The Lovecraft Reread

Cribbage and Elder Gods: Manly Wade Wellman’s “The Terrible Parchment”

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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.

This week, we’re reading Manly Wade Wellman’s “The Terrible Parchment,” first published in the August 1937 issue of Weird Tales. (Note that there are several places where you can ostensibly read it online; all have serious errors in the text. We found it in The Second Cthulhu Mythos Megapack.) Spoilers ahead.

“After all, we’re not living in a weird tale, you know.”

Summary

Unnamed narrator’s wife Gwen has an odd encounter at the front door of their apartment building. A “funny old man” pops up with a stack of magazines, including Weird Tales. As narrator’s a fan, she buys it for him. It must be an advance copy, though, since it’s not yet the usual publication date.

A sheet of parchment falls from the magazine. Both reach for it, then recoil from the yellowed and limp page. It feels clammy, wet, dank. They examine the parchment and find that it retains the impression of scales, as if made from reptile skin. The faint scribbling on it looks to be in Arabic. Narrator suggests they get “Kline” to decipher it, but first Gwen points out the apparent title: a single word in ancient Greek, which she transliterates as “Necronomicon.”

Narrator infodumps that the Necronomicon is Lovecraft’s fictional grimoire, featured in many of his stories and in those of his circle. The supposed work of supposedly mad sorcerer Abdul Alhazred, it’s become a cult object among weird fiction fans, a modern legend. So what is the parchment, a sort of April Fool’s joke for WT readers?

But look: Now the last line of characters is written in fresh, dark ink, and the language is Latin! She translates: “Chant out the spell, and give me life again.” Too strange—they better just play some cribbage. (Not that real geeks ever react to terrifying events by retreating into board games.)

While they’re playing, the parchment falls from narrator’s desk; when he picks it up, it seems to wriggle in his fingers. The weight of an ashtray isn’t enough to confine it—it slides out from under, and now the last two lines are changed. Both are in English now; the penultimate one reads: “Many minds and many wishes give substance to the worship of Cthulhu.”

Gwen hypothesizes that this means so many people have thought about Lovecraft’s creations that they’ve actually given them substance! And the language on the parchment keeps changing to make it easier to read.

Much too weird—let’s go to bed. Narrator confines the parchment in his big dictionary until Kline can consult on the mystery.

Sleep long evades the couple. Narrator dozes off at last, but Gwen wakes him. He hears what she’s heard: a stealthy rustle. He turns on the light, and out in the parlor they see the parchment escaping from its dictionary-prison, limply flowing from between the leaves like “a trickle of fluid filth.” It drops to the floor with a “fleshy slap” and creeps towards the bedroom as if on legs—think a sheet of paper draped over a turtle’s back.

While Gwen cowers, narrator steels himself to defend her. He gets up, sees the parchment hunch over the bedroom threshold like “a very flat and loathly worm.” He throws a water glass. The parchment dodges, then almost scampers toward narrator’s bare toes. He seizes the only available weapon, Gwen’s parasol, and pins it to the floor. Stooping, he sees that all the writing’s changed to freshly-inked English, and he reads the first line…

Many times since he’s yearned to speak that line, but he’s resisted the urge. The words form too dreadful, too inhuman, a thought! To say them aloud would initiate the end of man’s world! Narrator reads no more. The squirming parchment scrap must indeed be the result of Lovecraft’s fancy, created or invoked by his readers’ imaginations. Now it serves as “a slender but fearsome peg on which terror, creeping over the borderland from its own forbidding realm, [can] hang itself” and “grow tangible, solid, potent.”

Don’t read the writing, narrator raves at Gwen. Remember what she’s read already, about chanting the spell and giving something life.

The parchment frees itself and climbs narrator’s leg. It must mean to drape itself over his face and force its “unspeakable message” into his mind, compelling him to summon Cthulhu and his fellow horrors.

He dashes the parchment into a metal wastebasket and seizes his cigarette lighter. The other papers in the basket ignite under its flame; from the midst of the conflagration comes the “throbbing squeak” of the parchment, “like the voice of a bat far away.” The thing thrashes in agony but doesn’t burn. Narrator despairs.

But Gwen scrambles to the phone and calls the neighborhood priest. Father O’Neal hurries over with holy water—at its “first spatter, the unhallowed page and its prodigious gospel of wickedness vanished into a fluff of ashes.”

Narrator gives thanks every day for the defeat of the parchment. Yet his mind’s troubled by a question Gwen asked: “What if the holy water had not worked?”

What’s Cyclopean: The parchment is dank.

The Degenerate Dutch: Narrator’s wife takes on the role of damsel-in-distress, hiding behind the pajamaed hero, from any pulp cover. (To the modern reader, the fact that she needs to gamble playfully with her husband for spending money may be nearly as creepy as the titular parchment.)

Mythos Making: Make too much Mythos, this story suggests, and something may hitch a parasitic ride on that new-formed legend. Wellman calls out Lovecraft and Smith and Bloch as creators of the hazardous tales. (Translator Kline, however, is no relation to weird fiction author T.E.D. Klein, born a decade later.)

Libronomicon: Watch out for off-schedule issues of Weird Tales. And self-translating advertising inserts with excerpts from the Necronomicon.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Insomnia seems like an entirely fair reaction to sharing an apartment with an animate summoning spell.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Well, that was a roller-coaster. We start with what looks like a fun story in the spirit of “The Space-Eaters,” but more lighthearted and humorous—the sort of thing likely to end in the affectionate fictional murder of at least one Weird Tales author, with fond-yet-sharp portrayals along the way, maybe a nice game of Spot the Reference. And then the parchment-thing starts crawling up his leg for a forced read-aloud—ahhhh, no! Actually creepy! And then, much like Space-Eaters, things take a sudden left turn into the Proto-Derlethian heresy. Ahhhh, no! But at least this time there’s no sentimental blather about why the holy water works—it just… works.

I would have sorta liked to see the scene where they explain the demonic possession of their wastebasket to the local priest, though. Then again, given his emergency-response speed, maybe he’s used to it.

Either that or it’s his fifth call of the night. A much better question than What if the holy water hadn’t worked?—who cares? It did!—is Hey, what happened to the rest of the ‘armful’ of magazines the ‘funny old man’ was carrying? Did he distribute face-eating Necronomicon pages to the whole block, or is this a “choose and perish” situation? If you’re expecting a copy of Family Circle, will you end up with one of the terrifying children from our last few posts, or will you still get the instructions for Dial-a-Cthulhu?

But I’ll forgive a lot for the amusing opening and genuinely disturbing middle bit, and a nightmarish image that I had not previously considered. I will now not wander around my messy room before bed, double-checking the texture of every character sheet that I’ve failed to put away. I’m sure they’re all fine.

What’s particularly nice is that the animation of the page is in service of, rather than replacing, the things that are already scary about a summoning spell. We’re all compulsive readers, right? So a thing that, if you read it, leads to deadly peril, is a natural (or unnatural) nemesis. This one even pays attention, and makes itself more readable over time, like Google Translate for unholy rites. Then there’s that first line—like so many secrets man was not meant to know, something that can’t be unseen. Something that urges itself to be read aloud, or written, to release the pressure of being the only one who knows—but again, if you do, deadly peril.

Some people can’t resist. The King in Yellow particularly lends itself to sharing, while some people do better than others with the Lost Tablets of the Gods. Lovecraft’s protagonists inevitably write things down, to be read by second- and third-hand reporters and then shared with dire warnings in the pages of, yep, Weird Tales.

“Lovecraft Was Right” stories vary in their success—I like this one because it suggests less that HPL had some sort of line on horrifying cosmic truth, and more that the creation of a mythos always makes cracks for Something to get in. It could happen every time a legend takes off, and the Things coming through merely parasitize the newly-created stories. Was Cthulhu—by that name, tentacles and all—waiting for someone to introduce Him to humanity for 25 cents? Maybe not. Was some entity, for the sake of being Called, willing to answer Cthulhu’s recently-assigned number? Absolutely.

Many minds, and many wishes, give substance. So be careful what you wish—and worse, be careful what you read.

 

Anne’s Commentary

My sense of humor must have been in PAUSE mode when I first read “The Terrible Parchment.” Either that or Wellman keeps so straight a face throughout that he tricked me into taking his story seriously. It was probably some of each, my momentary tone-deafness and Wellman’s tone-deftness. We wanted to jump back into the deep end of the Mythos pool this week, and hell if we didn’t. “Parchment” swarms as thick with Mythosian tropes as a dry-season Amazonian pond with piranhas—piranhas whose starved hunger is so exaggerated that it’s funny as well as terrifying. Funny, that is, unless you’re the poor slob who’s fallen into the pond, and which of us would be so incautious as to buy a copy of Weird Tales from some sketchy street vendor?

Nope, Bob Chambers has taught us the dangers of reading just any literature that happens to drop into our laps. And M. R. James has warned us never to accept items “helpfully” returned by strangers, at least not without immediately inspecting them for scraps of cryptically inscribed paper. Or parchment, which is worse, being made from the skins of animals rather than relatively innocuous plant fiber. Parchment generally comes from goats, sheep and cows (or their young, in which case it’s called vellum, a fancier word-substrate.) Wellman ups the creep-factor of his parchment by giving it scale-patterning, hence a reptilian derivation. I like to think his parchment’s made from the skin of anthropomorphic serpents, like Robert E. Howard’s Valusians or the denizens of Lovecraft’s Nameless City. That would double the creep-factor by bringing in the trope-ic notion of humanodermic writing material.

I think I made “humanodermic” up—at least Google doesn’t recognize it. So much the better, because May is Neologism Month, right?

Wellman, who wrote in many of the “pulp” or popular genres, is best known for his “John the Balladeer” tales, which feature an Appalachian minstrel and woodsman who fights supernatural crime with his silver-stringed guitar. Is “Parchment” his only contribution to the Mythos? I can’t think of another—please relieve my ignorance if you can, guys!

In any case, “Parchment” packs in enough tropes to satisfy any Golden Age pulpeteer’s mandatory Mythosian requirement. Because Wellman delivers the story with forked-tongue-in-cheek gravitas, I was initially annoyed by the overabundance of Lovecraftisms. We start off with the standard unnamed narrator who’s suddenly confronted by cosmic horrors. The joke is that they come to him via his devotion to the iconic Weird Tales, a pulp to which Wellman frequently contributed. The “vector” is the standard nefarious stranger, here a “funny old man” distributing untimely mags with extras. It appears this guy doesn’t brandish his wares at random—he’s after readers already immersed in, well, weird tales, and he knows who they are, and whom they’re married to, and where they live. His targets are exactly those readers and writers who’ve brought Cthulhu and Company and All Their Accessories to life by an obsession with Lovecraft’s fictional universe, in which they’ve become co-creators, potential co-keys to a dimension of beings inimical to man.

Wife Gwen plays several trope-ic roles. She’s the associate of the narrator who gets him involved in a Mythosian crisis—the vector’s vector. She also takes on the scholar-professor role, conveniently filling in gaps in the narrator’s knowledge. She translates Greek and Latin; she’s conversant in standard mythologies, like that of the chthonic gods; she takes the lead in speculation—it’s Gwen who suggests that the joint-confabulation of Lovecraft’s circle and readers has given form to the parchment and to preexistent alien entities. Later she lapses into the role of helpless fainting female but quickly recovers when protector-male narrator fails to protect adequately—it’s Gwen who calls in priestly assistance, and who knows to tell Father O’Neal to bring holy water. [RE: I’m guessing folklore studies professor?]

Help me again, guys. Is August Derleth’s “Return of Hastur” (WT, 1939) the first substantial manifestation of his “evil Elder Gods vs. good Elder Gods” heresy? If so, Wellman’s “Parchment” (WT, 1937) anticipates that approach to defeating Lovecraft’s monsters, only with a full-on Christian remedy: Holy water as Elder Sign. Or maybe Wellman is nodding to Long’s “Space-Eaters” (1928), in which the Sign of the Cross defeats eldritch horrors?

Side note: I don’t know about whether religious paraphernalia can ever daunt Cthulhu and Company, but I’m pretty sure that cribbage won’t. Really, guys? You come across an impossibly mobile and mutable ancient parchment, and your response is to shrug and play cards?

Anyhow, Gwen’s holy water works. Or does it? Since the “funny old man” had a bunch of magazines under his arm, narrator wasn’t the only WT reader he meant to gift with a loyalty bonus. Even less should we suppose that all such bonus recipients would have wives as capable as Gwen or neighborhood priests as willing to trot over with holy water in the middle of the night for ill-defined mystic emergencies.

Oh, last tasty trope, the parchment itself, a living text. Grimoires like the Necronomicon are often described as feeling too warm or skin-textured or otherwise animate to be inanimate objects. Wellman outdoes the competition with some unforgettable images, both horrific and absurd, the best being how the parchment plods along like a turtle draped in brown paper. It can also slither like a snake and scamper like a lizard, all the cool reptilian things.

Its full-grown descendant must be Hagrid’s Monster Book of Monsters. I’d like to see holy water put that tome down.

 

Next week, we’ll meet a different—maybe more traditional—sort of predator in Amanda Downum’s “The Tenderness of Jackals.” You can find it in Lovecraft Unbound.

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is 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.

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