Thursday, December 22, 2016

Cthulhu Christmas Classics: The Festival [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

I have been re-experiencing HP Lovecraft recently. I read pretty much everything he ever wrote back in the late 1980s when I was obsessed with the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. I can’t complain. It gave me my first non-fiction and fiction sales: “The City in the Sea” in Cthulhu Now! (1987) and “The Man Who Would Be King” (Eldritch Tales #24, Winter 1990). My reading of HPL was hurried and usually with the intent of finding useful bits to use in the game. So, in re-reading him, I am enjoying his work in a new – and I think – more honest way: as a horror writer.

One of the stories I re-read is “The Festival,” which appeared in Weird Tales, January 1925. I read it from a digital scan of that magazine that included the creepy Andrew Brosnatch illustration. January issues actually sold in December, making this the Christmas issue. “The Festival” is a perfect choice for such an issue since it is a Lovecraftian Christmas story. Now don’t expect anything as tame as a Dickensian ghost. Lovecraft was a complete atheist and so he isn’t trying to retell Jesus’s story or be Clement Moore. (Though HPL was a poet and followed up “The Festival” a year later with the poem “Yule Horror”: “But a light on the hilltops half-seen hints of feastings unhallowed and old.”) Lovecraft wants to take us to the time before Nazareth and “Jolly Old St. Nicholas.”

The plot of “The Festival” will seem familiar to Lovecraft readers. He would use it again in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and elsewhere: a man who learns of his family’s ancient ties to a decrepit town (inspired by a visit to Marblehead, MA) goes to that place and experiences a terror and a realization of what his family has been involved in. Sometimes they turn out to be people turning into fish-frogs; other times devil-worshipers. The narrator of this tale has come to Kingsport, a rotting little town on the Atlantic coast at Christmas, where he hears no village noise or sees any tracks. Lovecraft indulges his love of antiquarian architecture with a description of the elder town:

…snowy Kingsport with its ancient vanes and steeples, ridgepoles and chimney-pots, wharves and small bridges, willow-trees and graveyards; endless labyrinths of steep, narrow, crooked streets, and dizzy church-crowned central peak that time durst not touch; ceaseless mazes of colonial houses piled and scattered at all angles and levels like a child’s disordered blocks; antiquity hovering on grey wings over winter-whitened gables and gambrel roofs; fanlights and small-paned windows one by one gleaming out in the cold dusk to join Orion and the archaic stars. And against the rotting wharves the sea pounded; the secretive, immemorial sea out of which the people had come in the elder time.

But the master knows that horror fiction works on mood so he gives us the creepy treatment as well:
Beside the road at its crest a still higher summit rose, bleak and windswept, and I saw that it was a burying-ground where black gravestones stuck ghoulishly through the snow like the decayed fingernails of a gigantic corpse. The printless road was very lonely, and sometimes I thought I heard a distant horrible creaking as of a gibbet in the wind. They had hanged four kinsmen of mine for witchcraft in 1692, but I did not know just where.
The wanderer on Christmas tredding the snowy country -- this could be a scene from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest” or an MR James tale. But wait! It’s going to get much weirder. Because the narrator goes to an address scavenged from some family record and is introduced to two seemingly bland people, an old man and his wife. They accept him immediately thanks to his lineage and sit him down to wait. Wait for what? The visitor has no idea, but is willing to find out. To pass the time, some light reading: a stack of arcane volumes including nothing less than the dread Necronomicon. HPL is ridiculously close to unintentional humor here, but with his usual deftness manages to make it creepy, with the visitor realizing that this old couple are stranger than they seemed at first. He has the odd feeling that the man is actually wearing some kind of skin mask.



The time arrives and the old couple gives the visitor a cloak to put on and everybody in town is joining in, as they all file to the old church (this is the scene Brosnatch drew). At the church the man realizes nobody, including himself, is leaving any tracks in the snow. The robed acolytes take him down a long, winding stairwell to a pit that emits a cold flame. The man is forced to join in terrible rites and hopes only for escape. Then he finds out that this is only the precursor to worse things, every member of the town jumping onto the back of a winged terror to fly into a dark cavern that contains a vast sea. The old man tries to force him onto a mount and his skin mask falls off. The narrator screams and flees into the water.

The tale ends (where else?) at the loony bin in Arkham, after the narrator is rescued from the freezing water near Kingsport. The shrinks think the best way to cure him is to allow him to read the Necronomicon (again, edging toward the ludicrous) and finishes with a quote that speaks of gigantic caverns beneath the earth, filled with terrors. Not HPL’s best version of these ideas, but this was only 1923. The story, despite two rather silly points, works wonderfully in other ways. HPL parodies many Christmas themes: traveling to be with family, staying with relatives, the silly little customs we observe every year, dressing up for church, worship, and inclusion. The entire story is a black Christmas the narrator would rather forget.

Looking back at my notes from 1985, my only take away from this story was the name Kingsport and the first appearance of the “byakhee,” the flying monsters the cultists rode. It wasn’t even Lovecraft who named the beasts, but August Derleth who made them the ride of choice in The Trail of Cthulhu (1944). I completely missed all the fun Lovecraft was having with his character, like a dupe from Algernon Blackwood’s “Ancient Sorceries” stumbling onto a village of were-cats. I don’t usually think of HPL as a funny guy, but I can’t help but think this tale is meant to be just a little ridiculous even as it is exceptionally strange. It certainly is a change of pace from the Dylan Thomas and Alexander Woollcott chestnuts you find in most anthologies. And remember what old HPL says: “It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind.” Merry Cthulhu Christmas!

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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