Book Review – ‘The Dunwich Horror’ (1929)

Posted on by Dave

The Dunwich Horror
Published: April 1929 in “Weird Tales”

Bea Harper

This review is going to across as supremely sketchy because I don’t wish to concentrate my efforts solely on the 1970 schlocker from House Corman starring Dean Stockwell, Sandra Dee and Ed Beagley (consequently Beagley’s final role before his passing) nor any of the feature adaptations or radio shows before or after (one of which naturally including Our Saviour Combs). Instead, I would prefer to write about the short story by Lovecraft himself as I feel it is the most effective, intrinsic and skin-crawling.

The Dunwich Horror“The Dunwich Horror” deals with most of your typical Lovecraftian themes- human ignorance to a world beyond our own, our fear of what we do not or choose not to comprehend and paying a terrible penance for when we stumble upon something we were never supposed to be exposed to. However, I also feel it touches on the anxiety of not knowing oneself, a nagging mystery that nibbles at your mind about not just who you are, but where you came from and what bore you. In this case, “The Dunwich Horror” concerns itself with one Wilbur Whatley a resident of the completely imaginary Massachusetts township of Dunwich, an infernally hideous, misshapen man who is the result of a botched conception from his mother Lavinia and an unknown father… I’m pretty sure you know what that means. He grew exponentially fast over the course of a decade, much to the horror and chagrin of his peers that he has practically become the freak show and laughing-stock of all who have seen or know his name. Additionally he has been shunned for all of his life due to his mother’s failure to produce a socially normal off-spring as well due to his mother unwittingly having congress with one of the Cthulu Mythos’s finest, the Outer God Yog-Sothoth. Another pancake dripping with viscous syrup is the fact that his father, Old Whatley is rambling, unimaginably insane man and his uncle is a sorcerer who specialises in the occult. While the particulars are not explicitly stated, a reasonable conclusion to Wilbur’s conception and birth is far more insidious with this uncle’s involvement. The inclusion of the infamous book (fictional!) Necrononicon composed by the (also fictional!) Abdul Alhazared the Mad Arab features heavily in the plot as well as the inevitable reference to Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University. So, on top of the typical Lovecraftian themes we also get a serving of familial curses, body horror and an inverse of Apple of Eden in the form of words with a shade of sexual anxiety the size of Cthulu’s package… don’t ask me how I came up with that analogy, I was just trying to keep the leitmotif going.

The beauty of Lovecraft is that while he could go into graphic detail in regards to some passages, he never wrote a passage to be gratutious or simply to shock- he had a keen interest in the human mind and body and how it would alter under unthinkable circumstances… et tu Maester Cronenberg? Human beings are inherently afraid of losing control of their bodies, a paranoia that if we were to no longer be ourselves, what morbidity would destroy our souls and encase itself in our bodily shell? “The Dunwich Horror” builds most of it’s, well, horror via sickly tantalizing descriptors of places and or sensations a character feels rather than merely resort to an outside physical source. A lot of the suspense and white-knuckles come from Whatley’s journey before the narrative completely pulls the slimy rug out from under the reader and switches gears come the third act of the story which directly attacks the senses head-on. Although this penultimate denouement may not please everybody, Lovecraft finally delivers a literal embodiment of Dunwich Horror. Although, as a note, have you seen “In The Mouth Of Madness”? In John Carpenter’s loving re-telling/reference to H.P, we essentially SEE the Horror as Lovecraft wrote it. It’s a highly solid and terribly over-looked film, give a watch!

The story is not fast-paced, but a slow, near agonizing burn that will take slight patience from a proficient reader, but in my eyes, the payoff is well worth it even if the 360 ending seemingly comes out of no place. The more you read it however, the most disturbing matters come from implications that Wilbur himself stumbles upon during his quest for his ultimate fate. Although Lovecraft’s observations about society were very much a measure of his time (such as the author’s heavily racial stereotypes), the story itself is bound to ensnare you with a unmistakble sense of horrified oppression, one that you are unable to turn yourself away from however hard you may try. Lovecraft’s inspiration Edgar Allen Poe was a master of this and Lovecraft adopted this approach using his own style and substance and “The Dunwich Horror” is a prime example of this mastery of making your blood run cold over a description of a wall without even really knowing WHY.

Highly recommended to the intelligent and inquisitive mind inclined toward something that goes beyond your regular shock and scream fare though can be deemed a little too ponderous by a direct-minded reader.


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