I am providence the life.., p.103

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 103


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

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  One story Lovecraft only grudgingly offered for the collection was “The Lurking Fear,” which he dismissed as “thunderously melodramatic” but nevertheless one that “ought to please the followers of Nictzin Dyalhis and his congeners.” (Dyalhis was a wretched writer of hack space operas.) Lovecraft sent the tale to Wright, who surprised him by wanting to print it in Weird Tales for $78.00. Lovecraft was for a time concerned about the possibility of a copyright problem with Home Brew, but, given that the magazine had folded years ago, he came to the conclusion that no conflict existed and permitted Wright to print the tale in spite of his aesthetic misgivings.

  A story Lovecraft did not offer (probably just as well, as Wright had already rejected it for the magazine) was “The Shunned House,” which W. Paul Cook wished to publish as a small book. Cook had initially conceived of including it in the Recluse,[78] but presumably held off because the magazine had already attained enormous size. Then, around February 1927, he first broached the idea of printing it as a chapbook.[79] Cook had issued Long’s slim collection of poetry, The Man from Genoa, in early 1926 (the book had been financed by Long’s wealthy aunt, Mrs William B. Symmes[80]), and later that year issued Loveman’s The Hermaphrodite; “The Shunned House” would complete a trilogy of books uniform in format. The book was planned for 60 pages, which could be managed by printing the text with a large amount of white space on the borders. Later Cook asked Frank Long to write a preface, even though Lovecraft felt that a preface to a short story was ridiculous.

  The issuance of the Recluse delayed work on this book project, but in the spring of 1928 things began to move. By late May Cook was importuning Lovecraft to read proofs quickly, and Lovecraft did so in early June even though he was then on another extensive series of travels.[81] By the end of June Lovecraft announced that The Shunned House was all printed but not bound.[82] About 300 copies were printed.

  Unfortunately, things soured at this very moment. Both Cook’s finances and his health were in a very shaky state. Already in February 1928 Lovecraft notified Wandrei—who had paid Cook to print his first volume of poems, Ecstasy—that Cook had suffered some sort of nervous breakdown, causing a delay in the book.[83] Cook managed to recover from this and get out Ecstasy in April; but The Shunned House—which Cook was financing, without any contribution by Lovecraft—had to be put on the back burner. In late July Cook and his wife moved to a 100-acre farm east of Athol, but found that it had no heat and that they could not install heating before the winter, so they had to move out. Then, in January 1930, Cook’s wife died and Cook suffered another and severer nervous breakdown. Moreover, he was having trouble with his appendix: he knew he should have an operation to remove it, but had such a phobia of the surgeon’s knife that he delayed for months or even years on the procedure. Somehow he managed to limp along feebly; but then the depression completed his devastation, and emergence of The Shunned House became increasingly remote. By the summer of 1930 Lovecraft heard that the sheets had been sent to a binder in Boston,[84] but the book still did not come out. The matter hung fire all the way to Lovecraft’s death.

  Another book project involved editing rather than writing. In February 1927 John Ravenor Bullen, Lovecraft’s Canadian amateur associate, died. In the fall of that year a friend of his in Chicago named Archibald Freer decided to finance the issuance of Bullen’s collected poetry as a tribute to the man and a gift to his family. Bullen’s mother selected Lovecraft to edit the volume—during his lifetime Bullen had already talked with Lovecraft about assisting him in preparing just such a volume[85]—and Lovecraft chose Cook as the publisher. Lovecraft found only forty of Bullen’s poems fit for the book, and he no doubt revised them to some small degree; he also refurbished his article, “The Poetry of John Ravenor Bullen” (from the United Amateur, September 1925), as an introduction. The volume was entitled White Fire. Freer was very free with money, at one point sending an extra $500 so that Cook could do a more lavish job in printing and binding. The end result—which Lovecraft, although complaining bitterly about the tedium of revising and proofreading, claimed was the one book he knew that was absolutely without typographical errors—really is a very fine product. The regular edition sold for $2.00, and there was also a special leather-bound edition, which I have never seen and whose price I do not know. Although dated on the title page to 1927, the book came out only in January 1928.[86] Lovecraft sent out a good many complimentary and review copies, but I have not seen any reviews. Lovecraft reported one appearing in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin written by Clifford Gessler, a poet who was a friend of Frank Long.[87]

  Meanwhile there was some other encouraging news. Late in 1927 Derleth told Lovecraft of a new magazine, Tales of Magic and Mystery, which began publication with an issue dated December 1927. This magazine (it is debatable whether it should be considered a pulp) was to feature both fact and fiction of a mystical or occult variety. Lovecraft sent the editor, Walter B. Gibson, eight stories; one by one they were rejected, but Gibson at last accepted “Cool Air.” It appeared in the March 1928 issue. In various letters of the period Lovecraft states that he received $17.50, $18.00, and $18.50 for the story (about ½¢ per word). No doubt this did not encourage him to submit any more stories to the magazine, which in any case folded after its fifth (April 1928) issue. “Cool Air” is now regarded as the only notable contribution in the entire run.

  Late in 1927 Lovecraft received You’ll Need a Night Light, a British anthology edited by Christine Campbell Thomson and published by Selwyn & Blount. It contained “The Horror at Red Hook,” marking the first time that a story of Lovecraft’s appeared in hardcover. The volume was part of a series of “Not at Night” books edited by Thomson; the stories for most of the volumes were culled from Weird Tales, and several of Lovecraft’s tales and revisions would later be reprinted. Although pleased at its appearance, Lovecraft had no illusions as to the anthology’s merits. “As for that ‘Not at Night’—that’s a mere lowbrow hash of absolutely no taste or significance. Aesthetically speaking, it doesn’t exist.”[88]

  Rather more significant—and indeed, one of the most important items in the critical recognition of Lovecraft prior to his death—was the appearance of “The Colour out of Space” on the “Roll of Honor” of the 1928 volume of Edward J. O’Brien’s Best Short Stories. When Lovecraft first heard from O’Brien, he was not sure whether the story was actually going to be reprinted in the volume or merely receive the highest (three-star) ranking and be listed in the “Roll of Honor”; when he learned it would be the latter, he downplayed the matter: “the ‘biographical roll of honour’ is so long as to lack all essential distinction.”[89] This is not at all the case, and Lovecraft had eminent reason to be proud of the distinction (as, in fact, he clearly was). In the 1924 volume “The Picture in the House” had received a one-star ranking, and in the 1928 volume of the O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories (edited by Blanche Colton Williams and published by Doubleday, Doran) “Pickman’s Model” was placed in a category of “Stories Ranking Third”; but Lovecraft properly had less regard for the O. Henry series, as its selections tended to cater more to popular taste than to abstract literary merit, as O’Brien’s did. Lovecraft would receive rankings in several subsequent O’Brien and O. Henry volumes, but this first appearance always remained unique.

  Lovecraft sent O’Brien a somewhat lengthy autobiographical paragraph; he expected O’Brien merely to select from it, but instead the latter printed it intact, and it occupied eighteen lines of text, longer than any other biography in the volume. It is worth quoting in full:

  LOVECRAFT, HOWARD PHILLIPS. Was born of old Yankee-English stock on August 20, 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island. Has always lived there except for very brief periods. Educated in local schools and privately; ill-health precluding university. Interested early in colour and mystery of things. More youthful products—verse and essays—voluminous, valueless, mostly privately printed. Contributed astronomical articles to press 1906–18. Serious literary effo
rts now confined to tales of dream-life, strange shadow, and cosmic “outsideness”, notwithstanding sceptical rationalism of outlook and keen regard for the sciences. Lives quietly and eventlessly, with classical and antiquarian tastes. Especially fond of atmosphere of colonial New England. Favourite authors—in most intimate personal sense—Poe, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Walter de la Mare, Algernon Blackwood. Occupation—literary hack work including revision and special editorial jobs. Has contributed macabre fiction to Weird Tales regularly since 1923. Conservative in general perspective and method so far as compatible with phantasy in art and mechanistic materialism in philosophy. Lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

  Again we may take note of some of the things Lovecraft does not say, especially his marriage to Sonia. But on the whole this is an exceptionally accurate and compact account of Lovecraft’s life and beliefs, and all that is required to flesh out the picture is masses of detail.

  In the autumn of 1927 Frank Belknap Long took it into his head to write a longish short story entitled “The Space-Eaters.” This story can be said to have two distinctive qualities: it is the first work to involve Lovecraft as a character (if we exclude whimsies like Edith Miniter’s “Falco Ossifracus,” in which the central character, while modelled on Randolph Carter, shares some characteristics with Lovecraft), and—although this point is somewhat debatable—it is the first “addition” to Lovecraft’s mythos.

  The characters in the story are actually named Frank and Howard (no last names are provided). Long told Lovecraft about the story, and the latter in mock-sternness warned Long about how he should be portrayed: “. . . look here, young man, you’d better be mighty careful how you treat your aged and dignified Grandpa as here! You mustn’t make me do anything cheerful or wholesome, and remember that only the direst of damnations can befit so inveterate a daemon of the cosmic abysses. And, young man, don’t forget that I am prodigiously lean. I am lean—LEAN, I tell you! Lean!” [90] The crash diet of 1925 was probably still fresh in his memory. On this point, however, he need not have worried. Long writes in the story: “He was a tall, slim man with a slight stoop and abnormally broad shoulders. In profile his face was impressive. He had an extremely broad forehead, long nose, and slightly protuberant chin—a strong, sensitive face which suggested a wildly imaginative nature held in restraint by a skeptical and truly extraordinary intellect.”[91] And yet, to be perfectly honest, “The Space-Eaters” is a preposterous and ridiculous story. This wild, histrionic account of some entities who are apparently “eating their way through space,” are attacking people’s brains, but are in some mysterious manner prevented from overwhelming the earth, is frankly an embarrassment. In this sense, however, it is sadly prophetic of most of the “contributions” other writers would make to Lovecraft’s conceptions.

  Whether it is indeed an addition to or extrapolation from Lovecraft’s mythos is a debatable question. The entities in question are never named, and there are no references to any of Lovecraft’s “gods” (only Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth had even been invented at this time, the latter in the unpublished Case of Charles Dexter Ward). What there is, however, is an epigraph (omitted from the first appearance—Weird Tales, July 1928—and many subsequent reprintings) from “John Dee’s Necronomicon”—i.e., from a purported English translation of Olaus Wormius’s Latin translation of the Necronomicon. Lovecraft did make frequent citations of this Dee translation in later stories. This phenomenon will recur throughout Lovecraft’s lifetime: a writer—usually a colleague—would either devise an elaboration upon some myth-element in Lovecraft’s stories or would create an entirely new element, which Lovecraft would then co-opt in some subsequent story of his own. This whole procedure was largely meant in fun—as a way of investing this growing body of myth with a sense of actuality by its citation in different texts, and also as a sort of tip of the hat to each writer’s creations. What the phenomenon became after Lovecraft’s death is worth separate treatment.

  Lovecraft, meanwhile, was doing relatively little fiction writing of his own—he had written nothing since “The Colour out of Space.” What he did do, however, on Hallowe’en was to have a spectacular dream that might well have been incorporated into a story but never was—not, at least, by Lovecraft. He maintained that his reading of James Rhoades’s translation of the Aeneid (1921) exactly around the Hallowe’en period engendered the dream—the most vivid he had had in years. Rhoades’s Aeneid really is a fine rendition, in smoothly flowing pentameter blank verse. Consider the passage Lovecraft found most stimulating—“Anchises’ prophecy of future Roman glory”[92] at the end of Book VI:

  “Others the breathing brass shall softlier mould,

  I doubt not, draw the lineaments of life

  From marble, at the bar plead better, trace

  With rod the courses of the sky, or tell

  The rise of stars: remember, Roman, thou,

  To rule the nations as their master: these

  Thine arts shall be, to engraft the law of peace,

  Forbear the conquered, and war down the proud.”[93]

  Lovecraft’s dream is a spectacular one in which he adopted a different persona—that of Lucius Caelius Rufus, a provincial quaestor in Hispania Citerior—and spent days in and around the towns of Calagurris (Calabarra) and Pompelo (Pamplona), Spain. He had argued with Cnaeus Balbutius, legatus of the XIIth Legion, about the need to extirpate a group of strange dark folk (miri nigri) who dwelt in the hills near Pompelo. These folk, who spoke a language not understood either by Romans or by locals, usually kidnapped a small number of Celtiberian citizens for nameless rites on the Kalends of May and November; but this year there had been a scuffle in the market in which some of these folk had been killed, and what was worrying Rufus was that so far no townspeople had been taken: “It was not natural for the Strange Dark Folk to spare them like that. Something worse must be brewing.”[94] Balbutius, however, did not think it wise to rouse up possible resentment by moving against the dark folk—they seemed to have many sympathisers and followers in the colony. But Rufus persisted, calling in the proconsul, Publius Scribonius Libo. Libo, convinced by Rufus of the need to suppress the dark folk, ordered Balbutius to send a cohort to Pompelo to put down the menace; he himself went along, as did Rufus, Balbutius, and other prominent officials. As they approached the hills, the continual drumming of the dark folk became increasingly disturbing. Night had fallen, and after a time the cohort could scarcely stumble up the hill; the leaders, who had been on horseback, had to leave their horses at the foot of the hill. Then, suddenly, came a bizarre sound—the horses began screaming (not merely neighing), and simultaneously the cohort’s local guide killed himself by plunging a short sword into his body. The cohort stampeded, many men being killed in the process.

  From the slopes and peaks above us a crackling chorus of daemoniac laughter burst, and winds of ice swept down to engulf us all. My spirit could endure the strain no longer, and I awaked—bounding down the centuries to Providence and the present. But still there ring in my ears those last calm words of the old proconsul— “Malitia vetus—malitia vetus est—venit—tandem venit . . .”[95]

  This must indeed have been an extraordinary dream—full of realistic details (the tedium of the march to Pompelo; a manuscript of Lucretius which Rufus was reading at the beginning, with an actual line of text quoted from Book V of De Rerum Natura; a dream within the dream when Rufus goes to sleep the night before the march) and with a spectacularly horrific, if somewhat ill-defined, climax. It is no wonder that Lovecraft subsequently wrote a long account of the dream to several colleagues—Frank Belknap Long, Donald Wandrei, Bernard Austin Dwyer, and perhaps others.

  These accounts, however, present some problems and make us wonder how much was actually in the dream and how much is subtle, perhaps unconscious, elaboration by Lovecraft for literary effect. Aside from various minor inconsistencies—the local guide in the letter to Wandrei is named Vercellius; in the letters to Long and Dwyer, he is called Accius
the three existing accounts are surprisingly different in their scope and focus. The letter to Long was apparently written first, perhaps on the 1st or 2nd of November; the letter to Wandrei is dated only “Thursday” (i.e., November 3); the letter to Dwyer—by far the longest and most detailed—is apparently undated, but probably was written on the 4th or 5th. This last letter is the main difficulty, for it is here that several details occur not found in the other two letters. One may charitably think that Lovecraft, as he continued to ponder the dream in writing it out, remembered more and more of it; but one may also wonder whether he was half-consciously fashioning it into a weird tale full of realistic historical details and sly hints of terror that did not actually exist in the dream itself. Certainty on the matter is of course impossible, and no matter which version of the dream one accepts, it must have been a potent imaginative influence.

  One would have liked to see Lovecraft himself write up the dream into an actual story, as Dwyer and Wandrei urged him to do; but, although he told both Dwyer and Long of some possible elaborations of the dream and of how it might be incorporated into a narrative, he never did anything with it. In 1929 Long asked Lovecraft to be allowed to use his letter verbatim in a short novel he was writing, and Lovecraft acceded. The result was The Horror from the Hills, published in two parts in Weird Tales (January and February 1931) and later as a book.

  Later in the month of November Lovecraft had another peculiar dream, involving a street-car conductor whose head suddenly turns into “a mere white cone tapering to one blood-red tentacle.”[96] The account of this dream appears in a letter to Wandrei of November 24, 1927. This letter is of interest because it has proved the source of a hoax whereby a work entitled “The Thing in the Moonlight” was spuriously attributed to Lovecraft. After Lovecraft’s death Wandrei had passed along the texts of both the Roman dream and this shorter dream to J. Chapman Miske, editor of Scienti-Snaps. The Roman dream appeared in Scienti-Snaps (under the title “The Very Old Folk”) in the Summer 1940 issue. When Miske renamed Scienti-Snaps as Bizarre, he printed the other dream-account, adding opening and closing paragraphs of his own and calling the whole farrago “The Thing in the Moonlight by H. P. Lovecraft.” August Derleth, not aware that this item was not entirely Lovecraft’s, reprinted it in Marginalia (1944). When Miske saw the volume, he wrote to Derleth informing him of the true nature of the text; but Derleth must have forgotten the matter, for he reprinted the piece again as a “fragment” in Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1965). Only recently has this matter been clarified by David E. Schultz.[97]

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