I am providence the life.., p.106

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 106


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

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  Old World Footprints may well be the last book publication to emerge from the Recluse Press. Although Lovecraft read proofs of The Shunned House toward the end of his New York stay, we have already seen how that project became mired in delays at this very time. Lovecraft and Cook also worked on a second printing of Bullen’s White Fire, since an unexpected sale of the volume in Canada had exhausted the supply; but although unbound sheets were produced, this item was also never bound or distributed.

  What are we to make of the six weeks Lovecraft spent in New York? His accounts make it clear that he fell back into the old habit of congregating with friends—and avoiding his wife—that he had adopted almost immediately after his marriage. For all his loathing of the city, he seemed to have a good enough time, but he jumped at the chance to return to New England shores. There is no indication of how long Lovecraft had promised Sonia he would stay with her; his letters to Lillian suggest that the hat shop was getting off the ground pretty well (at one point Sonia hired a part-time assistant to help with orders), but Sonia says little about the matter in her memoir and I do not know how long it stayed in business. Her irritation at Lovecraft’s failure to spend any significant time with her comes out in her memoir, and in all likelihood was expressed to him in person; but it probably made little impression, since he had virtually taken the attitude that he was really no more than a guest, as he was in 1922 (he did, however, offer to pay his share of the food bills). If Sonia somehow expected this trip to jump-start the marriage, she was in for a disappointment; it is no wonder that she forced Lovecraft to pursue divorce proceedings the next year.

  Lovecraft’s faint taste of Vermont in 1927 had only whetted his appetite; now he would spend a full two weeks in quaint rusticity, and he made the most of it. Orton was, of course, not coming alone, but brought his whole family—wife, infant son, parents, and maternal grandmother, Mrs Teachout, an eighty-year-old woman whose recollections of the past Lovecraft found fascinating. The entire party arrived around June 10, and Lovecraft stayed till the 24th.

  It is charming to read of the simple chores Lovecraft performed (“I have learned how to build a wood fire, & have helped the neighbours’ boys round up a straying cow”[15])—no doubt he could momentarily indulge in the fantasy of being a grizzled farmer. Orton’s farm, indeed, had few modern amenities—no plumbing except for a lead pipe to lead in the spring water, and no illumination except with oil lamps and candles.

  Most of the time, however, Lovecraft struck out on lone trips of exploration. On the 13th he climbed Governor’s Mountain (1823 feet above sea level), but was disappointed to find that the summit was wooded, thereby failing to provide any vista of the surrounding area. The next day he called on his old amateur friend Arthur Goodenough and then went across the Connecticut River into New Hampshire to climb Mt. Wantastiquet. On the 18th he went to Deerfield and Greenfield in Massachusetts by bus.

  On the 16th Walter J. Coates came down from Montpelier, driving nearly a hundred miles just to see Lovecraft. They discussed literature and philosophy till 3 A.M., after which Orton and Lovecraft went to a neighbouring hill to build a fire and watch the sun rise. A more significant meeting occurred on the next day, when Lovecraft, Orton, and Coates went to Goodenough’s home in Brattleboro for a literary conclave with several other local writers. Lovecraft reported that this gathering was written up in the Brattleboro Reformer, and indeed it was, as Donovan K. Loucks has discovered.[16]

  Another item has, however, also appeared in the same paper: an article on Lovecraft by Vrest Orton entitled “A Weird Writer Is In Our Midst,” published on June 16. Lovecraft modestly describes it as a “puff,” and it certainly is that; but in other ways it is a remarkably astute and even prophetic document. Although Orton himself had little actual interest in the weird (he said that after reading some of Lovecraft’s tales he was “struck with such unmitigated horror that I shall undoubtedly never read any more”), he told of Lovecraft’s popularity with Weird Tales (“The readers of this magazine . . . are kept in a state of unsatisfied hunger for his stuff”), explained his philosophy of the weird (shamelessly pillaging “Supernatural Horror in Literature” for the purpose), and concluded by comparing him with Poe:

  . . . like Poe, he will, I haven’t the slightest doubt, set a mark for writers to shoot at for a long time. Some say he is greater than Poe as a writer of the weird . . . I don’t know, but I do know that his stories strike me as having been written by a man far more profoundly interested in the subject of the weird than was Poe. . . . I do not say he is a greater writer than Poe, for in some departments he is not. But I do say that as a scholar and research worker in the one subject of the weird from his point of view, and a writer on that subject exclusively, H. P. Lovecraft is the greatest this country has ever seen or maybe will ever see.[17]

  This article appeared in a column called “The Pendrifter,” conducted by Charles Crane. Lovecraft met Crane on the 21st, finding him a delightful and typical Vermont Yankee.

  Other locals Lovecraft met were the Lee boys, Charley, Bill, and Henry, the neighbours whom he helped round up a stray cow. On the afternoon of the 21st Charley took Lovecraft to meet an eccentric farmer named Bert G. Akley, a self-taught painter and photographer of much native skill. Lovecraft was captivated:

  His paintings—covering every field, but specialising in the local scenery, are of a remarkable degree of excellence; yet he has never taken a lesson in his life. He is Talman’s equal or superior in heraldic painting, & is likewise a landscape & still-life photographer of the highest skill & taste. In other fields, too, he is a veritable jack-of-all-trades. Through it all he retains the primitiveness of the agrestic yeoman, & lives in unbelievable heaps & piles of disorder.[18]

  Vermont was a tremendous imaginative stimulus for Lovecraft. He felt himself close to the old New England spirit that had departed from the more populated and modernised southern states, and in this way he effected that defeat of time which was simultaneously the source of his antiquarianism and his sense of the weird:

  Here life has gone on in the same way since before the Revolution—the same landscape, buildings, families, occupations, & modes of thought & speech. The eternal cycle of sowing & reaping, feeding & milking, planting & haying, here constitute the very backbone of existence; & old traditions of New England simplicity govern all things from dairying to fox-hunting. That Arcadian world which we see faintly reflected in the Farmer’s Almanack is here a vital & vivid actuality—in all truth, the people of Vermont are our contemporary ancestors! Hills & brooks & ancient elms—farmhouse gables peeping over bends of the road at the crest of hills—white steeples in distant valleys at twilight—all these lovely reliques of the old days flourish in undiminished strength, & bid fair to transmit themselves for many generations into the future. To dwell amidst this concentrated old-fashionedness for two weeks, seeing about one every day the low-ceiled, antique-furnished rooms of a venerable farmhouse, & the limitless green reaches of planted fields, steep, stone-walled meadows, & mystical hanging woods & brook-murmurous valleys, is to acquire such a hold on the very fundamentals of authentic Novanglianism that no account of urban existence can counteract or dilute it.[19]

  On the 23rd W. Paul Cook, who had already paid two visits to the Orton farm during Lovecraft’s stay there, arrived with his wife and spent the night; the next day he drove Lovecraft down to Athol for a stay of about a week. Lovecraft did nothing of great note there except for buying a new suit for $17.50, meeting with H. Warner Munn, writing letters in Phillips Park whenever it wasn’t raining, and seeing The Shunned House being printed at the Athol Transcript office. Perhaps the only notable event of his Athol trip occurred on the 28th, when Munn took Lovecraft to a remarkable forest gorge southwest of the city called the Bear’s Den.

  But on Friday, June 29, Lovecraft moved on to another leg of his journey as distinctive as his Vermont stay; for Edith Miniter, the old-time amateur, almost demanded that Lovecraft pay her a visit in Wilbraham, Massachu
setts, where she was residing with her cousin, Evanore Beebe. Accordingly, Lovecraft rose at 6.30 to catch an 8 o’clock train to North Wilbraham. He stayed for eight days, being charmed by the vast array of antiques collected by Beebe, the seven cats and two dogs who had the run of the place, and especially by the spectral local folklore Miniter told him. In “Mrs. Miniter—Estimates and Recollections” (1934) Lovecraft wrote:

  I saw the ruinous, deserted old Randolph Beebe house where the whippoorwills cluster abnormally, and learned that these birds are feared by the rustics as evil psychopomps. It is whispered that they linger and flutter around houses where death is approaching, hoping to catch the soul of the departed as it leaves. If the soul eludes them, they disperse in quiet disappointment; but sometimes they set up a chorused clamour of excited, triumphant chattering which makes the watchers turn pale and mutter—with that air of hushed, awestruck portentousness which only a backwoods Yankee can assume—“They got ’im!”

  There was also a spectacular firefly display one night: “They leaped in the meadows, & under the spectral old oaks at the bend of the road. They danced tumultuously in the swampy hollow, & held witches’ sabbaths beneath the gnarled, ancient trees of the orchard.”[20] This trip certainly combined the archaic, the rustic, and the weird!

  Finally, on July 7, Lovecraft prepared for his southern jaunt. He first took a bus to Springfield (the largest town near Wilbraham), then on up to Greenfield, where he stayed in a hotel overnight before taking the bus to Albany (over the Mohawk Trail) the next day. Lovecraft found Albany dismally Victorian, but it was meant only as a way station. The next day he took a boat down the Hudson, stopping in New York to change valises (he had borrowed Sonia’s $35 suitcase for his Vermont-Massachusetts trip, but now reclaimed his own 99¢ papier-mâché bag). Strangely enough, he remarked that because Sonia was “without commodious living quarters at present,” he spent the night at the Bossart Hotel in Montague Street, Brooklyn.[21] I wonder why, in the month between his departure for Vermont and his return to New York, Sonia’s quarters had suddenly become unavailable to him. In any case, on the 10th he met Long and Wandrei and had dinner with Sonia at the Milan restaurant, then saw a movie with her before boarding the 1.30 A.M. train for Philadephia.

  Lovecraft spent only the afternoon in Philadelphia, which he had of course seen several times before; he then took the bus to Baltimore, reaching there around sunset. Although the bulk of the town was unmistakably Victorian, he found some compensating features: the Catholic cathedral (1808), a column erected in 1815, and various country seats dating from as early as 1754. There was, however, one more landmark: “But to me the culminating thing in Baltimore was a dingy monument in a corner of Westminster Presbyterian Churchyard, which the slums have long overtaken. It is near a high wall, and a willow weeps over it. Melancholy broods around it, and black wings brush it in the night—for it is the grave of Edgar Allan Poe.” Things have not changed much since. It is a pity that Lovecraft does not seem to have entered the church itself, for in the cellar are some of the most charnelly hideous catacombs in the nation.

  Lovecraft was going to go directly from Baltimore to Washington, but the colonial relics of Annapolis proved a fatal temptation; and they were no disappointment. He spent only one day (July 12) there, but saw much of the place—the naval academy, the old state house (1772–74), St John’s College, and the abundance of colonial residences, which “make Annapolis the Marblehead of the south.”[22]

  That evening Lovecraft left for Washington, spending the next three days there. He revisited Alexandria (which he had seen briefly in 1925), saw Mt. Vernon (George Washington’s home) and archaic Georgetown, and took a trip to Falls Church, a small town in Virginia. He tried to look up Edward Lloyd Sechrist, but found that he was away on business in Wyoming.

  At this point yet another temptation proved fatally alluring—an excursion to the Endless Caverns in New Market, Virginia. This was a good four hours by bus from Washington, but the rate was so cheap ($2.50) that Lovecraft could ill resist. Having written about caves from boyhood, he found that the chance actually to visit one was not to be denied. As with his entire trip, this was no disappointment:

  As deep gave place to deep, gallery to gallery, and chamber to chamber, I felt transported to the strangest regions of nocturnal fancy. Grotesque formations leer’d on every hand, and the ever-sinking level appris’d me of the stupendous depth I was attaining. Glimpses of far black vistas beyond the radius of the lights—sheer drops of incalculable depth to unknown chasms, or arcades beckoning laterally to mysteries yet untasted by human eye—brought my soul close to the frightful and obscure frontiers of the material world, and conjured up suspicions of vague and unhallowed dimensions whose formless beings lurk ever close to the visible world of man’s five senses. Buried aeras—submerged civilisations—subterraneous universes and unsuspected orders of beings and influences that haunt the sightless depths—all these flitted thro’ an imagination confronted by the actual presence of soundless and eternal night.[23]

  The rest of the trip was anticlimax. A bus ride to Philadelphia, then another to New York. Lovecraft was hoping for a leisurely journey home, but in New York he found a letter from Annie Gamwell reporting that Lillian had fallen ill with lumbago, so he immediately boarded a train for home. He had been away almost exactly three months.

  Shortly after returning to Providence Lovecraft wrote a lengthy account of his spring travels, “Observations on Several Parts of America.” It is the first of several lengthy travelogues—some of the others are “Travels in the Provinces of America” (1929), “An Account of Charleston” (1930), and “A Description of the Town of Quebeck” (1930–31), the single longest work Lovecraft ever wrote—and it is among the best. Its flawless capturing of eighteenth-century diction (“a compleat record of my late wanderings must embrace near three months of time, and a territory of extream bigness”) is matched by the deftness with which it weaves travel impressions, history, and personal asides into a smoothly flowing narrative.

  Certain practical souls have shed bitter tears at Lovecraft’s “wasting” his time writing these lengthy accounts, which were manifestly produced with no idea of publication and—in the cases of the latter two documents mentioned above—with not even the prospect of meeting any other eye than their author’s. Here is one of many occasions in which later commentators have tried to live Lovecraft’s life for him. The only “purpose” of these items is to afford pleasure to Lovecraft and to some of his friends, and that is enough. The “Observations” and the “Travels” are single-spaced typescripts, and in effect are open letters, the first written to Maurice W. Moe (“Dost recall it, O Sage?” Lovecraft interjects at one point) although surely circulated to other close associates. No doubt he drew upon his diaries for the periods in question, and perhaps also upon his letters to Lillian, for the details of his travels; and the historical digressions must have been derived from guidebooks and formal histories of the regions as well as personal investigation.

  One small part of the “Observations” did in fact achieve print in Lovecraft’s lifetime. Maurice W. Moe was assisting Sterling Leonard and Harold Y. Moffett in editing a series of literature textbooks for young adults, and was so captivated by Lovecraft’s description of visiting Sleepy Hollow that he included it as an one-paragraph extract, titled “Sleepy Hollow To-day,” in Junior Literature: Book Two, published by Macmillan in 1930. The text was printed fairly faithfully, although eliminating Lovecraft’s archaisms. Only one substantive change was made: Lovecraft spoke of the river gorge “forming a place of convocation for the numerous ghouls attendant upon the subterraneous population,” but Moe substituted “ghosts” for “ghouls,” rendering the passage a trifle obscure. Lovecraft professed delight at the inclusion of his piece: “Wright may reject my stuff, but at least, my name will achieve a mild & grudging kind of immortality on the reluctant lips of the young.”[24] Well, not exactly: although the book was reprinted in 1935, it thereafter lapsed
out of print and has become one of the rarest of Lovecraft’s publications.

  Lovecraft did manage to do some writing aside from letters and his travelogue; in early August he wrote “The Dunwich Horror.” This is, certainly, one of his most popular tales, but I cannot help finding serious flaws of conception, execution, and style in it. Its plot is well known. In the seedy area of Dunwich in “north central Massachusetts” live a small handful of backwoods farmers. One of these, the Whateleys, have been the source of particular suspicion ever since the birth, on Candlemas 1913, of Wilbur Whateley, the offspring of his albino mother and an unknown father. Lavinia’s father, Old Whateley, shortly after the birth makes an ominous prediction: “some day yew folks’ll hear a child o’ Lavinny’s a-callin’ its father’s name on the top o’ Sentinel Hill!”

  Wilbur grows up anomalously fast, and by age thirteen is already nearly seven feet tall. He is intellectually precocious also, having been educated by the old books in Old Whateley’s shabby library. In 1924 Old Whateley dies, but manages to wheeze instructions to his grandson to consult “page 751 of the complete edition” of some book so that he can “open up the gates to Yog-Sothoth.” Two years later Lavinia disappears and is never seen again. In the winter of 1927 Whateley makes his first trip out of Dunwich, to consult the Latin edition of the Necronomicon at the Miskatonic University Library; but when he asks to borrow the volume overnight, he is denied by the old librarian Henry Armitage. He tries to do the same at Harvard but is similarly rebuffed. Then, in the late spring of 1928, Wilbur breaks into the library to steal the volume, but is killed by the vicious guard-dog. His death is very repulsive:

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