Derleth Country #2 – The Gable Window3
March 11, 2016 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
(Sorry for the accidental posting an incomplete draft of this entry a few hours ago. I forgot to account for my time zone being set incorrectly in WordPress. My apologies!)
This week’s story is “The Gable Window” which first appeared in (the short lived) Saturn magazine’s July 1957 issue, where it was entitled “The Murky Glass”. Like our previous story it was collected in Arkham House’s The Survivor and Others and frequently anthologized (and if you want to see exactly where, click the link above). Chris Jarocha-Ernst suggests (quite plausibly) that the story was inspired by the Commonplace book entry 118:
Something seen at oriel window of forbidden room in ancient manor house.
Our narrator, Fred Akeley, inherits the home of his late cousin, Wilbur Akeley (Miskatonic University class of 1914 is my inference but others disagree), “a student of archaeology and anthropology”, and world traveler, who died a few months previously. For the curious, Wilbur’s six years abroad included visits to “Mongolia, Tibet, and Sinkiang Province” and “South and Central America, and the southwestern part of the United States”. Dead of an apparent heart attack whilst doing research in the Miskatonic University stacks in January of 1924, he left the whole of his estate to his cousin Fred, who had visited him occasionally at his reclusive Lovecraft Country home. Our barely described narrator moves into the rebuilt farmhouse in the April of 1924, noting Wilbur’s many changes to the house, especially the addition of a great circular window of cloudy glass, the “gable window”/”murky glass” of the story’s two titles. Wilbur’s papers offered no explanation for this addition, but curiously mention that it was constructed from “the glass from Leng… possibly Hyadean in origins”. I wonder what the R or U value of the window is…
Fred finds the whole place unnerving, especially the room with the gable window, experiencing a great and inexplicable unease at times in the house, sometimes hearing odd scratching or other animals sounds (“hoof beats… the tramping of some gigantic animal… the twittering of birds… the slithering of some vast body… or the sucking sound of lips or suckers”) from inside the house, sounds whose origin could never be determined. Like any useful idiot in a horror movie, Fred assumes it might be a stray cat, formerly cared for by his late cousin. Eventually he discovers the source of the sound is the odd window, admitting even that “it would have been a remarkable cat indeed” to somehow reach that high window from the outside. Perhaps for reasons of symmetry, Fred is given a cat by a maiden aunt to keep him company and, on cue, the reacts with terror every time odd sounds are heard and scrupulously avoid the room with the gable window. The cat plays no further role in the story.
At this point Fred find an unfinished letter from his cousin with instructions for the disposal of his papers and library after his death – he knew he was in poor health and intended this as a supplement to his will. Fred is told to destroy certain papers, donate specific books to the Miskatonic University library, and to smash the gable window. Of course instead of following these instructions – replacing that giant window would be expensive after all, Fred complains – he takes this as an opportunity to inspect the books. What he discovers (detailed in my comments below) is a bumper collection of Mythos tomes, including Medieval manuscripts, books purloined from the Biblioteque Nationale, and some given to Wilbur from his cousin, once removed, Henry Akeley of Vermont, because of course they’re related.
Fred, like Derleth himself, inexplicably summarizes these books as detailing “the old credo of the force of light against the force of darkness”, saying the difference between “God and the Devil” and “Elder Gods and Ancient Ones” is one of name and not nature. Among Wilbur’s papers intended to be burned are sketches of numerous hideous creatures and a diary kept by Wilbur of scenes he had somehow witnessed of alien oddities in places on Earth and distant and unknown realms (many of which draw specific details from earlier Cthulhu Mythos tales). Wilbur’s notes reveal he has been using the supernatural gable window to view remote places, apparently as part of his study of the Mythos. Unnervingly, Wilbur discovered that the viewing window works both ways, and some of the entities he was watching were watching him as well – at one point a horrible koala-faced desert monster lurched towards the window, causing Wilbur to break the enchanted star used as part of the ritual. Despite breaking the connection, he afterwards discovered dozens of bats, of the same sort he had seen alongside the wizened creature, had infiltrated the house. Fred, after reading this, packs up Wilbur’s books and papers and ships them off to MU and, I presume, goes back to reading a jumbo Archie collection.
Then we reach the climax of the tale when Fred, for reasons that are poorly explained beyond “curiosity”, decides to replicate the viewing ritual described in Wilbur’s notes. He creates the chalk pentagram (having noticed the rug was actually covering a spot in the floor perfect for such things), says the magic words (on this point see my comments below) and peers into the dreaded ‘Glass from Leng’. Apparently Derleth’s protagonists have an irresistible need to try out magical rituals they find in moldering tomes in spooky old houses, as this happened in our last story as well. The gable window suddenly becomes clear, allowing him to view the scene of the American southwest described by Wilbur as an “arid country, a land of sandy rocks, of desert vegetation… caverns, and, in the background, snowcapped mountains”. Oh, and there are those “terrifying” koala-faced creatures.
The beings – Wilbur dubbed them “sand-dwellers” – are not alone this time, as they seem to be being driven from their usual subterranean haunt by a strange entity:
[A]n incredible monster… at first a probing tentacle, then another, and presently half a dozen cautiously exploring the cave’s mouth… an eldritch head showed dimly. Then in thrust forth… the face was a ghastly travesty on everything civilised; it rose from a neckless body which was a mass of jelly-like flesh, rubbery to the eye, and the tentacles which adorned it took rise from that area of the creature’s body which was either its lower jaw or what passed for a neck.
The tentacled beast (which as far as I know hasn’t been used in any Call of Cthulhu scenario or even been given statistics for use) then rushed towards Fred who, though for a moment paralyzed with fear, comes to his senses just in time to break the ritual chalk pentagram, at the very moment as the entity reaches the “window”. At this point our narrator faints, the last sound he hears being the shattering of glass. When he awakens, Fred discovers himself alone, save for the shattered glass of the gable window and… (as ever in italics):
[T]he cut tentacle, ten feet in length, which had been caught between dimensions when the door had been shut against that monstrous body to which it belonged.
Lovecraft Country Content
This is the first of several Derleth stories set at some nebulous point along the Aylesbury Pike, which I suspect was a convenient way to anchor the story in the traditional Lovecraft Country setting without having to worry about providing any actual setting specifics. In the case of “The Gable Window” all we learn of Akeley’s house is it is “isolat[ed] in a pocket of hills off the Aylesbury Pike”. Since we might assume he would mention Dunwich if that blighted village was close by we can assume this is either close in to Aylebsury (though unmentioned) or somewhere far enough east of Dunwich to not merit mentioning the town and yet west of Groton, give or take, where Massachusetts hills begin. If I had to put it somewhere along the Pike as I outlined its hypothetical course in the demo issue of the Arkham Gazette, I’d suggest we located it west of Coldwater Falls, south of the Pike, perhaps somewhere in the general vicinity of Mayotteville. To be frank, this story is slight enough that I wouldn’t feel obliged to include it in any future Lovecraft Country works.
The house was formerly the owned by the Wharton family; they were farmers and the grandson of the home’s builder had sold it then relocated to “the seaside city of Kingston”, which was possibly meant to be Kingsport but as there is no further description (and the fact there is a port called Kingston in Plymouth County, MA as well as North and South Kingstown in Rhode Island) we cannot be sure, a point of uncertainly I highlighted in my Kingsport bibliography.
The narrator does discuss his donation of Wilbur Akeley’s expansive occult library (see Comments below for specifics) to Miskatonic University’s library – a close reading of Arkham Unveiled finds none of Akeley’s works included in the MU collection, restricted or otherwise, though 2005’s Miskatonic University source book mentions that Wilbur Akeley is rumored to have been felled by the Orne Library’s supposed ghost (p. 18). The book also provides some biographical details (p. 189) that do not match up to many of the details provided in “The Gable Window” – Wilbur is said to have been 86 at the time of his death, making his familial link to his “father’s cousin” Henry Akeley problematic at best, and Fred’s gifted cat from a maiden aunt no less improbable. Akeley is also said to have been a resident of Maine, where he had lived after his globe-trotting research was ended by a crippling blow from a Congolese spear in 1892.
I wonder if Sam Johnson was solely drawing upon the brief mention of Akeley in Joan C. Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonicii (p. 10-11) and its discussion of the growth of the MU library’s “restricted” book collection and was otherwise unaware of this story. Among other notes in Stanley’s highly enjoyable pseudo-document we learn that Akeley donated two modern version of the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan (one French, the other Russian) printed in Shanghai c. 1920 (the story notes there were no books newer than 1850 in Wilbur’s selected donations); his Cultes des goules is said to have been printed in February 1666; De Vermis Mysteriis is described an an incunabula edition from 1499; the Book of Eibon is described as a Medieval French manuscript from c. 1350.
I fear some may think I’m just doing this series to beat up on Derleth, but like last week’s tale, this one left me unimpressed – perhaps more so as at least “Wentworth’s Day” had a hint of dread about it. Fred, as a protagonist, left much to be desired. There is no characterization, no personality, nothing beyond being a vehicle to move the plot forward. He was a cipher, and a boring one at that, whose obtuse obliviousness made him something less than sympathetic, even as Derleth tried to ratchet up the menace of the dreadful window. He continually encounters all manner of clues pointing to something terrible and supernatural going on, but he perpetually attempts to explain them away in a manner that was more tedious than rational. Additionally, the sights Wilbur recorded in his “window diary” suggest the limited nature of Derleth’s imagination. Nearly all of them had some connection to either one of his stories or one of Lovecraft’s – its is almost always ‘tell’ with him rather than ‘show’. Considering the possibilities such a device might have, using it to peer at Innsmouth seems very uninspired.
I fear this sounds overly critical, but even the chant used as part of the viewing ritual needlessly cribbed from Lovecraft – “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’ nagl fhtagn“. What in the world does this Cthulhu cult chant about Dead Cthulhu have to do with Leng or the Hyades? He couldn’t just make up some gibberish?
The Call of Cthulhu Keeper in me recoiled in horror at the scope of Akeley’s Mythos library, which seems to be little more than an excuse for Derleth to name as many dread tomes he could think of, with 11 named works in all (including 2 he had invented in previous stories, noted with an * below). There isn’t a lot of subtlety in Derleth’s horror, sadly. Wilbur Whateley was content to plot out his obliteration of mankind with but a single mediocre copy of the Necronomicon – Wilbur Akeley apparently needed the occult equivalent of the Library of Congress to play voyeur to some scattered deep ones and sand dwellers. Sigh.
For the curious, here are the Mythos tomes in Wilbur Akeley’s library (with Cthulhu Mythos score and Sanity costs, asp per CoC’s 6th edition as far I could find – the Dhol Chants stats come from Arkham Unveiled as that was the first source I could find that covered them in game terms. I made certain assumptions about the editions/language of each work based on the title given by Derleth):
- the Pnakotic Manuscript (+10CM; 1d4/1d8)
- the R’lyeh Text* (+15CM; 1d8/2d8)
- Unaussprechlichen Kulten (+15CM; 1d8/2d8)
- the Book of Eibon (+11CM; 1d4/2d4)
- the Dhol Chants (+6CM; 0/1d6)
- The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan (+6CM; 1d3/1d6)
- De Vermis Mysteriis (+12CM; 1d6/2d6)
- the Celaeno Fragments* (+10CM; 1d4/1d8)
- Cultes de Goules (+12CM; 1d4/1d10)
- the Book of Dzyan (+9CM; 1d3/1d6)
- The Necronomicon(+16CM; 1d10/2d10)
- “and many others”
The grand total of Cthulhu Mythos skill points one might gain for reading all these works is 112 points (!!) with a Sanity cost ranging from -10 points to -110 points… not that it would matter as your Maximum Sanity would reach 0 before finishing your course of study. Considering the alleged rarity of these works, this collection is absurdist overkill – we get it Augie, cousin Wilbur was up to no good! Duh.
I do like Derleth’s note that Akeley’s copy of the Necronomicon is a photostat, which is a clever way explain why someone might have a copy of what is supposed to be an exremely rare book and a nice way to bring in some touch of Lovecraft’s blend of ancient horror and modern technology. I think it is a mistake for contemporary Mythos writers, RPG and fiction, to avoid addressing modernity in their work – not every dread tome has to be some leather-bound Blackletter edition, known only in three surviving copies, one of which was last seen on the Hindenburg… you get my point. (Honestly I suspect that it might be safer to keep your copy of The Book of Iod on a 5 1/4″ floppy in a .ws format, if you don’t want someone else to read it after you’ve been eaten by some tentacular horror from beyond time and space.)
Here are some other takes on this story:
- Subscribers to the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast can hear what hosts Chad and Chris thought of this particular story.
- Wilum Pugmire’s video blog entry on the work; here is part two.
“Oh come on, Augie!”
[W]hat was particularly repellent was the look of his face – for he resembled an Australian toy bear called the koala.
Oh no! A koala!!! This is the description that launched a thousand mocking laughs from Keepers and investigators alike. Someday I hope to revitalize the poor, absurd sand dweller, but not today.
(For an artistic interpretation that manages to eek out some genuine menace, see Michael Bukowski’s version on his site Yog-Blogsoth. This slightly goofier version appeared in the 5th Edition of the Call of Cthulhu rules.)
Coming next… “The Shadow Out of Space”!
Bret, I’m enjoying this series immensely. I don’t believe it can reasonably be seen as an exercise in Derleth-bashing. Credit where credit’s due, certainly…
AD did a lot to bring Lovecraft’s works to a wider audience (by dint of some fairly crass product placement at times, it has to be said) , but there’s always a sense of him Crashing Dad’s Car in his Mythos tales. This based in no small part upon either a fundamental misunderstanding of Lovecraft’s cosmology or a wilful desire to reduce it to a battle between good and evil more acceptable to his own world-view (as you’ve noted above), it essentially boils to down to the fact he is not as accomplished a writer as HPL was, lacking anything approaching the creative imagination of his hero.
Derleth left his stories to be read and assessed and the inescapable fact is that, quite frankly, a certain proportion of them aren’t terribly good – and it’s no sin to point that out. If this series is intended to cover all of his stories set in Lovecraft Country let’s see what the Turkey:Triumph ratio is by the end!
Looking forward to the next one, PB
I am currently reading Johnson’s Miskatonic University, with Harms’ Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia and Jarocha-Ernst’s bibliography beside me as guides. The Wilbur Akeley reference puzzled me. The Encyclopedia (a later edition than Johnson’s MU) does not list Wilbur Akeley at all. And the bibliography, while listing Wilbur Akeley, relates him to Ex Libris Miskatonici but not to The Gable Window. This may well be the source of Johnson’s apparent failure to realize that Wilbur Akeley’s appeared in the latter story. I thank you for tracking this down. Your articles (here and in the Arkham Gazette) are very useful.
Glad you found it useful. Thanks!