I am providence the life.., p.100

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 100


I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)

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  This opening is also a refinement of the opening of “The Picture in the House” (1920), which might be thought to have piled on the horror—and the adjectives—a little too strongly; here greater restraint is shown, and the entire story could be regarded as one long but subdued prose-poem.

  The key to the story, of course, is the anomalous meteorite. Is it—or the coloured globules inside it—animate in any sense we can recognise? Does it house a single entity or many entities? What are their physical properties? More significantly, what are their aims, goals, and motives? The fact that we can answer none of these questions very clearly is by no means a failing; indeed, this is exactly the source of terror in the tale. As Lovecraft said of Machen’s “The White People,” “the lack of anything concrete is the great asset of the story.”[27] In other words, it is precisely because we cannot define the nature—either physical or psychological—of the entities in “The Colour out of Space” (or even know whether they are entities or living creatures as we understand them) that produces the sense of nameless horror. Lovecraft later maintained (probably correctly) that his habit of writing—even if unconsciously—with a pulp audience in mind had corrupted his technique by making his work too obvious and explicit. We will indeed find this problem in some later tales, but here Lovecraft has exercised the most exquisite artistic restraint in not fully defining the nature of the phenomena at hand.

  It is, therefore, in “The Colour out of Space” that Lovecraft has most closely achieved his goal of avoiding the depiction of “the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards— . . . as native to other worlds or other universes.” For it is manifest that the meteorite in “The Colour out of Space” must have come from some dim corner of the universe where natural laws work very differently from the way they do here: “It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.” The chemical experiments performed on the object establish that it is physically unlike anything we know; and the utter absence of any sense of wilful viciousness, or conventionalised “evil” in the object or the entities it contains similarly results in a psychological distancing from human or earthly standards. To be sure, the meteorite causes great destruction, and because some remnants of it are still on the planet, it will continue to do so; but perhaps this is an inevitable product of the mingling of our world and its own. In order for an animate being to be morally culpable of “evil,” it must be conscious that it is doing what is regarded as evil; but who can say whether the entities in “The Colour out of Space” are conscious at all? Nahum Gardner’s poignant dying speech makes the matter clear: his simple utterance, “dun’t know what it wants,” puts the matter in a nutshell. We have no way of ascertaining the mental or emotional orientation of the anomalous entities, and as a result we cannot possibly apportion praise or blame to them by any conventional moral standard.

  But Lovecraft has rendered the plight of the Gardner family inexpressibly poignant and tragic, so that although we cannot “blame” the meteorite for causing their deaths, we still experience a tremendous sense of sorrow mingled with horror at their fate. It is not merely that they have been physically destroyed; the meteorite has also beaten down their minds and wills, so that they are unable to escape its effects. When Ammi tells Nahum that the well water is bad, Nahum ignores him: “He and the boys continued to use the tainted supply, drinking it as listlessly and mechanically as they ate their meager and ill-cooked meals and did their thankless and monotonous chores through the aimless days.” This single sentence is one of the most heart-rending and depressing moments in all Lovecraft.

  “The Colour out of Space” is of course the first of Lovecraft’s major tales to effect that union of horror and science fiction which would become the hallmark of his later work. It continues the pattern already established in “The Call of Cthulhu” of transferring “the focus of supernatural dread from man and his little world and his gods, to the stars and the black and unplumbed gulfs of intergalactic space,” as Fritz Leiber ably termed it.[28] In a sense, of course, Lovecraft was taking the easy way out: by simply having his entities come from some remote corner of the universe, he could attribute nearly any physical properties to them and not be required to give a plausible explanation for them. But the abundance of chemical and biological verisimilitude Lovecraft provides makes these unknown properties highly convincing, as does the gradually enveloping atmosphere of the tale. If there is any flaw in “The Colour out of Space,” it is that it is just a little too long: the scene with Ammi and the others in the Gardner farmhouse is dragged out well beyond the requirements for the tale and actually dilutes some of the tensity of atmosphere Lovecraft has so carefully fashioned. But beyond this slight and debatable flaw, “The Colour out of Space” is an achievement Lovecraft rarely, perhaps never, equalled.

  In a sense the most controversial aspect of the tale is the mundane matter of its publication history. “The Colour out of Space” appeared in Amazing Stories for September 1927; but the critical question is whether the tale was ever submitted to Weird Tales. Apparently the only evidence for this occurs in Sam Moskowitz’s article, “A Study in Horror: The Eerie Life of H. P. Lovecraft,” first published in Fantastic for May 1960 and reprinted (as “The Lore of H. P. Lovecraft”) in Moskowitz’s Explorers of the Infinite (1963). There Moskowitz writes:

  So full of high hope for this story, Lovecraft was stunned when it was rejected by Weird Tales. In a letter to Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft stormed at the shortsightedness of Farnsworth Wright. Though Weird Tales printed numerous science fiction stories, Wright preferred the romantic adventure so popular in Argosy, or even straight action stories. Lovecraft submitted the story to Argosy, which also rejected it as being a bit too “strong” for their readership.[29]

  Here now are two remarkable assertions: that the tale was submitted both to Argosy and to Weird Tales. Moskowitz, however, told me[30] that his article was originally written at the request of Frank Belknap Long for Satellite Science Fiction (of which Long was an associate editor), and that Long had provided him with the information about the rejections of “The Colour out of Space.” At this time (1959), however, Long no longer had his letters from Lovecraft: he had sold them to Samuel Loveman in the early 1940s. My feeling, therefore, is that Long has misremembered the entire episode, confusing it with the rejection of “The Call of Cthulhu.” There is no mention of any rejection by Weird Tales in any of the letters to Long that I have read for this period, although there may be other letters to which I have not had access; but Lovecraft’s total silence on this matter in letters to other colleagues—particularly August Derleth (to whom he mentions, in late April, merely the intention of submitting the tale to Wright[31]) and Donald Wandrei, with whom he was corresponding very frequently in 1927 and to whom he was making frequent mention of acceptances and rejections—is significant. Consider also Lovecraft’s comment to Farnsworth Wright in his letter of July 5, 1927: “. . . this spring and summer I’ve been too busy with revisory and kindred activities to write more than one tale—which, oddly enough, was accepted at once by Amazing Stories . . .”[32] The wording of this letter suggests that this is Lovecraft’s first mention of the story to Wright. There is equal silence concerning a possible Argosy rejection; Long may have confused this with the rejection of “The Rats in the Walls” in 1923. In 1930 Lovecraft wrote to Smith: “I must try the Argosy some day, though I gave up the Munsey group in disgust when the celebrated Robert H. Davis turned down my ‘Rats in the Walls’ as ‘too horrible and improbable’—or something like that—some seven years ago.”[33] Unless one assumes that Lovecraft is uncharacteristically lying, this certainly suggests that he had made no submission to Argosy since 1923.

  It would not at all be unusual for Lovecraft at this time to be trying new markets. As early as Apr
il 1927 he was complaining of “Wright’s increasing disinclination to accept my stuff,”[34] and we have already seen his attempt to land his work in Ghost Stories in 1926. In May 1927 the redoubtable Edwin Baird resurfaced with plans for a new magazine; in spite of his past troubles with Baird, Lovecraft submitted six stories to him.[35] The magazine of course never materialised. Also at this time Lovecraft submitted “The Call of Cthulhu” to Mystery Stories, edited by Robert Sampson, where it was rejected on the ground (as Lovecraft tartly termed it) “that it was ‘too heavy’ for his airy & popular publication.”[36]

  Amazing Stories was the first authentic science fiction magazine in English, and it continues to be published today. Lovecraft remarked wryly, “The magazine certainly lived up to its name so far as I am concerned, for I really hadn’t the remotest idea the thing would ‘land’. I guess the pseudo-scientific camouflage near the beginning was what turned the trick.”[37] Scientific romance of a sort had been featured in the early decades of the century in Argosy, All-Story, the Thrill Book, and others, but Amazing was the first to make a coordinated effort to print material of this kind—material, too, that was fairly sound in its scientific premises. During its first year, when Lovecraft subscribed to it, it also attempted to draw upon what editor Hugo Gernsback perceived to be the literary origins of the field by reprinting Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and other “classics.” When these reprints ceased, Lovecraft found the new work not sufficiently interesting to warrant purchasing the magazine.

  But if he was hoping that he had somehow found an alternative to Weird Tales, he was in for a rude awakening. Although his later work, as it turns out, contained a fairly significant scientific element, Amazing became a closed market to him when Gernsback paid him only $25.00 for the story—a mere 1/5¢ per word—and this only after three dunning letters. Gernsback paid incredibly poorly and also delayed payment for months or even years. The inevitable occurred: many potential writers abandoned the magazine, and others who—like Clark Ashton Smith—published in it or in Gernsback’s later magazine, Wonder Stories (where the same financial practices prevailed), were compelled to file suit against him to receive payment. In the 1930s there was a lawyer who made a specialty of exacting payment from Gernsback. Although in later years Lovecraft briefly considered requests from Gernsback or from his associate editor, C. A. Brandt, for further submissions, he never again sent a tale to Amazing. He also took to calling Gernsback “Hugo the Rat.”

  One further work of fiction that may be considered here is the fragment titled (by R. H. Barlow) “The Descendant.” This has customarily been dated, on no evidence that I can ascertain, to 1926; but it is conceivable that an early 1927 date is more probable. The clue may reside in a letter of April 1927:

  Just now I’m making a very careful study of London by means of maps, books, & pictures, in order to get background for tales involving richer antiquities than America can furnish. . . . If there’s anything I hate, it’s writing about a locality without an adequate knowledge of its history, topography, & general atmosphere; & I don’t wish to make this blunder in anything I may concoct with an Old London setting.[38]

  Lovecraft does not, of course, say in this letter or in any other I have read that he had actually written anything with a London setting; but “The Descendant” certainly has a London setting, as no other work of this period does. The only other clue to dating the fragment is the mention in it of Charles Fort; Lovecraft, although having previously heard of Fort, did not read any of his work until Donald Wandrei lent him The Book of the Damned in March 1927.[39]

  I do not know that much more can be made of this piece; it is clearly a false start, and it is just as well that Lovecraft abandoned it after a few pages. It is written in that frenetic, overheated style of some of his earlier tales—a style that Lovecraft, with “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Colour out of Space,” was wisely starting to abandon. This tale, like “The Rats in the Walls,” brings Roman Britain into play; and, as in that story, Lovecraft continues to make errors regarding which legion was in England (the second, not the third Augustan) and the location of its legionary fortress (Isca Silurum [Caerleon-on-Usk], not Lindum [Lincoln]). Again, these changes could perhaps be deliberate, but I fail to see their point if they are. There is also a focus on the Necronomicon, and the scene in which one character purchases the tome from a “Jew’s shop in the squalid precincts of Clare Market” is surprisingly similar to the opening sonnet of the later Fungi from Yuggoth (1929–30) sequence. Some external features of another character, Lord Northam, bring Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany to mind, although in a superficial way. Northam lives at Gray’s Inn, where Machen lived for many years; and Northam is the “nineteenth Baron of a line whose beginnings went uncomfortably far back into the past,” just as Dunsany was the eighteenth Baron in a line founded in the twelfth century. Northam, like Randolph Carter in “The Silver Key,” undertakes a wide-ranging sampling of various religious and aesthetic ideals (“Northam in youth and young manhood drained in turn the founts of formal religion and occult mystery”), allowing us perhaps to believe that the fragment was written after “The Silver Key.” Beyond these things, there does not seem to be much to say about “The Descendant.”

  Just before writing “The Colour out of Space,” Lovecraft had to hurry up and type “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” since Cook wished it immediately for the Recluse. When he had returned from New York, Lovecraft noted that “somebody [C. M. Eddy?] has put me on the track of a list of weird fiction at the public library which (if I can get access to it) may cause me to expand the text considerably.”[40] He did read, in the summer and fall of 1926, some material new to him and made a few additions. Among them was the substantial work of Walter de la Mare, whose two collections, The Riddle and Other Stories (1926) and The Connoisseur and Other Stories (1926), as well as the novel The Return, are among the most subtle examples of atmospheric and psychologically acute weird fiction of its time; Lovecraft came to rank de la Mare only just below his four “modern masters,” and in later years yearned to achieve the sort of indirection and allusiveness found in de la Mare’s best work—“Seaton’s Aunt,” “All Hallows,” “Mr. Kempe,” and others. Other works he read at this time were Sax Rohmer’s Brood of the Witch Queen (1924) and H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887).[41] Cook’s rush order, however, compelled Lovecraft to type up the essay without the more significant enlargements, whatever they may have been.[42] The typescript came to 72 pages. Cook must have done the typesetting incredibly rapidly, for he had already delivered the first set of page proofs to Lovecraft by the end of March, scarcely two weeks after he received the text.

  Even this, however, was not quite the end. Late in the month Donald Wandrei lent F. Marion Crawford’s superb posthumous collection of horror tales, Wandering Ghosts (1911), to Lovecraft,[43] while in April Lovecraft borrowed Robert W. Chambers’s early collection The King in Yellow (1895) from Cook;[44] he was so taken with these works that he added paragraphs on both writers in the page proofs.

  Neither Lovecraft’s fondness for the weird work of Chambers (1865–1933) nor the amazement he expressed when he came upon it—“. . . the forgotten early work of Robert W. Chambers (can you believe it?) who turned out some powerful bizarre stuff between 1895 & 1904”[45]—need be a surprise. The King in Yellow, he writes in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” “is a series of vaguely connected short stories having as a background a monstrous and suppressed book whose perusal brings fright, madness, and spectral tragedy”—in other words, rather uncannily like the Necronomicon! It is natural that some critics (such as Lin Carter), not knowing when Lovecraft first read Chambers, would think that The King in Yellow was the actual inspiration for the Necronomicon. Chambers’s volume is a powerful collection and is now recognised as a landmark; indeed, Lovecraft himself is chiefly responsible for this recognition. Lovecraft went on to read some of Chambers’s other weird work—The Maker of Moons (1896), In Search of the Unknown (1904), and the mediocre
later novel, The Slayer of Souls (1920)—but never seems to have read The Mystery of Choice (1897), another early collection in some ways nearly equal to The King in Yellow. The “can you believe it?” remark relates to the fact that Chambers abandoned the weird around the turn of the century to write an endless series of shopgirl romances that were perennial best-sellers, making Chambers very wealthy but spelling his complete aesthetic ruination. Lovecraft correctly remarks, “Chambers is like Rupert Hughes & a few other fallen Titans—equipped with the right brains & education, but wholly out of the habit of using them.”[46]

  The Recluse appeared in August 1927; although initially planned as a quarterly, this was the only issue ever published. It is a landmark in more ways than one; but I think it an error to regard it as being strictly a publication devoted to the weird. It certainly was not conceived as such, and the issue—although containing a large proportion of weird material by Lovecraft and his friends—was simply another of Cook’s long line of amateur ventures. The lead item, taking up the first fourteen (out of seventy-seven) pages, is a detailed study of Vermont poets and poetry by Walter J. Coates. Lovecraft’s essay does indeed take up the bulk of the issue (pages 23–59); he was, in fact, not certain whether Cook would run it all in the first issue, and as it turns out it was fortunate that Cook did so. There is some fine weird writing by Clark Ashton Smith (the poem “After Armageddon”; “Brumes et Pluies,” translated from Baudelaire), Donald Wandrei (the story “A Fragment of a Dream” and the poem “In the Grave” [later titled “The Corpse Speaks”]), and H. Warner Munn (the story “The Green Porcelain Dog”); Frank Long’s poem “Ballad of St. Anthony” is an admirable romantic specimen, and Samuel Loveman’s essay on Hubert Crackanthorpe is a sensitive analysis. One of the most striking pieces is Vrest Orton’s superb line drawing for the cover—a picture of a bearded old man poring over ancient tomes in a mediaeval study, with iron-hasped books and beakers containing strange substances heaped about, and three flickering candles providing scanty illumination. All in all, it is a remarkable cover to a remarkable issue.

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