10. “The Strange High House in the Mist”

Perhaps the most stylistically pleasing of all the tales that Lovecraft wrote in the dreamy manner of Lord Dunsany is “The Strange High House in the Mist” (DAG, 277-86), written in November 1926. The story is set in the coastal village of Kingsport (Lovecraft’s fictional version of Marblehead, Massachusetts) and describes, in an effective, visually oriented style rather reminding one of certain Japanese paintings, the crags that hang over the town, crags that “climb lofty and curious, terrace on terrace, till the northernmost hangs in the sky like a grey frozen wind-cloud” (277). Atop this northernmost crag, “a bleak point jutting in limitless space,” rests a reputedly ancient house with a “grey primeval roof, peaked and shingled, whose eaves come nearly to the grey foundations” (278). Townsfolk are disinclined to train telescopes on the place, but summer vacationers, less sensitive to the local folklore, often do so. They report lights in the small-paned windows, though the one door, visible only from ships at sea, is set on the east side flush with the sheer cliff and accessible only from the mist-laden open air thousands of feet above the waves.

One summer a philosopher named Thomas Olney comes to Kingsport with his wife and children. We are told that Olney “taught ponderous things in a college by Narragansett Bay” (278). Beset with ennui, Olney becomes obsessed with the timeless house on the crag, and he resolves to do what townspeople declare impossible and undesirable: to climb the forbidden crag and visit the house and meet its inhabitants, who, he reasons, must be people who trade on the other side of the crags in Arkham and reach the dizzying height of their home by way of some more accessible path on the Arkham side. After a difficult climb, Olney reaches the old house, finding its windows on the north, west, and south sides locked and of course finding the door impossible even to approach. Yet there is the sound of a door opening, and though he tries to hide, Olney cannot avoid meeting the inhabitant, a seemingly young and kindly disposed man with a “great black-bearded face whose eyes shone phosphorescently with the imprint of unheard-of sights” (281). Inviting him inside, the man regales Olney into the night with tales of far-off places and travels, though later Olney will remember little of what he hears.

An ominous knocking sounds at the door. The cliff dweller cautions silence and locks all the windows, and the caller finally goes away, though not without being seen as a “queer black outline” at the windows (282). At length an apparently more welcome rapping sounds, and the tenant opens the door wide to admit “all the dreams and memories” of the world’s youth: “Trident-bearing Neptune was there,” along with tritons and Nereids, and “primal Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss” riding in a “vast crenulate shell” on the backs of dolphins (283). Olney and his host climb in and ride out into the night, and though the townsfolk below fear for him, the next morning he comes down unharmed. Or at least outwardly so, for he is changed: “Not any more does he long for the magic of farther hills, or sigh for secrets that peer like green reefs from a bottomless sea” (284). He has lost his sense of wonder, and can only leave Kingsport to return to a prosaic life, while Kingsporters now hear sounds of music and gaiety atop the sinister crag and fear for those of their youth who may one day scale the dreadful heights and, like Olney, find “a light . . . gone from their eyes” while the reverberations from above grow “stronger and wilder” at the expense of the explorers (284). The tale ends with a sonorous description, echoic of the story’s beginning, of the oceanward “mystic whiteness, as if the cliff’s rim were the rim of all earth, and the solemn bells of the buoys tolled free in the aether of faery” (286). In this already fascinating text, we can expect to find that the oceanward mists hide even more than one might think.

The story begins and ends with nearly the same descriptive passage. At the end of the first paragraph, we read:

When tales fly thick in the grottoes of tritons, and conches in seaweed cities blow wild tunes learned from the Elder Ones, then great eager mists flock to heaven laden with lore, and oceanward eyes on the rocks see only a mystic whiteness, as if the cliff’s rim were the rim of all earth, and the solemn bells of buoys tolled free in the aether of faery. (277)

At the end of the final paragraph we read:

And when tales fly thick in the grottoes of tritons, and conches in seaweed cities blow wild tunes learned from the Elder Ones, then great eager vapours flock to heaven laden with lore; and Kingsport, nestling uneasy on its lesser cliffs below that awesome hanging sentinel of rock, sees oceanward only a mystic whiteness, as if the cliff’s rim were the rim of all earth, and the solemn bells of buoys tolled free in the aether of faery. (286)

The most immediate effect of this echoic description is of course to render the tale cyclical—to suggest that the mystical sea mists and their burden of dreams are eternal, are here when Thomas Olney and we come upon the scene and are here when Thomas Olney and we depart. Yet the manner in which the two passages differ is as important as the manner in which one echoes the other, and the silences and omissions are as important as what is said.

One notes, first, that the house, that archaic structure seemingly posited as central by the title, is absent altogether from both descriptive passages. The title postures with us by suggesting the centrality of the house, which, one notices even on the superficial narrative level, has relatively little to do with the story. The rest of the text subverts this centrality in various ways, as we shall see. Further, the original reference to “oceanward eyes on the rocks” is replaced finally with the reference to Kingsport, which “sees oceanward.” In “oceanward eyes” and “sees oceanward” we have the a b b a form of chiasmus, a poetic balance by symmetric reversal. Yet the house itself, of the title, counts for nothing in this structure. In the original reference, the word eyes is metonymy (specifically synecdoche) for “people,” the part having been substituted for the whole. In the final passage, Kingsport (which “sees oceanward”) is similarly substituted for “the people of Kingsport,” the whole or the surrounding structure having been substituted for the part. Kingsport, a venerable New England village, is surely more than its people.

Thus we have passed from a privileging of that which is surrounded over that which surrounds (inside over outside) to a privileging of that which surrounds over that which is surrounded (outside over inside). This textual movement argues developmentally for a certain primacy of the notion of outsideness and throws further doubt on the status of the centrality afforded to the house by the title. While a house is an outside structure surrounding an inside space, it is also, and perhaps more importantly, that inside space itself. One recalls Chinese sage Lao-tzu’s argument, in book 11 of the Tao Te Ching, that in a clay vessel it is the space inside that matters, and that the usefulness of windows and doors resides in their being empty space, or a lack of something, so that importance attaches more to nonbeing than to being. In the text, the house, in spatial terms, is discussed only within, that is, between the similar-yet-different passages with which the narration opens and closes. And the house, in the title, is in the mist. Yet the house is left out of the passages in question, and ordinarily one thinks of a house as being “outside” rather than “inside.” But if outsideness has been privileged, then it would seem that by this means a certain privilege accrues to the house after all, albeit a privilege subverted by, as well as subversive of, associations of the house with insideness. Clearly nothing is clear in this textual mist. The status of the house is as oscillatingly unstable as is the spacing of the opposition between inside and outside.

One notices, also, that whereas the first passage speaks of “eager mists,” the final passage speaks of “eager vapours.” Vapour—derived from the root kwep-, “to move violently,” a notion descriptive of movements of the text against itself—is a curious word. Its etymological connection with vapid proceeds from the notion that something is vapid (rendered “flat,” flavorless) by having lost its vapour or gas. Here we find ourselves looking at the paradoxical equation of vapour with absence of vapour or gas, and we feel that the fact that the word gas itself is a portmanteau word deriving from chaos is, after all, only an honest comment on the hopelessness of the logic involved. But the question here is what to make of the seaward mists described, mists that become vapours, vapours that become simultaneously present and absent.

Mist itself derives from the root meigh-, “to urinate” (whence also micturate), suggestive of something passed off, pissed off, made absent, pointed away from presence. The same root gives rise to mistletoe, both a joyous symbol and a parasitic horror, a combination doing its own part to help promise paradox and unsettled reading. Unavoidably mist also suggests missed and the fact that any settled, univocal reading of the text will have missed the mark. Miss, “to fail to hit,” “to feel the absence of,” derives from the root mei-, “to change,” “to move,” whence derives also the Latin mutare and such derivatives as mutability, mutation, transmute, suggestive of shifting and change and instability. Yet many of the derivatives of this root suggest the exchange (withdrawal from change?) of goods or services in contexts of social regulations, laws, and customs—fixity and rigidity antithetically combined with flux and unstable being. In the prefix mis- (from the same root), then, it is no wonder that we find the notion of error, misplacement, misreading. Some uses of the prefix may connect back to the Latin minus, redolent of absence, of taking away or passing off, so that we are back to the notion of mist as passing-off, even though mist owes its existence to the other root meigh-. The connection between mist and missed is no less compelling for being a chance crossover than is the connection between mist and mystical and mysterious, which is etymological.

The title describes the antique peak-roofed dwelling as a “high” house, and, considering that the centrality of the house to the text turns out to be spurious, one finds a certain irony in “high” in the sense of “placed highly in importance,” as in “high priority.” The title could well read “The Strangely High House in the Mist” to reflect this irony. And in the etymology of high one finds antithetical elements similar to those remarked in connection with vapour and vapid. The root is keu-, “to bend,” and is responsible for the Latin cum-bere, “to lie down” (see such English derivatives as recumbent), an idea opposed to that of the adjective “high.” It is increasingly evident that the spatial relationships of the text are highly (and lowly) problematic. We have problems with inside and outside, problems with high and low. Indeed, in the text’s exploration of the idea that Thomas Olney climbs the mist-shrouded crag only to lose his sense of wonder, one finds a curious reversal. If the sense of wonder is indeed something to be lost—as will be the case, the townsfolk fear, with their young people—then it amounts to an aggrandizement of the people of Kingsport, placing them higher than that which brings them low—the wonder-stealing powers around the house on the crag. By placing the ancient house above and the town below and by suggesting that one may be brought low by climbing, the text subverts its own spatial imagery, and this subversion is adumbrated in the etymological anomalies that we have remarked.

But the most interesting such twists reside in those etymological meanderings to be found in connection with the house itself—the house in some ways effaced in the tale, yet destined to prove, despite its absence, to be an element indispensable to the text’s ludic vagaries. House is thought to be related to the Indo-European root skeu-, “to cover,” “to conceal,” whence comes the Latin scutum, “shield,” and cutus, “animal skin,” whence derives the English cutaneous. All suggest surface appearances and their potential for concealing more than they show. But house is also thought to be related to the root kel-, “hollow,” “to hide,” and here the intrigue begins to grow. This root is responsible for numerous derivative forms, including the name Calypso (imprisoner of Odysseus for seven years, presider over absence), the word color (as a covering of the surface), and the words cell, hole, hollow, hull, and husk, so that we return to Lao-tzu’s idea of the predominance of emptiness over fullness. (It is perhaps significant that the high house’s door faces east.) But the interesting thing is that there is another, homonymic but separate, Indo-European root kel- meaning “hill” or “something elevated.” In placing the strange high house on a towering crag of rock, the text itself encourages, indeed demands, this punning on the Indo-European level.

This second root kel- is responsible also for the word colon, and here the fun begins. The colon as a device of punctuation is a curious one, when one thinks about it. A colon standing between one piece of text and another has a function illustrated by language such as “Now we know the motive for the crime: jealousy” and “She speaks three languages: French, English, and German.” That is, what follows the colon tends to explain or to particularize what precedes it. But the matter is not so simple as all that. The colon is as much a connector as a separator. It causes pieces of text to interface with one another, and, like the faces of Janus, it points both ways. When we read “three languages: French, English, and German,” we see in the colon not only (reading rightward) the promise that the languages will be listed, but also (reading leftward) what it is that French, English, and German constitute and why they are mentioned at all. In “the motive: jealousy” we see by the colon not only the promise that the motive will be specified but also the fact that jealousy (among other things that might have been mentioned) is a motive. As a separating device, the colon is more conduit than barrier. Between the spaced dots, there is room for seepage from one side to the other, back and forth. One wonders if the high house as colon functions in a similar way, and in thinking about the question, we find ourselves examining the primary bipolarity of the text: that of the wonder-holding (potentially wonder-losing) townsfolk of Kingsport and the wonder-stealing powers that play about the house on the cliff.

In a way, the story is thematically a vampire tale, since the townspeople fear that their youngsters will suffer Thomas Olney’s fate and “do not wish quaint Kingsport with its climbing lanes and archaic gables to drag listless down the years while voice by voice the laughing chorus grows stronger and wilder in that unknown and terrible eyrie where mists and the dreams of mists stop to rest on their way from the sea to the skies” (285). Yet this vampire/victim relation is, as we have noted, one involving strange inversions. Here the victim (symbolically, in climbing the cliff) is elevated by becoming a victim, though brought low in the same process. The resulting impossibility of distinguishing between high and low strongly suggests the impossibility of maintaining the polar tension between the two sides of the binary opposition generally. Indeed these sides tend to have a relation of mutual containment.

First, it is obvious that each pole of the opposition is the enabling condition of the other, since there can be no victimizer without a victim, no victim without a victimizer. The sea mist, the potential for loss of wonder, clearly cannot function textually as it does without Kingsporters and the losable sense of wonder that they possess. The text itself insists that the strange powers residing within the mist thrive upon the wonder that they drain away, like a vampire at his feast, from the townspeople. The townspeople, conversely, are unimportant in the text if not intrigued by the misty crag. Without it, their very sense of wonder, so thematically stressed, has no particular object. But a more telling depolarizational force lies in the linguistic nature of wonder.

Wonder, as a noun, can mean a feeling of awe, astonishment, curiosity (as when we refer to Olney’s sense of wonder). Or it can mean that which arouses such feelings, as when the text says, referring to the dweller in the strange high house, that “Olney does not recall many of the wonders he told” (282). We may refer to these senses of the word as “subject-wonder” and “object-wonder,” respectively. In the opening paragraph, we read of “wonders that planets tell planets alone in the night” (277). While the natural reading here would seem to be object-wonder, there is a whiff of subject-wonder as well, since the planets (personified) that do the telling may be telling wonders that they feel. The remarkable thing about the word wonder is that its subjective and objective senses tend to implode together. Subject-wonder is but a phenomenological reflection of object-wonder, and object-wonder owes its “wonderment” to someone’s wondering about it. The word entails a flickering play of both senses, neither of which enjoys final privilege at the expense of the other.

It is in these terms that we see the mutual containment of the sea mist and Kingsport, polar “opposites” that refuse to remain opposite. Kingsporters are those who are wonder-ful (full of a sense of wonder), and the sea mist is that which is wonderful (full of wonder-evoking properties). But the wonder of which the sea mist is full is in a sense created by the perceiving minds from below, minds that turn the sea mist’s secrets into object-wonder by exercising subject-wonder, in much the same way that an eye may be said to turn certain electromagnetic waves into true light. The sea mist stands, then, in as much danger of losing its “wonder” as do the Kingsporters, whose “wonder” is the condition of possibility of the sea mist’s “wonder.” The Kingsporters, by mentally appropriating the mysteries of the sea mist, reflect the reverse process by which the sea mist may take the townspeople’s wonder away. The relation is one of unstoppable oscillation. We allegorically acknowledge the epistemological aporia or impasse implicit in this situation when we use the word wonder as a verb, meaning “to want to know” in the absence of knowledge.

If the house functions, as we have suggested, as a colon connecting the two sides of the would-be bipolarity, where one side explains the other, then the two sides stand in a special relation in which each owes its significance to the other. It would seem, upon superficial reading, that the town and its people are “real,” while the sea mist and its oneiric contents are “fabulous,” but even this distinction becomes dismantled. A colon customarily functions such that what stands before it is specified or explained by what stands after. Identifying the house as colon, when we mingle temporal and spatial metaphor, we find that it is the town that stands after and the sea mist that stands before. The mist is alive with timeless secrets from the sea, while the town is clearly of more recent date. The implication is that the town is a specification of that which lies within the mist. If the mist contains all the earth’s secrets, then the town is one of them, albeit one of recent mintage. And if what the sea gives out is, as the text has it, “mists and the dreams of mists” (285), then the town becomes as insubstantial, as indistinguishable from dream, as the very mist at which its people wonder. Ultimately the two swirl together, subverting any sharpness of distinction between them. The house, the colon between the two, does not separate them but rather connects them by appearing to separate them. The colon, as strange high house, is itself a self-effacing device, as we have seen. It is there and not there, present in its absence. While the text tells us, “The ancient house has always been there” (278), this assurance only establishes that the house, a subverter of insides and outsides, a dismantler of oppositions, belies any logocentric notion of origins and tells us that if the townspeople and the sea mist are in a relation of mutual inclusion rather than opposition, then they have always already been so.

The punning on the Indo-European level that demands a connection between house and colon and sets the house up as a self-effacing and porous diaphragm between the town and the mist reinforces itself in the fact that additional homonymic but separate roots kel- come into play. One such kel- means “to prick” and gives rise to holly, recalling the connection (through another strain of etymological material altogether) between mist and mistletoe. The house and the mist seem to have kinships that transgress any logic. Another kel- means “to cut,” “to divide,” suggesting anew the role of the house as diaphragm, though the sense of “to divide” is of course problematic, a fact suggested by another root kel- meaning “to deceive” (whence derives cavil, and a quibbling over dividing versus connecting). The text directly drags in yet another kel- meaning “grey” when it repeatedly refers to that color in connection with the house itself. Summer boarders “have never seen more than the grey primeval roof, peaked and shingled, whose eaves come nearly to the grey foundations” (278). It is as if the text is caught up from the beginning in a web of sign-play on the Indo-European level, sign-play that weaves a web of strange interconnections catching up house, town, and mist alike.

We have seen that the townspeople are linked to the mist and share its dreamlike insubstantiality. The lack of definable substance in the mist is reinforced by a textual self-subversion occurring in the opening line: “In the morning mist comes up from the sea by the cliffs beyond Kingsport” (277). One feels that there could well be a comma after “morning” if the sentence is to scan in the seemingly natural way. Without the comma, “morning” may be not a noun but an adjective modifying “mist,” and if we relocate the pause and insert an expletive (itself insubstantial) we have: “In the morning mist, [there] comes up from the sea by the cliffs beyond Kingsport.” But there comes up what? The sentence then lacks a proper subject; “mist” is missed as a subject. The text has provided allegory for the illusory nature of “real” subjects. If “mist” can seem to be the subject of a sentence that has or does not have a subject, depending upon readings between which one is free to choose, then it can have no ultimate substance or reality.

It is natural, then, that the text, which on a more superficial level would have us believe in the reality of the lore-laden mist, admits its own self-subversions in speaking of “mists and the dreams of mists.” Even here the text sports with us on the point. “Dreams of mists” may mean dreams that are about mists but are nothing more than dreams, or it may mean dreams contained within the mists, as suggested in the opening paragraph: “White and feathery it comes . . . full of dreams” (277). In repeating the diphthong ae in “the aether of faery,” a device similar to the graphic repetition of parts of written characters in Chinese and Japanese poetry, the text further questions the substantiality of “faery,” that unknown complexity of lore residing in the mists. For “aether” is emptiness. The text will not be pinned down to a settled reading. To try to contain it is as hopeless as to try to contain the mists themselves. The very fact that the text ends with a passage echoing its beginning suggests a subversion of beginnings and endings, of delimiting borders. Yet the ending passage begins with “And,” suggesting that repetition is difference. Even here the text continues to play with reversals of logic, as if to say, do I subvert beginnings and endings, or do I not?

The text is a dance of mists and dreams of mists, its web of language labyrinthine and as dizzying as the crag, its energies given over to allegorization of unsettled reading. It confounds high and low, inside and outside, mist and substance. The strange high house on the towering crag is one to which we cannot climb with any expectation of arrival or mastery. But the reader may take comfort: if to climb is to lose one’s wonder upon arrival, then since one will never have arrived, one’s sense of wonder will never have been lost. The intrigue of the sea mists is perpetual because irreducible to “truth.” Aside from the illusion of mastery, the strange high house is unreachable. Read: unreadable.

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