Who Are Those Guys?

That’s the question Butch repeatedly asks Sundance in the movie while the super-posse is hounding them. I felt like asking it myself as I perused some of REH’s horror stories, specifically “The Black Stone,” “The Thing on the Roof” and his Conrad-Kirowan fragment “The House,” in which his two occult investigators probe the early life of the mad poet Justin Geoffrey. Bits of Geoffrey’s verse serve as the epigraphs to both stories. There are mysteries here. Chiefly they concern the identity of the narrators of the stories, neither of whom are named. Can they be the same man?  Are they the same as characters in other REH yarns, or are both “TBS” and “TTotR” one-offs?

(I confess this post is largely a shameless, self-serving plug for Nameless Cults, by Deuce Richardson and myself, now finished, and for the novel on which I’m still working, Damned From Birth, a direct sequel to “TTotR.” The readers have been warned. Let’s go.)

In both stories we learn only a few things about the narrators. Both are studious types who like their rare books, and are fascinated by odd events that took place in largely unexplored alleys of history. Both seem to travel quite a bit. Both are acquainted with von Junzt’s magnum opus, Nameless Cults (ah-haaa!) and seem to know the work of the mad poet Justin Geoffrey. Both place an epigraph of Geoffrey’s verse at the head of their accounts. The narrator of “The Black Stone” discusses Geoffrey and his final fate with the village innkeeper of Stregoicavar in Hungary.

We could infer that the two narrators are the same person. They might even be John Kirowan, Conrad’s friend, who accompanies him into the Catskills to check out a sinister old house that affected the boy Justin Geoffrey’s mind. After all, “The Black Stone” takes place in Hungary, and John Kirowan lost the love of his life in Hungary as a young man (“The Haunter of the Ring”).  He could have returned there years later to pay his respects at her grave.

The chronology would fit. “Dig Me No Grave” is a definite Conrad and Kirowan yarn, and it just as definitely takes place in 1930. That was the year John Grimlan’s bargain with “the one black master” ran out. It’s equally certain that “The Black Stone” takes place in 1931. The narrator tells the innkeeper that Justin Geoffrey “died screaming in a madhouse five years ago.” Justin Geoffrey died in 1926. If “Dig Me No Grave” takes place in England, on wild, desolate Exmoor – and Deuce Richardson and I both think it does – Kirowan could have travelled from there to the continent.

I can’t quite buy it, though. The person narrating “The Black Stone” doesn’t seem like John Kirowan, the disinherited black sheep of a noble Irish family who travelled the world (Zimbabwe, Mongolia, the South Seas) investigating the black occult arts, or a man with a tragic past. He comes across as a bookish academic, pedantically citing various sources like Dostmann’s Remnants of Lost Empires and Dornly’s Magyar Folklore – all as fictional as Nameless Cults. And he doesn’t seem to know enough about the bizarre and supernatural to be Kirowan.

(For similar reasons, I doubt the Professor Kirowan who is one of the group in Conrad’s study in “The Children of the Night,” is the same person as occult investigator John Kirowan. The latter was never called “Professor” in any of the stories in which he definitely appears, and Professor Kirowan also seems like a waspish academic who doesn’t know nearly enough about dark occult matters. Probably an English relative. The Kirowans, or Kirwans, of Galway were an extensive race.)

To distinguish the two narrators without making a tedious reference in full each time, I’ll call them N1(TBS) and N2(TTotR) from now on.

References to Nameless Cults in the two stories add to the doubt. N1(TBS) says that he “stumbled upon … one of the unexpurgated German copies, with heavy leather covers and rusty iron hasps.” He also thinks “no more than half a dozen such volumes in the entire world today” are left. Contrarily, N2(TTotR) did not “stumble upon” the copy he found. He obtained it for someone else after diligently searching for three months. He too comments on the German edition’s rarity. “He might almost as well have asked me for the original Greek translation of the Necronomicon.”

This being so, it hardly makes sense to have copies of the original Dusseldorf edition of Nameless Cults showing up here, there and everywhere. N1(TBS) obtained one; N2(TTotR) got hold of one; Conrad in “The Children of the Night” has a copy on the shelves of his “bizarrely furnished study”, and I’ll bet that was one of the originals. John Kirowan’s buddy would be satisfied with nothing less. Miskatonic University is sure to have one, or even two. Michael Strang in “The Hoofed Thing” has one in his library – a strong indication that both Conrad and Strang, and also N2(TTotR) have plenty of cash. They couldn’t afford such rare items otherwise. They must be the independently wealthy types who appear so often in pulp fiction of the 1930s and earlier.

It’s fair to suppose that a couple of the above copies, at least, were the same volume. If N1(TBS) and N2(TTotR) were different men, then one of them might have obtained Nameless Cults after the other disposed of it. Michael Strang might have done so too (obtained it or disposed of it). Any assumption that keeps the number of those “extremely rare” Dusseldorf editions to a minimum is a reasonable one to make.

Now there is a link between the stories “The Black Stone” and “The Thing on the Roof”, or what seems like a connection. (Deuce Richardson pointed this out. I completely missed it. Another one I owe him.)  N1(TBS) sees a similarity between the strange characters on the Hungarian “Black Stone” and those on “a gigantic and strangely symmetrical rock in a lost valley of Yucatan.”  He opined to “the archaeologist who was my companion” that the marks were sophisticated writing and the rock was the “base of a long-vanished column”. The archaeologist “merely laughed” and said the massive base would suggest “a column a thousand feet high.”

Hmm. Deuce is right. N2(TTotR) is an archaeologist, and he has done field work in Yucatan. One of the first things he mentions in “The Thing on the Roof” is his paper, “Evidences of Nahua Culture in Yucatan,” and his academic quarrel with the bull-headed Tussmann over it. He also refers to a “Professor James Clement of Richmond, Virginia” who located his copy of the vanishingly rare Nameless Cults.

A professor. An academic. A man to whom you turn to find a rare book for you. A man who knows all about the history of von Junzt’s “Black Book”. He automatically mentions the publication date and the printing house even of a book he’s only giving a passing mention (Dostmann’s Remnants of Lost Empires, Berlin, 1809, “Der Drachenhaus Press”). He seems a lot like N1(TBS). Seems fair to suppose at this point that the two narrators really are two different men, neither one John Kirowan, but that they are acquainted at least, and that N1(TBS) is Professor James Clement. N2(TTotR) is the still unnamed archaeologist who was his companion in Yucatan, and who laughed at Clement’s speculation about the huge rock they saw in the “lost valley” together. He probably should not have laughed. I infer he was young at the time. And came to take Clement’s view more seriously later.

This blogger is working on a novel that serves as a direct sequel to “The Thing on the Roof” and gives the narrator a name, Boston background, family, fiancee – fleshes him out quite a bit. But none of that is from canonical REH or Lovecraft sources. It doesn’t apply in this context. And nothing in REH, so far as I know, sheds any more light on the background, career, or even name, of N2(TTotR).

He wouldn’t be Costigan in “The Little People.” Nothing in that story suggests he’s an archaeologist, and nothing in “TTotR” suggests that its narrator is an amateur boxer “with a terrific punch in either hand”, as Costigan is. John O’Brien in “People of the Dark” doesn’t seem like a candidate either. He too is no academic, no archaeologist. “I was born and raised in a hard country,” he says, “and have lived most of my life on the raw edges of the world, where a man took what he wanted, if he could, and mercy was a virtue little known.”  Hardly the type an archaeologist like Tussmann would approach to procure for him a rare book like Nameless Cults.

He could possibly be James O’Brien of “The Cairn on the Headland”, as O’Brien is an accomplished and successful scholar. “TTotR” might have happened after eerie circumstance (and the god Odin) rid O’Brien of the blackmailer Ortali. But O’Brien’s line appears to be Gaelic language and history, not Central American ancient cultures. A man established and highly regarded in one field of scholarship wouldn’t shift to another, especially once he was rid of the blood-sucking extortionist who had made his life miserable for ages, and was free to enjoy the rewards of his regular work – in which he “commanded an enormous salary”.

I reckon the verdict there has to be “not proven” – but not too likely.

REH’s mad poet, Justin Geoffrey, has a connection with both “TTotR” and “TBS”. A few lines of his verse form the epigraph or motto to both stories. He is the subject of a conversation in “TBS”, which attests that he too visited that “sinister, ill-regarded village in Hungary”. Justin Geoffrey is without doubt a part of the shared Howard-Lovecraft universe. “TTotR” mentions “the original Greek translation of the Necronomicon.” “The Thing on the Doorstep” names Lovecraft’s character Edward Pickman Derby of Arkham as “a close correspondent of the notorious Baudelairean poet Justin Geoffrey, who died screaming in a madhouse in 1926 …”  The same story mentions “the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt.”

REH’s “The House” has Conrad expounding to his friend Kirowan his certainty that Justin Geoffrey’s extraordinary differences to the other members of his – very mundane – family were due to an experience when he was ten. He was lost overnight near a village (called Old Dutchtown) at the foot of the Catskills in New York State. He slept in a grove of trees near a curious old house, long abandoned, that no-one evidently wanted to own. The artist Humphrey Skuyler says, “It fairly exudes an aura of abnormality … that is, to a man sensitive to such impressions … There’s something almost Oriental about the thing, and yet it’s not that either … At any rate, it’s old – that cannot be denied.”

Young Justin didn’t enter the house, merely slept near it. Yet apparently it caused him to become such an off-the-wall person and eventually go mad. Why did the house exert such a baleful influence, and who (a horrid character, we can assume) built it where he did?  To paraphrase this post’s title … who was that guy?

No-one in the fragment knows. Conrad and Kirowan can’t find out. The owners of both adjoining properties deny it belongs to them. Their friend Skuyler the artist, who was impressed enough by the ominous place to paint a canvas of it, has no idea. Even the mayor of the nearby burg, Old Dutchtown, cannot tell them.

There are three signposts that might point the way for a start. Justin Geoffrey is a character in the Howard-Lovecraft universe. The house stands at the foot of the Catskills. It was built long ago, near “Old Dutchtown.”

Lovecraft had at least two old Dutch families with ghastly histories in his canon, and they both lived in grim, ill-starred big houses. The Martenses of Tempest Mountain (in the Catskills!) in “The Lurking Fear” were one. They were inbred, numerous (a bit too numerous) and characterised by mismatched eyes, one brown, one blue. They also reacted to thunderstorms with horror and intense, violent nervous excitement.

The other Dutch clan, which flourished in the days when New York was still New Amsterdam and one-legged Peter Stuyvesant its governor, was van der Heyl. The Martenses were only degenerate. The van der Heyls (“The Diary of Alonzo Typer”) were vile and diabolic warlocks from far back. They moved from Albany to Attica in 1746 “under a curious cloud of witchcraft suspicion” and built a “large country house” there. The van der Heyls and their servants all “suddenly and simultaneously disappeared” in 1872.

It’s this blogger’s hypothesis that a Martense man left home, went to work for the van der Heyls in the early 17th century, and married a van der Heyl woman. They were prosperous fur traders then, and had shipping interests in the Dutch East Indies, along with their secret diabolism. “The Lurking Fear” records one instance of a Martense man who did go into the outer world later, in the 1750s, and when he returned after years, his own kindred murdered him and buried him in an unmarked grave. I’m supposing the earlier one prospered and stayed away, sagacious fellow.

Further speculation. He and his van der Heyl wife had a son. The boy had the mismatched Martense eyes, and of course the Martense surname. As an adult, he went out to the East Indies as a van der Heyl agent, and did a fine job trading for them there – in nutmeg, sandalwood, and other commodities. He spent a few years in Aceh, Sumatra. He also learned a good deal about the local varieties of black magic, true to his inheritance on the mother’s side. Back in America, though, he grew sick of having his relatives regard him as less than a true van der Heyl, and broke with them at last. Going back to the Catskills (though not to Tempest Mountain) he built his own “castle-like house” close to the foot of those mountains. Settling there, he practiced the fiendish magic of his mother’s kin and the malignant isolationism of the Martense breed. At last he died.

It would account for the atypical architecture of the house. “Almost Oriental … and yet it’s not that either.”  If the builder had spent years in Java, Aceh and Makassar, that would explain it. If his ghost haunted the place, or it remained imbued with his dark sorceries, that could also explain its effect on young Justin Geoffrey. And maybe the above gives a partial answer to the question of who “those guys” were …