I am providence the life.., p.109

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 109


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

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  On May 3 Lovecraft saw Williamsburg (then only in the early stages of its restoration as a colonial village), Jamestown, and Yorktown all in a single day. Jamestown in particular—“birthplace of the British civilisation in America”—he found particularly moving, even though only the foundations of the original settlement (dating to 1607) remain, as the town was abandoned after 1700. Yorktown, in spite of its dubious fame as the place where Lord Cornwallis surrendered in 1781, struck Lovecraft as “a kind of southern Marblehead.”[57]

  Fredericksburg, fifty miles north of Richmond, was explored on the 5th. Again, Lovecraft was more interested in the colonial than in the Civil War town, but he saw both aspects in the five hours he had. Early in his explorations Lovecraft encountered a “kindly, talkative, well-bred & scholarly old man”[58] named Mr Alexander who observed that he was a tourist and guided him through many of the antiquities of the place. This seems rather uncannily like the situation in “He,” but Lovecraft does not seem to have perceived the resemblance; in any case, Mr Alexander no doubt wished to exhibit some of that hospitality and courtesy on which the South prided itself. Lovecraft did not fail to take in Kenmore, the mansion occupied by George Washington’s sister, as well as Falmouth, the quaint town across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg.

  On May 6 Lovecraft was back in Washington. This time his amateur friend Edward Lloyd Sechrist was in town, and Lovecraft had a cordial meeting with him. He also looked up his new correspondent Elizabeth Toldridge, whom he found less boring and tiresome than he had expected. But it was the museums that most interested him. He saw interesting exhibits at the Library of Congress, went through the Corcoran and Freer Galleries, and—best of all—canvassed the Smithsonian several times, seeing the spectacular stone idols from Easter Island (“last mute and terrible survivors of an unknown elder age when the towers of weird Lemurian cities clawed at the sky where now only the trackless waters roll”[59]) that had haunted his imagination for decades. These are the only actual specimens in the country, the American Museum of Natural History in New York having only a reproduction.

  Lovecraft went to Philadelphia on May 8, seeing the usual sites but this time also taking in the new art museum situated at the end of Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Lovecraft concluded that this structure

  is absolutely the most magnificent museum building in the world—the most exquisite, impressive, and imagination-stirring piece of contemporary architecture I have ever lay’d eyes on—the most gorgeously perfected and crystallised dream of beauty which the modern world hath to give. It is a vast Grecian temple group atop a high elevation (a former reservoir) which terminates the Parkway vista toward the Schuylkill; reacht by broad, spacious flights of steps, flankt by waterfalls, and with a gigantick fountain playing in the centre of the great tessellated courtyard. A veritable Acropolis . . .[60]

  Lovecraft had seen it before but had never approached or entered it; and the interior proved no disappointment, either, with its fine array of period rooms and paintings by such eighteenth-century British artists as Gainsborough and Gilbert Stuart.

  Returning to New York on the 9th, Lovecraft found that the Longs were planning a fishing trip upstate, so that they could conveniently take him right to the doorstep of Bernard Austin Dwyer, who, although residing chiefly in the town of West Shokan, was at this time occupying a house at 177 Green Street in nearby Kingston. (This house no longer survives.) They left the next morning, reaching Kingston in the early afternoon; Dwyer was not available until 6 P.M., so Lovecraft explored the town briefly in the interim. When he finally met Dwyer, he found him as congenial as he expected: “He is an absolutely delightful chap—6 ft 3 in tall, heavily built, & with an extremely handsome, open, & winning face which frequently breaks out into an infectious smile. A pleasant, deep voice, & a refreshingly pure diction & apt choice of words—& a phenomenally sensitive imagination. A true artist if ever there was one.”[61] For the next several evenings they sat up discussing literature and philosophy till far into the night. On the 14th Lovecraft visited the neighbouring towns of Hurley and New Paltz, both of them full of Dutch colonial remains. Hurley is nothing more than an array of houses along a central road; perhaps its most notable structure is the Van Deusen house (1723), which was then open as an antique shop and which Lovecraft explored thoroughly. New Paltz is a larger town, but its colonial section is some distance from the modern business district, so that its antiquity has been well preserved. Huguenot Street, which Lovecraft examined with rapture, is lined with stone houses of the early eighteenth century; one of them—the Jean Hasbrouck house (1712)—was open as a museum, and he canvassed the place thoroughly.[62]

  Just before seeing these towns, Lovecraft was the victim of a robbery—nothing quite so spectacular as the Clinton Street raid of 1925, but one that resulted in the loss of his customary black enamel-cloth bag “containing my stationery & diary, two copies of Weird Tales, my pocket telescope, & some postcards & printed matter of Kingston.”[63] The important thing to note here is the existence of a diary. Lovecraft went on to say that it contained “the record of all my spring travels & all my addresses,” but that the former could be reconstructed “from the letters & cards I have written home.” It seems likely that similar diaries for each of his spring-summer travels for the next seven years existed, but only a quite different diary for a small portion of 1936 has come to light.

  Lovecraft was hoping to take the Mohawk Trail by bus from Albany, but found to his great irritation that the service would not start until May 30, even though it continued to be advertised in travel brochures; so he was forced to take the more expensive and less scenically stimulating train to Athol. Nevertheless, he was thrilled to return home to New England after an interval of five weeks: “Then the hills grew wilder & greener & more beautiful—yet less luxuriant in folige as we receded from the warmth of the south. Finally I saw a station-name which made my heart leap—North-Pownal, in His Majesty’s New-Hampshire Grants, latterly call’d Vermont, in New-England! God Save the King!! . . . Home at last . . .”[64] The return was perhaps not quite as transporting as the homecoming from New York in 1926, for Lovecraft knew he would come home sooner or later; but the sentiments are distinctly analogous. Lovecraft met both Cook and Munn in Athol, and on the 17th they all made a brief excursion to Brattleboro, Vermont, where they looked up Arthur Goodenough. The next day Munn drove Lovecraft and Cook to Westminster, which had not changed in the thirty years since Lovecraft saw it last (as a boy in the company of his mother), then continued on to Providence via Petersham and Barre.

  It had been a great trip, with ten states plus the District of Columbia traversed; and it had given Lovecraft his first fleeting taste of the South, although in later years he would see far more of it. As with his previous year’s travels, he wrote up his 1929 jaunt in a tremendous 18,000-word travelogue entitled “Travels in the Provinces of America,” which, however, was not published until 1995. It surely made the rounds of Lovecraft’s friends and correspondents; and if they were pleased and informed—as they could hardly fail to have been—then the essay’s purpose would have been fulfilled.

  And yet, Lovecraft’s travels were not quite at an end. On August 5 he took a bus trip to the Fairbanks house (1636) in Dedham, Massachusetts, the oldest surviving building of English origin in New England. Actually, the bus (run by a Mr A. Johnson) was going to the Red Horse Tavern in Sudbury (site of Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn), and it was Lovecraft who suggested the detour to Johnson. Aside from wings added in 1641 and 1648, the Fairbanks house had undergone no alterations whatever since its first construction; and it so struck Lovecraft (who wrote a short, charming essay about his journey, “An Account of a Trip to the Antient Fairbanks House, in Dedham, and to the Red Horse Tavern in Sudbury, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay”) that

  For once I forgot my periwigg’d membership in the rational eighteenth century, and allow’d my self to be ingulph’d by the sinister sorcery of the dark seventeenth. Verily, th
is was the most poignantly imagination-stirring house I had ever seen. . . . I cou’d hear the sound of the builder’s axe in the nighted woods three hundred years ago, when King Charles the First, still unmartyr’d by Roundhead treason, sate on the throne, and the lone, questing canoe of Roger Williams and his companions dug its prow into the sand of Moshassuck’s pathless shoar, not four squares downhill from the spot where I am now seated.

  Again I must emphasise the keenness of perception and imagination that allows Lovecraft to drink in such sites and weave such striking fancies around them. Is it any wonder that so many details of his travels found their way into his later fiction? The Red Horse Tavern (1683 et seq.) was also pleasing (it was then owned by Henry Ford, “a very respectable coach-maker”), but not nearly as stimulating as the hoary Fairbanks house.

  On August 13 the Longs drove through Providence on their way to Cape Cod and picked up Lovecraft to accompany them. New Bedford was explored that day, and Lovecraft found the Whaling Museum—housed on the bark Lagoda—tremendously stirring. The next day they reached Onset, on the Cape, where they presumably stayed in a hotel or lodge; later that day they explored other towns in the vicinity—Chatham, Orleans, Hyannis, Sandwich. Lovecraft did not find the Cape very rich in colonial antiquities or even as “picturesque as its popular reputation would argue,”[65] but it was pleasing enough, especially in light of the fact that he was getting free room and board with the Longs. The next day’s explorations included Wood’s Hole, Sagamore, and Falmouth.

  But the best part of the journey for Lovecraft was on the 17th, when he took his first ride in an airplane. It was only $3.00, and would fly passengers all over Buzzard’s Bay. It proved no disappointment: “The landscape effect was that of a bird’s eye view map—& the scene was such as to lend itself to this inspection with maximum advantage. . . . This aeroplane ride (which attained a pretty good height at its maximum) adds a finishing touch to the perfection of the present outing.”[66] For someone with so cosmic an imagination as Lovecraft, it is scarcely to be wondered that a ride in an airplane—the only time he was actually off the surface of the earth—would be a powerful imaginative stimulus; and only poverty prevented his ever repeating the experience.

  One more trip occurred on August 29. Lovecraft and Annie Gamwell took yet another sojourn to the ancestral Foster region, renewing their acquaintances of three years earlier and extending their explorations still further. This time they investigated the area called Howard Hill, where Asaph Phillips had built his homestead in 1790. They met several people who recalled Whipple Phillips and Robie Place, saw old Phillips gravestones, and consulted genealogical records that helped Lovecraft fill in details of his ancestry. Later they returned to Moosup Valley, the site of their 1926 trip, and again Lovecraft was charmed at the unchanged nature of the region: “Here, indeed, was a small and glorious world of the past completely sever’d from the sullying tides of time; a world exactly the same as before the revolution, with absolutely nothing changed in the way of ritual details, currents of folk-feeling, identity of families, or social and economick order.”[67] How unfortunate that such places are now so few!

  This was the extent of Lovecraft’s 1929 travels; but if the mountain would not come to Mohammad, Mohammad would come to the mountain. Several of his friends dropped by in Providence for brief visits—Morton in mid-June, Cook and Munn in late June, and George Kirk and his wife in early September.[68] Lovecraft himself had become a Mecca for the many friends and correspondents—in amateurdom, weird fiction, and other realms—he had developed over a lifetime.

  In early July Lovecraft was forced to wrestle with the revision of another story by Adolphe de Castro, since, incredibly, de Castro had paid for it in advance.[69] This tale, which in de Castro’s 1893 collection was called “The Automatic Executioner,” was retitled “The Electric Executioner” by Lovecraft. In the course of rewriting it, Lovecraft transformed it into a comic weird tale—not a parody, but a story that actually mingles humour and horror. He repeatedly asserted that these two modes did not mix, and in general I believe he is right; but humour was at least one way of relieving the drudgery of working on a tale that had little enough potential to start with.

  An unnamed narrator is asked by the president of his company to track down a man named Feldon who has disappeared with some papers in Mexico. Boarding a train, the man later finds that he is alone in a car with one other occupant, who proves to be a dangerous maniac. This person has apparently devised an hoodlike instrument for performing executions and wishes the narrator to be the first experimental victim. Realising that he cannot overwhelm the man by force, the narrator seeks to delay the experiment until the train reaches the next station, Mexico City. He first asks to be allowed to write a letter disposing of his effects; then he asserts that he has newspaper friends in Sacramento who would be interested in publicising the invention; and finally he says that he would like to make a sketch of the thing in operation—why doesn’t the man put it on his own head so that it can be drawn? The madman does so; but then the narrator, having earlier perceived that the madman has an attraction for Aztec mythology, pretends to be possessed by religious fervour and begins shouting Aztec and other names at random as a further stalling tactic. The madman does so also, and in the process his device pulls taut over his neck and executes him; the narrator faints. When revived, the narrator finds that the madman is no longer in the car, although a crowd of people is there; he is informed that in fact no one was ever in the car. Later Feldon is discovered dead in a remote cave—with certain objects unquestionably belonging to the narrator.

  In de Castro’s stilted and lifeless prose, this tale comes off as unintentionally funny; Lovecraft makes it consciously so. In so doing, he makes several in-jokes. Part of the characterisation of the madman is drawn from a rather more harmless person Lovecraft met on the train ride from New York to Washington on his recent journey—a German who kept repeating “Efferythingk iss luffly!,” “I vass shoost leddingk my light shine!” and other random utterances.[70] The madman in “The Electric Executioner” does in fact say at one point, “I shall let my light shine, as it were.” Later, in the course of uttering the names of various Aztec gods, the narrator cries out: “Ya-R’lyeh! Ya-R’lyeh! . . . Cthulhutl fhtaghn! Niguratl-Yig! Yog-Sototl—” The spelling variants are intentional, as Lovecraft wished to give an Aztec cast to the names so as to suggest they were part of that culture’s theology. Otherwise, Lovecraft has followed de Castro’s plot far more faithfully than in “The Last Test”—retaining character names, the basic sequence of incidents, and even the final supernatural twist (although sensibly suggesting that it was Feldon’s astral body, not the narrator’s, that was in the car). He has, of course, fleshed out the plot considerably, adding better motivation and livelier descriptive and narrative touches. The tale is not an entire failure.

  I do not know how much Lovecraft got paid for “The Electric Executioner,” but it landed with Weird Tales and appeared in the August 1930 issue. Predictably, readers began noticing the dropping of invented names in both this and the earlier de Castro revision; N. J. O’Neail queried in the March 1930 issue about the origin of Yog-Sothoth, saying that “Mr. Lovecraft links the latter with Cthulhu in ‘The Dunwich Horror’ and Adolphe de Castro also refers to Yog-Sothoth in ‘The Last Test.’” Lovecraft, both tickled and mortified at the deception, wrote to Robert E. Howard: “I ought, though, to write Mr. O’Neail and disabuse him of the idea that there is a large blind spot in his mythological erudition!”[71]

  At some subsequent period Lovecraft revised a third tale for de Castro. He remarked in late 1930: “. . . I did accidentally land . . . three tales of Old Dolph’s,”[72] and later declared: “I’ve also put Yog-Sothoth and Tsathoggua in yarns ghost-written for Adolphe de Castro . . .”[73] As Robert M. Price has noted,[74] these statements imply two things: 1) that Lovecraft actually sold (not merely revised) three stories, and that the third story makes at least passing mention of Tsathoggua, si
nce the two known stories do not. A consultation of periodical indexes in both the general and weird/fantasy/science fiction fields has not turned up any other published tale by de Castro in this period, leading one to believe that the story may have been sold to some periodical (not Weird Tales, clearly) that folded before the tale could be printed. I do not believe we have lost any masterwork of literature as a result.

  In the fall of 1929 Lovecraft and Derleth engaged in a debate over the best weird stories ever written. This may have been part of the honours thesis Derleth was writing (“The Weird Tale in English Since 1890,” completed in 1930 and published in W. Paul Cook’s late amateur journal, the Ghost, for May 1945), but whatever the case, the discussion ended up having an unexpectedly wider audience. In a letter of October 6 Lovecraft evaluated the ten or twelve stories Derleth had selected as his list of “bests,” agreeing with some and disagreeing with others (Derleth had already by this time gained his idolatrous fondness for “The Outsider”). Shortly thereafter Frank Long insinuated himself in the controversy. In the middle of November Lovecraft wrote to Derleth:

  The other day the literary editor of the local Journal had a discussion in his daily column about the weirdest story ever written—& his choices were so commonplace that I couldn’t resist writing him myself & enclosing transcripts (with my own tales omitted) of your & Belknap’s lists of best horror tales. He wrote back asking permission to discuss the matter publicly in his column, mentioning you, Belknap, & myself by name—& I have told him he may do so.[75]

  This refers to Bertrand Kelton Hart, who signed himself B. K. Hart and wrote a column called “The Sideshow” that ran daily (except for Sundays) in the Providence Journal, devoted largely but not exclusively to literary matters. In the course of several columns Hart transcribed lists of best weird tales by all three participants; Lovecraft’s (published in the issue for November 23) is as follows:

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