The Lovecraft Reread

We Interrupt This Haunting for a Public Service Announcement: Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “The House and the Brain”

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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 Part I of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain,” first published Blackwood’s Magazine in 1859. Spoilers ahead.

“Fancy! since we last met I have discovered a haunted house in the midst of London.”

Summary

Unnamed narrator is a gentleman interested in phenomena that the less philosophically-minded might call supernatural. Silly people—nothing can be beyond Nature. There’s only nature we don’t yet understand. Like, say, hauntings.

Narrator’s friend claims to have rented a haunted house, for all of three days. That was as long as he and his wife could stand, for neither could pass a certain unfurnished room without nameless terror. The housekeeper shrugged when they left early. They had outstayed most tenants. Only she can stand the “haunters,” for she knew them of old and would join them one day soon.

Intrigued, narrator finds the house—it’s in a respectable neighborhood and appears sound, but no one answers his knock. A passing boy tells him the woman who lived there has recently died, strangled in bed by the devil! Narrator scoffs and goes to the house’s owner, who says he may stay there free. No one else will, and every person who tries tells a different tale about its terrors.

Doubly intrigued, intrepid narrator settles in with his equally intrepid servant and dog. The dog immediately wants out; master and man explore unperturbed by pattering footsteps, small naked footprints and self-moving chairs. They do get a chill from the unfurnished room, the door of which self-closes and locks, trapping them in a strangely “venomous” atmosphere for a while before self-opening again. A pale light-phantom leads them to a garret bedroom, evidently the dead housekeeper’s, where narrator finds two old letters. Something tries to take them away but fails.

Tucked into the best bedroom for the night, servant in an adjoining room, dog still trembling, narrator reads the letters. They hint at dark secrets between a young wife and her sea-faring husband. Narrator’s watch disappears. Three knocks sound. The dog rises in a frenzy of fear. Moments later the servant hurries in whispering “Run, run! it is after me!” He rushes from the house. Narrator stays, because he after all is a rational philosopher who knows that any “supernatural” wonder must be caused by a human agent via constitutional mesmeric abilities, perhaps at a great distance via a material fluid you might call electrical or Odic, so there.

Nevertheless, it’s with horror he confronts a Dark Presence like a giant human shadow. It opposes his will and seems to drain all light from the room. Frantic, narrator throws open the shutters, admitting faint moonlight. The Shadow withdraws to the wall. Other phantoms appear. An old woman’s hand recaptures the letters. A young woman and her lover, dressed in outmoded finery, die bloody deaths in the Shadow’s embrace. Another female phantom stands over a corpse and a shrinking child, the face of a drowned man leering over her shoulder. The Shadow engulfs them. It grows “malignant, serpent eyes.” Darting many-colored bubbles break open like eggs, releasing “larvae… things transparent, supple, agile, chasing each other, devouring each other; forms like nought ever beheld by the naked eye.” Invisible hands close on Narrator’s throat, and the Shadow looms over all, its Will one of “intense, creative, working evil.” Narrator must deny fear and oppose the Will with his own!

Evidently he succeeds, for the phantoms vanish. All is back to normal, except for the dog. It’s dead, neck broken.

Narrator returns home, to find his intrepid servant gone to Australia. Narrator goes to the house’s owner with a theory. Some human mesmerist must be projecting his dreams into the place, raising the soulless eidolons of the dead we call ghosts, even affecting material objects like narrator’s now-useless watch. The focus appears to be the unfurnished room, which the owner should demolish.

Owner agrees. Workmen tear up the floor, revealing a trapdoor into a hidden study. In its iron safe are such odd bottles and equipment as an alchemist might have used, and the miniature portrait of an infamous magician who dazzled London a century past, before fleeing after the murder of his mistress and her lover. Could they be the bloody phantoms narrator saw? Could the others have been the recently dead housekeeper and her long-dead piratical husband, who together killed her brother and young nephew for their fortune?

Also in the safe is a crystal saucer filled with clear liquid, on which floats a spinning needle. Lifting the saucer, narrator gets a shock and drops it, destroying the apparatus. The house quakes, then stills.

Inscribed in a tablet found under the saucer is this curse: “On all that it can reach within these walls, sentient or inanimate, living or dead, as moves the needle, so work my will! Accursed be the house, and restless be the dwellers therein.”

The house’s owner burns the tablet and razes the hidden study. From then on, “a quieter, better-conditioned house could not be found in all London,” and the landlord, if not any of the dead, gets a happy ending.

What’s Cyclopean: The shapes taken by the ghost are “unsubstantial, impalpable,–simulacra, phantasms”. Yes, all at once, and yes, that’s the original punctuation.

The Degenerate Dutch: Englishmen are of course the most fearless heroes—and servants are permitted to be nearly as fearless as their masters.

Mythos Making: Bulwer-Lytton’s universe is friendlier to humans than Lovecraft’s, but there are hints: “Opposed to my will was another will, as far superior to its strength as storm, fire, and shark are superior in material force to the force of man.”

Libronomicon: Macauley’s Essays are a fine antidote to eerie experience: healthful in style and practical in subject. Paracelsus is not a good antidote. You probably can get hallucinatory images from the burned dust of a flower, but it has to be a particular sort of flower.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Narrator’s servant makes the mistake of fearing the ghost (as opposed to merely dreading it), and afterwards does nothing but start and tremble, so that he has to run away to Australia.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Yes, that Bulwer-Lytton. “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” There are bits like that in this week’s story too, equally mock-worthy and equally effective in context. Lytton’s writing is meant to be read aloud, a pleasant diversion around the fire in the evening while mother sews and the kids finish up their chores.

So we know, going in, that Lytton’s a prose stylist after (or before) Lovecraft’s own heart. Indeed, of all the pre-Lovecraft stories, this may be the one most obviously tailored to Howie’s narrative kinks. First there’s our narrator: a Man of Action of the sort Howard greatly admired and never did manage to become. Better yet, he’s blatantly boastful about the relationship between his fearless nature and his Anglo ancestry. He has an adoringly loyal and faintly homoerotic servant, a spear carrier worthy of his master but not ultimately quite as fearless.

The fearlessness turns out to be both plot-relevant and an important device for the story’s horror. When Green Lantern starts explaining the fine gradations of disquiet and dread that he experiences in spite of his iron-clad will, you can appreciate that the house really must be disquieting and dreadful. So when the homoerotic servant flees the country to get away from it, we don’t just assume that he’s overreacting. (Although considering that most people are content to flee the house, I do kind of wonder how much his “gay spirits” in the face of danger had been previously tested.)

Lovecraft would also have loved Narrator’s determination to find a scientific, human explanation for the haunting—he, too, grounds his horrific hauntings in the laws of nature (though not necessarily in human agency). Bulwer-Lytton doesn’t take this nearly so far as Lovecraft, though. In his hands, the adequacy of scientific explanation is reassuring. Nothing’s truly outside natural law, and all is ultimately the domain of either deific or human agency. For Lovecraft, if all horror can be explained by natural law, then the obvious inference is that natural law is horrific.

Bulwer-Lytton’s scientific explanation, mind you, has… not aged well. Or perhaps it’s aged beautifully. You all can have your ether-ships; mesmerism is my favorite discredited scientific framework. In case you missed it, Franz Mesmer’s work was to biology and psychology what alchemy was to chemistry: wildly wrong in a way that set the groundwork for a century and counting of more accurate research on the nature of the universe. I’m currently in a different state from my copy of Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment, so I’ll try to sum up in a way that isn’t itself wildly wrong: magnets do everything. Mesmer’s followers bathed in magnetic baths, wore magnetic jewelry—and swore that careful manipulation of magnets could, well, mesmerize people. This was long before the age of working fMRI and transcranial magnetic stimulation, but the power of suggestion on a willing mind is not inconsiderable. The power of suggestion to provide plot bunnies for popular fiction is likewise impressive.

One of these days I’m gonna write the great steampunk mesmerism story, see if I don’t.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, like the narrator of this week’s story, was well-versed in the dark arts–well, at least in theory. According to Robert Lee Wolff (Strange Stories and Other Explorations in Victorian Fiction, 1971): “Bulwer’s active studies of the occult began in the early 1830s, and became increasingly important to him as the years went by. Astrology, alchemy, mesmerism, clairvoyance, hypnotism, spiritualism, and magic: he investigated them all at first hand, and wrote about them all.” In Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft calls “The House and the Brain” “one of the best short haunted-house tales ever written.” He also speaks well of Zanoni, a novel that would interest Howard, given its introduction of a vast unknown sphere of being pressing on our own world and guarded by a horrible ‘Dweller of the Threshold’ who haunts anyone who tries to enter and fails.” Shades of three-lobed burning eyes that haunt the dark!

An unknown sphere apparently presses against the best bedroom in our current haunted house and spews prismatic, erratically dancing spheres that eventually hatch into transparent larvae. Little brothers, I suppose, of the larval Outer Gods that float through interplanetary space and paw disconcertingly at passersby like Randolph Carter. Also cousins of my own rift efts, which flock in great if (usually) unseen profusion in the Miskatonic University Library archives. Very cool, Lord Lytton!

On the title controversy, if there is one, I prefer “The House and the Brain” to “The Haunted and the Haunters” because the two words jar with seeming incongruity. What’s a brain got to do with a house? For me it conjured the image of a house sitting on top of a giant brain, kind of like that giant elbow under the Shunned House, but much ickier. And eventually we do come to realize that Bulwer-Lytton’s haunted house is indeed the product of a brain. One particular brain, of exceptional power and exceptional evil.

“House/Brain” delivers plenty of the best haunting tropes, like a room that terrifies for no reason, phantom footsteps and footprints, animals more sensitive to the preternatural than humans, objects moving of their own accord, cold spots, near-ear murmurings, both vague and well-defined phantoms, sinister backstory, and secret rooms full of clues, right down to a miniature portrait of the central malefactor! You could get a whole season of Ghost Hunters out of this story—we even have the much sought-after “shadow person” or dark apparition. For me, the Shadow or Darkness that orchestrates a spectral pageant for narrator is the scariest bit. Especially after it develops those serpent-eyes. Oh yeah, intrepid narrator, you better admit that spooked even you into a scream and dash for the window.

And, oh, narrator. You did get to be annoying with that stiff-upper-lip, pseudoscientific rationalist sangfroid of yours. Actually, I’d have considered leaving the house as soon as poor Fido evinced a urge to go for a walk, NOW. I would certainly have considered bugging out after being shut in the unfurnished room. But once intrepid servant ran for it? I bet I could have beaten him to the door. Not narrator, though. He’s all, huh, the bravest guy I know has fled. My dog’s positively rabid with terror. I’ve already seen enough to know this house isn’t fooling around. Let me just sit down and read my book for a while. Because supernatural stuff is just natural stuff we don’t understand yet, and besides, there’s always a human medium behind weird goings-on. Because mesmerism. At a distance, even. Nothing to worry about.

Until the Shadow comes, with its malign and indomitable WILL.

Which WILL, we learn, represents that of a certain magician who put a really nasty pseudoscientific magneto-aetheric-astrological curse on the house after he caught his girlfriend messing around with a well-dressed man and inadvertently/on purpose killed them both. His portrait calls to mind Joseph Curwen’s, except with the serpentine malevolence heightened by the artist rather than normalized away.

Speaking of Curwen, the only reason I can forgive Narrator for his epically long-winded denouement to the house’s owner is because he blathers about Paracelsus and creating the “spectrum” of an organism out of its burnt dust. Also speaking of Curwen –

We’ve suggested reading the Gutenberg version of “House and the Brain” because it ends before narrator goes off on a veritable Hurricane Irma of long-winded “philosophizing.” Paragraph upon paragraph of it, and paragraphs of unforgivable length! This truncated version works better as a short story, I think, especially as a haunted-house short story, happy ending division. Its closing breaks the curse and restores order to the immediate world. Superlative order, in fact, since the formerly troubled manse becomes London’s nicest rental.

What follows in the “extended cut” reads like an afterthought on Bulwer-Lytton’s part, or an after-brainstorm. The question that occurred to me after reading may have occurred to him: Oh, damn. If “supernatural” phenomena must be the product of a living brain, then whose living brain powers my haunted house? That magician guy must be long dead. Wait! Unless—he isn’t!

Which produces a coda in which narrator happens to see the living subject of that portrait, down to the commanding serpent eyes. He sits down with the preternaturally long-lived magician and explains to him how he must be a preternaturally long-lived magician if not immortal because WILL. Evil egotistical will. Naturally magician recognizes narrator as THE ONE whom magician’s been waiting for, a one-time prophet to read magician’s future! Which ends up with magician somehow both destroying and saving the world before he perishes at the claws of polar bears!

Well, read the extended cut for yourself if you dare.

 

Next week, experience a different sort of haunting in Bram Stoker’s “The Judge’s House.” RATS and MATH TOMES—what could be nicer?

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots (available July 2018). Her 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.” 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.

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