Sunday, February 18, 2007

Whippoorwills II

In the Dunwich Horror we read at the beginning, "The, too, the natives are mortally afraid of the numerous whippoorwills whcih grow vocal on warm nights. It is vowed that the birds are psychopomps lying in wait for the souls of the dying, and that they time their eerie cries in unison with the sufferer's struggling breath. If they can catch the fleeing soul when it leaves the body, they instantly flutter away chittering in a daemoniac laughter; but if they fail, they subside gradually in a disappointed silence."

Hmm. Is Lovecraft putting us on? He often does, and usually introduces his mocking parodies with, "... and the grandmothers tell us...".

This time, we have a bit more evidence to go on.

We turn to the incredible Mr. Joshi (1) who says this is, " actual legend in the Wilbraham area ... told to HPL by Edith Miniter or her friend Evanore Beebe ... {In HPL's 1934 essay on Miniter} ...I saw the ruinous, deserted old Randolph Beebe house where the whippoorwills cluster abnormally, and learned that these birds are feared by the rustics as evil psychopomps. It is whispered that they linger and flutter around houses where death is approaching, hoping to catch the soul of the departed as it leaves. If the soul eludes them, they disperse in quiet disappointment; but sometimes they set up a chorused clamour which makes the watchers turn pale and mutter - with that air of hushed, awestruck portentousness whcih only a backwoods Yankee can assume - 'They got 'im! {him}'.

Mr. Joshi is sure -as we are - that 'psychopomp' is Lovecraft's word from the Greek psychopompos - conductor of souls. Lovecraft used it in a 1918 poem of werewolves.

While Chrispy does not have direct lore from the Wilbraham locale, I do have independent sources of folklore with which to compare. This will be dealt with in parts III, &c.

It is also fun to see how HPL recalls nearly verbatim an incident that occurred in 1928 in a 1934 memoir. He tells Galpin (2) on 17 January 1936, "I was the guest of Mrs. M{imiter} and her cousin Miss Beebe in 1928. A spectral aura seemed to hang over the immeorial hills - though there were no outward evidences of change since I was there before. {on a mission with Cole to scatter the ashes of Mrs. Miniter's mother, Mrs. Dowe - who had died previously in 1919 - as a long due favor to Mrs. Miniter. Half the ashes went into a Wilbraham burying ground and half in a deserted garden once beloved by Dowe.}.

1. HP Lovecraft, The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, Penguin, 2001, p, 412, n. 18

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