The Lovecraft Reread

Let Me Tell You About My Dream: H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Very Old Folk”

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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 H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Very Old Folk,” first appearing as a letter to Donald Wandrei on November 3 1927, and first published in the Summer 1940 issue of Scienti-Snaps. Spoilers ahead.

“For many nights there had been a hollow drumming on the hills, and at last the ædile Tib. Annæus Stilpo (half native in blood) had sent to Balbutius at Calagurris for a cohort to stamp out the Sabbath on the terrible night.”

Summary

This story is epistolary because, well, it’s a letter. A real nonfictional letter, from Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, whom he addresses as “Melmoth,” bedeviled immortal wanderer of Charles Maturin’s Gothic classic. Lovecraft’s been reading a new-to-him translation of the Aeneid. That and certain “spectral thoughts incident to [the recent] All Hallows’ Eve with its Witch-Sabbaths on the hills” must have caused him to dream the sort of “Roman” fantasia he hasn’t experienced since his youthful slumbering jaunts with “the Divine Julius all over Gallia.”

He goes on to describe the dream in great and atmospheric detail. He finds himself in the time of the late republic, in Rome-colonized Hispania, the provincial town of Pompelo at the foot of the Pyrenees. The townspeople—Roman and native and hybrid alike—have been uneasy for some weeks, fearing the night before the Kalends of November (modern November 1), for that is when the very old folk of the hills will conduct terrible rites upon the peaks.

These very old folk speak an unintelligible choppy language, transacting infrequent trades with lowland merchants via gestures. Before their spring and fall ceremonies, townsfolk always disappear, never to return. Even so, the native farmers and shepherds don’t seem ill-disposed towards the very old folk and may even take an observer’s role in the Sabbath revels.

This particular fall the town lives in deeper dread than ever, for no disappearances have occurred. Three of the little traders died recently in a market brawl—do the very old folk mean to avenge them by raining wholesale doom on Pompelo?

In the dream Lovecraft sees himself as quaestor (treasurer/auditor) L. Caelius Rufus, an expert in “black forbidden lore.” He persuades proconsul (governor) Scribonius Libo to heed Pompelo’s pleas and send part of the XIIth Legion to apprehend the dangerous hill folk. The military bigwigs Asellius and Balbutius protest but are overruled, and the whole lot of prestigious Romans sets off with the Legion into the hills, under the ominous sunset, to the incessant beating of the very old folk’s drums.

The wooded banks up which they march become so steep they must leave their horses behind. Before long the horses begin to scream. Their local guide seizes a sword and kills himself in terror. The air grows cold. Fires blaze on the hilltops above them, and huge wings beat, and against the Milky Way and the familiar stars leap colossal forms of nameless beasts. As the icy wind coils deliberately around the soldiers, each begins “struggling and screaming in the dark, as if acting out the fate of Laocoon and his sons.”

Only proconsul Libo goes out speaking polished if stuttering Latin, like the noble old Roman he is: “Malitiavetus—malitiavetusest…venit…tandem venit…”

That’s “Wickedness of old—it’s the wickedness of old…come…come at last…”

And this is when Lovecraft wakes up. Whoa, his most vivid dream in years! He’ll surely spin some fiction out of it one day. Oh, and Pompelo? The doomed Romans must have saved it, because encyclopedias claim that Pompelo has survived to this day as the modern Spanish city of Pompelona.

What’s Cyclopean: “Titanic adumbrations of hidden horror,” really, Howard?

The Degenerate Dutch: The representatives of the very old folk are “yellow” and “squint-eyed.” And look like Scythians, of course.

Mythos Making: Arkham and its surrounding towns are also prone to terrible rituals in the hills, summoning terrible shadowy forces—most notably, though not exclusively, in “The Dunwich Horror.”

Libronomicon: The framing letter mentions Lovecraft’s “recent perusal of James Rhoades’ Aeneid, a translation never before read by me, and more faithful to P. Maro than any other versified version I have ever seen—including that of my late uncle Dr. Clark, which did not attain publication.”

Madness Takes Its Toll: No madness this week—everyone gets strangled by shadows before they have any real chance to react.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

“It was only a dream” is notoriously a terrible way to end a story. Oddly, it works much better as a way to begin one. It’s the intrigue of the framing: why not just tell the story as a story? Why does it matter that the speaker, in particular, had this dream? What does it tell us about him? And this dream, so linear and detailed and part of larger patterns—is it really only a dream?

The framing in this case is made more interesting because this letter, to “Melmoth” from “C. Julius Verus Maximinus” and ostensibly a simple letter from one modern Romanaphile to another, is actually a letter, or part of a letter, from H.P. Lovecraft to fellow author and eventual Arkham House co-founder Donald Wandrei. My admittedly limited search turns up no greater detail on the circumstances of this missive. Was Lovecraft simply one of those fortunate people whose dreams spring forth publishable plot? Is the story part of a longer epistolary game, in which Melmoth and Caesar Maximinus are characters? Are Lovecraft’s excessively strong opinions about the notorious Emperor Heliogabalus merely the passion of a young Anglophile in love with the old Empire, or part of the story?

There are at least hints, in the framing sequence (which I can’t help interpreting as, if not purely fictional, at least unreliable), of letter writers who are themselves “very old,” recalling long-ago youth or past lives. After all, Lovecraft (possibly a wee bit in character) expresses real concern for the fate of the town of Pompelo.

Nor does the mention of the “cursed little Syrian rat” seem entirely coincidental. Heliogabalus was castigated for, among other things, attempting to replace Jupiter in Rome’s pantheon with his own preferred deity, and introducing dreadful and salacious rites among the reluctant nobility. The dream offers that threat’s reflection: rather than new gods forced into the Empire’s heart, old gods waiting hungrily in the borderland shadows.

Slight as the story is, it works better than much of Lovecraft’s juvenilia. Part of this is retroactive effect—because Lovecraft ultimately focused on contemporary settings in his familiar New England, it reads less like an outline of stories-to-be-written-later than, say, “The Book.” Nevertheless, the bones are familiar: an amorphous threat to the light of civilization (in this case, literally), growing less amorphous as the narrator gets closer, and that he’s ultimately unable to prevent.

One way “The Very Old Folk” differs notably from later work is the focus on political argument. The protagonist of the dream (separate from the protagonist of the letter) is immersed in legionary politics and not afraid to stand up to power. The dynamics are intriguing even if his arguments, obsessed with the expansion of empire and the precise bloodlines of every group involved, hew close to Lovecraft’s own politics. Soldiers counsel inaction because they don’t want to antagonize the majority population of (yellow, squint-eyed, foreign, abomination-worshipping) outsiders skulking in the hills, while our hero of course insists on defending the smaller group who choose to live amid the enlightenment of Roman civilization. Hmmm. Perhaps what I should take from this week’s selection is gratitude that Lovecraft’s later narrators (unlike, say, Heinlein’s) aren’t prone to argumentative diatribes on the author’s own views—he saves that for his correspondence.

 

Anne’s Commentary

A Warning to the Smugly Sleep-Privileged: This blogger has (1) not had near enough sleep in several days and [B] drunk so much caffeine she is now immune to said stimulant. Therefore, {x} her frontal lobes have imploded, causing catastrophic loss of impulse control. There’s no knowing what she may write below.

Somebody either wrote or said or maybe sent by Morse code that if you get famous enough, you can publish your grocery list for big bucks, or critical acclaim, or at least academic attention from those desperate for a thesis topic. You want to know what would have been on Lovecraft’s dream grocery list? Ice cream, in wholesale quantities. But more on that below.

Grocery lists and other incidental scribblings aside, we’re most certainly fascinated by any writing directly peripheral to an author’s core work: notes or letters or journals, outlines, edited manuscripts. Casually—or not so casually—recorded dreams…

In this letter, Lovecraft chats about a dream he had last night. Right? I guess so. To me it reads more like a story synopsis. Not, in this case, for immediate presentation to an editor, but put down with enough atmospheric detail and stylistic panache to entice Lovecraft himself into coming back to it sometime. As it happened (and as we’ll see next week), it wasn’t Lovecraft but Frank Belknap Long who came back to the dream of this particular hill horror, borrowing it a few years later with its originator’s permission. [RE: Not next week after all—it’s longer than I realized and my schedule is an abomination right now. We’ll get to it later, promise.]

Hey, but wait! Donald Wandrei got the letter! Shouldn’t he have had first world fanboy rights to the dream-story? Chill, oh ye children of the Internet Age. These were the halcyon days of the early Lovecraft circle. November 3, 1927 is the date of the “Very Old Folk” letter. Howard was 37. Donald was just 19. I’m not sure which came first, Donald’s 1927 trip east or the letter. The trip was a true odyssey—the just-fledging writer hitching from Minnesota to Rhode Island to meet Lovecraft and tour Providence, Salem, Boston, Marblehead. Then there was the side trip to Warren, Rhode Island, and an ice cream parlor where Howard and Donald sampled twenty-eight flavors each. Twenty-eight! A veritable frozen confectionary debauch!

Now, Howard, let’s talk. Why are you coming down so hard on poor Varius Avitus Bassianus? So what if he was the Ziggy Stardust of the 3rd century? After twenty-eight flavors of ice-cream, anyone could have profited from a little aerobic dancing around statues of sun gods way older than Jupiter, clad only in gauzy scarves and rose petals.

You learn crazy stuff on Wikipedia. Like, the Spanish noun “heliogabalo” means “a person overwhelmed by gluttony.” Just saying. Probably because of that frontal lobe implosion. Sensuality takes many forms, but it WILL out.

Last, the vivid dream question. I open the floor to our readers. I understand there really are lucid dreamers, people who can remember a great deal of what happens in their nightly mental travels. I can believe that Lovecraft was one of them, a Randolph Carter fit to quest after Unknown Kadath. But do such lucky souls really recall the names and ranks and descriptions of every character in a given dream, down to such bit players as subcenturio D. Vibulanus? Every detail of the setting and topography? Every jab and parry of a long and contentious argument between bureaucrats and military officers? Every star blotted out by monstrous wings and nameless leapers?

If I had a dream like this, here’s how I’d probably remember it: See, there’s these Roman guys, you know, I Claudius days, I don’t know, in Spain or somewhere, and there’s these mountain cultist guys, and the town’s freaking out because big fall ceremony’s coming up. So Roman guys go up into the hills to clean cultist guys out, and it’s really cool, fires and drums, horses screaming which is always bad right, and then monsters cruise in and old Roman guy I don’t know some kind of Senator guy says “Wickedness of old’s come, come at last.” And I woke up, which pissed me off, just when it was getting really good.

I would remember a wonderful atmosphere of slow sunset and thickening dread and drums like accelerating heartbeats, but I wouldn’t be able to describe it without “trying.” I definitely wouldn’t remember names. I would remember that one big line at the end, though not in Latin, I don’t think.

So I guess I’m calling Howard out on a strictly unvarnished recounting of his dream. Not that there’s anything wrong with him embellishing it with the addition of well-chosen Roman names and titles and paraphernalia and locations. That he mentions encyclopedias re the modern name for Pompelo suggests he may have checked those reference tomes for other things as well. Doesn’t matter. It obviously was a kicker of a dream, one of the great and powerful night-visions that linger, drawing as Lovecraft writes to Wandrei, “upon wells of the subconscious long untouched and forgotten.”

 

Next week, we’ll read Marc Laidlaw’s “Leng.” It’s about a mycological expedition in Tibet—what could possibly go wrong? You can find it in Lovecraft Unbound.

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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