I am providence the life.., p.114

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 114


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

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  But the story underwent significant revisions after it was “provisionally finished” in Charleston. Lovecraft first took it to New York, where he read it to Frank Long. In a 1944 memoir, Long speaks of the matter; although some parts of his account are clearly erroneous, there is perhaps a kernel of truth in his recollection of one point: “Howard’s voice becoming suddenly sepulchral: ‘And from the box a tortured voice spoke: “Go while there is still time—”’”[131] But then he went up to Kingston to visit Dwyer, and read the story to him as well. Lovecraft thereafter writes to Derleth:

  My “Whisperer in Darkness” has retrogressed to the constructional stage as a result of some extremely sound & penetrating criticism on Dwyer’s part. I shall not try to tinker with it during the residue of this trip, but shall make it the first item of work on my programme after I get home—which will no doubt be in less than a week now. There will be considerable condensation throughout, & a great deal of subtilisation at the end.[132]

  Lovecraft, of course, did not finish the revision until after his trips to Boston (the NAPA convention), Onset, and Quebec. Nevertheless, it now becomes clear that at least one point on which Dwyer suggested revision is this warning to Akeley (presumably by Akeley’s brain from one of the canisters), which is so obvious that it would dilute the purported “surprise” ending of the story (if indeed the story in this version ended as it did). It also appears that Dwyer recommended that Wilmarth be made a rather less gullible figure, but on this point Lovecraft did not make much headway: although random details were apparently inserted to heighten Wilmarth’s scepticism, especially in regard to the obviously forged final letter by “Akeley,” he still seems very naive in proceeding blithely up to Vermont with all the documentary evidence he has received from Akeley. And yet, Wilmarth exhibits in extreme form something we have seen in many of Lovecraft’s characters: the difficulty in believing that a supernatural or supernormal event has occurred. As a professor of literature he immediately detects the alteration in style and tone in “Akeley’s” last letter: “Word-choice, spelling—all were subtly different. And with my academic sensitiveness to prose style, I could trace profound divergences in his commonest reactions and rhythm-responses.” But he attributes this—not entirely implausibly—to the spectacular alteration in Akeley’s consciousness that has resulted from his “rapport” with the aliens.

  But “The Whisperer in Darkness” suffers from a somewhat more severe flaw, one that we have already seen in “The Dunwich Horror.” Once again, in violation of Lovecraft’s stated wish to discard conventional morality in regard to his extraterrestrials, he has endowed his aliens with common—and rather petty—human flaws and motivations. They are guilty of cheap forgery on two occasions—both in that last letter and in an earlier telegram they had sent under Akeley’s name to prevent Wilmarth from coming prematurely to Vermont; and on that occasion the aliens were so inept as to misspell Akeley’s name, in spite of the fact that, as they themselves maintain, “Their brain-capacity exceeds that of any other surviving life-form.” Their gun-battle with Akeley takes on unintentionally comic overtones, reminiscent of shoot-outs in cheap western movies. When Wilmarth comes to the Akeley farmhouse, they drug his coffee to make him sleep; but he, disliking the taste, does not drink it, hence overhears parts of a colloquy not meant for his ears.

  But whereas such flaws of conception and execution cripple “The Dunwich Horror,” here they are only minor blemishes in an otherwise magnificent tale. “The Whisperer in Darkness” remains a monument in Lovecraft’s work for its throbbingly vital evocation of New England landscape, its air of documentary verisimilitude, its insidiously subtle atmosphere of cumulative horror, and its breathtaking intimations of the cosmic.

  The story occupies a sort of middle ground in terms of Lovecraft’s portrayal of extraterrestrials. So far we have seen aliens regarded as violent but “beyond good and evil” (“The Call of Cthulhu”), as utterly incomprehensible (“The Colour out of Space”), and as conventionally “evil” (“The Dunwich Horror”); “The Whisperer in Darkness” falls somewhere in between, asking us to express great horror at the aliens’ physically outré form and properties (they cannot be photographed by regular cameras), their deceit and trickery, and, preeminently, their plans to remove human brains and take them off the earth in canisters. And yet, on this last point Lovecraft begins to waver a little. Wilmarth, after receiving the forged letter, ruminates: “To shake off the maddening and wearying limitations of time and space and natural law—to be linked with the vast outside—to come close to the nighted and abysmal secrets of the infinite and the ultimate—surely such a thing was worth the risk of one’s life, soul, and sanity!” Such a thing actually sounds rather appealing; and the utterance exactly parallels Lovecraft’s own views as to the function of weird fiction, as expressed in the later essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” (1933): “I choose weird stories because . . . one of my strongest and most persistent wishes [is] to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law.” But Wilmarth cannot sustain his enthusiasm for long. One of the encased brains in Akeley’s room (a human being) tells him: “Do you realise what it means when I say I have been on thirty-seven different celestial bodies—planets, dark stars, and less definable objects—including eight outside our galaxy and two outside the curved cosmos of space and time?” This is a powerfully cosmic conception, and again a rather attractive one; but Wilmarth ultimately backs away in horror: “My scientific zeal had vanished amidst fear and loathing . . .”

  “The Whisperer in Darkness” resembles “The Colour out of Space” more than “The Dunwich Horror” in its tantalising hints of wonders and horrors beyond our ken, especially in such things as the fragmentary transcript of the ritual recorded by Akeley, the almost self-parodic dropping of countless “Mythos” names and terms as contained in one of Akeley’s letters, the muffled colloquy heard at the end by Wilmarth (of which he himself remarks that “even their frightful effect on me was one of suggestion rather than revelation”), and, especially, what the false Akeley tells him about the hidden nature of the cosmos. “Never was a sane man more dangerously close to the arcana of basic entity,” Wilmarth states, but then refuses to do more than tease the reader with some of what he learnt:

  I learned whence Cthulhu first came, and why half the great temporary stars of history had flared forth. I guessed—from hints which made even my informant pause timidly—the secret behind the Magellanic Clouds and globular nebulae, and the black truth veiled by the immemorial allegory of Tao. . . . I started with loathing when told of the monstrous nuclear chaos beyond angled space which the Necronomicon had mercifully cloaked under the name of Azathoth.

  If Lovecraft’s later followers had exercised such restraint, the “Cthulhu Mythos” would not be quite the travesty it became.

  One of the “hints” that Lovecraft never clarified is the possibility that the false Akeley is not merely one of the fungi but is in fact Nyarlathotep himself, whom the aliens worship. The evidence we have comes chiefly from the phonograph recording of the ritual in the woods made by Akeley, in which one of the fungi at one point declares, “To Nyarlathotep, Mighty Messenger, must all things be told. And He shall put on the semblance of men, the waxen mask and the robe that hides, and come down from the world of Seven Suns to mock . . .” This seems a clear allusion to Nyarlathotep disguised with Akeley’s face and hands; but if so, it means that at this time actually is, in bodily form, one of the fungi—especially if, as seems likely, Nyarlathotep is one of the two buzzing voices Wilmarth overhears at the end (the one who “held an unmistakable note of authority”).

  And yet, there are problems with this identification. Nyarlathotep has been regarded by some critics as a shapeshifter, but only because he appears in various stories in widely different forms—as an Egyptian pharaoh in the prose-poem of 1920 and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, here as an extraterrestrial entity,
as the “Black Man” in “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932), and so on; his “avatar” appears as a winged entity in “The Haunter of the Dark” (1935). But if Nyarlathotep was a true shapeshifter, why would he have to don the face and hands of Akeley instead of merely reshaping himself as Akeley? It does not appear as if Lovecraft has entirely thought through the role of Nyarlathotep in this story; and, to my mind, Nyarlathotep never gains a coherent personality in the whole of Lovecraft’s work. This is not entirely a flaw—certainly Lovecraft wished this figure to retain a certain nebulousness and mystery—but it makes life difficult for those who wish to tidy up after him.

  “The Whisperer in Darkness,” being the longest story Lovecraft actually bothered to type and submit to a publisher, brought corresponding proceeds. It was readily accepted by Farnsworth Wright, who paid Lovecraft $350.00 for it—the largest check he had ever received and, indeed, ever would receive for a single work of fiction. Wright planned to run it as a two-part serial; but early in 1931 Weird Tales was forced into bimonthly publication for about half a year, so that the story appeared complete in the August 1931 issue. The initial plan was to alternate Weird Tales with Oriental Stories, but by the summer of 1931 Oriental had already lapsed into a quarterly (it would change its name to Magic Carpet in 1933 and be published for another year) and Weird Tales had resumed monthly publication.

  This three-year period saw Lovecraft write only two original weird tales (the severely flawed “The Dunwich Horror” and the somewhat flawed but otherwise monumental “The Whisperer in Darkness”) along with three revisions for Zealia Bishop: one highly significant (“The Mound”), another fair to middling (“The Curse of Yig”), and one totally forgettable (“Medusa’s Coil”). But to measure Lovecraft solely on his weird output would be an injustice both to the man and the writer. His travels to Vermont, Virginia, Charleston, Quebec, and other antiquarian oases provided much imaginative nourishment, and his accounts of his journeys, both in letters and in travel essays, are among his most heartwarming pieces. His correspondence continued to increase as he gained new acquaintances, and their differing views—as well as his constant absorption of new information and new perspectives through books and through observation of the world around him—allowed him considerably to refine his philosophical thought. By 1930 he had resolved many issues to his satisfaction, and in later years only his political and economic views would undergo extensive revision. It is, then, appropriate to examine his thought before proceeding to the examination of the subsequent literary work based upon it.

  20. Non-Supernatural Cosmic Art


  By the early 1930s Lovecraft had resolved many of the philosophical issues that had concerned him in prior years; in particular, he had come to terms with the Einstein theory and managed to incorporate it into what was still a dominantly materialistic system. In so doing, he evolved a system of thought not unlike that of his later philosophical mentors, Bertrand Russell and George Santayana.

  It appears that Lovecraft first read both these thinkers between 1927 and 1929. My suspicion is that he discovered Russell through reading the Modern Library edition of the Selected Papers of Bertrand Russell (1927), since the first mention I have found of Russell in Lovecraft’s letters (“China of the old tradition was probably as great a civilisation as ours—perhaps greater, as Bertrand Russell thinks”[1]) seems to allude to a chapter in the Selected Papers entitled “Chinese and Western Civilization Contrasted” (from Russell’s The Problem of China [1922]). Lovecraft clearly found Russell’s reliance on science and his secular ethics to his liking, although Russell was far from being an atheist. In 1927 Russell encapsulated his philosophical outlook in terms Lovecraft would have welcomed: “I still believe that the major processes of the universe proceed according to the laws of physics; that they have no reference to our wishes, and are likely to involve the extinction of life on this planet; that there is no good reason for expecting life after death; and that good and evil are ideas which throw no light upon the nonhuman world.”[2]

  Santayana is a more difficult problem. Lovecraft advised Elizabeth Toldridge: “Begin with his Scepticism and Animal Faith, and then proceed to the five-volume Life of Reason.”[3] Did Lovecraft actually read these works? It is probable enough; he must surely have been tickled by Santayana’s charming admission in the preface to the former title: “Now in actual philosophy I am a decided materialist—apparently the only one living.”[4] But what Lovecraft does not seem to have realised—at least in suggesting that one read Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923) prior to The Life of Reason (1905–06)—is that the former work is meant as an introduction to a philosophy (embodied in a series of books called The Realms of Being [1927–40]) that is designed to supplant, or at least radically to qualify, the latter. In any case, Santayana is a notoriously difficult philosopher—not through any use of the prodigiously technical vocabulary and conceptions of logic and epistemology, as with Wittgenstein, but on account of a cloudy and “poetical” use of philosophical—and even ordinary—language that baffles many readers. As John Passmore remarks: “From volumes with such titles as The Realm of Essence and The Realm of Matter the philosopher is entitled to demand a degree of precision appropriate to the subject matter. This he does not get: ‘both in the realm of essence and that of matter,’ Santayana confesses, ‘I give only some initial hints.’ And the hints are certainly dark ones.”[5] Still, I think that Lovecraft either borrowed some central aspects of his later thought from Santayana or (and this is entirely conceivable) arrived independently at views strikingly similar to Santayana’s.

  What Lovecraft had come to realise about the Einstein theory—in particular, its bearing on the three principles of materialism emphasised by Hugh Elliot (the uniformity of law, the denial of teleology, and the denial of substances not envisaged by physics and chemistry)—is that Newtonian laws of physics still work entirely adequately in the immediate universe around us: “The given area isn’t big enough to let relativity get in its major effects—hence we can rely on the never-failing laws of earth to give absolutely reliable results in the nearer heavens.”[6] This allowed Lovecraft to preserve at least the first and third of Elliot’s principles. As for the second:

  The actual cosmos of pattern’d energy, including what we know as matter, is of a contour and nature absolutely impossible of realisation by the human brain; and the more we learn of it the more we perceive this circumstance. All we can say of it, is that it contains no visible central principle so like the physical brains of terrestrial mammals that we may reasonably attribute to it the purely terrestrial and biological phaenomenon call’d conscious purpose; and that we form, even allowing for the most radical conceptions of the relativist, so insignificant and temporary a part of it (whether all space be infinite or curved, and transgalactic distances constant or variable, we know that within the bounds of our stellar system no relativistic circumstance can banish the approximate dimensions we recognise. The relative place of our solar system among the stars is as much a proximate reality as the relative positions of Providence, N.Y., and Chicago) that all notions of special relationships and names and destinies expressed in human conduct must necessarily be vestigial myths.[7]

  This passage reveals how intimately the denial of teleology is, for Lovecraft, connected with the idea of human insignificance: each really entails the other. If human beings are insignificant, there is no reason why some cosmic force (whether we identify it with God or not) should be leading the universe in any given direction for the benefit of humanity; conversely, the evident absence of conscious purpose in the universe at large is one more—and perhaps the most important—indication of the triviality and evanescence of the human species.

  Lovecraft was still more emphatic on the third point (denial of spirit):

  The truth is, that the discovery of matter’s identity with energy—and of its consequent lack of vital intrinsic difference from empty space—is an absolute coup de grace to the primitive
and irresponsible myth of “spirit”. For matter, it appears, really is exactly what “spirit” was always supposed to be. Thus it is proved that wandering energy always has a detectable form—that if it doesn’t take the form of waves or electron-streams, it becomes matter itself; and that the absence of matter or any other detectable energy-form indicates not the presence of spirit, but the absence of anything whatever.[8]

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