I am providence the life.., p.124
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 124
To Clark Ashton Smith he wrote:
[Lumley] says he has witnessed monstrous rites in deserted cities, has slept in pre-human ruins and awaked 20 years older, has seen strange elemental spirits in all lands (including Buffalo, N.Y.—where he frequently visits a haunted valley and sees a white, misty Presence), has written and collaborated on powerful dramas, has conversed with incredibly wise and monstrously ancient wizards in remote Asiatic fastnesses . . ., and not long ago had sent him from India for perusal a palaeogean and terrible book in an unknown tongue . . . which he could not open without certain ceremonies of purification, including the donning of a white robe!
Lumley (1880–1960) was one of several individuals who had become intrigued with Lovecraft’s evolving pseudomythology (in 1929 Lovecraft had heard from a woman in Boston who was descended from the Salem witches and from a “grotesque Maine person” who sought information on diabolism from Lovecraft, promising not to put it to malign use); most of these correspondents drifted away after a few weeks or months, but Lumley persisted. As with several modern occultists, he was convinced of the literal truth of Lovecraft’s mythos, and it did not matter that Lovecraft and his colleagues claimed it all to be an invention: “We may think we’re writing fiction, and may even (absurd thought!) disbelieve what we write, but at bottom we are telling the truth in spite of ourselves—serving unwittingly as mouthpieces of Tsathoggua, Crom, Cthulhu, and other pleasant Outside gentry.”
A rather more level-headed person was Harry Kern Brobst (1909–2010), who was born in Wilmington, Delaware, and moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1921. He had become interested in weird and science fiction as a youth, being especially fond of the work of Poe, Verne, Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, and Lovecraft. Writing to Farnsworth Wright of Weird Tales, he acquired Lovecraft’s address and began a correspondence, probably in the autumn of 1931. Not long thereafter, however, a fortunate circumstance brought him into much closer touch with his new colleague.
After graduating from high school, Brobst decided to enter the field of psychiatric nursing. A friend of his recommended that he apply to the medical program at Butler Hospital in Providence, and he was accepted. Telling Lovecraft of this turn of events, Brobst received a long letter detailing all the antiquarian glories of Providence and making Brobst feel, as it were, at home in the city even before he got there.
Brobst arrived in Providence in February 1932. A few weeks later he came to visit Lovecraft, and his impressions both of the man and his humble residence at 10 Barnes Street are affecting:
He was a tall man, of sallow complexion, very animated . . ., with dark, sparkling eyes. I don’t know if this description makes much sense, but that was the impression he made—a very vital person. We were friends immediately. . . .
Now at 10 Barnes Street I believe he was on the ground floor. . . . when you went into the room that he occupied there were no windows—it was completely cut off, and he just lived by artificial light. I remember going in there one time and it was in the colder time of the year . . . The room was stuffy, very dusty (he wouldn’t allow anybody to dust it, especially the books); his bedding was quite (I hate to say this) dirty. . . . And he had nothing to eat excepting a piece of cheese.
How will Lovecraft ever live down the ignominy of dirty sheets! He who was so meticulous about his personal tidiness appears to have been less scrupulous about his surroundings. Brobst goes on to say that Lovecraft somewhat theatrically took a book from his shelves and blew off the dust that had accumulated upon it: evidently he felt it quaint for an old fossil like himself to have shelves full of dusty old books.
Brobst would be in very close contact with Lovecraft for the next five years, visiting him several times a week, going with him to museums, having meals with him in restaurants, and welcoming Lovecraft’s out-of-town visitors as they came to visit him. Few knew Lovecraft better at this period, on a personal level, than Harry Brobst. He would later gain a B.A. from Brown in psychology and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He spent many years teaching at Oklahoma State University, and later resided in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Carl Ferdinand Strauch (1908–1989) was a friend of Brobst’s who first wrote to Lovecraft in the autumn of 1931. Born in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, Strauch spent most of his life in Allentown, graduating from Muhlenberg College and later receiving a M.A. from Lehigh (1934) and a Ph.D. from Yale (1946). He worked at the Muhlenberg College library from 1930 to 1933, then began a long teaching career at Lehigh, retiring in 1974 as a full professor. Strauch had published a slim book of poetry, Twenty-nine Poems, in 1932. He later became a distinguished scholar of American literature, publishing studies of Emerson and serving on the editorial board of the Harvard University Press edition of Emerson’s Collected Works (1971f.).
Strauch wrote to Lovecraft quite regularly for a period of about two years; but the correspondence broke off abruptly in the summer of 1933. Strauch had sent Lovecraft a story to assess, and during an all-night session Lovecraft, E. Hoffmann Price, and Brobst evidently tore the thing to shreds, although not maliciously. Brobst believes that Strauch was so crushed by this criticism that he became discouraged and ceased writing to Lovecraft.
In the summer of 1932 Lovecraft came in touch with Ernest A. Edkins. Edkins (1867–1946) was a renowned amateur from the “halcyon days” of amateurdom in the 1890s; Lovecraft much admired this early work, some of which was powerfully weird, although later Edkins repudiated it and claimed to have a great disdain for weird fiction. Lovecraft managed to lure him back into amateurdom in the mid-1930s, and Edkins issued several fine issues of the amateur journal Causerie in 1936. Incredibly, Lovecraft kept all of Edkins’s letters to him, something he rarely did because of his chronic lack of space; and these letters suggest that their correspondence must have been of exceptional interest. But Edkins has written that he somehow lost most or all of Lovecraft’s letters.
Richard Ely Morse (1909–1986) was another associate whom Samuel Loveman introduced to Lovecraft. The two met in person in May 1932, when Lovecraft passed through New York on his way south, and after Lovecraft’s return a brisk correspondence ensued. Morse, a graduate of Amherst College with family ties to Princeton University, had published a book of poetry, Winter Garden (1931), at Amherst, although he did not do much writing thereafter. He worked for a time at the Princeton University Library, then in 1933 was hired by his uncle to do research at the Library of Congress in Washington.
Lovecraft’s feelings about Morse were mixed. While admiring Morse’s sensitivity to poetry, art, and the weird, he saw some drawbacks in his character: “He is a very lean, hatchet-faced dark chap with horn-rimmed glasses. Just a trifle dandified—immaculate, & inclined toward walking-sticks. A suspicion of languid affectation in his voice—which the passing years will doubtless dispel. . . . Decidedly pleasant, on the whole.” Later he was still harsher: “Didn’t see Morse after all—for which I’m rather glad. He has many gifts, and much taste in many fields, but affected, sissified poseurs give me a pain in the neck.”
The Minnesota pulp writer Carl Jacobi (1908–1997) came into personal communication with Lovecraft in late February 1932. Lovecraft spoke warmly of his enjoyment of Jacobi’s fine tale of undersea horror, “Mive” (Weird Tales, January 1932), which might have been influenced by Lovecraft. He read other of Jacobi’s works in the weird, science fiction, and “weird menace” pulps with somewhat less enthusiasm. Jacobi does not seem to have become a regular correspondent of Lovecraft’s, and only one letter (February 27, 1932) has come to light. August Derleth would publish three collections of Jacobi’s weird fiction with Arkham House.
When Harry Brobst arrived in Providence in February 1932, Lovecraft gave him the now customary tour of the city’s antiquarian delights. On this occasion Lovecraft and Brobst saw at the Athenaeum an issue of the American Review for December 1847 containing an unsigned appearance of Poe’s “Ulalume,” with the copy signed in pencil by Poe himself
On that day Lovecraft left for New York, intending to stop only briefly before proceeding farther south; but Frank Long persuaded him to stay a week, since his family’s apartment would be undergoing renovation in June and it would therefore be awkward for Lovecraft to stay there on his return trip. Lovecraft underwent the usual flurry of social calls on the New York gang—Morton, Leeds, Loveman, Kirk, Kleiner, Talman, and others—but finally managed to pull away on May 25, taking the night bus to Washington and from there a succession of buses to Knoxville, Chattanooga (where he went up Lookout Mountain and also into a cave in the mountain), and Memphis (where he saw the Mississippi River for the first time), then down to Vicksburg (whose quaint streets he appreciated) and finally to Natchez.
In Natchez Lovecraft was stimulated both by the spectacular natural landscape (200-foot bluffs above the Mississippi, invigorating tropical climate and vegetation) and the antiquities of the town itself. It had been founded by the French in 1716, transferred to Great Britain in 1763, overrun by the Spanish in 1779, and ceded to the United States in 1798. Many stately mansions still remain, and—rather like Charleston and Newport—the very fact that it gave way in commercial importance to another town (Vicksburg) has allowed its antiquities to be preserved in a sort of museum effect. Lovecraft spent only two days there, but averred that “It takes rank with Charleston, Quebec, Salem, Marblehead, & Newburyport as one of my favourite early-American backwaters.”
Lovecraft then proceeded still farther south to his ultimate destination—New Orleans. It did not take long for him to feel the charm of this distinctive city: having arrived in late May, he was ready to declare by June 6 that the three towns of Charleston, Quebec, and New Orleans “stand out as the most thoroughly ancient & exotic urban centres of North America.” Naturally the French Quarter—the Vieux Carré—with its unique conjoining of French and Spanish architectural styles appealed to him most, although he found even the newer parts with their long shady streets and stately homes appealing. Such things as above-ground cemeteries, inner courtyards of both public and private buildings, the great 1794 cathedral in Jackson Square, and other sites were absorbed; and on June 11 Lovecraft took a ferry across the river to the suburb of Algiers, thus representing the only time in his life that he would set foot on land west of the Mississippi.
An interesting social call occurred toward the end of Lovecraft’s New Orleans stay. He had written of his trip to Robert E. Howard, who bitterly regretted his inability to travel there himself and meet his much-admired correspondent; but Howard did the next best thing and telegraphed his friend E. Hoffmann Price, who had a room in the French Quarter, and told him of Lovecraft’s presence. Price accordingly met Lovecraft on Sunday, June 12, conducting a call that lasted 25½ hours, till midnight on Monday.
Edgar Hoffmann Price (1898–1988) was certainly an unusual individual. A man of many talents ranging from Arabic to fencing, he wrote some fine stories for Weird Tales and other pulps in the early 1920s, including the superb “Stranger from Kurdistan” (Weird Tales, July 1925), which I have already noted as being a possible influence on “The Horror at Red Hook.” Price was a good friend of Farnsworth Wright and may have been acquainted with him even before he became editor of Weird Tales. Lovecraft makes the odd remark in 1927 that “after due deliberation & grave consultation with E. Hoffman [sic] Price, Wright has very properly rejected my ‘Strange High House in the Mist,’ as not sufficiently clear for the acute minds of his highly intelligent readers,” suggesting that Price was acting as a sort of informal consultant to Wright. In 1931 Lovecraft heard from Robert E. Howard that Price and his fellow-writer W. Kirk Mashburn were planning an anthology that would include “Pickman’s Model,” but this came to nothing and Lovecraft evidently did not hear from Price directly on the matter. The next year Price and an agent named August Lenniger conceived of another anthology that would include “The Picture in the House,” but this too came to nothing.
The depression hurt Price in more than one way: in May 1932 he was laid off from the well-paying job he had held with the Prestolite Company, and he decided to try his hand at making a living by writing. He felt he could do so only by writing exactly what the editors wanted, so he began catering quite coldbloodedly to market requirements in many different realms of pulp fiction—weird, “Oriental,” “weird menace,” and the like. The result was that throughout the 1930s and ’40s Price landed a flood of very slick but literarily valueless material in such magazines as Weird Tales, Strange Detective Stories, Spicy-Adventure Stories, Argosy, Strange Stories, Terror Tales, and the like, spelling his aesthetic damnation and relegating the vast majority of his work to the oblivion it deserves.
And yet, Lovecraft was very taken with Price as a person:
Price is a remarkable chap—a West-Pointer, war veteran, Arabic student, connoisseur of Oriental rugs, amateur fencing-master, mathematician, dilettante coppersmith & iron worker, chess-champion, pianist, & what not! He is dark & trim of figure, not very tall, & with a small black moustache. He talks fluently & incessantly, & might be thought a bore by some—although I like to hear him rattling on.
Price, in turn, has an affecting account of his first meeting with Lovecraft:
. . . he carried himself with enough of a slouch to make me underestimate his height as well as the breadth of his shoulders. His face was thin and narrow, longish, with long chin and jaw. He walked with a quick stride. His speech was quick and inclined to jerkiness. It was as though his body was hard put to it to keep up with the agility of his mind. . . .
He was not pompous, and he was not pretentious—quite the contrary. He merely had a knack of using formal and academic diction for the most casual remark. We had not walked a block before I realized that no other way of speech could be truly natural for HPL. Had he used locutions less stilted, and taken to speaking as others did, that would have been an affectation. . . .
Twenty-eight hours we gabbled, swapping ideas, kicking fancies back and forth, topping each other’s whimsies. He had an enormous enthusiasm for new experience: of sight, of sound, of word pattern, of idea pattern. I have met in all my time only one or two others who approached him in what I call “mental greed.” A glutton for words, ideas, thoughts. He elaborated, combined, distilled, and at a machine gun tempo.
As if it were not evident in so many other ways, this first encounter with Price goes far in showing how Lovecraft had matured as a human being over the past fifteen years. In 1917 his meeting with Rheinhart Kleiner—a man with whom he had been corresponding for two years—was stiff and formal to the point of eccentricity. Now, meeting a man with whom he was not previously acquainted at all, he acted with the informality and cordiality of a friend of many years’ standing. It is scarcely to be wondered that a lively correspondence sprung up between the two men upon Lovecraft’s return—a correspondence that Lovecraft himself valued so much, in spite of his antipodal opposition to many of Price’s aesthetic views, that he saved every scrap of it. Aside from Price’s, the only letters to Lovecraft we have in any abundance are those from Donald Wandrei, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, C. L. Moore, and Ernest A. Edkins.
One curious myth that has somehow developed from Lovecraft’s New Orleans trip is the belief that Price took Lovecraft to a whorehouse where the girls proved to be avid readers of Weird Tales and were especially fond of Lovecraft’s stories. In fact, this story applies to Seabury Quinn (assuming it is not entirely apocryphal); the story goes that the girls offered Quinn “one on the house” in honour of his illustrious status. Price explicitly and rather dryly remarks is his memoir that, out of deference to Lovecraft’s sensibilities, “I skipped concubines entirely.”
From New Orleans Lovecraft finally moved on to Mobile, Alabama, then to Montgomery and Atlanta, although the latter city was modern and had no attractions for him. He
Lillian was critically ill and not expected to survive. Lovecraft caught the first train to Providence, arriving late on the 1st. He found Lillian in a semi-coma; she died on the 3rd without, apparently, regaining consciousness. She was seventy-six years old. The cause of death was given on her death certificate as atrophic arthritis. Lovecraft had spoken over the years of her various ailments—chiefly neuritis and lumbago—the general effect of which was to limit her mobility severely and render her largely housebound. These various maladies now finally caught up with her.
Lovecraft was not given to expressing extreme emotions in his correspondence, and that was his right; but his remarks to friends about Lillian’s passing scarcely mask the deep grief he felt:
The suddenness of the event is both bewildering and merciful—the latter because we cannot yet realise, subjectively, that it has actually occurred at all. It would, for example, seem incredibly unnatural to disturb the pillows now arranged for my aunt in the rocker beside my centre-table—her accustomed reading-place each evening.
The vacuum created in this household is easy to imagine, since my aunt was its presiding genius and animating spirit. It will be impossible for me to get concentrated on any project of moment for some time to come—and meanwhile there intervenes the painful task of distributing my aunt’s effects . . . whose familiar arrangement, so expressive of her tastes and personality, I dread to disturb.
That last remark is a dim echo of the turbulence Lovecraft felt at his mother’s death eleven years before—dim because few would feel as much grief at the loss of an aunt as of a mother, and because in that decade’s interval Lovecraft had matured to the point of being able to handle personal loss in a way that did not entail excessive melancholy or wild thoughts of suicide.
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