WARNING! These reviews all contain SPOILERS!!!!

Friday, May 1, 2020

"The Trail of Cthulhu" aka "The House On Curwen Street"

by August Derleth
originally published Weird Tales, March 1944

It's 1938, and Andrew Phelan of Boston has up and disappeared - "made away with himself, sez the Boston Herald.

It seems a while back Andrew responded to a want ad, offering employment to a young feller with brains, brawn, and a "limited imagination".  Not the most enticing job listing but maybe Andy was hard up.  

In any case, Andy made his way down to nearby Arkham and showed up at an old house on Curwen Street that looked like all the other houses except its "almost sinster appearance."  Like all good pulp horror heroes, Andy soldiers ahead anyway and is met by Dr, Laban Shrewsbury, one of the least-loved of all Cthulhu fiction characters.  Doc Shrew is an elderly gent with long white hair, a "prognathous jaw" and a "roman nose", who effects a pair of shielded dark glasses (think Claude Rains in The Invisible Man, 1933).  The Doc interviews Andy, explaining that he needs to be intelligent, needs some muscle because he might have to play bodyguard to the Doc once in a blue moon, and needs a limited imagination because otherwise "a too imaginative companion might well be able to grasp enough of the fundamentals to suspect the cosmic revelations which might come of my work."  Isn't that kind of a highfalutin' way of saying "if you actually understood what I was doing you'd freak the fuck out and run back to Boston"?   I dunno.  Me if someone said that to me in a job interview I'd tell `em to shred my resume, but Andy has no such scruples, and the Doc offers him top dollar to take the job and move into an upstairs room - immediately!  Oh, and he has company coming and wants Andy to hide in a semi-hidden room, eavesdrop, and transcribe the entire conversation.

His visitor shows up seconds later - interestingly, Doc seems to know he's at the door even before he knocks.  Said visitor is a South American sailor named Fernandez, who tells of how, while wandering near the ruins of Machu Picchu one night, he follows some weird music and finds a half-buried cavern beyond some rocks forming a doorway, and a bunch of Indians engaged in some kind of ritual around a black lake.  And there's something in the lake - a whistling, gurgling thing "as  big as a hill … like jelly."

Doc asks him several questions that seem way above Fernandez' pay grade, then, suddenly reacting to something, tells Fernandez he has to get the heck out of there, and make sure no one sees him on his way back to Innsmouth.  Fernandez leaves, and the Doc tells Andy that soon there will be another visitor, looking for Fernandez.  He's to tell said visitor that he doesn't know Fernandez and that he hasn't been there.  Moments later a "batrachian" fellow shows up a the door as predicted.  Andy dutifully sends him away.

Over the next few days Doc sort of obtusely explains that his work involves drawing comparisons between "mainstream" pagan mythologies and the Cthulhu bizness, and his belief that dangerous cults devoted to the Cthuloogies still exist.  As if to prove his point, Fernandez is apparently murdered in Innsmouth a short time later.  Meanwhile, Doc introduces Andy to a golden-yellow mead that he hordes carefully, and it's real good shit.

Andy begins having a series of strange dreams.  In the first, Doc shows up in his bedroom, gets him up, calls forth some bat-winged whoozits from out of the night sky, who fly Andy and Doc off to some remote location, basically matching Fernandez mysterious cavern.  There the Doc has Andy transcribe his every conjecture as he examines the place.  In the morning when he wakes up, he finds his shoes gone - the Doc sez he sent them out to be cleaned.  Andy finds this merely eccentric.

Andy is sent to translate some passages from the Necronomicon et al suggesting that (a) there are portals around the world through which the Great Old Ones can enter and (b) us peoples can destroy those portals, thus preventing their entry.  While in the library, he meets an old codger who tells how Doc basically disappeared one day 23 years ago, then just as mysteriously re-appeared, 3 years back.  And no one knows where he went or what happened to him.  Andy does a little checking and discovers this is true.

Back home, Andy finds Doc engaged in making explosives.  Since this is pre-9/11, he doesn't think "terrorist" and since this is a Lovecraft pastiche, he doesn't think or do anything else about it either.  That night Doc sez he is not to be disturbed, but, when Andy hears some shutters banging in a storm, he enters Doc's room only to find him MIA.  He also finds a glass with a tiny drop of the mead in it, and, having no impulse control, he drinks it (rude!).  Soon after his sleep is disturbed by the same batwinged whoozit-summoning chants he heard in his dream, and the sounds of explosions and crashing rocks, though he can't figure where these are coming from.  The next day Doc has him file a clipping from a wire service about a hill collapsing into an underground reservoir, and the death of several Indians in the collapse.  Doc seems amused.

Doc finishes dictating his latest MS, which he ends with an admonition to pit the various Great Old Ones and their minions against one another as a way of keeping them at bay.  He also talks of running around destroying those portals previously mentioned.   Doc gets excited about a story in the London Times about an illiterate dockworker named Massie who went missing for months, then turned up, speaking no known language.  That night, Andy dreams that he and Doc fly off on the whoozits again to London, where they meet with Massie's doctor, who tells them the not-too-bright Massie now seems to have a powerful and educated mind, but that the poor saps dying, apparently from exposure to harsh elements during his long absence.  Doc identifies the unknown language as R'lyehan, and gets Massie to recount as visit to R'lyeh, risen from the deeps, courtesy of some Deep One who snatched him off the Thames.

Dreams and reality begin to blur for Andy, and he's not sure what's happening anymore.  He has a third dream - this time, he and Doc flap off to what is apparently R'lyeh; there Doc sets up explosives around a portal - while being stalked by Deep Ones, held at bay by a five-pointed star-stone, and blows the door just Cthulhu is trying to ooze through it.  This dream sends Andy to a shrink - who writes it off as anxiety and is unconcerned that Andy woke up with slime and mud all over his shoes (from the mucky ground of R'lyeh) and a current copy of the London Times in his pocket!

When Andy gets back, Doc is all wigged out.  He's got a ton of papers he wants donated to Miskatonic U.  Andy starts asking some hard questions and Doc admits that he's been sealing up portals of the Great Old Ones, with Andy's help - i.e. - the dreams are all true.  The mead is a potion that allows for travel via batwinger.  Doc was on Celaeno all those years he was missing.  And now a rumbling, sloshing sound - as if something gigantic is moving through the waters under the earth, fills the house.  Doc confesses that the minions of Cthulhu are coming for him, and they both have to run for it.  He gives Andy some mead, a whistle used to summon the batwingers (along with the chant, which Andy has memorized), and the star-stone.  In his agitation, he accidentally knocks off his shades - lo and behold, Doc has no eyes!  This last causes Andy to run screaming from the house - the ungrateful wimp!

Doc's house burns down, and he's presumed killed in the fire, though no bones are found.  Andy drifts around, hiding out from the minions.  One night he hears the underground noises.  He summons the batwings in order to escape.

Thus we embark on the first of five stories in a series Derleth eventually published via Arkham House as The Trail of Cthulhu.  One of the most maligned of all Lovecraft pastiches (after the "posthumous collaborations, of course).  How bad is it?  Well....

Not bad at all, really.  I've read this tale at least twice before.  It's certainly no classic.  But it is a decent read and I did in fact find myself getting caught up in this time through, despite my considerable cynicism about it.  The plot is reasonably well-and-carefully thought out, excepting the idiotic behaviors of Andy and his shrink (albeit I've known some real-life shrinks who could be just as dim as this fellow).  And occasionally the monsters (why did they snatch Massie, after all?) Sure, its pulp Lovecraft.  And the expository bits, where Doc yammers on about his theories, are tiresome laundry lists of the usual clich├ęs.  

But, there's compensating glories, too.  Mainly when it comes to atmosphere.  Fernandez' story is actually spooky.  Even more so is Doc and Andy's visit to R'lyeh … planting bombs while Deep Ones et al slither towards them out of the ruins.  That scene is particularly evocative.  

Although I remembered finding Doc an irritating character, here I found him sympathetic.  He actually comes off as a somewhat believable figure - an old guy who's probably a little nuts, who's been through indescribable experiences (travel to an alien planet, where, apparently, he underwent torture - an implied explanation for his missing peepers which I missed on previous reads), knows too much about things he doesn't really understand as well as he hopes/thinks, and dragging some poor schlob into his mess to boot.  He means well, but doesn't actually know what he's doing.  I actually think this is good characterization on Auggie's part.  Okay, this story is no classic.  But its no bow-wow either.


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