December 15, 2020

The Festival: Christmas with H.P. Lovecraft

You might be surprised to learn that H.P. Lovecraft, Rhode Island's famous master of horror, wrote a Christmas story. "The Festival" was published in Weird Tales in 1925, and like much of Lovecraft's fiction it combines local folklore, horror tropes, and the his own personal obsessions into a weird, unnerving tale. 

The story begins with a man arriving in an old Massachusetts coastal town called Kingsport for the first time. He's also the narrator, and he tells us he's there to join a celebration that his family has kept for centuries. It's an old family tradition he's heard of but never participated in before.

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. 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 also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten. 

Lovecraft was well-versed in New England colonial history, and he's probably referring to the 17th century when he mentions the "elder time when the festival was forbidden." The Puritans did not celebrate Christmas because they didn't think there was any evidence for the holiday in the Bible. In fact, Christmas was not widely celebrated in New England until the 19th century. 

The narrator's ancestors were not English Puritans, though. He claims they "they had come as dark furtive folk from opiate southern gardens of orchids, and spoken another tongue before they learnt the tongue of the blue-eyed fishers." Lovecraft was something of a racist, and you can see some of that in this description, but he may also be alluding to the fact that New England's coastal towns were often more diverse than some of the area's other English settlements. Even if they were dominated by the Puritans, coastal towns did attract sailors and merchants from all over the world. 

A portrait of H.P. Lovecraft as an 18th gentleman by Virgil Finlay.

That was definitely the case in Marblehead, Massachusetts, which inspired Lovecraft's fictional Kingsport. Marblehead is a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic from Salem, and is difficult to get to even today. It was even harder to reach in the past. Unlike its neighbors, Marblehead was first settled not by East Anglian Puritans but by fishermen from a variety of areas. In its early years Marblehead had a reputation as a rough, unchurched town where old practices lingered. For example, some British fairy folklore was remembered in Marblehead that was not found anywhere else in Massachusetts, brought there by its original colonists. In Lovecraft's story, something even weirder is found in Kingsport.

Marblehead was one of Lovecraft's favorite places. He first visited it in December, 1922, and described it in nearly orgasmic terms as "the most powerful single emotional climax experienced during my nearly forty years of existence." He returned several more times before writing "The Festival." Lovecraft was obsessed with New England's Colonial era, and he loved Marblehead's extensive and well-preserved colonial architecture. When the narrator finally reaches Kingsport and sees it glistening on a snowy night, he is basically describing Marblehead: 

...willow-trees and graveyards; endless labyrinths of steep, narrow, crooked streets, and dizzy church-crowned central park that time durst not touch; ceaseless mazes of colonial houses piled and scattered at all levels like a child's disordered blocks; antiquity hovering on grey wings over winter-whitened gables and gambrel roofs...

It sounds very charming, right? In reality Marblehead is very charming, but since this is an H.P. Lovecraft story and not a Hallmark Christmas movie we know something sinister is lurking under the Currier and Ives scenery of Kingsport. Our narrator will encounter something much more terrifying than eggnog and fruitcake. 

One giveaway is that he is coming to meet family he has never seen before. Many of Lovecraft's stories deal with people coming to bad ends after investigating their family tree. They find out their ancestors were cannibals ("The Rats in the Walls"), albino gorillas ("Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn..."), or evil, undead, murderous wizards ("The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"). Insanity and death usually ensue. Lovecraft was very concerned with his own heritage. He was obsessed with his role in America's racial hierarchy as white man of English descent, but also keenly aware that both his parents had died in an insane asylum. Ancestry is a double-edged sword.

These issues definitely appear in "The Festival." When the narrator reaches the home of his distant relatives it is a scene right from a history book. The main room has a thick-beamed ceiling and a massive fireplace. Old books line the walls. There's even an old woman spinning at a spinning wheel. What could be more proper and New Englandy? But something seems off. His hosts don't speak and their faces are oddly waxen, like masks. Their gloved hands are unnervingly flabby. And one of the old books is the Necronomicon, a forbidden book of ancient, evil knowledge.

His hosts take it with them when they leave for the big celebration, which is probably a good sign this won't be your average holiday party. The narrator follows them into the street, and they join a throng of hooded and silent people making their way up a hill towards an old church. Oddly, whenever the narrator bumps into someone he notices their body is unusually soft and pulpy. By the way, I also forgot to mention that four of the narrator's ancestors were hanged during the Salem witch trials.

Illustration by Virgil Finally for Colour Out of Space

"The Festival" has a bizarre ending, even for an H.P. Lovecraft story. The narrator and the other celebrants make their way down an enormous secret stairway carved into the bedrock under the church, finally arriving at a huge underground cavern. It's illuminated by a pale green fire that throws no shadows, and an oily black river flows through it. 

Fainting and gasping, I looked at that unhallowed Erebus of titan toadstools, leprous fire, and slimy water, and saw the cloaked throngs forming a semicircle around the blazing pillar. 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 flame, and throw into the water handfuls gouged out of the viscous vegetation which glittered green in the chlorotic glare.

The narrator joins in the celebration, but cannot maintain his composure when hideous winged monsters arrive to carry the hooded celebrants even further into the underworld. One of his hosts silently tries to convince him by pulling out a watch and signet ring that belonged to the narrator's great-great-great-great grandfather - which were buried with him in 1698. The host's waxen face slips off - it is a mask- revealing something so horrible the narrator throws himself into the river in terror. 

He wakes up in a hospital; the staff tell him he was pulled from the harbor. They diagnose him with 'psychosis' due to his ravings. As part of his treatment they let him read a copy of the Necronomicon, and a  passage in it leads him to believe that the people at the ritual were really long dead sorcerers and witches whose souls had created new bodies to inhabit from the worms and maggots that ate their corpses.

"Great holes secretly are digged where earth's pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl."

And that is the end of the story. It's one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, and if you haven't read it you can do so online here. It's Christmas but filtered through Lovecraft's various obsessions. 

Speaking of obsessions, I realized when I was almost done writing this post that I had already written about "The Festival" a few years earlier. I guess it's one of those things I return to every year. Maybe it's my new holiday tradition. Happy holidays?


Gary Carden said...

I have always been interested in Lovecraft, but his concept of horror is beyond me and I always had trouble relating to his ancient and alien examples. I prefer King's terrors who all have "a touch of the earth" in them.

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