March 26, 2016 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
This story first appeared in 1959’s The Shuttered Room, which collected much of Lovecraft’s juvenilia, essays about Lovecraft from authors like Derleth, Robert Bloch, Donal Wandrei, and Lin Carter, some personal remembrance of HPL by Alfred Galpin and Dorothy C. Walter, plus a few bits of random poetry, a copy of Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book, and (for some reason) “The Strange High House in the Mist“.
Unlike some of the other entries in this series, there is an audio version of the story, as read by Allen Kent.
There is also a (wisely) unfaithful film adaptation from 1967 with Oliver Reed, Gig Young, and Carol Lynley.
We are back in Dunwich (not for the last time in Derleth), this time our protagonist is Abner Whateley… yes, one of the Dunwich Whateleys, but of a different branch than his cousin Wilbur and his kin. He has inherited the property and papers of his grandfather Luther, including an old mill, long turned over for residential use of Luther Whateley’s family. Abner, as a youth, had visited Dunwich and stayed with his grandfather in the great, run-down old mill on the Miskatonic, in the shadow of Round Mountain, and recalls those stays with an ill-defined sense of dread. Perhaps it was due to the unwholesome atmosphere of Dunwich. (Cue the whippoorwills) Perhaps it was due to the cold and stern personality of his grandfather. More likely it had something to do with the fact that ol’ grandpa Luther kept his daughter Sarah (or in the story’s pervasively used rustic vernacular Sarey) locked in a room in the mill, windows shuttered, never to be seen or spoken to. Yeah… let’s got with that one.
Sarah’s shuttered room is indeed the eponymous one of the story’s title; I dare call it Chekov’s shuttered room. Abner, selected to inherit his grandfather’s estate in part because he had, unlike Luther’s other relations, seen something of the world and had, as stated in a letter left by his grandfather “sufficient learning to permit you to look upon all things with an inquiring mind ridden neither by the superstition of ignorance nor the superstition of science.” Oh, and grandpa also instructs Abner to demolish the mill house and, should he encounter any living thing within the house… say a tiny frog-like monster… to kill it. (Cue the croaking of frogs)Abner is another of Derleth’s savant idiot protagonists, who elects to unpack his car a bit, then to go and take a look at the shuttered room his grandfather had expressly warned him of, both as a boy and in his final letter. Wanting to air our the long-sealed room and relieve it and battered furniture within of its “odd, icthyic smell”, he opens a few windows, knocking out the old wooden shuttered that had been nailed shut decades earlier. Soon after doing this, and breaking on pane of glass out of the window just over the mill-wheel, Abner spots a “long-legged frog” scuttling under a bureau. That can’t be important, oh no.
Abner endeavors to fulfill the general instructions left by Grandfather Luther, and heading into Dunwich proper, where he encounters some very suspicious locals. Upon returning to the mill Abner discovers his Great-Uncle Zebulon has come to call upon him, seeking to inquire his business in Dunwich as well as to provide some ominous warnings of how their family suffers under a curse as well as some clumsy exposition, touching on both “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. Yes, I said Innsmouth, as we learn that Aunt Sarah was locked up, before Abner’s birth, shortly after returning from a visit with her relations in Innsmouth, the notorious Marsh family (Obed Marsh being Zebulon and Luther’s great uncle). He hints that something terrible happened to her there and he should search his grandfather’s papers for more information.
After Zebulon’s departure, Abner does some perfunctory inspections of the property; most ominously he discovers a pair of suspicious wet footprints on the old wooden water wheel… like those of a small frog. A search of the shuttered room reveals they were matched by two trails of prints in and out of the broken window, the returning prints far larger than those heading outwards… weird webbed prints, unlike anything in nature, save humankind.
Unable to find any Dunwich locals willing to demolish the old mill, Abner travels the next day to Aylesbury (I note that Grandfather Luther’s inheritance was held at a bank in Arkham; I suppose Dunwich’s unlikely bank from “Wentworth’s Day” has gone bust or been forgotten by Derleth). Like any contractors, they won’t be able to start right away, but would get to work “in a week or ten days”. Left with time to kill, Abner settles in to study his grandfather’s papers, including a set of letters between Luther and his cousin Ariah who apparently lived near (or perhaps even in) Innsmouth.
(At this point I should digress and note that precise dating of the events in this story are unclear. Here are some facts that might help us narrow down a timeline here:
- Obed Marsh, great uncle of Zebulon and Luther Marsh; The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia gives his date of death as 1878 and notes that he began his South Sea trade as early as 1820. So we can assume that Obed Marsh died in his 80s
- Luther and Zebulon are one generation younger than Obed, so they’re in (or were in) their 80s,
- Wilbur Whateley, whom Abner describes as his cousin, was born in 1913; since he is described as having attended some of the world’s finest universities (I know, I was surprised to learn this myself!) he’s probably in his 30s at least, but we don’t know how close or far apart the cousins were in age. We do know that the events of the Dunwich Horror have already happened and are still fresh in people’s memories.
- As for Sarah and her sister’s ages – if we assume Abner is born in say 1900, his mother would likely be at least 18 then, so we can presume an 1880 birthday, meaning that Luther would have already been in his 40s when Abner was born.
That all being said, I think we can surmise this story was set at some point in in the early to mid 1930s, though Derleth doesn’t provide a lot of clues as to the date.)
What Abner learns is this: a nutshell version of the central revelation of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” – even old Zadok Allen appears to gather his eye-gouging colloquial spellings while he may… Ultimately we learn that Sarah, possibly against her will, participated in some of the deep one rites while in Innsmouth and, we can easily infer, returned to Dunwich pregnant with her cousin Ralsa’s child. This resulted, unsurprisingly, in much tension on the family, and Luther eventually locked his daughter and son-to-be-grandson into one room of the house. I was struck by the lack of comment in the story regarding the incestuous nature of this pairing- maybe if you’ve already heard about deep ones – and cousin Ariah seems rather blithe about them – sleeping with your cousin seems far less disturbing.
A cryptic journal (in Luther’s hand) continues the long block of expository text, this time supplemented with newspaper clippings. Sarah’s son, ‘mysteriously’ named “R” was on a the prowl, escapes from his confinement, and into the larger world, where be goes from petty vandalism to full-bore cannibal-monster attacks on the local livestock and, a short time later, humans. Eventually the thing is lured back into the shuttered room, at which point the stoutest locks are put on the door, the shutters nailed shut, etc. etc. Sarah continue to care for the child, who is apparently sustained on a restrictive diet of raw meat, fed just enough to keep it alive but no so much that it will not grow too large to be contained…
Wait, didn’t I mention that before? Deep Ones are apparently immortal, even when starved, and will instead of dying of hunger, just get smaller and smaller, presumably metabolizing their own tissues until you end up with a pocket-sized batrachian pal. It is as dumb as it sounds, I agree.
The rest of our tale is Abner’s account of cousin Ralsa’s (we can assume that is its name, yes) increasingly catastrophic romp across greater Dunwich. Grammatically flawed threats are scribbled, panicked calls are overhead on party-line phones, and lives are lost. At last, our narrator catches the horror back in its old prison and hurtles a kerosene lantern at it, setting it and eventually the whole mill ablaze. Yes, the creature cries out in its final moments, to “Mama-mama–ma-aa-ma-aa-ma-ah!” rather than “Ffffather!” but, come on Auggie. Ugh.
(Oh, and Abner drives off into the night shrieking in horror after seeing Ralsa forces him to accept the reality of its existence, making him the last person in a ten-mile radius to acknowledge this fact. Did I mention he’s a scholar of occult South Seas lore? I must have forgotten, just like Derleth. He also name checks Cthulhu despite never having mentioned old Squiddy at any point in the story previously.)
Lovecraft Country Content
I’d have to do a very thorough check through both Escape from Innsmouth and Return to Dunwich (aka H.P. Lovecraft’s Dunwich) to see which NPCs find their origins here. As far as I know, most of the Dunwich crew is lifted… err… borrowed from “The Dunwich Horror”; Ralsa Marsh however, seems to have originated here, and his description in Escape from Innsmouth fits what little we learn of him here.
As for issues of geography, we learn nothing new about Dunwich save for the old Whateley mill, which think had some influences on the mills to be found in Return to Dunwich.
This story is clearly the inspiration for the scenario “The Crawford House” (from Escape from Innsmouth, 2nd Ed) which reuses the story’s central reveal to far better effect. I would suspect Kevin Ross is a better horror writer than Mr. Derleth.
Derleth’s lack of imagination is on full display here, as he simply plays mix and match with elements from two or Lovecraft’s better known stories – like, to use a Simpsons reference, a lobster stuffed with a taco. The whole thing was a rambling rehash of a story Lovecraft had already done better, twice. Aside from the obvious use in highlighting the Lovecraftian elements, why have this set in Dunwich? It added nothing to the story save for causing me eye strain due to incessant rolling it inspired. Setting it elsewhere, even if you kept the Innsmouth angle, would have made for a better take on the story and perhaps obscured the obvious and unsubtle parallels with “The Dunwich Horror”. Linking the Whateleys and the Marsh family is, to put it bluntly, a crude cash-in on other parts of Lovecraft. It also make me wonder if Derleth didn’t quite realize how the deep one taint worked – there are a few hints that Abner might have some deep one taint within, such as his interests in Polynesia or his lengthy aquatic nightmare after arriving in Dunwich. Unless Abner’s unnamed father had some deep one blood, there shouldn’t be any taint in the Whateley line, at least not from deep ones, as Obed’s oceanic antics didn’t start until the mid 19th century. If you really just want to blend the two stories, at least have Abner discover he was actually Ralsa Junior’s twin or something.
On the plus side, Abner never got around to compiling Grandpa Luther’s books, so no lengthy Mythos booklist this week. I count that as a win.
“Oh come on, Augie!”
“It is my wish that a least the mill section of this house be destroyed. let it be taken apart, board by board. If anything in it lives, I adjure you kill it. No matter how small it may be. No matter what form it may have, for if it seems to you human it will beguile you and endanger your life and God know how many others…”
How like Grandfather! thought Abner…
Coming Next… “The Fisherman of Falcon Point”!