October 7, 2016 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
We here at Sentinel Hill Press have talked a lot about August Derleth’s contribution to what would become Chaosium’s Lovecraft Country setting (and a bit about Lovecraft’s development of the locale as well). While we aren’t getting back to either on-going series yet (sorry, “The Watches Out of Time” will get a review eventually!) I thought we’d take a quick dip into similar territory today by looking at how Arkham (and other fictional places developed by Lovecraft in the vicinity) were used by the authors generally considered part of HPL’s closest circle of friends and correspondents.
Of all the writers of Lovecraft’s “circle”, Robert Bloch (1917-1994) made use of Lovecraft’s fictional places most often, quite possibly because of his initial youth and desire to emulate his literary idol. In his earliest stories, Bloch often made use of elements of what we now term the Cthulhu Mythos; in three cases he referenced Arkham and other Lovecraft Country places:
- “The Shambler from the Stars“; first published in Weird Tales Vol. 26, #3 (September 1935). In this tale, a proxy for Bloch takes up a correspondence with a “a mystic dreamer in New England” (a Lovecraft proxy, in an attempt to gain arcane and occult inspiration for his fiction. The “mystic dreamer” is said to “have heard many strange things as a boy in witch-haunted Arkham, where the old shadows still leer and creep” and warns the narrator away from delving too deeply into the terrors of the Mythos. It is to no avail, however, and when the narrator visits the “mystic” in his Providence home, the narrator shows him a copy of The Mysteries of the Worm, using which they accidentally summon the story’s titular horror. This causes the painful death of “the mystic” as the summoned being drains him of blood, tittering all the while. The story ends with our narrator fearful that he too will soon be slain by the creature. (Lovecraft responded to his fictive death by making this story’s narrator, whom he dubs Robert Blake, the victim of a different horror in “The Haunter of the Dark” which he dedicated to Bloch.)
- “The Creeper in the Crypt“; first published in Weird Tales vol. 30, #1 (July 1937). This story has the distinction of being the first tale I know of set in Arkham not written by Lovecraft himself. Our narrator is an artist and writer, from a well-to-do family (possibly named Abbott), who is kidnapped by the nefarious gangster Joe Rigetti as part of a newly-hatched scheme to establish himself in Arkham by kidnapping and blackmailing members of the city’s gentry. Taken to the long-abandoned Chambers house on Pringle Street, Rigetti and his crew of racist caricature henchmen (named Slim, “the Greek”, “the Polack” aka “the Pole”) plan to keep in the old house until his ransom is paid. Here were learn, via an expositive dump, that the house is known to both the narrator – as the former home of the notorious wizards Ezekiel Chambers and Jonathan Dark, who had been tried for grave-robbing just prior to a substantial federal raid in 1818 – and to Mr. Polack, who reports that the gangster Tony Fellippo died a gruesome death under most disturbing circumstances after spending a night in the house’s basement. Eventually, despite the warnings the Pole, Rigetti decides to keep watch over the narrator and comes to an equally terrible end as the late Fellippo, torn asunder by a ravenous ghoul (or somesuch horror) who entered the basement via a curious iron door, half hidden in the coal chute. As far as I can tell none of the places mentioned – Bascom and Pringle Streets, the Carter and Hook mansions – nor the individuals named, or historical events (like a Federal raid in 1818!) appear in any form in Arkham Unveiled or other Lovecraft Country publications… at least not yet. Considering there’s talk of a graveyard being dug up after allegations of sorcerous wrongdoing… I’m putting a pin in this one for Graveyards of Lovecraft Country, definitely.
- “Notebook Found in a Deserted House“; first published in Weird Tales (May, 1951). A later tale of Bloch’s, “Notebook Found in a Deserted House” is connected more nebulously in Lovecraft Country – near a place called Roodsford in “the back hill country”. Our doomed narrator, Willie Osborne (age 12), mentions Arkham several times, knows of some dark rumors related to Innsmouth, and says his cousin, Frank, is said to live in Kingsport; the setting suggests Dunwich but that town in never mentioned. Lovecraft, in his comments to Bloch about the story “Satan’s Servants” which was set in Roodsford, urged him to relocate the village to coastal Maine, between York and Wells, moving it well-away from Lovecraft Country proper. Keith Herber, on the other hand, included the doughty letter-carrier Capt. Pritchett to Return to Dunwich (though no other characters from the story); he’s entry #90. Considering the importance of malign druids to both this story and portions of Dunwich’s backstory, as per Herber, the placement is a plausible one, though the connection is not definitive.
Robert E. Howard:
Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) made use of a Lovecraft Country location, oddly enough, in his poem “Arkham”, published in Weird Tales in August of 1932. He had previously shared the poem with Lovecraft the year before; HPL said that he had enjoyed it.
Drowsy and dull with age the houses blink
On aimless streets the rat-gnawed years forget—
But what inhuman figures leer and slink
Down the old alleys when the moon has set?
For more information about what Howard might have known about Arkham, based on what we know of his readings of Lovecraft, see this post to the R.E. Howard blog “Two-Gun Raconteur” from this July. (Fun fact: Reading that post is actually what inspired my look at what other members of HPL’s circle wrote about Lovecraft County. Thanks Two-Gun Raconteur!)
Clark Ashton Smith
Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) travelled widely in his fiction – medieval France, sunken Poseidonis, future Zothique – but only visited Lovecraft Country in an undated story fragment entitled “I am a Witch“. While most of Smith fiction was written in a period from between 1929 and 1934 but this story outline only saw print in 1989. In the story, the Hinton family, recently relocated to Arkham, are harassed by their neighbor Abigail Coddington, an aged crone to seems to come and go at will. There’s not much plot to the story beyond Elinor Hinton having weird recurrent nightmares; beyond Arkham’s name appearing and a mention of gambrel roofs, there is no discussion of setting either. I don’t think there is any part of this rough sketch of a story that influenced the Lovecraft Country setting, unless the aged witch-woman Abigail Conley, from Return to Dunwich is inspired by the witch of this story; that’s a pretty big stretch, I confess.
As ever, this article was made possible by the groundwork laid by Chris Jarocha-Ernst in his Cthulhu Mythos Bibliography and Concordance as well as Joseph Morales’s Cthulhu Mythos: An Annotated Bibliography.