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Literature / The Whisperer in Darkness

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"The Whisperer in Darkness" is a novella by H. P. Lovecraft, first published in Weird Tales in August 1931.

Albert Wilmarth, a scholar of literature and folklore at Miskatonic University in Massachusetts, enters into a correspondence with Henry Akeley, who claims to have found proof that the mysterious and monstrous creatures spoken of in the folklore of his native Vermont are real, and are aliens from another world who have been secretly active on Earth for centuries. Akeley's letters, as well as relating his discoveries, recount the increasing danger he believes himself to be in as the aliens and their human allies seek to recover and destroy the evidence he's gathered. These culminate in a desperate letter announcing that he's probably doomed — followed by a much more cheerful one claiming that the aliens aren't so bad after all, and inviting Wilmarth to come and see for himself...

Although it makes numerous references to the Cthulhu Mythos, the story is not a central part of the mythos, but reflects a shift in Lovecraft's writing at this time towards Science Fiction. The story introduces an extraterrestrial race of fungoid creatures usually referred to by fans as the Mi-Go (which in the story is just one creature from Earth mythology they're said to have inspired) or the Fungi from Yuggoth.

In 2011 a film version was distributed by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

In 2019 the story was also adapted (far more loosely) for radio as part of Julian Simpson's "Pleasant Green Universe". Simpson's earlier radio drama Fugue State was also heavily influenced by the novella.

In 2020 the HPLHS returned to the story with yet another audio drama version for their long-running Dark Adventure Radio Theatre series.

This novella contains examples of:

  • Action Survivor: Wilmarth is a sheltered academic, but according to other stories set in the Cthulhu Mythos survives to old age.
  • Alien Blood: After Akeley repels a night attack on his house by a combined force of aliens and human collaborators, he finds pools of blood and other pools of "a green sticky stuff that had the worst odour I have ever smelled". It's not obvious at first, but is later confirmed to be the blood of a dead Mi-Go.
    Akeley: But I haven’t told you the worst, Wilmarth. Brace up to read this, for it will give you a shock. I am telling the truth, though. It is this—I have seen and touched one of the things, or part of one of the things. God, man, but it’s awful! It was dead, of course. One of the dogs had it, and I found it near the kennel this morning. I tried to save it in the woodshed to convince people of the whole thing, but it all evaporated in a few hours. Nothing left. You know, all those things in the rivers were seen only on the first morning after the flood. And here’s the worst. I tried to photograph it for you, but when I developed the film there wasn’t anything visible except the woodshed. What can the thing have been made of? I saw it and felt it, and they all leave footprints. It was surely made of matter—but what kind of matter? The shape can’t be described. It was a great crab with a lot of pyramided fleshy rings or knots of thick, ropy stuff covered with feelers where a man’s head would be. That green sticky stuff is its blood or juice. And there are more of them due on earth any minute.
  • Alien Fair Folk: The Mi-Go are said to have been the inspiration behind legendary creatures in many parts of the world they've visited (including the actual Tibetan mi-go or yeti).
  • Aliens Speaking English: The Mi-Go speak English, but that's because they've been on Earth in secret long enough to learn our languages. And it's mentioned that they need surgical help in order to even produce the sounds necessary for human speech. They communicate with each other by telepathy, as well as bioluminescent colour shifts. They speak by buzzing, which sounds creepy and abnormal even though they can technically get the English sounds just right.
  • Ancient Astronauts: The Mi-Go have been coming to Earth for millions of years.
  • And Then John Was a Zombie: Played with; Akeley does not actually become one of the creatures, but he does join their community, as it were.
  • Artistic License – Physics: If Mi-Go do not show up in the photographs due to being made of a "different kind of matter", that means they should be invisible to normal human eyesight as well. Or the other way around — if Akeley can see them, there is no way they would not appear on pictures. Basically, everything we can see is actually light that is reflected from all surrounding surfaces. Any objects visible to us are visible to us because they reflect light. And photography works on the exact same basic principle (there are good reasons why it is called photography — "photos" meaning "light" — in the first place) — it focuses the light reflected by objects (or emmitted by them) via lens on photosensitive surface, thus forming an image. Technically, this isn't different from how our own eyes work. Therefore, if Mi-Go can be seen, then photographs of them should be easily taken as well.
  • Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and Yeti: When Wilmarth first hears about the creatures in Vermont, he dismisses them as a legend of this kind. Later, it's suggested that all such legends are also based on sightings of the creatures, and explicitly stated that they have another outpost in the Himalayas which inspired the legend of the yeti. ("Mi-go" is actually a Tibetan name for the yeti, and is not the creatures' own name for themselves.)
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The Mi-Go have long been Ur Examples for this trope: most people would see the extraction of a brain and putting it in a canister as a morally-questionable act; for them it's a reward.
  • Brain in a Jar: The Trope Codifier — the alien Mi-Go place living human brains in cylinders to transport them through space to other planets, as the unaltered human body is said to be unable to survive the journey. Unlike later versions of the trope, the cylinders are not transparent.
  • Brain Theft: The alien Mi-Go can perform operations on living creatures (including human beings) to remove their brains. The brains are placed in metal "brain cylinders", which can have other devices attached to them to allow the brains to listen, see and speak. In the story, after capturing a man named Akeley, the Mi-Go perform a brain-removal operation on him and store his brain in a cylinder.
  • Circle of Standing Stones: One of the sites associated with the creatures is "a druid-like circle of standing stones on the summit of a wild hill", "with the grass around them worn away, which did not seem to have been placed or entirely shaped by Nature".
  • Cosmic Horror Story: Obviously, it's Lovecraft.
  • Devil in Disguise: At the end, the Henry Akeley whom Wilmarth speaks with during his visit is implied to have been a Mi-Go in disguise while the real Akeley had already become a Brain in a Jar.
  • Epistolary Novel: A significant part of the story is recounted in the correspondence of letters exchanged between the first-person narrator and another character, until the protagonist decides to visit his penfriend in person.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Dogs have a mutual enimity with the Mi-Go. Henry Akeley's guard dogs can detect the presence of the Mi-Go when Akeley himself can't, and have an instinctive aggression towards them. As a result, he surrounds himself with them both at home and when traveling.
  • Fantasy Metals: The carrying cases that each Brain in a Jar is kept in are said to be made of a metal mined on the distant planet Yuggoth and unlike anything known to human science (or at least to the narrator, although since he's a professor of humanities and not a metallurgist...)
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: The aliens are said to be capable of it. "Do you know that Einstein is wrong, and that certain objects and forces can move with a velocity greater than that of light?".
  • Idiot Ball:
    • Wilmarth is required to get a firm grip on the idiot ball to get him to Vermont for the denouement. The whole business with the out-of-character letter inviting him to come visit (and don't forget to bring all the evidence with you) is, objectively considered, extremely suspicious, and Wilmarth spends a lot of time talking himself into taking the most innocent possible interpretation of multiple warning signs.
    • Fortunately the aliens are just as stupid, and do nothing besides drug his coffee which he doesn't drink, giving him a chance to realize what an idiot he was and run away.
  • Immune to Bullets: Not the Mi-Go, as Akeley was able to wound them with his hunting rifle. They also get killed by guard dogs.
  • Insectoid Aliens: The Mi-Go can fit, although they are more commonly described as crustaceans.
  • It's Quiet… Too Quiet: The words are not said, but when Wilmarth arrives at Akeley's farm he's disquieted to realize that there are no animal noises to be heard.
  • Insufficiently Advanced Alien: The Mi-Go have interstellar space travel (albeit the pre-Einstein ether interpretation of space) and the key to biological immortality, but they still get repeatedly foiled and killed by an old farmer and a pack of dogs.
  • Loners Are Freaks: Rumor has associated the strange beings with recluses.
    ...there are shocked references to hermits and remote farmers who at some period of life appeared to have undergone a repellent mental change, and who were shunned and whispered about as mortals who had sold themselves to the strange beings. seemed to be a fashion... to accuse eccentric and unpopular recluses of being allies or representatives of the abhorred things.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: Once they're unplugged, those in the brain cylinders experience 'vivid, fantastic dreams'.
  • Lovecraft Country: The aliens have their base (one of several) in the mountains of southern Vermont, near Brattleboro and Townshend.
  • Machine Monotone: The artificial speaking device that can be hooked up to a Brain in a Jar to allow it to communicate.
  • Meat Puppet: The Reveal is Wilmarth finding the face and hands of Akeley lying on his chair, and realising he'd been talking to one of the aliens all the time.
  • Mental Space Travel: Not quite because the brain is physically transported but the human body can't survive space travel and has to be left behind.
  • No Biochemical Barriers: Averted; it's mentioned that the alien visitors "could not eat the things and animals of earth, but brought their own food from the stars".
  • No Name Given: The man whose brain is in cylinder B-67.
  • Noodle Incident: The second letter sent to Wilmarth by Akeley is so rife with horrid revelations about cosmic horrors and such that Wilmarth makes more than once the point of never even try to quote it.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The opening line of the short story is Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end.
  • An Offer You Can't Refuse: Downplayed. It's implied that, rather than killing or kidnapping Wilmarth at the first possible moment, the Mi-Go planned the whole "let's pretend Akeley is still all well and good by having one of us disguised as him" ordeal in the hope that he would join them of his own accord...while however being more than willing to forcefully Brain in a Jar him anyway in case that failed (which is what very likely happened to Akeley).
  • Planet Looters: The aliens are said to be visiting Earth to mine some metal that is not readily available elsewhere. They're a low-key version, visiting the planet in secret instead of conquering it outright; it's said that they could easily achieve the latter strategy but consider it too much bother when they can get what they want on the quiet.
  • Small Universe After All: The Mi-Go can visit planets in other galaxies as well as solar systems.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Slipping a Mickey: The coffee Wilmarth is served when he visits Akeley has an unpleasant taste, which makes him stop after the first sip and surreptitiously dispose of the rest. Given subsequent events, the implication is that it was drugged.
  • Solar System Neighbors: Not native but the Mi-Go colonised Yuggoth/Pluto.
  • Spooky Photographs: The Mi-Go don't show up in photographs because they're made up of 'a different kind of matter'.
  • Starfish Aliens: The Mi-Go are extremely alien in both biology (they resemble giant crustaceans, but are said to be most like fungi out of any living thing on earth) and mentality.
  • Super-Intelligence: Wilmarth is able to commit an absurd amount of material to memory, including pages and pages of correspondence between him and Henry Akeley. No Absent-Minded Professor is Wilmarth, apparently.
  • Take Our Word for It: The Mi-Go apparently know many arcane and mind-breaking truths about the history of the world and the nature of the universe. Wilmarth learns some from Akeley's letters, and more when he comes to visit in person. Since he does not wish to break the minds of his audience, however, all he includes in his account are a few ominous hints and a lot of Mythos namechecks.
  • Telepathic Spacemen: The Mi-Go are said to use it to communicate among themselves.
  • These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know: Wilmarth eventually decides to run away from Akeley's farm because the revelations he is being exposed to are so extreme he can't bear them anymore. He realizes how much in danger he was only because he felt obliged to at least try to bring Akeley with him.
  • Title Drop: In the penultimate paragraph, when Wilmarth realizes what was really going on in the dark sitting room.
    Great God! That whisperer in darkness with its morbid odour and vibrations!
  • Tuckerization: The story mentions an Atlantean high-priest called Klarkash-Ton, who was named after Lovecraft's friend and fellow horror author Clark Ashton Smith.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Justified. The Mi-Go wanted to recover the evidence Akeley sended to Wilmarth, and even after that was accomplished, they tried to have him join their cause willingly before resorting to force, which was already enstablished to be common procedure for them.
    For I, despite all you can say, and despite all I sometimes try to say to myself, know that loathsome outside influences must be lurking there in the half-unknown hills—and that those influences have spies and emissaries in the world of men.