I am providence the life.., p.111
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 111
And paint with life the shapes which linger still
From centuries less a dream than this we know.
In that strange light I feel I am not far
From the fixt mass whose sides the ages are.
In one compact poem Lovecraft’s antiquarianism, cosmicism, love of the weird, and his attachment to his native land are all fused into a unity. It is his most condensed, and most poignant, autobiographical statement.
Those who argue for the “unity” of the Fungi must take account of the somewhat odd manner in which it achieved its present state. “Recapture” (now sonnet XXXIV) was written in late November, presumably as a separate poem. For years after it was written, the Fungi comprised only thirty-five sonnets. When R. H. Barlow considered publishing it as a booklet, he suggested that “Recpature” be added to the cycle; but when he rather casually tacked it on at the end of a typescript he was preparing, Lovecraft felt that it should be placed third from the end: “‘Recapture’ seems somehow more specific & localised in spirit than either of the others named, hence would go better before them—allowing the Fungi to come to a close with more diffusive ideas.” To my mind, this suggests no more than that Lovecraft had some rough idea that the cycle ought to be read in sequence and ought to end with a more general utterance. And yet, shortly after finishing the series he was still mentioning casually the possibility of “grind[ing] out a dozen or so more before I consider the sequence concluded.”
Certainly, Lovecraft had no compunction in allowing the individual sonnets of the Fungi to appear quite randomly in the widest array of publications. Eleven sonnets (IX, XIII, XIV, XV, XIX, XXI, XXII, XXIII, XXVII, XXXII, XXXIV) appeared in Weird Tales in 1930–31 (only ten appeared under the specific heading Fungi from Yuggoth, since “Recapture” had been accepted earlier and appeared separately); five more (XI, XX, XXIX, XXX, XXXI) appeared in the Providence Journal in the early months of 1930; nine (IV, VI, VII, VIII, XII, XVI, XVIII, XXIV, XXVI) appeared in Walter J. Coates’s Driftwind from 1930 to 1932; the remainder appeared later in amateur journals or fan magazines, and after Lovecraft’s death many more were printed in Weird Tales. “Expectancy” (XXVIII) was the only poem never to be periodically published in or just after Lovecraft’s lifetime; and the cycle as a unit was not published until 1943.
As a whole, the Fungi from Yuggoth constitutes the summit of Lovecraft’s weird verse. It is a compressed transcription of many of the themes, images, and conceptions that most frequently and obsessively haunted his imagination, and their expression in a relatively simple, non-archaic, but highly condensed and piquant diction (with such novel and stirring compounds as “dream-transient,” “storm-crazed,” and “dream-plagued”) represent Lovecraft’s triumphant if belated declaration of independence from the deadening influence of eighteenth-century verse. They perhaps do not precisely conform either to the Italian or Shakespearean sonnet form (which may account for Lovecraft’s frequent reference to them as “pseudo-sonnets”); but they are orthodox enough in metre to be an implied rebuke to those poets who had too readily given up standard metre for the supposed liberation of free verse. It is a shame that none of his illustrious contemporaries ever saw them.
Shortly after finishing the Fungi Lovecraft was jolted to hear of the death of Everett McNeil, which had occurred on December 14, 1929 but news of which did not get out until well into the next month. Lovecraft wrote a paean to him in various letters—a paean that brought back all the memories of his own New York experience:
When Sonny [Frank Long] and I first met him, in 1922, his affairs were at their lowest ebb, and he dwelt in the frightful slum of Hell’s Kitchen . . . High in a squalid tenement house amidst this welter lived good old Mac—his little flat an oasis of neatness and wholesomeness with its quaint, homely pictures, rows of simple books, and curious mechanical devices which his ingenuity concocted to aid his work—lap boards, files, etc., etc. He lived on meagre rations of canned soup and crackers, and did not whimper at his lot. . . . He had suffered a lot in his day—and at one time had nothing to eat but the sugar which he could pick up free at lunch rooms and dissolve in water for the sake of its nourishment. . . . I shall always associate him with the great grey glamorous stretches of sedgy flat lands in Southern Brooklyn—salt marshes with inlets, like the Holland coast, and dotted with lonely Dutch cottages with curving roof-lines. All gone now—like Mac . . .
Perhaps, Lovecraft felt, he had been all too close to being reduced to Mac’s state before he fled for the peace and safety of Providence.
Somewhat more positive news had emerged at the very beginning of January: the critic William Bolitho had casually worked in a favourable mention of Lovecraft in his column in the New York World for January 4, 1930. The title of this instalment, “Pulp Magazines,” tells the whole story: Bolitho was asserting that these humble organs of literature can provide not merely greater pleasure but sometimes even greater literary substance than more prestigious literary venues. Bolitho concludes:
In this world there are chiefs, evidently. I am inclined to think they must be pretty good. There is Otis Adelbert Kline and H. P. Lovecraft, whom I am sure I would rather read than many fashionable lady novelists they give teas to; and poets too. Meditate on that, you who are tired of the strained prettiness of the verse in the great periodicals, that there are still poets here of the pure Poe school who sell and are printed for a vast public.
Lovecraft was aware of this remark—he could hardly fail to be, as Bolitho’s entire column was reprinted in Weird Tales for April 1930—and on one occasion expressed mortification at the linkage to Kline: “Another recent thing which rather tickled me was a favourable mention of my tales in William Bolitho’s column in the N. Y. World—although it was spoiled by the coupling of my name with that of the amiable hack Otis Adelbert Kline!”
It had been more than a year since Lovecraft had written any original fiction; and that tale—“The Dunwich Horror”—was itself written after more than a year’s interval since its predecessor, “The Colour out of Space.” Revision, travel, and inevitably correspondence ate up all the time Lovecraft might have had for fiction, for he stated repeatedly that he required a completely free schedule to achieve the mental clarity needed for writing stories. Now, however, at the end of 1929, a revision job came up that allowed him to exercise his fictional pen far beyond what he expected—and, frankly, beyond what was required by the job in question. But however prodigal Lovecraft may have been in the task, the result—“The Mound,” ghostwritten for Zealia Bishop—was well worth the effort.
Of this story it is difficult to speak in small compass. It is itself, at 25,000 words, the lengthiest of Lovecraft’s revisions of a weird tale and is comparable in length to “The Whisperer in Darkness.” That it is entirely the work of Lovecraft can be gauged by Bishop’s original plot-germ, as recorded by R. H. Barlow: “There is an Indian mound near here, which is haunted by a headless ghost. Sometimes it is a woman.” Lovecraft found this idea “insufferably tame & flat” and fabricated an entire novelette of underground horror, incorporating many conceptions of his evolving myth-cycle, including Cthulhu (under the variant form Tulu).
“The Mound” concerns a member of Coronado’s expedition of 1541, Panfilo de Zamacona y Nuñez, who leaves the main group and conducts a solitary expedition to the mound region of what is now Oklahoma. There he hears tales of an underground realm of fabulous antiquity and (more to his interest) great wealth, and finds an Indian who will lead him to one of the few remaining entrances to this realm, although the Indian refuses to accompany him on the actual journey. Zamacona comes upon the civilisation of Xinaian (which he pronounces “K’n-yan”), established by quasi-human creatures who (implausibly) came from outer space. These inhabitants have developed remarkable mental abilities, including telepathy and the power of dematerialisation—the process of dissolving themselves and selected objects around them to their component atoms and recombining them at some other location. Zamacona initially
This skeletonic plot outline cannot begin to convey the textural richness of the story, which—although perhaps not as carefully written as many of Lovecraft’s original works—is successful in depicting vast gulfs of time and in vivifying with a great abundance of detail the underground world of K’n-yan. What should also be evident is that “The Mound” is the first, but by no means the last, of Lovecraft’s tales to utilise an alien civilisation as a transparent metaphor for certain phases of human (and, more specifically, Western) civilisation. Initially, K’n-yan seems a Lovecraftian utopia: the people have conquered old age, have no poverty because of their relatively few numbers and their thorough mastery of technology, use religion only as an aesthetic ornament, practise selective breeding to ensure the vigour of the “ruling type,” and pass the day largely in aesthetic and intellectual activity. Lovecraft makes no secret of the parallels he is drawing to contemporary Western civilisation:
The nation [had] gone through a period of idealistic industrial democracy which gave equal opportunities to all, and thus, by raising the naturally intelligent to power, drained the masses of all their brains and stamina. . . . Physical comfort was ensured by an urban mechanisation of standardised and easily maintained pattern. . . . Literature was all highly individual and analytical. . . . The modern tendency was to feel rather than to think. . . .
Lovecraft even notes that in “bygone eras . . . K’n-yan had held ideas much like those of the classic and renaissance outer world, and had possessed a natural character and art full of what Europeans regard as dignity, kindness, and nobility.” But as Zamacona continues to observe the people, he begins to notice disturbing signs of decadence. Consider the state of literature and art at the time of his arrival:
The dominance of machinery had at one time broken up the growth of normal aesthetics, introducing a lifelessly geometrical tradition fatal to sound expression. This had soon been outgrown, but had left its mark upon all pictorial and decorative attempts; so that except for conventionalised religious designs, there was little depth or feeling in any later work. Archaistic reproductions of earlier work had been found much preferable for general enjoyment.
The similarity of these remarks to those on modern art and architecture as found in “Heritage or Modernism: Common Sense in Art Forms” (1935) is manifest:
They [the modernists] launch new decorative designs of cones and cubes and triangles and segments—wheels and belts, smokestacks and stream-lined sausage moulders—problems in Euclid and nightmares from alcoholic orgies—and tell us that these things are the only authentic symbols of the age in which we live. . . . When a given age has no new natural impulses toward change, is it not better to continue building on the established forms than to concoct grotesque and meaningless novelties out of thin academic theory? Indeed, under certain conditions is not a policy of frank and virile antiquarianism—a healthy, vigorous revival of old forms still justified by their relation to life—infinitely sounder than a feverish mania for the destruction of familiar things and the laboured, freakish, uninspired search for strange shapes which nobody wants and which really mean nothing?
But the problems of K’n-yan spread beyond aesthetics. Science was “falling into decay”; history was “more and more neglected”; and gradually religion was becoming less a matter of aesthetic ritual and more a sort of degraded superstition: “Rationalism degenerated more and more into fanatical and orgiastic superstition . . . and tolerance steadily dissolved into a series of frenzied hatreds, especially toward the outer world.” The narrator concludes: “It is evident that K’n-yan was far along in its decadence—reacting with mixed apathy and hysteria against the standardised and time-tabled life of stultifying regularity which machinery had brought it during its middle period.” How can one fail to recall Lovecraft’s condemnation of the “machine-culture” dominating his own age and its probable outcome?
We shall hear of all sorts of futile reforms and reformers—standardised culture-outlines, synthetic sports and spectacles, professional play-leaders and study-guides, and kindred examples of machine-made uplift and brotherly spirit. And it will amount to just about as much as most reforms do! Meanwhile the tension of boredom and unsatisfied imagination will increase—breaking out with increasing frequency in crimes of morbid perversity and explosive violence.
These dour and sadly accurate reflections point to the fundamental difference between “The Mound” and such later tales as At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow out of Time”: Lovecraft has not yet developed his later political theory of “fascistic socialism” whereby the spreading of economic wealth among the many and the restricting of political power to the few will (to his mind) produce a genuine utopia of useful citizens who work only a few hours a week and spend the rest of their time engaging in wholesome intellectual and aesthetic activity. That pipe-dream only emerged around 1931, as the depression became increasingly severe and forced Lovecraft wholly to renounce both democracy (in which he had never believed) and laissez-faire capitalism. The civilisation of K’n-yan is, perhaps a little surprisingly, said to be “a kind of communistic or semi-anarchical state”; but we have already seen that there is a “ruling type” which had “become highly superior through selective breeding and social evolution,” so that in reality K’n-yan is an aristocracy of intellect where “habit rather than law determin[ed] the daily order of things.” There is no mention of socialism, and the notion that a “period of idealistic industrial democracy” had been “passed through” bespeaks Lovecraft’s hope against hope that mechanisation could somehow be overcome or tamed in order to leave traditional aesthetics and modes of behaviour relatively unscathed. The fact that in the story this proves not to be the case makes one aware that Lovecraft, for a variety of reasons that I shall explore in the next chapter, had become very pessimistic about the ultimate fate of Western culture.
Rich in intellectual substance as “The Mound” is, it is far longer a work than Lovecraft needed to write for this purpose; and this length bode ill for its publication prospects. Weird Tales was on increasingly shaky ground, and Farnsworth Wright had to be careful what he accepted. It is not at all surprising to hear Lovecraft lament in early 1930: “The damned fool has just turned down the story I ‘ghost-wrote’ for my Kansas City client, on the ground that it was too long for single publication, yet structurally unadapted to division. I’m not worrying, because I’ve got my cash; but it does sicken me to watch the caprices of that editorial jackass!” Lovecraft does not say how much he got from Bishop for the work; there may be a certain wish-fulfilment here, for as late as 1934 she still owed him a fair amount of money.
The lingering belief that Frank Belknap Long had some hand in the writing of the story—derived from Zealia Bishop’s declaration that “Long . . . advised and worked with me on that short novel”—has presumably been squelched by Long’s own declaration in 1975 that “I had nothing whatever to do with the writing of The Mound. That brooding, somber, and magnificently atmospheric story is Lovecraftian from the first page to the last.” But since Long does not explain how or why Bishop attributed the work to him (perhaps because he had already forgotten), it may be well to clear up the matter here.
Long was at this time acting as Bishop’s agent. He shared Lovecraft’s disgust over the tale’s rejection: “It was incredibly asinine of him [Wright] to reject The Mound—and on such a flimsy pretext.” Long’s involvement up to this point had, so far as I can tell, extended only to the degree of typing Lovecraft’s handwritten manuscript of the tale, for the typescript seems to come from Long’s typewriter (and there are portions of the text that are garbled or incoher
In addition to enjoyable revision work like “The Mound,” Lovecraft was performing what is likely to have been less congenial revision for his old amateur associate Anne Tillery Renshaw (still teaching at either the high school or college level) and for a new client, Woodburn Harris. Harris (1888–1988) came from Vermont, so may have been referred to Lovecraft by Walter J. Coates; amusingly enough (given Lovecraft’s strict teetotallism), among the work Harris was dumping on Lovecraft was the revision of various broadsides urging the repeal of the 18th Amendment! But Harris had clearly gone well beyond the client stage. Lovecraft seemed to warm to this rather poorly educated but earnest rustic, for around this time he wrote to him some of the longest letters of his lifetime—including one in late 1929 that begins with the sensible caveat: “WARNING! Don’t try to read this all at once! I’ve been gradually writing it for a week, & it comes to just 70 pages—being, so far as I recall, the longest letter I have written in a lifetime now numbering 39 years, 2 months, & 26 days. Pax vobiscum!” (The 70 pages refer to 35 sheets written on both sides.) Only three letters to Harris survive, although there were probably more; one dates to as late as 1935. Very little is known about Woodburn Harris, but if nothing else he inspired some of the most intellectually challenging of Lovecraft’s epistles.
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