Stephen McKenna’s The Oldest God

Imagine that you were at an isolated weekend party, and people started to act aberrant, even evil.  You begin to suspect that one of the guests of the party is in fact a monster, corrupting the others.  What do you do?

This idea is the central problem of the novel The Oldest God, by Stephen McKenna, first published in 1926.  An image of an original dust jacket is shown below (source):

I learned of McKenna’s novel via H.P. Lovecraft himself, or more specifically, the catalog of his library that was made after his death.  Though the list is known to be incomplete, and has relatively few weird fiction books listed on it, there are still some little-known gems in it.  Many of them are being reprinted in nice new editions by Hippocampus Press, but others that caught my eye, like The Oldest God, have not appeared for decades.

In fact, The Oldest God isn’t available right now, well, pretty much anywhere!  It is not available on Google books, not available on archive.org nor Project Gutenberg, and no modern editions are being sold.  I ended up purchasing one of the first U.S. editions of the book, published in 1926 (due to its obscurity, it was surprisingly cheap).

So why review it at all, if it is so hard to find?  Hopefully my review will be useful to people if it is ever reprinted; perhaps it will even spur some enterprising publisher to take up the cause!

It would be nice to see it back in print; though not perfect, The Oldest God is both an intriguing weird tale and an inadvertent picture of the social mores of the 1920s.

The story centers on five lifelong friends: Keith Helmsley, the hedonistic Punch Escott, Peter Colyton, the beautiful Adela Glynde, and the narrator Frank Kingsbury.  All five of them have had their innocence destroyed by life in general and the depredations of World War I.  The sixth member of the circle of friends, Harry Dennison, in fact died in combat, a further reminder of age and mortality.

When the new eccentric owner of Dennison’s estate invites the group to join her for a weekend of socializing and leisure, the old friends tentatively agree to take this last opportunity to visit the place they spent much of their childhood.

All arrive on time, save Punch Escott, though tensions run high.  There is a lot of history among the group, including an unrequited love triangle between Adela, Keith, and Peter.  Bringing some stability to the gathering are other guests, the aging Professor Shapland and his wife, longtime friends of Frank Kingsbury.

Inspired by an aging picture on the wall, the Professor sparks a theological and historical discussion about the nature of evil.  The conversation switches to the morality of humanity before and after Christianity, and a number of the participants rashly declare their desire to live more “naturally”, free of societal norms.  At that very moment, the room is filled with light, heralding the arrival of Punch Escott, along with a reticent guest known only as “Mr. Stranger”.

As the party goes on, the effects of the guests’ declaration begins to show.  One by one, those that declared themselves to live by nature’s rules end up succumbing to their more base desires — lust, jealousy, and rage.  Those unaffected suspect that Mr. Stranger is some sort of supernatural being causing this madness, but how can they unmask him and stop his actions?

The novel starts slowly, introducing us to the history of the various characters; this history will be important in understanding the events that occur later.  In fact, the novel is as much of an in-depth character study as it is a traditional weird tale.

The description of the initial outbreak of “naturalness” is definitely dated, serving as a rather amusing window into the social mores of the 1920s.  Two of the characters engage in — gasp! — extramarital relations!  The horrified reactions of the other party guests is unintentionally hilarious to modern eyes.  That is not to say that affairs are acceptable, but in an era when celebrity indiscretions usually involve truckloads of partners, the quaintness of The Oldest God is quite charming.  The mood turns darker, however, when those under the spell of “nature” become violent.

I wasn’t sure for a while if The Oldest God was really worth my time, but it really gets interesting in the second half.   The central conundrum that I started the post with comes into play, and is effective and unsettling.  Beyond a certain point, everyone at the party knows that there is something amiss with Mr. Stranger, and it is clear that Mr. Stranger knows that they know — but what can you do when supernatural forces are at play, and the villain refuses to show his hand?

Though Lovecraft had this novel in his library, he doesn’t seem to have referred to it, or thought of it very highly.  This isn’t particularly surprising, as he tended to avoid sentimentality and sex in his stories, and probably didn’t find it a particular interesting topic of horror.  I found The Oldest God to be a surprisingly compelling weird tale, however, and found its rather “slow burn” pace of weirdness to be genuinely unsettling.

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