December 19, 2017

A Lovecraft Christmas: Fact and Fiction in "The Festival"

Christmas is a holiday about love, hope and charity. Trees are decorated with lights. Parents bake cookies with their kids. Everyone gets excited about Santa's big visit. It's really great, but if all the sweetness and joy is too much for you I suggest reading H. P. Lovecraft's 1923 story "The Festival" This morbid tale of an old-fashioned New England Christmas is full of horror, ancient secrets, and giant maggots. And like much of Lovecraft's work, there's a nugget of truth in it.

You can read "The Festival" here, but if you want to save your sanity I'll summarize. It begins on Christmas Eve with a man visiting Kingsport, an old Massachusetts fishing town that is his family's ancestral home. He has never been there before.

It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their heads it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where they also had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten. (H.P. Lovecraft, "The Festival")

At first the narrator is charmed by the old colonial buildings and narrow, crooked streets of Kingsport. But he is also a little creeped out as he walks through town. There are no people around, or even footprints in the snow, and all the curtains are drawn in the windows. He gets even more creeped out when he arrives at the really, really old house where his distant relatives live.

Inside is an elderly mute man wearing a hooded robe and gloves, while an elderly woman works without speaking at a a spinning wheel by the fire. There may also be someone sitting in a high-backed chair facing the window. Oh, and the elderly couple's faces may be waxen masks...

H.P. Lovecraft (1890 - 1937)

The elderly couple welcome the narrator, who browses the couple's book collection while he waits for the family Yule festival to start. Most of their books are about demonology and witchcraft, and they have a copy of The Necronomicon, a book of unspeakably blasphemous knowledge. Just the usual light holiday reading. As the narrator reads the unseen guest in the chair exits unseen - through the window - with an odd noise. Creepy.

Eventually the elderly couple indicates it is time for the festivities. As they and the narrator walk through the streets towards an old church they are joined by other Kingsport citizens, also hooded and robed. Here is Lovecraft's description of people walking to church on Christmas Eve:

...cowled, cloaked figures that poured endlessly from every doorway and formed monstrous processions up this street and that, past the creaking signs and antediluvian gables, the thatched roofs and diamond-paned windows; threading precipitous lanes where decaying houses overlapped and crumbled together; gliding across open courts and churchyards where the bobbing lanthorns made eldritch drunken constellations.

Once inside the church the throng descends a staircase that spirals down through the earth. Down, down they go until they eventually reach a vast cave. The cave is illuminated by a "belching column of sick greenish flame," allowing the narrator to see they are on the banks of a river feeding into a dark subterranean sea. At this point the actual Yule ritual begins:

It was the Yule-rite, older than man and fated to survive him; the primal rite of the solstice and of spring's promise beyond the snows; the rite of fire and evergreen, light and music. And in the Stygian grotto I saw them do the rite, and adore the sick pillar of of flame, and throw into the water handfuls gouged out of the viscous vegetation which glittered green in the chlorotic glare.

Until this point the narrator has maintained some modicum of composure, but he loses it when the celebrants mount hideous flying monsters that carry them off over the subterranean sea. As the elderly mute man encourages the narrator to mount one too it becomes clear that he is indeed wearing a mask and may not be human. In a panic the narrator hurls himself into the river.

The narrator awakens to find himself in a hospital; the authorities claim he was found floating in the harbor. They commit him to a nearby insane asylum, where they staff helpfully procure a copy of The Necronomicon for him to read. The narrator ponders a passage hinting that dead sorcerers can project their minds into the maggots that eat their bodies in the grave and then cause them to grow to human size. Were the elderly couple and the other celebrants really giant maggot-beings possessed by the minds of undead sorcerers? Merry Christmas!

I will confess I kind of love "The Festival," mainly because it is so fabulously weird but also because it has a nugget of truth in it. And I don't just mean the psychological truth that spending the holidays with family can be hard for some people. I mean some historical truth about coastal New England.

Lovecraft was inspired to write "The Festival" after visiting the Massachusetts town of Marblehead in December of 1922. He was delighted at the town's extensive Colonial-era architecture, and the narrator's walk through fictional Kingsport incorporates many of the sights Lovecraft saw. For example the elderly couple's house was probably inspired by one on Marblehead's Mugford Street, and the church was based on St. Michael's Church on Frog Lane, which is one of the oldest Episcopal churches in New England.

Mugford Street in Marblehead

As you probably know, Massachusetts was mostly colonized by Puritans, but non-Puritans settled here as well, particularly in the fishing towns like Marblehead. The Puritans tended to be farmers and craftspeople from East Anglia, but the fisherfolk who settled in Marblehead were more religiously and ethnically heterogeneous. The town had a reputation in its early years for being rough and a little bit wild. It was a place for hard-drinkers and outsiders. And it was also a place where people celebrated Christmas.

As I wrote last week, the Puritans despised the revelry of Christmas and tried to ban it from New England. They were not successful at tamping down the celebrations in Marblehead, though, and in 1729 Michael Pigot, the pastor of St. Michael's, held a service celebrating Christmas. The local Puritans were outraged, and preached a sermon against the holiday in response. Reverend Pigot responded in turn by publishing a pamphlet titled A vindication of the practice of the antient Christian, as well as the Church of England, and other reformed churches, in the observation of Christmas-Day : in answer to the uncharitable reflections of Thomas de Laune, Mr. Whiston, and Mr. John Barnard of Marblehead: in a sermon preach'd on the 4th. of January, 1729--30. That's a real mouthful of a title! Angry mobs from both groups confronted each other in the streets.

In "The Festival", Lovecraft writes that Kingsport is "where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden." Is this an oblique reference to the actual controversy in Marblehead over Christmas? I think it's possible. Lovecraft was a Colonial history buff and loved incorporating historical facts into his story. It's likely he knew the history of the town before he wrote the story. Let's just hope the giant maggot monsters aren't real too.


Unknown said...

Marblehead was also one of the places noted to have retained the traditional Pope Night festivities into the 19th century, having
“a huge bonfire on the Neck, around which the chaps with horns dance in fantastic glee”.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Bret! Thanks for the comments. Marblehead was one of those places where all sorts of folk practices survived for quite a while. It's relatively isolated and hard to get to, which might have something to do with it. Have a great New Year!