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Derleth Country #6 – Witches’ Hollow

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April 9, 2016 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)

arkham-darkminddarkheart

Two gravediggers find love?

Introduction

This story was first published as a part of Arkham House’s Dark Mind, Dark Heart in 1962.  It was inspired (again this comes by way of Lovecraft scholar Chris Jarocha-Ernst) from a pair of entries from Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book –

[130] – N. E. region call’d “Witches’ Hollow”– along course of a river. Rumours of witches’ sabbaths and Indian powwows on a broad mound rising out of the level where some old hemlocks and beeches formed a dark grove or daemon-temple. Legends hard to account for. Holmes — Guardian Angel.

[134] – Witches’ Hollow novel? Man hired as teacher in private school road on first trip — encounters dark hollow with unnaturally swollen trees and small cottage (light in window?). Reaches school and hears that boys are forbidden to visit hollow. One boy is strange — teacher sees him visit hollow — odd doings — mysterious disappearance or hideous fate.

{The reference to Holmes above is to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ novel “The Guardian Angel” (1867) which Lovecraft read in March of 1926, and from which entry 130 is mostly a quotation.  A discussion of the phenomena of “fox-fire” (about which see below) occurs a few pages later, and was also noted by Lovecraft in his Commonplace Book.  While the story itself is mostly a sentimental 19th century romance about a beautiful orphan girl torn between two suitors, the section of the novel linked to above (and which caught Lovecraft’s eye) during which a feverish Myrtle Hazard recollects a dream she has of the mound might be of interest to Keepers.  Here is a short synopsis of the novel as a whole.}

Of all the “collaborations” discussed this far, this is the first story to actually have, at least in part, some part of its plot details originating from Lovecraft.  Huzzah!

I should also note that there has been some suggestion that the town of Foxfield, which only survives in a map drawn by Lovecraft has been suggested to have perhaps been the setting for his proposed “Witches’ Hollow” novel…  For more information see “Where Was Foxfield?” by Will Murray (Lovecraft Studies 33 [1995], p. 18-23.)  Murray proposes that Foxfield might have been the setting for Lovecraft’s “Witches’ Hollow” novel, as Foxfield suggests Foxfire and the dates to some locations (several being 1693) hint at the Witch Trials… we might never know the truth of his intentions.

Synopsis

libaxn_spcoll_mcguff37It is 1920 and Mr. Williams, our narrator and protagonist. arrives at District School Number Seven, the new teacher for the rural students on the western outskirts of Arkham. The region is isolated, the school is ill-supplied (“Its standard readers… were McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers, in editions published before the turn of the century”), and the students unexceptional… save for a young man named Andrew Potter.

Young mister Potter is a bit of a puzzle – enrolled in the 5th grade, but but by age and ability easily could be moved into the 7th or 8th grade.  Andrew is also shunned by his classmates, though more as avoidance rather than the normal cruelty of children, and his classroom demeanor is perplexing, alternating between quiet obedience and mocking aloofness.  When he asks another of his students students (the unfortunate Wilbur Dunlock) about young Master Potter, the teacher is told the boy’s family live in Witches’ Hollow, the most isolated and remote part of the whole region and keep entirely to themselves.

After his interview with Wilbur (our 3rd in a Derleth’s stories if we don’t include Wilbur Whateley’s mention in “The Shuttered Room”), Mr. Williams decides upon himself to attempt to persuade Andrew Potter’s parents to permit him to be promoted into a more appropriate grade, and so he offers the boy a ride home, which Andrew accepts most reluctantly after assuring the teacher that he is sure his family would never agree to him skipping a grade, regardless of either’s opinions on the matter.

Nevertheless, student and teacher, climb into Mr. Williams automobile and take the narrow road to Witches’ Hollow. Here then is the clearest description of the titular Witches’ Hollow:

plaza06_06

Saxafrage!

…we plunged into an ancient wood, and when at last we turned down the sideroad – little more than a lane – to which Andrew silently pointed, I found that I was driving through a growth of very old and strangely deformed trees.  I had to drive with caution; the road as so little used that underbrush had crowded upon it from both sides, and, oddly, I recognized little of it, for all my studies in botany, though I once thought I saw saxafrage, curiously mutated. I drove abruptly, without warning, into the yard before the Potter house.

The Potter farm is at a Dunwichian level of decrepitude – buildings in poor repair (the farmhouse itself has a gambrel roof if you are keeping score), several on the verge of collapse, with a smattering of poorly tended fields, and no animals save a few meager chickens.  The Potters look to be in no better shape, especially mother Potter, who is “an almost obscenely fat woman”; and their reaction to Mr. William’s offer of advancement for Andrew is most poorly received:

“Here’s good enough”, said old Potter.  “Besides, he’s ours.  And don’t ye go talkin’ ’bout us now, Mr. Williams.”

He spoke with so latently menacing an undercurrent in his voice, that I was taken aback.  At the same time I was increasingly aware of a miasma of hostility, not preceding so much from any or all four of them, as from the house and the setting themselves.

Mr. Williams, wisely, departs as soon as possible, after being warned by Andrew not to talk to others about the Potter family, the boy inexplicably knowing that he had spoken with Wilbur Dunlock.  Indeed, the very air about the farm seems to almost gel with antipathy to against him, driving the teacher to flee with utmost haste back to Arkham.

The next day at school, Mr. Williams is upbraided by Wilbur Dunlock for breaking his confidence and telling the Potters about their conversation; a sudden “windstorm” smashed six of the Dunlock’s cattle last night.  Despite his protestations and wondering how the Potters are to blame,  Wilbur refuses to say more.

potterslogo

Admit it, you were thinking the same thing…

Like any Call of Cthulhu investigator worth his or her salt, our narrator heads off to the offices of the Arkham Gazette, where he speaks with the 70 year old editor, asking him about Witches’ Hollow and the odd Potter family.  The novel takes a turn here that reminded me nothing so much of when the Keeper realizes that you’re only 1/6th of the way through a scenario and you have 90 minutes to wrap things up and the friendly editor then asks, “Never heard of Old Wizard Potter?”

The friendly editor then launches into a substantial plot dump, explaining over several paragraphs that the current Potter family there inherited it… stop me if you’ve heard this one before… from a mysterious and generally shunned distant relation.  This ‘Old Wizard Potter’ was rumored to have “called down” something from the sky – we even get a fragmentary description of the monster as “the thing with the feelers – the slimy, rubbery thing with suckers on its feelers.”  Despite William’s disbelief, he heads off to the Miskatonic University Library with a note for the librarian.

And what does that note say?  Apparently it says “Let this guy have a long read of the goddamned Necronomicon.” because that is exactly what the unnamed librarian brings Williams, dropping an “archaic English” version of the book off at his table.  Here then is the traditional Mythos laundry list that Derleth loves so well…

Ancient Ones and Elder Gods, with outlandish names like Cthulhu and Hastur, Shub-Niggurath and Azathoth, Dagon and Ithaqua and Wendigo and Cthugha…

As the icing on the cherry on the creme de la creme of the ne plus ultra absurdities we have this moment – while out narrator is reading over the Necronomicon, he notices he is being watched by a stranger who introduces himself as Professor Martin Keane… or should I say Dr. Keane – Mythos Buster!  After returning his reading material labeled ‘Alhazred, Abdul’ to the librarian, our narrator implicitly trust his new friend and they head off on a walk.  Williams tells the good professor, after being asked what a middle school teacher might be looking for in the Necronomicon,  of his experience with the Potter family and Witches’s Hollow.  Professor Keane, or as I shall call him Dirk  McBoldtough, offers his aid to Williams in freeing Andrew Potter and his family from this dark shadow upon them.  So they go back to the John Cougar Mythos-foe’s off-campus apartment and load up on stones bearing the Seal (or as it says in my edition ‘Sea’, but I will assume that is a typo) of R’lyeh and to plan their attack on the supernatural forces of Witches’ Hollow (about which our narrator’s new companion knows a shockingly great deal, such as the being is telepathic and that these seal-bearing stones block its powers.

Williams, at the conclusion of the next day’s lessons, asks Andrew to remain behind after class and then asks him to walk with him to his car (these are not great ideas if you’re a teacher, by the way).  At the car, he surprises Andrew with a Seal of R’lyeh to the forehead, and as quick as you can say “The Power of Nodens Compels You!” Andrew shrieks and writhes, then Williams feels an eerie cold wind followed by an ominous stillness.  Then then loads the boy into his car, Seal of R’lyeh on his chest, and drives at top speed to Professor Manly Wade-Swellguy’s place in Arkham, where the unconscious boy is given a sedative while our heroes gear up to finish off the rest of the Potters.  This sounds like a pretty clear breach of several professional codes of ethics, no?

AH_investigator_figsThe duo, I suspect kitted up like a pair of characters in a game of Arkham Horror (“so we’ve got a stick of dynamite, a .38 revolver, a motorcycle, a cavalry sabre, the Livre d’Ivon, a bindle, some whisky, and $12… time to take on Nyogtha!”) ,  and with full stock of enchanted stones, lay in wait for the rest of Andrew’s family as the school house.  To be honest, this scheme is rather reminiscent of what I’d imagine a group of Call of Cthulhu investigators would do under similar circumstances – draw the Potters out one by one and take care of them individually.  Andrew’s unnamed sister is easily ‘stoned’ and set beside a desk.  Old Man Potter, though armed, is also dispatched via magic rock to the head by Professor Ninja von Sneakattack.  After a few hours wait, the pair decide that Mrs. Potter is not likely going to be coming and that they must take the fight to her, as she. the Professor theorizes, “harbors the seat of its intelligence”.  Initially he apparently had assumed it would be the man… sigh.

 At the Potter farm house our… heroes encircle the building with Seals of R’lyeh then they SET FIRE TO THE HOUSE.  Mrs. Potter tried the back door and a window, but drive back by the

2g91hmty

I said HYADES!

enchantment of the Seals retreats to the center of the house where the alien intelligence  that had possessed her and the other members of her family abandons her body and shoots up the chimney like so much heavily adjectived smoke and flies off into the cosmos, “in the direction of the Hyades, back to that place from which Old Wizard Potter had called it into himself.”

It is here our tale ends, as Mr. Williams decides he’d rather not know what it was they had driven off from the Potter family, as every teacher knows, questions are useless and should not be asked.  As for Professor Bulk McTomecrunch, he rides off into the sunset on his trusty horse Dusty…  But wherever poorly defined protagonists in a hurry face supernatural opponents far to dangerous for them to ever confront, let alone defeat, he will be there, fighting the Mythos one engraved cobble at a time.

Lovecraft Country Content

The story is set west of Arkham, where Lovecraft said “the hills rise wild” but no elements from it were included in Arkham Unveiled, neither the place nor any of the named individuals.  I believe that is also the case for The Miskatonic University Guidebook as well. grave2bcreek2bmound

(Not the mound in question but rather West Virginia’s Grave Creek Mound.)

As far as I know, until I incorporated this bit of real estate into greater Arkham (see “Witches’ Hollow” in Arkham Gazette #3), as far as I know, Witches’ Hollow had been otherwise ignored in any Lovecraft Country materials – finding a plausible spot on the map of western Arkham was, I shall admit, a challenge, especially considering it had to also account for Derleth’s other creation in that area, Billington’s Woods.  As for Lovecraft’s “broad mound rising out of the level where some old hemlocks and beeches formed a dark grove” from the Commonplace book, it does not appear in the story, though I’ve restored it to the version of Witches’ Hollow presented in the Arkham Gazette.

I do wonder if the name list of Witches’ Hollow’s most notable families our narrator gives – “Allens, and Whateleys, and Perkinses, Dunlocks, and Abbots, and Talbots” might have inspired Keith Herber for some of the familial names of the residents of Dunwich, as each one of those names graces an NPC there, some for quite extensive clans.  I also wonder if Derleth was inspired to have a character named Potter after the general store in Clark’s Corners…

Comments

This is a marginally better tale than some of the others – the protagonist is not wholly idiotic, the conceit of the possessive being is interesting – but it was marred by Derleth’s clumsy  narrative, in which Mr. Williams, after a glimpse of the Potter family and some implicit danger, immediately stumbles upon a super-competent, all-knowing ally who not only knows all about the Mythos, but even knows enough about the possessing entity to determine how to counter it AND has a healthy stock of enchanted stones perfect for that role.  There is no real tension here, just a narrative of our heroes  executing their plans to win without anything beyond trivial difficulties.  Perhaps it was the choice of making this a short story rather than a novel as Lovecraft had very vaguely suggested.  There simply wasn’t time to make any of the characters memorable.  Allowing our narrator to move almost immediately from asking some questions at the newspaper office to having the entire backstory reveal and then getting a free pass to read the Necronomicon completely gutted whatever tension this story might have had

feelers

Derleth didn’t leave Mr. Bukowski much to go on.

The entity which has possessed Mrs. Potter apparently comes from the Hyades and is obviously linked to Hastur the Unspeakable (via the Lake of Hali), as those who hare possessed by that horror are said to be swollen and bloated in appearance.  Derleth had what must have been some type of compulsion to shoehorn  poor Hastur in everything.

Nevertheless, I think this is his first truly original entity, at least in the stories we’ve discussed, that I found truly unsettling – sorry sand dwellers! – so we must at least give Derleth some credit.  i hope to find a way to include a “thing with the feelers” in some future scenario; I think it would make a strong hook and offer an interesting variation on the more typical cult structure investigators are always butting heads with.  Presumably the entity is at least as intelligent as humans, probably smarter… Keepers could have a lot of fun with out, especially if your investigations don’t have a bucket of magic rocks.

For those keeping tabs at home, there were no real witches in Witches’ Hollow.  😦

“Oh come on, Augie!” moment:

He introduced himself as Professor Martin Keane.  “I may say, sir” he added, “that I know this book [the Necronomicon] practically by heart.”

 Of course you do… ugh.

Coming up next… “The Shadow in the Attic”!

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