The whole matter began, so far as I am concerned, with the historic and unprecedented Vermont floods of November 3, 1927.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness”
The whole matter begins, as far as Dearborn is concerned, with the historic floods of August 2011. On August 29th, 2011, Tropical Storm Irene swept through Vermont, washing away roads and bridges and swamping rural communities in a manner which recalled the 1927 flood. Three people were killed.
—Daniel Mills, “Foreword,” Whispers (2016)
If you pick up a copy of Dearborn’s novella, skip the foreword by Mills. Go into it raw, without expectations. Let her surprise you a little.
“Lovecraft Country” is a space of the mind. Psychogeography. A map of myth that isn’t the territory. Walk through the streets of Newburyport, and it isn’t Innsmouth. Parts of Salem and Danvers might remind you of Arkham, but it isn’t that place, not really. There is no Dunwich. The weirdly verdant forests of Vermont were only as real, in their way, as Machen’s hills. Readers get the impression of the place, as it was in the 1920s and 30s, filtered through Lovecraft.
Not many writers re-tread the old literary sod, update it. Kristin Dearborn did.
Whispers is not a straight re-imagining of Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” in the strictest sense. The literary DNA is there, and just to erase any doubt is printed clearly on the cover of the book, but it is “inspired by,” not a pastiche or rehash of the old story. The tone and approach are different, more contemporary. New eyes on old territory.
The narrative shifts back and forth, Sarah and Neveah and Dean, chapter by chapter. One of those transitions which is easier to do in print than in film, for all the horror movie aesthetic. Something in the woods, dogs growling, protective barriers of distrust and paranoia raised and lowered. Then the voices start.
Score some crystal with us, Neveah.
—Kristin Dearborn, Whispers 17
Drug literature is an old standby of weird fiction, from Lovecraft’s “Celephaïs” and Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Hashish-Eater, or, The Apocalypse of Evil” to Robert E. Howard’s Reefer Madness. Most focus on the extraordinary visions, the excuse for phantasmagoric imagery, not the mental and physical cost. Not getting beaten up by your pimp-cum-dealer. It’s a matter-of-fact ugliness, earth-gazing. The kind of detail that keeps the story grounded.
We’ll show you the stars. (ibid, 18)
The stars are very far away from a small cabin in Vermont. Forces are in motion, narrative forces that the reader is aware of but those two women and five dogs in the cabin are not. Everyone brings their own history, their own baggage to bear, coloring their understanding of the situation. It’s a human element which Lovecraft largely distanced himself from. His eyes were for the stars, the wonder and horror of it all. Dearborn’s is for the people living the story.
It’s not the first time a writer has re-approached “The Whisperer in Darkness” from the perspective of human emotions, entanglements—even sex. Richard Lupoff wrote a sequel to Lovecraft’s story titled “Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley” (1982) which brought the cosmic horror back down to Earth…but that is the key difference. Dearborn roots her story in the characters; she isn’t writing a sequel to anything. There are still things to discover for the first time in Whispers.
They aren’t all pretty. Not everybody gets to see the stars.
Whispers was published in 2016 by the Lovecraft eZine Press.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).