I am providence the life.., p.105

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 105

 

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



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  Another revision client that came into Lovecraft’s horizon at this time was Zealia Brown Reed Bishop (1897–1968). Bishop, by her own statement,[118] was studying journalism at Columbia and also writing articles and stories to support herself and her young son. I take it that she was divorced at this point, although she never says so. One day while in Cleveland (she dates this to 1928, but this is clearly an error), she wandered into a bookstore managed by Samuel Loveman, who told her about Lovecraft’s revisory service. She wrote to him in what must have been late spring of 1927, for this is when the first of Lovecraft’s letters to her appears. Indeed, there may be an allusion to her in a letter of May 1927, when he speaks of “the most deodamnate piece of unending Bushwork I’ve ever tackled since the apogee of the immortal Davidius himself—the sappy, half-baked Woman’s Home Companion stuff of a female whose pencil has hopelessly outdistanc’d her imagination.”[119]

  Bishop was in fact interested in writing Woman’s Home Companion stuff, and—although she expresses great admiration for Lovecraft’s intellect and literary skill—in her memoir she also admits rather petulantly that Lovecraft tried to steer her in directions contrary to her natural inclination: “Being young and romantic, I wanted to follow my own impulse for fresh, youthful stories. Lovecraft was not convinced that [t]his course was best. I was his protégé[e] and he meant to bend my career to his direction.” There are some very odd statements in her memoir at this point—such as Lovecraft’s supposed admonition to read Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage three times—but in the absence of the many letters he must have written her, we may perhaps accept as authentic some of the criticisms he levelled against the romantic fiction she sent him: “No gentleman would dare kiss a girl in that fashion”; “No gentleman would think of knocking on a lady’s bedroom door even at a houseparty.”

  Bishop complains that “The stories I sent him always came back so revised from their basic idea that I felt I was a complete failure as a writer.” It is difficult to know which stories are referred to here; they may not survive. Bishop goes on to say that at this point she returned to her sister’s ranch in Oklahoma, where she heard some tales by Grandma Compton, her sister’s mother-in-law, about a pioneer couple in Oklahoma not far away. Bishop concludes: “I wrote a tale called The Curse of Yig, in which snakes figured, wove it around some of my Aztec knowledge instilled in me by Lovecraft, and sent it off to him. He was delighted with this trend toward realism and horror, and fairly showered me with letters and instructions.”

  There is, clearly, a large amount of prevarication here. It can hardly be doubted that the story as we have it is almost entirely the work of Lovecraft except for the bare nucleus of the plot. “The Curse of Yig” is quite an effective piece of work, telling of a couple, Walker and Audrey Davis, who settle in the Oklahoma Territory in 1889. Walker has an exceptional fear of snakes, and has heard tales of Yig (“the snake-god of the central plains tribes—presumably the primal source of the more southerly Quetzalcoatl or Kukulcan . . . an odd, half-anthropomorphic devil of highly arbitrary and capricious nature”) and of how the god avenges any harm that may come to snakes; so he is particularly horrified when his wife kills a brood of rattlers near their home. Late one night, the couple sees the entire floor of their bedroom covered with snakes; Walker gets up to stamp them out but falls down, extinguishing the lantern he is carrying. Audrey, now petrified with terror, soon hears a hideous popping noise—it must be Walker’s body, so puffed with snake-venom that the skin has burst. Then she sees an anthropoid shape silhouetted in the window. It must be Yig—so when it enters the room she takes an axe and hacks it to pieces. In the morning the truth is known: the body that burst was their old dog, while the figure that has been hacked to pieces is Walker. In a final twist, it is learned that a loathsome half-snake, half-human entity kept in a nearby asylum is not Audrey herself but the entity to which she gave birth three-quarters of a year later.

  Lovecraft wrote of his contribution to the story in a letter to Derleth:

  By the way—if you want to see a new story which is practically mine, read “The Curse of Yig” in the current W.T. Mrs. Reed is a client for whom Long & I have done oceans of work, & this story is about 75% mine. All I had to work on was a synopsis describing a couple of pioneers in a cabin with a nest of rattlesnakes beneath, the killing of the husband by snakes, the bursting of the corpse, & the madness of the wife, who was an eye-witness to the horror. There was no plot or motivation—no prologue or aftermath to the incident—so that one might say the story, as a story, is wholly my own. I invented the snake-god & the curse, the tragic wielding of the axe by the wife, the matter of the snake-victim’s identity, & the asylum epilogue. Also, I worked up the geographic & other incidental colour—getting some data from the alleged authoress, who knows Oklahoma, but more from books.[120]

  Lovecraft sent the completed tale to Bishop in early March 1928, making it clear in his letter to her that even the title is his. He adds: “I took a great deal of care with this tale, and was especially anxious to get the beginning smoothly adjusted. . . . For geographical atmosphere and colour I had of course to rely wholly on your answers to my questionnaire, plus such printed descriptions of Oklahoma as I could find.” Of Yig he states: “The deity in question is entirely a product of my own imaginative theogony . . .”[121] Yig becomes a minor deity in the evolving Lovecraft pantheon, although cited only once in an original work of fiction (“The Whisperer in Darkness,” and there only in passing) as opposed to revisions, where it appears with some frequency.

  Lovecraft charged Bishop $17.50 for the tale; she already owed him $25.00 for unspecified earlier work, bringing the total to $42.50. It is not clear whether she ever entirely paid off this debt. She managed to sell the story to Weird Tales, where it appeared in the November 1929 issue; she received $45.00 for it.

  Lovecraft’s early correspondence with Zealia Bishop was very cordial and revelatory, and it seems to go well beyond the courtesy Lovecraft felt was due to a woman correspondent. He gives her quite sound advice on the nature of writing; it may not be the kind of advice she wanted—how to write salable fiction—but it was advice that anyone wishing to write sincere work should ponder. He summarises his long discussions in a letter of 1929:

  This, then, is the writer’s fivefold problem:

  1. To get the facts of life.

  2. To think straight and tell the truth.

  3. To cut out maudlin and extravagant emotion.

  4. To cultivate an ear for strong, direct, harmonious, simple, and graphic language.

  5. To write what one really sees and feels.[122]

  At a later stage I shall examine how Lovecraft himself had come to embrace and, in large measure, to practise these principles.

  But the correspondence with Bishop extends far beyond mere literary tutoring. He tells her much about his personal life, his philosophical beliefs, and the details of his daily existence. Perhaps Bishop was merely curious about these things—it is clear that she was writing to him frequently during 1927–29—but whatever the case, Lovecraft was unusually forthcoming about himself in these letters. However, Bishop’s persistent failure to pay up her debt caused the association to cool considerably on Lovecraft’s side, so that by the mid-1930s he was regarding her more as a pest than as a colleague.

  One letter Lovecraft wrote to Bishop in late spring of 1928 is of interest:

  When you perceive the foregoing temporary address, and correlate it with what I have quite frequently expressed as my unvarnished sentiments toward the New York region, you will probably appreciate the extent of the combined burdens and nerve-taxes which have, through malign coincidence, utterly disrupted my programme this spring, and brought me to the verge of what would be a complete breakdown if I did not have a staunch and brilliant colleague—my young “adopted grandchild” Frank B. Long—to whom to lean for coöperation and assistance in getting my tasks in shape.[123]

  What could be the meaning of this? The address
at the head of this letter—395 East 16th Street, Brooklyn, New York—tells part of the story; the other part—which Lovecraft told almost none of his colleagues (those, at any rate, who did not already know the situation)—is that Sonia had called him back to New York.

  19. Fanlights and Georgian Steeples

  (1928–1930)

  Lovecraft must have arrived in New York in late April, for a long letter to Lillian is dated April 29–30 and refers to incidents occurring on Tuesday the 24th. Sonia writes in her memoir: “Late that spring (1928) I invited Howard to come on a visit once more. He gladly accepted but as a visit, only. To me, even that crumb of his nearness was better than nothing.”[1] Clearly Sonia still felt considerable affection for Lovecraft; but she knew that he could not be persuaded to spend more than a few weeks in a city he loathed, and in a situation—married life—with which he was clearly uncomfortable after two full years of resumed bachelorhood.

  How “gladly” Lovecraft accepted this invitation we have already seen in the letter to Zealia Bishop; to other new correspondents (to most of whom he had not even mentioned the fact of his marriage) he was more circumspect. To Derleth he writes: “. . . I am on alien soil just now—circumstances having forced me to be in the N.Y. region for quite a spell. I don’t welcome this sojourn, since I hate N.Y. like poison . . .”[2] To Wandrei: “Necessity has forced me to be in the N.Y. region for a month or so, & I am making the best of it by sojourning in the oasis of Flatbush . . .”[3] To his old friend Morton he was a little more expansive: “The wife had to camp out here for quite a spell on account of business, and thought it only fair that I drop around for a while. Not having any snappy comeback, and wishing to avoid any domestick civil war, I played the pacifist . . . and here I am.”[4]

  The “business” referred to is Sonia’s attempt to set up a hat shop in Brooklyn—368 East 17th Street, in the very next block from where she was living. This structure does not survive, and there is no longer even any address with this number, unless a small garage neighbouring the present 370 East 17th Street is the place. The apartment house, however, still survives, and Lovecraft found Sonia’s flat (on the third floor, numbered 9) relatively comfortable: “The dining or sitting room is panelled in squares of dark oak, whilst the woodwork elsewhere is white or oak of varying degrees of richness. Papers on the walls & rugs on the floors are uniformly in good taste. The dining-sitting room has a great central indirect-lighting fixture, whilst the library has a group of chain-hung lamps precisely like those in my room.”[5] Sonia’s cooking had not suffered any lapse either in quality or in abundance (“Spaghetti with S H’s inimitable sauce, meat prepared in magical ways beyond the divining of the layman, waffles with maple syrup, popovers with honey—such are the challenges to leanness wherewith my pathway is beset!”).

  Sonia had invested $1000 of her own money to set up the shop, which formally opened on Saturday the 28th. She worked hard securing hatboxes and materials and fixing up the shop to appeal to customers. Lovecraft helped Sonia on “sundry errands” on several occasions, including one stint of addressing envelopes from 11.30 P.M. to 3.30 A.M. one night. On Sunday the 29th he and Sonia went on a “delightfully circuitous walk” that led back to their old neighbourhood—the Prospect Park area—and they noticed that it was already starting that decline in spruceness and social status which has continued to the present day.

  But let us not be deceived; Lovecraft was by no means resuming his marriage any more than was necessary. Sonia writes with considerable tartness: “But while visiting me, all I saw of Howard was during the few early morning hours when he would return from his jaunts with either Morton, Loveman, Long, Kleiner, or with some or all of them. This lasted through the summer.”[6] Indeed it did; and his gallivanting began almost as soon as he came to town. On April 24th he did some shopping with Sonia, but then went off on a lone walk to Prospect Park, then headed to Frank Long’s new residence at 230 West 97th Street (823 West End Avenue having been torn down to make way for a new building, now numbered 825). He returned to Brooklyn only to have dinner with Sonia, then left immediately to visit Samuel Loveman, first at his bookshop in 59th Street, Manhattan, then to his residence in Columbia Heights. He did not return home till 4 A.M.

  April 27th was Long’s birthday, so his parents took him on a drive along the Hudson River to Lake Mahopac; Lovecraft accompanied them and found the wild, hilly scenery stimulating. Later trips with the Longs in May reached as far north as Peekskill and as far east as Stamford and Ridgefield in Connecticut. On one occasion they visited West Point and witnessed an impressive dress-parade.

  Lovecraft also did much solo exploration in the area. He mentioned going to some region called Gravesend, “south of Flatbush on the road to Coney-Island”;[7] this appears to be a district now designated by the community of Bensonhurst. Lovecraft found “near on a dozen cottages in plain sight [that] date from before 1700.” Other expeditions took him to Flatlands and New Utrecht (to the east and west of Bensonhurst, respectively).

  Naturally, there were also gang meetings—although Lovecraft noted with some surprise and even dismay that the gang had “almost dissolved.”[8] Plainly, he had been its guiding force during 1924–26. After one of them (on May 2), George Kirk invited Lovecraft and Everett McNeil to accompany him back to his apartment, where his new wife Lucile—half expecting such a continuation of the meeting—had tea, crackers, and cheese ready. Lovecraft again did not return home till 4 A.M.

  On May 12 Lovecraft visited James F. Morton in Paterson, finding the scenery along the bus ride very poor—“oil tanks & factories . . . ugly & depressing factory towns & monotonous flatlands.”[9] New Jersey’s reputation for scenic dismalness, based upon the New Jersey Turnpike, was already in evidence! But Morton’s museum building was very prepossessing, the entire upstairs floor being given over to his hall of minerals. Although Lovecraft got home late that evening, he still got up early enough the next day to go with Sonia to Bryn Mawr Park, the area in Yonkers where they had purchased a home lot in 1924. Sonia still owned this property—or, rather, one of the two lots, the other one having been sold. Sonia could not decide whether to build a small house on the property or to sell it.

  On Thursday, May 24, Lovecraft rose at the unheard-of hour of 4 A.M. in order to meet Talman in Hoboken to catch a 6.15 train to Spring Valley, in Rockland County just above the New Jersey border. Talman lived in an estate outside the city, built in 1905 by his father. Lovecraft found both the rural countryside and the ancient farmhouses (built between 1690 and 1800) very charming, and took care to note the differences in their architectural details from corresponding structures in New England. He was, both through reading and through personal examination, becoming a formidable expert in colonial American architecture. That afternoon Talman and Lovecraft went to the town of Tappan, where Major John André—the young British officer who conspired with Benedict Arnold to effect the surrender of West Point—was tried and hanged in 1780.

  Talman drove Lovecraft to Nyack, on the western shore of the Hudson, where Lovecraft caught a ferry for Tarrytown, on the eastern shore. Here, naturally, he took a bus to Sleepy Hollow, whose 1685 church and the wooded ravine nearby he appreciated. He walked back to Tarrytown and made his way to the Washington Irving estate, but it was in private hands and not open to visitors. A ferry at Hastings-on-Hudson took him back to New York.

  On the 25th Lovecraft got up early again—6.30—in order to get to Long’s house by 8.30. The Long family went on a long motor drive through some of the area Lovecraft had just explored the previous day. It was an all-day expedition, and Lovecraft did not reach home until midnight. On the 29th Lovecraft met his new revision client Zealia Bishop, for whom Long was also doing some work. Subsequent days were taken up with solitary exploration closer to home—Astoria and Elmhurst (in Queens), Flushing (then still a separate community), and elsewhere. With Sonia he went to several towns in Staten Island on June 3, and he did the same with Long on June 6. The very next day, however,
he unexpectedly received an invitation from Vrest Orton that changed his travel plans significantly. He had been planning to visit Bernard Austin Dwyer in West Shokan, then head south for perhaps a week to Philadelphia or Washington, D.C.; but Orton—although living in the pleasant Riverdale section of the Bronx—was disgusted with New York and wished to move out to a farm near Brattleboro, Vermont, which he had just purchased. He insisted that Lovecraft come along, and it took little persuasion for him to accede.

  Lovecraft’s New York stay was not entirely occupied with frivolity. Aside from his daily wrestling with mountainous correspondence, there was revision work—or, at least, the prospect of it. Long and Lovecraft had decided to team up, and they prepared the following ad that appeared in the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales:

  Toward the end of the year, however, Lovecraft reported lugubriously that “Belknap & I didn’t net many returns from our revision advt.”[11] In fact, I cannot see that a single new client emerged from the ad, which presumably sought to bring in more would-be weird writers like Zealia Bishop.

  Adolphe de Castro was being an annoyance, asking Lovecraft and Long to see him at his apartment uptown and also pestering Lovecraft both at Sonia’s apartment and even at the hat shop. He was full of big plans both for his Bierce memoirs and for his other works; but Lovecraft resolutely stood by his demand of receiving $150.00 in advance for work on the Bierce book, although he charitably prepared a “critical synopsis”[12] that Long, who did the actual revision on the book, may or may not have followed. At one point de Castro became so irritating that Lovecraft fumed: “I hope he goes down to Mexico & gets shot or imprisoned!”[13]

  One odd piece of writing that Lovecraft did around this time is a preface to a book of travel impressions, Old World Footprints, by Frank Long’s wealthy aunt. The book was published later in 1928 by W. Paul Cook (surely at Mrs Symmes’s expense), but the preface—signed “Frank Belknap Long, Jr., June, 1928”—is the work of Lovecraft, who noted that Long was under the pressure of other work and could not write it in time for Cook’s deadline.[14]

 
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