Monday, November 29, 2010

Interesting Shorts: The Shunned House

I like H.P. Lovecraft, but it was reading Michael E Bell’s Food for the Dead that had me revisiting The Shunned House – a story, I confess, I must not have read in over 23 years.

Bell is acquainted with the actual Shunned House, indeed the Benefit Street house described by Lovecraft is opposite his office. It was also clear that, within the story, Lovecraft had included aspects of both vampire and werewolf lore and that this was based on his knowledge of the folklore and knowledge also of the exhumations that took place in New England. Indeed the familial names of many of those involved in Lovecraft’s tale were familiar to me via Bell’s research into the real world exhumations.

The story (written in 1924 and published in 1937) surrounds a house that seems cursed; indeed he tells us that, “What I heard in my youth about the shunned house was merely that people died there in alarmingly great numbers.” We discover that no child was born in the house – those few that were delivered there were all still-born. Those adults and children who did die whilst living in that abode “were not all cut off suddenly by any one cause; rather did it seem that their vitality was insidiously sapped, so that each one died the sooner from whatever tendency to weakness he may have naturally had.”

Not everyone died, at least not at first, and those who moved away seem to improve in strength but whilst alive in the house they “displayed in varying degree a type of anaemia or consumption”. Consumption, of course, being the primary infection that led to the exhumations in New England.

During his investigations into the house, the storyteller tells us of a servant called Ann White, from Exeter (scene of the Mercy Brown exhumation, amongst others), who insisted that “there must lie buried beneath the house one of those vampires - the dead who retain their bodily form and live on the blood or breath of the living - whose hideous legions send their preying shapes or spirits abroad by night. To destroy a vampire one must, the grandmothers say, exhume it and burn its heart, or at least drive a stake through that organ”. This, of course, conjures up images of exhumation and corpse mutilation due to the belief the corpse is a vampire.

Fuseli's the nightmare
White insisted, due to an amorphous fungal shape that regularly appeared in the compacted soil of the cellar floor and the unwholesome smell that seemed to emanate from there, that said cellar should be searched and was discharged for her trouble. The storyteller admits that White’s tales dovetailed with others he came across in his investigation. That an earlier servant, Preserved Smith, complained “that something "sucked his breath" at night”, that the death-certificates of four fever victims showed that “the four deceased persons [were] all unaccountably lacking in blood” and that the ravings of resident Rhoby Harris contained complaints “of the sharp teeth of a glassy-eyed, half-visible presence.” Bell tells us that it is common for tuberculosis (consumption) sufferers to “awaken, coughing in pain (sometimes described as a heavy feeling, like someone has sat upon the chest)”. This would also fit into folklore surrounding sleep paralysis that culminated in Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare.

The investigator uncovered the fact that the dying sometimes attacked the living, namely their doctors, for instance Eleazar Durfee who “transfigured in a horrible way; glaring glassily and attempting to bite the throat of the attending physician” The investigator describes things coming to a head, and the house being withdrawn as a rented property, when there was “a series of anaemia deaths preceded by progressive madnesses wherein the patient would craftily attempt the lives of his relatives by incisions in the neck or wrists.” Of course, these attacks are not typical symptoms suffered by the consumption victim but born of Lovecraft’s storytelling craft.

He does mention the werewolf legend and ties it in with the Roulet legend (chronicled by Montague Summers) – however I shan’t go into that here except to say both the vampirism and lycanthropy became ways for the uninitiated to explain the eldritch terrors that under-pinned the story – as they would do in a Lovecraft tale. The Investigator imagines “an alien nucleus of substance or energy, formless or otherwise, kept alive by imperceptible or immaterial subtractions from the life-force or bodily tissue and fluids of other and more palpably living things” but uses both science and folklore to develop weapons. He creates an unfeasible piece of equipment, along the lines of a Crookes tube, should the thing prove intangible. However, should it be more physical in manifestation he has flamethrowers, “for like the superstitious Exeter rustics, we were prepared to burn the thing's heart out if heart existed to burn.”

In the end the flamethrowers are not used – acid ends up being the order of the day, after wounding the thing with his unfeasible Crookes tube – however I should mention the fact that the investigator does liken the phosphorous luminescent cloud to a corpse-light, a “vampirish vapour such as Exeter rustics tell of as lurking over certain church yards”. The idea of corpse-lights has become inextricably linked to some of the New England vampire cases.

So, Lovecraft and vampires… using more traditional folklore of course and remember that as Bell tells us, “In New England tradition the unnamed evil resided in the grave, perhaps locating itself within the corpse of a deceased family member.” Thus the idea that this might be some “intruder” as Lovecraft would describe it fits the tradition very well indeed.

A film version, The Shunned House (2003) directed by Ivan Zuccon, lost all of the vampiric elements bar a vague reference to “ghosts and demons who sucked a person’s soul whilst sleeping” and merged in the stories Dreams in the Witch House and the Music of Erich Zann. It did include a character called Estelle Roulet, however.

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