The Dunwich Horror – H.P. Lovecraft

3 out of 5

Y’know those creepy, something-in-the-shadows horror movies – sometimes Lovecraft inspired – which are all sorts of tense and terrifying until the inevitable reveal, which is either visually underwhelming or demystified by some “it was just your imagination!”- type twist? It’s unavoidable to a degree, since the allure of the unseen terror is that it is unseen, but then the temptation of a visual medium is to bring that indescribable horror to life… ‘Indescribable’ is obviously a key term there; a movie like “The Thing” – very much Lovecraft inspired this time – is a great touchpoint, as director John Carpenter keyed on how shadowed, surreal flashes of the monster, in forms which can’t be adequately summarized except by dropping your jaw to the floor and shrieking, were the right way to shock audiences at the time, and have generally continued to shock new viewers in the decades since. Compare to the final glory shot of the creature, though, which gives us too much of it – the spell dissipates. Nothing’s as scary as whatever’s in our imagination, but giving enough hints to nudge our imaginations into darker realms is a wonderful tactic…

And then to go back to one of the progenitors of those inspirations, Mr. Lovecraft himself, and his best stories and moments are those which smother us with that tactic, producing works of ferocity which absolutely still hold up today. But the written form can still be subject to the flaws of a reveal, depending on how it’s handled, and even H.P. couldn’t always juggle what to say and “show” versus what not to, very much typified by the build up and petering out of tensions in The Dunwich Horror.

The lead-in is perfection: the backwater Whateley family have produced – suggestively through inbreeding – the misshapen, fast-growing Wilbur. …And maybe something else. As the elder Whateley continues to make utterances of foreboding things to come during his errant interactions with the rest of the townsfolk, and mother Lavinnia slowly goes insane, and the family keeps buying up livestock, though the number of cows on their homestead never seems to actually grow, renovations are made and unmade on their house, boarding up windows and removing walls to seemingly encase something which is growing ever bigger. Wilbur is walking and talking before he’s ten; he’s procuring arcane texts and now the family’s house seems rigged to feed its occupant through a second story window. Lovecraft’s masterful form allows this to be related in a straight-forward, but unshowy manner: he doesn’t have to rattle chains and make “boo!” noises to elevate the oddity of this, nor does he have to spell out exactly what’s going on – the Whateley’s are surely odd, but we’re not forcefed exposition about what’s going on behind closed doors. Details are lain out; we can make our own conclusions. This peaks with the collective hooting of whippoorwills on a dark night – a recurring theme – as the broken form of Wilbur is discovered having barreled his way into a library to procure a particular arcane text which had been withheld from him. This precedes the forthcoming of “The Dunwich Horror.”

The problem hereafter is twofold: some of Lovecraft’s stories peak with the discoveries, as the realization of them is enough to crumble a narrator’s tale-telling sensibilities; when we’re taken beyond that point, it can be to underline how the Gods of H.P.’s worlds exist on a plane beyond our understanding, and that our existence is tainted in a manner we will never fully grasp in our lifetimes. “Dunwich,” though, seems to be after an ending, which is sort of counter to the whole cosmic unknowingness of everything. So the monster appears and, spoilers, is foiled with some magic words, and all’s well. The second problem shows that the letdown of a reveal isn’t limited to just movies, as Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothoth offspring just hangs around Dunwich for too damn long. The lore around what he portends – some sort of destruction of mankind, rebirthing us into a morality-removed world of excess, a la Garth Ennis’ Crossed – is definitely interesting, but that’s one or two lines, and isn’t something immediately present in the story itself. Yog Jr.’s business in “The Dunwich Horror” is to galumph around the hills, flattening trees, like some sort of clueless giant. Like, just leave the dude alone and maybe he’ll just get bored. This leads in to problem 2a: since the monster is going to be hanging around for a while, and he’s gigantic, how can we get around people being able to see him that whole time, and thus be able to effectively describe him, fully casting off those terror hiding shadows? Solution: the monster is invisible. This is a cheap, “money” saving decision that also forces H.P. to come up with a gimmick so that we can temporarily see the creature – he needs one glory shot – and so our magic-words spouting heroes spray him with some bug spray for no reason at all, except for that very purpose. Cue the locals pointing and fainting and uttering spotted descriptions of tentacles and eyeballs.

This stuff is fun, but as I’m rather over-stating above, it’s latter half is unfortunately rather silly as compared to how dramatic and compelling its first half is, with some unfortunate literary techniques – over-reliance on localized dialogue; delaying the conclusion as people run around watching trees getting knocked over – preventing it from gelling into something that’s consistently immersive.