The Dreams in the Witch House

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"The Dreams in the Witch House"
Author H. P. Lovecraft
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Horror short story
Published in Weird Tales
Publication type Periodical
Media type Print (Magazine)
Publication date July, 1933

"The Dreams in the Witch House" is a short story by H. P. Lovecraft, part of the Cthulhu Mythos genre of horror fiction. Written in January/February 1932, it was first published in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales.

Inspiration[edit]

"The Dreams in the Witch House" was likely inspired by the lecture The Size of the Universe given by Willem de Sitter[1] which Lovecraft attended three months prior to writing the story. de Sitter is even named in the story; he is mentioned as a mathematical genius, and remarked among other intellectual masterminds, including Albert Einstein. Several prominent motifs—including the geometry and curvature of space, and a deeper understanding of the nature of the universe through pure mathematics—are covered in de Sitter's lecture. The idea of using higher dimensions of non-Euclidean space as short cuts through normal space can be traced to A. S. Eddington's The Nature of the Physical World which Lovecraft alludes to having read (SL III p 87).[2] These new ideas supported and developed a very similar conception of a fragmented mirror space that Lovecraft had previously developed in "The Trap" (written mid 1931).

An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia says that "The Dreams in the Witch House" was "heavily influenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne's unfinished novel Septimius Felton".[3]

Plot summary[edit]

Walter Gilman, a student of higher mathematics and folklore at Miskatonic University, takes an attic room in the Witch House, a house in Arkham thought to be accursed. The first part of the story is an account of the history of the house, which has once harboured Keziah Mason, an accused witch who disappeared mysteriously from a Salem jail in 1692. Gilman discovers that for the better part of two centuries many if not most of its occupants have died prematurely, or have been nuzzled by a white, fanged, furry little monster.

The dimensions of Gilman's attic room in the house are unusual, and seem to conform to a kind of unearthly geometry that Gilman theorizes can enable travel from one plane or dimension to another.

Shortly after moving into the attic, the dreams begin, which consist of "plunges through limitless abysses of inexplicably coloured twilight and bafflingly disordered sound; abysses whose material and gravitational properties, and whose relation to his own entity, he could not even begin to explain. He did not walk or climb, fly or swim, crawl or wriggle; yet always experienced a mode of motion partly voluntary and partly involuntary. Of his own condition he could not well judge, for sight of his arms, legs, and torso seemed always cut off by some odd disarrangement of perspective; but he felt that his physical organisation and faculties were somehow marvellously transmuted and obliquely projected—though not without a certain grotesque relationship to his normal proportions and properties. The abysses were by no means vacant, being crowded with indescribably angled masses of alien-hued substance, some of which appeared to be organic while others seemed inorganic. A few of the organic objects tended to awake vague memories in the back of his mind, though he could form no conscious idea of what they mockingly resembled or suggested. In the later dreams he began to distinguish separate categories into which the organic objects appeared to be divided, and which seemed to involve in each case a radically different species of conduct-pattern and basic motivation. Of these categories one seemed to him to include objects slightly less illogical and irrelevant in their motions than the members of the other categories. All the objects—organic and inorganic alike—were totally beyond description or even comprehension. Gilman sometimes compared the inorganic masses to prisms, labyrinths, clusters of cubes and planes, and Cyclopean buildings; and the organic things struck him variously as groups of bubbles, octopi, centipedes, living Hindoo idols, and intricate Arabesques roused into a kind of ophidian animation. Everything he saw was unspeakably menacing and horrible; and whenever one of the organic entities appeared by its motions to be noticing him, he felt a stark, hideous fright which generally jolted him awake. Of how the organic entities moved, he could tell no more than of how he moved himself. In time he observed a further mystery—the tendency of certain entities to appear suddenly out of empty space, or to disappear totally with equal suddenness. The shrieking, roaring confusion of sound which permeated the abysses was past all analysis as to pitch, timbre, or rhythm; but seemed to be synchronous with vague visual changes in all the indefinite objects, organic and inorganic alike. Gilman had a constant sense of dread that it might rise to some unbearable degree of intensity during one or another of its obscure, relentlessly inevitable fluctuations."

Several times his dreaming self encounters a bizarre "congeries of iridescent, prolately spheroidal bubbles", as well as a trapezoidal figure, both of which seem sapient. It is hinted that these may be the extra-dimensional forms of Keziah and her familiar.

Of much more direct concern, however, are Gilman's nightly dream sojourns with Keziah Mason and her rat-bodied, human-faced familiar Brown Jenkin, sojourns which he increasingly believes are actually happening in the real world. In his dreams Gilman is taken to a city of Lovecraft's "Elder Things", and even brings back tangible evidence that he's actually been there - a miniature statue of an Elder Thing that he'd broken off a balustrade in the city, made of unknown elements and a strange kind of alloy. One night, Gilman dreams Keziah, Brown Jenkin, and the infamous "Black Man" (a form of the malign Cthulhu Mythos deity Nyarlathotep) force him to be an accomplice in the kidnapping of an infant. He awakes to find mud on his feet and news of the kidnapping in the newspaper.

On May Eve (Walpurgis Night), Gilman dreams that Keziah and Brown Jenkin are doing a ritual sacrifice on the kidnapped child. He thwarts her by strangling her with a crucifix that was given to him by a fellow tenant, Joseph Mazurewicz, but Brown Jenkin bites through the child's wrist and completes the ritual, and then scuttles down into a triangular abyss. Coming back to wakefulness in this plane, Gilman hears an unearthly cosmic sound that leaves him deaf. He lives through the day and tells fellow roomer Frank Elwood his horrific story. At night he starts screaming, and before the eyes of Elwood Brown Jenkin emerges from his chest after eating Gilman's heart out.

The landlord then abandons the house completely, and when it is finally demolished years later, the workmen sent to raze the building find Keziah's skeleton and books of black magic, some little more than rotted yellow dust. In addition, a space between the walls is found filled with children's bones, a sacrificial knife, and a bowl made of some metal that scientists are unable to identify. A strange stone statuette of a star-headed "Elder Thing" is also found, and these items go on display in the Miskatonic University museum, where they continue to mystify scholars. The skeleton of a huge deformed rat with hints of human or primate anatomy is also found. The story ends with the line "The workmen crossed themselves in fright when they came upon this blasphemy, but later burned candles of gratitude in St. Stanislaus’ Church because of the shrill, ghostly tittering they felt they would never hear again."

Characters[edit]

Walter Gilman[edit]

Walter Gilman, formerly of Haverhill, Massachusetts, came to Miskatonic to study "non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics", which he linked to the "fantastic legends of elder magic". He is troubled by mental tension brought on by studying too hard, and at one point is forbidden by his professors to further consult Miskatonic's collection of rare books, including the Necronomicon, the Book of Eibon and Unaussprechlichen Kulten.[4]

Keziah Mason[edit]

Keziah Mason was an old woman of Arkham who was arrested as part of the Salem witch trials of 1692. In her testimony to Judge John Hathorne, she had spoken of "lines and curves that could be made to point out directions leading through the walls of space to other spaces beyond.... She had spoken also of the Black Man, of her oath, and of her new secret name of Nahab." She later disappeared mysteriously from Salem Gaol, leaving behind "curves and angles smeared on the grey stone walls with some red, sticky fluid" that were inexplicable even to Cotton Mather. Gilman comes to suspect that Mason--"a mediocre old woman of the Seventeenth Century"—had developed "an insight into mathematical depths perhaps beyond the utmost modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter."

Mason is described as having a "bent back, long nose, and shrivelled chin". She wears an expression "of hideous malevolence and exultation", and has a "croaking voice". She dresses in "shapeless brown garments".

Critics have noted with some surprise that Mason is "struck with panic" at the sight of a crucifix.[5]

Brown Jenkin[edit]

Brown Jenkin, Mason's familiar, is "a small white-fanged furry thing", "no larger than a good-sized rat", which for years haunts the witch house and Arkham in general, "nuzzl[ing] people curiously in the black hours before dawn". The creature is described:

Witnesses said it had long hair and the shape of a rat, but that its sharp-toothed, bearded face was evilly human while its paws were like tiny human hands. It took messages betwixt old Keziah and the devil, and was nursed on the witch's blood, which it sucked like a vampire. Its voice was a kind of loathsome titter, and it could speak all languages.

The Black Man[edit]

In his dreams, Gilman is introduced by Mason to

a figure he had never seen before--a tall, lean man of dead black colouration but without the slightest sign of negroid features: wholly devoid of either hair or beard, and wearing as his only garment a shapeless robe of some heavy black fabric. His feet were indistinguishable because of the table and bench, but he must have been shod, since there was a clicking whenever he changed position. The man did not speak, and bore no trace of expression on his small, regular features. He merely pointed to a book of prodigious size which lay open on the table....

This character is later identified as "the immemorial figure of the deputy or messenger of hidden and terrible powers--the 'Black Man' of the witch-cult, and the 'Nyarlathotep' of the Necronomicon." Also to be noted, a later reference to markings on the floor Gilman finds among his own footprints suggest the Black Man has cloven hooves instead of feet. This implies that Lovecraft intended him as an avatar of the popular depiction of a Christian Satan. Mike Dalager (see "Rock Opera") notes that this (and Mason being frightened by the crucifix) show that the story could be the only cosmic horror tale by Lovecraft that actually incorporates a Christian-Judeo structure.

Father Iwanicki[edit]

There was a Father Iwanicki in an early draft of Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (1931), but the character was excised from the final version.[6]

Reaction[edit]

August Derleth's negative reaction to the unpublished story was conveyed by Lovecraft to another correspondent: "Derleth didn't say it was unsalable; in fact, he rather thought it would sell. He said it was a poor story, which is an entirely different and much more lamentably important thing."[7] Lovecraft responded to Derleth: "[Y]our reaction to my poor "Dreams in the Witch House" is, in kind, about what I expected—although I hardly thought the miserable mess was quite as bad as you found it.... The whole incident shows me that my fictional days are probably over."[8]

Thus discouraged, Lovecraft refused to submit the story for publication anywhere; without Lovecraft's knowledge, Derleth later submitted it to Weird Tales, which indeed accepted it.[9] According to the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright asked Lovecraft for permission to adapt it to radio. Lovecraft rejected it, writing "What the public considers "weirdness" in drama is rather pitiful or absurd... They are all the same - flat, hackneyed, synthetic, essentially atmosphereless jumbles of conventional shrieks and mutterings, and superficial mechanical situations."

Many later critics have shared Derleth's view. Lin Carter calls the story "a minor effort" that "remains singularly one-dimensional, curiously unsatisfying."[10] Steven J. Mariconda called the story "Lovecraft's Magnificent Failure...its uneven execution is not equal to its breathtaking conceptions,which are some of the most original in imaginative literature". [11] Peter Cannon claims that "most critics agree" that "The Dreams in the Witch House" ranks with "The Thing on the Doorstep" as "the poorest of Lovecraft's later tales."[12] S. T. Joshi referred to the tale as "one of [Lovecraft's] poorest later efforts."[13]

In stark contrast, Lovecraft critic and Prix Goncourt award winning novelist Michel Houellebecq situates the story within what he calls Lovecraft's "definitive fourth circle," classing it alongside seven other tales that comprise "the absolute heart of HPL's myth [...] what most rabid Lovecraftians continue to call, almost in spite of themselves, the 'great texts.'" [14]

Recently, more favorable criticism of "Dreams" has appeared. Weird Tales's current Lovecraft columnist, Kenneth Hite, calls the story "one of the purest and most important examples of sheer Lovecraftian cosmicism," suggesting that it is the most fully fleshed-out expression of the author's "From Beyond" motif, also explored in such stories as "The Music of Erich Zann," "Hypnos," and "The Hound." [15]

An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia complains that "[w]hile the tale contains vividly cosmic vistas of hyperspace, HPL does not appear to have thought out the details of the plot satisfactorily.... It seems as if HPL were aiming merely for a succession of startling images without bothering to fuse them into a logical sequence."[9]

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations[edit]

"The Dreams in the Witch House" was made into a short segment for Showtime cable television's Masters of Horror series, directed by Stuart Gordon, under the title H. P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch-House. It alters the plot and minor details of the original and puts it in a contemporary setting, with Keziah Mason becoming what the film's promotional materials refer to as "a luscious she-demon"[16] and neighbor Frank Elwood changing genders to become Frances Elwood.

"The Dreams in the Witch House" was brought to the stage in 2008 by WildClaw Theatre Company in Chicago, in conjunction with Weird Tales Magazine's 85th anniversary, under the title "H. P. Lovecraft's The Dreams in the Witch House". It was adapted and directed by WildClaw Artistic Director Charley Sherman.

A much looser adaptation inspired by the tale was the 1968 Curse of the Crimson Altar (aka. The Crimson Cult, Witch House, The Crimson Altar). It starred Barbara Steele, Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, and Michael Gough.

The story and characters were adapted by the author Graham Masterton, in his novel Prey.

Music[edit]

In 2005 Dreams in the Witch House was used as the name of a compilation CD from the band H. P. Lovecraft.

In 2013, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society made a rock opera concept album called Dreams in the Witch House: A Lovecraftian Rock Opera based on the work. The project is a Swedish/American collaboration between producers and songwriters Chris Laney, Anders Ringman, Lennart Östlund and lyricists/book-writers Sean Branney, Mike Dalager and Andrew Leman. The album features Bruce Kulick and Doug Blair on lead guitar on some tracks. From those who have reviewed it, the album has received positive feedback but has not received mainstream attention.

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Size of the Universe
  2. ^ Livesey, T. R. (2008). "Dispatches from the Providence Observatory: Astronomical Motifs and Sources in the Writings of H.P. Lovecraft". Lovecraft Annual (New York: Hippocampus Press) (2): 3–87. ISSN 1935-6102.  pp. 71–3
  3. ^ S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, p. 107.
  4. ^ H. P. Lovecraft, "The Dreams in the Witch House", At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels, p. 262.
  5. ^ Price, The Azathoth Cycle, p. xii.
  6. ^ Joshi and Schultz, p. 128.
  7. ^ H. P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters Vol. 4, p. 91; cited in Joshi and Schultz, p. 76.
  8. ^ H. P. Lovecraft, letter to August Derleth, June 6, 1932; cited in Joshi and Schultz, p. 76.
  9. ^ a b Joshi and Schultz, p. 76.
  10. ^ Lin Carter, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos, p. 92.
  11. ^ Steven J. Mariconda, "Lovecraft's Cosmic Imagery", in in: Schultz, David E. and Joshi, S. T., eds. An Epicure in the Terrible:A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H.P. Lovecraft . Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991, ISBN 083863415X (p. 191).
  12. ^ Peter Cannon, "Introduction", More Annotated Lovecraft, p. 9.
  13. ^ Scriptorium - H.P. Lovecraft
  14. ^ http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/jun/04/featuresreviews.guardianreview6
  15. ^ Kenneth Hite, Tour de Lovecraft: The Tales, 2008
  16. ^ Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch House, Anchor Bay Entertainment UK.

External links[edit]