Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at August Derleth’s “The Shuttered Room,” first published in The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces (edited by August Derleth). Spoilers ahead.
“At dusk, the wild, lonely country guarding the approaches to the village of Dunwich in north central Massachusetts seems more desolate and forbidding than it ever does by day. Twilight lends the barren fields and domed hills a strangeness that sets them apart from the country around that area; it brings to everything a kind of sentient, watchful animosity—”
Abner Whateley, educated in the best schools of Europe, returns to the Dunwich homestead of his grandfather Luther Whateley. When visiting as a child, he sometimes felt the area’s forbidding atmosphere so keenly that he begged his mother to take him away. Now he comes back only to settle Luther’s estate. In the crumbling house he finds a missive from his grandfather. Abner, he writes, is the only Whateley who’s gone forth into the world and will succumb neither to “the superstition of ignorance nor the superstition of science.” He must destroy the ancient mill on the Miskatonic, attached to the house. If he finds anything alive inside, he must kill that creature—however small, however humaniform.
Weird, Abner thinks, but then so was Luther. The old man locked his daughter Sarah in a room over the mill and tended to her himself, carrying up trays of mostly raw meat. No one else saw her, from the time she came home “mazed” from a visit to Innsmouth kin, until the time of her death.
Forbidden as a boy to approach his aunt’s room, Abner goes to explore it now. He finds a barren cell of scattered bedclothes and darkened windows – their exterior shutters have been nailed shut. The fishy smell of the place sickens him, and he kicks out the shutters of one window to get some air; one window pane also breaks, but hey, he’s got to tear down the whole mill, so why worry? He shoves a bureau aside, looks down to glimpse a frog or toad scrambling back under it. Abner doesn’t bother routing the harmless beast.
That night he’s disturbed by the deafening chorus of crickets and katydids, frogs and whippoorwills. Next day he has an odd encounter with a formerly unknown Whateley cousin, Tobias, who runs the one store in Dunwich. Tobias hopes Abner’s not back to “start things again.” Back at the house, Abner finds Zebulon Whateley, Luther’s brother. The old man speaks of the Whateley curse and warns Abner to beware whatever devil’s work went on under Luther’s roof. Zebulon doesn’t know what happened when Sarah visited their Marsh cousins in Innsmouth, but knows Luther kept a record.
Abner resolves to get his Dunwich business done as fast as possible. He inspects the mill for salvage and notices batrachian footprints on the millwheel, leading to and from the broken window of Sarah’s room. A closer look perturbs him – the prints look like tiny human hands and feet, except for webbing between “toes” and “fingers.”
Among Luther’s papers are letters describing the Marshes’ queer doings: their mixing with South Sea islanders, their “degenerate” appearance, their worship of outlandish gods like Dagon and Cthulhu. Legend says the “islanders” are really Deep Ones, amphibians who have an underwater city beyond Devil Reef, and who’ve spawned hybrid offspring with the Innsmouthers. Apparently the Deep Ones and their hybrids can grow huge, provided they’re well-fed; starved, they shrink. Not that rational Luther will believe such nonsense, but he should know that Sarah’s been seen with the particularly repulsive Ralsa Marsh, and swum out to Devil Reef with him and a bunch of other Innsmouthers, all of them naked.
With the letters is a 1928 news clipping about a Fed raid on Innsmouth, said to have carried off the Marshes, and the torpedoing of Devil Reef.
Abner reads on. After Luther writes that he’s “punished” Sarah, entries describe increasing frog and whippoorwill populations around the mill. One cryptic entry is “R. out again.” R? Ralsa? Next Luther catalogs killings of local animals, from turtles to cows. People disappear next. Then “R. back at last” and Luther notes nailing shutters over Sarah’s windows.
Meanwhile the window Abner unshuttered has fallen entirely out, as if pushed from inside. Sarah’s old room has a fresh stench, like an animal’s lair. Also, the Dunwich party line’s humming with gossip about mutilated cows and frightened speculation about whether “it’s come back.”
Abner struggles with the puzzle Luther left him. Then comes another panic on the party line. Luke Lang screams for help, because “it” is trying to break into his house, an unearthly thing that snuffles and hops. Sound of a window breaking. Luke’s last screech. One of the listeners cries out, “It’s Abner Whateley done it!”
Abner throws his things into the car, then pauses for more puzzling, even after a rock-borne message crashes through his window: “Git out before ye git kilt!” He hears noises from the shuttered room and grabs an oil-lamp to investigate.
What he finds squatting and slavering in the tumbled bedding is a monstrous beast neither all frog nor all man. It rises, towering, and launches itself at Abner. Abner throws the oil lamp, setting the beast on fire. It wails, “Mama-mama-ma-aa-ma-aa-ma-aaah!”
Abner runs for his car. As he gets the hell out of Dunwich at last, Luther’s mill and house go up in flames. Tearing through the brooding hills and clamoring whippoorwills, Abner thinks, oh, of course, Sarah Whateley and Ralsa Marsh had an unblessed union and produced little Deep One Ralsa, whom Luther locked in the shuttered room with his mother. A monster, but still, too bad he was never released into the sea to join the other minions of Dagon and Cthulhu!
What’s Cyclopean: Batrachian batrachian batrachian batrachian batrachian batrachian! (Ichthyic, ichthyic.)
The Degenerate Dutch: Perhaps the rumors against the Marsh family are driven by race prejudice. Really? You don’t say!
Libronomicon: Abner never does get around to going through Luthor’s rare book collection. Bet he’d have found some weird ones.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Old Luther Whateley seems obsessed with the family’s tendency towards “madness.” He, at least, was “normal,” an eminently desirable state that apparently involves locking your relatives in the attic to keep up appearances.
Supposedly August Derleth based “Shuttered Room” and fifteen other tales on fragments left by his friend and mentor. Frequent collaborator though Lovecraft was, his ghost doesn’t seem to have assisted Derleth much, for the sixteen tales are largely Derleth’s invention and writing, and it shows in our reread of the week. I admit to an adolescent fondness for “Room,” but it doesn’t “rediscover” well for me. The melding of Dunwich and Innsmouth lore is awkward. The protagonist, who’s supposedly researching the ancient civilizations of the South Pacific, has never seemed to hear of Deep Ones. Not surprising, though, given his general density. Or maybe Derleth just forgot to make use of Abner’s specialty? And the prose is pedestrian, certain run-on sentences almost admirable in their tumbling eschewment of full stops. There’s no prose poetry here, even in that opening that mimics the Master’s lush and unsettling description of the Miskatonic backcountry in “Dunwich Horror.”
From “Dunwich Horror,” Derleth has borrowed the atmosphere (much watered down), and the dialect-drawling rustics, and the party line bouts of secondhand narration (here less suspenseful.) Wilbur and Lavinia Whateley get shout-outs, as do the funky business on Sentinel Hill and Wilbur’s twin. There are books, the reading of which is dangerous to one’s mental health, but Abner never gets to them, alas, before they go up in flames. Overall, the story’s too short for all the backstory it tries to handle.
In fact, it’s the backstory I’m interested in. When Tolstoy remarks that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, he’s more right than when he contends that all happy families are the same, and here is one unhappy family. What do the Karenins and Levins have to whine about compared to the Whateleys of Whateley Mill? Here’s Luther, by his letters much more articulate and educated than the other local Whateleys, and he’s still unable to avoid that Whateley curse. His practical knowledge is faulty, though – why does he have to depend on correspondents for info on his cousins, the Innsmouth Marshes? And why does he disregard the warnings he gathers? Abner supposes Luther just didn’t believe the crazy gossip, or he wouldn’t have sent Sarah on a solo visit to that city by the sea. On the one hand, Luther prides himself on his stern rationality. On the other, he can believe in the fantastic. Or he’s learned to believe in the fantastic, what with Sarah’s kid and that little Dunwich Horror he must have lived through a few years later.
Luther’s kind of a cool character, or he could be. So could be Sarah. So could be Ralsa and Ralsa Jr. Here we have the makings for great family drama of the megadysfunctional variety. I mean, someone needs to sic the social workers on old Luther. Maybe someone like Libby, Sarah’s prettier (and luckier) sister? Imprisoning Sarah and later her son, not cool, old man. Although if you were so horrified by little Ralsa, why didn’t you kill him yourself, at birth? Or when he started getting out and eating the livestock and locals? Did Sarah stop you? Although if you cared so much about Sarah, why’d you lock her up? Or maybe you had some freaky affection for little Ralsa? You couldn’t just starve him down to tadpole size and then step on him? You had to leave that for Abner? And if so, why weren’t you a bit more explicit in your instructions, like, oh, and squash that frog in the shuttered room, k?
An awful lot of too-cryptic and too-obtuse going on in this story.
Back to the family drama. What great potential dynamics: the iron-willed patriarch (with some soft spots?), the daughter lost to a wild and crazy passion, the innocent monster-child. The extended family, like Zebulon and Ralsa Sr. Ralsa Sr. especially, because hey, when he went to all the trouble to carry Sarah out to Devil Reef (for traditional Deep One marriage rites?), why would he just abandon her and his son? (I thought the “R” Luther wrote of WAS Ralsa Sr., come to liberate his consort and kid, but no, that’s misdirection, maybe deliberate.) I’d love to see the story redone in Sarah’s POV, or Luther’s, or Ralsa’s, or Ralsa Junior’s. Or, for a little more distance, from Zebulon’s? At any rate, Abner’s point of view seems too distant, too ignorant. Sure, it’s a traditional Lovecraftian POV, the outsider set up to be horrified by the terrible truth! But here things turn out more like a B horror movie, with the monster neatly destroyed at the end.
In the last (italicized) paragraph of this story, Derleth tries to evoke Lovecraft’s terror-fascination relationship with the outer, the other, the cosmically vast. He tells us Abner will never get over what he saw. He half-heartedly hints it would have been better for Ralsa Jr. to go to the glory that is Y’ha-nthlei and the service of Dagon and Cthulhu. But it feels hollow, this evocation of the sublime. Pasted on.
Last, gotta note the shout out to another horrible offspring. Wilbur’s twin calls on his Father while fading on Sentinel Hill, while Ralsa Jr. calls for his mother. That call could have raised some feels in the context of the family-centered story. Here, I’m afraid, it feels kinda cheap.
You can imagine it, can’t you? Sarah Whateley, away from her stern, controlling father for the first time, visiting family in Innsmouth. Ralsa Marsh, her debonair (if odd-looking) cousin, sweeps her off her feet with tales of glory beneath the waves—and the Dionysian permissiveness of the rites of Dagon. Overcome by the possibility of a new life, she follows him to Devil’s Reef under a full moon…
Then her father orders her home, and she obeys, driven by the habits of a lifetime of meekness. When he finds out she’s carrying Ralsa’s child…
Derleth follows the template from “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” showing at the last sympathy to Sarey, locked in the attic for life for her impertinent abnormality, and baby Ralsa Jr., raised there—what could he become other than a ‘monster’? You can imagine that too: Sarey, cut off from her lover and the life she wanted, raising her child with the full measure of that bitterness. Is she really going to teach him that eating people is wrong?
Dying, he calls for his mama, just as Wilbur Whateley’s brother called for his dad. I have no resistance to a crying baby.
This story’s an odd mix. It shows off the things Derleth does better than Lovecraft: characterization, motivation, nuance. And it shows off the things he does worse: worldbuilding, language, plot. I’ve heard people suggest that some of Lovecraft’s reputation for poorly turned phrase is down to Derleth’s posthumous “collaborations.” They’re certainly a shock after Howard’s living collaborations, where his style and language are unmistakable even when plot and characters bear another author’s distinct mark. Lovecraft, we’re told, chose every word with a precise eye to the exact meaning he wanted. He may not have worried about whether he used the same word earlier in the sentence, or if one more adjective would send the whole jenga crashing down—but he wasn’t prone to extraneous words that didn’t carry meaning. Derleth tends towards the unnecessary prepositional phrase and the unclear explanation.
Also on the topic of inaccurate attributions, I woke my wife this morning to announce: “Derleth! ‘Batrachian’ is Derleth’s word!” I was thinking, of course, of Neil Gaiman’s delightful “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar,” in which the denizens of Innsmouth, England complain drunkenly about how Lovecraft described them. “Batrachian” is a particular sore spot.
Lovecraft never made the Deep Ones able to change their mass, either. That was a good decision.
Abner makes for a good narrator (in the 3rd person!), an outsider and an insider all at once. He can never be fully detached, or fully involved—the tension drives the story, in a way that ye random visiting Miskatonic professor couldn’t. But it makes the failures of logic, and too-convenient attempts to add to Lovecraft’s worldbuilding, more frustrating as well. I want Abner to get back to his own life, and want Sarey and Ralsa Jr. to have had one—and then I start thinking of awkward questions like, if Abner could kick out the window, why couldn’t Sarey do the same? If she’s too weak, what about the ever-watching, ever-peeping frogs, who are presumably Deep Ones in adorable batrachian lemur form? They can’t scamper up the drainpipe and break their relations free?
Probably that baby called for his daddy sometimes, too. If only Daddy had been a little smarter and less constrained by plot force, we could’ve had another happy Innsmouth ending.
Next week, we delve into a story performed before several of the Crowned Heads of Europe, garnering their plaudits and praise: Neil Gaiman’s Hugo-winning “A Study in Emerald.”
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” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint in April 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.