I am providence the life.., p.128

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 128


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

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  But luck was, on this occasion, with them. After looking at several apartments on the East Side and the college district, Lovecraft and Annie found a delightful house at 66 College Street, on the very crest of the hill, directly behind the John Hay Library and in the midst of Brown’s fraternity row. The house was actually owned by the university and was leased out as two large apartments, one on each of the two floors. The top floor—five rooms plus two attic storerooms—had suddenly become vacant, and Lovecraft and Annie seized on it once they heard of its rent—$10 per week total, presumably half the combined rent for their two separate apartments. Best of all, from Lovecraft’s perspective, was that the house was built in the colonial style. He thought that the house was actually colonial or post-colonial, built around 1800; but current research dates it to about 1825. He would have two rooms—a bedroom and a study—along with an attic storeroom for himself. The place fell vacant on May 1, and Lovecraft moved in on May 15; Annie moved in two weeks later. Lovecraft was unable to believe his good fortune, and hoped only to be able to keep the place for a significant length of time. As it happened, he would remain there for the four years remaining in his life.

  22. In My Own Handwriting


  The house is a square wooden edifice of the 1800 period . . . The fine colonial doorway is like my bookplate come to life, though of a slightly later period with side lights & fan carving instead of a fanlight. In the rear is a picturesque, village-like garden at a higher level than the front of the house. The upper flat we have taken contains 5 rooms besides bath & kitchenette nook on the main (2nd) floor, plus 2 attic storerooms—one of which is so attractive that I wish I could have it for an extra den! My quarters—a large study & a small adjoining bedroom—are on the south side, with my working desk under a west window affording a splendid view of the lower town’s outspread roofs & of the mystical sunsets that flame behind them. The interior is as fascinating as the exterior—with colonial fireplaces, mantels, & chimney cupboards, curving Georgian staircase, wide floor-boards, old-fashioned latches, small-paned windows, six-panel doors, rear wing with floor at a different level (3 steps down), quaint attic stairs, &c.—just like the old houses open as museums. After admiring such all my life, I find something magical & dreamlike in the experience of actually living in one . . . I keep half-expecting a museum guard to come around & kick me out at 5 o’clock closing time![1]

  A passage like this can be found in nearly every letter Lovecraft wrote during this period, and it testifies to the miraculous stroke of luck whereby a move made for purely economic reasons—and after Lovecraft had come to feel so at home at 10 Barnes after seven years’ residence there—resulted in his landing in a colonial-style house he had always longed for. Even his birthplace, 454 Angell Street, was not colonial, although of course it remained dear to his heart for other reasons.

  Lovecraft also provides a plan of the entire place.[2]

  The space seems to have been pretty evenly divided between Lovecraft and Annie, since one imagines both had use of the kitchen and dining room. There certainly seemed to be an abundance of space; indeed, the two of them were able to rescue from storage several pieces of furniture and other items that had not been in use since 454 Angell Street days—a slat-back chair from the eighteenth century, a bust of Clytië on a pedestal, and an immense painting by Lillian.[3] Lovecraft goes on to provide a plan of his own two rooms:[4]

  Examining this plan in conjunction with two photographs taken by R. H. Barlow[5] shortly after Lovecraft’s death gives us a very good picture of Lovecraft’s final home—the study at any rate, as no photographs of the bedroom survive. The study may seem a trifle congested, but Lovecraft always preferred to have as many of his familiar furnishings around him as possible, even if they violated abstract rules of interior decoration.

  The house itself was somewhat oddly positioned. Although the address was 66 College Street, it was set far back from the street, at the end of a narrow alley once called Ely’s Lane; the house itself was perhaps closer to Waterman Street than College. Across the back garden was a boarding-house, at which Annie customarily ate both her meals; Lovecraft would eat there occasionally, but he preferred either going downtown to some cheaper eatery or making his own humble meals out of cans or from groceries purchased at delicatessens or grocery stores such as the Weybosset Food Basket (still in operation). The boarding-house occasionally served as a lodging for Lovecraft’s out-of-town guests, although those who felt inclined to rough it used a mattressless camp cot that Lovecraft purchased.

  One of the most engaging features of the place was a shed next to the boarding-house, whose flat roof supplied an excellent sunning place for the several cats in the area. It was not long before Lovecraft began to make friends with these cats, luring some to his study with catnip and allowing them to sleep in the morris chair or even play on his desk (they were fond of swatting at his rapidly moving pen as he wrote letters). Since he was living on what was then Brown University’s fraternity row, Lovecraft christened this group of felines the Kappa Alpha Tau (K.A.T.), which he claimed stood for Kompwn ?Ailourwn T¢xis (Band of Elegant Cats). Their comings and goings would provide Lovecraft much pleasure, and some heartache, over the years.

  A few months before he moved to 66 College, around March 11, Lovecraft had taken a trip to Hartford, Connecticut—on what he tells one correspondent as “a job of research which a client was conducting at the library there.”[6] Again Lovecraft has prevaricated, and again the reason is connected with his ex-wife; for this was the last time he and Sonia saw each other face to face. After she returned from her European tour, Sonia took a trip to the Hartford suburbs of Farmington and Wethersfield; she was so captivated with the colonial antiquities in these towns that she wrote to Lovecraft and asked him to join her. He did so, spending a day and a night there.

  That evening, before they parted for the night, Sonia said, “Howard, won’t you kiss me goodnight?” Lovecraft replied, “No, it is better not to.” The next morning they explored Hartford itself, and that evening, as they bade each other adieu, Sonia did not ask for a kiss.[7] They never saw each other again nor, so far as I can tell, corresponded.

  The new household at 66 College got off, literally, on the wrong foot when, on June 14, Annie fell down the stairs in answering the doorbell and broke her ankle. She remained in Rhode Island Hospital for four weeks in a cast and returned home on July 5, essentially bedridden and with a nurse in attendance; the cast was removed on August 3, but Annie had to continue using crutches until well into the fall. She did not seem fully recovered from the injury until the next spring. Lovecraft dutifully visited the patient every day while she was in the hospital, and when she came back to 66 he had to stay home during afternoons while the nurse got a few hours off. Slight relief was provided by the installation of an automatic door-answerer in mid-September, shortly after the nurse was dismissed. All this could not have helped the finances of the household, and in an unguarded moment Lovecraft makes note of the “financial strain utterly ruinous to us at the present juncture!”[8] His plan to attend the NAPA convention in New York with W. Paul Cook in early July was abruptly cancelled.

  There was some relief, however. On June 30 the peripatetic E. Hoffmann Price paid Lovecraft a four-day call in Providence in the course of an automobile tour across the country in a 1928 Ford that Lovecraft deemed the Juggernaut. This handy vehicle allowed Lovecraft to see parts of his own state that he had never visited before, in particular the so-called Narragansett Country or South County—the stretch of countryside on the western and southern side of Narragansett Bay, where in the colonial period actual plantations resembling those in the South had existed.

  Harry Brobst joined in some of the festivities. It was at this time, apparently, that the three of them engaged in the all-night dissection of a story by Carl Strauch. There was also a midnight session in St John’s Churchyard, and a feast of Indian curry prepared by Price—the first time Lovecraft had eaten
this delicacy. The two had been discussing the exact ingredients to be used in this dish for months in their correspondence, and when it came time actually to make it, they behaved like mad scientists cooking up some nameless and sinister brew. As Price tells it:

  “More chemicals and acids?” I’d ask him.

  “Mmm . . . this is savory, and by no means lacking in fire, but it could be more vigorous.”

  When he agreed that it was about right, I admitted that while I had eaten hotter curry in my time, this was certainly strong enough.[9]

  Brobst, however, made the faux pas of bringing a six-pack of beer. Price in his memoir states that beer was now legal, but it would not become so until the end of the year; but repeal of the 18th Amendment was imminent, and no one had any fear from the police. Lovecraft, however, had apparently never seen such a quantity of alcoholic beverages before. Let Price again tell the story:

  “And what,” he asked, out of scientific curiosity, “are you going to do with so much of it?”

  “Drink it,” said Brobst. “Only three bottles a-piece.”

  I’ll never forget HPL’s look of utter incredulity. . . . And he watched us with unconcealed curiosity, and with a touch of apprehension, as we drank three bottles a-piece. I’m sure he made a detailed entry in his journal to record this, to him, unusual feat.

  Still another entertaining episode occurred when Lovecraft, responding to Price’s relentless insistence, took his guest to a celebrated seafood restaurant in Pawtuxet for a clam dinner. Price knew of Lovecraft’s detestation of seafood and should have predicted the response: “While you are devouring that God-damned stuff, I shall cross the street and eat a sandwich. Please excuse me.” Price goes on to say that profanity of this sort was saved for “state occasions”; this seems to be the case both in speech and in correspondence, where the worst I have found is “goddamned bull-shit.”[10]

  Frank Long and his parents took Lovecraft again to Onset for a weekend in late July, and James F. Morton visited Lovecraft from July 31 to August 2. Among a flurry of activities were long rural walks and a boat trip to Newport, where the two of them sat on the sea-cliffs where, two centuries before, George Berkeley had dwelt for a few years.

  Lovecraft’s third and last trip to Quebec occurred in early September, when Annie gave Lovecraft a belated birthday present of a week’s vacation from nursing. He prefaced the trip by visiting Cook in Boston on September 2, then crammed as much into the next four days as possible, seeing all the sights he had seen on his two previous visits. Lovecraft also managed one day in Montreal, which he found appealing if entirely modern. Annie tended to laugh at Lovecraft for wanting to visit the same spots over and over again (especially Charleston and Quebec);[11] but in reality Lovecraft in the last decade of his life did cover a pretty fair ground up and down the eastern seaboard. It is, however, no surprise that he kept being drawn to certain especial concentrations of antiquity and charm—they seemed to have the power to evoke endless chains of associations that allowed him to merge his consciousness into the historic time-stream of this continent and of its European founders.

  In somewhat the same vein, Lovecraft in the fall did something he had been always been meaning to do: he spent Thanksgiving at Plymouth, where the ceremony had begun 312 years before. It was, in part, the incredibly warm temperature—68? in the afternoon—that permitted him to make such a trip so close to winter, and he had a delightful time: “The old town was fascinating . . . I put in most of the time exploring, & saw an exquisite sunset from the top of Burial Hill. In the evening the moonlight on the harbour was fascinating.”[12]

  In late summer 1933 Samuel Loveman spoke with an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Allen G. Ullman, about Lovecraft’s stories, showing him “The Dreams in the Witch House.” On the 1st of August Ullman wrote to Lovecraft asking to see a few more tales, and on the 3rd Lovecraft sent Ullman seven stories: “The Picture in the House,” “The Music of Erich Zann,” “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Strange High House in the Mist,” “Pickman’s Model,” “The Colour out of Space,” and “The Dunwich Horror.” Ullman seemed reasonably impressed with this batch and (apparently through Loveman) conveyed the desire to see still more—“everything which I or others have thought good in the past.”[13] The result was that Lovecraft now sent Ullman eighteen more stories—nearly all the work he had not repudiated.

  Sympathetic as I generally am to Lovecraft’s relentlessly uncommercial stance, I have difficulty refraining from a strong inclination to kick him in the seat of the pants for the letter he wrote to Ullman accompanying these eighteen stories. Throughout the letter Lovecraft denigrates his own work out of what he fancies to be gentlemanly humility but which Ullman probably took to be lack of confidence in his own work. It is irrelevant that Lovecraft is probably correct in some of his evaluations; if he was serious in trying to sell a collection of his tales to one of the most prestigious of New York publishing houses, he ought not to have commented that “The Tomb” is “stiff in diction”; that “The Temple” is “nothing remarkable”; that “The Outsider” is “rather bombastic in style & mechanical in climax”; that “The Call of Cthulhu” is “not so bad”; and on and on. For some unexplained reason, perhaps because they were not published, Lovecraft did not send At the Mountains of Madness or “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” two of his strongest works.

  It is scarcely a surprise that Ullman ultimately rejected the collection, sending Lovecraft on another round of self-recrimination. And yet, in this case the rejection was not entirely the fault of Lovecraft’s lack of salesmanship. Ullman had asked Farnsworth Wright of Weird Tales whether he could dispose of 1000 copies of a proposed collection of Lovecraft’s stories through the magazine; Wright said he could not guarantee such a sale, and Ullman promptly turned down the stories.[14] Wright certainly seems to have been excessively cautious on the issue, although perhaps Weird Tales’ own dubious fortunes in the depression had something to do with it. Wright compounded the problem by stating tantalisingly in the December 1933 issue of Weird Tales that “We hope to have an important announcement to make soon about Lovecraft’s stories”[15]—a remark Lovecraft was forced to explain away to his many correspondents who saw it.

  The Knopf deal is probably the closest Lovecraft ever came to having a book published in his lifetime by a mainstream publisher. If he had done so, the rest of his career—and, it is not too much to say, the entire subsequent history of American weird fiction—may have been very different. But, after this fourth failure at book publication (following Weird Tales, Putnam’s, and Vanguard), the last four years of Lovecraft’s life were increasingly filled with doubt, diffidence, and depression about his work, until toward the end he came to believe that he had entirely failed as a fictionist. Lovecraft’s sensitivity to rejection was a regrettable flaw in his character, and it has perhaps robbed us of more stories from his pen.

  In September 1933 The Fantasy Fan began publication. This is, canonically, the first “fan” magazine in the domain of weird/fantastic fiction, and it inaugurated a rich, complex, and somewhat unruly tradition—still flourishing today—of fan activity in this realm. The word “fan”—short for fanatic—began gaining currency in late nineteenth-century America as a term denoting followers of sporting teams, later being extended to devoted followers of any hobby or activity. From the beginning it connoted uncritical adulation, immaturity, and, perhaps, unworthiness of the object of devotion. These connotations, in some senses unjust, are perhaps not entirely to be dismissed. There may be fantasy fans, but there are no Beethoven fans.

  It is an anomaly beyond my powers of explanation that the fields of fantasy, horror, and science fiction have attracted legions of fans who are not content to read and collect the literature but must write about it and its authors, and publish—often at considerable expense—small magazines or books devoted to the subject. There is no analogous fan network in the fields of detective fiction or the Western, even though the first of these fields certainly attracts a
far larger body of fans than does weird fiction. Nor is this fan activity entirely to be despised: many of today’s leading critics of weird fiction emerged from the realm of fandom and still retain connexions with it. Fandom is perhaps most charitably seen as a training ground that permits young writers and critics (most individuals become fans as teenagers) to hone their nascent abilities; but the field has gained well-deserved contempt because so many of its participants never seem to advance beyond its essentially juvenile level.

  The Fantasy Fan was edited by Charles D. Hornig (1916–1999) of Elizabeth, New Jersey, who was scarcely seventeen when the magazine was launched. Celebrated as it is, it operated at a loss during its entire run: it had a pitifully small circulation in its day—only 60 subscribers[16] and a print run probably not exceeding 300—and, in spite of the fact that it was typeset (the printer was the young Conrad Ruppert), looks very crude and amateurish today, especially since it was printed on poor paper that has turned a dark brown over the years. But it attracted immediate attention throughout the world of weird fiction, not only among fans but among its leading authors. Lovecraft saw in it a chance to land (without pay, of course) his oft-rejected tales, so that in this way he could gain a modicum of lending copies in printed form and save wear and tear on his manuscripts. He urged Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and even the relentlessly professional August Derleth to send original stories to it, and the appearance of works by these and other writers has made The Fantasy Fan a choice collectible commanding high prices. It is rare to find a complete set of the eighteen monthly issues.

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