I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 118
In terms of the Lovecraft mythos, At the Mountains of Madness makes explicit what has been evident all along—that most of the “gods” of the mythos are mere extraterrestrials, and that their followers (including the authors of the books of occult lore to which reference is so frequently made by Lovecraft and others) are mistaken as to their true nature. Robert M. Price, who first noted this “demythologising” feature in Lovecraft, has in later articles gone on to point out that At the Mountains of Madness does not make any radical break in this pattern, but it does emphasise the point more clearly than elsewhere. The critical passage occurs in the middle of the novel, when Dyer finally acknowledges that the titanic city in which he has been wandering must have been built by the Old Ones: “They were the makers and enslavers of [earth] life, and above all doubt the originals of the fiendish elder myths which things like the Pnakotic Manuscripts and the Necronomicon affrightedly hint about.” The content of the Necronomicon has now been reduced to “myth.” As for the various wars waged by the Old Ones against such creatures as the fungi from Yuggoth (from “The Whisperer in Darkness”) and the Cthulhu spawn (from “The Call of Cthulhu”), it has been pointed out that Lovecraft has not consistently followed his earlier tales in his accounts of their arrival on the earth; but, as I have mentioned earlier, Lovecraft was not concerned with this sort of pedantic accuracy in his mythos, and there are even more flagrant instances of “inconsistency” in later works.
The casually made claim that the novel is a “sequel” to Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym deserves some analysis. In my view, the novel is not a true sequel at all—it picks up on very little of Poe’s enigmatic work except for the cry “Tekeli-li!,” as unexplained in Poe as in Lovecraft—and the various references to Pym throughout the story end up being more in the manner of in-jokes. It is not clear that Pym even influenced the work in any significant way. Lovecraft was, of course, fascinated with Pym, in particular its enigmatic conclusion, in which the protagonists sail deep into the southern hemisphere and near the Antarctic continent; and perhaps At the Mountains of Madness could be regarded as a sort of tongue-in-cheek extrapolation as to what Poe left so tantalisingly unexplained. When Clark Ashton Smith heard from Lovecraft about his plans to write the novel, he replied: “I think your idea for an Antarctic story would be excellent, in spite of ‘Pym’ and subsequent tales.” Jules Zanger has aptly noted that At the Mountains of Madness “is, of course, no completion [of Pym] at all: it might be better described as a parallel text, the two tales coexisting in a shared context of allusion.”
At the Mountains of Madness is not without a few flaws. The wealth of information Dyer and Danforth manage to decipher from bas-reliefs strains credulity, as does the revival of the frozen Old Ones after millennia spent in some sort of cryogenic suspended animation. But the impressive scientific erudition in the novel, its breathtakingly cosmic sweep as it portrays millions of years of this planet’s prehistory, and the harrowingly gripping conclusion with the emergence of the shoggoth—perhaps the most frightening moment in all Lovecraft, if not in all horror literature—cause this work to stand at the very pinnacle of Lovecraft’s fictional achievement, even higher than “The Colour out of Space.”
The fate of At the Mountains of Madness in print was very unfortunate. Lovecraft declared that the short novel was “capable of a major serial division in the exact middle” (meaning, presumably, after Chapter VI), leading one to think that he could envision the work as a two-part serial in Weird Tales—which is not to say that he composed the work with that eventuality in mind. But, although he delayed his spring travels till early May while undertaking what was for him the herculean task of typing the text (it came to 115 pages), he was shattered to learn in mid-June of the rejection of the tale by Farnsworth Wright. Lovecraft wrote bitterly in early August:
Yes—Wright “explained” his rejection of the “Mountains of Madness” in almost the same language as that with which he “explained” other recent rejections to Long & Derleth. It was “too long”, “not easily divisible into parts”, “not convincing”—& so on. Just what he has said of other things of mine (except for length)—some of which he has ultimately accepted after many hesitations.
It was not only Wright’s adverse reaction that affected Lovecraft; several colleagues to whom he had circulated the text also seemed less than enthusiastic. One of the unkindest cuts of all may have come from W. Paul Cook, the very man who had chiefly been responsible for Lovecraft’s resumption of weird fiction in 1917. In 1932 Lovecraft made a passing comment on the several factors that had caused him to be severely discouraged about his work, one of which was “Cook’s poor opinion of my recent things”; and Cook, both in his memoir and in later articles, made it very clear that he did not care at all for Lovecraft’s later pseudo-scientific narratives, so that At the Mountains of Madness must clearly have been in Lovecraft’s mind here.
There are several questions to be dealt with in this whole matter. First, let us consider whether Wright was justified in rejecting the tale. In later years Lovecraft frequently complained that Wright would accept long and mediocre serials by Otis Adelbert Kline, Edmond Hamilton, and other clearly inferior writers while rejecting his own lengthy work; but some defence of Wright might perhaps be made. The serials in Weird Tales may indeed have been, from an abstract literary perspective, mediocre; but Wright knew that they were critical in compelling readers to continue buying the magazine. As a result, they were by and large geared toward the lowest level of the readership, full of sensationalised action, readily identifiable human characters, and a simple (if not simple-minded) prose style. At the Mountains of Madness could not be said to have any of these characteristics: it was slow-moving, atmospheric, densely written, and with characters who were by design bland and colourless so as to serve as conduits for the reader’s perception of the bleak Antarctic waste and the horrors that lay within it. Some of Wright’s cavils, as recorded by Lovecraft, were indeed unjust; in particular, the comment “not convincing” cannot possibly be said to apply to this work. But Lovecraft himself knew that Wright had come to use this phrase as a sort of rubber-stamp whenever he was looking for an excuse to reject a work.
The strange thing is Lovecraft knew well that Wright was merely a businessman who, especially at the onset of the depression, could not allow purely literary judgments to guide his choice of material. As early as 1927 he had written to Donald Wandrei:
Wright . . . isn’t such an ass as you’d think from his editorial dicta. He knows—at least, I assume that he knows—what junk he prints, but chooses it on the basis of its proved appeal to the brachycephalic longshoremen & coal-heavers who form his clientele & scrawl “fan letters” to the Eyrie with their stubby pencils & ruled five-cent pads. I think he works intelligently—as a sound business man—doing what he’s paid to do, & steadily building up the magazine as a paying proposition . . .
There was, then, no abstractly logical reason why Lovecraft should have been so shattered merely because Wright had rejected it.
It is possible, however, that the rejection affected Lovecraft so badly because it coincided with yet another rejection—that of a collection of his tales by G. P. Putnam’s Sons. In the spring of 1931 Winfield Shiras, an editor at Putnam’s, had asked to see some of Lovecraft’s stories for possible book publication. Lovecraft sent thirty stories—nearly all the manuscripts or tearsheets he had in the house at the time—and, in spite of his characteristic predictions that nothing would come of it, he may well have held out a hope that he might see his name on a hardcover book. Putnam’s had, after all, come to him, and not as a matter of form as Simon & Schuster had done the year before. But by mid-July the dismal news came: the collection was rejected, and even though “Shiras . . . hems & haws & talks of changes he would like to see & plans he would like to make after the lapse of a few months,” Lovecraft knew a polite letdown when he saw one.
The Putnam’s rejection may in f
The grounds for rejection were twofold—first, that some of the tales are not subtle enough . . . too obvious & well-explained—(admitted! That ass Wright got me into the habit of obvious writing with his never-ending complaints against the indefiniteness of my early stuff.) & secondly, that all the tales are uniformly macabre in mood to stand collected publication. This second reason is sheer bull—for as a matter of fact unity of mood is a positive asset in a fictional collection. But I suppose the herd must have their comic relief!
I think Lovecraft is right on both points here. His later tales do not, perhaps, leave enough to the imagination, and in part this may indeed be a result of subconsciously writing with Weird Tales’ market demands in mind; but in part this is precisely because of the tendency of this work to gravitate more toward science fiction. Lovecraft was in the position of being a pioneer in the fusion of weird and science fiction, but the short-term result was that his work was found unsatisfactory both to pulp magazines and to commercial publishers that were locked in their stereotypical conventions.
A third rejection occurred at the hands of Harry Bates. Bates had been appointed editor of Strange Tales, a magazine launched in 1931 by the William Clayton Company. Word about the magazine must have gone out by spring (although the first issue was dated September), for in April Lovecraft sent along four old stories (all rejected by Wright), “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” “The Nameless City,” “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” and “Polaris.” They were all rejected. The next month Bates rejected “In the Vault.” Lovecraft should not have been much surprised at this: not only were these on the whole inferior stories, but the Clayton firm was long known as preferring fast-paced action to atmosphere. “In the Vault” seems to have come closest to acceptance, for Lovecraft reports Bates’s belief that “a better story of that kind would be rather in his line.”
Strange Tales seemed at first to be a serious rival to Weird Tales: it paid 2¢ per word on acceptance, and it formed a significant market for such writers as Clark Ashton Smith, Henry S. Whitehead, August Derleth, and Hugh B. Cave who could mould their styles to suit Bates’s requirements. Wright must have been greatly alarmed at the emergence of this magazine, for it meant that some of his best writers would submit their tales to it first and only send material to Weird Tales that had been rejected by Strange Tales. But the magazine only lasted for seven issues, folding in January 1933.
The whole issue of Lovecraft’s sensitivity to rejection, or to bad opinions of his work generally, deserves consideration. Did not Lovecraft say, in the In Defence of Dagon essays of 1921, that he scorned the idea of writing about “ordinary people” in order to increase his audience, and that “There are probably seven persons, in all, who really like my work; and they are enough. I should write even if I were the only patient reader, for my aim is merely self-expression”? Granted that this statement was made well before his work had become more widely available in the pulp magazines; but “self-expression” remained the cornerstone of his aesthetic to the end. Lovecraft was aware of the apparent contradiction, for the issue came up in discussions with Derleth. Lovecraft had already told Derleth that “I have a sort of dislike of sending in anything which has been once rejected,” an attitude that Derleth—who in his hard-boiled way sometimes submitted a single story to Weird Tales up to a dozen times before it was finally accepted by Wright—must have found nearly incomprehensible. Now, in early 1932, Lovecraft expanded on the idea:
I can see why you consider my anti-rejection policy a stubbornly foolish & needlessly short-sighted one, & am not prepared to offer any defence other than the mere fact that repeated rejections do work in a certain way on my psychology—rationally or not—& that their effect is to cause in me a certain literary lockjaw which absolutely prevents further fictional composition despite my most arduous efforts. I would be the last to say that they ought to produce such an effect, or that they would—even in a slight degree—upon a psychology of 100% toughness & balance. But unfortunately my nervous equilibrium has always been a rather uncertain quantity, & it is now in one of its more ragged phases . . .
Lovecraft had always been modest about his own achievements—excessively so, as we look back upon it; now, rejections by Wright, Bates, and Putnam’s, and the cool reactions of colleagues to whom he had sent stories in manuscript, nearly shattered whatever confidence he may have had in his own work. He spent the few remaining years of his life trying to regain that confidence, and he never seems to have done so except in fleeting moments. We can see the effect of this state of mind in his very next story.
“The Shadow over Innsmouth” was written in November and December of 1931. Lovecraft reported that his revisiting of the decaying seaport of Newburyport, Massachusetts (which he had first seen in 1923), had led him to conduct a sort of “laboratory experimentation” to see which style or manner was best suited to the theme. Four drafts (whether complete or not is not clear) were written and discarded, and finally Lovecraft simply wrote the story in his accustomed manner, producing a 25,000-word novelette whose extraordinary richness of atmosphere scarcely betrays the almost agonising difficulty he experienced in its writing.
In “The Shadow over Innsmouth” the narrator, Robert Olmstead (never mentioned by name in the story, but identified in the surviving notes), a native of Ohio, celebrates his coming of age by undertaking a tour of New England—“sightseeing, antiquarian, and genealogical”—and, finding that the train fare from Newburyport to Arkham (whence his family derives) is higher than he would like, is grudgingly told by a ticket agent of a bus that makes the trip by way of a seedy coastal town called Innsmouth. The place does not seem to appear on most maps, and many odd rumours are whispered about it. Innsmouth was a flourishing seaport up to 1846, when an epidemic of some sort killed over half the citizens; people believe it may have had something to do with the voyages of Captain Obed Marsh, who sailed extensively in China and the South Seas and somehow acquired vast sums in gold and jewels. Now the Marsh refinery is just about the only business of importance in Innsmouth aside from fishing off the shore near Devil’s Reef, where fish are always unusually abundant. All the townspeople seem to have repulsive deformities or traits—which are collectively termed “the Innsmouth look”—and are studiously avoided by the neighbouring communities.
This account piques Olmstead’s interest as an antiquarian, and he decides to spend at least a day in Innsmouth, planning to catch a bus in the morning and leaving for Arkham in the evening. He goes to the Newburyport Historical Society and sees a tiara that came from Innsmouth; it fascinates him more and more: “It clearly belonged to some settled technique of infinite maturity and perfection, yet that technique was utterly remote from any—Eastern or Western, ancient or modern—which I had ever heard of or seen exemplified. It was as if the workmanship were that of another planet.” Going to Innsmouth on a seedy bus run by Joe Sargent, whose hairlessness, fishy odour, and never-blinking eyes inspire his loathing, Olmstead begins exploration, aided by directions and a map supplied by a normal-looking young man who works in a grocery chain. All around he sees signs of both physical and moral decay from a once distinguished level. The atmosphere begins to oppress him, and he thinks about leaving the town early; but then he catches sight of a nonagenarian named Zadok Allen who, he has been told, is a fount of knowledge about the history of Innsmouth. Olmstead has a chat with Zadok, loosening his tongue with bootleg whiskey.
Zadok tells him a wild story about alien creatures, half fish and half frog, whom Obed Marsh had encountered in the South Seas. Zadok maintains that Obed struck up an agreement with these creatures: they would provide him with bountiful gold and fish in exchange for human sacrifices. This arrangement worked for a while, but then the fish-frogs sought to mate with humans. It was this that provoked a violent uproar in the town in 1846: many citizens died and the remainder were forced to take the Oath of Dagon, prof
Scarcely knowing what to make of this bizarre tale and alarmed at Zadok’s maniacal plea that he leave the town at once because they have been seen talking, Olmsted makes efforts to catch the evening bus out of Innsmouth. But he is in bad luck: it has suffered inexplicable engine trouble and cannot be repaired until the next day; he will have to put up in the seedy Gilman House, the one hotel in the town. Reluctantly checking into the place, he feels ever-growing intimations of horror and menace as he hears anomalous voices outside his room and other strange noises. Finally he knows he is in peril: his doorknob is tried from the outside. He begins a frenetic series of attempts to leave the hotel and escape the town, but at one point is almost overwhelmed at both the number and the loathsomeness of his pursuers:
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