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I am providence the life.., p.120

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 120


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

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  Meanwhile, evidently in response to Wright’s request to send in new work (perhaps he had heard of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” from Lovecraft’s colleagues), Lovecraft wrote an extraordinarily snide letter in mid-February 1932:

  Sorry to say I haven’t anything new which you would be likely to care for. Lately my tales have run to studies in geographical atmosphere requiring greater length than the popular editorial fancy relishes—my new “Shadow over Innsmouth” is three typed pages longer than “Whisperer in Darkness”, and conventional magazine standards would undoubtedly rate it “intolerably slow”, “not conveniently divisible”, or something of the sort.[68]

  Lovecraft has deliberately thrown back into Wright’s face the remarks Wright had made about At the Mountains of Madness.

  But if Lovecraft himself refused to submit “The Shadow over Innsmouth” to Weird Tales, Derleth was not so reticent. Without Lovecraft’s permission or knowledge, he sent to Wright the carbon of the story in early 1933; but Wright’s verdict was perhaps to be expected:

  I have read Lovecraft’s story, THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH, and must confess that it fascinates me. But I don’t know just what I can do with it. It is hard to break a story of this kind into two parts, and it is too long to run complete in one part.

  I will keep this story in mind, and if some time in the near future I can figure out how to use it, I will write to Lovecraft and ask him to send me the manuscript.[69]

  Lovecraft must have eventually found out about this surreptitious submission, for by 1934 he was speaking of its rejection by Wright.[70] Lovecraft himself, it should be pointed out, did not—with one exception—personally submit a story to Wright for five and a half years after the rejection of At the Mountains of Madness.

  Shortly after writing “The Rats in the Walls” in the fall of 1923, Lovecraft discussed with Long one possible drawback about using some Celtic words (lifted directly from Fiona Macleod’s “The Sin-Eater”) at the end of the story: “The only objection to the phrase is that it’s Gaelic instead of Cymric as the south-of-England locale demands. But as with anthropology—details don’t count. Nobody will ever stop to note the difference.”[71]

  Lovecraft was wrong on two counts. First, the notion that the Gaels arrived first in Britain and were driven north by the Cymri is now seriously doubted by historians and anthropologists; second, someone did note the difference. When “The Rats in the Walls” was reprinted in Weird Tales for June 1930, a young writer wrote Farnsworth Wright asking whether Lovecraft was adhering to an alternate theory about the settling of Britain. Wright felt that the letter was interesting enough to pass on to Lovecraft. It was in this way that Lovecraft came into contact with Robert E. Howard.

  Robert Ervin Howard (1906–1936) is a writer about whom it is difficult to be impartial. Like Lovecraft, he has attracted a fanatical cadre of supporters who both claim significant literary status for at least some of his work and take great offence at those who do not acknowledge its merits. My own opinion, however, is that, although individual stories are exceptional (but none equal to the best of Lovecraft’s), the bulk of Howard’s work is simply above-average pulp writing.

  Howard himself is in many ways more interesting than his stories. Born in the small town of Peaster, Texas, about twenty miles west of Fort Worth, he spent the bulk of his short life in Cross Plains. His ancestors were among the earliest settlers of this “post oaks” region of central Texas, and his father, Dr I. M. Howard, was one of the pioneer physicians in the area. Howard was more hampered by his lack of formal education than Lovecraft—he briefly attended Howard Payne College in Brownwood, but only to take bookkeeping courses—because of the lack of libraries in his town; his learning was, accordingly, very uneven, and he was quick to take very strong and dogmatic opinions on subjects about which he knew little.

  As an adolescent Howard was introverted and bookish; as a result, he was bullied by his peers, and to protect himself he undertook a vigorous course of body-building that made him, as an adult of 5' 11" and 200 pounds, a formidable physical specimen. He took to writing early, however, and it became his only career aside from the odd jobs at which he occasionally worked. A taste for adventure, fantasy, and horror—he was an ardent devotee of Jack London—and a talent for writing allowed him to break into Weird Tales in July 1925 with “Spear and Fang.” Although Howard later published in a wide variety of other pulp magazines, from Cowboy Stories to Argosy, Weird Tales remained his chief market and published his most representative work.

  That work runs the gamut from westerns to sports stories to “Orientales” to weird fiction. Many of his tales fall into loose cycles revolving around recurring characters, including Bran Mak Morn (a Celtic chieftain in Roman Britain), King Kull (a warrior-king of the mythical prehistoric realm of Valusia, in central Europe), Solomon Kane (an English Puritan of the seventeenth century), and, most famously, Conan, a barbarian chieftain of the mythical land of Cimmeria. Howard was keenly drawn to the period of the prehistoric barbarians—whether because that age dimly reflected the conditions of pioneer Texas that he learnt and admired from his elders, or from early readings, or from some other cause. Howard himself was not entirely clear on the sources for this attraction:

  . . . I have lived in the Southwest all my life, yet most of my dreams are laid in cold, giant lands of icy wastes and gloomy skies, and of wild, windswept fens and wilderness over which sweep great sea-winds, and which are inhabited by shock-headed savages with light fierce eyes. With the exception of one dream, I am never, in these dreams of ancient times, a civilized man. Always I am the barbarian, the skin-clad, tousle-haired, light-eyed wild man, armed with a rude axe or sword, fighting the elements and wild beasts, or grappling with armored hosts marching with the tread of civilized discipline, from fallow fruitful lands and walled cities. This is reflected in my writings, too, for when I begin a tale of old times, I always find myself instinctively arrayed on the side of the barbarian, against the powers of organized civilization.[72]

  One does not, of course, wish to deny all literary value to Howard’s work. He is certainly to be credited with the founding of the subgenre of “sword-and-sorcery,” although Fritz Leiber would later vastly refine the form; and, although many of Howard’s stories were written purely for the sake of cash, his own views do emerge clearly from them. The simple fact is, however, that these views are not of any great substance or profundity and that Howard’s style is on the whole crude, slipshod, and unwieldy. Several of Howard’s tales are, in addition, appallingly racist—more barefacedly so than anything Lovecraft ever wrote.

  Howard’s letters, as Lovecraft rightly maintained, deserve to be classed as literature far more than does his fiction. It might well be imagined that the letters of two writers so antipodally different in temperament as Lovecraft and Howard might at the very least be provocative, and sure enough their six-year correspondence not only ranges widely in subject-matter—from somewhat pedantic and now very antiquated discussions of racial origins and types (“The truly Semitic Jew is doubtless superior to the Mongoloid Jew in moral and cultural aspects,” Howard once opined[73]) to long disquisitions on each writer’s upbringing to arguments about the relative merits of civilisation and barbarism to contemporary political matters (Howard would probably be classified today as a libertarian in his violent objection to any sort of authority)—but also becomes, at times, somewhat testy as each man expresses his views with vigour and determination. I shall have more to say about the substance of some of these disputes later, but one interesting fact can be noted now. Actual rough drafts of some of Howard’s letters to Lovecraft have recently been discovered, making it plain that Howard wished to present himself as cogently as he could in his arguments. Howard was clearly intimidated by Lovecraft’s learning and felt hopelessly inferior academically; but perhaps he also felt that he had a better grasp of the realities of life than the sheltered Lovecraft, so that he was not about to back down on some of his cherished beliefs. In some ins
tances, as in his frequent descriptions of the violent conditions of the frontier with fights, shootouts, and the like, one almost feels as if Howard is subtly teasing Lovecraft or attempting to shock him; some of Howard’s accounts of these matters may, in fact, have been invented.

  And yet, Lovecraft is entirely right in his assessment of Howard the man:

  There’s a bird whose basic mentality seems to me just about the good respectable citizen’s (bank cashier, medium shopkeeper, ordinary lawyer, stockbroker, high school teacher, prosperous farmer, pulp fictionist, skilled mechanic, successful salesman, responsible government clerk, routine army or navy officer up to a colonel, &c.) average—bright & keen, accurate & retentive, but not profound or analytical—yet who is at the same time one of the most eminently interesting beings I know. Two-Gun is interesting because he has refused to let his thoughts & feelings be standardised. He remains himself. He couldn’t—today—solve a quadratic equation, & probably thinks that Santayana is a brand of coffee—but he has a set of emotions which he has moulded & directed in uniquely harmonious patterns, & from which proceed his marvellous outbursts of historic retrospection & geographical description (in letters), & his vivid, energised & spontaneous pictures of a prehistoric world of battle in fiction . . . pictures which insist on remaining distinctive & self-expressive despite all outward concessions to the stultifying pulp ideal.[74]

  Lovecraft habitually overpraised his friends’ writings, but on the whole this assessment is quite accurate.

  One of Howard’s earliest enquiries to Lovecraft was information regarding Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, and the like, which Howard took to be genuine mythic lore; the issue was of particular interest in that one reader of Weird Tales, N. J. O’Neail, had thought that Howard’s Kathulos (a preternatural Egyptian entity featured in “Skull-Face” [Weird Tales, October–December 1929]) was somehow related to or derived from Cthulhu. Naturally, Lovecraft told Howard the true state of affairs. As a result, Howard decided to start dropping references to Lovecraft’s pseudomythology in his own work; and he did so in exactly the spirit Lovecraft intended—as fleeting background allusions to create a sense of unholy presences behind the surface of life. Very few of Howard’s stories seem to me to owe much to Lovecraft’s own tales or conceptions, and there are almost no actual pastiches. The Necronomicon is cited any number of times; Cthulhu, R’lyeh, and Yog-Sothoth come in for mention on occasion; but that is all.

  Howard’s “contribution” to the “Cthulhu Mythos” was a new mythical book, Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, frequently referred to by the variant title “Black Book” and apparently first cited in “The Children of the Night” (Weird Tales, April–May 1931). In 1932 Lovecraft thought to devise a German title for this work, coming up with the rather ungainly Ungenennte Heidenthume. August Derleth vetoed this title, replacing it with Unaussprechlichen Kulten. At this point a pedantic argument developed among Lovecraft’s colleagues, and also with Farnsworth Wright, who felt that unaussprechlich could only mean “unpronounceable” and not “unspeakable” or “nameless”; he wished to substitute the rather colourless Unnenbaren Kulten, but the Weird Tales artist C. C. Senf, a native German, approved of Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and so it has come down to us.[75] To add to the absurdity, this title itself is flawed German, and should either be Die Unaussprechlichen Kulten or Unaussprechliche Kulten. Even more preposterously, Lovecraft was under the impression that he had, in a ghostwritten story, devised a first name—Friedrich—for von Junzt, which Howard himself had neglected to do, when in fact Lovecraft did so only in a letter.[76] Such are the complexities of “Cthulhu Mythos” scholarship.

  Meanwhile Clark Ashton Smith was getting into the act. In the spring of 1925 he had written “The Abominations of Yondo”—the first short story he had written since the early teens. It was not, however, until the fall of 1929, with “The Last Incantation,” that he began writing stories in earnest; over the next five years he wrote more than a hundred tales, surpassing in quantity Lovecraft’s entire fictional output. Like much of Howard’s work, a large proportion of Smith’s fiction is routine pulp hackwork, although very different in subject-matter; and because Smith was writing primarily to make money (chiefly to support himself and his increasingly ailing parents), he felt little compunction in altering his tales radically to suit the various pulp markets he cultivated. Weird Tales was by no means his only venue; he also wrote for Strange Tales and wrote many science fiction tales for Wonder Stories. Like Howard’s, Smith’s tales divide into loose cycles, although they focus not on a character but on a setting: Hyperborea (a prehistoric continent), Atlantis, Averoigne (a region in mediaeval France; the name clearly derived from the actual French province of Auvergne), Zothique (a continent of the far future, when the sun is dying), a conventionalised Mars, and several others.

  Smith’s stories also exact widely differing responses. They are overcoloured almost beyond belief—and, to some, beyond tolerance; but while Smith unleashes his wide and esoteric vocabulary without restraint, his plots tend to be simple, even simple-minded. My belief is that Smith’s fiction is largely an outgrowth of his poetry—or, at least, has many of the same functions as his poetry—in the sense that what he was chiefly trying to achieve was a kind of sensory overload, in which the exotic and the outré are presented merely as such, as a foil to prosy mundanity. There is, therefore, by design little depth or profundity to his fiction; its chief value resides in its glittering surface.

  Naturally, some facets of Smith’s work are better than others. The Zothique cycle may perhaps be his most successful, and some of the tales—“Xeethra” (Weird Tales, February–March 1934), “The Dark Eidolon” (Weird Tales, January 1935)—meld beauty and horror in a highly distinctive way. Smith was, in fact, not very successful at pure horror, as for example in his Averoigne tales, which lapse into conventionality in their exhibition of routine vampires and lamias. His science fiction tales have dated lamentably, although “The City of the Singing Flame” (Wonder Stories, January 1931) is intoxicatingly exotic, while the horror/science fiction tale “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (Weird Tales, May 1932) may be his single finest prose work.

  Smith’s allusions to Lovecraft’s pseudomythology are, like Howard’s, very fleeting; indeed, it is highly misleading to think that Smith was somehow “contributing” to Lovecraft’s mythos, since from the beginning he felt that he was devising his own parallel mythology. Smith’s chief invention is the god Tsathoggua, first created in “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros.” Written in the fall of 1929, this story evoked raptures from Lovecraft:

  I must not delay in expressing my well-nigh delirious delight at “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”—which has veritably given me the one arch-kick of 1929! . . . I can see & feel & smell the jungle around immemorial Commoriom, which I am sure must lie buried today in glacial ice near Olathoë, in the land of Lomar! It is of this crux of elder horror, I am certain, that the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred was thinking when he—even he—left something unmention’d & signified by a row of stars in the surviving codex of his accursed & forbidden “Necronomicon”![77]

  And so on. Lovecraft is again being very charitable, for the story is rather reminiscent of some of Dunsany’s flippant tales of thieves who come to a bad end when they attempt to steal from the gods. Here we have two burglars who seek to rob the temple of Tsathoggua; their end is entirely predictable. But the description of Tsathoggua is of interest: “He was very squat and pot-bellied, his head was more like that of a monstrous toad than a deity, and his whole body was covered with an imitation of short fur, giving somehow a vague suggestion of both the bat and the sloth. His sleep lids were half-lowered over his globular eyes; and the tip of a queer tongue issued from his fat mouth.”[78] Lovecraft generally followed this description in most of his citations of the god. Indeed, he was so taken with the invention that he cited it immediately in “The Mound” (1929–30) and “The Whisperer in Darkness”; and since the latter tale was printed in Weird Tales for August 1931, three mo
nths before “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros,” Lovecraft beat Smith into print with the mention of the god. Smith also invented the Book of Eibon, which Lovecraft cited frequently. It might well be said that Smith would perhaps not have created the god or the book without Lovecraft’s example; indeed, it could well be that Lovecraft’s diligent work as a fiction writer (which Smith had seen develop from 1922 onward) encouraged Smith in the writing of tales, although Lovecraft’s actual work does not seem to have influenced Smith’s appreciably.

  Nevertheless, Lovecraft was fully aware that he was borrowing from Smith. In disabusing Robert E. Howard about the reality of the myth-cycle, he remarks: “Clark Ashton Smith is launching another mock mythology revolving around the black, furry toad-god ‘Tsathoggua’ . . .”[79] Smith himself, noting a few years later how many other writers had borrowed the elements he had invented, remarked to Derleth: “It would seem that I am starting a mythology.”[80]

  Smith of course returned the favour and cited Lovecraft’s inventions in later tales—the Necronomicon, Yog-Sothoth (under the variant forms Yok-Sothoth and Iog-Sotôt), Cthulhu (also under variant forms). Just as Robert E. Howard mentioned Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” by name in “The Children of the Night,” Smith cited Lovecraft in “The Hunters from Beyond” (Strange Tales, October 1932), a story that, in its account of a mad painter, may have been inspired by “Pickman’s Model.” (Lovecraft had already cited Smith in At the Mountains of Madness as “Klarkash-Ton.”) Most of Smith’s borrowings from Lovecraft appear in the tales of his Hyperborea cycle.

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