I am providence the life.., p.113
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 113
Otherwise the two weeks spent in New York included additional museum-going (Metropolitan and Brooklyn) as well as the usual round of catching up on old friendships. One unexpected acquaintance whom Lovecraft met was Hart Crane, who came to Loveman’s apartment on the evening of May 24 when Lovecraft was there. The Bridge had been published that spring, making him “one of the most celebrated & talked-of figures of contemporary American letters.” Lovecraft’s portrait of him is simultaneously admiring and pitying:
When he entered, his discourse was of alcoholics in various phases—& of the correct amount of whiskey one ought to drink in order to speak well in public—but as soon as a bit of poetic & philosophic discussion sprang up, this sordid side of his strange dual personality slipped off like a cloak, & left him as a man of great scholarship, intelligence, & aesthetic taste, who can argue as interestingly & profoundly as anyone I have ever seen. Poor devil—he has “arrived” at last as a standard American poet seriously regarded by all reviewers & critics; yet at the very crest of his fame he is on the verge of psychological, physical, & financial disintegration, & with no certainty of ever having the inspiration to write a major work of literature again. After about three hours of acute & intelligent argument poor Crane left—to hunt up a new supply of whiskey & banish reality for the rest of the night!
Lovecraft was sadly correct in his prediction, for Crane would commit suicide two years later. Lovecraft goes on to say that “‘The Bridge’ really is a thing of astonishing merit”; but I find it difficult to imagine him actually enjoying this extraordinarily opaque if imagistically scintillating epic, even with his “new” views on the nature of poetry. He may well have relished those poignant lines about Poe’s final days:
And when they dragged your retching flesh,
Your trembling hands that night through Baltimore—
That last night on the ballot rounds, did you,
Shaking, did you deny the ticket, Poe?
Around June 2 Lovecraft moved up to Kingston to see Bernard Austin Dwyer for a few days; both host and guest spent much time in the open country, which for Lovecraft must surely have presented a welcome contrast to the metropolitan zone. From here Lovecraft proceeded via the Mohawk Trail (where the bus service was now operating) to Athol for a visit with W. Paul Cook and H. Warner Munn. Because of Cook’s recent breakdown, Lovecraft stayed with Munn in a five-room apartment at 451 Main Street. They made sure to revisit the Bear’s Den as well as some spectral graveyards nearby. A new site was Doane’s Falls, a spectacular waterfall northeast of Athol. Lovecraft reported that another issue of the Recluse “was partly on the press, though it may not appear for another year”; this issue no doubt contained “The Strange High House in the Mist,” and of course it never appeared at all.
Lovecraft’s return home on June 13 or 14 ended another record-breaking sojourn, but it was by no means the end of his year’s travels. In early July he decided to take in the NAPA convention in Boston—only the second national amateur convention he had ever attended, the other being the NAPA convention of 1921. Lovecraft was slowly being drawn back to amateurdom, although it would never be the consuming interest it was in 1914–21. Somehow he managed to persuade himself that the apathy that had killed his UAPA in 1926 was, among the NAPA members, slowly giving way to renewed interest; in his effusive convention report (“The Convention,” Tryout, July 1930) he wrote: “Not a delegate failed to express his keen enjoyment; everyone carried away a sense of stimulus and renewed activity which can, with proper encouragement and coöperation, be made to accomplish much in amateurdom.”
The convention took place on July 3, 4, and 5 at the Hotel Statler, but Lovecraft stayed at the (no doubt cheaper) Technology Chambers near the Back Bay station. Many of his old-time colleagues were there—James F. Morton (who was presiding officer at the business sessions), Edward H. Cole, Albert A. Sandusky, Laurie A. Sawyer, and others. Victor E. Bacon (the last UAPA president) was elected President, and Helm C. Spink, a young man of whom Lovecraft thought highly, was elected Official Editor. Lovecraft did not give any speeches, as he had nine years before, but did participate in a leisurely boat ride up the Charles River on the final day of the convention. A large gathering at Laurie A. Sawyer’s house in Allston allowed him to reminisce about old times—perhaps he remembered when he had been there ten years ago, then still a shy, withdrawn recluse scarcely comfortable outside the confines of his own home. How far he had come since then! The next day he took Spink and Edward H. Suhre to Salem and Marblehead, and a little later Spink visited Lovecraft in Providence and went with him on a boat ride to Newport.
In mid-August the Longs invited Lovecraft to stay with them again at Onset on Cape Cod. This time he took the bus to New Bedford, where the Longs picked him up in their car. They had secured a cottage across the street from the one they had occupied the year before; Lovecraft stayed there from the 15th to the 17th before returning home, while the Longs remained for at least two more weeks.
Even this was not the end of Lovecraft’s travels. On August 30 we find him boarding a train north—to Quebec. It would be his first and last time out of the United States, aside from two further visits there in later years. Lovecraft had come upon a remarkably cheap $12.00 excursion fare to Quebec, and he could not pass up the chance to see a place of whose antiquarian marvels he had so long heard. The sight of the Canadian countryside—with its quaint old farmhouses built in the French manner and small rustic villages with picturesque church steeples—was pleasing enough, but as he approached the goal on the train he knew he was about to experience something remarkable. And he did:
Never have I seen another place like it! All my former standards of urban beauty must be abandoned after my sight of Quebec! It hardly belongs to the world of prosaic reality at all—it is a dream of city walls, fortress-crowned cliffs, silver spires, narrow, winding, perpendicular streets, magnificent vistas, & the mellow, leisurely civilisation of an elder world. . . . Horse vehicles still abound, & the atmosphere is altogether of the past. It is a perfectly preserved bit of old royalist France, transplanted to the New World with very little loss of atmosphere.
He stayed only three days, but by keeping constantly on the move saw almost everything there was to see—City Hall Square, Montmorency Park, Notre Dame des Victoires, Chateau Frontenac, the Ursuline Convent, and much more. A side trip to the falls of the Montmorency River capped the visit. Returning to Boston, he took an all-day boat trip to Provincetown and back; that Cape Cod town did not impress him, but the fact of being completely out of the sight of land at one point stirred his fancy.
The travels of 1930 had again surpassed their predecessors and were highlighted by two transcendent sites—Charleston and Quebec. In later years Lovecraft returned to both these havens of antiquity as often as his meagre funds would allow. In the meantime he could at least write about them, both in rapturous letters and postcards to his friends and in formal travelogues; and he did just that. “An Account of Charleston, in His Majty’s Province of South-Carolina,” which I have already discussed, is undated, but was probably written in the fall; and this 20,000-word sketch of the history, architecture, and topography of the old town remains one of the best of his travelogues. This essay is not to be confused with the brochure mimeographed by H. C. Koenig in 1936 as Charleston; for that is nothing more than a long letter to Koenig in which Lovecraft paraphrased and condensed his earlier account, writing it in modern English and leaving out some of the more charmingly idiosyncratic portions. (There is also a four-page manuscript, only recently published, entitled “Account of a Visit to Charleston, S.C.,” giving Lovecraft’s first impressions of the city.) “An Account of Charleston” was not, evidently, even typed by Lovecraft, and it is unlikely that it ever met any other eye.
But Quebec impelled an even more heroic work. In late October Lovecraft wrote to Morton: “. . . I’m trying to devise a Quebeck travelogue of some sort, which you shall behold upon its completion”;
A DESCRIPTION OF THE
QUEBECK, IN New-France,
Lately added to His Britannick Majesty’s Dominions.
It was the longest single work he would ever write. After a very comprehensive history of the region, there is a study of Quebec architecture (with appropriate drawings of distinctive features of roofs, windows, and the like), a detailed hand-drawn map of the principal sites, and a detailed walking tour of both the town itself and “suburban pilgrimages.” That Lovecraft could have absorbed enough of the town in three days to have written even the travelogue portion (the historical section was clearly learned later through much reading) is a sufficient indication of what those three crowded days must have been like.
The Quebec travelogue also lay in manuscript until long after Lovecraft’s death. In spite of Lovecraft’s comment to Morton, it is pretty clear that no one other than its author ever saw it during his lifetime, and it was published only in 1976.
But beginning early in the year and continuing all through the spring, summer, and early autumn, Lovecraft was at work on a document that was actually was designed to be read by the general public: “The Whisperer in Darkness.” Although this would be among the most difficult in its composition of any of his major stories, this 25,000-word novelette—the longest of his fictions up to that time aside from his two “practice” novels—conjures up the hoary grandeur of the New England countryside even more poignantly than any of his previous works, even if it suffers from some flaws of conception and motivation.
The Vermont floods of November 3, 1927, cause great destruction in the rural parts of the state and also engender reports of strange bodies—not recognisably human or animal—floating down the flood-choked rivers. Albert N. Wilmarth, a professor of literature at Miskatonic University with a side interest in folklore, dismisses these accounts as standard myth-making; but then he hears from a reclusive but evidently learned individual in Vermont, Henry Wentworth Akeley, who not only confirms the reports but maintains that there is an entire colony of extraterrestrials dwelling in the region, whose purpose is to mine a metal they cannot find on their own planet (which may be the recently discovered ninth planet of the solar system, called Yuggoth in various occult writings) and also, by means of a complicated mechanical device, to remove the brains of human beings from their bodies and to take them on fantastic cosmic voyagings. Wilmarth is naturally sceptical of Akeley’s tale, but the latter sends him photographs of a hideous black stone with inexplicable hieroglyphs on it along with a phonograph recording he made of some sort of ritual in the woods near his home—a ritual in which both humans and (judging from the highly anomalous buzzing voice) some utterly non-human creatures participated. As their correspondence continues, Wilmarth slowly becomes convinced of the truth of Akeley’s claims—and is both wholly convinced and increasingly alarmed as some of their letters go unaccountably astray and Akeley finds himself embroiled in a battle with guns and dogs as the aliens besiege his house. Then, in a startling reversal, Akeley sends him a reassuring letter stating that he has come to terms with the aliens: he had misinterpreted their motives and now believes that they are merely trying to establish a workable rapport with human beings for mutual benefit. He is reconciled to the prospect of his brain being removed and taken to Yuggoth and beyond, for he will thereby acquire cosmic knowledge made available only to a handful of human beings since the beginning of civilisation. He urges Wilmarth to visit him to discuss the matter, reminding him to bring all the papers and other materials he had sent so that they can be consulted if necessary. Wilmarth agrees, taking a spectral journey into the heart of the Vermont backwoods and meeting with Akeley, who has suffered some inexplicable malady: he can only speak in a whisper, and he is wrapped from head to foot with a blanket except for his face and hands. He tells Wilmarth wondrous tales of travelling faster than the speed of light and of the strange machines in the room used to transport brains through the cosmos. Numbed with astonishment, Wilmarth retires to bed, but hears a disturbing colloquy in Akeley’s room with several of the buzzing voices and other, human voices. But what makes him flee from the place is a very simple thing he sees as he sneaks down to Akeley’s room late at night: “For the things in the chair, perfect to the last, subtle detail of microscopic resemblance—or identity—were the face and hands of Henry Wentworth Akeley.”
Without the necessity of stating it, Lovecraft makes clear the true state of affairs: the last, reassuring letter by “Akeley” was in fact a forgery by the alien entities, written as a means of getting Wilmarth to come up to Vermont with all the evidence of his relations with Akeley; the speaker in the chair was not Akeley—whose brain had already been removed from his body and placed in one of the machines—but one of the aliens, perhaps Nyarlathotep himself, whom they worship. The attempted “rapport” which the aliens claim to desire with human beings is a sham, and they in fact wish to enslave the human race; hence Wilmarth must write his account to warn the world of this lurking menace.
The genesis of the tale is nearly as interesting as the tale itself; Steven J. Mariconda has studied the matter in detail, and in large part I am echoing his conclusions. Lovecraft of course knew of the Vermont floods of 1927, as they were extensively reported in newspapers across the East Coast; he wrote to Derleth: “I shall ask Cook to lend me ‘Uncanny Tales’ if the floods haven’t washed it . . . or him . . . away. The current cataclysm centres quite near him, & I haven’t had any word in over a week.” More generally, the Vermont background of the tale is clearly derived from Lovecraft’s visits of 1927 and 1928; indeed, whole passages of “Vermont—A First Impression” have been bodily inserted into the text, but they have been subtly altered in such a way as to emphasise both the terror and the fascination of the rustic landscape. To choose only one example, consider first a passage from the essay and then the corresponding passage from the story:
The nearness and intimacy of the little domed hills have become almost breath-taking. Their steepness and abruptness hold nothing in common with the humdrum, standardised world we know, and we cannot help feeling that their outlines have some strange and almost-forgotten meaning, like vast hieroglyphs left by a rumoured titan race whose glories live only in rare, deep dreams.
The nearness and intimacy of the dwarfed, domed hills now became veritably breath-taking. Their steepness and abruptness were even greater than I had imagined from hearsay, and suggested nothing in common with the prosaic objective world we know. The dense, unvisited woods on those inaccessible slopes seemed to harbour alien and incredible things, and I felt that the very outline of the hills themselves held some strange and aeon-forgotten meaning, as if they were the vast hieroglyphs left by a rumoured titan race whose glories live only in rare, deep dreams.
Indeed, this very ride into Vermont in a Ford car duplicates the ride Lovecraft took to Orton’s farm in 1928: “We were met [in Brattleboro] with a Ford, owned by a neighbour, & hurried out of all earthly reality amongst the vivid hills & mystic winding roads of a land unchanged for a century.” It should by now by evident that Henry Wentworth Akeley is based in part on the rustic Bert G. Akley whom Lovecraft met on this trip. In fact, the first time Lovecraft heard of this person, he misspelled his name (in a letter to Lillian) as “Akeley”; in the story Lovecraft echoes this error by having the aliens misspell a forged telegram as “Akely.” Akeley’s secluded farmhouse seems to be a commingling of the Orton residence in Brattleboro and Goodenough’s home farther to the north. There is a mention of “The Pendrifter” (the columnist for the Brattleboro Reformer) early in the story, and the later mention of “Lee’s Swamp” is a tip of the hat t
And yet, the actual writing of the tale was very difficult and unusually prolonged. The last page of the autograph manuscript reads: “Begun Providence, R.I., Feby. 24, 1930 / Provisionally finished Charleston, S.C., May 7, 1930 / Polishing completed Providence, R.I., Sept. 26, 1930.” What is remarkable about this is that Lovecraft actually took the text with him on his lengthy travels of the spring and summer—something he had, as far as I know, never done before with a work of fiction. On March 14, before his travels began, he wrote to Long: “I am still stall’d on p. 26 of my new Vermont horror.” But in a postscript to a letter to Morton written the very next day, Lovecraft writes: “Whatcha thinka the NEW PLANET? HOT STUFF!!! It is probably Yuggoth.” This of course refers to Pluto, which C. W. Tombaugh had discovered on January 23 but which was first announced on the front page of the New York Times only on March 14. Lovecraft was tremendously captivated by the discovery: “. . . you have no doubt read reports of the discovery of the new trans-Neptunian planet . . . a thing which excites me more than any other happening of recent times. . . . I have always wished I could live to see such a thing come to light—& here it is! The first real planet to be discovered since 1846, & only the third in the history of the human race!” (What Lovecraft presumably meant by that last remark is that, aside from Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, all the planets in the solar system have been known since the dawn of civilisation.) It is evident that the Yuggoth-element could not have been part of the story’s initial conception, but was only inserted—quite deftly—at an early stage of composition. Yuggoth, of course, had first been coined by Lovecraft in the Fungi from Yuggoth; but the citations there do not absolutely make it clear that it was actually conceived as a planet (“Recognition” [IV]: “But Yuggoth, past the starry voids”; “Star-Winds” [XIV]: “This is the hour when moonstruck poets know / What fungi sprout on Yuggoth”). But Lovecraft’s comment in the letter to Morton (“It is probably Yuggoth”) perhaps suggests that Yuggoth had already been conceived as the solar system’s ninth planet.
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