The Broken Hours by Jacqueline Baker (Book Review)

The Broken Hours

The Broken Hours is an ode to a specific time (1936), place (Providence, Rhode Island), and above all the famous writer (H. P. Lovecraft) who finished out his short life then and there. But while Jacqueline Baker has indeed love-crafted a story of nuanced fears and deceptions, those craving the grip of menace may feel left out, untouched, in the cold. Baker’s agenda floats wittingly somewhere beyond the reach of eldritch shadows (though there is a blush of them), opting instead for a character study of Lovecraft by proxy. Still, anyone hoping for a portrait of the artist as a dying man will be just as uninformed as the novel’s protagonist. This is, I think, Baker’s point from the start.

When Arthor Crandle is hired as a live-in assistant for Lovecraft, he rooms in the author’s house but does not see him, communicating only by letters and notes left on an end table. Indications of Lovecraft’s being there amount to little more than a light under the door and words on a page. Thus placed at a spatial—and, somehow, temporal—remove from his enigmatic employer, Crandle sets about his duties as best he can, revealing to us through occasional flashbacks the reasons behind this sudden career change.

The plot, in summary, is as skeletal as Crandle himself, who comes across as a frail and nervous man walking a strangely endearing—dare I say Kafkaesque?—tightrope of half-truths and self-deprecations. Crandle, we learn, is a solitary person, estranged from his wife and daughter, and barely noticed in the world. He seeks purpose in his melancholy, which for him is “a gift of God.” Such talk of divine intervention is the only indication we get of a spiritual worldview in Crandle, whose assertions of influence from above pale against those threatening him from below.

Baker is splendid in her way with words, the brushes of which articulate the mood of any given environment with minimal flourish. When, for example, Crandle first arrives to Providence in search of his new home, he asks for directions from a man described as being “of the street himself, as I suppose a good many of us must look, these lean times making vagrants of us all.” This evocative snapshot helps us understand the underlying poverty that connects all bodies in the immediate world of the novel, and proves useful in respecting certain secrets as they unmask themselves in the final act. Crandle’s conversation is further rendered prophetic by the stranger’s uneasiness toward any mention of the Lovecraft residence, denying the very morbidity by which he depicts it with his comportment.

Of said residence we learn more than the city in which it is so uncomfortably situated. The house is in dire condition, and it is all Crandle can do to air out the darkness that clings to its every nook and cranny like so many dead skin cells. Crandle’s room frightens him above all else, having clearly once been that of the child whose apparition he may or may not be catching glimpses of in his daily navigations of interior and exterior alike. And when he finds a piece of gravestone under his pillow, he turns it in his hands as if to mimic the mulling over of possibilities in his mind.

Baker architects his slippery slope in cinematically oriented vignettes, and all in language as sumptuous as it is spare. For all its understated creepiness, the writing is not without humor—e.g., when Crandle engages in a first conversation with his future employer by telephone. Baker’s descriptions of physical and psychological changes, as when the air in the house becomes darker and more “condensed,” implicate us in mounting tensions.

When a potential love interest by the name of Flossie Kush comes to rent a room in the same house, integrities begin to break down. Crandle lies about being the master of the house, essentially taking on Lovecraft’s identity on an egotistical whim, and sets in motion a spiral of white lies. Nonetheless, he finds in Flossie a friend with whom to share his surplus of loneliness, and vice versa. The balancing act of their friendship provides much of the novel’s remaining entertainment, including a tentacular detour that Lovecraft fans will surely smile over, even if it is self-contained.

When Crandle is asked to deliver a letter to Lovecraft’s convalescing mother, his eventual completion of the task unravels a tragic family history. As he narrates at one point, “Darkness, I knew too well, begat only darkness,” and his attempts to learn the juicy details of his employer’s past put that theory into practice. In addition, however, Crandle is possessed of some irksome habits that at times undermine the credibility of his character. For one thing, he repeats things people say so often that one has to wonder if his attention to detail is just a sham. Take, for example, the following exchange initiated by Flossie:

How’s your aunt?
My aunt?
With the grippe.
Grippe?
Were you visiting her?
I collected myself. Indeed. Yes. Improving. Thank you. For asking.
Home soon?
Home? Yes, I hope so.

While this might easily be a vocal tic, as an expository device it doesn’t quite work for me, even if it does underscore Crandle’s awkwardness and inability to keep track of the fictions he has spun around himself. Yet there are moments that go beyond the tropes of an unreliable narrator, and which bleed into the habits of minor characters in kind. When, for instance, Crandle meets with a Dr. Tinseley, who spills a bedpan’s worth of information regarding Lovecraft and his mother, he proceeds to give an exacting account of both, and yet cannot remember Crandle’s name to the point where he must ask to be reminded of it multiple times throughout the conversation.

In this respect, perhaps Baker’s atmospherics are so effective that they drag the characters a little too far for their own good, for by the time we reach the predictable conclusion there is far less of them to admire than we started with. That said, the novel offers much in the way of visceral enchantment, and I would deter no interested reader in cracking open its covers. All the more telling that the novel should open with a quote from Goya—“The sleep of reason brings forth monsters”—because Baker has shown us that the opposite is just as true: The sleep of monsters brings forth reason.

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