The Dunwich Horror was written by H P Lovecraft in August 1928 and is considered one of the core tales in his Cthulhu mythos. There are several significant literary influences on the tale. The central premise – the sexual union of a ‘god’ or monster with a human woman – is taken directly from Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan; Lovecraft actually alludes to the story at one point in his narrative. The use of bizarre footsteps to indicate the presence of an otherwise undetectable entity is borrowed from Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo. There are several other celebrated weird tales featuring invisible monsters Fitz-James O’Brien’s What Was It?; Guy de Maupassant’s The Horla (certain features of which had already been adapted for The Call of Cthulhu); Ambrose Bierce’s The Damned Thing – but they do not appear to have influenced the tale substantially. A less well-known story, Anthony M Rud’s Ooze, also deals with an invisible monster that eventually bursts forth from the house in which it is trapped; Lovecraft expressed great enthusiasm for the tale when he read it in the spring of 1923. The Dunwich Horror also stands out as being one of the few tales Lovecraft wrote wherein the heroes successfully defeat the antagonistic entity or monster of the story.
There has been much speculation as to the origin of the name ‘Dunwich’. It is thought that Lovecraft was aware of the now-vanished English town of Dunwich in East Anglia on the shore of the North Sea; it is the subject of Algernon Swinburne’s poem By the North Sea, which is included in the edition of his Poems owned by Lovecraft, although the name Dunwich never appears in it. This Dunwich is also mentioned in Machen’s short novel The Terror, which Lovecraft is known to have read. However, the original Dunwich – a coastal city that slowly sank into the sea because of the erosion of the shoreline – seems more reminiscent of the decaying titular seaport in Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Lovecraft later said that the fictional Dunwich was located in south-central Massachusetts, around the town of Wilbraham; it is clear that both the topography and some of the folklore (whippoorwills as psychopomps of the dead) are in large part derived from eight days he spent there with his amateur associate Edith Minster in Wilbraham. Some parts of the locale are also taken from north-central Massachusetts, specifically the Bear’s Den, an actual site near Athol.
Although very popular with readers, The Dunwich Horror (click to read!) has been criticized for being an obvious good-versus-evil scenario with Henry Armitage representing the forces of good and the Whateley family representing the forces of evil. It has been suggested that the tale should be read as a kind of satire or parody (e.g. the mythic hero’s descent to the underworld is paralleled by the villainous twin’s descent into the Bear’s Den) and also that the passage from the Necronomicon cited in the tale – “Man rules now where They [The Old Ones] ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now” – makes Armitage’s ‘defeat’ of the Whateley’s a mere temporary staving off of the inevitable. There is no evidence, however, that the tale was meant parodically or that the figure of Armitage is meant to be taken anything but seriously. Indeed, Lovecraft clearly suggests the reverse when he says in a letter that “[I] found myself psychologically identifying with one of the characters (an aged scholar who finally combats the menace) toward the end”. The popularity of the tale can be seen both in its wide reprinting in anthologies as well as in a rather crude film adaptation of 1970, starring Dean Stockwell, Sandra Dee and Ed Begley.