Sunday, April 8, 2012

Dreams in the Witch-House (e-short story) by H.P. Lovecraft

I downloaded this for free via the Internet Archive. It's part of a collection of H.P. Lovecraft's works. We'll see how this goes, but currently my plan is to write about any works in the collection that are 20+ pages.

I've noticed certain formatting and spelling errors in this collection (or, at least, the EPUB version of it - the "read online" version of it doesn't seem to have the same sorts of errors, at least not that I could see). The most prevalent and confusing error in this particular story was the spelling of Gilman's name as "Oilman." The first time this happened, I thought a new character had been introduced, and it made this already strange story seem even more bizarre.

Synopsis:

Gilman is a student at Miskatonic University. His primary areas of study are Non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics, but he also studies folklore and believes there is a connection between mathematics and some of the fantastic legends he has heard. One particular local story that fascinates Gilman is that of old Keziah Mason, a supposed witch who had drawn strange curves and angles of the wall of her cell before vanishing. It is because of his fascination with Keziah that Gilman has chosen to live in her old room, in a place now referred to by locals as the Witch-House.

Prior to Gilman moving in, no one had wanted to live in the room for long. At first, Gilman lives there without a problem. He studies the irregular shape of the room and notes that there must be space between one of the walls of his room and the outer wall of the house, but no access to that space appears to exist, other than a few open and stopped-up rat-holes. There also appears to be a loft above his room, but there hasn't been any access to it for some time. Gilman's landlord refuses to let him explore either one of these closed-up areas.

After Gilman contracts some kind of fever, he starts having strange dreams. Some of his dreams are bizarre and difficult to describe. In other dreams, he is in his room when a horrific creature called Brown Jenkin pops out of one of the rat-holes. Keziah was rumored to have a familiar named Brown Jenkin, which looked almost like a rat, except with a sharp-toothed, bearded, almost human face and paws that looked like tiny human hands.

The dreams become more and more disturbing, but the truly worrisome part is that they might not be dreams at all.

Review:

 I'll start this off with a story from my grad school days. There is a point to all of this, I promise.

I don't remember being all that sleep-deprived as an undergrad – I think I maybe did one all-nighter during the whole four years – but my memories of grad school are filled with how sleep-deprived I was. This didn't happen every weekday, thank goodness, but there were times when I'd get up early in the morning to go to class, go to one or both of my jobs in the afternoon and/or evening, and then spend the late PM and early AM hours working on homework. On particularly horrible days, I'd get home with only a couple hours left before my alarm went off to start the next day. Some days, I had a choice between grabbing a bite to eat or sleeping, because I didn't have enough time or energy for both.

I remember one particular evening. I was in my apartment, working on an assignment. I was pacing my usual path around the room while thinking about what I was going to write when I spotted something I swear looked like an evil little gnome on the floor. It wasn't until after I jumped about a foot and made a strange little scared noise that I realized what I'd seen was not, in fact, an evil little gnome, but rather a warped reflection of myself in some shiny packaging material. Shortly after that, I decided it was time for bed.

Parts of “Dreams in the Witch-House” read like H.P. Lovecraft had had a similar experience and then had chosen to couple it with drug use. Gilman's more abstract dreams were extremely bizarre, to the point where I had a hard time even picturing what was supposed to be going on. The Brown Jenkin bits were more in line with my “evil gnome” experience, except that Brown Jenkin definitely wasn't Gilman's reflection in a bit of shiny packaging material.

Apparently this is the norm for Lovecraft works, but I thought I'd mention that this story doesn't end well for Gilman. Personally, I didn't mind that, since I didn't particularly like Gilman – I cared less about whether he lived or died than about what was going to happen next. What I didn't entirely understand was why Gilman didn't just completely move out of the Witch-House. Was it that he couldn't afford a more expensive room? Had he just become so obsessed with Keziah, his dreams, and his studies that it never even occurred to him that moving was an option? Was he too disturbed by his experiences to remember that he could leave? Whatever his reason for staying, it was frustrating for me that he continued to live in a place that was causing him so much mental distress.

Although I enjoyed the overall creepiness of this story, I think I liked At the Mountains of Madness more. Gilman's dreams of Brown Jenkin and Keziah were spooky and interesting, and I enjoyed the detail about Gilman's painfully sharp hearing (all the better to describe disturbing sounds and wonder at what those sounds might be hiding). The more abstract dreams were a bit much for me, though, and I never could shake that feeling that Gilman's problems would have been solved if he had just gotten a room somewhere else.

As you can see, I was not nearly as successful in finding read-alikes for this story as I was for At the Mountains of Madness, and I'm not entirely confident about the works that I added to the list.

Read-alikes:
  • Prey (book) by Graham Masterton - According to Wikipedia, Masterton adapted Lovecraft's story and characters in this novel. From the descriptions I've read, the strange rat-scratching sounds in the walls certainly made it into the book. Those who'd like more horror and would like to try something inspired by Lovecraft might want to check this out.
  • Midnighters Vol.1: The Secret Hour (book) by Scott Westerfeld - This book is nothing like Lovecraft's in terms of tone or style, but those who'd just like something else involving a bit of math (sort of) and characters entering another dimension might want to try this. I have written about this book, as well as the second volume.
  • Impossible Things (anthology) by Connie Willis - I haven't read this, but it popped up while I was looking for anything that mixed sci-fi or horror with mathematics or science. From the descriptions I've read, this work sounds like it has a good representation of the kinds of things Willis writes. Those who aren't necessarily looking for something similar in tone to Lovecraft's story but would like other sometimes strange short works might want to try this.
  • Insomnia (book) by Stephen King - I went looking for horror involving sleep-deprivation, and this is what I found. I haven't read any of King's books since finishing Cujo (I'm still a little scarred from that one), so I can't say whether this one is any good or not. Still, those looking for horror and strangeness might want to try this.

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