A Journal Of The Dark Arts
But after all, the attic was not the most terrible part of the house. It was the dank, humid cellar which somehow exerted the strongest repulsion on us, even though it was wholly above ground on the street side, with only a thin door and window-pierced brick wall to separate it from the busy sidewalk. We scarcely knew whether to haunt it in spectral fascination, or to shun it for the sake of our souls and our sanity. For one thing, the bad odour of the house was strongest there; and for another thing, we did not like the white fungous growths which occasionally sprang up in rainy summer weather from the hard earth floor. Those fungi, grotesquely like the vegetation in the yard outside, were truly horrible in their outlines; detestable parodies of toadstools and Indian pipes, whose like we had never seen in any other situation. They rotted quickly, and at one stage became slightly phosphorescent; so that nocturnal passers-by sometimes spoke of witch-fires glowing behind the broken panes of the foetor-spreading windows.
– H. P. Lovecraft, The Shunned House
Did you have an old, decrepit house in yr town, growing up? With broken and boarded up windows, that the kids whispered about behind hands, daring the foolhardy to retrieve some doorknob or bric-a-brac?
The witch house is a timeless trope (referred to as The Old Dark House, on TV Tropes), that serves as a portal to astral realms, nether dimensions; a gateway to less rational, and more superstitious times.
The Shunned House by Newcastle-Upon-Tyne dark ambient producer Joseph Curwen, is a soundtrack for the novella by the same name from H. P. Lovecraft. The Shunned House was released as a C90 on the brand new Invisible City Records label, comprised of two monolithic sidelong tracks, at 44 minutes each. This is a rather perfect length, as it’s about how long it takes to read the Lovecraft story.
The two sides of The Shunned House could be seen as “the attic side” and “the cellar side”. The attic, where local kids would dare each other to go, in the Lovecraft story, and the cellar, the actual site of the phantasmagorical disturbances, with its sickly fungal foetor.
Even before i (re)read the Lovecraft story, Joseph Curwen’s drones reminded me of some dilapidated, ramshackle shack, with curling lemon yellow linoleum floors, but outside the windows, strange constellations and too-close moons burn in the night sky. This sensation was caused by the disembodied, elongated chorus, over a throbbing hypnotic beat. There is a sensation of the familiar being sucked away, as you plummet into an eerie otherworld.
The H. P. Lovecraft story tells the story of an unnamed protagonist and his uncle, Dr. Elihu Whipple, who grows an unhealthy fascination with a house on Benefit Street, in Lovecraft’s beloved Providence, Ri, which Edgar Allan Poe would’ve walked past on his perambulations. Their are strange stories of sickly, spectral vapors, and a phosphorescent outline of a human figure in the damned basement. Upon investigation, the protagonist discovers the house has an unseemly history of wasting disease and madness, going back to the 1700s.
I’ll say no more on the plot, as the surprise and suspense is integral to the functioning of the story, as is so often the case with Lovecraft’s work.
I will say that this is a rather good example of Lovecraft’s writing, and would be a suitable place to jump into the master of 20th Century Horror’s work, if you have not yet done so. First of all, it reveals Lovecraft’s talents as a fine architectural writer, thanks to his lifelong rambles through his beloved Providence. He really knows how to describe a building, its details, and its history. Secondly, the same for his ability to evoke atmosphere and mood, such as the blasted, cursed yard, with its “barren, gnarled, and terrible old trees, long, queerly pale grass, and nightmarishly misshapen weeds in the high terraced yard where birds never lingered.” You are transported to this eerily quiet space, can feel its unnaturalness in yr bones.
Thirdly, The Shunned House is a good introduction to Lovecraft’s works, as he keeps the “purple prose” to a minimum. There is very little “gibbering”, there’s not one “non-euclidean” angle in the bunch, and, for once, the narrator doesn’t go mad, immediately, upon contact with the ineffable. Instead, Lovecraft does what he does best; a tale of genealogy, folklore, architecture, and local history, all of which congeal to a startling final conclusion.
My personal favorite part about The Shunned House story is how it illustrates a rather antiquated notion of science, when it still admitted that it didn’t know everything.
Such a thing was surely not a physical or biochemical impossibility in the light of a newer science which includes the theories of relativity and intra-atomic action. One might easily imagine an alien nucleus of substance or energy, formless or otherwise, kept alive by imperceptible or immaterial subtractions from the life-force or bodily tissues and fluids of other and more palpably living things into which it penetrates and with whose fabric it sometimes completely merges itself.
This suggests an uneasy peace between science and metaphysics. Science basically took no stance on things it didn’t understand, saying only “we don’t understand that yet.” Today, it seems that anything which does not fit into the dominant paradigm is immediately discarded. This is entirely counterintuitive to the nature of science. You do not formulate yr results, before you test yr theories. You have a hypothesis, and you test it. More often than not, that hypothesis proves to be incorrect, and it’s back to the drawing board. Scientists that try and protect their research at all costs are going against the spirit of enquiry that defines illuminated science, and is just one more example of the encroaching prison of rationality. If something doesn’t make sense, it must be suppressed or destroyed immediately.
Lastly, i would like to give some bonus points to the protagonist and his uncle, for attending to the unknown threats with lights and flame throwers. At last, some level-headed thinkers in a horror story!
As for the music, Joseph Curwen’s soundtrack for The Shunned House is notable, in that it’s the first of the producer’s work, that I’m aware of, that features a beat – a smooth, gliding 4/4 thump that continues, nearly throughout. Creates a sense of trajectory, of adventure, that lends an adrenalized quality to the narrative.
The instrumentation seems to be made up of a simple, skeletal beat; a time-stretched choir; and some clanking, squeaking, metallic percussion. A true amalgam of deconstructed club music, swathed in dark ambience. As things go on, the familiar becomes less so, as the sounds are shredded, which reinforces the feeling of being sucked into a netherdimension.
Everyone’s always talking about how reading is a dying artform, so you have to give perpetual props to Curwen for re-invigorating the past time. It’s important, it really is, especially for horror lovers, and for writers. The way a horror story plays out behind yr eyes is so different from watching it unfurl on a screen, or even hearing it soundscaped. It’s amorphous, and full of dread. It lights up yr imagination with all manner of strange visitations, sending you beyond yr wildest dreams.
I took the opportunity to re-read Lovecraft’s story, while listening to The Shunned House, but it also provided the soundtrack for The House And The Brain by Sir Edward Bulwer Lyttleton, another fine Old Dark House story, a Victorian classic, as well as Luella Miller by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, which was similar in its depiction of a wasting illness. Like Lovecraft’s story, Curwen’s work serves as a tunnel, deep into the annals of classic horror.
I think these tapes are gone, at the source, but is still available as a download. Invisible City Records, (already on their second tape), is one to keep yr eyes on, if you like classic horror, SF, and ambient drone.
You can read the full text of The Shunned House at HPLovecraft.com
For the curious, you can download the text for Luella Miller here