October 14, 2016 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil”
‘Handkerchief’ Moody’s story gained a sort of immortality with the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Minister’s Black Veil” in 1832. In Hawthorne’s version the minister, named Reverend Hooper, startles his congregation one Sunday morning, by appearing dressed not just in his usual ministerial garb but having covered his face with a veil:
There was but one thing remarkable in his appearance. Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. On a nearer view, it seemed to consist of two folds of crape, which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, farther than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things.
Rev. Hooper offers no explanation for his facial covering and the congregants find the change at best unsettling, at worst, a sign of madness. Hooper, ignoring the concern of the gathered crowd, gives sermon on secret sin, which possibly hints as to his intent in veiling. That afternoon he attends the funeral of a young woman and, later, a wedding where is continual wearing of the veil disturbs the guests.
Indeed, Rev. Hooper continues to wear his veil on all occasions thereafter, refusing to even remove it (or explain his motivation) to his finance Elizabeth. Hooper’s insistence on wearing the veil drives a wedge between the couple and she eventually calls of their engagement. The veil turns out to be a boon for Hooper in his ministry – hiding his face makes him seem more approachable and yet at the same time menacing:
Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought.
Hooper indeed remains veiled for the remainder of his life, sought out as a deathbed confessor and sermonizer, but living a life of general isolation otherwise. Even at his deathbed, when Elizabeth, who has never married, races to his side and pleads for him to remove the veil so that she can see him one last time, he refuses. Indeed he castigates the those who have gathered round at his passing:
‘Why do you tremble at me alone?’ cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. ‘Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best-beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!’
Hawthorne himself acknowledged that Moody served as the inspiration for his character of Rev. Hooper, noting that:
Another clergyman in New England, Mr. Joseph Moody, of York, Maine, who died about eighty years since, made himself remarkable by the same eccentricity that is here related of the Reverend Mr. Hooper. In his case, however, the symbol had a different import. In early life he had accidentally killed a beloved friend; and from that day till the hour of his own death, he hid his face from men.
H.P. Lovecraft and “the High Priest Who-is-not-to-be-described”:
I wonder if there is any connection between Hooper/Moody and Lovecraft’s own suspect religious figure, the High-Priest Not to be described, mentioned first in “Celephaïs” (written Nov. 1920):
…the high-priest not to be described, which wears a yellow silken mask over its face and dwells all alone in a prehistoric stone monastery on the cold desert plateau of Leng.
Lovecraft later included this being in his “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” (Fall 1927 – Winter 1928):
[T]hat high-priest not to be described, which wears a yellow silken mask over its face and dwells all alone in a prehistoric stone monastery.
– – –
he was indeed come to that most dreadful and legendary of all places, the remote and prehistoric monastery wherein dwells uncompanioned the high-priest not to be described, which wears a yellow silken mask over its face and prays to the Other Gods and their crawling chaos Nyarlathotep.
– – –
[T]here on a golden throne sat a lumpish figure robed in yellow silk figured with red and having a yellow silken mask over its face. To this being the slant-eyed man made certain signs with his hands, and the lurker in the dark replied by raising a disgustingly carven flute of ivory in silk-covered paws and blowing certain loathsome sounds from beneath its flowing yellow mask…
He knew that the creature on the dais was without doubt the high-priest not to be described, of which legend whispers such fiendish and abnormal possibilities, but he feared to think just what that abhorred high-priest might be.
And then finally in stanza twenty-seven of “The Fungi from Yuggoth”, entitled “The Elder Pharos” (Dec. 1929 Jan. 1930):
XXVII. The Elder Pharos
. . . . .
The Thing, they whisper, wears a silken mask
Of yellow, whose queer folds appear to hide
A face not of this earth, though none dares ask
Just what those features are, which bulge inside.
Many, in man’s first youth, sought out that glow,
But what they found, no one will ever know.
While there is no definitive evidence linking Hawthorne’s veiled minister (or his inspiration Rev. Moody) to this nightmarish entity of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, the possibility of some connection is intriguing. The fear expressed in “The Elder Pharos” is very much an echo of the terror felt by those gathered at Rev. Hooper’s deathbed.
We know that Lovecraft read “The Minister’s Black Veil” and was aware of the existence of its basis in history, though I have not be able to determine the exact date. Considering his passion for Hawthorne and that most people come to him as teenagers (thanks to his position as a primary author in high school literature reviews of American authors), I would assume he read Hawthorne as, at most, a young adult. Lovecraft mentions mentions both Moody and Hawthorne’s fictional take in his “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1925-27) saying:
Many of Hawthorne’s shorter tales exhibit weirdness, either of atmosphere or of incident, to a remarkable degree…. “The Minister’s Black Veil” (founded on an actual incident) and “The Ambitious Guest” imply much more than they state.
Undoubtedly there is something fundamental in our revulsion at the concealment of a face that appealed to Lovecraft – recall the faceless nightgaunts or this line about Nyarlathotep from “The Rates in the Walls”:
[T]hose grinning caverns of earth’s centre where Nyarlathotep, the mad faceless god, howls blindly to the piping of two amorphous idiot flute-players.
The human face is, after all, the one thing we see most as infants, as parents gaze down upon their children; likewise, we rely on the faces of others to gauge their interest in us and their emotions. We, from our first moments, depend on seeing faces.
This need is so ingrained that even when there are no faces we often imagine them. This phenomena is called pareidolia – where you can see the “face” in a light socket or on a shadow-dappled Martian mesa. It seems obvious then why then we recoil from those times when faces are intentionally hidden. Camilla’s haunting cry from Act 1, Scene 2 of “The King in Yellow” is perhaps as much as a demand as it is an expression of her terror – “No mask? No mask!”