10 January 2010

August Derleth’s “The Shuttered Room”

Before watching the DVD of the 1967 movie The Shuttered Room (which I rented specifically to watch the second feature on it, It!—more on that later), I turned to my bookshelf to draw down the anthology that contains the short story that the movie credits as its source. At least a decade has passed since I last read it, when I was in a flurry of reading H. P. Lovecraft-related fiction.

“The Shuttered Room” is the work of August Derleth (1909–1971), the man most responsible for promoting H. P. Lovecraft’s writing during the first two decades following the Old Man of Providence’s death. In conjunction with Donald Wanderi, Derleth founded Arkham House, a press designed to keep Lovecraft and other authors of the Weird Tales circle in print. Derleth invented the term “Cthulhu Mythos” to describe the shared cosmic horror backdrop that Lovecraft and some of his correspondents used for their fiction. The term is a point of controversy among speculative fiction scholars, but it has become part of popular culture, and discussing Lovecraft without reference to Derleth’s analysis of Lovecraft is almost impossible. Besides, it makes for a fun argument.

Derleth was a skilled fictioneer himself, and wrote many Lovecraft-inspired tales, the best of which make use of the folklore and setting of Derleth’s native Wisconsin the same way that Lovecraft’s stories use his native New England. “The Dweller in Darkness” (first published in Weird Tales in 1944) is arguably Derleth’s finest story in this mode. He also wrote what he called “posthumous collaborations” from Lovecraft’s notes, often taking only a few sentences and turning out a story with Lovecraft’s name listed beside his own.

“The Shuttered Room,” first published in the Arkham House anthology The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces in 1959, is one of these stories culled from a few lines of Lovecraft. In some later anthologies, such one that I own (The Watchers Out of Time), Derleth’s contribution is sneakily tucked away in small print (“with August Derleth”) to make it look as if “The Shuttered Room” is entirely the work of Lovecraft, even though he only contributed the idea from his notebooks.

“The Shuttered Room,” like most of Derleth’s Lovecraftian pastiches, is a fair imitation of the famous author’s work. Derleth copies Lovecraft’s rhythm, diction, and structures closely. However, these stories usually lack Lovecraft’s intensity and have a second-hand feeling. Derleth’s tendency to overuse some of Lovecraft’s most worn devices, such as enormous concluding sentences written in italics revealing a sanity-shaking revelation, can turn hilarious if you read too many of them consecutively.

But I read “The Shuttered Room” on its own this time, and found that it holds up as a decent shocker set in Lovecraft country. Derleth’s style is often sumptuous on its own, although he didn’t have the same understanding of rural New England that Lovecraft did.

The story uses a plot structure that Derleth employed many times: a character receives the inheritance of an old house in rural New England from a recently deceased relative, and discovers a horrific legacy—often in volumes of forbidden lore. “The Shuttered Room” disposes of the forbidden tomes, at least; the deadly legacy is mobile and tangible this time. The inheritor in this case is Abner Whateley, who receives a mansion from the will of his grandfather Luther Whateley in the rotting town of Dunwich, Massachusetts. Abner once lived in the house, where he went in fear of his grandfather and his Aunt Sarey, who never left the locked and shuttered room over the mill attached to the house. When Abner takes up residence in the dusty mansion, he finds strange instructions from his grandfather to destroy the mill and kill anything living he finds there, thus completing some obscure task that Luther failed to finish. Abner isn’t very observant of what he considers insane orders from a strange man, and enters the shuttered room and smashes open the nailed-shut windows. He also ignores a tiny, frog-like (i.e. “batrachian,” a Lovecraftian word that Derleth swings around with little regard for life or property) creature that escapes the room through a break in the glass of the windows.

The story then follows Abner attempting to piece together his family’s recent history and understand what his grandfather expected of him through piles of letters, most which concern Aunt Sarey and her visit to her relatives, the Marshes, in the coastal town of Innsmouth. This is the point where all Lovecraft readers will understand the core of what is occurring. At first it seems “The Shuttered Room” is meant as a sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” because it concerns the Whateley family from that story, and Derleth frequently refers to Wilbur Whateley and his mysterious brother, who was also kept locked away. But as Abner peers deeper into the Marsh side of the family and the history of Innsmouth, and reports of strange killings along the Miskatonic start reaching him, it becomes clear that the Whateleys are a red-herring for a story that is actually a sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”

For any Lovecraft fan, “The Shuttered Room” won’t hold many surprises in its finale when Abner at last discovers the secret of the occupant of the title location. Derleth builds the suspense well, although he again falls into one of those ludicrous italicized sentences of horrid, interminable length, concluding with the gasping revelation and a frenzied exclamation point! But attentive Lovecraft readers will have already gotten far ahead of poor Abner. “The Shuttered Room” is perhaps best enjoyed by readers who have yet to make H. P. Lovecraft’s acquaintance… but that would also mean spoiling the superb “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” an American horror classic.