I am providence the life.., p.101

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 101


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

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  Cook expressed the wish to send the Recluse to certain “celebrities,” in particular to all four of Lovecraft’s “modern masters,” Machen, Dunsany, Blackwood, and M. R. James. As it happened, the issue did find its way to some of these figures, and their responses to Lovecraft’s essay are of interest. James somewhat unkindly declared in a letter that Lovecraft’s style “is of the most offensive”; his criticism evidently focusing on the fact that “He uses the word cosmic about 24 times.” A little more charitably he remarks: “But he has taken pains to search about & treat the subject from its beginning to MRJ, to whom he devotes several columns.”[47] Machen’s response can only be gauged from Donald Wandrei’s comment to Lovecraft: “I received a letter to-day from Machen, in which he mentioned your article and its hold on him.”[48] I do not know of any comment by Machen himself on Lovecraft’s essay. Copies were also apparently sent to Blackwood, Dunsany, Rudyard Kipling, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and several others.

  As early as April 1927 Lovecraft already had a “vague and nebulous idea”[49] of expanding “Supernatural Horror in Literature” for a putative second edition, and Cook occasionally mentioned the possibility of issuing such an edition separately as a monograph. Lovecraft set up a section in his commonplace book entitled “Books to mention in new edition of weird article,” listing such things as Leonard Cline’s superb novel of hereditary memory, The Dark Chamber (1927), Herbert Gorman’s sinister novel of witchcraft in backwoods New England, The Place Called Dagon (1927), and other works he read in the subsequent months and years; but Cook’s subsequent physical and financial collapse confounded, or at least delayed, the plans, and the second edition did not materialise until 1933, and in a form very different from what Lovecraft imagined.

  Having by 1927 already published nearly a score of tales in Weird Tales, and finding that amateur work was at a virtual end with the demise of the UAPA, Lovecraft now began gathering colleagues specifically devoted to weird fiction. The last decade of his life would see him become a friend, correspondent, and mentor of more than a dozen writers who would follow in his footsteps and become well known in the fields of weird, mystery, and science fiction.

  August Derleth (1909–1971) wrote to Lovecraft through Weird Tales. He must have written to Farnsworth Wright before Lovecraft’s departure from New York in mid-April 1926, for Wright supplied Lovecraft’s 169 Clinton Street address; Derleth wrote a direct letter to Lovecraft only in late July, and the latter responded at once in early August. From that time on, the two men kept up a steady correspondence—usually once a week—for the next ten and a half years.

  Derleth had just finished high school in Sauk City, Wisconsin, and in the fall of 1926 would begin attendance at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where in 1930 he would write as an honours thesis “The Weird Tale in English Since 1890”—a work embarrassingly dependent upon Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature” and in part a plagiarism of some of its actual language. But Derleth was not a critic by nature; rather, his forte was fiction and, in lesser degree, poetry. As a fiction writer he would reveal astounding range and precocity. Although his first story in Weird Tales dates to his eighteenth year (“Bat’s Belfry” in the May 1926 issue), his weird tales—whether written by himself or in collaboration with the young Mark Schorer—would be in many ways the least interesting aspect of his work; they are conventional, relatively unoriginal, and largely undistinguished, and he readily admitted to Lovecraft that they were written merely to supply cash. Derleth’s more serious work—for which he would eventually gain considerable renown, and which today remains the most significant branch of his output—is a series of regional sagas drawing upon his native Wisconsin and written in a poignant, Proustian, reminiscent vein whose simple elegance allows for evocative character portrayal. The first of these works to be published was Place of Hawks (1935), a series of novellas, although Derleth was working as early as 1929 on a novel he initially titled The Early Years, eventually published in 1941 as Evening in Spring. Those who fail to read these two works, along with their many successors in Derleth’s long and fertile career, will have no conception why Lovecraft, as early as 1930, wrote with such enthusiasm about his younger colleague and disciple:

  Derleth impressed me tremendously favourably from the moment I began to hear from him personally. I saw that he had a prodigious fund of activity & reserve mental energy, & that it would only be a question of time before he began to correlate it to real aesthetic advantage. There was a bit of callow egotism also—but that was only to be expected . . . And surely enough, as the years passed, I saw that the kid was truly growing. The delicate reminiscent sketches begun a couple of years ago were the final proof—for there, indeed, he had reached what was unmistakably sincere & serious self-expression of a high order. . . . There was no disputing that he really had something to say . . . & that he was trying to say it honestly & effectively, with a minimum of the jaunty hack devices & stylistic tricks which went into his printed pot-boiling material.[50]

  In later years Lovecraft marvelled both at Derleth’s tremendous fecundity in reading and writing and at his Janus-like ability to write cheap hackwork for the pulp magazines while writing poignant sketches of human life for the little magazines.

  Derleth was also attracted to the mystery field. In the early 1930s he began writing novels involving Judge Peck. Lovecraft read the first three of them (there would eventually be ten, the last in 1953) and spoke charitably of them, but in all frankness they are dreadful potboilers. In 1929 Derleth began a series of short stories—pastiches of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes—involving Solar Pons; these are much more successful and may be considered among the best imitations of the Holmes canon in existence. They would eventually fill six volumes of short stories and one short novel.

  In the early years of their association, Lovecraft and Derleth would spend much time talking of weird fiction; Derleth, in his zeal to sell his work, would alert Lovecraft to many new markets as they opened up, and he would later even take the initiative of submitting Lovecraft’s stories to Weird Tales when Lovecraft himself felt reluctant to do so. Their discussions would also span modern literature, Derleth’s own writing (Lovecraft would frequently offer advice for the revision of Derleth’s tales, most of which Derleth ignored or rejected), spiritualism and paranormal phenomena (in which Derleth was a firm believer), and other matters. And yet, the correspondence never really develops an intimacy as those with Morton, Long, Smith, and others do. This may be because the two never met—Derleth once contemplated an eastern trip, but he never made it until after Lovecraft’s death; Lovecraft, for his part, wistfully thought of going to Wisconsin, but never had the funds or, I suspect, the true inclination to do so—but it may also have something to do with Derleth’s own personality. Lovecraft was right in thinking Derleth self-centred, and it is a trait that seemed only to increase as he became a “successful” writer with published books to his credit. Derleth had difficulty talking of anything aside from himself, and Lovecraft’s replies, though always cordial, are limited by their subject-matter and seem reserved and formulaic. No doubt Lovecraft had great and sincere admiration for his young friend, who he frequently predicted would be the one writer of his circle to make a name for himself in general literature; but he never opened up to Derleth as he did to Long and Morton.

  Donald Wandrei (1908–1987) got in touch with Lovecraft in late 1926 through Clark Ashton Smith. Smith was the first writer to whom Wandrei was devoted, and in some ways he remained Wandrei’s model in both fiction and poetry. Through the influence of George Sterling, Wandrei’s rhapsodic appreciation of Smith, “The Emperor of Dreams,” appeared in the Overland Monthly for December 1926. Here is an extract:

  Some of his poems are like shadowed gold; some are like flame-encircled ebony; some are crystal-clear and pure; others are as unearthly starshine. One is coldly wrought in marble; another is curiously carved in jade; there are a few glittering diamonds; and
there are many rubies and emeralds aflame, glowing with a secret fire. Here and there may be found a poppy-flower, an orchid from the hot-bed of Hell, the whisper of an eldritch wind, a breath from the burning sands of region infernal.

  And so on. Anyone who has fallen under the influence of Smith’s poetry develops a fatal temptation to write about it like this. Wandrei certainly did better critical work, and his essay “Arthur Machen and The Hill of Dreams” (Minnesota Quarterly, Spring 1926) is a fine appreciation. But criticism was not his chief aesthetic outlet, although he did send Lovecraft the term papers on Gothic fiction he was writing at the University of Minnesota. Instead, Wandrei was initially attracted to poetry, and it should be no surprise that much of his early verse is heavily influenced by Smith. There is perhaps somewhat more horrific content in Wandrei’s poetry than Smith’s—as in the Sonnets of the Midnight Hours, to be considered a little later—but there is also a great deal of cosmic and love poetry, like Smith’s. Some philosophical verse is tinged with the misanthropy and pessimism Wandrei felt in his youth, as in “Chaos Resolved”:

  So few the days, so much that one could know,

  So little light, so many corridors,

  So dark whichever pathway one may go,

  So great the gap, and firmly barred the doors,

  That I am weary though I’ve gone not far,

  And find defeat ere I have much begun;

  Wherefor, solution distant as a star,

  And certainty, by doubt and change, undone,

  And conquest everlastingly beyond,

  Where no man walks, and shall not ever see,

  Nor ever have; and since this mortal bond

  Is too exacting for man’s magistry,—

  Therefor am I, with what I have, content,

  But still assail the deeper firmament.[51]

  Wandrei was also experimenting with prose fiction—in some cases prose-poems, many of them appearing in his college’s student magazine, the Minnesota Quarterly, and also with longer tales. He had already written one story, “The Chuckler,” that was a very loose sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” although it would not be published until 1934. Some of this early work is quite striking, especially “The Red Brain” (Weird Tales, October 1927), which Wandrei had originally entitled “The Twilight of Time.” It, along with several other works such as the celebrated “Colossus” (Astounding Stories, January 1934), reveals a staggeringly cosmic imagination second only to Lovecraft’s in intensity; it is not surprising that the two men found much to talk about in the first year or so of their association. Like Derleth, who spent nearly the whole of his life in and around Sauk City, Wisconsin, Wandrei lived almost his entire life in his family home in St Paul, Minnesota, save for various periods in New York in the 1920s and ’30s; but unlike the cheerful Derleth, Wandrei had a brooding and misanthropic streak that often intrigued Lovecraft and may perhaps have helped to shape his own later philosophical views.

  I wish I knew more about Bernard Austin Dwyer (1897–1943), but as he published relatively little and was more an appreciator than a creator, he remains a nebulous figure. He lived nearly the whole of his life in and around the tiny village of West Shokan, in upstate New York, near the towns of Hurley, New Paltz, and Kingston. Although attracted to weird fiction and the author of a short poem published in Weird Tales (“Ol’ Black Sarah” in the October 1928 issue), his chief interest was weird art; and in this capacity he naturally became fast friends with Clark Ashton Smith. Lovecraft met him in 1928 and spoke of him warmly:

  Dwyer is quite a chap, beyond a doubt; with a lot more points in his favour than against him. He has an imagination of the utmost sensitiveness, delicacy, and picturesqueness; and the way he assimilates the many books I lend him (for he has no way of getting books himself in his absolute backwoods isolation) is a proof of his thorough intelligence, sound aesthetic sense, and deep-seated literary sincerity. . . . As Wandrei has probably told you, he is a handsome, youngish near-giant—a mighty woodcutter and athlete and a modest, well-bred, and generally unspoiled personality as a whole.[52]

  One gains the impression that Dwyer was a kind of mute, inglorious Milton. He came in touch with Lovecraft through Weird Tales in the early part of 1927.

  In the spring of 1927 Frank Belknap Long met Vincent Starrett as the latter was passing through New York and gave him some of Lovecraft’s stories to read. In April a brief correspondence sprang up between the two—the first, and nearly the last, time that Lovecraft came into contact with a recognised literary figure.

  Starrett (1886–1974) had already achieved renown for his bibliography of Ambrose Bierce (1920), his collection of essays, Buried Caesars (1923), containing fine appreciations of Bierce, Cabell, W. C. Morrow, and other writers, and especially for his championing of Arthur Machen. Starrett had done much to introduce Machen to American readers, writing the essay Arthur Machen: A Novelist of Ecstasy and Sin (1918) and compiling two volumes of Machen’s miscellaneous works, The Shining Pyramid (1923) and The Glorious Mystery (1925). These volumes had, indeed, given rise to a contretemps between the Welsh author and his American disciple (now gathered in Starrett vs. Machen, 1978), as Machen felt that Starrett’s publication of these books with the Chicago firm of Covici-McGee undermined Knopf’s efforts to reprint his work in a standard American edition; but in a few years the feud was settled. Starrett was, as I have mentioned, one of the few established authors to contribute to the early issues of Weird Tales, and he either forgot, did not notice, or did not care about Lovecraft’s tart comment on his story “Penelope” in the May 1923 issue: “‘Penelope’ is clever—but Holy Pete! If the illustrious Starrett’s ignorance of astronomy is an artfully conceived attribute of his character’s whimsical narrative, I’ll say he’s right there with the verisimilitude!” (letter to the editor, printed in the October 1923 issue).

  The correspondence, which lasted nearly a year (April 1927–January 1928), was cordial but reserved. Lovecraft sent Starrett several more of his tales, as well as a copy of the Recluse with “Supernatural Horror in Literature”; but it appears that Starrett eventually grew weary of writing to Lovecraft. It is not clear if Lovecraft expected anything to come of the association; he wrote to Wandrei: “. . . if he likes my junk he could probably help a good deal with editors by speaking a good word for it; but I doubt if he will grow very enthusiastic.”[53] Starrett does indeed seem to have liked Lovecraft’s stories, but apparently not enough to do any active promotion of them at the time. After Lovecraft’s death he would write favourable reviews of some of Lovecraft’s posthumously published volumes in the Chicago Tribune.

  One colleague who came to Lovecraft’s attention at this time but who was not an enthusiast of the weird is Walter J. Coates (1880–1941). Coates had, as I have mentioned, written the lengthy essay on Vermont literature that opens the Recluse. I imagine he got in touch with Lovecraft through Cook, although I am not sure what reason he had for doing so; they clearly shared a fondness for backwoods New England, and very likely discussed this subject in their correspondence (most of which has not been made available to me). Coates had at about this time founded the regional magazine Driftwind, and in one of the early issues he published Lovecraft’s essay “The Materialist Today” (October 1926). Lovecraft declared that this was part of a letter to Coates and prepared for publication at Coates’s insistence.[54] Coates also issued it as a pamphlet in a print run of 15 copies, making it one of the rarest of Lovecraft’s separate publications; indeed, for many years it was thought that no copies of it survived, but lately one or two copies have surfaced. Various of Lovecraft’s remarks suggest that it actually predates the magazine appearance. The essay is a short, compact, and somewhat cynical enunciation of materialist principles. Coates would later publish several of Lovecraft’s Fungi from Yuggoth sonnets in Driftwind.

  In the summer of 1927 Lovecraft both played host to a succession of visitors to Providence and undertook several journeys of his own—somethin
g that would become a habit every spring and summer, as he roamed increasingly widely in quest of antiquarian oases. First on the agenda was his new friend Donald Wandrei, who undertook a trip from St Paul, Minnesota, to Providence entirely by hitchhiking. One would like to think that such an expedition was a little safer then than it would be now, and perhaps it was; Wandrei seemed to have no difficulty getting rides, even though on occasion he had to spend nights under the open sky, sometimes in the rain. He himself remarked in a postcard to Lovecraft: “. . . I think I am unusually fortunate in general because I don’t look like a bum.”[55] Indeed, Wandrei was a gaunt six-footer who, in some photographs of this period, seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to Boris Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster.

  Arriving in Chicago on the 20th of June, where he confirmed all Lovecraft’s impressions of the place (“Unimpressed. Going on. The city is filthy”[56]), Wandrei went to the Weird Tales office and met Farnsworth Wright. Lovecraft himself had spoken to Wright about Wandrei’s work early in the year, and perhaps as a result of this Wandrei’s “The Twilight of Time”—rejected a year earlier—was accepted in March, appearing under its better-known but less stimulating title “The Red Brain” in the October 1927 issue. Wandrei felt the need to return the favour, so he spoke to Wright about “The Call of Cthulhu.” In a memoir he supplies an engaging account of what he said:

  I casually worked in a reference to a story, The Call of Cthulhu, that Lovecraft was revising and finishing and which I thought was a wonderful tale. But I added that for some reason or other, Lovecraft had talked about submitting it to other magazines. I said I just couldn’t understand why he was apparently planning to by-pass Weird Tales unless he was seeking to broaden his markets or widen his reading public. None of this was true, but I could see that my fanciful account took effect, in the way Wright began to fidget and show signs of agitation . . .[57]

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