Lovecraft! Few names are as loaded as his. The weight it carries, the emotions it evokes–what power this strange, little-known-in-his-time pulp writer has assumed!
Most of the time, when I talk about Lovecraft on this blog, it’s to criticize him. And there’s a lot to criticize. I’ve written about this before. But Lovecraft has this way about him: just when you’re ready to dismiss him, you remember some piece of his work that’s so interesting you can’t just write him off altogether.
Which brings me to the topic of today’s post: his 1935 short story “The Haunter of the Dark.”
“The Haunter of the Dark” tells the story of a young writer named Robert Blake who moves to Providence, Rhode Island. Blake is fascinated by the occult, and soon becomes obsessed with a huge church on a hill far across the city, that he is compelled to stare at for hours from the window of his apartment.
Eventually, he visits the church, where he finds the remains of a reporter who apparently died while investigating the activities of a mysterious religious order called “The Church of Starry Wisdom.” He also finds a strange object in the abandoned church, and immediately upon seeing it, feels an evil presence.
This evil presence–some manner of alien entity, left vague in classic Lovecraftian fashion–can move only in darkness. But when a thunderstorm knocks out power to the city one night, Blake feels sure he is marked for death by the creature that lives in the church tower.
It’s not a long story. It can easily be read in one sitting. And for the seasoned HPL veteran there’s not a lot of new ground here: there’s a legend haunted New England town, a weirdly antiquarian protagonist, a nameless alien horror–this is all familiar. But there are nonetheless some things I find noteworthy about this particular story.
The first is, I admit, purely subjective. “The Haunter of the Dark” is my favorite Lovecraft story. Can I point to anything to say that it’s clearly better than some of his other really good stories, like “The Music of Erich Zann” or “The Hound”? Not really. I could probably make an argument for why it’s better than many of his most famous stories, including “The Call of Cthulhu.” But nevertheless, this is purely a matter of personal taste.
Or is it?
Well… maybe there are some other, non-subjective reasons why I can say that “The Haunter of the Dark” is the apex of Lovecraftian horror. Or maybe not, and what I think is objective is just more subtly subjective. But there must be some reason why this story stands out to me above all the others, right?
Well, let’s dig into the evidence–but all the while, bearing in mind the guarded distrust of the narrator that is the hallmark of any Lovecraft tale. After all, “the papers have given the tangible details from a sceptical angle, leaving for others the drawing of the picture as Robert Blake saw it—or thought he saw it—or pretended to see it.”
That’s as good a place as any to start. So, who is Robert Blake?
In one sense, he’s a stereotypical Lovecraft protagonist. He’s an eccentric weirdo who lives alone and is fascinated by the bizarre and the esoteric, and has seemingly no life outside his dedication to these subjects. Almost everyone in Lovecraft-world is like this.
But there’s more to the story: Robert Blake is a surrogate for Robert Bloch, a correspondent of Lovecraft’s, to whom “The Haunter of the Dark” is dedicated.
All right, so who was Robert Bloch?
Well, eventually, he would go on to be a fairly popular horror writer himself. But in the 1930s, he was basically nobody; just a teenager who read Weird Tales magazine and had written fan mail to Lovecraft.
And Lovecraft wrote back. He encouraged the young Bloch in his own writing efforts, giving him advice and introducing him to other members of his literary circle. Lovecraft even gave Bloch permission to write a story in which a Lovecraft-surrogate was killed off. “The Haunter of the Dark” was HPL’s reciprocation of this gesture.
Now, of course in the 1930s, Lovecraft was not as well-known as he is today. But still, imagine what a thrill it must have been for teenager Robert Bloch to become so close (closeness being evaluated on a relative scale when it comes to Lovecraft) to someone he perceived as a great author.
“The Haunter of the Dark” is, among other things, a reader’s dream come true. What if your favorite author put you in one of their stories? Lovecraft even included Bloch’s actual address in Wisconsin! (Which today would be considered doxxing, but hey, it was a different time.)
Lovecraft often referenced his literary friends’ works in other stories as a sort of in-joke, but to write a whole story around someone who wasn’t really even a peer, but just a young fan, is pretty extraordinary.
But that’s not all that makes “Haunter of the Dark” special. In fact, usually fan service in fiction ends up being detrimental to the overall story, and to see why that is not the case here, we have to look at what Lovecraft did in designing the story’s antagonist. For this, Lovecraft plays on humanity’s most basic phobia: the fear of the dark.
Lovecraft rarely created rules for his monsters. He didn’t use vampires who only come out at night, werewolves who appear only when the moon is full, etc. Largely, this was because it was important to him that his alien monsters be utterly inscrutable to humans–beings whose motivations, if any, lay so outside our own domain as to be unfathomable.
And this is still true for the thing which haunts the deserted church on Federal Hill. But Lovecraft does give this monster one very basic, almost childishly obvious rule: it can’t go out in the light.
It sounds almost too simplistic. This is the kind of thing you’d make up in telling a campfire story about a generic boogeyman. But damme, it works! The climax of the story, with Blake watching in mounting terror during the huge electrical storm, is, in my opinion, the best thing Lovecraft ever wrote:
He had to keep the house dark in order to see out of the window, and it appears that most of his time was spent at his desk, peering anxiously through the rain across the glistening miles of downtown roofs at the constellation of distant lights marking Federal Hill. Now and then he would fumblingly make an entry in his diary, so that detached phrases such as “The lights must not go”; “It knows where I am”; “I must destroy it”; and “it is calling to me, but perhaps it means no injury this time”; are found scattered down two of the pages.
Then the lights went out all over the city. It happened at 2.12 A.M. according to power-house records, but Blake’s diary gives no indication of the time. The entry is merely, “Lights out—God help me.”
Lovecraft had a fair amount of disdain for classic ghost stories. In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, he wrote:
This type of fear-literature must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome. Such writing, to be sure, has its place, as has the conventional or even whimsical or humorous ghost story where formalism or the author’s knowing wink removes the true sense of cosmic fear in its purest sense. The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.
But with “Haunter of the Dark” Lovecraft hit a terrific balance between his own incomprehensible creatures of inconceivably distant worlds and the most basic elements of an old-fashioned scary story. In almost all his stories, Lovecraft undercuts the atmosphere somehow, but this time, he kept a steady hand.
And to me, what makes this especially remarkable–poignant, even–is that it’s Lovecraft’s final story. He died in 1937, shortly after “Haunter of the Dark” was published in Weird Tales, and I think he had a sense that the end was near when he was writing it. It feels valedictory, from the way he quotes his own poem Nemesis as an epigraph, to the fact that he dedicated it to a younger protegé as a way of passing the torch, right down to its final lines. Admittedly, having a story end with the protagonist’s last words before death is a Lovecraft staple, but
I see it—coming here—hell-wind—titan blur—black wing—Yog Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye . . .
…was the last thing he wrote for publication, and this seems intuitively fitting. H.P. Lovecraft could not go out any other way.
This is why “The Haunter of the Dark” is always worth revisiting, especially at this time of year–“the aeon-shadowed Walpurgis time,” as Lovecraft would say. It encapsulates so much about Lovecraft–his unique philosophy of horror, the evocation of the eerie atmosphere he sought to create, and perhaps above all else, his skill at cultivating relationships with other weird fiction aficionados.