There's a saying that to an Englishman, a hundred miles is a long way; and to an American, a hundred years is a long time. We've seen Lovecraft play with this type of scale in "The Rats in the Walls", where he set his story of generational evil stretching back to prehistoric times in England, whose rich, layered history has room to accommodate such a span; and in "Colour Out of Space", where the narrator assumed that the dark rumors about "the strange days" come from ancient legend and is surprised to learn that they occurred within living memory.
Perhaps one of the reasons Lovecraft set so many of his stories in his beloved New England was because as one of the oldest colonial settlements in America, it possesses a sense of depth to its history that, say, Ohio or even New York lack. The ancestors of the Whateley family in the story originally left the town of Salem in 1692 Readers don't have to know that was the year of the Salem Witch Trials to make the association. Lovecraft goes back even further, mentioning circles of standing stones which crown some of the hills in the area, evoking an atmosphere of prehistoric, or at least pre-European times. (Although a curious comment in the text suggests that the stones on Sentinel Hill overlooking the village of Dunwich could be of "caucasian" origin. Does he mean the early white settlers? Or an unknown group of pre-historic white men predating the local Indian tribes? Characteristicly, Lovecraft does not elaborate.)
Lovecraft begins his story, like many of his others, by establishing the atmosphere of the setting. This is something he does quite well. Although he gets some justified mockery for his over-use of shambling, amorphous non-euclidiean adjectives, he usually saves them for later, when the actual horror begins to encroach. He is quite capable of establishing a tone of quiet menace without them. I think he learned this from Poe, who said that every sentence in a short story ought to go to creating a single mood and that this should be established at the very beginning.
He describes the tiny village of Dunwich, in north central Massachusetts. You could describe it as a Town that Time Forgot That the Decades Cannot Improve... only not in a pleasant, Lake Wobegon-ish way. It was settled, as mentioned, by families fleeing from the Salem Witch Trials; some of whom brought with them the dark practices the Salem Puritans feared. In isolation, many of these families have become inbred and degenerate.
Two of Lovecraft's favorite horror themes, which no doubt come from his upper-class New England upbringing, are inbreeding and miscegenation, both of which invariably lead to degeneration. This is perhaps most obvious in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" but we get it here too in the family of Wilbur Whateley, a clan of New England rednecks, despised and a little feared by their more respectable neighbors. (Throughout the story, Lovecraft differentiates between the the decadent Whateley's and the comparatively undecayed branch of the family.)
Old Man Whateley has a reputation as a wizard, and his old farmhouse holds a large collection of old books inherited from his heretical forebears. A widower, he lives alone on his farm except for his daughter Lavinia. She is described as an albino with crinkly hair and has some other undescribed deformity, the nature of which Lovecraft leaves to the imagination.
One night Lavinia has a son. Who was the father? The neighbors have their theories, and Lovecraft is too much the gentleman to voice what those rumors are. Old Whateley, however, says "Ye needn't think the only folks is the folks hereabaouts."
"I calc'late her man is as good a husban' as ye kin find this side of Aylesbury; an ef ye knowed as much abaout the hills as I dew, ye wouldn't akt no better church weddin' nor her'n. Let me tell ye suthin; -- some day yew folks'll hear a child o' Lavinny's a-callin' its father's name on the top o' Sentinel Hill!"The child, Wilbur, is dark, as opposed to his albino mother, and has a goatish look to him. He is born on Candlemas, an obscure feast day of the Christian Church which corresponds to one of the four important celebrations of the Witch's Sabbath, (and which has been reclaimed as a celebration by modern Wiccans). Throughout the story are other mentions of Christian feast days with pagan connotations.
Lavinnia is proud of her ugly son and mutters about the great powers he will have and his tremendous future. The boy does seem exceptional. He grows at a remarkable rate and is able to walk and to speak at an early age. His mother takes him with her to the bonfires she lights at the stone table and megaliths atop Sentinel Hill on Hallowe'en and other significant holidays. She keeps him buttoned up in clothing which covers almost his entire body. Dogs and other animals seem to instinctively dislike him.
The Whateley's have little to do with the rest of the community. The only contact they have is to buy livestock. After Wilbur's birth, Old Whateley begins buying cattle from his neighbors, and paying in gold -- very old gold coins. Oddly enough, the size of Whateley's herd never seems to increase much; and his livestock always seems thin and sickly, bearing strange wounds on their necks.
Old Whateley also begins renovating parts of his farm. He starts with one of the old sheds, which he repairs with fresh clapboards and a new lock. Then he begins working on the unused upper floor of his farmhouse. He guts the floor, pulling out all the walls and partitions and boarding up the windows, and eventually removing even the ceiling so that the story is open to the attic. Visitors to his farm notice that a vile odor comes from the shed. They also hear noises of something large walking around in the upstairs part of the farmhouse. Wilbur's room, like that of his mother and grandfather, is on the ground floor.
Whateley teaches his grandson to read from the many ancient, arcane and blasphemous tomes that have come down through the family. "He'd orter hev 'em as well sot as he kin, tho they're goin' to be all of his larnin'."
By the time Wilbur is four years old, he looks like he's fifteen; he's growing fuzz on his face and his voice is beginning to break. He carries a gun with him when he goes into town to protect himself from the dogs, who become violently agitated by his presence.
He is about eleven years old, and by all appearance a fully grown man, when his grandfather dies. The doctor from the nearest large town is summoned, but can do nothing to save him. The whippoorwills are gathering outside the house and raising a tremendous racket. It is believed in that area that whippoorwills come for the souls of the dead and dying -- "psychopomps" is the word Lovecraft uses -- and Old Whateley is sure that they are coming for him. Old Whateley has some last words for his grandson.
"More space, Willy, more space soon. Yew grows -- an' that grows faster. It'll be ready to sarve ye soon, boy. Open up the gates to Yog-Sothoth with the long chant tha ye'll find on page 751 of the complete edition, an' then put a match to the prison. Fire from airth can't burn it nohaow."The doctor doesn't know what to make of this and puts it down to the ravings of a dying man. It makes sense to Wilbur, though.
His mother is starting to become worried about him. The pride she felt at how special he was is becoming overshadowed by fear. He's doing something and she doesn't fully understand what it is. And she cannot speak to anyone about what she does understand. Sometime later, the whippoorwills are heard again around the Whateley farm, and Lavinia is never seen again.
Wilbur moves all his books and belongings into another of the sheds in the farmyard, and then starts gutting the inside of the rest of the farmhouse, carefully boarding up all the windows and doors, just as his grandfather had done previously. He has now grown to about seven feet tall. And about this time he ventures out into the wide world.
He travels to the town of Arkham, to visit the Library of the great Miskatonic University. Well, maybe "great" is an exaggeration; in another story Lovecraft calls it a minor college; but it does have an excellent collection of rare and arcane books of occult lore, including the legendary Necronomicon.
A few words about the Necronomicon. I think August Derleth erred in calling his organizing of Lovecraft's stories the "Cthulhu Mythos." The central unifying element in Lovecraft's foetid oeuvre is not Great Cthulhu, but rather the Necronomicon, that celebrated compendium of dark and eldritch lore, compiled by the Mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred in the 8th Century. The book turns up in several of his stories, often providing helpful information about Elder Gods and/or driving its readers to madness. In the 1970s there were a couple books published with that title, claiming to be the "real" Necronomicon, but they were rather pedestrian hoaxes about your ordinary garden variety of occultism. The True Necronomicon in it's purest state exists only in the ravaged imagination of Abdul Alhazred... whom Lovecraft invented.
Wilbur has his own copy of the Necronomicon, a worn and damaged edition of John Dee's English translation. Dee was an actual historical figure, an occultist who was a member of the court of Queen Elizabeth, and Lovecraft's friend Frank Belknap Long added a connection between Dee and the Necronomicon in one of his own stories. Wilbur wants to compare his own copy to the superior Latin translation in the M.U. Library, particularly the portions corresponding to page 751.
The librarian, Dr. Henry Armitage, dubiously permits Wilbur to look at the book; but he's frankly suspicious of the strange creepy young man who sets the dogs on campus howling. He knows a little bit about Wilbur, having heard about the young prodigy with the interest in the occult and visited him a couple years earlier. He's even more suspicious when he looks over Wilbur's shoulder to see exactly what he's reading: a passage about the Old Ones who dwell in a space other than our own and who someday will rule again when humanity is no more, and about Yog-Sothoth, the guardian of the gate to the Old Ones' dimension. Wilbur asks to borrow the University's Necronomicon, but Armitage refuses.
"Maybe Harvard wun't be so fussy as yew be," Wilbur says as he leaves.
This encounter with the now adult Whateley has confirmed some suspicions lurking in Armitage's mind. He muses on the rumors about Wilbur he heard in Dunwich.
"Inbreeding?" Armitage muttered half-aloud to himself. "Great God, what simpletons! Shew then Arthur Machen's Great God Pan and they'll think it a common Dunwich scandal!""The Great God Pan" was a story by the English fantasy writer Arthur Machen, one of Lovecraft's influences. The main character in the story is the offspring of a human mother and a non-human creature of great power; much like Wilbur Whateley.
S.T. Joshi calls "The Dunwich Horror" a flawed story, and criticizes Henry Armitage as a as a rather conventional and boring horror story hero. I'm not sure I agree. I don't think Armitage is the hero. Oh yes, he figures out what Wilbur is up to and he is ultimately the one who defeats the Horror, but he isn't the protagonist. Wilbur is. Wilbur Whateley is really the central character and the most interesting character in the story. Despite what happens to him next.
Wilbur doesn't get Harvard's copy of the Necronomicon either. Armitage has written ahead to warn them. He's beginning to get desperate. He needs that book; but he also needs to get back to his farmhouse. He left Something back there which needs looking after.
A couple weeks later, Armitage is awoken by the campus watchdog who has caught someone trying to break into the library. Then the dog's growls are accompanied by an inhuman scream... and a chorus of whippoorwills. The dying body Armitage and his colleagues find on the floor of one of the library's reading rooms in a puddle of greenish-yellow ichor is unmistakably Wilbur Whateley. It is also definitely inhuman. Wilbur's head and hands were man-like, if ugly and goatish; but the watchdog has torn away his coat revealing a hideous chimera of a body.
Even more astounding, after his death, much of Wilbur's body simply melts away. Whateley was the union of a human and a creature from another universe whose physical laws are different from our own. Just like the meteorite in "Colour Out of Space", his physical mass was incompatible with our universe and could not remain long without something holding it here.
Wilbur's business in Arkham is left unfinished. The something he left behind in the farmhouse will have to fend for itself. The real Horror is about to commence.
A couple weeks later, the folks around Dunwich hear reports of something monstrous and huge lurking in the hills. The hired boy working at a nearby farm comes across footprints as big as barrel-heads of a creature bigger than an elephant but with many, many more legs. Another boy reports that the old Whateley farmhouse has been destroyed. It looks like it has been blown up with dynamite, and foul, dark, sticky substance coats the wreckage.
The locals come to the obvious conclusion. Wizard Whateley "must a raised sunthin; in that there nailed-up haouse as ain't even so human as he was." But the authorities in the nearby town do not take these reports seriously, and the local newspaper prints a humorous paragraph about the "record-breaking monster the bootleg whiskey of Dunwich had raised up."
The people around Dunwich see nothing funny about it. Something destroys Elmer Frye's barn and kills half their cattle, draining them of blood. The next day tracks are found going up Sentinel Hill, where the Whateley family used to perform their wild rituals.
Thursday night began much like the others, but it ended less happily. The whippoorwills in the glen had screamed with such unusual persistence that many could not sleep and about 3 a.m. all the party telephones rand tremulously. Those who took down their receivers heard a fright-mad voice shriek out, "Help, oh, my Gawd!..." and some thought a crashing sound followed the breaking off of the exclamation. There was nothing more.A group of men go out to the Elmer Frye place the next morning and find the house crushed like an eggshell.
...amongst the ruins nothing living or dead could be discovered. Only a stench and a tarry stickiness. The Elmer Fryes had been erased from Dunwich.Meanwhile, Henry Armitage has been busy. After Wilbur Whateley's death, the authorities had gone to the shed in his farmyard where he lived. They could not work up the courage to investigate the boarded-up farmhouse with the vile odor emanating from it, but they took away some of Wilbur's books, including one which seemed to be his diary. The diary seemed to be written in some kind of code, apparently based on an ancient language, so it was given to Armitage to decode. For the past several weeks, he's been working on it and has finally cracked it.
From Wilbur's diary, Armitage learns the true purpose for which Old Whateley groomed his unnatural grandson. Wilbur is to open up a portal to another universe and summon the beings there to earth in order to cleanse the earth of all humanity. The creature in the farmhouse was to be Wilbur's servant to achieve this. Wilbur's death in the library has forstalled this horrific plan, but what of the Other?
It is only then that Armitage hears the rumors that have come out of Dunwich and realizes that Whateley's servant is now running loose. Armitage gathers the colleagues who with him witnessed Wilbur's death and are most likely to take him seriously, and together they go to Dunwich.
The end comes where it must: on the top of Sentinel Hill, in the megalithic ruins where Livinia and Wilbur used to hold their bonfires. Armitage and the Men of Science confront the creature, armed with spells from the Necronomicon and spray-guns filled with the powder of Ibn Ghazi.
We do not get a close look at the battle. We remain with the men of Dunwich, observing it from a distance through a spyglass. The creature is invisible, but briefly becomes visible when dosed with the dust from Armitage's spray gun. It's a hideous, many-legged, tentacled creature, but most horrific is the huge half-face taking up much of the top of its body, looking horribly like Old Man Whateley. As the scientists cast their magic spells -- yes, that's what they do -- the creature cries out in agony. And it's indistinct, guttural cries suddenly becomes words in English:
"Eh-ya-ya-ya-yahaah -- e'yayayayaaa ... ngh'aaaaa ... ngh'aaa ... 'yuh .. h'yuh ... HELP! HELP! ... ff--ff--ff FATHER! FATHER! YOG-SOTHOTH!..."Lightning strikes the altar-stone on the hill, and an overpowering wave of stench sweeps over the hillside. And the the thing is no more.
The folks in Dunwich then remember what Old Whateley said years ago: some day yew folks'll hear a child o' Lavinny's a-callin' its father's name on the top o' Sentinel Hill!" Armitage confirms this. The Horror which had besieged the communtity for the past several nights was not a fiend from hell summoned by Wilbur.
"...It was his twin brother, but it looked more like the father than he did."
NEXT: We continue our look into the worlds of H.P Lovecraft by venturing into the Antarctic wastes. Do you dare seek what lies "At The Mountains of Madness"?