Preying Shapes

The Christmas holiday is moving in quickly and for the first time in a long while it doesn’t totally suck. I have been taking the advice of my personal astrology and the direction of astrologers like Austin Coppock and chaos magicians like Gordon White. All signs (see what I did there?) point to 2019 as being the year that astrology and chaos magic finally hook up. The ‘So Below’ event from White and Coppock as well as the marathon live Rune Soup post last week have been incredibly inspiring. Timing is the theme going into next year and timing means planning.

I spent most of the day planning out a chart that maps lunar days and planetary days and what they are good for. Ghostly Harmless discovered the incredible Time Nomad app, which has planetary hour notifications (a recommendation from So Below) and I have also re-downloaded the more eloquently worded Co-star app and have been putting them to some heavy use as I, for the first time, try and wrap my head around my chart, transits, sextiles, North Nodes and other inscrutable things. Quite a future we live in.

I’ve also started researching (tiptoeing) mushroom cultivation via Paul Stamets excellent tome ‘Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms’ that my bro over at Out-Grow lent me. It is a well written book but you really have to perform a close reading to draw all of the wisdom out of it. My recent research direction into mushrooms is for a number of reasons, one of them being how well mushrooms match the Lovecraftian Magical aesthetic. Our tale for this week, The Shunned House, is one of the strongest examples of how the kingdom of fungi feature in the palette that Lovecraft grabs his dark paint from. We begin with a description of the house in question:

“The house was… Originally a farm… dwelling… Its construction over a century and a half ago, had followed the grading and straightening of the road in that especial vicinity; for Benefit Street — at first called Back Street — was laid out as a lane winding amongst the graveyards of the first settlers, and straightened only when the removal of the bodies to the North Burial Ground made it… possible to cut through the old family plots.”

The aesthetic of the house and the cemetery are mixed here, and it also sets that particular tone that is only achieved by land that used to be hallowed, but with the dead removed in the name of the expansion of the city. San Francisco, another Lovecraftian gateway, is a prime example of this with all but one of its cemeteries removed in favor of the city-as-person’s agenda.

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The house in question, according to the editors of my collection, is 135 Benefit Street, Providence, RI. Lovecraft pulls in an actual or fictional Uncle to aid with the story. The way Lovecraft employs *the act of research* as a vehicle for terror will also impress me. His uncle is the source of knowledge on the Shunned House, a researcher similar to the narrator, but with many years behind him.

“the notebooks of my antiquarian uncle, Dr. Elihu Whipple, revealed to me… the darker, vaguer surmises which formed an undercurrent of folklore… which were largely forgotten when Providence grew to be a metropolis… the house was never regarded… in any real sense [as] haunted… a frightful proportion of persons died there… their vitality… insidiously sapped, so that each one died the soon from whatever tendency to weakness he may have naturally had…”

The house as parasite or vampire, this imparts an animacy to the structure. If a house is a person, what does it view as its ‘house’? A silly but relevant question if one is to apply a limited degree of perspectivism to those dwellings of man thought animate, of having a life. It is probably the land from which it draws its home, a biological niche like any other organism… for the jaguar, the jungle is its house. The house as person can either nourish its inhabitants, reject them, or feed on them, as any other organism would when encounter the human race. Our narrator continues, revealing the small amount of experiential knowledge he possessed of the place:

“In my childhood the shunned house was vacant… We boys used to overrun the place… the dilapidated house, whose unlocked front door was often entered in quest of shudders… brave indeed was the boy who would voluntarily ascend the ladder to the attic, a vast raftered length… filled with a massed wreckage of chests, chairs, and spinning-wheels…”

The spinning wheels are a nod to Fortuna, goddess of the urban, the igniter and drowner of the cities that worship her. The wheel will come up later as well, as we close in on our archetype. From the attic filled with fortune’s wheels we descend into the primary aesthetic of the tale, a fungi-filled dirt floor cellar:

“the attic was not the most terrible part of the house. It was the dank, humid cellar which… exerted the strongest repulsion… the bad odor of the house was strongest there; and… we did not like the white fungous growths which… sprang up in the rainy summer weather from the hard earth floor. Those fungi… were truly horrible in their outlines, detestable paraodies of toadstools and Indian pipes… They rotted quickly, and at one stage become slightly phosphorescent; so that nocturnal passers-by sometimes spoke of witchfires glowing behind the broken panes…”

As stated, I feel that fungi are a clear focus on Lovecraft’s, they exist in the Dreamlands in great numbers and are also the companion of (or part of) his cosmic horrors suggesting that they are of an alien origin. There is a correspondence or a cross-reference here of witchcraft, magic and what is alien in origin in relation to this planet. The description of the mold and fungi continues:

“There was also a subtler thing… a vague, shifting deposit of mold or nitre which we sometimes thought we could trace amidst the sparse funguous growths near the huge fireplace of the basement kitchen… Later I heard that a… notion entered into some of the wild ancient tales… a notion… alluding to ghoulish, wolfish shapes taken by smoke from the great chimney, and queer contours assumed by certain of the sinuous tree-roots that thrust their way into the cellar through the loose foundation-stones.”

In a sense, the natural taking on forms of the human or of anthropoid monsters like the werewolf. This is an imbuing of terror in the manifestations of the natural world as a collection of animate beings.

It is at this point that the narrative shifts from real life experiences to our narrator’s deep research on the house:

“The shunned house… was first inhabited by William Harris and his wife Rhoby Dexter… Harris was a substantial merchant and seaman in the West India trade, connected with the firm of Obadiah Brown… After Brown’s death in 1761, the new firm of Nicholas Brown & Co. made him master of the brig Prudence… enabling him to erect the new homestead… Harris hastened to move in before the birth of the fifth child… That child… came in December; but was still-born. Nor was any child to be born alive in that house for a century and a half…”

The house at the inception was unhealthy to or unwelcome of humans. This suggests that it is not the house itself but the land on which it sits, that is of the parasitic, vampiric nature. The house, the city, is an extension of the landscape until humans begin their habitation, at which point the homes and buildings begin to absorb their life, thoughts, and feelings as well. In this way, humans are the parasites that inhabit the body of the city. Is the city independent of the humans that live within it? To some degree, yes, especially the larger the city grows, what a complex organism the city is.

Obadiah Brown was a slaver in his youth, a breaker of the import/export monopoly that Boston had on goods traded with England, and also a manufacturer and merchant of candles (the equivalent of the owner of a utility company in the 21st c. given candlelight was the primary form of illumination).

Nicholas Brown was the principle architect in establishing a university in Providence, one which now has his name. He was also a smuggler, a monopolizer in overseas tobacco and an investor in the slave trade to fund his iron foundry. In other words, a paragon of empire.

William Harris is the namesake of one of the primary settlers of Providence. The original Harris was the most reknowned legal mind in the area and was deeply liberal. He was an advocate for and a liason to the Narragansett and Pawtuxet. He had been a slave himself, being captured and ransomed more than a year later, an ordeal that would end his life.

When one digs into the genealogy that Lovecraft takes pains to present, it creates an interesting juxtaposition between the employers and the namesake of the first inhabitant of the Shunned House that could be further explored, a parallel of archetypes that represent empire (the employers), liberalism (Harris), and animism (the Shunned House).

The story recounts a series of deaths that culminate in the demise of Harris himself, leaving remaining children and wife, behind…

“the widowed Rhoby Harris never recovered from the shock of her husband’s death… her elder maiden sister, Mercy Dexter [moved] in to take charge of the family… she obtained new servants… Ann White, a morose woman from that part of North Kingstown now set off as the township of Exeter, and a capable Boston man named Zenas Low.

It was Ann White who first gave definite shape to the sinister idle talk. Mercy should have known better than to hire anyone from the Nooseneck Hill country… a seat of the most uncomfortable superstitions…”

According to the Historic and Architectural Resources of West Greenwhich, Rhode Island , Nooseneck was the only settlement on the Nooseneck River that ever reached the size of a full village. It was marked by a number of sawmills, a Baptist church, and many Greek Revival structures. It is curious that Lovecraft would mark it as one of the enclaves for the ‘Backwoods Folk,’ as its early reputation was that of a prosperous and pious town. Nevertheless, the ‘Exeter’ rustic is a fixture in this tale, and our researcher is sure to include their perspectives on his research:

“the servant gossip was practically unanimous attributing to the fungous and malodorous cellar of the house a vast supremacy in evil influence… Ann White, with her Exeter superstition… [alleged] 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… the compliant of the departing servant Preserved Smith, who had preceded Ann and never heard of her, that something ‘sucked his breath’ at night… the death-certificates of fever victims of 1804… [shewed] the four deceased persons all unaccountably lacking in blood…”

Unique among all of Lovecraft’s stories is the Shunned House, his only vampire tale revealed thus far by this researcher. It is comforting, in a leather corset and chains kind of way, that we are able to add this particular type of Lovecraftian Vampire to our spirit list, a super interesting fungoid parasitic vampire.

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Dr. Whipple, the uncle, encourages his young nephew, the nameless narrator, when hearing of his continued work on identifying where the ‘disease’ of the Shunned House had begun. The good doctor was likely reliving some old ghost-hunting of his own when we was young.

“in 1860 and 1861, when my uncle had just begun his medical practice and before leaving for the front he heard much of it from his elder professional colleagues. The really inexplicable thing was the way in which the victims… would babble maledictions in French, a language they could not possibly have studied to any extent…”

This possibly points to the narrator being related to one of the primary characters of Herbert West — Reanimator, the story of the uncle and the locale being the same. The narrator is never mentioned in that tale, meaning that old Dr. Elihu Whipple could well be he. Whipple isn’t the focus on this tale (yet), so let’s return to the history of the house, or rather, the history of the land beneath.

“What I wished was a comprehensive history of the site form its very settlement in 1636 — or even before, if any Narragansett Indian legend could be unearthed to supply the data. I found, at the start, that the land had been part of the long strip… granted originally to John Throckmorton… It had, a rumour indeed said, been the Throckmorton graveyard…”

John Throckmorton was a settler of the early ‘Providence Plantations,’ granted to the Baptist settlers by the Narrangansett, Canonicus and Miantonomoh. The settlers of the Providence Plantations were one of the first to declare a separation of church in state in their founding documents.

The most peculiar thing about the deaths of those that had living in The Shunned House is that, right before death, the victim begin to speak in a language not their own, ‘babbling in French’ even though they have no knowledge of the operation:

“At last the French element… appeared [in my research]… another deeper element of horror which the name conjured up from the darkest recesses of my weird… reading… I found what I had half expected, that where the shunned house now stood the Roulets had laid out their graveyard behind a one-story and attic cottage, and that no record of any transfer of graves existed… The Roulets… had come in 1696 from East Greenwich… They were Hugenots from Caude, and had encountered much opposition before the Providence selectmen allowed them to settle in the town… the swarthy Etienne Roulet, less apt at agricutlure than at reading queer books and drawing queer diagrams, was given a clerical post in the warehouse at… Tillinghast’s wharf…”

The Tillinghast name connects the Shunned House, in a way, to the professor in From Beyond. The above post is also setting an aesthetic for French vampires.

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Continuing to dig, our narrator at last finds the source for the ‘French Connection’ to the haunting of the Providence home.

“I wondered how many of those who had known the legends realized that additional link with the terrible which my wider reading had given me; that ominous item in the annals of morbid horror which tells of the creature Jacques Roulet, of Caude, who in 1598 was condemned to death as a daemonic but afterward saved form the stake by the Paris parliament and shut in a madhouse. He had been found covered with blood and shreds of flesh in a wood, shortly after the killing and rending of a boy by a pair of wolves. One wolf was seen to lope away unhurt.”

Here Lovecraft is extending the tale and revealing the history of the first ‘paranormal’ panic that swept through Europe, a Werewolf Panic that gripped Poligny, France in 1521. Some seventy years later, in 1598, one Jacques Roulet was sentenced to death, being accused in the murder and cannibalism of several young children. Despite the grievousness of these accusations, Roulet was, as Lovecraft points out, saved from execution, taken to an asylum and given two years of religious education, at which point he was released. What is even curiouser, for us, is the merging of the vampire and werewolf myths in the extensive back story of The Shunned House.

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After many attempts, or narrator comes away with nothing while investigating the cellar, until he reaches a realization:

“At length… I decided to try [and investigate the cellar] nocturnally… I was almost prepared when I saw… amidst the whitish deposits a particularly sharp definition of the ‘huddled form’ I had suspected from boyhood… a subtle… almost luminous vapor which as it hung trembling in the dampness seemed to develop vague and shocking suggestions of form, gradually trailing off… passing up into the blackness of the great chimney with a footer in its wake…”

This is scarily reminiscent of my experiences with spirit forms that I’ve talked about on the blog in the past. My first (and only at this point) attempt at summoning Birto, the gray smudges floating in the corners of my hotel room after beginning a long (it will be three years this May when I complete it) summoning of the Lord of the Crossroads at the intersection graced with San Francisco Chinatown’s Dragon Gate and what I can only describe as the increasing encounters with Shadow Men whenever I begin to ramp up my practice. The form described by Lovecraft in the passage above is an almost exact match for how I have visually experienced spirit-forms.

At this point, our narrator and the good Dr. Whipple decide to spend the night in the cellar:

“To say that we actually believed in vampires or werewolves would be a carelessly inclusive statement. Rather must it be said that we were not prepared to deny the possibility of certain… modifications of vital force and attenuated matter; existing very infrequently in three-dimensional space because of its more intimate connexion with other spatial units, yet close enough to the boundary… to furnish us… manifestations which we, for lack of a proper vantage-point, may never hope to understand.”

This is the ‘Flatland’ view of the paranormal and, I feel, a sincere statement from the so-called atheist and materialist, Lovecraft. It is a scientists admission that not everything can be known, nay, that most things in the universe will never be known by man. The description of the ‘vantage point’ points to Edwin Abbot’s ‘Flatland,’ a work roughly contemporary to Lovecraft’s time and one he most certainly would have been familiar with. Lovecraft continues in this mathematical/scientific vein to the point where The Shunned House resembles a chapter from Peter J. Carroll’s Liber Kaos: The Psychonomicon and is a precursor to every ‘ghost hunter’ reality show on television today.

All the maths in the Lovecraftian universe can’t save them from experiencing first hand the fate of that befell so many others:

“a perspiration broke out on [my sleeping Uncle’s] forehead, and he leaped abruptly up… and with a subsidence of facial expression… my uncle seized my hand and began to relate a dream whose nucleus of significance I could only surmise with a kind of awe.

He had… floated off from a very ordinary series of dream-pictures into a scene whose strangeness was related to nothing he had ever read… a shadowy geometrical confusion in which could be seen elements of familiar things in most unfamiliar and perturbing combinations… In this kaleidoscopic vortex of phantasmal images were… snapshots… of singular clearness…

he lay in a carelessly dug open pit, with a crowd of angry faces framed by straggling locks and three-cornered hats…”

Spirit contact through dreams is one of the core mechanisms of Lovecraftian Magic, from Cthulhu and its global dream-disturbing radio signals to this local hungry ghost’s attempt to feed on the narrator and his aging uncle. Our narrator, after taking his turn to sleep (and perchance to dream) himself, was awakened by the screams of old Dr. Whipple:

“the sight was worse than I dreaded… Out of the fungus-ridden earth steamed up a vaporous corpse-light, yellow and diseased, which bubbled and lapped to a gigantic height in vague outlines… It was all eyes — wolfish and mocking — and the rugs insect-like head dissolved at the top to a thin stream of mist… Recognizing the bubbling evil as no substance reachable by matter… and therefore ignoring the flame-thrower… on my left, I threw on the current of the Crookes tube apparatus, and focussed toward that scene of immortal blasphemousness the strongest ether radiations which man’s art can arouse”

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The Crookes-Hittorf tube was an early electrical discharge tube. This experimental device led us to discover the existence of cathode rays (and thus, made x-rays, television and computers possible). One notable experiment with the Crookes Tube is Julius Plucker’s 1869 addition of the heraldic Maltese Cross inside of the tube, which led to the discovery that cathode rays moved in straight.

All of the scientific inventions (or flame-throwers) in the world are not, however, what saves the ageing Dr. Whipple, eighty one years of life being enough for the old coot.

“In that dim blend of blue and yellow the form of my uncle had commenced a nauseous liquefaction… that gelatinous face assumed a dozen — a score — a hundred aspects; grinning, as it sank to the ground on a body that melted like tallow…”

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Our archetype for The Shunned House is the entity himself, one Paul Roulet. The surname Roulet is a form of Roulette, meaning ‘little wheel’ and the name of the incredibly popular casino game. Wheel being a very old word, being related to the PIE root *kewl-, meaning to ‘revolve, move round; sojourn’ or most relevant in our case, to ‘dwell.’

Our tarot card match for Paul Roulet of The Shunned House is the Ten of Coins.

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Our Eteilla deck offers us two keywords for this card, La Maison and Jeux de Hasard; ‘The House and ‘Games of Chance,’ respectively. House stems from the Old English ‘hus,’ meaning ‘dwelling,’ or ‘shelter.’ Prior to Old English, the ancestry of hus is debated, some saying it might be connected to the root of the word ‘hide’ and the only older instance being in the Gothic ‘gudhus,’ meaning temple or ‘god-house.’ Chance can be traced back to the PIE root *kad-, meaning ‘to fall.’ *kad- expands out to accident, cadaver, decadence and decay.

Our archetype, the parasitic fungal vampire werewolf, Paul Roulet, is a representation of what the cycles of empire and religion leave behind. He is also a representation of the malefic shadow that likely lives in all of our subconscious. The house, in dreams, almost always representing our mind. The wheel can also represent the cycle of life, of which those preying shapes the mushrooms and fungi, for pretty much everything on this planet (including us), are the end stage.