Monday, 22 November 2010

Review: The Festival

"The Festival"  (Weird Tales 5, No. 1 (January 1925)) was one of H P Lovecraft's earliest of the Cthulhu Mythos short stories and the first to mention the town of Arkham, Massachusetts.  It's a very short story that recounts the testimony of an unnamed narrator who returns at "Yuletide" to his ancestral town of Kingsport, Massachusetts"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."  There he stops at the home of an ancient, mute relative and while he waits there the narrator browses through a series of books that he finds there that turn out to be part of the reading list of the Mythos: Marvells of Science, the terrible Saducismus Triumphatus, the shocking Daemonolatreia, and worst of all, the unmentionable Necronomicon.  Then the narrator, the old relative and a mysterious old woman don cloaks and head for the town church where a strange, silent procession is heading inside.  Instead of sitting in the pews, the congregation go into the crypts, then into a tunnel beneath the crypts, and finally to a gigantic catacomb that stretches for miles and a huge chamber with a grotesque altar. There a ghastly ceremony takes place. Then,

Out of the Tartarean leagues through which that oily river rolled uncanny, unheard, and unsuspected, there flopped rhythmically a horde of tame, trained, hybrid winged things that no sound eye could ever wholly grasp, or sound brain ever wholly remember. They were not altogether crows, nor moles, nor buzzards, nor ants, nor vampire bats, nor decomposed human beings; but something I cannot and must not recall. They flopped limply along, half with their webbed feet and half with their membraneous wings; and as they reached the throng of celebrants the cowled figures seized and mounted them, and rode off one by one along the reaches of that unlighted river, into pits and galleries of panic where poison springs feed frightful and undiscoverable cataracts.
 When invited to  follow the example of the others by his relative, the narrator refuses out of horror.  As the relative tries to control one of the mounts "the suddenness of his motion dislodged the waxen mask from what should have been his head."

In terror, the narrator plunges into a subterranean river and narrowly escapes with his life and sanity.  While recovering in hospital, he studies the Necromonicon and discovers an answer to the mystery that is of no comfort whatsoever.

"The Festival" is a short work that demonstrates that the purpose of a short story is to deal with one "gag" and then get out.  Lovecraft was inspired to write the piece after a visit to Kingsport, which at that time was notable for its antique architecture that was for Lovecraft the totality of "all the past of New England–all the past of Old England–all the past of Anglo-Saxondom and the Western World".  He combined the atmosphere that he found there with his recent reading of Margaret Murray's The Witch Cult in Western Europe a work of poorly researched pseudo history about how witchcraft is the survival of pre-Christian pagan religions into modern times.  Archaeologists used to pass it around for a good laugh, but it was highly influential and was one of the rickety cornerstones of the modern Wicca fads.  The idea of an ancient town as the centre for the worship of some antedeluvian religion was one that Lovecraft felt would be a good vehicle for him to emulate Arthur Machen's The Novel of the Black Seal, which he greatly admired.

In the end, Lovecraft largely succeeded with a hair-raising tale that makes Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" look like a church picnic. 


  1. Minor correction: Lovecraft visited Newburyport (real town) and was inspired to invent Kingsport (fictional town).

    He'd probably have trouble recognizing the place nowadays. It has gone from being a rundown old fishing port to being a very ritzy vacation spot.

  2. Thanks. I appreciate the correction.