Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Thompson-Pendragon Controversy-Part Five

Arthur Pendragon's two stories in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination:

"The Dunstable Horror" (Apr. 1964) is a long short story told in the first person by a character called Thomas Grail, a British paleographer who arrives in Dunstable in "northern New England" in March 1920 "to find and study the long-buried records of the Massaquoit tribe of red Indians." (p. 52) These records are in the form of pictograms drawn with berry juice on birchbark and packed in ash to prevent their deterioration. Grail is also searching for the grave of the Massaquoit sorcerer Pauquatoag. With the help of Mr. Varnum, a local sawmill owner, Grail finds the grave and the rolls of birchbark records. In the process, though, an ancient curse placed by Pauquatoag upon Varnum's family is carried out, and Grail is forced to flee for his life and sanity, as Lovecraftian heroes so often are. (The curse comes about because of a sexual encounter between a white man and an Indian woman. Lovecraft of course would never have included such an element of plot in his work.) Incidentally, the tale told in "The Dunstable Horror" is only part of a book of memoirs written by Grail. You have to wonder what else he witnessed in his career.

"The Dunstable Horror" includes the following elements:
  • Lovecraftian conventions, structure, language, mood, plot, etc. In fact the blurb at the beginning of the story describes it as "A Gothic, Lovecraftian tale . . ."
  • A Lovecraftian setting in "northern New England," presumably in the wilds of Maine.
  • Lovecraftian place names in the town Dunstable and the river Penaubsket.
  • A blasted sort of landscape where nothing will grow (a "roughly circular fifteen acre clearing"  [p. 61]).
  • A remote and terrifying backwoods setting.
  • A mysterious dying-off of animals.
  • An ancient curse and an ancient vengeance visited upon the heir of the curse.
  • The "eerie call of a night-roving whippoorwill" (p. 63).
  • The dreaded adverbized color: "The light filtered greenly . . ." (p. 60).
  • Found series of manuscripts, one kept in the home of Mr. Varnum, the other recovered at an Indian burial ground deep in the woods.
  • Exotic, literary, and otherwise unusual names in those of Thomas Grail and the deceased Prester Varnum.
Some of these are characteristic of H.P. Lovecraft's stories or of pulp fiction in general. At least three, though, also appear prominently in stories by C. Hall Thompson: the Lovecraftian place names, the found manuscript used to help explain the events of the story, and the unusual names of the characters. (The "northern New England" setting is also in Thompson's "Clay.") So is this evidence of authorship by Thompson? Maybe, but it's still pretty weak. (1) I will say, though, that the writing style in "The Dunstable Horror" is far more restrained than in the work of either Lovecraft or Thompson, at least the early Thompson of 1946-1947. Thompson's style in "Clay," from 1948, is more restrained than in his previous stories, but it still has some Lovecraftian excess. If Pendragon was Thompson, then maybe he no longer wrote at forty-one as he had at age twenty-three, but then who does?

"The Crib of Hell" (May 1965) is novelette-length, and unlike all previous stories I have covered in this series, it is told in the third person. It takes place in Sabbathday, a seacoast town not far from Dunstable in "northern New England." (What's wrong with just saying Maine?) The year is 1924. The house is Cullum House, a "gray New England Gothic mansion." There is a woman with the Poesque name of Ligeia. There are also gothic elements, including witchcraft and a consorting with the devil (hence the "crib" of the title). Unfortunately, I have seen only fragments of this story in an online source. To me it reads like a potboiler, and in terms of style it seems to be the work of someone other than the author of "The Dunstable Horror." Now I wonder whether Arthur Pendragon (or Pendragan as it's spelled here) was a house name at Fantastic used by more than one author. It's pretty late in the game to make a supposition like that one, but then my series on the Thompson-Pendragon controversy was bound to be anticlimactic anyway. And I have to admit that there really isn't a controversy, but you've got to call it something. Now all that remains is a conclusion, and so I write:

To be concluded . . . 

(1) More on "The Dunstable Horror":

First, there are anachronisms, both of which would have come naturally to an author who came of age during the 1930s and '40s. Mr. Varnum asks Thomas Grail, "Did you find your Indian comic books?" (p. 61). Comic books didn't come into existence until the 1930s. Grail describes an entity as like "a mad surrealist's rendering of the Angel of Death" (p. 71). Surrealism did not begin until a manifesto issued in 1924. However, Grail may have been writing this after surrealism had become well known as an art movement.

Second, there is reference to the hair of a corpse growing after death. This was once a common myth. Another once common myth: the last thing that a man sees before he dies is imprinted upon his retinas. C. Hall Thompson referred to the retina-imprint myth in his story "The Pale Criminal."

Third, Pendragon seems to have had some knowledge of anomalous phenomena, describing a phantom blue glow like swamp gas moving through the woods, also translatable chronicles of events made by American Indians. Swamp gas has been used as an explanation for lots of things, most famously the UFO sightings in Washtenaw County, Michigan, in 1966. Indians are now known to have drawn pictograms on rolled pieces of birchbark, as in Pendragon's story. However, these are not known to be chronicles. In the 1950s, though, there was controversy over the Walam Olum, supposedly a chronicle of the Lenape Indians of the Mid-Atlantic region (C. Hall Thompson's home region, too). The Indiana Historical Society even published a book-length study of the Walam Olum. And, although the fifteen-acre circle in "The Dunstable Horror" may be intended to remind us of "the blasted heath" in "The Colour Out of Space" by H.P. Lovecraft, it makes me think of the Devil's Tramping Ground in North Carolina.

Copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley


  1. "The Crib of Hell" is on, when you interested to read it complete:

    1. Thank you, Matthias,

      I have read the story and will write a new entry on it when I can.