The Lovecraft Reread

H.P. Lovecraft and the Chamber of Secrets: Lovecraft and William Lumley’s “The Diary of Alonzo Typer”

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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 Lovecraft and William Lumley’s “The Diary of Alonzo Typer,” first published in the February 1938 issue of Weird Tales. Spoilers ahead.

“I turned to flee, but found that vision of the titan paws before me—the great talons seeming to swell and become more tangible as I gazed. Out of the cellar’s evil blackness they stretched, with shadowy hints of scaly wrists beyond them, and with a waxing, malignant will guiding their horrible gropings.”

Summary

Editor’s notes: Occult researcher Alonzo Typer disappeared in 1908. He spent much time in India, Nepal, Tibet, Indochina and Easter Island, but his last known journey was less exotic, on the surface, being merely to a long-abandoned manor house near Attica, New York. It was built around 1760 by the van der Heyls, a family who left Albany under suspicion of witchcraft.

The van der Heyl reputation didn’t improve after relocation. Around their house rose Chorazin, a village filled with just the sort of rural folk to terrify Lovecraft’s provincial heart. Above both house and village rose a hill crowned with ancient standing stones, reviled by the local Iroquois. At certain seasons gentry and villagers gathered on the hilltop to chant, never a good sign. The rituals ceased with the 1872 disappearance of the whole van der Heyl clan. Their house stood empty and crumbling, for would-be tenants had a discouraging habit of dying, vanishing or going insane.

Typer arrived in Chorazin in April 1908. The diary of his time there, left as sort of a black box, wasn’t found until 1935, when it was excavated from the collapsed house. What follows is the diary verbatim.

Typer gets to the degraded village and dust-choked house as a storm breaks. He knows the Walpurgis Sabbat approaches and that it will be a dangerous time to spend in a witch-haunted ruin. Nevertheless, “prodded by some unfathomable urge, [he has] given [his] whole life to the quest of unholy mysteries” and comes “here for nothing else.”

He establishes “camp” in an upstairs room and starts exploring. Decay is omnipresent. More disturbing are the van der Heyl portraits, featuring people with unnaturally ophidian or porcine features. He also senses a malevolent presence, nonhuman, colossal. Semi-ethereal black paws periodically push him on the stairs, and sometimes the portrait subjects leave their frames for ghostly wandering. Villagers are supposed to bring his supplies to the estate gate. Too bad Typer can’t get there – the briars surrounding the house have merged into an impenetrable fence. Typer’s a prisoner, but an unseen someone gets through to deliver his necessaries anyway. He won’t starve before foul fate overwhelms him, probably on Walpurgis Eve.

Luckily Typer has plenty to occupy him. He uncovers a stepless chute to depths unknown. He finds obscure tomes hidden in every nook. In the fungoid basement, he stumbles on a brick vault with a locked iron door. The lock is engraved with undecipherable characters. Behind the door he hears faint padding, mutters, slithering. The unnerving sounds grow louder as Walpurgis nears, as do visits by the black paws and ghosts. And who is this Trintje van der Heyl Sleght, an “evil-faced” young woman in one of the portraits, and why does the name Sleght ring a dim bell in his memory?

The briars remain a prison wall, but allow him to climb the stone-crowned hill. Alonzo ventures to the circle, to be repelled by the monoliths’ clammy, scaly texture. Not much better is the wind that whispers around them—or is it sibilant voices?

In two separate hiding places Typer finds 1500s journals penned by Claes van der Heyl, ancestor of the New York branch. Puzzling out their ciphers, he learns about an “ancient forgotten One” who can show him the gateway he’s sought. He masters the “Seven Lost Signs of Terror” and the “unutterable Words of Fear.” With a “Chant” he can “transfigure” the Forgotten One at Sabbat time. But first he must find a way into the brick vault in the basement. It has a lock, so there must be a key.

And he finds the key, as queer an object as the lock. It’s wrapped in reptilian hide, on which is scrawled a Low Latin message in Claes’s hand. It confides that Claes has walked in Yian-Ho, the forbidden city of the primal Ones. There he learned how to “bridge a gap that should not be bridged” and to “call out of the earth That Which should not be waked or called.” Something follows him home which will not sleep until Claes or his descendent has “done what is to be found and done.” Many may be the strange “joinings” of his progeny, who’ll have to travel to some unknown land and build a house for the “outer Guardians.”

Now Typer looks on the key with “mixed dread and longing.” The night glows with green radiance, and he hears the Chorazin villagers chanting on the stone-crowned hilltop. Yet with all this going on, he’s still worried about that half-recognized name Sleght.

Walpurgis Eve. Storm breaks with “pandaemonic fury” under which the “hybrid, malformed villagers” chant and howl and leap with “diabolic ecstasy.” Typer sits in his “camp,” clutching the now-pulsing key, hearing muffled reverberations in the basement vault. Then (merciful God) he remembers! A Sleght was one of his own ancestors, a Sleght who’d married Trintje van der Heyl and thus linked him, Alonzo Typer, to the family of warlocks and nameless sin!

Must Typer finish what Claes started? He swears he will not. But too late! Black paws materialize and drag him toward the cellar.

And so, with the customary scrawl, Typer’s diary ends.

What’s Cyclopean: The old van der Heyl house is not merely filthy but “leprous.” The cellar is a “mass of nitrous encrustations” and “amorphous mounds.” House-tour vocabulary bonus for the portraits of “squamose” ladies.

The Degenerate Dutch: The van der Heyls—who are in fact Dutch—employed only servants brought directly from Africa who didn’t speak English. Clearly evil is afoot. Oh, and the Chorazin villagers are “decadent.” Also swarthy, simian-faced, Indian-like, stupid, and taciturn to a degree that baffles all students of the region. If you’re baffled by why they’d be taciturn after you describe them like that…

Mythos Making: Oh, hey, is that a sketch of Cthulhu in the van der Heyl diary?

Libronomicon: The evil thing in the house matches descriptions in the Aklo writings. Actually the family library is full of Aklo, as well as the Pnakotic Manuscripts (plural!) and the Eltdown Shards. Then there’s the trunk containing “a Greek Necronomicon, a Norman-French Livre d’Eibon, and a first edition of old Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis.” Book collectors rejoice!

Madness Takes Its Toll: Four people who tried to take over the abandoned van der Heyl estate developed “cases of sudden insanity.” One later investigator develops amnesia.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

“Diary” is fundamentally a haunted house story. It would make a good B movie: idiot parapsychologist goes into the house where people meet awful fates, gets trapped by creepy townsfolk, researches his inevitable awful fate in the musty library, opens the forbidden vault, meets awful fate. Still writing, of course, in the grand tradition of “Dagon” and “Hounds of Tindalos.” (The window! Aaahhhh! Seriously, who scribbles in their notebook while being dragged away by monstrous claws?)

Although given the contents of that forbidden vault and the possibly moving portraits, maybe it’s just the dark version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets?

Closer to home, this story reminds me most of “The Lurking Fear.” Objectively it’s not particularly good, and degenerate ethnic stereotypes are strewn in every possible direction, but the unselfconsciously manic flow of words still delights. When you can breathe between the degenerate Dutch lizard-men and the degenerate “simian” villagers, there’s a quick fix of cosmic horror fun to be found in the relentless onslaught of forbidden tomes, Venusian overlords, and sanity-threatening revelations.

While there’s nothing particularly original here, Lovecraft and Lumley throw in the kitchen sink. Every volume from Miskatonic’s locked stacks makes an appearance, along with the Book of Dzyan (new but seems kinda Pnakotic). Hidden cities galore: spiffy Shamballah and dread-inspiring Yian-Ho. Aliens who ruled before humanity and aliens who want to come back and rule again. Ancestral witches from Salem and Albany. The horrifying but inevitable discovery that your great-great aunt once removed was a hybrid snake-pig-human wizard.

And the bigotry. Dear lord, the bigotry. It doesn’t quite beat out either “Horror at Red Hook” or “Medusa’s Coil,” but it makes up for lack of depth with breadth. Lovecraft’s addresses his contempt to the full socioeconomic spectrum, and vaguely references all sorts of terrifying non-Anglo ethnicities. The van der Heyls are degenerate Dutch aristocrats, so degenerate that they’ve bred with inhuman civilization-destroying things a la Innsmouth. See what happens when the ruling nobles don’t take seriously their responsibility to deny reality’s true nature? The Chorazin villagers are “simian-faced,” “swarthy,” “mongoloid” hybrids, with a suspicious resemblance to American Indians. And they don’t want to talk to outsiders, the ultimate in rural horror.

The most obvious Lumley contributions are the attractive-repulsive serpent ladies in the portraits. The closest Lovecraft comes on his own to a femme fatale is Asenath Waite, or maybe Lilith, neither quite the usual thing for that category. And he never quite persuades in describing feminine beauty, let alone anyone “hellishly beautiful.” Snakes, or snakish things, creep Yig-like everywhere in this story, down to the standing stones that might, in fact, be standing serpents. Me, I used to own a boa constrictor. Snakes get a bum deal from humans most of the time, and snake/human hybrids seem likely to have it even worse. Eventually you’re going to decide that you’d rather just pour out your troubles to Cthulhu.

I still feel like mental peace and sanity are compatible with knowing about ancient alien life forms. Unless they’re just gonna eat you, which might be the case here. I also feel like you shouldn’t summon that which you’re inexplicably confident you can banish. When summoning dark and ancient beings, “just wing it” is maybe not the best plan.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Late in life, Lovecraft made epistolary acquaintance with William Lumley, enthusiastic fan, occult-steeped eccentric, “thwarted poet” (per HPL), and watchman at a Buffalo, New York chemical company. Howard and his inner circle found the fellow a little amusing, a little disturbing. Lumley claimed that Lovecraft and friends were “genuine agents of unseen Powers in distributing hints too dark and profound for human conception or comprehension.” Whoa, cool, because that’s kind of my fictional conceit about Lovecraft, that he knew the truth of the Mythos and sneakily leaked it in his stories. Yet core Mythosians weren’t quite sure how serious Lumley was about his belief in their invented cosmology.

Writing in 1932 to Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft confides of Lumley:

“He claims to have traveled to all the secret places of the world—India, China, Nepal, Egypt, Thibet, etc.—and to have picked up all sorts of forbidden elder lore; also to have read Paracelsus, Remigius, Cornelius Agrippa, and all the other esoteric authors whom most of us merely talk about and refer to as we do to the Necronomicon and Black Book. He believes in occult mysteries, and is always telling about ‘manifestations’ he sees in haunted houses and shunned valleys. He also speaks often of a mysterious friend of his—“The Oriental Ancient”—who is going to get him a forbidden book (as a loan, and not to be touched without certain ceremonies of mystical purification) from some hidden and unnamed monastery in India…Young Brobst (as I told you, nurse in a mental hospital) thinks a touch of real insanity is present, but I regard the case as a borderline one. I always answer his [Lumley’s] letters in as kindly a fashion as possible.”

Lovecraft did Lumley the greater kindness of revising gratis his “Diary of Alonzo Typer.” He called the man semi-illiterate, with “no command of spelling or capitalization,” yet he also found him “amazingly erudite in the lore of mediaeval magic, & possessed of a keen & genuine sense of the fantastic…with a streak of genuine weird sensitiveness not very far removed from a certain sort of blind, rhapsodic genius.” To “Typer,” Lovecraft added the editorial notes that introduce Chorazin and the history of the van der Heyl family. He also evidently urged Lumley to make Alonzo Typer an unknowing descendent of the warlock clan. Though Typer’s genealogical memory seems first too balky, then (at the climax) too forthcoming, his connection to the van der Heyls works plot-wise and brings in Lovecraft’s favorite themes of hereditary destiny and guilt.

Poor Alonzo. Because he perpetuates an alien-tainted bloodline, his whole life has been an unconscious imitation of Claes’s, down to the Asian pilgrimages and occult studies that have primed him for freeing the Forgotten One. He joins the blood-cursed ranks of characters like “Shadow Over Innsmouth’s” narrator, Charles Dexter Ward, Arthur Jermyn, and all those tunneling Martenses.

Speaking of the Martenses, “Typer” returns us to the haunted New Netherlands of “Lurking Fear.” In many aspects, it recalls its predecessor. There’s a house once belonging to a reclusive Dutch family, all of whom vanish without a trace. The fate of the van der Heyls remains a mystery, but if they weren’t killed off in a failed attempt to raise the Forgotten One, they might well have adopted subterranean life, enough changed by inbreeding (and way-out-there breeding) to thrive underground. Maybe they’ve become those slithery Guardians behind the iron door. We’ve also got sinister twisted trees, and sinister thunder-plagued hilltops, and sinister “degraded” villagers, though “Lurking Fear’s” villagers were no cultists, just hapless fodder for the Martenses. Both Typer and “Fear’s” narrator are scholars of the strange and fanatical seekers of weirdness type. “Fear’s” narrator escapes the curse of the Martenses, a sadder but wiser man. Typer can’t escape the van der Heyls, for they’re embedded in his genes. Do the black paws drag him off to his death, both priest and sacrifice? We don’t know – his diary ends with the dragging. Even though old Claes’s last lizard-skin missive didn’t sound too sanguine, I like to think Typer pulled an Innsmouth and found wonder and glory beyond the brick vault. I wouldn’t bet on it, however.

While searching for information on William Lumley, I ran across a very interesting post by Dennis P. Quinn: The (Unintended) Religious Legacy of H. P. Lovecraft. It mentions Lumley as a prime example of someone who found “religious inspiration” in the work of self-avowed atheist Lovecraft. Lumley at least seems to have found that Mythosian fiction meshed neatly with his other occult obsessions. If Lumley was obsessed, not just having Howard and friends on.

It sounds like Lovecraft didn’t think Lumley was insincere. He wrote to Robert E. Howard, re the mystery fan from Buffalo: “There is surely, as you say, a tremendous pathos in the case of those who clutch at unreality as a compensation for inadequate or uncongenial realities.”

I wonder if Lovecraft didn’t do some clutching of his own. When he jettisoned God and intellectually embraced an uncaring cosmos, he didn’t leave that cosmos empty – instead he peopled it with tremendous deities and fascinating aliens and even Dreamlands that really do come true, if you dream hard and skillfully enough.

Well, of course, though. Don’t imagination, and fiction, abhor vacuums?

 

Next week, there are many fine Innsmouth artifacts in Ann Schwader’s “Objects from the Gilman-Waite Collection.” You can find it in Book of Cthulhu II. (Also next week, Ruthanna’s novel Winter Tide comes out! You can find her either squeeing about it endlessly or hiding under the bed.)

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 Dreamwidth, 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.

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