Hallowe’en in a Suburb
by H. P. Lovecraft
The steeples are white in the wild moonlight,
And the trees have a silver glare;
Past the chimneys high see the vampires fly,
And the harpies of upper air,
That flutter and laugh and stare.
For the village dead to the moon outspread
Never shone in the sunset’s gleam,
But grew out of the deep that the dead years keep
Where the rivers of madness stream
Down the gulfs to a pit of dream.
A chill wind weaves thro’ the rows of sheaves
In the meadows that shimmer pale,
And comes to twine where the headstones shine
And the ghouls of the churchyard wail
For harvests that fly and fail.
Not a breath of the strange grey gods of change
That tore from the past its own
Can quicken this hour, when a spectral pow’r
Spreads sleep o’er the cosmic throne
And looses the vast unknown.
So here again stretch the vale and plain
That moons long-forgotten saw,
And the dead leap gay in the pallid ray,
Sprung out of the tomb’s black maw
To shake all the world with awe.
And all that the morn shall greet forlorn,
The ugliness and the pest
Of rows where thick rise the stones and brick,
Shall some day be with the rest,
And brood with the shades unblest.
Then wild in the dark let the lemurs bark,
And the leprous spires ascend;
For new and old alike in the fold
Of horror and death are penn’d,
For the hounds of Time to rend.
Archive for October, 2014
In Dark Valley Destiny, L. Sprague de Camp says, “Early in 1929 a professional colleague had told Isaac Howard of a cotton boom in sparsely-inhabited Dickens County.” And, after a description of the area, this:
Dr. Howard learned that many new people would be coming into the region to grow cotton by irrigation. Undoubtedly they would have need of a physician. Thinking this a chance to make some quick cash, Isaac Howard went to Spur, a town of moderate size in Dickens County, 112 miles northwest of Cross Plains.
On May 4, 1929, he took out his license to practice medicine in Dickens County. He transferred his letter of membership in the First Baptist Church of Cross Plains, which he had joined in 1924, to the Baptist Church in Spur. He evidently meant to stay for some time in Spur, one of those places on the fringe of things to which he had always been drawn. We can only guess what part was played in Isaac’s move by his discomfiture over his wife’s royal pretensions, his son’s animosity, and the necessity of sharing his small house with a roomer.
While the dates of Isaac’s moves are uncertain, it appears that his sojourn in Spur lasted at least half a year. He must have come back often to Cross Plains to visit his family, for the townsfolk of Cross Plains seem to have been unaware of his absences. In mid-1929 he probably returned home to stay for at least half a year, because of Robert Howard’s absence during this time. We do not know whether the doctor returned to Spur during the first half of 1930; in any event he transferred his church membership back to Cross Plains on August 28, 1930.
The last sentence ends with the following footnote: “Interview with J. Scott, 21 Feb. 1980; letter from Rev. T. Irwin, 25 Aug. 1977.” De Camp’s notes on his talk with Jack Scott say, “The reason for IMH’s stay in Spur was a cotton boom in that region, which he thought would give him a chance to make some money.” I haven’t seen the letter from Rev. Irwin, but I assume that is where the information regarding church membership comes from.
That all sounds pretty squishy, and I’ve never been a fan of speculation. Here are the few nuggets regarding Dr. Howard’s trip to Spur that I’ve seen. First up is Norris Chambers’ July 7, 1978 letter to de Camp:
Received your letter asking about Dr. Howard’s trip to Spur. I heard a little about this, but all I knew then (I was pretty young in 1929), was that he was thinking of moving his practice out there. I remember he talked some in later years about the country out there, but I never really knew that he went out there with the intention of “taking out.” However, this could easily have been the case. He often spoke of moving to various parts of the country, but we had heard this talk so much that we just listened to it and figured that nothing would come of it. The Dr. talked of doing many things that he never did. Sometimes he would start on something, but usually got other interests or changed his mind before he went very far with the actual act.
Besides de Camp’s notes on the 1980 Jack Scott interview, there’s also an earlier, August 31, 1978, letter to de Camp’s partner, Jane W. Griffin, which has this:
I was in college in 1929 at the time you say Dr. I. M. Howard moved to Spur and opened temporary practice. Consequently, I have no knowledge of that. Neither am I familiar with any unhappiness in his marital life.
And there are these items:
Cross Plains Review – May 3, 1929 (page 8)
Cross Plains Review – June 7, 1929 (page 8)
Cross Plains Review – July 5, 1929 (page 1)
Cross Plains Review – July 5, 1929 (page 8)
So, de Camp’s “at least half a year” looks more like two months, though I can’t explain the late membership renewal at church. I suppose it’s possible Dr. Howard went back to Spur, but I think it’s more likely he just didn’t get around to renewing. Speculation—yuck. During a recent trip to the area, my folks and I stopped in Dickens County and visited the courthouse in the town of Dickens. There are no land records for Dr. Howard, but I did get a copy of his medical registration. I also talked to local historian Erick Swenson. He told me that the cotton boom was over by 1929 and couldn’t think of anything special that would bring someone to town at the time.
Just a tad south of Dickens, we also visited Spur itself. I learned that the local newspaper, The Texas Spur, has been in business practically since the town was created due to the cotton boom in 1909. All of its holdings are archived at Texas Tech; unfortunately, it appears that no issues from 1929 survive. The town has a small museum, but other than a few old photographs of Spur, I didn’t find much of interest.
I first saw her face on a beignet break in the French Quarter. My native New Orleans tour guide/friend lay sleeping off our binge at a wine bar appropriately named Bacchanal, so I decided killing some time eating deep fried goodness to be a bonne idea. After reveling for the umpteenth time in the sinful caffeine orgasm that is French fried donuts sponging up some frozen coffee, I puttered around a few shops in the area. In a little bric-a-brac cluttered window on Royal Street my gaze froze on the face of a woman pale as death and a pair of hypnotic eyes that quickly reeled me into the overpriced tourist trap.
The vampirish woman emblazoned the cover of a book entitled Madame Lalaurie — Mistress of the Haunted House. The tome by Carolyn Morrow Long basically purported to be the true story of the notorious haunted mansion just a few blocks further down Royal Street. I vaguely remembered picking up something of the story on my last trip to NOLA. It is a twisted tale of diabolical evil a carriage driver took much joy in relating to me with his own sanguine embellishments. Something about a woman who tortured her slaves and let her doctor hubby conduct all kinds of unholy experiments upon their innocent flesh before trying to burn all the evidence in a catastrophic fire. Something to that effect. But with much focus on the tortures of the damned, maggots, whips, hellfire and Nicholas Cage — he happened to be the owner of the house at the time.
Thumbing through the book I quickly figured out this was a legitimate history book and not just a retelling of urban legends. The author makes use of original documents, genealogies, newspaper accounts, etc. to build a compelling case for the true story about Madame Lalaurie and her ghoulish goings on. Turns out, the urban legends weren’t too far off the mark from reality. This was one sadistic bitch of a Creole and apparently very guilty of most everything she was accused of. Madame was a member of the original New Orleans blue bloods, had been married to the Spanish Governor as a tender teen, married a second time to a slave trader who did quite a hopping business with the Lafitte brothers, and finally getting hitched a third time to a young doctor about 20 years her junior. And this was about a year after he got her pregnant. She was already a fairly fascinating lady before you even get to the slave abuse aspect of her tale. Things turn pretty dark pretty quickly.
Not only was she notorious throughout the city for abusing her slaves, she had even been taken to court over the accusations which, in those days, should tell you how absolutely awful she was. The Code Noir of 1820’s New Orleans was far more liberal that the rest of the South but slaves were still slaves and couldn’t bear witness against a white person. She was acquitted of the charges but her neighbors still despised her and spied on her. One night she was seen chasing a screaming young serving girl with a horsewhip off the edge of her roof. The unfortunate young lady’s broken body mysteriously disappeared. Then the fire happened. After the cruel Creole and her family escaped the flames, the nosy neighbors quickly realized that many of her slaves were unaccounted for. The heroic Samaritans charged inside amongst the smoke and flame finding to their horror ten or so slaves chained in a small attic like room. The poor wretches were emaciated and covered with sores, maggots gnawing at their insides. The slaves were taken immediately to the doctors to be treated but not before a growing mob had seen the nasty result of Madame’s hobby. They were none too pleased. When the authorities allowed her to escape the city, the grumbling mob exploded into flame.
A thousand screaming demons rushed the empty Lalaurie mansion and tore it almost entirely to the ground. The destruction was so complete that the house had to be entirely rebuilt – meaning the famous haunted mansion of today isn’t really the same building where the poor slaves lived out their terrible existence. The author of the biography using what’s left of the slave records figured out that at least twenty of Lalaurie’s slaves died between 1816 and 1833. Another nineteen simply vanished from all records after the fire in 1834. Even accounting for some natural deaths in a time without modern medicine, that’s a big pile of corpses. Oh, and they never caught up with the mistress of that house of horrors. She fled to France with the aid of her loyal butler and lived out the remainder of her days in the motherland with her family, exiled by the scandal but otherwise unharmed. Her young hubby left her and she was eventually forced to live off others’ charity the rest of her days. But after she died in her early 60’s (according to some tales gored to death by a wild boar!) her body was returned to New Orleans and there her ghost festers to this day.
Now, as I read this sordid tale, certain aspects of it seemed to strike sparks in my synapses:
(1.) A savage Creole mistress of an old family abuses not only all her slaves but focuses on a young slave girl in particular;
(2.) The slave girl and other slaves eventually disappear;
(3.) A grim attic hiding the loathsome secret of chained bodies;
(4.) The evil woman disappears and is never heard from again.
I couldn’t put my finger on what seemed so familiar about it. But fortunately I had Rusty Burke’s history of REH in New Orleans from several mailings of REHupa with me. One of the articles talked about Howard’s three landladies, the Durell sisters, whom he believed to be the inspiration for the three Blassenville sisters in “Pigeons from Hell.” Reading over that material lit my imagination and I quickly realized why Madame Lalaurie seemed so familiar — she’s basically the monstrous Celia Blassenville of “Pigeons from Hell!”
In Howard’s tale, the Blassenvilles are of French-English descent and from the West Indies, moving to their home before the Louisiana Purchase. They, like many wealthy Southerners, were ruined in the War Between the States. Celia is described as a fine, handsome woman in her early thirties. The family was unusually brutal towards their slaves, an idea picked up from their time in the West Indies. Celia whipped her mulatto serving girl just like a slave. She also tied the unfortunate young beauty naked to a tree and lashed her with a horsewhip. In the story, a hidden room was built in the manor house where the three sisters’ mummified bodies would be found, hanging by their necks from the ceiling in the windowless chamber.
Going back to the biography of Madame Lalaurie, I found that her family was of French-Irish descent with connections to the West Indies. Her story takes place a good thirty years before the War Between the States but she certainly does lose pretty much everything because of the fire and the scandal. The bonne vie of Creole plantations and grand parties and balls were no longer in her future. Madame Lalaurie was well known as a great beauty and must have been quite seductive and charming to have a love child with a much younger man in that day and age. She was certainly no Kathy Bates — the actress who portrayed her in American Horror Story: Coven. The one known portrait of her is striking. She became infamous for horsewhipping a young slave girl as she chased her off the roof. Then of course both women’s homes have secret attic rooms convenient for storing bodies. Also, her house is on Royal Street — the same street that the Durell sisters lived on for a time. Oh and Madame Lalaurie’s first name is Delphine, the same name as one of the Durell sisters.
Of course much of this could be circumstantial. A decadent old southern family guarding dark secrets is a pretty familiar cliché in the horror genre. Howard could have easily tapped into that whole traditional Southern gothic atmosphere. I have no evidence he ever mentioned Delphine Lalaurie or had read any of the books she is featured in. But she is a legendary figure in New Orleans and a precocious kid like Howard who loved local legends and ghost stories would have quickly learned about her. The building had been a haunted tourist attraction since the 1890’s and it’s not far from where he briefly lived on Canal Street when he was 13. There were also several popular New Orleans history books published at that time which mentioned her that Howard could have easily found at the local library. Maybe not concrete evidence but I think it builds up an interesting case.
We will never know for sure, but I feel pretty positive that he mixed Delphine Lalaurie’s evil shadow with the Durell sisters, sprinkled in the ax works from a ghost story he heard as a child, stirred in a little double double toil and trouble and before you can say zuvembie, Howard had cooked up “Pigeons from Hell,” recognized today as one of the best horror stories ever written.