I am providence the life.., p.123
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 123
Of course, a book would have been a real venue to both financial gain and literary recognition. In March 1932 such a prospect emerged for the third time, but once again it collapsed. Arthur Leeds had spoken to a friend of his who was an editor at Vanguard (formerly Macy-Masius, which had been involved in the Asbury Not at Night imbroglio) about Lovecraft, who accordingly received a letter of enquiry. Vanguard wanted a novel, but Lovecraft (having already repudiated The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and evidently not considering At the Mountains of Madness a true novel) said he had none at hand. Nevertheless, the firm did ask to see some of his short stories, so Lovecraft sent them “Pickman’s Model,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Rats in the Walls,” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” The stories eventually came back.
How was revision faring? Not especially well. After the work done for Zealia Bishop and Adolphe de Castro, no new would-be weird writers were appearing on the horizon. Of course, the revision of weird fiction was a relatively small facet of his revisory work, which centred on more mundane matter—textbooks, poetry, and the like. But the departure of David Van Bush as a regular client, along with Lovecraft’s unwillingness or lack of success in advertising his services, made this work very irregular.
It was around this time that Lovecraft prepared a definitive chart of his revisory rates, giving full particulars of the type of activity he would undertake (from mere reading to full-fledged ghostwriting) and the rates he would charge. These rates, although perhaps a little higher than what he was charging earlier, still seem criminally low; and yet, Lovecraft appears to have been lucky to get the clients he did even with these rates. The chart reads as follows:
H. P. Lovecraft—Prose Revision Rates
Reading Only—rough general remarks
1000 words or less 0.50
20¢ for each 1000 wds over 5000
Criticism Only—analytical estimate in detail
1000 words or less 1.50
60¢ for each 1000 wds over 5000
Revision & Copying (Per page of 330 words)
(a) Copying on typewriter—double space, 1 carbon. No revision except spelling, punctuation, & grammar 0.25
(b) Light revision, no copying (prose improved locally—no new
(c) Light revision typed, double-space with 1 carbon 0.50
(d) Extensive revision, no copying (through improvement, including structural change, transposition, addition, or excision—possible introduction of new ideas or plot elements. Requires new text or separate MS.) In rough draught longhand 0.75
(e) Extensive revision as above, typed, double space, 1 carbon 1.00
(f) Rewriting from old MS., synopsis, plot-notes, idea-germ, or mere suggestion—i.e., “ghost-writing”. Text in full by reviser—both language & development. Rough draught, longhand 2.25
(g) Rewriting as above, typed, double space, 1 carbon 2.50
Special flat rates quoted for special jobs, depending on estimated consumption of time & energy.
The prospect of a regular position apparently emerged sometime in 1931, but Lovecraft was unable to accept it. Early in the year he speaks of a “reading & revisory post” that was offered to him, but it was in Vermont, which “made it physically out of the question as a year-round matter.” I am not sure whether this is the same or similar to the offer that he talked about later in the year, when the Stephen Daye Press of Brattleboro, Vermont (managed by Vrest Orton), gave him the job of revising and proofreading Leon Burr Richardson’s History of Dartmouth College (1932). Lovecraft mentioned this in September, and stated that he might have to go to Vermont to work on it; but that does not seem to have occurred. A month later, however, in early October, a telegram summoned him to Hartford, Connecticut, for a “personal conference” of some kind connected with the project. Although Lovecraft received only $50.00 plus expenses for his work on the book, he thought that it “may prove the opening wedge for a good deal of work from the Stephen Daye”; but, again, this did not happen. Lovecraft’s revision on the Dartmouth College history really amounted to mere copyediting, for I cannot detect much actual Lovecraft prose in the treatise.
Lovecraft also occasionally had problems collecting on the revision work he did. I have already mentioned that Zealia Bishop was quite remiss in paying her bill: she still owed Lovecraft money till the day he died, and long after he had ceased to do any work for her. One amusing incident occurred in the fall of 1930, when one Lee Alexander Stone inexplicably failed to pay $7.50 for an article, “Is Chicago a Crime-Ridden City?,” that Lovecraft had revised a year and a half before. Wearying of dunning Stone for the amount, Lovecraft finally wrote it off as a loss, but sent a tart letter to Stone as a parting shot:
In the matter of your persistently unpaid revision bill—concerning which you so persistently withhold all explanations despite repeated inquiries—I have decided, at the risk of encouraging sharp practices, to forego the use of a collecting agency and make you a present of the amount involved.
This is my first encounter with such a hopelessly bad bill, and I believe I may consider the sum ($7.50) as not ill spent in acquiring practical experience. I needed to be taught caution in accepting unknown clients without ample references—especially clients from a strident region which cultivates ostentatious commercial expansion rather than the honour customary among gentlemen.
Meanwhile I am grateful for so concrete an answer to the popular question, “Is Chicago a Crime-Ridden City?”
Quite a zinger. But Lovecraft later learned from Farnsworth Wright—who had recommended Stone—that Stone was bankrupt and ill. Lovecraft was a little abashed, although he still wrote petulantly, “. . . the fellow might have written me instead of ignoring all my polite early reminders!”
Lovecraft did occasionally make other attempts to bring in cash. Wilfred Blanch Talman had left his position at the New York Times and begun work for Texaco; part of his responsibilities involved the editorship of several trade papers, including the Texaco Star. In late 1930 Lovecraft said to Talman that he could write a whole series of “descriptive travel-treatises” with the series title “On the Trail of the Past.” This offer seems to have been made somewhat whimsically, and of course nothing came of it. Talman did, however, urge Lovecraft to try to market his travelogue material, but Lovecraft was sceptical:
I have my doubts about the commercial availability of such material, since my style—as well as my basic principles of selection in assembling material—would seem to me to be one to which the modern world of trade is antipodally alien & even actively hostile. I have seen some of the publications of coach companies—which are stacked for distribution in waiting rooms—& have so far found their travel material altogether different in tone, atmosphere, & content from mine. Possibly I might artificially turn out something to suit their needs if I studied those needs more exactly . . . Marketing, though, is easier said than done. Various persons have thought my stuff might fit the Christian Science Monitor, which has rather a bias toward travel; but upon examination it appears that Monitor stuff always concerns more exotic & unusual places than I visit.
Lovecraft is probably right in his assessment. For his travelogues to become marketable would have required not merely the elimination of his archaisms of style but a radical recasting and reemphasis, and the suppression of his piquant personal opinions. The travelogues as they stand are so delightful to read precisely because they are the product of a person who is both keenly observant and delightfully idiosyncratic; and, given Lovecraft’s tem
One very curious job Lovecraft had around this time was that of a ticket-seller in a movie theatre. A professor at Brown University, Robert Kenny (1902–1983), maintained that he saw Lovecraft go downtown in the evening (he worked the night shift) and sit in a booth in one of the theatres, reading a book whenever he was not actually dispensing tickets. Harry K. Brobst confirms the story, stating that Lovecraft admitted to him that he had held such a job, saying that he actually liked it at the start, but that it did not last very long. Brobst does not know when Lovecraft held the position, but he believes it to have been in the early days of the depression, perhaps 1929–30.
Somehow or other, in spite of rejections and the precarious status of his revision work, Lovecraft managed to write another tale in February 1932, “The Dreams in the Witch House.” Its working title—“The Dreams of Walter Gilman”—tells the whole story. A mathematics student at Miskatonic University named Walter Gilman who lives in a peculiarly angled room in the old Witch House in Arkham begins experiencing bizarre dreams filled with sights, sounds, and shapes of an utterly indescribable cast; other dreams, much more realistic in nature, reveal a huge rat with human hands named Brown Jenkin, who appears to be the familiar of the witch Keziah Mason, who once dwelt in the Witch House. Meanwhile Gilman, in his classwork, begins to display a remarkable intuitive grasp of hyperspace, or the fourth dimension. But then his dreams take an even weirder turn, and there are indications that he is sleepwalking. Keziah seems to be urging him on in some nameless errand (“He must meet the Black Man, and go with them all to the throne of Azathoth at the centre of ultimate Chaos”). Then in one very clear dream he sees himself “half lying on a high, fantastically balustraded terrace above a boundless jungle of outlandish, incredible peaks, balanced planes, domes, minarets, horizontal discs poisoned on pinnacles, and numberless forms of still greater wildness.” The balustrade is decorated with curious designs representing ridged, barrel-shaped entities (i.e., the Old Ones from At the Mountains of Madness); but Gilman wakes screaming when he sees the living barrel-shaped entities coming toward him. The next morning the barrel-shaped ornament—which he had broken off the balustrade in the dream—is found in his bed.
Things seem rapidly to be reaching some hideous culmination. A baby is kidnapped and cannot be found. Then, in a dream, Gilman finds himself in some strangely angled room with Keziah, Brown Jenkin, and the baby. Keziah is going to sacrifice the child, but Gilman knocks the knife out of her hand and sends it clattering down some nearby abyss. He and Keziah engage in a fight, and he manages to frighten her momentarily by displaying a crucifix given to him by a fellow tenant; when Brown Jenkin comes to her aid, he kicks the familiar down the abyss, but not before it has made some sort of sacrificial offering with the baby’s blood. The next night Gilman’s friend Frank Elwood witnesses a nameless horror: he sees some ratlike creature literally eat its way through Gilman’s body to his heart. The Witch House is rented no more, and years later, when it is torn down, an enormous pile of human bones going back centuries is discovered, along with the bones of some huge ratlike entity.
One can agree wholeheartedly with Steven J. Mariconda’s labelling this story “Lovecraft’s Magnificent Failure.” In a sense, “The Dreams in the Witch House” is the most cosmic story Lovecraft ever wrote: he has made a genuine, and very provocative, attempt actually to visualise the fourth dimension:
All the objects—organic and inorganic alike—were totally beyond description or even comprehension. Gilman sometimes compared the inorganic masses to prisms, labyrinths, clusters of cubes and planes, and Cyclopean buildings; and the organic things struck him variously as groups of bubbles, octopi, centipedes, living Hindoo idols, and intricate Arabesques roused into a kind of ophidian animation.
The imaginative scope of the novelette is almost unthinkably vast; but it is utterly confounded by slipshod writing and a complete confusion as to where the story is going. Lovecraft here lapses into hackneyed and overblown purple prose that sounds almost like a parody of his own style: “Everything he saw was unspeakably menacing and horrible; . . . he felt a stark, hideous fright.” There are countless unresolved elements in the tale. What is the significance of the sudden appearance of the Old Ones in the story? To what purpose is the baby kidnapped and sacrificed? How can Lovecraft the atheist allow Keziah to be frightened off by the sight of a crucifix? In the final confrontation with Keziah, what is the purpose of the abyss aside from providing a convenient place down which to kick Brown Jenkin? How does Brown Jenkin subsequently emerge from the abyss to eat out Gilman’s heart? Lovecraft does not seem to have thought out any of these issues; it is as if he were aiming merely for a succession of startling images without bothering to think through their logical sequence or coherence.
Nevertheless, the “cosmic” portions of “The Dreams in the Witch House” almost redeem the many flaws in the tale. “Dreams” is really the critical term here; for this story brings to a culmination all Lovecraft’s previous ruminations on the “occasionally titanic significance of dreams,” as he commented in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” Gilman’s are not, indeed, ordinary dreams—“faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences”—but avenues toward other realms of entity normally inaccessible to human beings. This point is made perhaps a little too obviously by the appearance of the balustrade-ornament from hyperspace into our world.
“The Dreams in the Witch House” is also Lovecraft’s ultimate modernisation of a conventional myth (witchcraft) by means of modern science. Fritz Leiber, who has written the most perspicacious essay on the tale, notes that it is “Lovecraft’s most carefully worked out story of hyperspace-travel. Here (1) a rational foundation for such travel is set up; (2) hyperspace is visualized; and (3) a trigger for such travel is devised.” Leiber elaborates keenly on these points, noting that the absence of any mechanical device for such travel is vital to the tale, for otherwise it would be impossible to imagine how a “witch” of the seventeenth century could have managed the trick; in effect, Keziah simply applied advanced mathematics and “thought” herself into hyperspace.
Lovecraft’s hints that Keziah’s hyperspace-travel is a secret type of knowledge that is only now coming to light in the work of advanced astrophysicists (Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and Willem de Sitter are mentioned by name) make for one more “updating” of an older Lovecraftian conception. When Gilman boldly maintains that “Time could not exist in certain belts of space” and goes on to justify this view, we are cast back to the early story “The White Ship” (1919), in which the narrator remarks: “In the Land of Sona-Nyl there is neither time nor space, neither suffering nor death; and there I dwelt for many aeons.” Granting the difference between a Dunsanian fantasy and a quasi-science fiction tale, the greater intellectual rigour now underlying Lovecraft’s fiction is manifest.
Nevertheless, “The Dreams in the Witch House” overall is indeed a failure, and is one of the most disappointing of his later tales. Lovecraft seems to have known that it was perhaps a step backward in his fictional development, and he never ranked it high among his works.
Lovecraft remarked that the story was typed by a revision client as payment for revisory work. I do not know who this is; perhaps it is Zealia Bishop. The typescript is remarkably accurate, and the typist seems to have had a fair ability to read Lovecraft’s handwriting. Lovecraft was, however, still in such a state of uncertainty about the merits of his own work that he felt the need to elicit his colleagues’ opinion on the story before he submitted it anywhere, and so he sent both the original and the carbon on a series of rounds among his correspondents. Several seemed to like the story, but August Derleth’s reaction was very much the contrary. One can gauge the severity of Derleth’s criticism by Lovecraft’s response: “. . . your reaction to my poor ‘Dreams in the Witch House’ is, in kind, about wh
A year or so later Derleth redeemed himself by asking to see the story again and surreptitiously submitting it to Farnsworth Wright, who accepted it readily and paid Lovecraft $140.00 for it. It appeared in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales.
Around this time still more fans, colleagues, and writers were coming into Lovecraft’s horizon. One was a very strange individual named William Lumley. Lovecraft writes of him to Derleth in 1931:
Did I tell you of the amusing freak who has looked me up through W.T.? A chap named William Lumley of Buffalo N.Y., who believes in magic & has seriously read all such half-fabulous tomes as Paracelsus, Delrio, &c. &c.—despite an illiteracy which makes him virtually unable to spell. He wanted to know the real facts about the Cthulhu & Yog-Sothoth cults—& when I disillusioned him he made me a gift of a splendid illustrated copy of “Vathek”!
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