to Vermont seems to hold him back. Then he writes at last that the creatures have spoken to him, and mean to take him to Yuggoth in a “terrible way.” He’s resigned—it’s impossible for him to get away.
Wilmarth urges Akeley to action—but the next day receives a letter, crossing his, that’s shockingly calm. Akeley’s spoken with the Outer Ones’ human messenger, and learned that he’s entirely misjudged them. They work in secrecy to protect themselves from evil human cults, but mean us no harm—they wish only to live in peace and increase the intellectual rapport between our species. Akeley invites Wilmarth to come and share all he’s discovered—and to bring all the materials Akeley has sent, so they can go over them together in this new light.
The sudden shift confuses Wilmarth, but the opportunity is irresistible. He travels to Vermont, where he’s met by Noyes, an apparent friend of Akeley’s. Akeley is suffering from an asthmatic attack, but eager to meet his correspondent. Wilmarth’s apprehension grows as they travel to Akeley’s house.
Akeley waits in darkness, unable to speak above a whisper. A robe and bandages cover all but his hands and strained, rigid face. But he welcomes his guest, promising great revelations. He talks of Yuggoth, of travel through space and time, and of the great mysteries of the cosmos.
At last he explains how he—and Wilmarth, if he likes—will travel beyond Earth. Only the winged aliens can make such journeys in their own forms—but they’ve learned how to harmlessly extract the brains of others, carrying them in canisters that can be hooked up to visual and auditory input and speakers. And look—there are some on that shelf!
Wilmarth hooks up one of the canisters, and speaks with a human who’s traveled, in the Outer Ones’ cosmopolitan company, to 37 extraterrestrial bodies. You should come along, it’s great!
Dazed, Wilmarth stumbles to bed, scientific curiosity replaced by loathing. He’s awakened by voices downstairs—two Outer Ones, Noyes, another human, and someone using the speaker device. He can only make out a few words, but the canister seems distressed. Wilmarth fears that something is very wrong. Akeley is under threat or hypnotized, and must be rescued. But downstairs, he finds only Akeley’s empty clothes and bandages. He lets his flashlight wander, and flees from what he sees.
The authorities he brings later find no one there, and no trace of the returned correspondence. But the records of Akeley’s cut phone lines, and his repeated purchase of dogs, suggest there’s more to the mystery than an elaborate hoax. And the recent discovery of Pluto suggests more danger to come.
When his flashlight fell on the chair, that last night, Wilmarth saw 3 objects: the hands and face of Henry Akeley.
What’s Cyclopean: Mysterious bridges on Yuggoth, built by a now-extinct elder race.
The Degenerate Dutch: Vermont is “an unspoiled, ancestral New England without the foreigners and factory-smoke.” Depends on your definition of “foreigner,” really.
Mythos Making: Pretty much every Mythos deity, place, and entity gets a shout-out here, from Great Cthulhu down to the Hounds of Tindalos. If you’re looking for the true nature of Azathoth or a map of R’lyeh, go to the Mi-Go.
Libronomicon: Miskatonic keeps its Necronomicon under lock and key, though somehow everyone seems to have read it. Wilmarth’s probably the only person to ever describe it as “merciful.” We also get the Pnakotic manuscripts and a shoutout to the “Commoriom myth-cycle preserved by the Atlantean high-priest Klarkash-Ton.” Ain’t no tuckerization like a Lovecraftian tuckerization. On the unrestricted side of the library, Wilmarth attributes the first rumors to Arthur Machen’s popularity, and Akeley cites a long list of standard folklore authorities.
Madness Takes Its Toll: For a folklore professor, Wilmarth’s very quick to judge his own and Akeley’s sanity. And pretty much ignores the degree to which Akeley’s “cool, scientific” rants look like textbook paranoid delusion.
I can almost do with this one what I did with “Shadow Over Innsmouth”—so much of it is rumor, ambiguous evidence, and seeming paranoia. And that “repulsive” ritual looks like a fairly pedestrian church service. As guidance for clean living, you could do a lot worse than ‘learn everything you can so you can tell Nyarlathotep. But this time Lovecraft is aware of the ambiguity, and plays with it, and then breaks it into tiny little pieces. You know what’s still creepy? Brain extraction. Brain extraction is still completely creeptastic. Non-consensual brain extraction, not cool at all.
Three years before “Shadow Out of Time,” Whisperer plays with several of the same ideas. Travel through space and time, but give up your body to do it—and you might just get the trip forced on you. Aliens offer everything the scientifically curious heart could desire, at the cost of everything that sends the xenophobic heart fleeing into the night. Life with the Outer Ones isn’t so different from life with the Yith: travel alongside the most adventurous minds from all worlds and times, and learn the darkest and most wondrous secrets of existence. As long as you’re not too attached to a full sensorium, there’s no catch. Aside from being completely at the mercy of the guys carrying you, I guess.
This one actually gets me with the attraction/repulsion dichotomy. Yeah, the lack of embodiment for my cognition means I won’t get everything I could out of the experience. And I’m pretty attached to being able to move under my own power. And have proper emotional responses. And prosody… It takes an interesting perspective to describe what’s on offer here as “a full sensory and articulate life.” Between the Outer Ones and the no-sense-of-touch Yith, Lovecraft may talk a lot about men of action but he seems to secretly lust after the rapture of the nerds.
(It’s probably worth noting here that my headcanon—justified by basic evolutionary logic—is that the Yith really do have a sense of touch, but Peaslee didn’t hook up properly. But I can’t retcon away the trade-off for Outer One canisters.)
I’d misremembered the nature of the trade-off, though. I’d forgotten that you can get your body back. That does make everything a bit more appealing. Also, I note that 1) the Outer Ones are the inspiration for myths about faery-type critters around the world, 2) the aliens have an outpost under Round Hill, and 3) de-brained bodies stay on ice in the outpost, where they don’t age. That means that the bodies are underhill, and faeryland is the entire rest of the cosmos. Awesome.
When you boil it down to its essence, though, this is an awesome story with a deeply un-awesome premise. Outer One outposts are explicitly described as “cosmopolitan,” and the multicultural nature of their canister communities is clearly meant to be one of the central tempting/repulsive aspects of the whole thing, as is Avery’s suggestion that the scary aliens are really just misunderstood. The moral seems to be: if you accept the alien, the alien will control you, and make you utterly helpless and incapable of action. Someone was maybe not so comfortable with his own occasional urges toward tolerance.
While the canister folk may be at the mercy of their hosts, it’s interesting that Noyes seems to be some sort of priest for the Outer Ones. That suggests an egalitarian streak that one wouldn’t expect given the whole rest of the set-up.
Last note: Wilmarth can relax about Pluto—it got downgraded precisely because there are hundreds of planetoids just like it on the outskirts of the solar system. Yuggoth could be any of them. Don’t you feel better now?
I have to admit that, of all the central Mythos stories, this has been my least favorite. However, no fungus pun intended, it’s begun to grow on me. Slowly. In harmless little patches, like that first shadow on the lovely face of Mrs. Canning in Benson’s great “How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery.”
I’m increasingly struck by how Lovecraft’s longer tales could be readily expanded into full-length novels, dense with cosmos-building as they are. “Whisperer” strikes me as one of the densest. We’re about two-thirds of the way through before we get an actual scene and face-to-face dialogue, and even they are heavy with exposition. The rest is Wilmarth’s narrative of the facts (if, indeed, they are facts), Akeley’s letters, and a phonograph transcript. By comparison, “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” are lively and varied. In the ratio of narrative/exposition to action, “The Shadow Out of Time” is a much closer match to “Whisperer.”
With both “Whisperer” and “Shadow/Time,” I think greater length would read shorter.
A later story, “Whisperer” rehashes many of the devices Lovecraft used in earlier work. We have the academic narrator torn between incredulity and shocked belief. We have a remote rural setting with its usual complement of legend-credulous country folk and scoffing townspeople. The “bumpkins” and the Indians before them are, nevertheless, much closer to the truth. As in “The Lurking Fear” and “The Color Out of Space,” animals shun the cursed region. A strange “sandy-haired” man who messes with Akeley’s shipments is almost certainly in disguise and recalls Dr. Allen’s “sandy” beard. Also reminiscent of Charles Dexter Ward are the weird hushed voices which their perpetrators ascribe to respiratory ailments and the sudden profound changes in epistolary style that the letter recipients bend themselves into knots to explain. Dr. Willett! Professor Wilmarth! SOMEBODY ELSE WROTE THE FUNKY LETTERS! On typewriters, too, which couldn’t possibly be a way around altered handwriting. Then there’s Akeley’s waxy and immobile face, which turns out to have been a mask concealing a way inhuman visage. “The Festival” used that one.
Wilmarth isn’t unique among Lovecraft characters in conveniently losing the evidence during a final crisis. But he may be the stupidest. Dude, the way “Akeley” and Noyes kept repeating their demands that you bring along the photos, and phonograph record, and Akeley’s letters? That didn’t spark enough suspicion for you to copy all that documentation first? The loss of the letters is especially tiresome, since it requires Wilmarth to have a photographic memory, thus capable of reproducing Akeley’s letters down to the scholarly-yet-naive style.
What I like best in “Whisperer” this reread are the parallels I begin to see to “The Shadow Out of Time.” I can envision this story as a rehearsal for the later one. Both open fascinating vistas of time and space. Both concern alien races with transcosmic reach, and both races are historian-librarians at heart. The Mi-Go and Yith are also wish-fulfillment fantasies for all of us humans like Nathaniel Peaslee, for whom a jaunt through time and space (the consequences aside) must be the ultimate experience of life. Akeley seems less reconciled to the ultimate experience, at least at the early stage he’s reached. Could be he finds a brain-sustaining can less appealing than an actual alien body. The Mi-Go and Yith have different strengths, to be sure. The former are masters of surgery and biological manipulation, also biomechanical interfaces. Some might consider that skill less sophisticated than the Yith’s mastery of mind-travel and persona-transfer through space and time. On the other hand, the bodies of those who undergo brain excision are so sustained as not to age, conferring on the Mi-Go’s guests a sort of corporeal immortality. That is, if Wilmarth’s sources for this information aren’t lying to him. Maybe the Mi-Go preserve their guests’ bodies and eventually return them to their original forms. Or maybe they simply toss those tiresome bits of “organic residue.”
Hmm. Pending further investigation, I’ll stick to exploring the cosmos via the Yith method.
Join us next week for a hunt with “The Hound.”
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.