Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Real Name of the planet Pluto!

The August 1931 issue of Weird Tales gave us one of H.P. Lovecraft's best stories. It also tells us what the actual purpose the planet Pluto serves. (And yes, I know Pluto isn't considered a planet anymore. Tough toenails--on my blog, Pluto still gets to be a planet!)

"The Whisperer in Darkness" was written right after Pluto was discovered. That plus Lovecraft's admiration of Arthur Machen's 1895 book The Novel of the Black Seal, from which Lovecraft drew plot ideas and themes, resulted in a truly creepy tale.

The narrator is Albert Wilmarth, a professor at Miskatonic University--the school where you are as likely to die horribly or be driven insane as get a graduate degree. Wilmarth is interested in certain aspects of New England folklore. He begins a correspondence with Henry Akeley, who lives in a secluded area of Vermont and believes he has found proof that alien beings have set up a small mining colony nearby and have been visiting Earth for centuries.

Like most aliens who inhabit Lovecraft's perpetually horrific universe, these creatures do not share any human concept of right and wrong with us. As Wilmarth, who eventually comes to believe Akeley, describes them:

I got this image from the Lovecraft wiki--
I couldn't find an artist's credit.
The things come from another planet, being able to live in interstellar space and fly through it on clumsy, powerful wings which have a way of resisting the ether but which are too poor at steering to be of much use in helping them about on earth. I will tell you about this later if you do not dismiss me at once as a madman. They come here to get metals from mines that go deep under the hills, and I think I know where they come from. They will not hurt us if we let them alone, but no one can say what will happen if we get too curious about them. Of course a good army of men could wipe out their mining colony. That is what they are afraid of. But if that happened, more would come from outside—any number of them. They could easily conquer the earth, but have not tried so far because they have not needed to. They would rather leave things as they are to save bother.

I really admire Lovecraft's story construction here. The first part of the story consists of Wilmarth and Akeley exchanging letters without ever actually meeting. At first,they calmly trade ideas and information. But Akeley gradually becomes more and more concerned that the Mi-Go (as the aliens are called) are stalking him with help of human agents. Eventually, Akeley is essentially besieged in his home, exchanging rifle fire with those human agents. His dogs manage to hold off the Mi-Go themselves.

Lovecraft employs his usual skill with sentence construction and perfect word choices to gradually build up the tension. Akeley is reluctant to leave his family home, but his situation is becoming untenable. Then Wilmarth gets a long letter (typewritten rather than handwritten) in which Akeley says he's been misinterpreting the Mi-Go's intentions and has actually made friends with them. Why doesn't Wilmarth come to Vermont and meet them?

It's actually fair to consider this a weak point in the story. That Wilmarth is being drawn into a trap is mind-numbingly obvious, but Wilmarth goes to great lengths to explain his absurd reasons for thinking its not really a trap. Gee whiz, Wilmarth. You were doing so well up to now and suddenly you are too dumb to live.

But he actually does manage to live. That's not a spoiler--he's narrating the story, so we know he lives. The second major part of the story comes when he does visits Akeley's home and learns, among other things, that he's not very safe there; that there's a planet located beyond Neptune called Yuggoth, which is a sort of base for the Mi-Go; that travel between planets, stars and dimensions often requires having your brain temporarily moved into a jar; and that Akeley is no longer--well, let's just say that he's not quite himself any more. In fact, Wilmarth learns a lot of things so bizarre and frightening that it puts his sanity at risk.

The story ends with a wonderfully horrific twist, but not before Wilmarth has time to wonder about the discovery of Pluto, which he knows must be Yuggoth. What reason do the Mi-Go have for allowing us to discover the planet they've always kept hidden from us? One horrible day, we'll probably find out.

I suspect the Mi-Go will be mad at us for reducing Pluto from planet to dwarf planet. And who can blame them?

Lovecraft mentioned the Mi-Go in one future story--In the Mountains of Madness--in which we learn they once fought a war with yet another race of ancient aliens. Cthulhu is also mentioned, so this is a part of what would become one of the first shared universes in literature. Other writers would contribute stories to this mythos, while Lovecraft would often mention elements from their stories in his own prose.

For instance, "The Whisperer in Darkness" mentions a being from Clark Ashton Smith's story "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," which hadn't itself been published yet, but which Smith had allowed Lovecraft to read. There's also a shout-out to "The Hounds of Tindalos" a 1929 story by Frank Belknap Long. Looking up those references also led me to read those two stories, so I think we'll examine both of them in another post sometime soon.

You can read "The Whisperer in Darkness" HERE.

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