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 Algernon Blackwood’s “The Man Who Found Out,” first published in the December 1912 issue of The Canadian Magazine. Spoilers ahead.
“Here, in all the homely, friendly turmoil of a Charing Cross crowd, a curious feeling of cold passed over his heart, touching his life with icy finger, so that he actually trembled and felt afraid.”
In Professor Mark Ebor is found that rarest of combinations, the esteemed scientist and the earnest mystic. His contributions to biology are great, his “optimistic, stimulating little books” published under the pen-name “Pilgrim” eagerly awaited. Only his publishers and his assistant Dr. Laidlaw know the scientist and visionary are one and the same. Laidlaw respects his mentor’s “real” achievements but struggles to understand his fascination for the supernatural. Where on earth, or beyond, can Professor Ebor’s strange-bedfellow powers of logic and “illumination” lead him?
Often Ebor speaks of a dream that has haunted him from youth. In it he wanders through an unknown desert to find the lost Tablets of the Gods—to find them, to decipher them, to give their great knowledge to the world. Must not God’s messengers have stored for His creatures in some far-off age the secrets of the world, of the soul, of the meaning of life and death, of our destiny in the ultimate fullness of things?
After such enthusiastic outbursts, Laidlaw smiles with a mix of sympathy and resignation and blandly remarks that the papers do call “Pilgrim” an “Apostle of Hope.”
Ah, Ebor replies. If only he could find the Tablets and justify their hopes.
One summer the Professor travels to Chaldea to search for his dream scriptures. Laidlaw meets him on his return nine months later and is immediately chilled by the profound change in his mentor. Cheerfulness and optimism have vanished, leaving a face like a death mask. When Ebor speaks of finding and deciphering the Tablets of the Gods, his voice rings like iron, with “profound despair, the bloom of outer darkness, the dead sound of a hopeless soul freezing in the utter cold of space.” Ebor has brought the indestructible tablets back with him. But Laidlaw may not see them, nor the translation, not until after Ebor has died. Nor may he ever refer to the subject again, nor speak of it to another person.
Over the next two years Laidlaw watches Ebor’s inexorable decline. It’s not that the Professor neglects his health or that his mental powers fail, but that he’s received a spiritual trauma that might be called a terminal Loss of Hope. With no incentive to work, no desire to learn, Ebor closes his laboratory and puts down his pen. To no one, not even Laidlaw, does he offer explanation or lament, but goes straight forward to a quiet end. Laidlaw is with him when it comes and catches his last words: “Read them if you must; and if you can—destroy. But—but—never, never—give them to the world.”
A month after Ebor’s funeral, Laidlaw ponders the old-fashioned traveling desk that the Professor bequeathed to him, along with its mysterious contents. His friend expected to find a glorious message in the Tablets; instead he found—or imagined he found, for Laidlaw still suspects delusion—secrets so terrible as to rob his heart of courage and his soul of hope. Laidlaw’s curiosity drives him to unlock the desk. Yet his hand trembles, and he hears phantom laughter behind him. Nervous tension only! He turns the key, withdraws two plaques of gray stone (or metal?) marked either with natural weathering or half-obliterated hieroglyphics. With them is a sealed envelope marked “Translation” in Ebor’s hand. So here’s the secret to it all, Laidlaw mocks. Yet he hesitates, tears the envelope open, and reads the one close-written page within.
Laidlaw pales, shakes, gasps. A second reading makes him redden with rage. He controls his fury and moves with deliberation to burn the translation at his windowsill. Summer wind carries off the ashes. Laidlaw is a hurricane barely contained. Such tension’s unsustainable. He passes out. When he comes to, he smashes his library clock and pocket watch, saying, “There is no such thing as time!” The skeleton in his lab is also a delusion. Scriptures of the World and books by Pilgrim go out the window, for they’re “A devil’s dreams! A devil’s foolish dreams!”
Finally exhausted, Laidlaw considers self-destruction by one of the exotic swords hanging nearby, but there’s an easier way elsewhere. On his way out of the house, luckily, he meets Dr. Alexis Stephen, the hypnotist. Ah hah! Will his friend be so good as to take Laidlaw back to his office and hypnotize him into forgetting the last two hours? Into forgetting them until he, Laidlaw, dies? Ask nothing about it. Know only that Laidlaw has recently discovered something so obvious he can’t understand why it isn’t patent to everyone in the world. Yet it’s so terrible no one must know what it is.
So great is the anguish in his voice that Stephen agrees to the strange request.
The hypnosis is successful. Restored to cheerfulness, Laidlaw returns home. His housekeeper greets him with the awful news that mad burglars have made a mess in his rooms, breaking timepieces and tossing books and scattering ashes. Very strange, Laidlaw agrees but no catastrophe. Only what are these rubbishy slabs of stone the brutes have left on his writing table?
Oh well, throw them on the dust heap and good riddance….
What’s Cyclopean: This week’s selection gets its power from words omitted, even more than the vocabulary included.
The Degenerate Dutch: The press and public are convinced that “Pilgrim” is a woman, sanguine spiritual optimism apparently being an ineluctably feminine quality.
Mythos Making: No elder gods, no vistas of Leng or R’lyeh—but the wrong bit of knowledge will fill your mind with “the bloom of outer darkness” and the conviction that everything you value is an illusion.
Libronomicon: Professor Ebor, under his alias of “Pilgrim,” writes a brilliant and much-loved series of spiritual treatises—whatever their accuracy turns out to be, “thousands bore their daily burdens better for having read.”
Madness Takes Its Toll: The secrets of the universe drive Professor Ebor to anhedonic depression, which Laidlaw mistakes for dementia, and then drive Laidlaw to mocking fury.
There are things man was not meant to know. Prudent deities, therefore, would be well advised to not write those things down. However—given that a vicious or uncaring deity might well decide to leave such a record for purposes of their own—prudent men-who-find-out might be well-advised to not leave mind-breaking translations lying around for their assistants. Then again, if your mind’s just been broken by incontrovertible universal truths, I suppose you might not think of that.
Blackwood, at least, is a prudent author topping off that stack of horrific revelation. Lovecraft, over the course of his stories, provided significant chunks of text from the Necronomicon and its ilk—though not, fortunately, from the civilization-destroying Pnakotic Manuscript. Chambers rarely gives us more than a paragraph from The King in Yellow, a dose that’s probably safe. Blackwood avoids the trap of sharing the actual revelation that breaks Ebor and Laidlaw. Instead he hints, he implies, he skirts the edges. The story’s creepier for never letting us close enough to question the existential reactions of those who do “find out.”
What, exactly, is it that Ebor finds? I don’t mean what’s the obvious secret that, once revealed, breaks his will to live? I mean, are these in fact the Tablets he was looking for? He was dead wrong in his optimism about how awesome it would be to find them, after all. Is he simply wrong about the loving nature of the Great Creator? Or is he wrong about whether said Creator is actually the source of the tablets—or whether they actually represent the Meaning of Life? Any number of trickster entities or foul-minded mages might be placing Horrible Undeniable Ideas, willy-nilly in the paths of pop culture spiritual guides. Imagine Nyarlathotep penning nasty missives tailored to every author in the New Age section.
That’d be a reassuring solution for the reader, who would probably rather not accept time and also skeletons as vile hoaxes. Lovecraft would chuckle at such self-delusion. Though Ebor’s revelation seems to be something worse than mere cosmic horror. The basic tenets of an uncaring universe and human triviality are readily available to all already. Perhaps the magic is in the primal language’s ability to make you believe it—but then Laidlaw has a similar reaction to reading the translation, while the tablets themselves merely earn a rueful observation of illegibility. Perhaps there is, contra Lovecraft, a real purpose to existence, just one too horrible to contemplate sanely.
Compelling questions, that perhaps don’t bear too close consideration. After several weeks of deadly monsters, I do appreciate Blackwood’s more cerebral creepiness. For me, at least, it’s more terrifying. Everyone has to die some time: eaten by mermaids or dissected by Mi-Go hunters or leeched off by delicate parasites or replaced by well-meaning collective organisms. If you’re lucky, you die believing that your existence had purpose, hoping that your life’s work gave something meaningful to others. Ebor loses that. Laidlaw nearly does, regaining only a tenuous illusion. And that slim protection may break when he needs it most. Having taken advantage of Powerful-Yet-Literal Narrative Hypnosis, he probably should have picked his words more carefully. Asking to forget “until my death,” I suspect, permits an extremely unpleasant last-minute recollection.
From what we’ve Reread so far, Blackwood’s characters are always stumbling across things man (or woman in Carson and Ford’s graphic “Willows”) aren’t meant to know. At least they didn’t go into the Canadian wilderness or the Danube wetlands seeking soul-blasting encounters. Professor Mark Ebor, who glows like an elder cherub with cheery optimism and unflagging faith in a Universal Benevolence, cannot claim such innocence—he goes looking for his spiritual downfall.
His pseudonym Pilgrim is well-chosen, if it evokes not well-organized tours to sanctioned sites but mystical enthusiasts wandering in quest of Holy/Holier/Holiest Grails. Good example: the Pilgrims who so couldn’t deal with the Church of England that they preferred the rigors of an untamed continent. Sure, they and the other Puritans eventually settled down and got all staid and established themselves, because that’s what religions do. That’s what secures the power of the hierophants. That’s what gives congregations the peace of mind that can only come from simple rules and the promise of heaven for us and the threat of hell for those people over there that we don’t like.
But those bona fide Pilgrims and Puritans, they were dangerous. They insisted on personal responsibility for a spiritual destiny that was preordained. You were born saved or damned, but you better live your life like you were saved. Not that it would save you if you weren’t, but maybe by journeying through the stages of a saved life to the final (yes!) illumination, you’d reveal your bad saved self! Or not. You never know.
Pretty scary. Maybe some version of Puritan theology is what Ebor puzzled out of his Tablets. Cosmic predestination, with the Blind Bubbling Idiot flipping a sloppy pseudopod up or down whenever an entity was conceived in any universe It had sloppily budded out.
I think that would be enough to harsh Professor Ebor’s bliss.
Never mind what he found out, though. The important (damning) thing is that he did find it out, and that he looked for it.
It’s a hallmark of speculative and weird fiction, the character who looks for things best left unfound. Many times this character is malevolent, egotistical, avaricious, callously intellectual, or thrill-seeking. Many times he or she is simply curious, just in the wrong place, wrong time. Many times he or she is trying to solve a crime, rescue a friend, stop a madman, save the world from eldritch apocalypse. See the graph-curve of motivation there, from the deeply diabolical to the high heroic?
Professor Ebor must fall somewhere on the high curve, if only because his intentions are so damn good. Pilgrim’s proto-New Age books do no small public service by giving comfort to multitudes in their daily struggles. Ebor aspires to do so much more once he wrests from the Tablets the answers to All the Problems of the World. He won’t keep the great knowledge to himself! He’ll give it to all, freely!
Blackwood subtitles his story “A Nightmare.” Was it truly one he had, as imperiously vivid as Lovecraft’s “Nyarlathotep”? I’d subtitle it a tragedy, where Ebor’s concerned. In the end, the only heroism he can show is to keep the hope-killing horror of TRUTH to himself, to bottle it up tight while it poisons him unto death.
Why, if it’s so crucial to suppress the TRUTH, doesn’t Ebor destroy his translation of the Tablets? It’s not indestructible, as Laidlaw proves. Why risk his closest friend’s sanity by leaving the TRUTH in his hands?
Either there’s a flaw in Ebor’s heroism, otherwise so carefully built-up, or there’s a flaw in the story webbing. I’m going with the story here, because that web has another even bigger hole in it.
Ruthanna’s already pointed out one problem with Laidlaw’s hypnosis cure for cosmic paradigm upheaval—that “until his death” might not be quite long enough to prevent perimortem horrors. I think that asking for a mere two-hour memory gap isn’t nearly long enough. Laidlaw won’t remember what he read in Ebor’s translation, or even that he did read it, but he’ll remember all about Ebor’s quest for the Tablets, Ebor’s trip to Chaldea, how it left him soul shattered, how Ebor would leave the Tablets and translation to Laidlaw, how Ebor’s last whispered words to him were to destroy the Tablets if he could but at least to never give them to the world. There right in front of him on his return from Stephen’s house would be Ebor’s old desk and, presumably, the paper in which the Tablets had been wrapped and the envelope in which the translation had been sealed. And would he be so quick to dismiss the Tablets themselves as burglar-junk? Come on, Laidlaw. You must have had Tablets at the forefront of your brain for a while now, and there were two tablet-y things on your table, next to Ebor’s open desk. You’d blithely toss on the dust-heap what Ebor implored you never to give to the world?
The Tablets ending up on the dust-heap triggers the irony Blackwood’s long been loading for his climax, but its kickback rips hell out of the story fabric, I’m afraid. Laidlaw forgets too much, too soon. Forgetting, he gets off too easy for his part in the “finding out.”
Continuing the theme of explorers whose reach exceeds their grasp, next week we’ll keep going until we get to to E.F. Benson’s “The Man Who Went Too Far.”
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.