I am providence the life.., p.121

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 121


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

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  August Derleth was also active. As early as 1931 he felt that this developing pseudomythology should be given a name; and he suggested, of all things, the “Mythology of Hastur.” Hastur had been alluded to in only a single passage in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (and it is not even clear there whether Hastur is an entity—as it is in the work of Ambrose Bierce, who invented the term—or a place, as in the work of Robert W. Chambers, who borrowed it from Bierce); but Derleth became fascinated with this term, as later events will show. Lovecraft—who had never given his pseudomythology a name except when referring to it somewhat flippantly as the “Arkham cycle” or “Yog-Sothothery”—gently deflected the idea:

  It’s not a bad idea to call this Cthulhuism & Yog-Sothothery of mine “The Mythology of Hastur”—although it was really from Machen & Dunsany & others, rather than through the Bierce-Chambers line, that I picked up my gradually developing hash of theogony—or daimonogony. Come to think of it, I guess I sling this stuff more as Chambers does than as Machen & Dunsany do—though I had written a good deal of it before I ever suspected that Chambers ever wrote a weird story![81]

  It would, certainly, have been better for Lovecraft’s subsequent reputation had the “Cthulhu Mythos” not been exploited as it later was; but that exploitation—under the aegis of Derleth—occurred in a very different manner from the way it did in Lovecraft’s lifetime, and Lovecraft cannot be held responsible for it. It is a phenomenon we shall have to study at length later.

  Some other new colleagues were coming into Lovecraft’s horizon at this time. One was Henry George Weiss (1898–1946), who published under the name “Francis Flagg.” Weiss was a poet of some note but published a small amount of weird and science fiction in the pulps, beginning with “The Machine Man of Ardathia” in Amazing Stories for November 1927. His “The Chemical Brain” appeared in the January 1929 issue of Weird Tales, and he went on to publish several other stories there and in Amazing and Astounding.

  Weiss came in touch with Lovecraft in early 1929 by means of their mutual friend Walter J. Coates.[82] Weiss was a full-fledged communist, and he and Lovecraft must have argued vigorously on the issue; unfortunately, little of Lovecraft’s side of the correspondence has turned up. Weiss, at any rate, seems to have been one of the few who could match Lovecraft in epistolary verbosity: in August 1930 he sent Lovecraft a forty-page single-spaced typed letter. Weiss may have had something to do with waking Lovecraft up to the importance of economic issues for an understanding of society.

  Toward the end of 1930 Lovecraft heard from Henry St Clair Whitehead (1882–1932), an established pulp writer who published voluminously in Adventure, Weird Tales, Strange Tales, and elsewhere. In “In Memoriam: Henry St Clair Whitehead” (1933) Lovecraft states that Whitehead was a native of New Jersey who attended Harvard in the same class as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and that he later gained a Ph.D. from Harvard, studying for a time under Santayana. Whether he was told this by Whitehead is unclear (the correspondence on both sides seems to have perished), but A. Langley Searles has ascertained that several of these details are either false or unverified.[83] In fact, Whitehead attended both Harvard and Columbia, but did not receive even a B.A., much less a Ph.D., from either institution. In 1912 he was ordained as a deacon of the Episcopal Church, later serving as rector in parishes in Connecticut and New York City. In the late 1920s he was archdeacon in the Virgin Islands, where he gained the local colour for many of his weird tales. By 1930 he was established in a rectory in Dunedin, Florida.

  Whitehead’s urbane, erudite weird fiction is one of the few literary high spots of Weird Tales, although its lack of intensity and the relative conventionality of its supernaturalism have not won it many followers in recent years. Still, his two collections, Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales (1944) and West India Lights (1946), contain some fine work. There is some little mystery as to what has become of Lovecraft’s correspondence with Whitehead; it appears to have been inadvertently destroyed.[84] In any case, the two men became fast friends and had great respect for each other, both as writers and as human beings. Whitehead’s early death was one of a succession of tragedies that would darken Lovecraft’s later years.

  Another significant correspondent was Joseph Vernon Shea (1912–1981). Lovecraft may have been momentarily amused to read a letter by Shea in the letter column of Weird Tales for October 1926: “I am just a boy of thirteen, but I am in the opinion that Weird Tales is the best magazine ever published.” Shea went on to praise “The Outsider” as “the weirdest, most thrilling and most eery tale I have ever had the good fortune to read.” But Shea did not feel courageous enough to write to Lovecraft himself until 1931; but when he did so (sending a letter to Weird Tales for forwarding), there rapidly developed a warm and extensive correspondence—in many senses one of the most interesting of Lovecraft’s later letter-cycles, even if some of the material is embarrassingly racist and militarist in content. Shea was blunt and, in youth, a trifle cocksure in the expression of his opinions, and he inspired Lovecraft to some vivid and piquant rebuttals.

  Shea was born in Kentucky but spent most of his youth in Pittsburgh. He attended the University of Pittsburgh for only a year before being forced to withdraw because of his parents’ impoverishment from the depression. As a result, he too was largely self-taught, and in the process became a considerable authority on music and film. He attempted to write both weird and mainstream fiction in youth, but he did not pursue writing vigorously, even though he later published some weird and science fiction tales in magazines. He edited two anthologies, Strange Desires (1954), concerning sexual aberrations, and Strange Barriers (1955), about interracial relationships. Some of his essays on Lovecraft—especially “H. P. Lovecraft: The House and the Shadows” (1966)—are quite notable.

  Another young colleague that came into Lovecraft’s horizon in 1931 was Robert Hayward Barlow (1918–1951). It is certain that Lovecraft had no knowledge, when first receiving a letter from Barlow, that his new correspondent was thirteen years old; for Barlow was then already a surprisingly mature individual whose chief hobby was, indeed, the somewhat juvenile one of collecting pulp fiction, but who was quite well read in weird fiction and enthusiastically embraced a myriad of other interests, from playing the piano to painting to printing to raising rabbits. Barlow was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and spent much of his youth at Fort Benning, Georgia, where his father, Col. E. D. Barlow, was stationed; around 1932 Col. Barlow received a medical discharge and settled his family in the small town of DeLand, in central Florida. Family difficulties later forced Barlow to move to Washington, D.C., and Kansas.

  Lovecraft was taken with Barlow, although their correspondence was rather perfunctory for the first year or so. He recognised the youth’s zeal and incipient brilliance, and nurtured his youthful attempts at writing weird fiction. Barlow was more interested in pure fantasy than in supernatural horror, and the models for his early work are Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith; he was so fond of Smith that he bestowed upon the closet where he stored his choicest collectibles the name “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis.” This collecting mania—which extended to manuscripts as well as published material—would prove a godsend in later years. As early as 1932 he was offering to type Lovecraft’s old stories in exchange for the autograph or the (by then tattered) original typed manuscripts; Lovecraft, whose horror of the typewriter was by this time reaching phobic proportions, welcomed the offer, and in fact felt a little sheepish in trading clean typescripts for what he regarded as the worthless scrawls of a literary nonentity. Barlow even pestered Lovecraft into letting him attempt to type The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but he did not get very far with these.

  By the time he got to know Barlow well, Lovecraft regarded him as a child prodigy on the order of Alfred Galpin; and in this he may not have been far wrong. It is true that Barlow sometimes spread himself too thin and had difficulty focusing on any single project, with the result that his actual acc
omplishments prior to Lovecraft’s death seem somewhat meagre; but in his later years he distinguished himself in an entirely different field—Mexican anthropology—and his early death deprived the world of a fine poet and scholar. Lovecraft did not err in appointing Barlow his literary executor.

  One may as well give some consideration now to Lovecraft’s correspondence, for it would only grow in later years as he became the focal point of the fantasy fandom movement of the 1930s. He himself addresses the issue with Long in late 1930:

  As for Grandpa’s correspondence list—well, Sir, I concede it stands badly in need of abridgment . . . yet where, after all, is one to begin? A few figures of older years have indeed disappeared as frequent bombarders, but the increase seems to exceed the elimination a trifle. In the last five years the permanent additions have been Derleth, Wandrei, Talman, Dwyer, [Woodburn] Harris, Weiss, Howard, and (if permanent) Whitehead; of whom Derleth is frequent but not voluminous, Wandrei sparse of late, Talman medium, Dwyer ample but infrequent, Howard heavy and moderate, Weiss encyclopaedic but very infrequent, and Harris voluminous and frequent. Orton, Munn, and Coates are not heavy enough to be counted in. As a palliative measure I can think of nothing at the moment save cutting down Harris a bit.[85]

  This list, of course, does not include his old-time amateur colleagues—Moe, Edward H. Cole, Galpin (probably infrequent by this time), Morton, Kleiner (probably very infrequent), and Long himself. Routine amateur correspondence was, of course, at an end, but Lovecraft is probably understating the matter when he says that the “increase seems to exceed the elimination a trifle”. In late 1931 he estimated that his regular correspondents numbered between fifty and seventy-five.[86] But numbers do not tell the entire story. It certainly does seem as if Lovecraft—perhaps under the incentive of his own developing philosophical thought—was engaging in increasingly lengthy arguments with a variety of colleagues. I have already mentioned the seventy-page letter he wrote to Woodburn Harris in early 1929; a letter to Long in early 1931 may have been nearly as long (it occupies fifty-two pages in Selected Letters and is clearly abridged). His letters are always of consuming interest, but on occasion one feels as if Lovecraft is having some difficulty shutting up.

  Many have complained about the amount of time Lovecraft spent (or, as some have termed it, “wasted”) on his correspondence, whining that he could have written more fiction instead. Certainly, his array of original fiction (exclusive of revisions) over the last several years was not numerically large: one story in 1928, none in 1929, one in 1930, and two in 1931. Numbers again, however, are deceiving. Almost any one of these five stories would be in itself sufficient to give Lovecraft a place in weird fiction, for most of them are novelettes or short novels of a richness and substance rarely seen outside the work of Poe, Machen, Blackwood, and Dunsany. Moreover, it is by no means certain that Lovecraft would have written more fiction even had he the leisure, for his fiction-writing was always dependent upon the proper mood and the proper gestation of a fictional conception; sometimes such a conception took years to develop.

  But the overriding injustice in this whole matter is the belief that Lovecraft should have lived his life for us and not for himself. If he had written no stories but only letters, it would have been our loss but his prerogative. Lovecraft did indeed justify his letter-writing in the same letter to Long:

  . . . an isolated person requires correspondence as a means of seeing his ideas as others see them, and thus guarding against the dogmatisms and extravagances of solitary and uncorrected speculation. No man can learn to reason and appraise from a mere perusal of the writing of others. If he live not in the world, where he can observe the publick at first-hand and be directed toward solid reality by the force of conversation and spoken debate, then he must sharpen his discrimination and regulate his perceptive balance by an equivalent exchange of ideas in epistolary form.

  There is certainly much truth in this, and anyone can tell the difference between the cocksure Lovecraft of 1914 and the mature Lovecraft of 1930. What he does not say here, however, is that one of the chief motivations for his correspondence was simple courtesy. Lovecraft answered almost every letter he ever received, and he usually answered it within a few days. He felt it was his obligation as a gentleman to do so. His first letter to J. Vernon Shea is fourteen pages (seven large sheets written on both sides), although in part this is because Shea’s first letter to him was a sort of rapid-fire questionnaire probing nosily into both his writing habits and his private life. But this is the sort of thing Lovecraft did habitually, and this is how he established strong bonds of friendship with far-flung associates, many of whom never met him; it is why he became, both during and after his lifetime, a revered figure in the little worlds of amateur journalism and weird fiction.

  21. Mental Greed


  The year 1931 was, of course, not an entire disaster for Lovecraft, even though the rejections of some of his best work stung him. In fact, his now customary late spring and summer travels reached the widest extent they would ever achieve in his lifetime, and he returned home with a fund of new impressions that well offset his literary misfortunes.

  Lovecraft began his travels on Saturday, May 2, the day after finishing the back-breaking work of typing At the Mountains of Madness. His customary stop in New York was very brief: he merely went to the Longs’ apartment for dinner, then caught the 12.40 A.M. bus for Charleston via Washington, D.C., Richmond, Winston-Salem and Charlotte, North Carolina, and Columbia, South Carolina. The total time of this bus ride was thirty-six hours. The ride through Virginia was enlivened by music from a blind guitar player and a cross-eyed tenor who regaled their captive audience with “the traditional folk airs of ancient Virginia.”[1] They sang purely for the fun of it, and tried to refuse a collection taken up for them, saying, “We don’ expeck any money, folks! We’re having jes’ as good a tahm as you all!”

  Lovecraft found Charleston pretty much the same as the year before, aside from the fact that one old Charleston house had been demolished to make way for a filling station—but even this station was (somehow) of Old Charleston architecture! Tuesday the 5th was chilly and cloudy, so Lovecraft devoted himself to interiors, including the Old Exchange with its spectral basement dungeon, the Charleston Museum, and elsewhere. On the 6th Lovecraft took a bus for Savannah, and from there caught another bus for Jacksonville (saving a night’s hotel or YMCA bill), arriving at 6 A.M. on the 7th. Jacksonville was a modern town and hence had no appeal for Lovecraft; it was only a way station to a more archaic place—nothing less than the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States, St Augustine, Florida.

  In the two weeks Lovecraft spent in St Augustine he absorbed all the antiquities the town had to offer. The mere fact of being in such an ancient place delighted him, although the town, with its predominantly Hispanic background, did not strike so deep a chord as a town of British origin such as Charleston did. Nevertheless, he was marvellously invigorated by St Augustine—both spiritually and physically, since the genuine tropicality of the town endowed him with reserves of strength unknown in the chilly North. He stayed at the Rio Vista Hotel on Bay Street for $4.00 a week, and during much of his stay he was accompanied by Dudley Newton (1864–1954)—an elderly acquaintance about whom we know virtually nothing.

  Lovecraft canvassed the entire town—including the Post Office (housed in a 1591 mansion), Fort San Marcos, the Fountain of Youth, the Bridge of Lions, the Franciscan monastery, and what is presumed to be the oldest house in the United States, built in 1565—as well as nearby Anastasia Island, which offers a spectacular view of the archaic skyline. Lovecraft rhapsodised about the place in letters and postcards sent to friends:

  Around me are the narrow lanes & ancient buildings of the old Spanish capital, the formidable bulk of ancient Fort San Marcos, on whose turreted, sun-drenched parapet I love to sit, the sleepy old market (now a benched loafing-place) in the Plaza de la Constitución, & the whole la
nguorous atmosphere (the tourist season being over) of an elder, sounder, & more leisurely civilisation. Here is a city founded in 1565, 42 years before the first Jamestown colonist landed, & 55 years before the first Pilgrim set foot on Plymouth Rock. Here, too, is the region where Ponce de Leon fared on his vain quest of 1513. . . . It will be like pulling a tooth to break away from here . . .[2]

  Lovecraft finally did break away around May 21, as his new correspondent Henry S. Whitehead insisted that he come and visit for an extended period in Dunedin, a small town on a peninsula north of St Petersburg and Clearwater. Letters to Lillian during this three-week stay are in curiously short supply, so that we do not know much about this visit; but Lovecraft found both the environment and his host delightful. He also met several of Whitehead’s friends and neighbours, including a young man named Allan Grayson, for whom he wrote a poem in two quatrains entitled “To a Young Poet in Dunedin,” the first bit of verse he had written since Fungi from Yuggoth a year and a half before. On one occasion Lovecraft recited a sort of synopsis of “The Cats of Ulthar” (he presumably did not have the actual text with him) to a group of young boys from a nearby boys’ club. Lovecraft and Whitehead were of almost exactly the same build, and the latter lent Lovecraft a white tropical suit to wear during especially hot days, later making a present of it.

  Lovecraft made an excursion to Tampa, the nearest large city, but he found it “sprawling & squalid & without any buildings or traditions of great age.”[3] Dunedin itself was not especially ancient, but it was a pleasing small town with well-landscaped gardens, and the Gulf of Mexico was only a few feet from Whitehead’s front steps. The natural scenery was magnificent, and in a postcard to Derleth written jointly by Lovecraft and Whitehead, the former waxed eloquent: “Last night we saw the white tropic moon making a magical path on the westward-stretching gulf that lapped at a gleaming, deserted beach on a remote key. Boy! What a sight! It took one’s breath away!”[4] The birds were also remarkable—herons, cranes, flamingoes, and others who fluttered very near to where Lovecraft sat reading or writing postcards on the shore. The whippoorwills had a curiously different type of cry than those in New England. Toward the end of his stay Whitehead caught a mottled snake, pickled it, and presented it to Lovecraft.

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