I am providence the life.., p.125

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 125


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

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  What, then, did Lillian mean to Lovecraft? It is unusually difficult to say, not only because of the absence of even a single document from her hand but because Lovecraft almost never spoke about her to correspondents. This does not mean that he cared little for her; rather, since 1926 she had become such an expected fixture at 10 Barnes, such a critical part of the normality of his world, that her absence would have been unthinkable. Any friction that may have been caused by her objections to his marriage (something that still remains only a conjecture) must long ago have passed; indeed, Lovecraft would not have poured his heart out to Lillian in letters during his New York stay if they were in any way estranged. Lillian was not only an important link to his mother, but also to his beloved uncle Franklin Chase Clark, who with Whipple Phillips had filled the role of father that Winfield Lovecraft had not had the opportunity to do.

  In the short term, after the funeral—an Anglican service conducted at the Knowles Funeral Chapel on Benefit Street on July 6, with the Rev. Alfred Johnson, an old friend of both the Phillips and Clark families, presiding (he had also presided over Susie’s funeral in 1921)—Lovecraft attempted to dispel his grief by travel. The local ferries were conducting fare wars, and Lovecraft found that he could get a round-trip fare to Newport for only 50¢. He took advantage of this bargain on several occasions in late July, writing on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. In early August Morton came by from New York, and the two of them went to Newport on the 5th.

  In August Lovecraft received two small augmentations to his self-esteem. The July 1932 issue of the American Author, a writers’ journal, contained an article by J. Randle Luten entitled “What Makes a Story Click?” It cited Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Edmond Hamilton (!) as models of narrative prose. In fact, the article is an atrocious piece of work by a writer completely insensitive to any loftier narrative values than “glamor” and suspense. After quoting the first paragraph of “In the Vault,” Luten remarks: “There you are, isn’t that a good opening? Mr. Lovecraft gives his readers a nice morsel to chew on, and prepares you for a nice horror tale.” Although Luten claims to have an admiration for Edgar Allan Poe, he repeatedly misspells his name as well as the title of Smith’s story “The Gorgon.” The article was clearly based on a reading of the April 1932 Weird Tales, which contained both “In the Vault” and “The Gorgon.”

  A somewhat more significant piece of recognition came from Harold S. Farnese (1885–1945), a composer who had won the 1911 composition prize at the Paris Conservatory and was then assistant director of the Institute of Musical Art at Los Angeles. Farnese wished to set two of Lovecraft’s Fungi from Yuggoth sonnets, “Mirage” and “The Elder Pharos” (both in Weird Tales for February–March 1931) to music. Having done so shortly thereafter, Farnese then proposed that Lovecraft write the libretto of an entire opera or music drama based generally on his work, to be titled (rather outlandishly) Yurregarth and Yannimaid or The Swamp City;[60] but Lovecraft declined the offer, citing his complete lack of experience in dramatic composition (evidently his 1918 squib Alfredo did not qualify). It is difficult to imagine what such a work would have been like. As for the music for the two sonnets: from the single page of “The Elder Pharos” (presumably for alto and piano) that I have been able to examine,[61] the work seems like a typical modernist composition of the period, with wildly fluctuating modulations (the key signature gives one sharp, but the melody rarely resolves into either G major or E minor) and a florid and dissonant piano part. I have never heard either work performed.

  One other datum of some moment has emerged from Lovecraft’s brief association with Farnese. In several letters Lovecraft explained his theory of weird fiction at length, but Farnese did not seem quite to grasp its essence. After Lovecraft’s death, Farnese, asked by August Derleth whether he had any letters from Lovecraft, said that he had two long letters and a postcard; but in relating to Derleth the basic thrust of the correspondence, Farnese wrote:

  Upon congratulating HPL upon his work, he answered: “You will, of course, realize that all my stories, unconnected as they may be, are based on one fundamental lore or legend: that this world was inhabited at one time by another race, who in practicing black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside, ever ready to take possession of this earth again” [emphasis Farnese’s]. “The Elders,” as he called them.[62]

  Incredible as it may seem, Farnese was not quoting any actual letter by Lovecraft but paraphrasing—erroneously—some passages from a letter of September 22, 1932. Consider the following:

  In my own efforts to crystallise this spaceward outreaching, I try to utilise as many as possible of the elements which have, under earlier mental and emotional conditions, given man a symbolic feeling of the unreal, the ethereal, & the mystical . . . I have tried to weave them into a kind of shadowy phantasmagoria which may have the same sort of vague coherence as a cycle of traditional myth or legend—with nebulous backgrounds of elder forces & trans-galactic entities which lurk about this infinitesimal planet, (& of course about others as well), establishing outposts thereon, & occasionally brushing aside other accidental forms of life (like human beings) in order to take up full habitation. . . . Having formed a cosmic pantheon, it remains for the fantaisiste to link this “outside” element to the earth in a suitably dramatic & convincing fashion. This, I have thought, is best done through glancing allusions to immemorially ancient cults & idols & documents attesting the recognition of the “outside” forces by men—or by those terrestrial forces which preceded man. The actual climaxes of tales based on such elements naturally have to do with sudden latter-day intrusions of forgotten elder forces on the placid surface of the known . . .[63]

  The result of Farnese’s botched remembrance is vaguely similar to Lovecraft’s letter to Farnsworth Wright of July 5, 1927 (when he resubmitted “The Call of Cthulhu”), but the real thrust of the spurious passage is very different. Nevertheless, August Derleth seized upon it and circulated it (in slightly altered form) as an utterance by Lovecraft as early as “H. P. Lovecraft, Outsider” (River, June 1937), and it became the most notorious piece of “evidence” supporting Derleth’s own misconception of the “Cthulhu Mythos” as a battle of good and evil fundamentally similar to Christianity. Until recently, this “quotation” has been the single most frequently cited sentence attributed to Lovecraft.

  Farnese and Derleth share the blame pretty equally for circulating this apocryphal utterance. Derleth at first had no reason to doubt that the sentence indeed came from a Lovecraft letter, since Farnese had enclosed it within quotation-marks; but he should have known better, for shortly thereafter Farnese sent Lovecraft’s actual letters to Derleth for transcription in the Selected Letters project, and they appear to have been transcribed in their entirety (although not ultimately published in their entirety), and no such quotation appears in these transcripts. But the passage seemed to Derleth so overwhelming a confirmation of his misguided view of Lovecraft—even though it contradicted everything else Lovecraft ever wrote on the subject—that he was unwilling to give it up. Toward the end of his life, when suspicion began to emerge as to the source of the quotation, Derleth became angry when asked to supply its provenance, since he was unable to find it in an actual Lovecraft letter; this led some scholars to believe that Derleth himself had fabricated the quotation—a plausible enough belief until David E. Schultz discovered the letters by Farnese that finally cleared up the whole sorry matter.[64]

  Lovecraft’s travels for 1932 were by no means over. On August 30 he went to Boston to spend time with Cook. The next day the two of them went to Newburyport to see the total solar eclipse, and were rewarded with a fine sight: “The landscape did not change in tone until the solar crescent was rather small, & then a kind of sunset vividness became apparent. When the crescent waned to extreme thinness, the scene grew strange & spectral—an almost deathlike quality inhering in the sickly yellowish light.”[65] From there Lovecraft proceeded to Montreal and Quebec,
spending four full days in the two towns (September 2–6). Lovecraft tried to persuade Cook to come along, but Cook did not relish the very ascetic manner in which his friend travelled (sleeping on trains or buses, scant meals, nonstop sightseeing, etc.). Cook did, however, see Lovecraft on his return, and his portrait is as vivid a reflexion of Lovecraft’s manic travelling habits as one could ask for:

  Early the following Tuesday morning, before I had gone to work, Howard arrived back from Quebec. I have never before nor since seen such a sight. Folds of skin hanging from a skeleton. Eyes sunk in sockets like burnt holes in a blanket. Those delicate, sensitive artist’s hands and fingers nothing but claws. The man was dead except for his nerves, on which he was functioning. . . . I was scared. Because I was scared I was angry. Possibly my anger was largely at myself for letting him go alone on that trip. But whatever its real cause, it was genuine anger that I took out on him. He needed a brake; well, he’d have the brake applied right now.[66]

  Cook immediately took Lovecraft to a Waldorf restaurant and made him have a plentiful meal, then took him back to his rooming house so that he could rest. Cook, returning from work at five, forced Lovecraft to have another meal before letting him go. How Lovecraft could actually derive enjoyment from the places he visited, functioning on pure nervous energy and with so little food and rest, it is difficult to imagine; and yet, he did so again and again.

  Almost immediately upon his return Lovecraft welcomed visitors to Providence. One of them, arriving on the 8th, was his new friend Carl Ferdinand Strauch. He evidently stayed a few days, and surely his old friend Harry Brobst joined in on the proceedings; but he could not stay long enough to meet Lovecraft’s other visitor, Donald Wandrei, who returned to Providence after a five-year absence and arrived around the 13th. All this socialising threw Lovecraft’s work schedule all out of whack—correspondence alone must have piled up prodigiously—but Lovecraft still managed to sneak in another trip to Boston, Salem, and Marblehead in early October.

  Sometime in the spring or summer of 1932 a promising new revision client emerged—promising not because she showed any talent or inclination to become a writer in her own right but because she gave Lovecraft regular work. She was Hazel Heald (1896–1961), a woman about whom I know almost nothing. She was born and apparently spent most of her life in Somerville, Massachusetts, and so far as I know published nothing aside from the five stories Lovecraft revised or ghostwrote for her. Unlike Zealia Bishop, she wrote no memoir of Lovecraft, so that it is not clear how she came in touch with him and what their professional or personal relations were like. Muriel Eddy (if we can trust her on this point) reports that Heald had joined a writers’ club established by the Eddys, and that the latter steered her to Lovecraft when the tenor of her work became evident. Eddy goes on to say that Heald confided to her a vague romantic interest in Lovecraft: she managed to persuade Lovecraft to come to her home in Somerville on one occasion, when she arranged a candlelight dinner with him.[67] I am not at all certain of the veracity of this entire account, given Muriel Eddy’s apparent unreliability on other matters; indeed, the only thing in Lovecraft’s own correspondence to suggest any sort of romantic involvement with Heald (even—as would surely have been the case—a one-sided one) is an amusing mention in a letter to Duane W. Rimel in late 1934, in which he comments on the disappearance of Mrs Heald’s cat, “who ate some Paris green in the cellar, was seized with a sort of frenzy, and dashed out of the house, never to be seen again.”[68] This suggests that their correspondence was not purely on business matters; but neither are his letters to Zealia Bishop, whom nobody suspects of carrying a torch for Lovecraft. Cook reports that Lovecraft was scheduled to meet Heald in Somerville upon his return from Quebec in early September, but this may have been a harmless half-business half-social call. The fact that Lovecraft refers to her as “Mrs Heald” must mean that she was either divorced or widowed.

  There is good reason to believe that several, if not all five, of the stories Lovecraft revised for Heald were written in 1932 or 1933, even though the last of them did not appear in print until 1937. The first of them seems to have been “The Man of Stone” (Wonder Stories, October 1932). Heald wrote to Derleth about the tale: “Lovecraft helped me on this story as much as on the others, and did actually rewrite paragraphs. He would criticize paragraph after paragraph and pencil remarks beside them, and then make me rewrite them until they pleased him.”[69] I think that nearly the entirety of this utterance is false or suspect. Judging from Lovecraft’s comments on Heald’s stories, it is unlikely that Lovecraft merely touched them up or recommended revisions that Heald herself then carried out; instead, most or all of the stories were based on mere synopses and were written by Lovecraft almost entirely on his own. Of all his revisions, along with those written for Zealia Bishop, they come the closest to original composition. None of them is as good as “The Mound,” but several are very fine.

  Lovecraft does not mention “The Man of Stone” in any correspondence I have seen, but he must have worked on it by the summer of 1932 at the latest in order for it to have appeared in the October Wonder Stories. It is in the end a conventional story about Daniel “Mad Dan” Morris, who finds in his ancestral copy of the Book of Eibon a formula to turn any living creature into a stone statue. Morris admits that the formula “depends more on plain chemistry than on the Outer Powers” and that “What it amounts to is a kind of petrification infinitely speeded up”—a pseudo-scientific explanation that evidently was sufficient to pass muster with Hugo Gernsback. Morris successfully turns the trick on Arthur Wheeler, a sculptor who he believes had been making overtures to his wife Rose, but when he attempts it on Rose herself, she tricks him and turns him into stone. Here again, aside from the implausible nature of the supernatural or pseudo-scientific mechanism, Lovecraft’s inability at characterisation betrays him: his depiction of the love triangle is hackneyed and conventional, and Mad Dan’s diary is written in an entirely unconvincing colloquialism. Of course, Lovecraft is hampered by the nature of the basic plot he was given to revise: he himself would never have chosen this scenario for a tale of his own.

  The flaws in “Winged Death,” however, seem largely of Lovecraft’s own making. This preposterous story tells of a scientist, Thomas Slauenwite, who has discovered a rare insect in South Africa whose bite is fatal unless treated with a certain drug; the natives call this insect the “devil-fly” because after killing its victim it purportedly takes over the deceased’s soul or personality. Slauenwite kills a rival scientist, Henry Moore, with this insect, but is later haunted by an insect that seems uncannily to bear tokens of Moore’s personality. The tale ends ridiculously: Slauenwite himself is killed, his soul enters the body of the insect, and he writes a message on the ceiling of his room by dipping his insect body in ink and walking across the ceiling. This grotesque and unintentionally comical conclusion—which Lovecraft admitted was his own invention—is clearly intended to be the acme of horror, but ends up being merely bathetic.

  Lovecraft discussed the story in a letter to Derleth that probably dates to August 1932:

  Sorry your new story parallelled [sic] an earlier author’s work. Something odd befell a client of mine the other day—involving a story-element which I had intended & introduced under the impression that it was strictly original with me. The tale was sent to Handsome Harry [Bates], & he rejected it on the ground that the element in question (the act of an insect dipping itself in ink & writing on a white surface with its own body) formed the crux of another tale which he had accepted. Hell’s bells!—& I thought I’d hit on an idea of absolute novelty & uniqueness![70]

  I do not know what immortal masterwork of literature beat Lovecraft to the punch in this insect-writing idea; but the note about the tale’s submission to Strange Tales is of some interest. Although I have expressed my doubts about Will Murray’s theory that “The Shadow over Innsmouth” was written with Strange Tales in mind, I think it quite plausible that the earlier Heald tales were
written with that better-paying market in view; for here we have an actual submission made to Bates. There is no evidence that the other tales were submitted there; they could well have been, assuming that they were written prior to the magazine’s folding at the end of the year. Lovecraft submitted “Winged Death” to Farnsworth Wright, but the latter must have delayed in accepting the tale, for it was published only in Weird Tales for March 1934. When it appeared, Lovecraft wrote: “‘Winged Death’ is nothing to run a temperature over . . . My share in it is something like 90 to 95%.”[71]

  I fervently hope that “The Horror in the Museum” is a conscious parody—in this case, a parody of Lovecraft’s own myth-cycle. Here we are introduced to a new “god,” Rhan-Tegoth, which the curator of a waxworks museum, George Rogers, claims to have found on an expedition to Alaska. Rogers’s sceptical friend Stephen Jones looks at a photograph of the entity: “To say that such a thing could have an expression seems paradoxical; yet Jones felt that that triangle of bulging fish-eyes and that obliquely poised proboscis all bespoke a blend of hate, greed, and sheer cruelty incomprehensible to mankind because mixed with other emotions not of the world or this solar system.” The extravagance of this utterance points clearly to parody. Indeed, “The Horror in the Museum” could be read as a parody of both “Pickman’s Model” and “The Call of Cthulhu,” Consider the absurdity of the scenario: it is not a mere representation of a god that is secreted in a crate in the cellar of the museum, but the actual god itself! The utterances of the raving Rogers as he madly seeks to sacrifice Jones to Rhan-Tegoth are grotesque:

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