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 C.M. Eddy, Jr.’s “The Loved Dead,” first published in the May-June-July 1924 issue of Weird Tales. Spoilers ahead.
“It is midnight. Before dawn they will find me and take me to a black cell where I shall languish interminably, while insatiable desires gnaw at my vitals and wither up my heart, till at last I become one with the dead that I love.”
Unnamed narrator pens a last narrative at midnight, seated on an aged grave, a fallen tombstone his desk. The cemetery in which he’s taken refuge is unkempt, redolent with the stink of fungi and damp earth, profoundly—terrifyingly—silent. But he doesn’t mind, for he tells us: “the presence of death is life to me!”
He was a pallid, apathetic child of robust parents. Some Fenham village gossips thought him a changeling; others recalled his great-great-uncle, who was burned as a necromancer. Then, at sixteen, he attends his first funeral, his grandfather’s, and finds his bliss. As he steps up to the casket, “a baleful malignant influence that seemed to emanate from the corpse itself held [him] with magnetic fascination. [His] whole being seemed charged with some ecstatic electrifying force…Wild, wanton, soul-satisfying sensuality engulfed [him.]”
The exhilaration lasts a couple weeks, before subsiding into restless languor. His mother’s death returns him to “diabolical ecstasy,” and he realizes that “some strange satanic curse” makes him dependent “upon the dead for [his] motive force.” He apprentices himself to the Fenham undertaker, but after the (thrilling) death of his father, he moves to the much larger city of Bayboro and works for a busy funeral parlor.
When the influx of life-bringing corpses isn’t enough, he creeps out on dark nights and creates some for himself. He’s a cunning killer—the police never suspect him, and he’s left in peace to devise “new and unspeakable ways of lavishing [his] affections upon the dead [he] loved.”
Oops. One day his employer arrives early to find him stretched on a cold slab with his arms wrapped around the naked body of a corpse! Dismissed, he roams from morgue to cemetery to crematorium, and then comes WWI. Narrator is early to enlist and enjoys four years of “blood-red charnel Hell…and transcendent satisfaction.”
Back from war, he visits his childhood home in Fenham, only to find it half-deserted. His own home is given over to a drunkard and his miserable family. So much for nostalgia. He returns to Bayboro and the funeral business. With, as before, a sideline of murder. But as his “thirst for the noxious nectar of the dead grew to a consuming fire,” he starts getting careless, leaving clues. One night the police catch him in the act, a bloody razor in his hand, and he has to flee into the marshes between city and Fenham.
For a week he avoids his pursuers, but at Fenham his “accursed appetite” forces him to invade his old home and strangle its current inhabitants. The police back on his trail, he takes refuge in the Fenham cemetery.
And he remains in that sanctuary now, writing his story, inhaling the “frankincense” of death, listening to the distant baying of hounds. Soon they’ll find him and consign him to the torture of a madhouse cell. Or maybe not. He still has his razor and the will to use it!
As narrator bleeds out, he drifts into a world where “phantasmal hordes swarm over rotting graves…where spectral fingers beckon…where distant stars dance drunkenly in demoniac accompaniment…[and] scorched tongues of invisible flame sear the brand of Hell upon [his] sickened soul…”
Okay, he “can—write—no— more…”
What’s Cyclopean: Too many delightful adjectival phrases to list, but the demoniac desire that grips Narrator in its torturing tentacles still stands out. Tentacles are surprisingly rare in Lovecraft’s work, and metaphorical tentacles doubly so.
The Degenerate Dutch: Our narrator is an egalitarian. He likes everyone, regardless of their background, as long as they’re dead.
Mythos Making: There’s little Mythosian here, though there are small echoes in the necromantic ancestor
Libronomicon: Presumably there are books in the archives of Belial, but alas we don’t see them.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Our narrator refers to the high he gets from dead people as a “drugged delirium.” Later, his boss suggests that his nerves are “unstrung” when he catches him clutching a corpse like a teddy bear.
Clifford Martin Eddy, Jr. shared much more than exchanged manuscripts with Lovecraft. He, too, was Providence, born and raised and buried there. He even rests not far from his old friend, in Swan Point Cemetery, the polar opposite of Fenham’s boneyard with its meticulous lawns and lush plantings, all very pretty and healthy in spite of their eldritch nourishment. Or because of it? Circle of life. The dead support the quick. It’s all natural and good, except when it’s not, as in “The Loved Dead.”
Children, we do not eat our own dead, even if we’re not the ones who made them that way. We don’t know where they’ve been, right, and what microbes they might have picked up? We also, most emphatically, do not make love to our dead. Not only can’t they give consent, but ew, gross, icky, SICK SICK SICK. Necrophiles go straight to hell, like Eddy’s unnamed narrator. He can hang out there with the human ghouls of Lovecraft’s “Hound.” Superior ghouls, they, of refined aesthetics and much more spectacular ends at the jaws of a bat-borne wraith. But then, they had the advantage of being rich English ghouls with their own isolated manor. Eddy’s narrator had to work for a living. Not that he didn’t, ah, love his work. And not that his infirmity was his own fault. Messing with the dead ran in his family, a genetic weakness or cross-generational curse, depending on whether you’re leaning science fiction or fantasy at the moment. Look at that necromancer of a great-great uncle, burned for his crimes.
Necromancers, however, aren’t so bad. What do they do but communicate with the dead by summoning their spirits or raising them up bodily? Like Joseph Curwen and friends. Okay…could be some ethical issues there, too…
Leave the dead alone. Unless you’re a ghoul of the Pickman/Dreamlands variety. Then you might be disgusting company by unenlightened (unendarkened?) standards, but you’re just filling your preternatural niche. Or, maybe, unless you’re like Lovecraft’s Outsider, dead yourself.
But, live humans, once again, leave the dead alone.
“I can— write— no— more…” Eddy’s narrator scrawls with his last strength. Well, no wonder. All those florid adjectives and overwrought descriptions took their inevitable toll and killed you, or at least your creator’s prose. “The Loved Dead” is like Lovecraft in his Poe period, only lacking the specificity of detail and incident that makes, oh, “The Tomb” and “The Outsider” superior tales. It also lacks a good drinking ditty, which is odd, since Eddy wrote songs as well as fiction.
The 1924 publication of “Loved Dead” in Weird Tales raised not spirits but a storm of controversy, though it’s unclear whether that storm was a hurricane or a passing shower. According to S. T. Joshi in An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, the stir was enough to make Farnsworth Wright hesitate to publish similarly explicit and gruesome stories by Lovecraft. I don’t know. The only thing approaching “explicit” in “Loved Dead” is that bit about the narrator hugging a naked corpse. Hell, we don’t even get to know the gender of the corpse, or whether the narrator was naked too, or exactly how the boss reacted, or the caught-cold-handed narrator, either. Compare this with such charnel booty from Lovecraft’s “Hound” as “the rotting, bald pates of famous noblemen, and the fresh and radiantly golden heads of new-buried children.” And Lovecraft’s story was published in Weird Tales, February 1924, several months before “The Loved Dead.”
I hadn’t read “Loved Dead” for years, so had forgotten the end. I was expecting something much more shocking than narrator suicide. Given he’d gone back to the graveyard where his family members were buried, I was hoping the camera would draw back from him scribbling his confession to show that he’d had one last necrophiliac orgy by digging up Grandpa and Mom and Dad and arranging them in loving tableau around him. [RE: Speaking of ICK ICK ICK.] As much loving tableau as their much-rotted remains could manage, anyhow. Come on, as is, Faulkner’s “Rose for Emily” gives us bigger shock of a closing image.
So I don’t love this “Dead.” I did enjoy reading about Howard and C. M.’s friendship, however, especially the rambles they took together in search of ghoulish inspiration. The most famous was their hunt for the Dark Swamp of northern Rhode Island. This Gloucester wetland had a bad reputation for swallowing up those foolish enough to venture under its lowering trees. The practical said it was drowning got the missing. The more superstitious whispered of a beast or demon that haunted the murky water and feasted on hapless wanderers. Howard and C.M. were eager to hunt down the Swamp monster but never quite made it to the cursed place. Too much stopping for contradictory directions, it seems.
For a fun account of their adventure, see this Stone Wings “field report“.
“The Loved Dead” is one of those weird ones where I think the language is awesome—not great art, mind you, but awesome—but the story itself… Where’s my necromancy, that’s what I want to know. Normally when Howard tells me a character’s great-great-uncle-twice-removed was burned for illicit messing around with the laws of nature, I expect to eventually encounter things man was not meant to know. Interplanetary tours personally guided by Nyarlathotep, ancestors revived through human sacrifice, that sort of thing. An angsty goth serial killer with a purple prose habit is kind of a letdown.
I suppose, stretching assumptions, one could make a case that our ennui-afflicted narrator is driven to mass murder by an unnatural supernatural hunger, perhaps an inheritance from his magically minded ancestor. Clearly that’s what he wants us to think—even at the end, he’s trying to romanticize his nasty habits and fit them into some sort of dramatic narrative. But serial killers are prone to this sort of thing, and there’s frankly no textual evidence, aside from Lovecraft’s name in the byline, to suggest Goth Boy isn’t as banal as the next evil twit.
We’ve met these wannabe heirs of Byron in the reread before—though usually paired up. The couple in “The Hound” claim grave-robbing, and doing unspeakable things with the bodies, their most dreadfullest violation of taboo, so one assumes they never made it down the list to murder before getting offed themselves. Similarly the narrator from “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood” loves at least one dead guy who loves him back. This week’s killer has something in common with those guys—other than being bored, bored, Mom I’m so bored—and I hate to break it to him, but we don’t call that habit necromancy.
“Loved Dead” comes relatively early in Lovecraft’s career, after he’d written several impressive stories but not yet any of his serious Mythosian masterpieces. This one feels like an experiment that doesn’t stretch far enough: the places where it draws on his previous work aren’t highlights, and the new things it tries aren’t sufficient to excite my attention. And I am, if picky, at least easier to please than our narrator.
The language, as I said, is the story’s main pleasure: lushly absurd in its whiny glory. “My heart gave a sudden leap of unholy glee, and pounded against my ribs with demoniacal force as if to free itself from the confining walls of my frail frame. Wild, wanton, soul-satisfying sensuality engulfed me.” You can practically see him flinging out his hands, hurling crumpled poems at the audience. [AMP: Hey, wait—do you think Howard and C. M. were sitting on the couch giggling madly while thumbing through the thesaurus to concoct this story?][RE: Yes. Yes, I do, and I would go to that party.]
Then there’s the ending. I guess you might be able to write romantically dreadful descriptions of hell while bleeding out. It’s almost certainly easier than trying to do so while fleeing a giant fish monster or getting eaten by primally evil dogs. But one can’t help suspecting, in this case, that our narrator actually wrote his imaginative final paragraph first, just to make sure he got it right. I imagine that the cops in fact got there while he was working on his third draft. “Damn straight you can write no more, you’re under arrest.”
Anyway, I kept wishing the Criminal Minds opening teaser would finish up, so we could cut to Penelope Garcia tracking him down. [AMP: I wanted Dexter to find him before the cops, because only the serial killers of serial killers should administer justice to serial killers. Ooh, ooh, mash-up: Dexter pursuing CULTIST serial killers, meets Elder Gods, discovers wild, wanton soul-satisfying sensuality in Their demoniacal embrace. I’ll stop now.]
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,” is now available from Macmillan’s Tor.com imprint. 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 young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.