Monday, February 4, 2019

The Thompson-Pendragon Controversy-Part Three

Of C. Hall Thompson's four stories for Weird Talesthree are set in the Northeast and two of those in New Jersey. The main action in all four stories takes place in a remote and lonely house, a conventional setting for the gothic romance. I am reminded more than anything here of Collinwood, from Dark Shadows. There are other gothic elements in Thompson's stories--locked rooms, secret books and manuscripts, twin or switched identities, possession, ancient curses, etc.--but there are also Lovecraftian elements. In "The Will of Claude Ashur," these include an outright naming of Lovecraftian books, beings, and places, including the town of Arkham and its Miskatonic University. Even when they are not obviously set in a Cthulhian universe, Thompson's stories are otherwise Lovecraftian in their conventions, structure, mood, language (ichor, blasphemies, gelatinous, and so on), and treatment of a doomed or fated narrator or protagonist.

It's clear that Thompson read, admired, and wished to emulate Lovecraft. In writing his Lovecraftian stories, however, Thompson made a mistake that too many young and enthralled writers make, for he failed to strain out the worst of Lovecraft's impulses as a writer. There is some bad writing in the younger author's stories, and he succumbed to some of the pulpwriter's many possible diseases, including adverbitis. Witness:
  • "The ocean pounded choppily . . ." (from "Spawn of the Green Abyss," in Weird Tales, Nov. 1946, p. 14)
  • "blood that oozed obscenely" (from "The Will of Claude Ashur," in Weird Tales: 32 Unearthed Terrors, p. 494)
  • "smiling evilly" (from "The Will of Claude Ashur," p. 497)
Worst of all, Thompson committed that extreme offense against the human ear, i.e., the adverbized color: blackly, whitely, redly, etc. (If something can be done redly, can it also be done pucely? Teal greenly? Magentaly?) At least he never used the "word" oilily, a crime committed, by the way, by C.L. Moore and Fritz Leiber, among others.

C. Hall Thompson liked exotic, literary, biblical, classical, and Dickensian names. These include Cassandra and Lazarus Heath and James Arkwright in "Spawn of the Green Abyss"; Claude Ashur and Gratia Thane in "The Will of Claude Ashur"; and Jeremy Bone and Peter Gaunt in "Clay." He also seems to have had a special interest in psychiatry, for all four of his stories have some psychiatric angle or element, and two even mention Sigmund Freud. I wonder if Thompson worked in medicine or psychiatry or if he simply recognized the possibilities for storytelling in a world in which Freudianism held sway. (1)

Lovecraft mentioned Freud, too, but Thompson, writing in the immediate postwar period when Freudianism was so much in vogue, seems to have given it more credence than did his predecessor. (2) "Spawn of the Green Abyss" (Weird Tales, Nov. 1946) opens with the narrator's telling us why he wishes his narrative remain sealed until after he has been executed: he wishes to die for his crimes rather than to "spend endless remembering years in the State Asylum for the Criminally Insane." In "The Will of Claude Ashur" (July 1947), the narrator is unable to avoid that fate, for he is indeed a patient in an insane asylum and trapped in a body he believes not to be his own.

The Freudian and psychiatric elements became more prominent in Thompson's stories as he advanced in his brief career. "The Pale Criminal" (Sept. 1947), set in the 1890s or early 1900s, is less Lovecraftian than Poesque (3), but Poe could not have written a story like this one, for it offers an overtly Freudian explanation for its events. When the coroner, Herr Roderick, explains what has happened, the narrator, a police constable, interjects, "My dear Roderick, you've read too much of this new fellow Freud. Why . . . it's absurd." It occurs to me now that Thompson set "The Pale Criminal" where and when he did just so he could bring in the Freudian explanation. In the 1890s, such an explanation would have seemed fresh and insightful, not only in real-life investigations of crime but also in fiction. In any case, "The Pale Criminal" is an early and intuitive illustration of the the power of the placebo effect. It also reminds me of Psycho (1960) and of "Eyes," the Joan Crawford sequence of the original Night Gallery movie (1969).

Thompson's last story for Weird Tales, called "Clay" (May 1948), may be, in stylistic terms, his best story. It may also be his most sophisticated, and it indicates an author breaking from his earlier influences and reaching towards a greater maturity. (Thompson was twenty-five when it was published.) As in "The Pale Criminal," the narrator is one looking at a problem from the outside rather than from the inside, unlike in Thompson's first two stories. (4) In this case, the man is a psychiatrist who works at Wickford House, an insane asylum located somewhere in New England. His subject is a young man named Jeremy Bone, who believes he is being influenced by his missing twin. Among the group of psychiatrists at Wickford House, there are those who believe only in material explanations for human affairs and others who are open to supernatural explanations. But this is weird fiction, and so we know who will turn out to be right in the end.

To be continued . . . 

(1) We shouldn't forget the very obvious influence of Freudianism in L. Ron Hubbard's formulation of Dianetics (1950) and Scientology (ca. 1954). Volney Mathison, Hubbard's associate and the inventor of the E-meter, practiced for a time as a "psychoanalyst," by this measure a more or less useless term but one derived from Freudianism. Although Robert Bloch began his career as a part of Lovecraft's circle and wrote stories in the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, he also wrote Psycho (1959), a story heavy with the influence of Freudianism but not quite free of gothic convention. Think of the Bates house, with its literal gothic design, in Alfred Hitchcock's movie version of 1960.
(2) The Hitchcock film Spellbound, with Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, is an early example. It was released on October 31, 1945.
(3) The name of the castle in "The Pale Criminal," Zengerstein, is an obvious truncation of the title of Poe's first published short story, "Metzengerstein: A Tale in Imitation of the German," from 1832. It's probably fair to say that "The Pale Criminal" is a tale in imitation of a tale in imitation of the German, only with a twist of both Nietzsche (who was German, not Polish, as he liked to claim) and Freud (who, though Austrian, spoke not the Austrian language but the German language--I'm not sure why; maybe we should ask our previous president who was so smart about these things).
(4) "The Pale Criminal" and "Clay" are actually hybrids in that they are narrated by a man on the outside of the problem but include a found manuscript written by someone on the inside.

Original text copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

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