I am providence the life.., p.104

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 104


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

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  Around this time Lovecraft also wrote a history of his mythical book, the Necronomicon, although largely for the purpose of keeping references clear in his own mind. He noted in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith of November 27, 1927, that he had “drawn up some data on the celebrated & unmentionable Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred”;[98] this item bears the title “History of the Necronomicon.” The autograph manuscript is written on the back and front of a letter to Lovecraft by William L. Bryant, director of the museum at Roger Williams Park, dating to April 27, 1927, pertaining to Morton’s visit in quest of mineral samples. On this draft the following sentence is added as an apparent afterthought: “An English translation made by Dr. Dee was never printed, & exists only in fragments recovered from the original MS.” This leads one to believe that Lovecraft wrote the bulk of the text prior to seeing Long’s “The Space-Eaters.” He noted that he had “just received” that story in a letter to Wandrei in late September,[99] so perhaps “History of the Necronomicon” was written just before this time.

  One datum in this text is of interest. Lovecraft noted that the Greek text was suppressed by the patriarch Michael in 1050. “After this it is only heard of furtively, but (1228) Olaus Wormius made a Latin translation later in the Middle Ages . . .” Those readers and critics who know anything about Olaus Wormius may wonder why Lovecraft dated him to the thirteenth century when he (1588–1654) is so clearly a Danish historian and philologist of the seventeenth century. So far as I can tell, this is a plain error; but Lovecraft came by the error in a peculiar way.

  In 1914 Lovecraft wrote a poem entitled “Regner Lodbrog’s Epicedium.” He wrote to Moe late in the year:

  I recently tried the “Hiawatha” type of blank verse in translating a curious bit of primitive Teutonic martial poetry which Dr. Blair quotes in his “Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian”. This fragment is a funeral song composed in Runes by the old Danish monarch Regner Lodbrok (eighth century A.D.). In the Middle Ages Olaus Wormius made the rather incoherent Latin version which Blair uses. It is in stanzas, each headed by the words “Pugnavimus ensibus”. In translating, I end each stanza with a rhyming couplet.[100]

  This tells us all we need to know. Hugh Blair’s A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the Son of Fingal (1763), the celebrated defence of the authenticity of the poems of “Ossian” (James Macpherson), is frequently included in editions of Macpherson. Lovecraft had such an edition, but it is not certain which one; in any event, he clearly consulted Blair’s Dissertation somehow. His knowledge of Olaus Wormius seems not to extend beyond what Blair writes. In discussing “the ancient poetical remains . . . of the northern nations,” Blair first mentions that “Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian of considerable note, who flourished in the thirteenth century,” said that such songs were engraved in Runic characters; Blair then goes on to quote one such example as translated into Latin by Olaus Wormius. This twenty-nine-stanza item is Regner Lodbrog’s epicedium; Lovecraft has translated only the first seven stanzas, and at that he has been aided by an English prose translation of the second through seventh stanzas that Blair supplies. In any event, my feeling is that Lovecraft either confused the floruit of Olaus Wormius (which Blair never gives) with that of Saxo Grammaticus, or else assumed that both scholars lived at the same time.[101]

  Lovecraft’s poetic output for 1927 was meagre. Most of his five poems relate to amateur matters. In February he wrote his usual birthday greeting to Jonathan E. Hoag, who had now achieved the age of ninety-six; but Hoag died on October 17, and Lovecraft wrote a no doubt heartfelt but lamentably wooden elegy, “Ave atque Vale” (Tryout, December 1927). Another elegy is “The Absent Leader,” a poem written for In Memoriam: Hazel Pratt Adams (1927), a volume evidently prepared by the Blue Pencil Club in Brooklyn. Adams (1888–1927) was one of the founders of this club; I do not know the reason for her early death. This poem of Lovecraft’s is a little more effective, at least in its evocations of some of the landscape around both Brooklyn and the New Jersey Palisades, based as they are on first-hand experience. Then there is a curious poem, “To Miss Beryl Hoyt, Upon Her First Birthday—February 21, 1927,” a delightful and delicate two-stanza ditty on a person about whom I know nothing.

  Probably the best poem of the year is “Hedone” (Greek for “pleasure”), written on January 3. This piece, in ten quatrains, contrasts the life of Catullus and Virgil in emphasising the superiority of mental tranquillity over sexual pleasure—rather like a versified version of his “Lovecraft on Love” letter to Sonia, but more effective. I have no idea why Lovecraft wrote this poem; but it displays a moderately successful use of the classical learning he had accumulated over a lifetime.

  In late 1927 Lovecraft declared that he had never yet advertised for his revisory services[102] (he had evidently forgotten about the “Crafton Service Bureau” ad in L’Alouette in 1924), so that new revision clients would have come to him only by referral. Two such clients made their appearance about this time—Adolphe de Castro and Zealia Brown Reed Bishop.

  De Castro (1859–1959), formerly Gustav Adolphe Danziger (he adopted his mother’s name shortly after World War I because of anti-German prejudice), was an odd case. He met Ambrose Bierce in 1886 and become an enthusiastic devotee and colleague. A few years later he translated Richard Voss’s short novel, Der Mönch des Berchtesgaden (1890–91), and had Bierce revise it; it was published serially (as by Bierce and Danziger—Voss having been forgotten) as The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter in the San Francisco Examiner in September 1891 and then as a book in 1892. With Bierce (and some help from Joaquin Miller and W. C. Morrow), Danziger formed the Western Authors Publishing Association, which issued Bierce’s poetry collection Black Beetles in Amber (1892) and Danziger’s own short story collection, In the Confessional and the Following (1893). Shortly thereafter, however, Bierce and Danziger had a falling out—mostly over financial wrangling over the profits from the Monk and over Danziger’s management of the publishing company—and although Danziger occasionally met up with Bierce on random subsequent occasions, the two did no further work together.

  Bierce went down to Mexico in late 1913, evidently to observe or to participate in the Mexican Civil War between Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza. Danziger (now de Castro) lived in Mexico between 1922 and 1925 editing a weekly newspaper. In 1923 he managed to talk with Villa, who maintained that he threw Bierce out of his camp when Bierce began praising Carranza. Later, it appears, his body and that of a peon were found by the side of a road. (This account of Bierce’s death is almost certainly false.) De Castro wrote an article in the American Parade for October 1926 entitled “Ambrose Bierce as He Really Was,” going on at length about his collaboration on the Monk and discussing his search for Bierce in Mexico. The matter was elaborated in an article by Bob Davis—the old All-Story editor—in the New York Sun for November 17, 1927.[103]

  It was at this point that de Castro came in touch with Lovecraft. With the publicity he was now receiving, he felt the time was right to capitalise on his association with Bierce. He knew Samuel Loveman, and the latter recommended that de Castro write to Lovecraft and seek his help “in bringing out one or the other of my labors which sadly need revision.”[104] This referred to two projects: a book-length memoir of Bierce, specifically discussing the collaboration on the Monk and de Castro’s subsequent efforts to find information on Bierce in Mexico; and a revision of the story collection, In the Confessional.

  Lovecraft, in a non-extant reply, appears to have quoted some rates regarding his work, the fees dependent on the nature of the work involved (ranging from mere reading and comment to light revision to wholesale rewriting). It is not clear that these rates are the same as those he was offering at a later period (a complete list is included in a letter to Richard F. Searight dated August 31, 1933). On de Castro’s letter of December 5, 1927, accompanying one story he sent to Lovecraft, there are the following pen notations by Lovecraft:

  0.50 per p. un

  0.65 typed

  This story 16.00 untyped

  20.00 typed

  (higher) Reconsidered rate

  1.00 per page untyped

  1.15 " " typed[105]

  I do not know what the difference between the first quoted rate and the “Reconsidered” rate is. Whether the story in question is the one Lovecraft actually revised at this time—titled “A Sacrifice to Science” in de Castro’s book, retitled “Clarendon’s Last Test” by Lovecraft, and published as “The Last Test” in Weird Tales for November 1928—is not clear; Lovecraft indeed received $16.00 for this work[106] (de Castro received $175.00 from Weird Tales), but the story is not—at least in its initial printed version—32 pages, as Lovecraft’s rate would suggest it to be. In any event, Lovecraft complained bitterly about the “measly cheque”[107] he received for this work, but perhaps it was his own fault: he may have quoted a fee of $16.00 to de Castro and then felt obliged to adhere to it even though the story ended up being a full 20,000 words long.

  “The Last Test” is one of the poorest of Lovecraft’s revisions. It tells the melodramatic story of a doctor, Alfred Clarendon, who is apparently developing an antitoxin for black fever while in charge of the California State Penitentiary at San Quentin but who in reality has fallen under the influence of an evil Atlantean magus, Surama, who has developed a disease that “isn’t of this earth” to overwhelm mankind. All this is narrated in the most stiff and pompous manner conceivable, and the story is further crippled by the fact that it is entirely lacking in vibrant and distinctive characters (assuming, of course, that such a hackneyed plot could ever have such), since characterisation was far and away the weakest point in Lovecraft’s literary arsenal. In particular, a romance element between Clarendon’s sister Georgina and the governor of California, James Dalton, is handled very badly. (De Castro’s handling of it, of course, is infinitely worse.)

  It should be pointed out that de Castro’s original tale is not at all supernatural. It is merely a long drawn-out melodrama or adventure story in which a scientist seeks a cure for a new type of fever (never described at all in detail) and, having run out of patients because of the bad reputation he has gained as a man who cares only for science and not for human life, seeks to convince his own sister to be a “sacrifice to science” in the furtherance of his quest. Lovecraft has turned the whole scenario into a supernatural tale while yet preserving the basic framework—the California setting, the characters (although the names of some have been changed), the search for a cure to a new type of fever, and (although this now becomes only a minor part of the climax) Clarendon’s attempt to persuade his sister to sacrifice herself. But—aside from replacing the nebulously depicted assistant of Dr Clarendon (“Dr Clinton” in de Castro) named Mort with the much more redoubtable Surama—he has added much better motivation for the characters and the story as a whole. This, if anything, was Lovecraft’s strong point. He has made the tale about half again as long as de Castro’s original; and although he remarked of the latter that “I nearly exploded over the dragging monotony of [the] silly thing,”[108] Lovecraft’s own version is not without monotony and prolixity of its own.

  To liven things up, if only for himself, Lovecraft has thrown in quite irrelevant references to his own developing myth-cycle. Consider this confrontation between Clarendon and Surama:

  “Be careful, you ————! There are powers against your powers—I didn’t go to China for nothing, and there are things in Alhazred’s Azif which weren’t known in Atlantis! We’ve both meddled in dangerous things, but you needn’t think you know all my resources. How about the Nemesis of Flame? I talked in Yemen with an old man who had come back alive from the Crimson Desert—he had seen Irem, the City of Pillars, and had worshipped at the underground shrines of Nug and Yeb—Iä! Shub-Niggurath!”

  This passage represents, curiously enough, the only time in a story (as opposed to the “History of the Necronomicon”) that the Arabic title of the Necronomicon (Al Azif ) is cited, the first time that the mysterious entities Nug and Yeb (later deemed twin offspring of Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath) are mentioned, and the first time the oath “Iä! Shub-Niggurath!” appears in a story. But these moments of fun cannot relieve the tedium of the tale.

  De Castro was not satisfied with “Clarendon’s Last Test” and sent it back to Lovecraft for extensive further revisions—based, according to Lovecraft, solely on the new ideas he himself had inserted. Losing patience, Lovecraft hurled the whole thing back to him along with the $16.00 cheque; but de Castro, chastened, accepted the version as it stood. He himself typed it, making very minor changes in diction,[109] and sent it to Weird Tales, where, as I have remarked, it was accepted. If it seems unjust that Lovecraft got less than one-tenth of what de Castro was paid, these were the conditions under which Lovecraft operated his revision service: he was at least assured of his fee whether the end result sold or not. (Occasionally, of course, he had difficulty collecting on this fee, but that is a separate matter.) In many cases the revised or ghostwritten tale did not in fact sell. Lovecraft would, in any case, never have wanted to acknowledge such a piece of drivel as “The Last Test,” and it is in some ways unfortunate that his posthumous celebrity has resulted in the unearthing of such items and their republication under his name—the very thing he was trying to avoid.

  Even before Lovecraft finished “The Last Test,” de Castro was pleading with him to help him with his memoirs of Bierce. This was a much more difficult proposition, and Lovecraft was properly reluctant to undertake the task without advance payment. De Castro, being hard up for cash, could not assent to this; so Lovecraft turned him over to Frank Long, who was getting into the revision business himself. Long offered to do the revision for no advance pay if he could write a signed preface to the volume (Lovecraft at one point wrote that de Castro ought to affix Long’s name as coauthor,[110] but Long apparently made no such stipulation). De Castro agreed to this, and Long did what appears to have been a very light revision—he finished the work in two days. This version, however (in spite of de Castro’s earlier boast that “Bob Davis assures me that he will get me a publisher at once”[111]), was rejected by three publishers, so that de Castro came back to Lovecraft and pleaded with him to take over the project. Lovecraft again demanded that de Castro pay him $150.00 in advance,[112] and once again de Castro declined. He appears then to have gone back to Long.

  The book did in fact come out—with how much more revision by Long, or anyone else, is unclear—as Portrait of Ambrose Bierce, published by the Century Company in the spring of 1929 and with a preface by “Belknap Long.” Lovecraft claimed to take a sardonic satisfaction in the bad reviews the book received (Lewis Mumford wrote that “his portrait is beslobbered with irrelevant emotions and confessions, is full of pretentious judgments and in general has an authentic air of unreliability”;[113] Napier Wilt wrote that “Such a naively uncritical picture can hardly be called a biography”[114]), but Carey McWilliams—author of a landmark biography of Bierce that came out later in 1929—was surprisingly charitable: “Dr. Danziger’s book remains an interesting memoir . . . He succeeds best when he merely records remarks that Bierce made at various times. Some of these have about them the unmistakable imprint of Bierce’s thought.”[115] And yet, the book really is a confused farrago of mediocre biography, memoir, and not so subtle self-promotion on de Castro’s part. Long’s preface, a sensitive analysis of Bierce’s work, may be the best thing in the volume.

  Lovecraft had very mixed feelings about de Castro. He felt that both Bierce and de Castro had overstated their own role in the creation of The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter, the real virtues of the tale—its capturing of the wild topography of the Bavarian mountains—being in Lovecraft’s impression clearly the work of Voss. De Castro does seem to have been trying to magnify his own contribution to the work and minimise that of Bierce, who was no longer around to defend himself. Moreover, de Castro comes off as both wheedling and sly, tr
ying to get Lovecraft and Long to do work for him for little or no pay and for the mythical prospect of vast revenues at a later date (he thought he could rake in $50,000 for his Bierce reminiscence). At one point Lovecraft wrote: “This especial old bird, according to an anecdote recorded by George Sterling, parted from Bierce under the dramatic circumstance of having a cane broken over his head!” (The anecdote is found in Sterling’s introduction to the Modern Library edition of Bierce’s In the Midst of Life [1927].) Lovecraft then adds charitably: “When I saw his fiction I wondered why Ambrosius didn’t use a crowbar.”[116]

  And yet, de Castro was not a complete charlatan. He had published a number of distinguished books of scholarship, especially in the realm of religious studies, with major publishers (e.g., Jewish Forerunners of Christianity [E. P. Dutton, 1903]), and also published (in some cases, admittedly, self-published) novels and poetry. The Western Authors Publishing Association issued a book of his as late as 1950.[117] De Castro also seemed to know many languages and had served as a minor functionary in the U.S. government for many years. If there is a certain ghoulishness in his attempt to cash in on his friendship with Bierce, he was certainly not alone in this.

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