Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories—and some on his friends, too.
Today we’re looking at E. F. Benson’s “Negotium Perambulans,” first published in the November 1922 issue of Hutchinson’s Magazine. You can read it here.
“Well do I remember his exposition of the doctrine of guardian angels. A child, he said, might think himself secure in such angelic care, but let him beware of committing any of those numerous offences which would cause his guardian to turn his face from him, for as sure as there were angels to protect us, there were also evil and awful presences which were ready to pounce; and on them he dwelt with peculiar gusto.”
Summary: Unnamed narrator introduces us to Polearn, an isolated fishing village in West Cornwall. As a boy, he lived there for three years with his aunt and uncle, strengthening his frail lungs with fresh sea air and rambles on the gorse-clad cliffs. Over time he sensed that the people of Polearn were linked by a mysterious (and tacit) comprehension of forces visible and invisible, evil and good.
On Sundays his otherwise amiable uncle preached fire-and-brimstone sermons. Guardian angels, he claimed, might protect us, but if we erred, “evil and awful presences were ready to pounce.” One such presence appeared on a carved panel in the village church—a gigantic slug opposed by a cross-wielding priest. This was “negotium perambulans in tenebris,” the Thing (Creature/Pestilence/Business) that walked in darkness; it was indeed a trafficker with the outer Darkness and also a minister of God’s wrath. From other boys, narrator learned about the ancient church from which the panel originally came. The owner of the quarry beneath which it stood took it for his own dwelling, and played dice on the desecrated altar. Gradually melancholy overwhelmed him, and he burned lights all night. But one night a gale extinguished his lamps. Servants answered his screams, to find a corpse drained of blood, a husk of skin and bones, from which a huge black shadow retreated. And this quarry house abutted our narrator’s family’s garden!
Grown to manhood, the narrator becomes a successful barrister in London, but he always longs to return to Polearn. As soon as he’s made his fortune, he does so. To his surprise, Polearn hasn’t diminished, nor has his aunt aged much. Her gossip confirms his impression of the immutability of the place, and he falls again under its spell.
One thing’s different, though. Mr. Dooliss, the quarry house tenant when narrator was young, succumbed to a phobia of the darkness and its Thing. In fact, he destroyed the panel bearing its likeness. Narrator’s uncle saw the carving in splinters, went to confront the reclusive drunkard, then returned to find the panel restored. An act of God? If so, who or what acted shortly after, leaving Dooliss dead and drained on the night shore, a husk of skin and bone?
Narrator’s incredulous of his aunt’s tale. Steeped in the weird wisdom of Polearn, she only smiles and says he’s been in London a long time.
An artist, John Evans, lives now in the quarry house. Narrator remembers him as a kind man and is shocked to see his deterioration into a shambling drunkard. Evans invites him to see paintings done in his new style—ordinary scenes infused with subtle malignity. Evans says he paints the “essence” of things, showing that “everything came from the slime of the pit, and it’s all going back there.”
Narrator sees Evans occasionally over the summer. His repulsion and interest grow in tandem, for the artist seems on a “path of secret knowledge towards some evil shrine where complete initiation awaited him.”
One October evening, the two walk on the cliffs near sunset. Black clouds suddenly move in, bringing premature night. Evans rushes for home, to light the lamps he burns all through the dark hours. Narrator follows. Arriving, he sees Evans still fumbling with matches, while a great phosphorescent slug glides toward him. It latches on to the shrieking artist. Narrator tries, and fails, to wrestle the thing off—his hands pass right through it.
In a few seconds, Evans is drained, a husk of skin and bone. The Thing glides off. Having now seen the evil side of Polearn’s magic, narrator leaves the village, never to return.
What’s Cyclopean: There’s a good deal of “shambling,” and an exiguous estimate of Polearn tourism.
The Degenerate Dutch: Benson’s treatment of an isolated rural population is pretty sympathetic, in stark contrast to stories like “Dunwich Horror” and “Lurking Fear.” See, it’s not so hard to be polite after all.
Mythos Making: It’s unclear if the negotium is really an avenging agent of god, or a more mythosian critter working for its own inscrutable ends. If the former, god really needs to go back to using multi-headed cherubim, because this thing is gross.
Libronomicon: No books, but some excellent gothic art (hopefully not destroyed by the negotium), and foreshadowy bas reliefs.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Living in the desecrated church appears to result in alcoholism. Either that, or sober people have more sense than to live on cursed property.
Proto-Lovecraftiana this week—proto weird fiction, really, written while Lovecraft was still mostly getting published in amateur zines. Benson’s “negotium” may have inspired the more thoroughly thought out shadow-walking business in “The Dunwich Horror”; it certainly had an influence on Lovecraft’s work in general.
It’s surprising how many of the central features of Lovecraft’s work are present here. There’s the combination of “revulson and interest” that the narrator feels for the artist John Evans (who seems like he ought to exhibit in a gallery with Pickman). There’s the build up from rumor to witness of horror. But the village of Polearn, in particular, seems a place that likely sent immigrants to Lovecraft County. Certainly, whoever carved prophetic bas reliefs in their church was hard at work, later or earlier, ensuring the availability of convenient expository sculpture in abandoned cities around the world. But it’s the narrator’s love for the place that lifts the story above its relatively pedestrian plot. It makes Polearn more than just a random setting for horror: Benson lays out his descriptions perfectly, so that it’s easy to see both why this one person happily abandons a successful career to live there, and why most people would never bother so much as passing through.
The powerful emotional relationship with place permeates Lovecraft’s own work. His most memorable stories build horror around love letters—or hate letters—to cities real and imaginary. Arkham, Kingsport, and Innsmouth, New York, Providence… all as vivid for how he feels about them as for physical description. And all leave their mark on the monsters they produce or attract.
Unlike Benson, though, Lovecraft tends to assume these attitudes are universal. Where our Polearn lover basically says, “Yeah, I can see why most people wouldn’t bother, but this is home for me,” Lovecraft assumes that Providence is so much the pinnacle of urban perfection that even the gods want nothing more than to dwell in an ideal version of it. I’ve got to go with Benson on this one: you need only listen in on a conversation between a staid New Englander and a Californian to know how firmly personal such judgments can be.
Where Benson doesn’t come out nearly so well, though, is the dismount. The plot, as I mentioned above, is pretty basic: narrator goes to a place he loves, narrator hears rumors of a terrible monster; narrator leaves and returns; narrator sees the terrible monster with his own eyes; narrator leaves forever. Since we’re reading a horror story, the fact that the monster exists is no surprise—in spite of a few extra details in the final description, the dread revelation isn’t much of a revelation.
What’s interesting, or should be, is the transformation of a loved place into a reviled one. The monster never attacks anyone who doesn’t live in the one desecrated church—so why not continue to live in the beloved old town? Why does the second-hand report of horror add pleasant piquancy to the place, but direct viewing make it unbearable? One can easily imagine any number of answers, ranging from simple trauma to cosmic inferences about the price of Polearn’s “spell.” This transformation seems worth exploring, and Benson doesn’t even a little. Lovecraft, at his best, would have focused on the psychological transition, and added a post-script paragraph or two to keep our attention on what was really important.
In Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft mentions “Negotium Perambulans” as one of “the versatile” Benson’s most notable tales. And E. F. Benson was indeed versatile, writing not only superlative ghost stories but high comedy of character (the Lucia and Mapp novels), nonfiction, autobiography and plays. His “Room in the Tower” and “The Face” are masterpieces of sustained dread, while my favorite Benson, “How Fear Departed the Long Gallery,” combines his signature wry wit with soul-deep terror, and redemption.
Rereading “Negotium” so soon after “The Dunwich Horror,” I hear echoes bouncing forward and back. The openings are very similar—isolated towns are described as travelers might view them in accidental passing. Typically, Benson’s tourist can shrug off Polearn as merely unremarkable, while Lovecraft’s motorist shivers all the way through Dunwich territory. Like Dunwich, Polearn appears to be an invention strongly influenced by actual and well-known places. Like Dunwich, it’s isolated and likes it that way, with the very postbox set well above the village so that the postman doesn’t have to make the long trip down the combe. Geographic isolation, Benson’s narrator muses, produces isolation in the individual resident, while at the same time linking him to all the other residents. Sounds applicable to Dunwich, except that Benson sees independence and self-reliance in the isolated, while Lovecraft sees decadence and degeneration. However, the “mysterious comprehension” of Polearn isn’t entirely different from the communal superstition of Dunwich, for the invisible forces in Polearm are evil as well as good, malignant as well as benign.
“There were powers and presences about me,” Benson’s narrator declares in his renewed connection with Polearn. “The white poplars that stood by the stream that babbled down the valley knew of them, and showed a glimpse of their knowledge sometimes, like the gleam of their white underleaves; the very cobbles that paved the street were soaked in it.” The powers “seethed along the hill-side at noon, and sparkled at night on the sea.” They are “grafted into the eternal life in the world.” Nature spirits then, or the very spirit of nature? And are the dark powers, the Things that Perambulate, part of that spirit, or are they super-natural? John Evans hints that the dark is not separate. All things are connected, the cat with the beast, the sunning boy with the monster crawled from the sea, the garden with the jungle. Everything has come from the slime of the pit, and will go back to it.
I’m thinking Azathoth now, the primal chaos and mindless spawner of all, including those invisible powers that pervade Dunwich even more pervasively than other human “strongholds,” for there were they called forth from the stone-crowned hills when the cycles of time were right. I guess we could call Lovecraft’s forces natural, if we consider nature as all that is. But they sure aren’t ever benign. Not unless you’re a mad wizard, and even then, what do they really give you but the far-sight that leads to deeper madness? And when THEY return to remake the earth to THEIR liking, will there really be a place for men in the new world, however crazy and wizardly those men may be?
The Judeo-Christian God has no place in Lovecraft’s Mythos, but does He in Benson’s fictive universe, as seen in “Negotium”? The Thing, narrator’s clergyman uncle proclaims, is an instrument of divine justice, counterpart to the rather fickle guardian angels of his imagination. The carved panel shows a priest confronting the Thing with a crucifix.
What we don’t know is whether the crucifix ultimately repels the Thing—Benson pictures the confrontation of priest and monster but gives no hint of the outcome. Could be the Thing slimes off. Could be it sucks the priest dry. What about the church from which the panel came? It’s said to be ancient, far older than the present Polearn church. I wonder if it was like Exham Priory, home to more than one faith in its time.
It seems that the Thing only attacks sinners, blasphemers and drunkards in particular. Oh, and people living in the quarry house/former ancient church. People who, living in the quarry house, fall into melancholy and phobias and addictions. An influence of the site? An influence of a Thing that lurks nearby, waiting until its prey has reached exactly the mental state which renders it vulnerable to attachment by a semi-material entity?
Maybe. At least it’s an explanation that appeals to me more than the idea that Capital-G God simply whistles up a Thing of Outer Darkness when sinners need radical bloodletting. It’s also hard for me to reconcile Capital-G with Benson’s pan(Pan)theistic natural elementalism or whatever it is that seethes along the hill-side at noon. Seethes! That’s a great verb for Benson to use in the middle of narrator’s rapture. It’s scary. It keeps things from getting too precious.
What does the Thing look like, when semi-material? An enormous slug, though even more featureless. It has no eye-stalks or antennae, only a rudimentary mouth. It smells of corruption and decay. About the only thing that comes closer to the slime of the pit than that is—a shoggoth! Yes, sluggy entities are Benson’s shoggoths. There’s Negotium here, and the very similar slug of “And No Bird Sings,” and the kinda sluggy-kinda wormy-certainly squirmy horde of “Caterpillars.”
Ergh, I’m seized by a psychosexual interpretation of Benson’s slugs that I will resist, because too facile. That, or it deserves deeper thought and more space than I have available at the moment.
Last thought goes to poor John Evans, who under the influence of the quarry-house has turned into the Pickman of Cornwall. I absolutely want to add his touched-by-the-malign paintings to my personal night gallery, especially the ones of the cat and the sea-changed boy.
Remember that homesick king in the Dreamlands, trying to turn his city of wonders into rural Britain? We’ll meet him, in his younger days, next week in “Celephais.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s non-Hugo-nominated 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” and “The Deepest Rift.” 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. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. The second in the Redemption’s Heir series, Fathomless, will be published in October 2015. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.