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Created: February 2017
| Updated: February 2017
Read this story in the library
"The Festival" is a short story by H. P. Lovecraft written in October 1923 and published in the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales. It is considered to be one of the first of his Cthulhu Mythos stories.
The story was inspired by Lovecraft's first trip to Marblehead, Massachusetts, in December 1922. Lovecraft later called that visit
The narrator's path through Kingsport corresponds to a route to the center of Marblehead; the house with the overhanging second story is probably based on Marblehead's 1 Mugford Street. The church in the story is St. Michael's Episcopal Church on Frog Lane, built in 1714 and the oldest Anglican church building still standing on its original site in New England. The church, which stands on a modest hill, has a rare colonial crypt where early parishioners were interred, and had a steeple for most of the eighteenth century. Lovecraft would have discovered these facts from visiting the church and talking with the rector, a fact corroborated by his signing of the guest register.
Lovecraft cited a book as another inspiration for the story: "In intimating an alien race I had in mind the survival of some clan of pre-Aryan sorcerers who preserved primitive rites like those of the witch-cult--I had just been reading Miss Murray's The Witch-Cult in Western Europe." This is why Lovecraft refers to the narrator's folk as "an old people, and...strange, because they had come as dark furtive folk from opiate southern gardens of orchids, and spoken another tongue before they learnt the tongue of the blue-eyed fishers." The idea of "pre-Aryan" survivals was the basis of Arthur Machen's "The Novel of the Black Seal", which Lovecraft had recently read and been much impressed by.
The story is set at Christmas time: "It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind." An unnamed narrator is making his first visit to Kingsport, Massachusetts, an "ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten."
The town he comes to, which shows little sign of habitation, seems centuries out of date,
He locates his relatives' house, which has an overhanging second story, and is greeted by an unspeaking old man with "flabby hands, curiously gloved," and a "bland face" that he comes to suspect is "a fiendishly cunning mask". This mysterious greeter directs him to wait next to a pile of old books that includes a Latin translation of the Necronomicon, wherein he discovers "a thought and a legend too hideous for sanity or consciousness." At the stroke of 11, he is led outside to join a "throng of cowled, cloaked figures that poured silently from every doorway", heading to the "top of a high hill in the centre of the town, where perched a great white church." He follows the silent crowd, "jostled by elbows that seemed preternaturally soft, and pressed by chests and stomachs that seemed abnormally pulpy", into the church.
The procession enters a secret passageway below the crypt, eventually coming to "a vast fungous shore litten by a belching column of sick greenish flame and washed by a wide oily river that flowed from abysses frightful and unsuspected to join the blackest gulfs of immemorial ocean." There they engage in a "Yule-rite, older than man and fated to survive him", while "something amorphously squatted far away from the light, piping noisomely on a flute". The flute-playing summons
The narrator resists joining this expedition, even when his guide points out the family resemblance on his mask-like face, and shows him a watch with his family's arms that he recognizes as having "been buried with my great-great-great-great-grandfather in 1698." When a sudden effort to control one of the mounts "dislodged the waxen mask from what should have been his head", the narrator throws himself into the river "before the madness of my screams could bring down upon me all the charnel legions these pest-gulfs might conceal."
He awakens in a Kingsport hospital, where he looks out to find a much more modern town, and is told that he was rescued from Kingsport Harbour after footprints revealed he walked off a cliff. Agitated to learn that he is near Kingsport's old churchyard, he is transferred to St. Mary's Hospital in nearby Arkham, where he is allowed to read a copy of the Necronomicon and find the passage that so disturbed him at his ancestral house:
S. T. Joshi described "The Festival" as a story "of considerable interest", and stated "the story can be considered a virtual three-thousand-word prose-poem for the sustained modulation of its prose".
Lin Carter, author of Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos, calls "The Festival" "the first Mythos story to use witch-haunted Kingsport as a setting", and also credits it with advancing the lore of the Necronomicon, saying that it is "the first tale to give a lengthy quote from the imaginary book and to tell us something about its history (i.e., that Olaus Wormius translated it into Latin)." S.T. Joshi cites "The Unnamable," written a month before "The Festival," as the first story to use Arkham as a setting, but "The Festival" clearly has closer connections to the mythos than "The Unnamable."
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927) mentions "the exposure of nameless rites at the strange little fishing village of Kingsport, in the province of the Massachusetts-Bay," an apparent reference to "The Festival".
The motif of a character's nonhuman identity being concealed by a mask is used again by Lovecraft in "The Whisperer in Darkness", The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and "Through the Gates of the Silver Key".