I am providence the life.., p.112

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 112


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

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  One of the things Lovecraft may have done for Anne Tillery Renshaw is an essay entitled “Notes on ‘Alias Peter Marchall’ by A. F. Lorenz.” This undated essay dissects some beginner’s story (a melodrama involving the difficulties of two people in achieving true love) and subjects it to searching analysis. In particular, Lovecraft is keen on the would-be author’s eliminating elements of “artificiality and stereotyped convention” in his work (an entire litany follows: typical “society” atmosphere; typical adolescent romance; etc.); Lovecraft then concludes:

  The way to get rid of them all is to cast aside the idea of drawing material from one’s light fictional reading, and to subject every incident in the tale to the acid test of what ordinarily happens in actual life. No author can be ignorant of the prosaic daily life around him. . . . It is from this kind of knowledge, and not from one’s recollection of novels and magazine tales, that the material for sound fiction must be drawn.

  Much of this sounds like a refinement of Lovecraft’s old “Department of Public Criticism” screeds; but now, having himself become a practising fiction writer, he can speak from experience. How he justified his brand of weird fiction when, by necessity, some or much of it cannot be said to constitute “what ordinarily happens in actual life,” can be reserved for a later discussion.

  Lovecraft’s travels for the spring–summer of 1930 began in late April. Charleston, South Carolina, was his goal, and he seems to have shot down to the South with scarcely a stop along the route—not even in New York, if the absence of postcards or letters from there is any indication. He reported being in Richmond on the afternoon of April 27 and spending a night in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. April 28 found him in Columbia, South Carolina, sitting in Capitol Park and, in spite of the fact that the town was “not colonial but rather ante-bellum,” being utterly charmed by the southern atmosphere—even the countryside he saw along the way, which in spite of being “weirdly ugly & repellent” featured villages that were “ineffably quaint & backward.”[105] Of course, he saw these things merely from the window of the bus.

  But this was only a foretaste of the real pleasures to come. Later on the 28th Lovecraft caught another bus that took him directly to Charleston. Strangely enough, there are no extant letters to Lillian until May 6; but a postcard written to Derleth on April 29 may give some inkling of Lovecraft’s sentiments:

  Revelling in the most marvellously fascinating environment—scenically, architecturally, historically, & climatically—that I’ve ever encountered in my life! I can’t begin to convey any idea of it except by exclamation points—I’d move here in a second if my sentimental attachment to New England were less strong. . . . Will stay here as long as my cash holds out, even if I have to cut all the rest of my contemplated trip.[106]

  Lovecraft remained in Charleston until May 9, seeing everything there was to see; and there certainly was much to see. Charleston remains today one of the most well-preserved colonial oases on the eastern seaboard—thanks, of course, to a vigorous restoration and preservation movement that makes it today even more attractive than it was in Lovecraft’s day, when some of the colonial remains were in a state of dilapidation. Nearly everything that Lovecraft describes in his lengthy travelogue, “An Account of Charleston” (1930), survives, with rare exceptions. As with Providence’s “Brick Row,” a series of old warehouses along East Bay Street are gone, replaced with a series of children’s playgrounds; the Charleston Orphan House (1792) on Calhoun Street has been torn down, the site now occupied by the administration building of the College of Charleston; the site of the Old Quaker Meeting House on King Street (burned in the fire of 1861) is now occupied by the Charleston County Parking Garage (!); and so on. Of more recent sites, the YMCA on George Street, where Lovecraft no doubt stayed, is gone, as is the Timrod Inn on Meeting Street; the Francis Marion Hotel on Marion Square, opened in 1924, was renovated in the 1990s and is now a choice and expensive establishment.

  In his travelogue Lovecraft, aside from supplying a detailed history of the town (including digressions on Charleston architecture, gardens, wrought-iron work, and the piquant cries of street vendors, mostly black), lays down a systematic walking tour—which he optimistically states can be covered in a single day (I did so, although it took me about seven hours and several rest-stops)—which covers all the prominent antiquities of Charleston (i.e., houses and structures up to the Civil War) with a minimum of backtracking. The tour leaves out some fairly picturesque sections that are not colonial (the western end of South Battery, for example), as well as outlying areas such as Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, the Citadel, and the like, although Lovecraft probably explored these himself. He recognised that the heart of colonial Charleston is the relatively small area south of Broad Street between Legare and East Bay, including such exquisite thoroughfares as Tradd, Church, Water, and the like; the alleys in this section—Bedon’s Alley, Stolls Alley, Longitude Lane, St. Michael’s Alley—are worth a study all their own. Progressing northward, the section between Broad and Calhoun becomes increasingly post-Revolutionary and antebellum in architecture, although the town’s centre of government and business still remains the critical intersection of Broad and Meeting. North of Calhoun there is scarcely anything of antiquarian interest. Needless to say, even in the colonial or semi-colonial areas there have been some invasions of modernity: King Street between Hasell and Broad is now almost entirely made up of antique shops and various yuppie emporia; Meeting Street north of Broad has any number of hotels and inns catering to the tourist trade; and the northern stretches of East Bay are also drearily yuppified. But even the recent Charleston structures are in relative harmony with the colonial atmosphere, and I saw few freakishly modern specimens.

  Some of the dates Lovecraft gives in his travelogue for the construction of houses, buildings, and churches are considerably in error, although perhaps this is due to more thorough antiquarian research in the past sixty years. Lovecraft’s main guidebook, as mentioned in his travelogue, is Street Strolls around Charleston, South Carolina by Miriam Bellangee Wilson (1930), which does not seem an especially authoritative source. Many of the structures cherished by Lovecraft are actually older than he believed, a fact he would certainly have welcomed.

  Charleston is very much a southern Providence: the streets may be lined with palmettos, but the houses themselves are almost exactly of the sort to be found on College Hill, and in many places are even more opulent. This fact alone perhaps accounts for part of Lovecraft’s fascination with the place—it was new to him, and yet its architecture and general ambiance were of the kind he had known all his life. But there is more to it than that. In Charleston (so Lovecraft, at any rate, liked to believe) there is a continuity from the past: the city is not merely a fossilised museum, like Salem or even Newport, but a thriving, bustling centre of commerce and society. Lovecraft stresses this point over and over again in his travelogue:

  . . . Charleston is still Charleston, and the culture we know and respect is not dead there. . . . The original families still hold sway—Rhetts, Izards, Pringles, Bulls, Hugers, Ravenels, Manigaults, Draytons, Stoneys, Rutledges, and so on—and still uphold the basic truths and values of a civilisation which is genuine because it represents a settled adjustment betwixt people and landscape . . . Business is not dehumanised by speed and time-tabling, or denuded of courtesy and leisureliness. Quality, not quantity, is the standard, and there is as yet scant use for the modern fetish of “maximum returns” to be obtain’d even at the sacrifice of everything which makes those returns worth having, or life itself worth preserving. . . . The more one observes of Charleston, the more impress’d is he that he is looking upon the only thoroughly civilised city now remaining in the United States.

  If that last sentence seems surprising to one whose fondness for his native city was so ardent, it cannot be attributed merely to Lovecraft’s initial enthusiasm of the discovery of so charming a place; he would continue to repeat it in later years, a
nd on every trip to the South he would make sure to spend at least a few days in Charleston, however slim his purse. He wanted to move there, and might have done so if his attachment to the scenes of his childhood were not so great.

  On May 9 Lovecraft reluctantly left Charleston and proceeded to Richmond, where he remained for about ten days. In a library he had managed to find Mary C. Phillips’s Edgar Allan Poe, the Man (1926), which, though overshadowed by Hervey Allen’s Israfel, had a considerable amount of background information on Poe sites in Richmond. Lovecraft thereupon systematically tracked these down, as well as revisiting the Poe Shrine he had seen the year before.

  On the 13th he took an excursion to Petersburg, a town about fifteen miles south of Richmond full of colonial antiquities. Although finding it very provoking that the town was so indifferent to its historic landmarks that it had no guidebook or even a city map, he managed to do much pedestrian exploration, aided by two old men “of considerable information & loquacious bent.”[107] He also went on a tour of the site of the Battle of Petersburg (the culmination, on April 2, 1865, of the siege of Petersburg that had begun in mid-June 1864 and which made inevitable the Confederacy’s surrender a week later), guided by an eighty-year-old Confederate veteran who had enlisted at the age of fourteen. Returning late in the afternoon to Richmond, he took in a performance of Sheridan’s The Rivals at the Lyric Theatre. He knew the play so well from memory that he could detect the two cuts made in the original text.

  Lovecraft was learning to cut expenses on the road. Wandrei tells us how he saved on cleaning bills away from home: “He neatly laid out his trousers between the mattresses of his bed in order to renew the crease and press overnight. He detached the collar from his shirt, washed it, smoothed it between the folds of a hand towel, and weighted it with the Gideon Bible, thus preparing a fresh collar for the morning.”[108] So the Gideon Bible had some use for Lovecraft after all! He was now becoming an amateur self-barber, using a “patent hair-cutter”[109] he had picked up—no doubt a sort of trimmer.

  On May 15 Lovecraft stumbled upon Maymont Park in Richmond, which sent him into rhapsodies. Declaring it to be superior even to the exquisite Japanese garden in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and saying that it is “Poe’s ‘Domain of Arnheim’ and ‘Island of the Fay’ all rolled into one . . . with mine own ‘Gardens of Yin’ [sonnet XVIII of Fungi from Yuggoth] added for good measure,”[110] Lovecraft went on:

  You are no doubt sensible . . . that to me the quality of utter, perfect beauty assumes two supreme incarnations or adumbrations: one, the sight of mystical city towers and roofs outlined against a sunset and glimps’d from a fairly distant balustraded terrace; and the other, the experience of walking (or, as in most of my dreams, aerially floating) thro’ aetherial and enchanted gardens of exotick delicacy and opulence, with carved stone bridges, labyrinthine walks, marble fountains, terraces and staircases, strange pagodas, hillside grottos, curious statues, termini, sundials, benches, basins, and lanthorns, lily’d pools of swans and streams with tiers of waterfalls, spreading gingko-trees and drooping feathery willows, and sun-touched flowers of a bizarre, Klarkash-Tonic pattern never beheld on sea or land. . . .

  Well, by god, Sir, call me an aged liar or not—I vow I have actually found the garden of my earliest dreams—and in no other city than Richmond, home of my beloved Poe!

  This makes one think of what Lovecraft had said a few years ago to Donald Wandrei in justification of his constant and tireless antiquarian travels:

  Sometimes I stumble accidentally on rare combinations of slope, curved street-line, roofs & gables & chimneys, & accessory details of verdure & background, which in the magic of late afternoon assume a mystic majesty & exotic significance beyond the power of words to describe. Absolutely nothing else in life now has the power to move me so much; for in these momentary vistas there seem to open before me bewildering avenues to all the wonders & lovelinesses I have ever sought, & to all those gardens of eld whose memory trembles just beyond the rim of conscious recollection, yet close enough to lend to life all the significance it possesses. All that I live for is to recapture some fragment of this hidden & just unreachable beauty . . .[111]

  For a few moments, at least, in Maymont Park Lovecraft had found the garden of his dreams.

  In Richmond he did most of the work on another ghost job for Zealia Bishop, although it seems not to have been finished until August.[112] She surely contributed as much (or as little) to this one as to the previous two; but in this case one is more regretful of the fact, for it means that the many flaws and absurdities in the tale must be placed solely or largely at Lovecraft’s door. “Medusa’s Coil” is as confused, bombastic, and just plain silly a work as anything in Lovecraft’s entire corpus. Like some of his early tales, it is ruined by a woeful excess of supernaturalism that produces complete chaos at the end, as well as a lack of subtlety in characterisation that (as in “The Last Test”) cripples a tale based fundamentally on a conflict of characters.

  The story tells of a young man, Denis de Russy, who falls in love with a mysterious Frenchwoman, Marceline Bedard, marries her, and brings her back to his family estate in Missouri. It transpires that Marceline is some sort of ancient entity whose hair is animate, and she ultimately brings death and destruction upon all persons concerned—Denis, his father (the narrator of the bulk of the story), the painter Frank Marsh (who tries to warn Denis of the true horror of his wife), and herself. But for Lovecraft, the real climax—the horror that surpasses all the other horrors of the tale—is the revelation that Marceline was, “though in deceitfully slight proportion . . . a negress.” As if this fatuous racism were not a bad enough ending, this proves not in fact to be the end—for it is later found that the mansion was destroyed many years ago, forcing the narrator (and the reader) to believe that it had somehow supernaturally reappeared solely to torment the hapless traveller.

  The overriding problem with this tale—beyond the luridly pulpish plot—is that the characters are so wooden and stereotyped that they never come to life. Lovecraft well knew that he had both a limited understanding of and limited interest in human beings. He contrived his own fiction such that the human figures were by no means the focus of action; but in a revision—where, presumably, he had to follow at least the skeleton of the plot provided by his client—he was not always able to evade the need for vivid characterisation, and it is precisely those revisions where such characterisation is absent that rank the poorest. Notes for the story survive, which include both a plot outline and a “Manner of Narration” (a synopsis of events in order of narration); and here too it is made clear that the final racist revelation—“woman revealed as vampire, lamia, &c. &c.—& unmistakably (surprise to reader as in original tale) a negress”[113]—is meant to be the culminating horror of the tale. The mention here of an “original tale” may suggest that there was a preexisting draft of some kind by Bishop; but if so, it does not survive.

  It is, certainly, not the tale’s lack of quality that prevented its publication in a pulp market, for much worse stories were published with great regularity; but for whatever reason (and excessive length may again have had something to do with it), “Medusa’s Coil” was rejected by Weird Tales. Later in the year Lovecraft discussed with Long the possibility of sending it to Ghost Stories,[114] but if it was sent there, it was also rejected. It finally appeared in Weird Tales for January 1939. Both “The Mound” and “Medusa’s Coil” were heavily altered and rewritten by Derleth for their magazine appearances, and he continued to reprint the adulterated texts in book form up to his death. The corrected texts did not see print until 1989.

  Back in New York on May 20, Lovecraft was excited to read one interesting piece of forwarded mail—a letter from Clifton P. Fadiman of Simon & Schuster encouraging Lovecraft to submit a novel.[115] Lovecraft immediately responded by saying that, although he might write a novel later (clearly The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was not even considered as a submission), he would like to sub
mit a collection of short stories. A few days later Lovecraft’s enthusiasm waned considerably: he discovered that the letter was merely a mimeographed form-letter sent to everyone who had appeared on the “Honor Roll” of the O’Brien short story annuals; moreover, Fadiman had responded by saying: “I am afraid that you are right in that our interest in a collection of short stories would not be very vivid. I hope, however, that you will buckle down & do that novel you speak of. If it is good, its subject matter will be a help rather than a hindrance.”[116]

  It is interesting to note that mainstream publishers’ now inveterate reluctance to publish weird short story collections was already evident in 1930. Very few American weird writers issued collections at this time, and those that were published were usually reprints of British editions by already established authors like Machen, Dunsany, and Blackwood. The weird novel was, however, flourishing after a fashion in the mainstream press: such things as Francis Brett Young’s Cold Harbour (A. L. Burt, 1925 [British edition 1924]), E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (Albert & Charles Boni, 1926 [British edition 1922]), Leonard Cline’s Dark Chamber (Viking, 1927), Herbert Gorman’s The Place Called Dagon (George H. Doran, 1927), H. B. Drake’s The Shadowy Thing (Macy-Masius, 1928 [British edition 1925]), and several others were all relished by Lovecraft and most were cited in either the original or the revised version of “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” But Lovecraft never did “buckle down” to a novel of this exact kind, and events that occurred about a year later may clarify why.

  In New York Lovecraft also saw the newly opened Nicholas Roerich Museum, then located at 103rd Street and Riverside Drive (now at 317 West 107th Street). Roerich (1874–1947) was a Russian painter who had spent several years in Tibet and become a Buddhist. His paintings of the Himalayas are spectacularly cosmic both in their suggestions of the vast bulk of the mountains and in the vivid and distinctive colours used. His work seems largely unrelated to any of the Western art movements of the period, and its closest analogue is perhaps to Russian folk art. Lovecraft, who went with Long to the museum, was transported: “Neither Belknap nor I had ever been in it before; & when we did see the outré & esoteric nature of its contents, we went virtually wild over the imaginative vistas presented. Surely Roerich is one of those rare fantastic souls who have glimpsed the grotesque, terrible secrets outside space & beyond time, & who have retained some ability to hint at the marvels they have seen.”[117] Roerich was perhaps not a consciously fantastic artist, but in Lovecraft’s mind he took his place with Goya, Gustave Doré, Aubrey Beardsley, S. H. Sime, John Martin (the Romantic painter and illustrator), and (the only questionable selection) Clark Ashton Smith in the gallery of weird art.

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