By Joseph A. Citro
Being a transcript of an introductory presentation at the Vermont Premier or WHISPER IN DARKNESS (10-20-2011) as a benefit for the Main Street Museum in response to flood damage from tropical Storm Irene (aka The 2011 Flood).
PART I: INTRODUCTION
I very pleased to have been invited to say a few words about H.P. Lovecraft and his writing.
My guess is that most of us here have one thing in common: most likely H.P. Lovecraft caught our attention when we were about the same age. And I’m guessing that is between 12 and 16 years old. Some of us may have lost interest in his work as got older. But I suspect anyone who has experienced his writing, and who has been affected by it, has been — perhaps in some subtle way — changed forever.
Tonight we’re all going to experience H.P. Lovecraft at the same time. The new film version of The Whisperer in Darkness.First off, I should mention that many people consider The Whisperer in Darkness to be one of the best, if not the very best Lovecraft story. For me, personally, it is one of the two most influential. It may be the first modern alien abduction story. It may be the first piece of fiction to acknowledge the discovery of a new Planet: Pluto (which as you all know has recently been demoted).
Outside of the oral tradition, it is probably the first monster story to take place in Vermont. And it celebrates — if celebrates is the right word — the horrendous Vermont Flood of 1927. In fact, the flood triggered the story in Mr. Lovecraft’s imagination. In it he talks about monstrous unknown entities that had been discovered washed along in the Vermont flood waters. He writes, “What people thought they saw were organic shapes not quite like any they had ever seen before. … [T]hose who described these strange shapes felt quite sure that they were not human, despite some superficial resemblances in size and general outline. Nor, said the witnesses, could they have been any kind of animal known to Vermont.”
It triggered something in my imagination, too. For me personally, on the most subjective level, I give Whisperer in Darkness a lot of credit for inspiring me to pick up the pen and start writing fiction.
Briefly, here’s what happened — my own personal dance with demons.
PART II: MEETING MR. LOVECRAFT IN DUNWICH
It started when I was 11 or 12 years old. I was in the sixth grade. At that time I had been reading Conan Doyle (the Holmes and Challenger stories), Dracula, lots of comics, and piles of pulp-type magazines.
My teacher, Mr. McCarthy, noticed my interest in — to use a Lovecraftian term — my interest in all things eldritch. One day he handed me a book. A thick one. It was The Modern Library’s hardcover edition of Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, vintage 1942.
Mr. McCarthy said, “You like horror stories. Try this.”
My first thought was, “That’s too big; I don’t want to read all that!”
He opened the book and ran his finger down the contents page, until he stopped at the last title, directing me to page 1031: “The Dunwich Horror.”
“Oh,” I thought, “Just one short story. I can handle that.” (Perhaps I was being too optimistic.)
So after school I raced home and started reading. I was quickly transported. My developing brain had never encountered anything quite like the “Lovecraft Experience”. Today, thinking back, I can almost relive the lost equilibrium of taking “the wrong fork” at the very beginning of the story and ending up in Dunwich.
Certain images and phrases rattled me. One example: “Without saying more he rose and strode out of the building, stooping at each doorway.”
Wilbur Whateley — I had never encountered a villain quite like him. So, when he died halfway through the story, it made no sense to me.
And that was just one of the minor ways Mr. Lovecraft threw me off balance.
I can’t say I gave the story a good reading. I had refused to be distracted for frequent trips to the dictionary. Lovecraft’s arcane vocabulary dwarfed my own, but big words and unfamiliar adjectives made me think he knew what he was talking about.
Hey, I was young. . .
Besides incomprehensible words, there were suggestions and nuances beyond the reach of the inexperienced adolescent imagination.
This was my first exposure to “Cosmic Horror”. It tugged at my Roman Catholicism, making me feel as if I had truly visited some forbidden realm. Perhaps I should hide the book, I thought, the stuff I was reading might be… sinful.
Malignant albinos, soul-hungry whippoorwills, cattle mutilations, and poor Dr. Armitage driven to near-madness when he realized the degree of the danger we all are facing.
And then, “The Elmer Fryes had been erased from Dunwich.”
“Erased”? Could Mr. Lovecraft have chosen a more sinister word?
There is a kind of deadly precision in what some might call his verbosity.
To this day I’m not sure what the youthful brain is supposed to do with Mr. Lovecraft’s fiction, but that is when we are most vulnerable to his dark magic.
In my case, I just kept on reading.
When I eventually hit “The Whisperer in Darkness” I knew I was home. And in a very literal way: I lived in Vermont and the story takes place in Vermont. I was familiar with the locations mentioned. My parents had survived the flood of 1927, and occasionally spoke of it. They even had photographs. Some of its devastation was still evident on the grounds of my grandfather’s farm in Chester.
And, after reading the tale, I truly believed the chittering and buzzing I often heard in the woodland crowding our house might have been…
Well… maybe I’d better not even consider that.
But for me the bottom line is that by reading “Whisperer” I learned what was perhaps the most important writing lesson of my life: I did not need to explore distant exotic realms to find true horror. It was here, right under my feet. As Mr. Lovecraft pointed out in "The Picture in the House." "... the true epicure in the terrible ... esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous."
Or, in my more simplistic terms, Dracula’s Transylvanian castle was no more terrifying than Cy Stoddard’s barn.
For all his personal eccentricities and imperfections, H.P. Lovecraft had a unique imagination. It was powerful enough to influence and to guide a whole coven of devotees that included Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, and even Harry Houdini. And who can say how many of us, who met him on the page long after his death, have mutated as a result? Steven King, John Carpenter, Gahan Wilson… Steve Bissette.
PART III: THE AWFUL
But there is another contingent of Lovecraft followers. As you know, some H.P. Lovecraft fans — in many cases people who haven’t taken the time to actually read his work — believe that what he wrote may not be entirely fiction. That there may really be ways to transcend the dimensions; there may, in fact, be elder gods. It is all laid out, they say, in the dreaded Necronomicon, which might be a real book.
Quite recently I looked into a case where Mr. Lovecraft seems to have jumped from the fiction onto the non-fiction shelves. I even wrote about it in the book Steve and I did together, The Vermont Monster Guide.
Let me read it to you. It’s only about 300 words long.
It’s call “The Awful”
Known simply as The Awful, this horrifying airborne unknown is spotted around northwestern Vermont, mostly in the vicinity of Richford. Supposedly it was first sighted one evening perched gargoyle-style atop the Boright building at the corner of Main and River streets.
Said to resemble a Griffin, the monstrosity has two gray, 10-foot wings. Its serpent-like tail adds another 10-feet to its dimensions. Its nasty claws inspire instant terror. One of the first men to see it, a sawmill worker, was so petrified he had a heart attack on the spot.
"You can usually hear the thing before you see it,” a recent witness told the County Courier in 2006. “ It makes a pretty weird sound, like a low scream … when it gets closer, you can hear its wings, which sound like fat blankets being shook out."
Other observers swore they witnessed it making off with a screaming infant. But no child was missing, so its unfortunate prey was more likely some small animal.
More sightings followed. One woman spotted the Awful while she was hanging the wash. It scared her so much she hid under her bed for hours.
Lisa Maskell, who grew up in the area, told the County Courier, " When I was about 10 or 11, we saw this thing sitting in a tree near the Trout River … it was huge with large wings and a long, strange beak …” She thought it looked like a pterodactyl. “Big, scary, and fascinating."
As recently as 2006 a citizen of Richford spotted a winged monster swoop out of the sky to snatch a huge black crow. Was it a descendent of the original Awful? Or could it be the same critter still flying, now more than 100 years old?
We may never know. As one witness said, “…the general feeling is we don't bother it and it don't bother us. . . maybe with a few exceptions."
(Is this "The Awful"? Illo by Stephen R. Bissette)
PART IV: THE VERMONT MYSTERY
Okay that’s it. But I’ll tell you the two names that I deliberately left out of the story — H.P. Lovecraft and H.P. Albarelli Jr. And I’ll explain to you why I left them out.
So now I’ll read you the story behind the story. And this is where Mr. Lovecraft comes in.
On October 6, 2006 The County Courier — a small Vermont newspaper out of Enosburg Falls — published an article by journalist H.P. Albarelli Jr.
As far as I have been able to determine, his article contains the first reference ever to The Awful.
His article is presented as fact.
He begins, “In 1925, renowned horror writer H.P. Lovecraft secretly traveled to Richford and Berkshire [Vermont] to investigate a strange phenomenon that was occurring in the two towns. Lovecraft had been visiting friends in southern Vermont when he first learned about odd sightings [of the Awful] in Richford.” End quote.
Now this is startling news to anyone who knows anything about H.P. Lovecraft. The skeptical Mr. Lovecraft as paranormal investigator…? Well… I’m not so sure about that.
But Mr. Albarelli goes on to say, “Locals [in the Richford area] were terribly afraid of a beast they had dubbed ‘the Awful.’ … according to records of old, [it] was a winged creature that resembled” — and here he quotes — “a very large Griffin-like creature with grayish wings that each spanned ten-feet.’
The creature possessed ‘a serpent like tail that equaled its wing length’ and ‘huge claws that could easily grip a milk can's girth.”
Okay, he’s talking about a flying serpent with a 20-foot wingspan and a 10-foot tail.
Now at this point, being a Lovecraft fan and a chronicler of Vermont Folklore, my interest is really piqued. Here we have a local monster, far more sinister than Champ, and I’d never even heard of it! How could I have missed something like this? I figure I’ve got to get to the bottom of things.
First I called the editor of the newspaper, who assured me that the writer, Mr H.P. Albarelli, is a real person with real publishing credentials.
Next I examined the published story itself for internal clues.
Recall that Mr. Albarelli wrote that Mr. Lovecraft visited Richford, Vermont in 1925. The trip occurred while he was “visiting friends in southern Vermont”.
Okay, maybe. But extensive research on Mr. Lovecraft fails to reveal that he had any friends in Vermont in 1925.
It is documented, however, that HPL and his friend Paul Cook of Athol, Massachusetts came to Vermont to visit the poet Arthur Goodenough of Guilford in August of 1927.
Then, in March 1928, he published an essay about his trip called Vermont: A First Impression.
We can reason that if he saw Vermont for the first time in 1927, he couldn’t have been in southern Vermont and Richford in 1925.
The friends of record that he visited here were poet Arthur Goodenough in 1927. And entrepreneur, editor and Vermont secessionist Vrest Orton (founder of The Vermont Country Store) in 1928, after the Vermont Flood.
But as far as I know, no one has found any documentation that he ever went monster hunting into northern Vermont. Or anywhere else.
Nonetheless, Mr. Albarelli writes — and I quote — “When H.P. Lovecraft returned to southern Vermont from Richford he told friends he was convinced that the Richford locals he had interviewed were” — and here Mr. Albarelli directly quotes Lovecraft. [The locals were] "not in the least mistaken about what they had witnessed."
Supposedly Mr. Lovecraft later wrote — and again I quote — "The Awful became ample sustenance for my imagination" and "over time the creature became the basis for many of my own fictional inventions."
So Mr. Lovecraft is allegedly saying this Vermont creature inspired his eldritch tales. Maybe even the Mi-Go in “Whisperer in the Darkness”.
That’s how Mr. Albarelli quotes Mr. Lovecraft. Trouble is, I can’t find the quote anywhere I look. And one is a little suspect of the diction. Granted, H.P. Lovecraft could be wordy, but the redundancy of saying “fictional inventions” seems a little over the top for a professional writer and editor.
There is also the peculiar use of the word “Griffin”. Remember, Mr. Albarelli claims to have quoted an “old source” — that should read “old unidentified source” — that describes the Awful as looking like a Griffin? The word Griffin simply wasn’t used around here. The “old source” was not being usefully descriptive to compare the appearance of one unknown animal to that of another.
So finally, with all my suspicions in tact, I contacted Mr. Albarelli himself. Essentially, I wanted to know two things:
Number one: Is there a legitimate Vermont tradition of “Awful” sightings?
And second is there proof that H.P Lovecraft really ventured into northern Vermont in 1925?
Now I don’t want to say Mr. Albarelli was evasive. I will say that Mr. Albarelli seemed as if he was being evasive.
He gave me the following information via email.
1. He had purchased an 1888 building up in Richford. For years the building's top floor was used as the local Masonic Temple. (Oh, a Masonic tie-in. This is getting more interesting.)
2. There he found some interesting items, including several handwritten journals. In one he found a mention of “The Awful”. He didn’t tell me whose journals they were.
3. He also found some original letters, all unpublished as far as he knows.
4. One of the letters, presumably penned by H.P. Lovecraft, supposedly validates his trip to Richford and his interest in The Awful. Mr. Albarelli says the letter is from Mr. Lovecraft to a Franklin Country Minister and doctor, a friend of one of HPL’s southern Vermont friends. Hw wouldn’t name the doctor, the minister, or the friend, but Mr. Albarelli assured me the Lovecraft letter is quite genuine.
I have not seen the letter nor the journal. I wasn’t invited to do so. Nor do I know of anyone who has seen the items in question..
I have not found evidence that H. P. Lovecraft visited Vermont prior to 1927.
I can’t find any indication the Awful existed in print or in the folk imagination prior to Mr. Albarelli’s October 6, 2006 article in The County Courier.
So what are we to make of all this?
I guess it all comes down to a simple question: Is the Awful a real-life, three dimensional crypto-critter that stalks the forests and skies of northern Vermont? Or is it a “fictional invention” perpetrated by H.P. Lovecraft? Or H.P Albarelli? Or, quite possibly. . . someone else? But who?
We end with a mystery. Is the Awful the real-life or literary granddaddy of the Mi-Go you’re about to meet in tonight’s film?
Well, we just don’t know. All we can do is wait and see what sort of carrion is washed down with the floodwaters of Tropical Storm Irene.
Joseph A. Citro is an expert in New England weirdness. In over a dozen book-length publications—novels and nonfiction—he has guided readers through a dark and sometimes sinister landscape that has traditionally been portrayed with sunny skies, quaint villages, and smiling rustics. Mr. Citro was the first to assemble comprehensive collections of Vermont’s offbeat tales; he then expanded to the other New England states where earlier explorers like Edward Rowe Snow, Alton Blackington, and H.P. Lovecraft left their distinct footprints. He is a popular lecturer, teacher, and media personality. His most recent books include Weird New England and Vermont’s Haunts. His most Lovecraftian tome is the novel Lake Monsters, is being developed into a motion picture. The movie of his short story, “Soul Keeper”, has just been released.