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 Robert Bloch’s “Notebook Found in a Deserted House,” first published in the May 1951 issue of Weird Tales. Spoilers ahead.
“The mouths was like leaves and the whole thing was like a tree in the wind, a black tree with lots of branches trailing the ground, and a whole lot of roots ending in hoofs. And that green slime dribbling out of the mouths and down the legs was like sap!”
Willie Osborne writes a last missive in the eponymous notebook while “they” dig in an old well outside the farmhouse. He’s boarded himself in, but “they” are looking for a “gate.” Before long they’ll come for Willie.
Willie’s twelve years old. His mother died at his birth; his father’s “gone away.” He lived with Grandma somewhere in the hilly outback of Lovecraft country, where he heard tales about “them ones.” “Them ones” live in swamps, hold Hallowe’en rituals on the hills, and practice human sacrifice. These were just stories to Willie until Grandma died and he went to live with Uncle Fred and Aunt Lucy even farther back in the hill country.
Their isolated farmhouse stands amid dark woods and shunned hills. Fred and Lucy don’t venture under the trees after dark, and lock their doors at night. Willie gets over his fear of the woods enough to explore. Early in October, he’s in a forest glen when a group approaches, people, from the sound of it, and—something else. Something that progresses with a noise like butchered pig’s blood spurting into a bucket. Something that stinks like the unearthed dead and speaks an unknown tongue in a buzzing, croaking voice. Willie hides behind a boulder. He makes out a word he transliterates as “shoggoth.” The smell overcomes him; when he wakes, he’s alone in the glen. Whatever was there left behind tracks like goat hooves green with slime. That night he dreams of a tall being, ink-black, shifting form but mostly like a tree—trailing ropy branches, all-over mouths dripping slime, and roots tipped with hooves.
He consults Lucy’s mythology book and learns how Druids worshipped trees or nature spirits. Maybe Druids came to America Maybe they’re the “white gods” from over the sea both Indians and Aztecs/”Inkas” believed in. Maybe they’re the hidden people who call up them ones and sacrifice in the hills.
Willie’s so spooked he won’t leave the farmhouse. Then Cap Pritchett the mailman delivers a welcome letter—Lucy’s kin, cousin Osborne from Kingsport, is coming to visit! On October 25, Fred takes the buggy to meet Osborne. A storm rolls in. They’re late returning. In fact, they never return, though the terrified horse does, only to die the next day. Willie persuades Lucy to hitch a ride into town next time Cap comes through, which will be Hallowe’en day. They’ve got to escape before nightfall!
Willie dreams that “cat-eyed” men abduct Lucy. Hallowe’en morning, sure enough, Lucy’s gone. So are the cows. And the new clean well has gone as slime-green as the tainted one they’ve never used. Willie starts walking toward town. He’s barely started when he meets a young man in city suit who greets him as Cousin Osborne. He didn’t come on the 25th because of business—didn’t they get his telegram?
Willie takes Osborne home and spills his terrible story. They must get out before nightfall! Osborne disagrees. They don’t want to run off and tell the authorities crazy stories, do they? Maybe get blamed themselves for the disappearances?
Osborne says his home’s in Arkham, not Kingsport. He mentions how Willie got scared in the woods, which Willie hasn’t mentioned. Uh oh, he must be an impostor! Then Cap Pritchett arrives. Osborne goes out to talk with him. Willie bursts out of the house and begs Cap to take him to town. Cap’s surprised—since “Osborne” told him Willie was away. “Osborne” claims custody of the boy, who’s a bit “unstrung” at the moment. But Cap believes Willie, whom he knows, and who can go a whole five minutes without contradicting himself. Cap pulls a pistol on “Osborne” to keep the man from climbing into his buggy, then takes off with Willie.
A storm approaches. The road darkens. Willie tells Cap his story and asks what a “shoggoth” is. Right on cue, the slimy tree-thing blocks the road before them. It gets the buggy horse and Cap, but Willie runs, literally, for the hills. Bewildered by thunder and throbbing drums, he climbs toward hilltop fires. They illuminate a white stone “alter” and the ancient bearded men around it. More men beat drums. More bring up sacrificial cattle—Fred and Lucy’s—then two-legged sacrifices. Willie hides his face to avoid seeing exactly who they are. The earth begins to shake. A black “jelly tree-thing” climbs to the summit and bends over the “alter,” on which something squirms and screams.
Willie sees it grow. He flees to the farmhouse and boards the doors and windows. In the morning “Osborne” and others come. They seek the “gate” in the old well, which must lead to the underground realm of “Druids” and black gods. At nightfall, he knows, they’ll come for him.
He’ll hide his notebook. If anyone decent finds it, make sure to block the old well and clean out the swamps, and make sure no one else comes to live among the dark-wooded hills. Don’t believe him? Go where they did the sacrifices. Maybe they’ve erased the bloodstains and footprints, but there should be round spots on the “alter” where the “shoggoth” grabbed hold. Two-foot-wide marks, black, fingerprints.
The door is busting o—
What’s Cyclopean: Willie’s spelling is not a sterling argument for the value of home-schooling.
The Degenerate Dutch: Irish druids apparently taught American Indians everything they know about making dread sacrifices to Shub-Niggurath. All of them, from Tenochtitlan up through the Wampanoag. (Also Willie, overhearing Shubbie’s name in the dark woods, misspells it in a really unfortunate way.)
Mythos Making: Shub-Niggurath is on deck, along with a random backwoods shoggoth. The story takes place somewhere in the rural parts of Lovecraft County (west of Arkham where the hills rise wild?), so perhaps it’s an escapee from a Miskatonic zoology lab.
Libronomicon: Who finds the notebook anyway? The abruptly interrupted narrative suggests Willie doesn’t actually have time to hide it—does “Osborne” grab it?
Madness Takes Its Toll: “Osborne” tries to undermine Willie’s story by implying he’s “mentally unstable.” Willie’s luckier than most—Cap Pritchett doesn’t buy it.
So, where in Lovecraft country does Bloch set this story? The hilly topography and brooding woods sound Dunwichian, not to mention the altar-crowned summits. Arkham and Kingsport aren’t too distant, but I’m thinking Roodsford (where Grandma lived) and Lucy and Fred’s farmhouse are farther inland than Dunwich, farther west—and even more isolated.
It’s interesting how Bloch presents a frame story without the frame—we never know who found Willie’s notebook in the deserted house. The sheriff or other authorities seem most likely, come to the lonely farm to look for the missing family and Cap Pritchett. If so, we’re spared the rather lame conclusion of the police in “Cement Surroundings,” that the whole document must be a hoax. Or maybe the sheriff of the hill country had seen enough to believe poor Willie. Or maybe a professor from Miskatonic found the notebook. Maybe even Wilmarth. News of outback disappearances on Hallowe’en would be sure to draw occult scholars from that most arcane-minded of universities.
I think it’s a good decision to leave out the identity of the notebook discoverers. The tale needs no law enforcement conjectures or learned glosses to dilute the chilling-because-naive force of Willie’s narrative. Bloch deftly suggests the boy’s dialect without crossing the reader’s eyes with tortured spellings; the misspellings that do appear are consistent with Willie’s rudimentary education and cultural isolation. He may not know how to spell “depot” or “altar,” but his intelligence and curiosity shine through. His observations are sharp, his deductions keen. It may be a tiny bit much for him to formulate theories about exiled Druids and Mesoamerican legend from a brief perusal of Aunt Lucy’s unnamed mythology book. Also a bit convenient for Aunt Lucy to have such a book. But hey, at least she doesn’t have a copy of the Necronomicon or De Vermis Mysteriis.
On further thought, it might not be so surprising for Aunt Lucy to have a mythology, or even a worm-eaten tome of some sort. The Osborne family has a certain affinity to weirdness, from Grandma with her copious stories of local horror to Mehitabel Osborne, hanged for a witch back in the Salem panic. This rereading I wonder more about Willie’s ultimate fate.
It’s unclear whether Fred was brother to Willie’s father, or whether Lucy was sister to him. Cousin Osborne is said to be Lucy’s kin, but it’s a younger Fred he resembles. Of course, it’s not really Cousin Osborne who arrives at the farmhouse, and yet it is someone who looks like Fred, like Willie’s kin. My new theory is that “Cousin Osborne” is really Willie’s father, who “went away” after Mom’s death. Let’s call Dad William Senior. We know that William Sr. used to visit Fred and Lucy. We know he heard the drums beating on Hallowe’en. Maybe the wild magical blood in him called him back to the dark-wooded hills. Maybe he’s come now to reclaim his son as heir to the family weirdness and doesn’t intend him for a sacrifice at all! Maybe he brought him through the well-gate not as a “shoggoth” snack but in order to meet the deity he was born to worship!
Now, let’s get to the “shoggoth.” It’s Willie who assumes that the ropy black blob in the road, destroyer of Cap and horse, is the same creature or at least the same species of creature who attends the Hallowe’en ritual. Does Bloch intend them to be the same, shoggoths? We can’t tell for sure as we only have Willie’s report to go by, and he (being no seasoned Mythos taxonomist) could be mistaken. Chaosium of gaming fame puts Bloch’s tree-like monster into its Call of Cthulhu Bestiary as a “Dark Young,” one of the thousand (or more?) progeny of Shub-Niggurath. Tellingly, Shub-Niggurath is named in the chant Willie transliterates (and his attempt at the name is telling for his era, that is, those two middle syllables that can easily sound like a racial slur.)
Actually, I wonder why a canonic Lovecraftian shoggoth would be pseudopodding around so far inland. They can operate on land, and I suppose they could be living in one of those swamps the Druids frequent. I just associate them strongly with the sea. As for the black tree-like beast, I’m definitely in Team Dark Young rather than Team Shoggoth. Come on, look at its cute little goatish hooves, just like Shub-Momma’s!
Creepy old houses, rituals in darkened woods, last testaments that don’t end in “Aaaaahhhhh!” or rants about windows—what’s not to like? And yet, I found this taste of Bloch’s Mythos disappointing. Some of this is the heavy emphasis on how all non-Christians secretly worship elder gods. (This bugs me in Lovecraft’s work too—not even different elder gods, or using different rituals, except for the K’n-yan who keep their torturous executions secular and treat Shub-Niggurath as a gentle mother figure.) The addition of a timeline in which Irish druids visit the Aztecs and teach them the One True Religion, which somehow then filters up to coastal Massachusetts, helps no things.
Then there’s the shoggoth. I’m inclined towards sympathy for rebellious slaves to begin with, but am willing to take them as terrifying antagonists if done right. They’re immortal, inhumanly strong, infinitely adaptable, and have no reason to feel kindly disposed towards other sapients. Even if you’re feeling sympathetic, you’re well advised to run like hell. But in practice, it’s shoggoths’ amorphousness that’s frightening. They’re the blob, the thing under the bed, the monster that you might just survive if you flee as soon as you catch a flicker in the corner of your eye. Describe their current shape in detail, and confound them with druidic nature spirits, and they lose some oomph.
Speaking of too much detail and certainty— Diffusion of Esoteric Worship Practices Among North American Cultures would be a great topic for a Miskatonic Dissertation, but rather reduces the lost-in-the-wood scariness of being chased by implacable cultists. I’m bemused by how much Willie infers about the precise history and religious connections of Them Ones. I’d be tempted to take this as unreliable, a scared kid trying to pattern-match, except that clearly we’re supposed to accept it as reliable infodump. Where is it coming from? Are the Druids, Cthonian-like, dumping knowledge into his brain?
Or has it trickled down through his bloodline from his Salem-witch ancestor? I kind of wonder whether Willie and his kin are targeted for sacrifice because they’re descended from defectors. Heretics are always worse than heathens, after all. Something’s going on, given that his family knows all about the hazards of the hills and yet keeps living there, and given the degree of Willie’s isolation. Maybe they can’t leave. Or maybe something about them would stand out in an ordinary city.
That backstory might make a better story than the one we got. From the frequency with which Lovecraft’s narrators mention Salem ancestry, either they’re all related or the place must have been crawling with Cthulhu-worshippers who never got caught up in the witch trials. The Salem diaspora, and the schisms between those keeping to the old ways and those dropping them like sacrificial potatoes, would make for fascinating reading.
The story I really want to read, though, belongs to Cap Pritchett. He is hands down my favorite character of the piece. How can you resist a heroic mailman, stalwart representative of the US government, who just happens to be able to recognize a shoggoth on sight? Is that part of postal service training? I want to know more.
Maybe more impressive than recognizing the Shoggoth, though—they don’t look much like anything else, after all—is recognizing BS when he sees it. Mistreated children get Not-Osborne’s treatment every day. Gaslighted and dismissed as unstable and confused, “you know how these kids are”—smooth, sensible talk from one grown-up to another. It makes for the only truly scary part of the story, and the biggest (temporary) relief when Cap refuses to be “sensible.” I’m sorry he gets eaten, because I would read “Cap Pritchett Delivers Mail and Fights Gaslighting Jerks” any day of the week. Neither rain nor sleet nor eldritch terror will keep him from his appointed rounds.
Next week, we catch a glimpse of Sonia Greene and Lovecraft’s collaborative courtship in “The Horror at Martin’s Beach.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the 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 on April 4, 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.