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Literature / The Dunwich Horror

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The town of Dunwich, Massachusetts is already a crumbling backwater with a vaguely sinister reputation ... and then Wilbur Whateley is born.

His "decadent" (meaning genetically degenerate) and inbred family was already unpopular due to their dabbling in the occult, and when Lavinia Whateley gives birth to a strange-looking child and refuses to say who the father was, it doesn't improve anyone's opinion of them. Wilbur grows incredibly fast - he begins talking at 11 months; by the time he's three, he looks ten years old; and at four and a half, around 15. The townsfolk don't trust him, as he gives them the creeps even more than the other Whateleys. For all that, though, they're still willing to sell cows to the Whateley mansion; money's money, after all, even if it is in the form of weird antique gold coins. Although for some reason, despite the truly vast amount of livestock Old Whateley buys, his herd never seems to get bigger...

The household only attracts more suspicions with time. The farmhouse always seems to be mysteriously under construction, with more and more windows being boarded up; the townsfolk also suspect that interior walls are being knocked out. When Wilbur is ten, Old Whateley dies, shrieking instructions to Wilbur on his deathbed; two years later, Lavinia Whateley disappears on Halloween night and is never found.

Around this point, Wilbur begins to search for an unabridged copy of the Necronomicon, having learned all of what he knew from his grandfather's small erratic library of occult tomes; his copy of said book is a shortened English version missing the crucial part mentioned by his father.. He discovers that nearby Miskatonic University has a complete copy, but the librarian refuses to loan it out to him. So he breaks in to steal it, only to be killed by a guard dog.

And that's when things get really weird.

One of H. P. Lovecraft's most famous stories, it was adapted to film thrice: as a So Bad, It's Good Cult Classic in 1970, and a remake by Syfy in 2009, as well as part of a short stop-motion anthology film (along with "The Picture In The House" and "The Festival") by Japanese filmmmaker Ryo Shinagawa, H. P. Lovecraft's the Dunwich Horror and Other Stories; this short film can be viewed online here. It has also been adapted thrice, generally more faithfully, as a Radio Drama, first as an episode of the long-running Suspense series in the 1940s starring Ronald Colman, later by the Atlanta Radio Theater Company, and yet again for the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre series as well as the Youtube channel Chilling Tales for Dark Nights. Director Richard Stanley is currently working on his own film adaptation of the story, as a followup to his take on The Colour Out of Space.

The story can be read here.

The Dunwich Horror provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness:
    • In the book, Wilbur Whateley is a hulking, goatish Humanoid Abomination. In the 1970 movie, he's a young, nebbishy Dean Stockwell.
    • Also, some modern illustrators would portray Lavinia as an elegant and tragic platinum-haired figure. The actual story describes her as ugly and deformed. Zig-zagged in the 1970 film: the intro shows her as a pretty young brunette, but it's later revealed that being impregnated by Yog-Sothoth and giving birth to the titular horror did a number on her appearance, causing her to look like a wizened old crone despite her actual age.
  • Adaptational Heroism: As opposed to his book counterpart, Wilbur's grandfather in the movie deeply regrets the events that led to Lavinia's madness and the horror's birth, and (unsuccessfully) tries to stop Wilbur from carrying out his plan.
  • Adaptational Villainy: In the original novel, Wilbur Whateley was merely a puppet groomed by his grandfather, with it being Old Man Whateley who intends to unleash Yog-Sothoth. In the film, it is Wilbur himself who is the mastermind and does the atrocities of his own volition.
  • Albinos Are Freaks: Hideous Wilbur Whateley's mother is a mentally-ill albino woman, and this is one of the things that contributes to his family being ostracized by the rest of Dunwich.
  • Alien Blood: Wilbur Whateley is described as having yellow-green "ichor."
  • Antagonist Title: In the sense that the titular Horror is the last Whateley child, a Half-Human Hybrid Eldritch Abomination which nearly destroys the town at the end.
  • The Antichrist: Wilbur Whateley seems to be a shoo-in for the title, given the circumstances of his birth and childhood and his "goatish" appearance. As it turns out, his father is not Satan, but an Eldritch Abomination nonetheless. Significantly, the only intelligible words spoken by Wilbur's brother, the Horror (a childish plea for his father to save him) function as a grotesque parody of Christ's lament on the cross.
  • Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever: The Horror itself is described by Curtis Whateley as being the size of a barn. It grew bigger over time as it was fed cows by the Whateleys. While it is typically Invisible to Normals, it does leave gigantic footprints the size of barrels.
  • Author Avatar:
    • One (mostly busted) theory is that Wilbur may have been one, adding Reality Subtext to the story.
    "Wilbur's being raised by a grandfather instead of a father, his home education from his grandfather's library, his insane mother, his stigma of ugliness (in Lovecraft's case untrue, but a self-image imposed on him by his mother), and his sense of being an outsider all echo Lovecraft himself." - Robert M. Price in the introduction to The Dunwich Cycle.
    • Lovecraft himself went on record saying he very much identified with Professor Armitage. Old, bookish, with occult knowledge and capable of putting two and two together in matters of horror.
  • Badass Bookworm: Professors Armitage, Rice and Morgan - it doesn't get more badass than facing down and killing an Eldritch Abomination.
  • Beast with a Human Face: The titular horror, once revealed, is shown to be a gigantic egg-shaped tentacled multi-legged Eldritch Abomination with a distinct yard width-long human face that resembles the Whateleys.
  • Bittersweet Ending: People have died at the hands of the monstrosity the Whateleys released, but it's successfully killed, and Yog-Sothoth loses a foothold in our world.
  • Black-and-White Morality: Unusual for Lovecraft. Just to make it clear, the "black" isn't Yog-Sothoth, but the Whateleys, who are arguably weaponizing Yog in the form of Wilbur and his brother.
  • Body Horror: The description of Wilbur's corpse. To be more precise, while his upper body looks (more or less) normal, his legs are described as being dinosaur-like and covered in black, thick hair, his abdomen is full of tentacles and he has eyes on his hips. Oh, and his blood is a yellowish, pus-like ichor, and he apparently has no bones.
  • Brown Note: Downplayed, but Wilbur's very deep voice has tones that can't be attributed to his gigantism; this only enhances his Uncanny Valley qualities.
    Presently Wilbur raised his head and began speaking in that strange, resonant fashion which hinted at sound-producing organs unlike the run of mankind’s.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The fact that dogs hate Wilbur. Also the fact that Wilbur is fastidious about being fully dressed to hide his monstrous physique.
  • Cool Old Guy: Professor Armitage, the leader of the expedition against the Horror, is 73 years old.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: This is one of Lovecraft's only stories to have an unambiguously happy ending. Although the exact methods they use to do so are described through the eyes of yokels who don't fully understand what they're seeing, the three professors send the son of Yog-Sothoth back to the dimension it came from.
  • Did You Just Romance Cthulhu?: Going a full step beyond romancing a mere Great Old One like Cthulhu, Lavinia had children with Yog-Sothoth itself, the infinite Outer God that lives beyond the universe. Somehow.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Wilbur Whateley, monstrous offspring of Yog-Shothoth and would be herald of the apocalypse, is rather unceremoniously mauled to death by a perfectly ordinary guard dog.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Yog-Sothoth, one of the two supreme Abominations of the Lovecraft universe, is apparently an object of worship for Old Whateley and also the father of twin lesser abominations Wilber Whateley and the titular Horror.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: For all their madness and apocalyptic desires, Wilbur and his grandfather seem to have been quite close, with Wilbur caring for the old man during his final illness.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Considering how human morality doesn't really apply to some of Lovecraft's creations evil may not be the best word to use, but regardless there is a damn good reason dogs hate Wilbur Whateley.
  • Evil Old Folks: Old Whateley, who is a cultist trying to end humanity and let the Old Ones reign.
  • For the Evulz: It is never explained why Old Whateley is helping Yog-Sothoth to render Earth uninhabitable to all humans including himself.
  • Funetik Aksent: The dialect of the Dunwich residents is rendered phonetically as an exaggerated backwoods New England accent.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Poor Curtis Whateley! He's the first to witness the Horror in all its glory.
  • Guns Are Worthless: Dr. Morgan brought a big-game rifle, even as his colleagues warned the monster cannot be put down by material weapons of any kind.
  • Hillbilly Horrors: Dunwich is a rundown, degenerate hamlet in the middle of nowhere. The Dunwich Whateleys are referred to as the "decayed" branch of the family.
  • Hillbilly Incest: The story is set in the remote backwoods of Massachusetts, and much is made of the rural nature and the low intellect of the residents. It is heavily implied that Old Man Whateley served as a vessel for Eldritch Abomination Yog-Sothoth to impregnate his daughter, Lavinia, resulting in the birth of Wilbur and his unnamed, inhuman twin brother.
  • Hot Skitty-on-Wailord Action: An Eldritch Abomination who is coterminous with all time and space yet locked outside the universe we inhabit somehow impregnates a human woman. We're thankfully spared any real description, though hopefully it was magical in nature rather than physical.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Wilbur Whateley looks human from the waist up, but is a gelatinous monster from the waist down, and wants to Kill All Humans.
  • Informed Flaw: The opening narration calls the entire population of Dunwich as degenerate and of low intelligence, such that the outside world shuns them, but other than the Whateleys, the inhabitants seem to be normal people. Certainly none of them appear to worship Eldritch Abominations.
  • I Want My Mommy!: Father variant with the titular horror, whose last words before being destroyed are desperately crying out for its father's help.
  • Interspecies Romance: Um...
    "I dun't keer what folks think — ef Lavinny's boy looked like his pa, he wouldn't look like nothin' ye expeck. Ye needn't think the only folks is the folks hereabouts. Lavinny's read some, an' has seed some things the most o' ye only tell abaout. I calc'late her man is as good a husban' as ye kin find this side of Aylesbury; an' ef ye knowed as much abaout the hills as I dew, ye wouldn't ast no better church weddin' nor her'n."
  • Lovecraft Country: One of the very stories to inspire this trope, it takes place in rural New England in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
  • Lovecraft Lite: Unusually for Lovecraft, this story has a happy ending. Well, 'happy' is a relative term, since a lot of innocent people still died horribly, but the Old Man Wateley's plans are stopped, both Dunwich and the last-minute protagonists survive, the characters are traumatized but remain sane, and the world is saved from Yog-Sothoth (and it's heavily implied he wasn't even interested in invading Earth).
  • Lower Half Reveal: For the first half of the story Wilbur Whateley is only seen or described from the waist up; his lower body is always concealed with long pants. When he is found dead and his body is examined, the reason is quickly clear: from the waist up he looks human, but below the waist he looks like his father Yog-Sothoth.
  • Mars Needs Women: Yog-Sothoth fathers human-hybrid children.
  • Nightmare Face: This seems to be the feature that most disturbs the person who gets a look at the Horror. It's not that it's particularly monstrous — it's that, aside from the unnatural width of its features, it's all too recognizable as a Whateley.
  • No Body Left Behind: The death of Wilbur. His body simply melts and sublimates away. Also, the Horror leaves no trace of those it kills (very likely because it ate them).
  • No Communities Were Harmed: According to Lovecraft, Dunwich was based on the real-life towns of Ipswich and Greenwich in Massachusetts and Greenwich in Rhode Island.
  • No Name Given: Wilbur's twin brother's first name is never revealed, or if he was ever even given one.
  • Non-Malicious Monster: The Horror, for all the death and destruction he causes, appears to have no more agency than a hungry toddler; he even begs his absent father for help as he dies. The most terrifying antagonist in the narrative is arguably the most innocent.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The titular horror is never seen directly until very near the end; before that, all that can be seen is the silent aftermath of its rampages. Makes sense, since it's invisible.
  • Occult Detective: The three professors, who have enough familiarity with the occult and are able to deal with the situation in ways the police aren't.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: The Whateleys' herd of cows keep getting these weird incisions, and they look kind of anemic.
  • Prophecy Twist: Early in the story, Old Whateley says that one day, they'll hear a child of Lavinia's screaming his father's name from Sentinel Hill. Turns out it's the invisible horror that's been tearing the countryside up and killing people - and is also Wilbur's twin.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Wilbur can easily be seen as this. He doesn't seem to have noticed, or maybe just doesn't care that most people really don't want the Earth to be pulled into horrible alien dimensions of lunacy and shit like that. Also a manchild in a more literal sense, as he is physically a fully bearded adult in his early teens.
  • The Reveal: The Horror is Wilbur's twin brother.
  • Running Gag: The Dark Adventure version turns Zeb Whateley's insistence that Wilbur, et al are from "the decayed side of the Whateley family" into one.
  • Scenery Porn: The opening descriptions of the country around Dunwich.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Well, he doesn't kill his father obviously, but it's heavily implied that Wilbur either killed his mother himself, or had her killed.
  • Shout-Out:
    "Inbreeding? . . . God, what simpletons! Show them Arthur Machen's Great God Pan and they'll think it a common Dunwich scandal! But what thing - what cursed shapeless influence on or off this three-dimensional earth - was Wilbur Whateley's father?"
    • Fridge Brilliance: Wilbur is often described as "goatish." The Classical Pan is often depicted with the attributes of a goat, similar to fauns, satyrs, and, of course, Satan.
    • Armitage's brief monologue that closes the story also recalls some of the speeches by Dr. Raymond in Great God Pan.
    • Another Machen example: Wilbur's diary, as decoded by Armitage, is clearly inspired by "The White People," which purports to be the diary of a young girl's initiation into pagan witchcraft. The terms "Aklo" and "Voorish" also come from there.
  • Supporting the Monster Loved One: The story is about a son whose real father is hinted at to be Yog-Sothoth and whose family keeps it in a secluded farmhouse over the years, during which it invariably grows and grows so the building has to be enlarged more and more, and cows from surrounding fields go missing, supposedly providing him with substenance. The son is not human at all but an invisible horrendous being too terrible to describe (as usual for Lovecraftian horrors, it has multiple extremities and tentacles).
  • The Three Faces of Adam: Armitage, Rice and Morgan.
    "In the end the three men from Arkham - old, white-bearded Dr Armitage, stocky, iron-grey Professor Rice, and lean, youngish Dr Morgan, ascended the mountain alone".
  • To Create a Playground for Evil: Wilbur's goal is for Yog-Sothoth to drag Earth off to . . . somewhere and wipe out humanity in the process.
  • Tome of Eldritch Lore: Wilbur's attempts to get hold of a copy of the Necronomicon lead to his death when he's killed by a guard dog after his gun jams. Meanwhile his grandfather Old Whateley kept a library full of lesser tomes of eldritch lore.
  • Uncanny Valley: Invoked; people get nervous talking to Wilbur because he always seems off, to the point that he looked thirty at age ten.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: They're put off by him, sure, but no one seems to be very curious as to why Wilbur is growing at such an abnormal rate. They put it down to inbreeding.
  • Wham Line: The true origin of the Horror is revealed in the very last line of the story:
    Professor Armitage: You needn’t ask how Wilbur called it out of the air. He didn’t call it out. It was his twin brother, but it looked more like the father than he did.
  • Wild Card: The Whateley Family is described as having both noble and degenerate branches, and then there's Curtis Whateley, who is part of the group who sets out to defeat the Horror. He's described as being closer to the good side than the bad side, but to know some of the Things Man Was Not Meant to Know that Old Whateley's branch did and to have seen an occult ritual or two.
  • Younger Than They Look: Wilbur grows extremely quickly, and is an 8-foot-tall man by the time he's about 10.