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.
This week, we’re reading Wilfred Blanch Talman and H. P. Lovecraft’s “Two Black Bottles,” first published in the August 1927 issue of Weird Tales. Spoilers ahead.
The sun, now hanging like a red ball upon the crest of the mountain, was beginning to dip low, and there, some distance ahead of me, bathed in its bloody iridescence, stood the lonely church.
Following the death of a never-met uncle, narrator Hoffman travels to Daalbergen, a “dismal little village” in the Ramapo Mountains of New York. There grocer Mark Haines describes Johannes Vanderhoof’s last years.
Vanderhoof was pastor of the village church. Ten years ago he hired sexton Abel Foster, an uncanny old man whose servile bows at the church door repulsed worshippers. He tended the churchyard well, but muttered at the graves as if speaking to their inhabitants. Foster was particularly attentive to the grave of Guilliam Slott, the church’s first pastor in 1701.
Following Foster’s arrival, the Daalbergen iron mine petered out. The remaining villagers eked livings out of farming. The church offered little comfort, for Vanderhoof bewildered the people with sermons that described “regions of hideous, unseen spirits.” Vanderhoof, gigantic in physique but timid at heart, seemed forced to these topics by “some higher power that forced him to do its will.”
Eventually Vanderhoof preached that congregation down to zero. And apparently kept preaching, unaware that the pews were deserted. Only Abel Foster remained to take care of the old pastor—but his servility changed to “demoniac and ill-concealed hatred.” Villagers shrank from his bent form; though all believed Foster was somehow the cause of Daalbergen’s hard times and Vanderhoof’s spiritual decline, none dared reproach him.
One morning Foster came to town smiling, full of perverse delight at the sad news he carried. Vanderhoof had died, and Foster buried him beside Slott. Haines sent for Hoffman, hoping the nephew could illuminate his uncle’s mysteries. Hoffman doesn’t have any insight, but is curious enough to explore. Is there time before sunset for him to walk to the church? Horrified, Haines begs Hoffman not to approach Foster at night. Unwilling to yield to the “superstitions of ignorant country folk,” Hoffman immediately strides off churchwards. The “dingy, gray parsonage” hovers “like a wraith” over fetid swamp and a dismal tunnel of willows. In the shadow of the church steeple, a white cross marks a fresh mound. In some intangible way, his uncle’s grave strikes Hoffman as living.
The parsonage is deserted. Twin glaring lights, along with the sound of drunken and obscene song, lead him to the church belfry. At the top of the stairs he finds himself in a dust-choked study full of ancient books and manuscripts, shelves of jars holding dead things—and Abel Foster, wrinkled and wild-eyed. Hoffman’s touch panics the sexton, who screams, “Go back—go back!” Once Hoffman identifies himself, Foster mumbles, “I thought ye was him. He’s been a-tryin’ to get out… sence I put him in there.”
Since Foster put Vanderhoof in his grave, that is. Every night the cross falls over, the earth loosens. Hoffman presses the terrified sexton into a chair. His nerves aren’t helped by looking out a window to see that his uncle’s cross has indeed tilted. Foster grows calmer, as if in resignation. He tells Hoffman these books and paraphernalia were originally Dominie Slott’s. Slott came from a Europe that burned black magicians, but once in Daalbergen he was careful not to get caught in his dark studies and curse-casting. Foster learned from Slott’s papers. He started casting his own curses. He bewitched weak-willed Vanderhoof into preaching strange sermons. Then, once the congregation deserted, he could do what he wanted with church and pastor!
Which was what?
Foster cackles. Why, he stole Vanderhoof’s soul and put it in a black bottle, and now the pastor’s stuck between heaven and hell, and he’s got to get his soul back to travel on! Listen, he’s pushing his way out of the ground right now, he’s that strong!
Hoffman looks to see the cross tilted further. Infected with the sexton’s terror, he asks if they can’t dig his uncle up and restore his soul. No, Foster cries, for he’s forgotten the formula, and Vanderhoof freed will kill them both.
Seeing two black bottles on a stool behind Foster, Hoffman advances. Foster sings peculiar words, making Hoffman’s vision gray. He lurches at the wizard. One bottle breaks, releasing sulfurous stink and white vapor that escapes out the window. Foster collapses, cursing: The soul in that bottle was his own, taken out by Slott two hundred years before! His body blackens, crumbles away. Hoffman feels the second bottle, which he’s seized, grow warm. He puts it down, hears sliding earth outside, flees the church. Behind he hears a roar and turns to see a “gigantic, loathsome, black shadow climbing from [his] uncle’s grave.”
Next morning he tells his story to the villagers. One old man accompanies him back to the church, where they find Vanderhoof’s grave open. In the belfry there’s a pile of yellow dust and crumpled clothes trampled with gigantic footprints. They burn the books and white cross, and fill in the empty grave.
Old wives say that when the moon’s full, the Daalbergen churchyard is haunted by a “gigantic and bewildered figure clutching a bottle and seeking some unremembered goal.”
What’s Cyclopean: We are twelve, and not over the use of “ejaculated” as a dialogue tag. It makes for a good distraction, as Lovecraft wasn’t really at the top of his adjective game for this story. The word of the day is the relatively pedestrian “uncanny,” and it appears only three times.
The Degenerate Dutch: Oh, those ignorant, superstitious rural folk. It’s so awkward how they’re always right. Also, black magic is definitely a thing that gets brought over by immigrants. Dutch immigrants. Just in case you were worried.
Mythos Making: This week’s cosmology is straightforwardly Christian.
Libronomicon: You can tell you’re in a wizard’s lair by the reading material: “old and dusty books and manuscripts—strange things that bespoke almost unbelievable age.”
Madness Takes Its Toll: Foster, terrified into drunken stupor by the likelihood of his old boss coming back for his soul, does not initially greet Hoffman with a sane gaze.
Wilfred Blanch Talman (1904-1986) met Lovecraft in New York City in 1925. Previous to their meeting, he’d sent Lovecraft a copy of his poetry collection Cloissonne, self-published while Talman was a student at Brown University. The next year Lovecraft edited “Two Black Bottles” for his new friend and correspondent; apparently his chief contribution was rendering the dialogue of the Daalbergenites into “Dutch” patois that looks a lot like Lovecraft’s own rural New England vernacular. Talman may not have liked the change, but he let it stand, and the story was published in Weird Tales in 1927. Much later (1973), he’d publish a short memoir called “The Normal Lovecraft.” I wonder what that “normal” means. That Howard was normal after all? That normally he was abnormal, eldritch, squamous, choose-your-adjective? Sufficiently intrigued to find out? You can get a copy (with bonus essays from L. Sprague de Camp and Gerry De La Ree) for around $30.
Like Lovecraft, Talman took an interest in local history, particularly that of his Dutch ancestors. No wonder then that he sets “Two Black Bottles” in an area of southeastern New York and northeastern New Jersey settled by Dutch colonists. Which I didn’t know until I searched “Ramapo Mountains”—the village name “Daalbergen” and mention of a moor had me thinking we were about to settle in for a tale of Old World weirdness. Huh, so the Ramapos are part of the Appalachians. Serendipity then struck, as I noticed an enticing entry about the region in Weird New Jersey. It opens:
For many years now there have been stories of a degenerate race of people who live an isolated existence removed from the civilized world in New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountains. As far back as the revolutionary war New Jerseyans have heard, and told, tales of a motley group of social outcasts who had taken refuge in the northeastern hills of the state and inbred to the point of mutation. The group, which has been alleged to be comprised of a mongrel hybrid of renegade Indians, escaped slaves, Hessian mercenary deserters, and West Indian prostitutes, have come to be known as the Jackson Whites.
A fascinating article on the whole, as are the comments that follow. But if this doesn’t read like the background of one of Lovecraft’s stories of rural “degeneration,” like “Dunwich Horror” and even more so the Dutch-flavored “Lurking Fear,” with a “Red Hook”-ian addition of “exotics” like Native Americans, escaped slaves and West Indians! Talman doesn’t go where Howard might have feared to tread (but couldn’t resist the temptation): His Daalbergen is homogeneously white, as far as I can tell, and not particularly degenerate for all its economic decline. Not that narrator Hoffman can forbear to sniff over the ignorance of these country folk. Who, as usual, turn out to be right about the bad guys.
To undigress. I enjoyed “Two Black Bottles” as an atmospheric and compact weird tale—Hoffman’s trip over the swamp and through the willow-tunnel, that light-devouring mountain in the background, that sunset-ensanguined church looming, was a favorite bit. Other nice details were the painting of Christ’s Temptation through which Foster glares at his reverend victim; the tilting cross; and the background character Dominie Slott, a refugee from Europe’s witch hunts. And I’m always game for necromancy. I mean, visiting old graveyards and poring over nearly-effaced tombstones is everyone’s top choice for a pleasant outing, right? Wouldn’t it be exponentially better if the dust beneath the stones could answer your muttered musings about his or her life as a “belov’d Spouse et cetera”?
I guess it would depend on the dust you’re talking to.
“Two Black Bottles” brings to mind Lovecraft’s “Terrible Old Man,” who keeps his captured souls in bottles tricked out with pendulums. It also recalls Charles Dexter Ward’s superlatively skilled necromancers. If the Essential Saltes of a person can be considered his soul, then Curwen and Friends amassed a collection rivalled only by Satan Himself. No vulgar and breakable bottles for Joseph Curwen, though. He kept his soul-Saltes in lead jars of two classic Grecian styles, one for the Custodes or guards, another for the “Materia,” a chilling term for the dead from whom he wheedled or tortured posthumous intelligence. What else can the dead supply but their memories and otherwise lost erudition? In which case, why didn’t Abel Foster know how to put a soul back in its rightful owner—couldn’t he just step out to Dominie Slott’s grave and ask his old mentor for the formula?
Slott might have told him to piss off, though. After Slott stole Foster’s soul, Foster probably killed the wizard-pastor, either as a returned corpse or a living but hollow monstrosity, immortal so long as its soul stayed bottled.
The destination of Foster’s released soul is betrayed by the sulfurous smell that accompanies it. I hope Dominie Vanderhoof’s “perfume” will be more celestial, if he’s ever lucky enough to drop and break that bottle he totes under the full moon.
May some old wife be around to witness the result!
Two years after this story’s written, and a year after it comes out, Frank Belknap Long’s fictionalized version of Lovecraft will speak dismissively of horror that relies on “tired props” like hellfire and the visceral fear of death. Given how frequently the real Lovecraft transcends such pedestrian fears, I’m tempted to blame the hellfire-ish focus of “Two Black Bottles” on Wilfred Blanch Talman. In fact, I’ll do so: Lovecraft’s not above a biblical allusion or three, but his “demon-worshippers” inevitably develop to be treating with something much weirder and more dangerous than anything found in standard cosmologies. The greater emphasis on “priest corrupted by the forces of darkness” over “ancestor corrupted by the forces of darkness,” and the complete absence of any hint that the corruption is likely to spill over to our narrator, are also most un-Lovecraft-ish.
Talman himself was part of Lovecraft’s circle, but this is the only work they collaborated on. Apparently the bulk of Lovecraft’s revision was to the Dutch dialect, which seems weird since Talman was himself a descendant of Dutch immigrants and was involved with the literary end of the New York Dutch community. (It’s not reported whether he had any opinions about Lovecraft’s opinions of that population.) Most of their relationship appears to have consisted of Talman attempting to get Lovecraft jobs that paid—everything from a travel writing gig to a hypothetical novel offer—and Lovecraft turning him down.
“Two Black Bottles” would have benefited at least as much from the addition of a few non-dualistic horrors from beyond the stars as Lovecraft would’ve from steady work with the New York Times.
The most fun I managed to get out of this story was playing spot-the-idea for concepts that play out in more interesting form elsewhere in Lovecraft’s oeuvre. The preservation of the self after death, and the fine line between preservation and imprisonment, shows up often enough to count as an obsession. Could it have been that one detail that drew Lovecraft to this manuscript? Like Dominie Slott and his circle, the Terrible Old Man keeps souls, or something like souls, in bottles. He doesn’t stop at two, either. Joseph Curwen distills great minds to their Essential Saltes, also stored in bottles; the Mi-Go stick brains in canisters instead but it pretty well amounts to the same thing. Desperate for immortality, Dr. Munoz imprisons himself in his own air-conditioned apartment. And so on, and so on. Some sorts of preservation bring benefits as well as horrors, and most depend on deals with something far more dangerous than any devil.
Claiming an inheritance from a long-lost relative is also a common Mythosian activity, but less hazardous here than usual. The situation never really gets personal. Hoffman has no fear that his uncle’s predilections, passed on through a taint of the blood, will inevitably become his own. He has no interest in claiming his uncle’s position or living quarters, nor does anyone push him into that awkward situation. He’s called in, he witnesses the bad thing, and he goes away again. “Old wives” may be disturbed by the “gigantic and bewildered figure” that stalks the graveyard at night—but that figure’s nephew, so far as we can tell, will sleep perfectly soundly.
Next week, and for a couple of posts afterwards, we’ll explore the Mythos in translation. We start with the title story from Asamatsu Ken’s Night Voices, Night Journeys anthology of Japanese Lovecraftiana (first of four anthologies in the Lairs of the Hidden Gods series). The story itself is authored by Inoue Masahiko and translated by Edward Lipsett.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. She has several stories, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, available on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Patreon, 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.