Derleth Country #8 – The Horror from the Middle Span2
April 28, 2016 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
This story was first published in Arkham House’s Travellers by Night (1967). This story was likely inspired by entry 217 in Lovecraft’s Commonplace book:
Ancient (Roman? prehistoric?) stone bridge washed away by a (sudden and curious?) storm. Something liberated which had been sealed up in the masonry of years ago. Things happen.
Derleth was not the only author to draw inspiration from this idea as Jarocha-Ernst suggests Ramsey Campbell’s stories “The Horror from the Bridge” and “The Room in the Castle” have a similar genesis. Likewise Keith Herber’s scenario “The Condemned” (from Arkham Unveiled/H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham) has its roots here as well, though I cam not sure if it is the Commonplace Book or this story that inspired Herber – the name of our villain bearing much in common with that scenario’s (among other details) strongly suggests the latter…
In your mind, relocate “The Shadow in the Attic” back to Dunwich and you’ve nearly got the whole of this story. Seriously.
Obviously I need to say a bit more, but, wow, this is a barely more than a naked retread. Our protagonist is Ambrose Bishop (again Derleth just grabs a familial name from “The Dunwich Horror”), late of London and, we can plausibly infer from the fact the story is framed as part of a manuscript found near the burning ruins of the Bishop house in Dunwich, probably late of
some other things too. He has inherited property Dunwich – I suspect there’s cottage industry of Lovecraft Country lawyers handling these transaction, considering their frequency in fiction and gaming. The house once belonged to Ambrose’s great uncle (yet another!) Septimus Bishop, who had disappeared nineteen years earlier (we eventually learn this was in 1929, thus this story is set in 1948… 11 years after HPL died!) Despite having been vacant for decades, the house has not been vandalized, or possibly even entered, by curious locals – papers and books are still laying out on tables. The only disturbance instead being a rather noxious mildew.
After finding the old Bishop house in poor repair, Ambrose ventures into Dunwich and encounters the same unfriendly reaction young Mr. Whateley encountered in “The Shuttered Room”, again the proprietor being the aged Tobias Whateley.
“Bishop?” he said in a voice that had fallen to a whisper. “Yew said, ‘Bishop’?” Then, as if to reassure himself of something beyond my knowledge he added, in a stronger voice, “There be Bishops still, hereabouts. Yew’ll likely belong to them?”
“Not likely”, I said. “My uncle was Septimus Bishop.”
At mention of the name, Whateley went a shade paler than his normal pallor. Then me made a move to sweep the articles I had bought back from the counter… “I don’t want any truck with the kin of Septimus Bishop.”
The wizened merchant tells Ambrose that no one from Dunwich has set foot on the Bishop property, not since Septimus Bishop had been murdered by his neighbors. Ambrose, as thick-headed as any of Derleth’s protagonists, assumes this superstitious “yokel” is just simply ignorant and dismisses his warnings (and mentions of others living in the Bishop house with Septimus and that “in the night we burred him and that other alive and cursed them”) as the rantings of a unlettered bumpkin, congenially opposed to anyone with an education.
Ambrose, despite saying that he disbelieved the shopkeeper’s ominous mumbling, elects to go to Arkham and see what can be learned about Great Uncle Bishop (whom he recalls from his youth as a bookish man, not given to superstition) in the pages of the Arkham Advertiser. He complains of only finding the two pieces mentioning Dunwich for the month in which Septimus disappeared:
“Nothing has been heard of Septimus Bishop, who apparently vanished from his home in the county above Dunwich ten days ago. Mr. Bishop was a recluse and a bachelor, to whom the folk of Dunwich were in the habit of ascribing many superstitious abilities, calling him at various time, a ‘healer’ and a ‘warlock.’ Mr. Bishop was a tall, spare man, aged about 57 at the time of his disappearance.”
-and the other [article was] an amusing anecdote of the strengthening of one of the piers, that supported the middle span of a disused bridge over the Miskatonic above Dunwich, evidently by private initiative, since the county in charge stoutly denied – refuting the voluble criticism directed at it for repairing a bridge no longer in use – having anything to do with it.
Nothing to see here, folks, move along…
Having made his Library Use roll and uncovering the titular “middle span” of the story, Ambrose returned to the Bishop house in Dunwich and slept. In the morning Ambrose begins cleaning the house – dusting, sweeping, and starting a large fire for the intent of
drying out the house and reducing the mildew on the stacks and stacks of books about. In the copula of the house Ambrose found a store of quiet ancient astrological and mystical texts, as well as a telescope, and marked with all manner of odd symbols. Having checked the attic, the younger Bishop hied off to the basement, finding it to be partially finished, with brick flooring and two odd doors – one was for a cistern but the other reveals a flight of stairs deeper into the earth.
The tunnel leads Ambrose into the hill the house was built into, where he finds another trap door, which leads into a maze of twisting corridors all alike. Just kidding, it leads to a circular chamber with a strange altar and odd symbols painted on to the walls. There is also a third trap door which narrative expediency… I mean caution… compels him not to open. The original tunnel ends in a concealed exit in the light woods beyond the house, towards the Miskatonic (including a nice view of that bridge mentioned above.
Young Ambrose then begins a study of his great uncle’s papers, hoping to find a diary, but instead discovers a number of ominous letters starting with this one from his friends at Starry Wisdom:
Dear Brother Bishop,
In the Name of Azathoth, by the sign of the Shining Trapezohedron, all things will be known to you when the Haunter of Dark is summoned…
The packet of letters are all dealing with esoteric magical studies on topics “all but lost since the Dark Ages” with “every kind of quack and mountebank, with self-professed wizards and renegade priests alike”. Derleth continues his tour of old Lovecraft stories with a letter to Bishop from good old Wilbur Whateley, dated January 1928. Among topics, like inviting the elder Bishop to come to Dunwich and use the Dho formula to see the “inner city at the magnetic poles” and learn “the formulas between the Yr and the Nhhngr”, Wilbur mentions he’s seen Septimus and “what walks with [him] in the guise of a woman” at a recent sabbat – what passes for the Rotary in Dunwich I fear. Oh, he also mentions that Septimus probably can’t be killed by normal means and that a certain sign is required, but that can’t be important… nope.
There are also a lot of Arkham Advertiser clippings about missing children and young people in the Dunwich area twenty years ago, including anonymous warnings that they suspected a certain neighbor of the crimes and would soon seek justice against him… and so Ambrose assumes who ever what performing these kidnappings likely too his great uncle. Of course. Then Ambrose goes for a walk, as you are wont to due in the wild and unhealthy
hills around Dunwich. He notes, in his walk, that all of the neighboring houses are abandoned and in ruins. Eventually he reaches Crary Road, which leads down to the Miskatonic River and a collapsed covered bridge the only portion of which remains intact is the… middle span. WooooohoooOOOOOO!
Despite an inexplicable interest in the crumbling stone pier beneath the ruined bridge and wondering about the odd concrete patch that left a bulge upon the base, especially two five-pointed stars there, one drawn into the concrete, the other carved into a small stone set in the concrete. Soon however, threatening storm clouds drive Ambrose back to the Bishop house. He makes it back just in time before a summer downpour washes over the whole of Dunwich – points for Derleth for using the word “freshet“.
When the day came again, Ambrose decides to inspect the ruined bridge again, discovering it wholly collapsed, including the concrete patch which seemed to have been shattered by lightning. Scattered out along one side of the river he espies a jumble of human bones in part, though some obviously not due to their curious flexibility and unknown shape. Conventiently, Ambrose finds a sack so that he might gather up the bones and take them back to the house – so he could, of course, have them turned over to the authorities in Arkham, which he oddly names as the county seat. For reasons he cannot explain, he takes them to the basement of the Bishop house and takes a break for lunch.
I come now to that portion of my account which, by any standards, is incredible.
(Trust me, I don’t find your story incredible at all, sir.)
After lunch he discovers – what a twist! – that the bones have vanished. Ambrose frantically searches for them but can find no trace of them beyond the wet sack, so he sets off for Dunwich center, hoping, I am inferring, to get some aid in tracking down the missing bones. Tobias Whateley is as friendly as ever, though he answers the younger Bishop’s questions regarding if there was a graveyard anywhere near the bridge. At this question the proprietor grows deeply concerned and correctly surmises that Ambrose has turned up some bones, forcing him from the story before hurrying off on some curious task.
Ambrose next calls upon Dunwich’s baptist church (!?), where he find the minister, Abraham Dunning. The man had come to Dunwich after Septimus Bishop’s disappearance and knows little of him, but he does provide a fragmentary account of the ‘Dunwich Horror’ of 1928. Able to learn nothing else in town, Ambrose again returns to the Bishop house where things continue to grow ever more dark.
Searching the house’s cellar for any other sign of the bones, and failing, Ambrose tries to distract himself with other matters (unspecified) but that night he is beset my terrible (and bluntly expository) dreams. In his dreams, he sees the bones reassemble into his uncle and some else –
something not of this world that constantly changed shape, and was once a thing of utter horror and then a large black cat, once a tentacled monster and then a lissome naked woman, once a giant sow and then a lean bitch running at its master’s side
Upon waking he hears strange sounds, some like slobbering others like stones grinding and rending. Rising, he spies two figures everyone but our narrator realize are Septimus and his familiar walking off into the woods. Having assured himself that this horrible thing had happened, he sleeps like a baby. (OK, that last bit is just my impression. He just goes back to sleep after seeing all that, somehow.)
In the morning Ambrose feels compelled to visit the basement again and discovers fresh footprints leading to and from the stone altar chamber, as well as fresh blood upon the altar. Returning to the house he discovers a cloaked man there, who quizzes him about who he is. Then he reveals that he is, indeed, Septimus Bishop. Upon learning this and at the sight of the “squamous thing with the face of a lovely woman” hiding behind his resurrected great uncle, he faint.
Then we jump four day into the future. Ambrose’s first issue of the Arkham Advertiser
has arrived and he is reading a story: DUNWICH DISAPPEARANCE RESUME. The story highlights how these disappearances mirror those of nearly twenty years ago. Of course. Somehow it is only now that our narrator decided to flee the house, running to his car and zooming off to Dunwich to talk, yet again, with Tobias Whateley. Whateley is even less happy to see our idiot narrator, blaming him for the disappearances of two young men recently from Dunwich so, one again Ambrose drive back to the Bishop house where he again goes into the basement… I fear he is suffering from some sort of occult OCD… where a charnel odor confirms what he fears.
Later he is awakened by Septimus, who alerts him that the house is surrounded by angry yokels with torches. Ambrose rises and, after putting the last touches on this manuscript, goes off to join his great uncle in the tunnel below the house, wondering if “they” know of the other exit from the tunnel.
The story ends with a coda, noting that this is where the manuscript ends and that, noted 11 days after the old Bishop house in Dunwich was burned, a story appeared in the Arkham Advertiser, documenting the people of Dunwich had rebuilt one of the central piers of the Crary Road bridge, again inscribing it with “what old-timers in the area call the ‘Elder Sign'”. My eyes ache from rolling.
(This is, I believe, our first story presented as a found document, so it at least has that going for it.)
As with the past several stories, this one too has been read for LibriVox by Allen Kent:
Lovecraft Country Content
Derleth seems congenially opposed to having his Dunwich-area narrators visit Aylesbury; as Ambrose comments, once he’s warned off at the general store in Dunwich, that he will just do his shopping in Arkham. Likewise, he goes to Arkham to research Septimus Bishop. At the end of the tale, we also have Ambrose’s manuscript collected by the county sheriff and taken to Arkham for examination, which he earlier called the county seat. A scan of the story in fact finds no mention of Aylesbury at all, not even the Pike.
As far as I can tell nothing from the story appears in Return to Dunwich, not even Tobias Whateley, the shop-keeper operating “the one slovenly mercantile establishment” who previously appeared in “the Shuttered Room”. As mentioned previously, there is a lot in common between this story and the scenario “The Condemned” from Arkham Unveiled, so we might consider this story its spiritual predecessor, so perhaps something good did come out of it.
As a retread of a Lovecraft pastiche, I cannot say I’m in love with this one. Actually, strike that, I active disliked this story. Derleth seems to have gone from simply unimaginative to being wholly lazy here. So much of this story is a repeat of not just Lovecraft’s work but of his own that I experienced a dreadful mix of deja vu and ennui. This piece wouldn’t even get is own circle on a Venn diagram of Lovecraftian tropes in Derleth stories – old house – evil great uncle – mysterious rooms – vaguely near Dunwich – Tobias Whateley… it’s all been done before and I’m just bored by the whole thing. Ambrose Bishop was at least as stupid as any of Derleth’s other profoundly obtuse characters but if you’re whole goal is a shocking reveal at the story’s end, don’t make the shock so obvious everyone but the narrator has figured it out after five pages.
In other words, even Wilum Pugmire doesn’t offer a commentary on this stink-fest and he is on record liking Derleth’s work.
“Oh come on, Augie!”
[Regarding a collection of newspaper clippings regarding disappearnces around Dunwich.]
Perhaps my great-uncle had interested himself in solving the disappearances.
I backed away from his naked hatred.
Coming next… “Innsmouth Clay”!
I don’t agree. The town you mention as omitted, aylesburry(?), is probably small, devoid of library and you have to know it exists in the first place for it to affect at all the quality of the story. That the house is untouched is probably due to its sinister reputation among locals.
This story succeeds on account of its atmosphere, which works, and the description of details, like the bridge remnants washing away, or the hostility of the locals, which also work. I did not like all that much the Dunwitch Horror, as I found the premise of hiding the huge creature for years, of the seven foot fast-growing youth, of the too well-informed team of professors chasing the thing, and being trusted by the locals, to whom they are basically strangers from the city, all of it just feels artificial and wrong. And people not congregating, staying in remote isolated houses, when an invisible monster runs about… Middle Span just does more with far less. Derlerth’s other attempts at the Cthulu Mythos like the first part of the Trail of Cthulhu, seem pathetic in comparison, with constant sad name-dropping, all absent from Middle Span, which honestly felt indistinguishable from other low-key Lovecraft stories like Out of the Aeons or the Horror from the museum. Unfortunately Derlerth does not seem to have many more of that moderately good level, if the first part of the Trail of is any guide… One must judge each story on its own merits, and Middlespan does quite well for many objective reasons. I rank it in the middle pack of Lovecraft stories, somewhere around Aeons, Rats in the walls, Lurking fear, and above Witchhouse, Dunwitch, and a few other stalwarts I never liked. My favourite of all is Innsmouth, Cthulhu and Mountains, in that order.
All criticism is rooted in personal experience; you liked the story, I did not.
That being said, I would never argue against a person being able to have their own preferences, so I’m glad someone enjoyed the story, regardless of my opinions. I would certainly not classify “The Dunwich Horror” as among Lovecraft’s best stories either.
I would note that Aylesbury is repeatedly mentioned by Lovecraft in “The Dunwich Horror” as the largest town near Dunwich – the Doctor who attends to the newborn Wilbur and the dying Wizard Whateley comes from there, the town has a newspaper, the officials who attend to Wilbur’s estate after his death in Arkham examine property records at the court-house there (implying it is a county seat, as only those towns would have a court house in Massachusetts), and the state police patrol that are killed by the monster are dispatched from there. It is clearly the largest town in the vicinity of Dunwich.
Considering Derleth’s other stories set in Dunwich or near to it, my impression is that he used it as a general “rural” place in Lovecraft Country but wasn’t particularly interested in the details of the place – Lovecraft says clearly that the old church turn general store was the sole place of business in Dunwich but in “Wentworth’s Day” the old man talks about going to bank in Dunwich.
Ultimately Derleth’s Lovecraft pastiches are all too much of a kind for me – a needlessly obtuse narrator has some reason to move into an accursed homestead wherein he discovers some relative was really an evil sorcerer or monstrous being (or both). Usually there is a very full library of every notable book from other Cthulhu Mythos authors that gets a quick catalog too. (Off the top of my head “Horror of the Middle Span”, “The Gable Window”, “The Shuttered Room”, “The Shadow in the Attic”, “the Watches Out of Time”, and (other than an Arkham-area setting, “The Lurker at the Threshold”. The stories I’ve liked better – “Witches’ Hollow”, “Innsmouth Clay”, and “Fisherman of Falcon Point” tended to avoid that plot structure.
Thanks for reading!