Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Reimagining the American Haunted House (Part Two): H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dreams in the Witch House"

This blog is the second installment in a series examining American ‘haunted houses' in Gothic literature.  As I suggested in an earlier post, when most people think about haunted houses they usual have a fairly standard picture in mind... the creepy castle, the abandoned shack, the old ruin.  However, because America has a unique history certain American Gothic texts manipulate the classic ‘haunted house’ trope in order to explore a specific cultural identity.

H.P. Lovecraft is one of my favourite Gothic authors if only because he is so very strange, straddling the boundaries between the Gothic, Weird Fiction, and Science Fiction.  It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that when Lovecraft does write about a haunted house he twists the traditional formula into one in keeping with his own  particular mythos.

The Dreams in the Witch House (1933) is set in “the changeless, legend-haunted city of Arkham,” playing with America’s definitions of a ‘haunted house’ and with what constitutes a national ‘haunted history.’  Protagonist Walter Gilman takes an apartment in “the old Witch House” expressly for the purposes of academic study as he attempts to apply modern mathematics and scientific theory to the work of a legendary witch from centuries before.  His new domicile was formerly occupied by a witch named Keziah Mason.  Mason disappeared from a Salem jail during the Witch Trials in the 1600s, leaving behind her a kind of supernatural imprint that makes the very walls of the Witch House uncanny and dangerous.  As Walter unearths a weird kind of supernatural geometry connected with the house and Mason's activities he accidentally falls through a portal to a hell dimension, home to the Elder Gods which populate Lovecraft's fiction.  Refusing to believe his own senses, Walter eventually succumbs to the evil of the house, sells his soul to a Devil-figure while in a dream-state, and is killed by Mason and her familiar, a rat-man creature named Brown Jenkins.

The rat-man. You're welcome.

Within the space of the Witch House boundaries are fluid to the point of being almost non-existent…people fall between the human world and an Elder God world almost unintentionally.  Walter frequently ends up in places he shouldn’t be, unsure whether he can ever escape or, indeed, whether there is even a place to escape to:

“He felt sure he was in the immemorially sealed loft above his own room, but whether he could ever escape through the slanting floor or the long-slopped egress he doubted greatly.  Besides, would not an escape from the dream-loft bring him merely into a dream-house – an abnormal projection of the actual place he sought?  He was wholly bewildered as to the relation betwixt dream and reality in all his experiences.”

Once in a transgressive space, Walter's senses deny boundaries in their inability to navigate slanting floors and basic architecture.  However, the house takes on a doubly uncanny significance when Walter is unable to separate dreams from reality, a dream-house from an actual material space.  

This is interesting given that the story almost immediately starts by anchoring the narrative in a specific time and place – the original evil of the Witch house occurred in 1692 in an area famous for the Salem Witch Trials.  Even a casual reader has immediate associations with that historical context and some very specific cultural traditions and images.  Like many 'haunted' houses in fiction, this house refers to a specific time and crime, yet also articulates a more general anxiety connected to the Salem Witch Trials as a sort of symbol of repression, hysteria, and an uncanny un-identity.  Anxieties about a particularly dark time in American history resurface and reclaim the present just as an actual ghost would.  Moreover, such historical context suggests that the reader can assume that certain historical facts are true and that space in this instance is ultimately fixed and navigable.

However, just as the physical boundaries of the house are fluid, so too are the historical realities associated with it.  Lovecraft reworks the traditional Puritan/Devil story to conform to a Cthulhu mythos.  The original tales of Salem witches include stories of familiars (little demonic creatures who serve witches) and the “Black Man” who comes to his disciples in the night and forces them to write their names in his book (and therein presumably sell themselves to Satan).  In Lovecraft's Witch House those old tropes remain – the witch, the familiar, the Black Man – yet this story also accommodates Lovecraft’s familiar villains, ancient “primal evils” such as Azathoth, an Elder God.  The Black Man, a figure belonging to a specific regional heritage, becomes the messenger of a timeless and space-less elder god, and the haunted house, a material and relatively stable area, becomes a portal to an alternate and unheimlich dimension.  Blood sacrifice, magic, folklore are all reworked and reincorporated into Lovecraft’s reimagining, an adaptation and re-working of history as well as fiction. As such he uses the idea of a ‘haunted house’ to subvert the traditions attached to it – to de-familiarise cultural history and thus blur our perceptions of reality. 

"I'm bored...wake up...make me a snack..." (From Stuart Gordon's 2005 adaptation)

Ultimately, as with all spaces of ‘history,’ the house is revealed to be a graveyard – whatever the true nature of history and identity the story ends, with typical Lovecraftian optimism, with the discovery of a secret horror, in this case a legacy of human sacrifice.  In the "immemorially sealed loft" Walter experiences a timeless evil that is also part of an active attempt to seal off a physical space, the history it represents (the hysteria of the Witch Trials), and the forgotten history (the remains of human sacrifices) which has enabled evil to fester.  By failing to place history in a proper context, however, one risks repeating it.  History in The Dreams of the Witch House is troubling cyclical as yet another victim, Walter, fall prey to an evil that is both anchored in a culturally significant time and space and part of a timeless space without boundaries.  Much like Arkham, this particular American haunted house is both "changeless and legend-haunted."  The house which is introduced as unheimlich develops as the ultimate ‘un-home’ not only because it denies the physicality and materialism of homeliness but because it de-familiarises history and cultural identity for both protagonist and reader.

Kathleen Hudson is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sheffield, studying Gothic narrative in early Gothic texts.  She has visited the Witch House but is waiting until her PhD is completed before she transcends the inter-dimensional plane.

1 comment:

  1. I read "Dreams in a Witch House" as a teenager. After reading this post, I want to go back and read it again. Not surprisingly, it seems a lot richer story than I remember!