The Lovecraft Reread

A Very Scientific Haunting: “The Shunned House”

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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 Shunned House,” written in October 1924 and first published in the October 1937 issue of Weird Tales. You can read it here.

Spoilers ahead.

[“Those fungi, grotesquely like the vegetation in the yard outside, were truly horrible in their outlines.”]

“Those fungi, grotesquely like the vegetation in the yard outside, were truly horrible in their outlines; detestable parodies of toadstools and Indian pipes, whose like we had never seen in any other situation. They rotted quickly, and at one stage became slightly phosphorescent; so that nocturnal passers-by sometimes spoke of witch-fires glowing behind the broken panes of the foetor-spreading windows.”

Summary: Unnamed narrator finds it ironic that during Edgar Allan Poe’s Providence sojourn, the master of the macabre many times passed a certain house on Benefit Street without recognizing it as the “symbol of all that is unutterably hideous.” Narrator has not retained the bliss of such ignorance.

The shunned house has fascinated him since boyhood. Its yard was alluringly spooky, with weirdly pale grass, gnarled trees and a singular lack of birds. Its interior featured the cobweb-hung desolation of long neglect, while only the bravest explorers would climb to the ill-lit attic. But the basement was worst, even though it was above ground on the street side, with a door offering quick egress. The dank fetor was strongest there. Phosphorescent white fungi grew from the dirt floor, and strange mold grew on the hearthstone. At times the mold resembled a doubled-up human figure, and once our narrator saw a thin yellowish exhalation rise from it into the chimney.

Narrator’s uncle, physician and antiquarian Elihu Whipple, also has a shivery fascination for the house. He eventually shares the fruits of his study. The house was built in 1763 by William Harris. Shortly after the Harrises moved in, his wife Rhoby delivered a stillborn son. For the next 150 years, no child would be born alive in the house.

In fact, children and servants died in the house at an unnatural rate, appearing to waste away. Rhoby spent her last years confined upstairs with violent fits during which she screamed that something stared at her, and bit and chewed. Stranger, she sometimes spoke crude but idiomatic French, a language she didn’t know.

One son survived to move to a healthier house. He planned to leave the place vacant, but after his death, a relative rented it. Illness and death plagued the tenants, and in 1861 the house was left to slow disintegration.

Narrator delves deeper into the house’s history. He discovers that Ann White, servant to the Harrises, alleged that a vampire must be buried under the basement, feasting on the blood and breath of the inhabitants. Indeed, later victims were unaccountably anemic. Others attacked their caregivers.

By luck narrator learns that the land was originally leased to Etienne Roulet, Huguenot refugee. Ah, the French connection! Etienne read queer books and drew queer diagrams, and his son Paul was unsavory enough to provoke a riot that wiped out the family. The name Roulet tweaks narrator’s memory. Could they be related to the infamous Jacques, who in 1598 was convicted of murdering a boy in werewolf form?

Narrator visits the basement at night. The mold before the fireplace looks more like a huddled human than ever, and the vapor rising from it takes on vague form and seems to watch him greedily. Hearing this, Whipple insists they keep a joint vigil, prepared to destroy the horror.

It’s not that they believe in vampires or werewolves. No, their theory’s more “scientific.” What if there are in other planes “unfamiliar and unclassified modifications of vital force and attenuated matter,” close enough to our own to manifest here? And what if some “alien nucleus of substance or energy” could sustain itself on the vital force of living beings and even possess them? Obviously they’ll need an apparatus that produces ether radiation sufficient to zap an energetic monster. Also, in case the monster proves more substantial, two flame-throwers.

Thus armed, narrator and Whipple camp in the basement. Narrator takes first watch. The fetid atmosphere oppresses him, but nothing alarming happens until the sleeping Whipple grows restless. What kind of dreams make his kindly face assume so many alien expressions? Is he muttering in French? Then he starts awake and cries out, “My breath, my breath!”

From a jumble of confusing dream images, Whipple recalls the sense of lying in an open pit with a crowd glaring down. Simultaneously he felt that some presence sought to possess his vital functions.

Narrator lies down to nap. He also dreams, of being bound and taunted by people thirsty for his blood. A scream wakes him to greater horror. Vaporous corpse-light emanates from the fungous ground, vaguely anthropoid yet with the suggestion of wolfish eyes. It envelopes Whipple, who dissolves into “abhorrent plasticity.” Playing across his face are the features of the house’s other victims—but at the end, he seems to struggle back to his own likeness.

The flame throwers seem useless, nor does ether radiation affect the vapor. Narrator flees and wanders aimless until dawn.

A couple days later he repairs to the basement with pickax and spade, six carboys of sulfuric acid, and a gas mask. He digs before the fireplace and about five feet down uncovers a “semi-putrid congealed jelly.” Scraping reveals shape: “a mammoth soft blue-white stovepipe doubled in two.” Recognition drives him from the pit, to frantically pour acid onto the titan elbow of the buried thing!

Greenish-yellow vapor surges upward. On College Hill people assume the virulent fumes are from some factory spill and the subterranean roar from some disordered gas main. But by the time narrator refills the pit, the strange fungi have withered into grayish powder. Having vanquished the daemon soul that killed his uncle, he sheds tears.

The next spring the owner of the shunned house is able to rent it. In the yard the ancient trees bear small, sweet apples, and birds sing again in their boughs.

 

What’s Cyclopean: Mushrooms are the linguistic obsession of the day: “fungous” appears 6 times, “fungi” 7 times, and “fungus” hyphenates thrice: fungus-cursed, fungus-light, fungous-ridden. There are actual mushrooms in the basement of the shunned house, but the repetition seems excessive. We’ve heard that Lovecraft always chose each word very precisely for effect. However, one fears it never occurred to him that a word might lose impact with repetition.

The Degenerate Dutch: There’s some historical, perhaps narrative, suspicion of the French, and what sounds like a lynch mob gets described as a “riot.” Which is actually a different thing. As usual, servants and country folk are “superstitious” and prone to spreading rumors, and as a result inevitably the only ones to realize something unnatural is going on.

Mythos Making: While there’s no direct connection to any entities or events appearing elsewhere, the scientific justification for the “emanation” is deeply Mythosian.

Libronomicon: In addition to the Poe cameo, the narrator’s Uncle Whipple counts among his friends Sidney Rider, a well-known book reviewer and author of history pamphlets, and Thomas Bicknell—a Rhode Island author and editor who got a town in Utah named after him (and another for his wife) by virtue of donating a library. Not donating to a library, which sometimes gets you a t-shirt.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Rhoby Harris suffers from “a mild form of insanity” after her children die. And gets locked in the attic, which judging from “Color Out of Space” is inevitable after your family is killed by immaterial aliens.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

My response to this one is kind of mixed. It has an actual plot, which is always very exciting, and the narrator is directly involved in that plot both emotionally and physically. But the story starts with an intriguing observation about horror and irony—that goes exactly nowhere unless the latter part of the story is ironic in some way I’m missing—and continues with, not merely a story told through someone else’s letters and documents, but through someone else’s genealogy. I’m not fond of generational begat lists—not in Genesis, not in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and not here. Still, I’ll forgive a great deal for a story that sticks the dismount.

The vampiric emanation really is creepy, and the details—people suddenly speaking French before doom strikes, Rhoby’s “staring thing”—are wonderfully startling. Whipple’s death is genuinely scary, and his shifting face at the last suggests that the creature sucks not merely life, but identity, from its victims. Eep.

The French is an interesting touch. On the one hand, it’s well-justified by the story, and makes sense in context. On the other hand… is there any point in Lovecraft’s stories where someone speaks a foreign language and it isn’t an indication of horrible things amiss? The bubbling language of the Innsmouth natives, the unthinking recoil from immigrant tongues in all the New York stories… It’s obvious that this is one of many things that HP thought an instinctively shudder-inducing detail: people aren’t speaking English.

Another thing that becomes notable with cross-story repetition is who first recognizes horror versus who acts on it. Everyone except for upper-class WASPs seems to preserve traditions and rumors that run fairly close to the cosmically terrifying truth, yet it’s always that upper crust who finally get around to doing something about it—even while spending the whole time in denial. Even while the narrative dismisses the other groups as uneducated and superstitious. And throughout, the narrative suggests that it’s the un-superstitious modern world and its trappings (presumably created and sustained by the WASPS) that hold back further horrors—“modern material things guard the world from ancient and unwholesome wonder.” The protagonists’ denial might be yet another aspect of the protection they’re ostensibly providing. It’s a weird, double-edged trope that still shows up all the time—see Twilight, with its Mormon-named vampire-aware Native Americans, for a recent example. The folks on top seem convinced that everyone else knows something they don’t—and that it’s probably best that way.

Finally, let’s talk about the science. We get some pretty extensive technobabble here. (Eldritchbabble? Mythobabble? Cthulhubabble?) It’s kind of awesome. If you haven’t yet declaimed the section starting with “scientific study and reflection had taught us” in a loud voice, followed by a mad cackle, I highly encourage you to do so. (I take my pleasures where I find them.) In addition to being good monologue material, it’s a great summation of the Mythos’s underlying assumptions. Human perception covers only the tiniest and safest fraction of reality, and things from Out There aren’t made of the same stuff as us and don’t follow the same physical laws—but may still make a meal out of us in passing. Here we get a bit of optimism, in that human science can defeat—on a small scale, with luck, and at a cost—some of what it can’t understand.

 

Anne’s Commentary

This early story strikes me as Lovecraft’s closest approach to a conventional haunted house tale, though as its narrator himself notes, it lacks the obvious tropes: rattling chains, cold spots, spectral faces in the windows. And while there’s casual vampirism in Charles Dexter Ward, if we count Curwen’s temporary need for human blood post reanimation, it’s also his closest approach to an out-and-out vampire tale.

Now, THE haunted domicile of 20th century literature, Jackson’s Hill House, is more Lovecraftian than the Shunned House, what with the former’s subtly wrong and hence mind-twisting angles. The home Mr. Harris built is standard issue architecture for mid-eighteenth century New England. It’s not intrinsically a house of Hades, leprous, insane; in fact, once cleansed of its curse, it’s a perfectly good rental property. No, here’s a case of location, location, location, as in, never build a house over a voracious corpse. Home buyers take note: Always have a psychic inspection before purchase. Also, mold is never a good thing. Mushrooms in the basement? Nitre in vaguely human form? You’ve either got rising damp or vampires.

But vampires in Rhode Island? You bet, especially out in Exeter, as Lovecraft knew. He refers to the infamous case of Mercy Brown, posthumous victim of the New England vampire panic. An outbreak of consumption had revived old fears about the uneasy dead who preyed on—literally consumed—the living, especially their relatives. Robert Koch may have discovered the causative agent for tuberculosis ten years before, but in 1892 superstition could still lead people to exhume corpses and look for signs of unnatural “freshness.” After the Brown family suffered several consumption deaths, with one living son infected and failing, friends and neighbors persuaded father George to dig up his wife and two daughters. Mary Brown and daughter Mary Olive had been good righteous cadavers and decayed, but Mercy, who’d been kept in a freezer-cold crypt for two months after death, was suspiciously well-preserved. Plus she had “fresh” blood in her heart! What would any sensible person do but burn that heart, mix the ashes in water, and feed it to Mercy’s sick brother?

Despite these heroic measures, the brother died. WhaddayagonnaDO, as we say in Rhode Island.

Lovecraft doesn’t mention poor Mercy Brown by name, though he does name a victim of the Shunned House Mercy Dexter. Jacques Roulet, another historic figure, does get a shout out. He was the “werewolf” of Caude, about whom Lovecraft read in John Fiske’s ­Myths and Myth-Makers. Because the Shunned House monster is described as having “wolfish eyes” and sending “wolfish” vapors up the chimney, Lovecraft seems to conflate vampire and werewolf. Not unheard of—vampires are often shape shifters. Stoker’s Dracula likes to travel as a wolf or wolfish dog as well as in bat-form. He can also dissolve into vapor when convenient.

Familiar features aside, Lovecraft’s “Shunned House” vampire actually stands between folklore and science. Supernatural causes for the sickness of the house are implied—it’s poisoned by an evil revenant or undead sorcerer, on whose unhallowed grave it stands. However, the narrator and his erudite uncle have another theory, better suited to science fiction—or the yet-nascent Cthulhu Mythos—than to fantasy. They don’t believe in vampires or werewolves per se, but speculate about “modifications of vital force or attenuated matter” which may manifest in earthly dimensions and feed upon the vital forces of humans and, presumably, other animals. Like those absent birds.

In this case the alien force is attached to (or survives) the body of Paul Roulet, which like the crafty worms of “The Festival” has waxed huge to vex the earth. In three years, Lovecraft will imagine another vampire, this one entirely energetic, entirely science fictional, and it will be called “The Color Out of Space.” Our narrator already wonders whether the Shunned House life-drainer is “actively hostile” or whether it feeds for “blind motives of self-preservation.” That is, could it simply be one of those mysteries of the cosmic vastness that falls by chance to earth, wreaking havoc not because it’s a malevolent demon but because, like us, it just wants to live?

I mean, does anyone hate the Color? We can kind of hate Paul Roulet, although his crimes are so nebulous that sympathy’s possible. Especially if he’s merely a conduit for something from beyond.

In the end, uncle Whipple aside, all’s well in Providence, and we get a lovely denouement in which the gnarled trees bear sweet apples and the birds return to their boughs to nest. I’m reminded of E. F. Benson’s “And No Bird Sings,” in which a monster-haunted wood finds cleansing, as evidenced when a pair of robins arrives to set up housekeeping.

 

Next week, Lovecraft and Hazel Heald collaborate on a story about a fraught partnership in “The Horror in the Museum.”


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

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