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 Strange High House in the Mist,” written in November 1926 and first published in the October 1931 issue of Weird Tales. You can read the story here.
“Trident-bearing Neptune was there, and sportive tritons and fantastic nereids, and upon dolphins’ backs was balanced a vast crenulate shell wherein rode the grey and awful form of primal Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss. And the conches of the tritons gave weird blasts, and the nereids made strange sounds by striking on the grotesque resonant shells of unknown lurkers in black sea-caves.”
Summary: North of Kingsport, the sea cliffs rise high, and the morning mists make them seem the very rim of the world. Highest is the cliff on which the strange high house stands and has always stood, even longer than the Terrible Old Man’s grandfather can remember. Its gray shingled roof slopes down to its gray foundations; its windows sport the bull’s-eye glass of the 17th century; and its only door opens on the brink of the cliff that drops a mile to the sea, inaccessible to any without wings.
Nevertheless, someone lives in the strange high house, for at night yellow light appears in the windows. This One has always lived there, the natives say, and he talks to the morning mists and sees singular things when the cliffs become the rim of the world and the solemn buoys toll in the aether of faery.
Thomas Olney, stolid professor with a stolid wife and romping children, comes to summer in Kingsport. After years of thinking well-disciplined thoughts, he finds himself drawn to the cliffs and the morning mists. He roams the narrow streets of the town and even talks with the Terrible Old Man, who tells him how lightning shot one night from the strange high house up into the clouds. Though no townspeople have ever visited that house, Olney resolves to do so, for his humdrum life makes him long for the unknown.
As the great cliff is unscalable on the Kingsport side, he walks inland, west and north, toward Arkham. A ridge rises between the two towns, climbing higher and higher above the mouth of the Miskatonic River. Olney makes his way along the ridge to the strange high house. How shingles so worm-eaten and bricks so crumbled could still hold firm, he can’t imagine, and though he tries all the windows, he’s increasingly glad that they’re locked.
Mist rises, thickens. He hears a bolt thrown and a door opened—it can only be the door on the brink of the cliff, inaccessible. Someone enters the house and makes a round of the windows. Olney tries to avoid this person’s sight, until a gentle voice calls and he must confront the speaker, a man in ancient garments, black-bearded, with shining eyes. He helps Olney inside the house, which is full of Tudor furniture and an oddly aqueous light. For hours Olney listens to stories of the deep places in the sea, of Poseidon and Atlantis, of the Titans, of the gods and Elder Ones, even of the other gods in the first dim age of chaos.
Something knocks on the door. After looking through a peephole, the bearded man motions Olney to be still and locks the windows. A queer black outline moves across one of them, and Olney is glad his host didn’t admit it. But with nightfall another rap comes, and this time the bearded man throws open the door to admit gods and demi-gods of the sea, among them Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss, who helps Olney and his host into the vast shell that is his carriage. Amidst the clamor of triton-blown conches and nereid-struck gongs, they fly off into the misty aether.
A storm rages all night, but Olney is dry when he climbs down to Kingsport the next noon. How he descended the unscalable cliff he can’t say, nor can he speak of what happened to him above. He returns home more stolid and prosaic than ever, apparently cured of any longing for the unknown, and he never comes to Kingsport again. But the Terrible Old Man mumbles that the Olney who came down from the strange high house is not the man who climbed up to it. Somewhere under the gray peaked roof or out in the misty aether, his lost spirit abides.
Old fears linger in Kingsport but fade from the hearts of adventurous young men, who fancy the north wind now carries mirthful voices and music from the strange high house. The old people don’t want them to venture there, lest they too leave a part of themselves behind. Besides, the Terrible Old Man remembers what Olney told him about the queer black shadow of the unadmitted knocker.
And the morning mist still carries dreams of the sea to the Kingsport cliffs and makes them the rim of all the world, beyond which the solemn buoys seem to toll in the aether of faery.
What’s Cyclopean: Somehow HP avoided applying his favorite adjective to the cliff, an inexplicable lapse.
The Degenerate Dutch: We’re a little dismissive of stolid old-fashioned New Englanders here, but no one else really shows up save for Olney.
Mythos Making: First appearance of Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss. We’ll see him again in “Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath,” giving Randolph Carter a hand and hunting with his nightgaunt hounds.
Libronomicon: We’re all about the oral history today.
Madness Takes Its Toll: …and we’re all reasonably sane. Some of us a little too much so.
Outside of Lovecraft’s “Let’s explore an alien culture” stories, this is one of my favorites. I’m a sucker for magical mist, and from the first paragraph “Strange High House” gets precisely the way that a heavy fog can make the world feel porous and magical, just on the brink of transformative change. I could happily read it as an informal trilogy with Steven King’s “The Mist” and Larry Niven’s “For a Foggy Night,” two other stories that make me shiver happily whenever visibility gets particularly poor.
And yet, I spent a good portion of this read obsessing over the mile-high cliff off the Massachusetts coast. Outside Lovecraft County, Massachusetts has “cliffs” that are really more rocky promontories—nice to stroll along, but nothing terribly impressive heightwise—and its highest point is Mount Greylock at about 2/3 of a mile. Cliffs get a bit higher elsewhere on the Northeast coast, but they don’t do that. And yes, it’s just a story—a story that I like—and yes, Lovecraft County has more excuse for weird geography than the rest of New England. But most of the County fits so well with my experience living and hiking in the area. I kept trying to picture wandering by the ocean and looking up at this vast promontory rising out of… and I just couldn’t make it fit. My mental image of my home state can easily accommodate Miskatonic and Central Hill and even Devil Reef, but the map breaks down when it comes to the strange high house.
About halfway through, I decided that that’s exactly what’s happening here—the map is breaking down, and shading into other lands that aren’t really New England at all. When we read “The Festival,” I talked about how variable Kingsport seems, how you never know exactly what you’re going to find. We get shoutouts to those other stories here, including rumors of caverns under Central Hill and the Terrible Old Man himself as an extremely long-lived and somewhat crotchety gossip.
When Olney goes up the cliff, he hears stories about Deep Ones (or more likely about the critter from “Dagon,” given writing order), and the temple from “The Temple.” And then “the host grew timid when he spoke of the dim first age of chaos before the gods or even the Elder Ones were born, and when only the other gods came to dance on the peak of Hatheg-Kla in the stony desert near Ulthar, beyond the river Skai.” He’s sharing stories from the Dreamlands—not even the events of “The Other Gods,” but something even earlier. It’s actually kind of sweet—Hatheg-Kla was a dance club for the Other Gods before Earth’s gods showed up, but they were happy to let them in and keep them safe. Awww, they’re sharing!
But I digress. After telling stories and hiding from a lurker at the threshold, Olney’s host flings the mist-door wide and they go off on a joy-ride with Poseidon and Nodens. And this isn’t the first time we’ve seen visitors to Kingsport end up some place… strange. My new going hypothesis is that Kingsport sits on the border to the Dreamlands, the cliff itself a piece of liminal geography that probably wouldn’t show up on an aerial survey. Events and mood both seem more typical of the Dreamlands than the everyday world of the Mythos, and imagery of the cliff as the “rim of all the earth” and the mist as the “aether of faery” fits as well.
As in “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” our protagonist gives in to the temptations of glory and strange wisdom. The story ends with the strong implication that Olney—or at least some vital part of him—actually stays in the high house. And if enough others go to join him, it may bring the “olden gods” back from Kadath—more evidence that we’re brushing up against the Dreamlands.
Obligatory guesses about the identity of our two mysterious supernatural figures: for the most part I’m stumped, but I wonder if the dark figure who gets locked out isn’t Nyarlathotep, known to have some rivalry with Nodens and therefore presumably with his allies. Besides, the One is giving all that cosmic wisdom away for free! As for the One himself, if he isn’t our old Ultharian friend Atal (and I’m pretty sure he’s not), then I’m going with Anne’s guess below.
As this story dwells so lovingly on the situation of Kingsport, it seems a good time to discuss Lovecraft’s invented geography—that mystic and terrible region of Massachusetts that appears on no official maps, perhaps because the cartographers are as prosaic as Thomas Olney before his fateful summer in the ancient town.
Lovecraft tells us that his coastal towns lie north of Gloucester and Cape Ann, south of Newburyport. In reality, this sandy stretch of tidal rivers and creeks is too short and unstable to support three large cities, especially with Ipswich and Rowley impinging from the west. There’s also the Plum Island conundrum. Innsmouth has a good view of the island, but it can’t be directly opposite it and still have a Devil Reef. Plum Island Sound is too narrow and shallow to accommodate this gateway to a Deep One metropolis.
We can’t let reality stop us, however. Obviously Lovecraft’s Massachusetts coastline has to be a lot longer than the actual one, with more dramatic topography. My personal solution has been to drive a wide wedge of land smack into the space between Cape Ann and Newburyport. At the inland point of this wedge nestles lovely rural Dunwich. At the south end of the new coast are Kingsport and Arkham, separated by a crazily lofty series of cliffs and the mouth of the Miskatonic River, which has its tributary roots in the round old mountains of the Dunwich addition. A northward stretch of unsettled saltmarsh and duneland separates Arkham from Innsmouth, itself a bit south of the tip of Plum Island, with its own Atlantic-facing bay and Devil Reef a mile and a half out in that. Add the Manuxet River that bisects Innsmouth and empties into its bay. Done, with the biggest remodeling job having been those Kingsport cliffs. “Strange High House” makes the tallest a mile high! That would make it the highest point in the state, easily beating poor Mount Greylock with its mere 3491 feet in elevation. It would also rival the height of the highest sea cliffs on earth. Man, the High House would be constantly overrun by rock climbers and BASE jumpers!
The High House cliff is the big problem for a realistic scheme of Lovecraft country—possibly the only major one, unless you want to get into whether Devil Reef isn’t too close to the mainland to have Y’ha-nthlei-worthy depths at its base. In my own working topography of Kingsport-Arkham, none of the intervening cliffs are close to a mile high; I’m thinking more 100-350 feet (350 being the highest Dover’s cliffs attain, impressive enough as sea cliffs go.)
Speaking of realism in fantasy settings, there’s certainly a wide range between total and zero, and Lovecraft has stories near either end of the continuum. “At the Mountains of Madness” aspires to minute scientific detail, down to rock strata and fine alien anatomy, while “Strange High House” goes for thematically useful exaggeration. Even without its references to Hatheg-Kla and Ulthar, it must remind us of the Dreamlands tales, for its emphasis is on atmosphere and imagery, down to the poetic repetition or reprise of key phrases: “the rim of the world,” “the aether of faery,” “the solemn bells of the buoys.” The protagonist is also a dreamer, if only after his coming to Kingsport, where his latent romanticism is awakened by those improbable daily mists (carrying the dreams of the depths!) and those incredibly towering cliffs. And if the Dreamlands are remarkable for anything, it’s for breathtaking changes of altitude, from the unthinkable depths of the Vale of Pnath to the pinnacle of Kadath in the Cold Waste.
The fate of Thomas Olney, like that of many Lovecraft dreamers, is both melancholy and enviable, thrilling and terrifying. His boldness—or desperation—earns him entry into a vast new reality. In a sense, he doesn’t even give up his old life, for his body and some semblance of consciousness continues to pursue that, smiling at all the right times. Kind of eerie if you think about it, as the Terrible Old Man does, but the Olney family doesn’t seem to mind. His essential part, his lost spirit as the Old Man would have it, stays in the High House and the worlds that coming knocking on its inaccessible door. Which is beautiful, right? Well, except for certain shadows on the windows, and what if one were to encounter those shadows with no thick bull’s-eye glass between?
Ah, Howard. There’s always some catch, isn’t there? Often it’s the night-gaunts which were your pet nightmare, and, I’m assuming, the unwanted visitor here.
As for the One? My best guess about him is that he’s a premonition of Tom Bombadil, the Oldest of All. He just needs some big yellow boots and a water elemental girlfriend. Or he may have the girlfriend already, among that throng of gong-banging nereids.
Next week, “Cool Air” is a tale to make the last few weeks of winter just a little more disturbing.
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.