The Mummy, The Will and the Crypt

The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt – John Bellairs; Puffin, 1996

I re-read this novel this month. I had been looking for it (new and used) for a long time – I finally found it at Mr. K’s in Charleston, SC for $1.50.  I really cannot emphasize what a difficult time it was locating this book.  I think it was out of print for awhile? I am surprised they did not charge at least $3 for it.  It was originally published in 1983, but the copy I read is the 1996 edition.   I have a bit of a history with this book. I attempted to read it once when I was a small person.  But I grew bored with it and did not get far into it.  A year or so later, I picked it up again and found it gripping and intense and scary.  I remembered it a few years ago and started hunting for it.

The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt is the second in the Johnny Dixon series of novels written by John Bellairs (1938 – 1991).  I have never read the first, but it is quite famous.  I own the next in the Johnny Dixon series and I have never read that one. I intend to do so once I make a bit more headway into my to-be-read-mountain.

Is this a “kid’s” novel? I suppose, technically, it is.  It’s to be found in the kid’s section, the size and language are accessible to most kids, and the main character is a young boy.  However, it is written in the Gothic-style that Bellairs is known for.  Reading along, you do feel that Bellairs was influenced by Lovecraft.  I find Lovecraftian influences everywhere, by the way.

This novel is a bit somber.  The young main character is shy, anxious, and intense.  He’s a good kid that plays chess, is in the Boy Scouts, and has no friends his own age.  His best friend is a retired ex-military professor who lives in the house across the street from Johnny’s grandparents. Johnny lives with his grandparents because his mother passed away and his father is overseas in the Korean War.  So, the novel, though published in the 1980s seems to be set in the 1950s.

The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt – John Bellairs; Bantam 1983

There are several elements that are great about this novel.  The first is the Lovecraftian-horror-Gothic style.  I love it.  And nowadays children are not supposed to read such things.  Their “literature” is sanitized and factory-produced.  Bellairs’ novels have this macabre feeling to them that is just not “okay” with the yuppie-parenting of today.  I don’t have any offspring, but if I did, I would definitely have this on their bookshelves.  It is not grossly horrific.  It is not filthy.  It’s just creepy and Lovecraftian and excellent for rainy autumn nights.

The second element which I absolutely love (and which also makes the novel “unacceptable” for children) is the element of religion.  Bellairs is a graduate of Notre Dame and University of Chicago.  He was most likely Roman Catholic.  And Johnny Dixon is too.  And I absolutely approve of the way religion is written in this novel.  This is not a novel about religion – and Bellairs does not make it into one.  However, he does not write a sanitized “religion doesn’t exist in the world” novel, either.  He doesn’t preach or turn the novel into some pseudo-morality tale soggy and dripping with Bible interpretations.  Bellairs writes it all perfectly.  Johnny is a Roman Catholic. Let’s not make that into a thing.  It is what it is.  There are Roman Catholics in the world and Johnny is one of them. Not really anything remarkable about this.  And the novel does not make a big deal of it – but you know when Johnny is about to enter the Crypt that he’s making the Sign of the Cross.

The main character is so interesting and the reader loves empathizing with the kid. He’s an honest kid – neither impossibly awesome, nor pathetically lame.  He’s real, which might be why he is so relate-able.  Authors need to learn how to write like Bellairs – everything so smooth and yet, so meaningful.  Macabre and not gross.  Honest, but yet a good yarn. I hear this is not really Bellairs greatest work – I cannot wait to read more and really be wow-ed by J. Bellairs.

4 stars

H. P. Lovecraft – Part Two

This entry contains my comments on H. P. Lovecraft’s stories The Lurking Fear and The Rats in the Walls. The former was written in 1922 and serialized in early 1923. I actually think that The Lurking Fear is a better story than The Rats in the Walls, but I can understand other readers enjoying the latter more.

This story is divided into four smaller chapters, each having their own title:

I. The Shadow on the Chimney

II. A Passer in the Storm

III. What the Red Glare Meant

IV. The Horror in the Eyes

The story takes place in the Catskills in New York. Specifically, the novel takes place on Tempest Mountain. There is a Tempest Mountain in Montana. Also, I found reference to the words “tempest” and “mountain” in the New Testament – I used the KJV, which HPL would have been familiar with. “For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest….” (Hebrews 12:18) I do not believe there is such a mountain so named in the Catskills. However, and this has always amused me, parts of the Catskills were known as the Borscht Belt due to the heavy immigration and presence of Russian Jews. (‘Borscht’ to signify their cultural connection to Russia and the Ukraine.) Anyway, the parts HPL references seem to have a large Dutch population.

Some of this setting-building is important, because it makes the story have a realistic feel to it. For example, the narrator stays at Lefferts Corners, mentions two other mountaintops: Cone Mountain and Maple Hill, and references the city of Albany. One feels that maybe this narrator (or HPL himself) really went to such an area – because maybe it could have really existed.

The main character is again a narrator who is writing a memoir of his experience. The story begins: “There was thunder in the air on the night I went to the deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain . . . . “ Now, if you are like me, you just speed-read that line. So, go back now and actually read the phrase with the purpose of using it to draw you into a story. I like it as an opening line. I like that there’s thunder, tempest, night, and deserted all in the first line. It is written so fluidly and immediately places the reader in a dark and stormy night on a mountaintop.

Like so many other narrators in HPL, this one is unnamed, but has an interest (obsession) with scary, creepy, unnatural things. Of course, all these narrators have this interest, but then they always experience a horrific and terrifying event which is life-altering and then they are psychological disasters afterwards. HPL can almost be read as a warning: if you go looking into the abyss, when it looks into you – expect to be damaged and messed up! The thing is, of course in the second paragraph the narrator is telling us that he bore the secret of what he experienced for a long time and he’s been brooding about it. He’s the only one that knows the real story of what happened and he’s regretting he has concealed it so long. Well, not to put too fine a point on it: what did you expect when you sought out the bizarre, unnatural, and terrifying?

On Tempest Mountain is the Martense mansion, which was built in 1670 by Gerrit Martense who was a New Amsterdam merchant. He left Britain and began to cultivate a strong dislike toward anything British-culture. He, and derivatively, his family, shun English culture, colonists, etc. So, he and his family become veritable recluses up on their mountaintop, basically surviving from their land.

I do not want to write anything more, lest I spoil this great short story for anyone. What I’ve said so far is really just setting and background. Needless to say, the narrator decides to research and investigate the happenings on Tempest Mountain. Chapters III and IV are really great in terms of the really-scary-stuff we expect and demand of HPL. Seriously, I was impressed. I mean, this story is dated (1922) and from what I’ve read of HPL, a lot of his stories seem to be wordsmithing and presenting the “unknown” as scary. But this story really is scary. Genuine creepy!

I love that the story is not too long, but yet is longer (and therefore more developed) than some of HPL’s early pieces. I find the narrator a bit ridiculous, but the setting and background that HPL puts the narrator in are so creepy and vivid and realistic that it becomes moot to complain about the narrator. Don’t worry, our good friend HPL does use the word Cyclopean in this story!

The Rats in the Walls was written in mid to late 1923. It’s similar, in places, to The Lurking Fear. Both stories are going to talk about the legendry of their settings. Both involve the history of old (ancient?) mansions. Both involve a narrator that is off his little rocker. Both stories use the word Druidic.

The Rats in the Walls has two other characters that are important, though, through the whole story. I feel that The Lurking Fear only barely utilizes another character – mainly as a prop. One of the main characters in The Rats in the Walls is a cat. Now, look here…. I am not going to speculate on whether or not HPL was racist, nor just how racist he was. Simply put: the cat’s name is Nigger-Man. I didn’t name the cat, so don’t take it up with me. I suspect that the cat was black. HPL (and therefore all of his characters) tend to be cat lovers, though. This cat (let’s call him NM), has a major role in the story. In fact, I might actually call him the real star of the show.

HPL was a cat lover – not that I know much about HPL, but it shows through in his writing. He understands cats. I live in a household with four black cats and one tan mix cat. My neighbors have 12 cats. The neighbors on the other side have two. Needless to say, I am also very familiar with cats. And they are definitely as [insert your choice of adjective] as people say they are. They can be so loving and cute. They can also be ruthless and savage. They can also be creepy and eerie and supernatural. I mention all of this to say that NM has got to take his place in the Famous Literary Cats list and that HPL knows how to write the character.

Anyway, I think readers should also read Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher alongside this HPL story. There are loose connections between the two. And maybe even slightly with The Lurking Fear. There are hints of Gaelic and Latin in the story. I am not familiar whatsoever with Gaelic or Celtic anything, so I cannot comment much on that except to say I think it provides a variety of connectivity within the story. Also, it adds to the sense of ancient things being at work still. HPL copied the terms from writer William Sharp’s (aka Fiona MacLeod) The Sin Eater. Don’t forget that there’s no way HPL was not influenced by W. B. Yeats – and he was heavy into Irish Mythology. Lord Dunsany of the Celtic Revival also is a major influence on HPL. The point is, this story also strongly develops the setting and background in order to develop the horror of the story. HPL is not just writing horrific slash and gore, he loves to pull from mythology and history and give us a backstory.

Personally, I really liked The Lurking Fear more than The Rats in the Walls. I think readers should decide for themselves and read both – because both are rewarding HPL reads. Both, though, are heavier on the creepy scale than the not-so-scary, so reader be warned. I’d give five stars to the first and four to the latter, but only on personal preference. Overall, both are likely five star short stories from HPL.

5 stars

H. P. Lovecraft – Part One

I finally got around, prior to Thanksgiving, to picking up a Complete Fiction Works of H. P. Lovecraft.  And I am slowly working my way through the book.  The book comes in at around 1100 pages, so after reading to page 222, I decided I had better break the review(s) up into parts.  I don’t want to review in detail each and every piece in the book, but I think that there’s a lot that can be said and it needs to be partitioned like this.

cat hpl

My cat reading HPL

So far I have read (and the rating I gave each work):

  • The Tomb – 4
  • The Call of Cthulhu – 5
  • Dagon – 3
  • The White Ship -4
  • The Doom that Came to Sarnath – 3
  • The Statement of Randolph Carter – 3
  • The Terrible Old Man – 4
  • The Tree -2
  • The Cats of Ulthar – 4
  • The Temple – 3
  • Celephais – 2
  • From Beyond – 2
  • Nyarlathotep – 3
  • The Picture in the House – 3
  • The Nameless City – 3
  • Polaris – 3
  • The Quest of Iranon – 4
  • The Moon-Bog – 3
  • The Outsider – 5
  • The Other Gods – 3
  • The Music of Erich Zann – 4
  • Hypnos – 3
  • What the Moon Brings – 1
  • Azathoth – 1
  • The Hound – 2

That equals 25 pieces from the book.  I skipped a few that I just was not interested in and did not have any desire to read whatsoever. I am not thrilled about skipping, but I just didn’t want to read some of the pieces – for whatever reason. Now, before reading any of these I was only familiar with H. P. Lovecraft in a very basic sense. I don’t really think I had read anything by him before, but this isn’t really something I would bet on. I’ve read a lot and who knows what I read in school?  Further, I haven’t read any secondary texts on HPL; so any conclusions or discoveries I came to were my own and not something I was looking for because I read it first in a critical analysis.

After reading a few of the stories, the themes that HPL works with become rather obvious.  Dreams and sleep, the dead and tombs, water and sky (derivatively, fish and birds), and sound.  You would have to be a blind nincompoop not to figure out that HPL wrote much of his work from his dreams and that he is terrified of water – particularly large bodies of water.  Knowing just this much, it should be easy to see the challenge in putting HPL’s works into a specific genre.  I don’t really think it qualifies as science fiction (under my as-yet-unwritten definition).  It probably does qualify as fantasy, but perhaps it does have elements of horror.  The reason I placed fantasy ahead of horror is because the stories are not gore and vampires and such.  The whole edge of HPL’s “horror” is the concept of the unknown. And this is usually beyond reality – therefore, fantasy.  The term “weird” has been bandied around and I suppose that works as well as anything I could come up with.  All of this is to say that none of these works fit perfectly into some genre and anyone interested in science fiction, fantasy, or “weird” tales would enjoy some of HPL.

When I got the book, I could not help myself – I opened directly to The Call of Cthulhu and read it through – and loved it, naturally. And I came to the text without any preconceived notions or biases. I just read and enjoyed. However, enough has been said about that text the world over, so I do not really want to focus on it.  I want to actually select (of those 25 works) the ones I think that strong readers should read. In other words, the must-read HPL list that those who do not wish to read the whole of 1100 pages can look for and read. The second text I read was The Tomb – after I read it all I could say was “wow”.  I do not recommend The Tomb for everybody.  It is truly twisted and horror and scary. So, if you are really more into the fantasy and less into the horror – skip The Tomb. I still have lingering creepies from it. . . .

The key texts, I feel, are Dagon, The White Ship, and Polaris.  If you need to get the basics of HPL, these three works should be read because I think they contain in an obvious way the method HPL uses when dealing with his preferred concepts/topics.  Dagon is short but I think it is the genesis of the Cthulhu concept.  Like many of HPL’s works, the story is really a written narration in the first person of an adventure/experience. The story is “hastily scrawled pages” written under “appreciable mental strain.”  And this is all in the first paragraph.  Generally, this gets to be a familiar paradigm within HPL.

The second paragraph directly presents one of the main themes in HPL:  “It was in one of the most open and least frequented parts of the broad Pacific. . . ”   Immediately, we are thrown into the story that the narrator is writing.  That’s actually one of the nice things about HPL; he does not waste time with telling us how we got wherever or showing us each little step.  Paragraph four starts: “The change happened whilst I slept.”   And this phrase (or something like it) frequently appears in HPL stories.  It presents the method by which HPL’s stories access the fantasy/weird concepts.  HPL often mentions some “change” or catalyst and it is frequently connected to sleep and/or dreams.

Anyway, the story itself is not really scary or horrific – especially not in 2012.  But it was written in 1917 and we knew a little less science back then. Now we have Wikipedia and I daresay humans have cataloged the globe.  In 1917, the unknown of the ocean was probably a fascinating and terrifying thing.  Anyway, the “thing” that happens to the narrator is not exactly horrific. A sea-creature rises to the surface and, basically, hugs and howls at an altar/statue. It’s kind of funny, actually. But the horror of the story is not the point – it’s that the reader can feel/touch/empathize with the narrator’s feeling of horror.  It’s not so much that readers should judge whether or not the scene was horrific in an attempt to validate the narrator’s madness, but rather the reader can understand the ordeal that the narrator is explaining.

Polaris is another key text of HPL’s.  There are three main themes that make this story important. HPL’s narrator accesses another reality – very much akin to something PKD would have done/written.  The narrator enters into the alternate reality via sleep/dreams, as one expects.  However, this little story is neat because after reading it, one can really see how the blurring of the line of demarcation between reality and supra-reality drives the story.  And this is the “weird” part of the work, which is done really well in Polaris.  Another theme HPL uses here is that of the sky. The title is, obviously, of the star Polaris. But throughout the text are peppered names of constellations etc. that demonstrates HPL’s interest in astronomy.

The last theme in Polaris is that of a frustrated, impotent helplessness.  This occurs in several ways, one of which is the narrator unable to accomplish his tasks in his dream and experiencing shame and sorrow for his inability to function as a watchman in his social group.  The second is that of the star Polaris itself, which the narrator tells us has been struggling to convey a message, but yet is only able to know that it had a message and nothing more.  This weird anthropomorphization of the star is trippy and the fact that the star struggles to give a message is a truly weird and paradigm-shifting concept.  Ultimately, the narrator (and therefore the reader) are left questioning – which is the dream world and which is the “real” world; very much like some of the efforts of PKD.  And once again, the horror is not graphic or ghastly, but it’s in the very unknown and weirdness that the narrator’s feelings of horror are presented.  This is actually a really good story- judging it on a conceptual scheme.

The last text that I want to mention briefly is The White Ship. Finally, we are given a story in which the main character (narrator) has a name:  Basil Elton.  He is the keeper of a lighthouse like his father and grandfather before him.  Straightaway in paragraph one HPL is telling us about majestic seas.  There are “far shores” and “deep waters of the sea” in the following paragraphs.  And at this point the reader should be familiar with HPL’s method.  Weird stuff happens under, at, on, near the sea.  Anyway, when there is a full moon, the White Ship glides up near the lighthouse. And it does this for a long time, until one night Basil notices there is a bearded and robed man on the deck of the ship.  And thus begins the weird. . . .

Basil walks out to the ship from the lighthouse via a bridge of moonbeams (who didn’t think of Thor and the Rainbow Bridge at this?).  The man welcomes him and they set sail. The ship goes to a variety of different places and the robed man is Basil’s guide (Cp. Virgil in Dante).  I think this story is HPL’s attempt at world-building; that is, cartography in a fantasy realm.  The story gets a little dull, but the descriptions and imagery are worth reading. Sometimes it seems a bit overwritten, but if you actually try to picture what HPL is describing, it’s quite vivid and a worthwhile read. I would love for some enterprising fantasy author (e.g. Brandon Sanderson or Steven Erikson) to flesh out and develop this world. It’s interesting and has a lot of potential. I want to spend more time exploring and so forth.

Anyway, the ending is another appearance of the familiar dream theme that HPL uses.  Basil says: “…I went within the tower, I saw on the wall a calendar which still remained as when I had left it at the hour I sailed away.”  In other words, all these marvelous places the ship went and all the time Basil spent exploring was outside of time or he was dreaming – or both.  HPL’s usage of the dream/reality concept is really prevalent in the stories I read and I think by reading Dagon, The White Ship, and Polaris one can really get a grip on the tools HPL uses and how to navigate his writing.

Now, you may have noticed that I chose to comment on the texts that I felt were important key works and not on the ones that I liked the best.  The Terrible Old Man, The Cats of Ulthar, and The Quest of Iranon are actually my favorites in this batch of 25 stories.  I felt they were unique and heartfelt and resonated more with me than some of the other stories.  However, I recognize this is personal preference.  I still think these are great stories – but I think students of HPL need to be familiar with the stories I talked about, readers who want a good story should read both the three I mentioned and my favorites.

3 stars (the average for these 25 works)

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