In my tortured ears there sounds unceasingly a nightmare whirring and flapping, and a faint, distant baying as of some gigantic hound. It is not a dream—it is not, I fear, even madness—for too much has already happened to give me these merciful doubts. St. John is a mangled corpse; I alone know why, and such is my knowledge that I am about to blow out my brains for fear I shall be mangled in the same way. Down unlit and illimitable corridors of eldritch phantasy sweeps the black, shapeless Nemesis that drives me to self-annihilation.
How’s that for an opening paragraph?
I’ll make it no secret that I adore H.P. Lovecraft. When I want to relax, I turn to one of many copies of his collected works and choose a favorite weird tale. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror reminds me of my infinitesimal place in the universe and illustrates that there were things long before me and things that will go on long after I’m gone. It’s oddly comforting.
Politics, work, relationships—all these things consume life, make me feel bigger than I am, and Lovecraft lets me crawl back into the shadow as a small thing. I like to be spooked, I like to feel unsettled, to ponder change and decay at the hands of hideous ancient things.
In this day and age, Lovecraft has exploded in popularity, yet no writer is more maligned, plagiarized, or problematic. Every video game offers a disclaimer, every derivative book explains his problematic nature, every movie misunderstands or misuses his work, proclaiming him a vile racist and yet tacitly admitting (by use of his properties) that he’s more creative and interesting than Hollywood could ever hope to be.
I could comment on the accusations of Lovecraft’s racism, I could explain that he was a man succored on tragedy, I could tell you about the madness of his father and his mother, his cancer, his depression, his marriage, his struggle to find success—I could go on. But I won’t. Because I don’t care about the assumed “problematic” elements of his personality, beliefs, and life. I want to celebrate Lovecraft. I want to write about the man who gave form to the fears of a modern civilization—entropy, decay, oblivion, madness.
Okay, but why for Christmas?
So, let’s talk about H.P. Lovecraft’s The Hound.
The Hound was published the February 1924 issue of Weird Tales. The year before, in 1923 Walt and Roy Disney founded the Walt Disney Company and in 1925, the year after, F. Scott Fitzgerald would publish The Great Gatsby.
The Hound is part of the “Cthulhu Mythos,” a collection of tales which loosely connect to each other, creating a sort of expanded universe. The concept of the mythos suggests there’s a specific order the tales must be read, but the truth is no order was intended. The mythos is a creation of Lovecraft’s friends, whom he gave permission to expand upon his work.
If you are the kind of person who is intimidated by the sheer volume of work Lovecraft did, have no fear. All you have to do is jump in, the connection between stories comes naturally. I myself began with Naralathotep.
If you’re concerned about thick, New England wordiness, I implore you to give the Hound a shot. Its very short and broken into two chapters. Like most of Lovecraft’s work, it’s a totally internal dialogue and told from the first person. Although his sentences are long and written in his characteristic antiquarian style, there’s nothing complicated going on. You don’t need to go into this story with anything.
From here on there will be spoilers.
The Hound opens with the narrator telling us he intends suicide: “Down unlit and illimitable corridors of eldritch phantasy sweeps the black, shapeless Nemesis that drives me to self-annihilation.” Something has driven this man to a point beyond madness where his only relief is to end his own life.
This is a common affliction of Lovecraft’s characters. They’ve seen what shouldn’t be seen, done what should not be done, plucked at strings holding back phantasmic horrors of incomprehensible magnitude. Sometimes they pursue science with too much vigor, or trace a family line back a little too far, or curiously questions the wrong locals.
But the Narrator of The Hound is bored. He and his friend, St. John, were “wearied with the commonplaces of a prosaic world.” Together, the two men “followed enthusiastically every aesthetic and intellectual movement which promised respite from [their] devastating ennui.” They try a multitude of different hobbies, but each one loses its novelty after a time. Until they settle on the “direct stimuli of unnatural personal experiences and adventure” and begin “that hideous extremity of human outrage, the abhorred practice of grave-robbing.”
Narrator and St. John amass a collection of grim trophies; mummies and headstones, skulls, and rotting bits. They are careful men; they only rob when everything is just right.
Its under the perfect circumstances that they descend upon a grave in Holland. The grave of a ghoul rumored to be not unlike themselves. Within the grave they find an amulet that they both must have. They return the grave as they found it, save for the amulet stowed in St. John’s pocket. As they leave the graveyard, they hear the great baying of some gigantic hound. The men return to England, and although they live alone in a large house devoid of servants and visitors, strange things being to happen.
“We were troubled by what seemed to be frequent fumblings in the night, not only around the doors but around the windows also, upper as well as lower. Once we fancied that a large, opaque body darkened the library window when the moon was shining against it, and another time we thought we heard a whirring or flapping sound not far off. On each occasion investigation revealed nothing, and we began to ascribe the occurrences to imagination alone—that same curiously disturbed imagination which still prolonged in our ears the faint far baying we thought we had heard in the Holland churchyard.”
A sense of existential dread permeates the Hound in the way it permeates most of Lovecraft’s work. Dread was his bread and butter, the ultimate staple of his work. In the Hound you can feel or see the dread in his word choices “frequent fumblings,” “whirring or flapping,” “faint far baying.” There something in the rhythm of his language that gives off this sense of some “gigantic hound” baying in the far distance space between your mind and imagination. You’ll note that he repeats these words often. These sounds in normal, everyday life, are unsettling to us, particularly in the middle of the night.
Stranger things begin to happen. They come to the conclusion that the “distant baying over the moor” heralds some dreaded reality. “Mostly we held to the theory that we were jointly going mad from our life of unnatural excitements, but sometimes it pleased us more to dramatize ourselves as the victims of some creeping and appalling doom.”
What a very human thing it is to begin enjoying the downward spiral of your hyper-decadent lifestyle, to fancy yourself the victim of willful doom.
Of course, that creeping doom, like a sword of Damocles must fall. And it does, first on St. John, who is mutilated on his way home. He manages to get to the front door and tell the Narrator what they’ve known all along—“The amulet—that damned thing—.” Then he collapsed, an inert mass of mangled flesh. Lovecraft was a master of alliteration: “frequent fumblings,” “mass of mangled,” “dripping death,” “Bacchanale of bats.” Sparing, so as to be punchy.
Upon the death of his companion, the Narrator knows that what befell St. John must befall him, but he must attempt to placate whatever dreaded beast stalks him, if only out of a last-ditch effort at self-preservation. He returns to the Holland churchyard and begins a maniacal, frantic exhumation of the ghoul they robbed, a ghoul who most certainly came to the same grisly fate as St. John.
“I know not why I went thither unless to pray, or gibber out insane please and apologies to the calm white thing that lay within, but, whatever my reason, I attacked the half-frozen earth and with a desperation partly mine and partly that of a dominating will outside myself. Excavation was much easier than I expected, though at one point I encountered a queer interruption: when a lean vulture darted down out of the cold sky and pecked frantically at the grave-earth until I killed him with a blow of my spade. Finally, I reached the rotting oblong box and removed the damp, nitrous cover. This is the last rational act I have ever performed.”
Insanity is a feature of Lovecraft’s work. Lovecraft, having experience with mental illness himself, most likely saw this first hand. His work often highlights that the worst part of being mad is knowing you’re mad.
There’s a lot of confusion about insanity (which is a legal term, not a medical one). Most of this confusion is done up by Hollywood drama. Those with mental illness, know. A schizophrenic knows he’s schizophrenic. Perhaps most heartbreaking of all, elders with Alzheimer’s often understand what’s happening to them. As their memory declines, their cognitive process remains; declining at slower rates than other functions. They know they’re declining. Often, the fits of frustration they have is that they aren’t able to remember something or relay information.
And so, the Hound ends with the Narrator proclaiming “I shall seek with my revolver the oblivion which is my refuge.”
There something to be said about the desire to seek meaning in what Lovecraft has written. His Old Ones are not meant to be understood. They stand so far out of human understanding that their appearances, motives, and abilities are impenetrable to the mind of mortal man. However, whether intended or not, literature has meaning.
We cannot speculate the fury of the titular hound and I’m not going to assume the motives of ancient, powerful beings. But taken as a whole, the Hound is pure horror and horror is fundamentally a genre of morality tales.
When I read The Hound, I’m reading a tale about hyper-decadence gone to its natural conclusion. Grave-robbing is taboo is a multitude of cultures. In the Christian West, disturbing the dead can risk the immortal soul of the disturbed dead as well as the soul of the disturber. Of course, there are practical reasons too—bodies may be buried with disease and opening the grave may expose the living; animals may carry corpse parts to water sources, poisoning the village.
Grave-robbing aside, the Narrator begins his tale by telling the reader that he’s lived a life of extreme decadence, flitting from one “somber philosophy” to the next as they become desensitized to the last. This desensitization leads the Narrator and St. John down a path to their destruction. If they had stopped, reevaluated, and course corrected then I suppose there’d be no story for Lovecraft to tell. Most of us know better, of course—humans seldom stop, reevaluate, and course correct.
Perhaps in this modern era, the Hound plays too close for comfort. How many of us have or nearly have fallen into the gilded trap of depravity? In the realm of fantasy we see it play out violently, but the creeping dread felt by the Narrator is the same. The baying is insistent, far-off, growing closer, harkening ruin.
“Madness rides the star-wind…claws and teeth sharpened on centuries of corpses…dripping death astride a Bacchanal of bats from the night-black ruins of buried temples of Belial…”
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.