I am providence the life.., p.129

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 129


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

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  But The Fantasy Fan was not chiefly made up of contributions by the “big names” of the weird fiction field; instead, it offered ready access for novices to express their opinions in letters to the editor and brief articles and tales. R. H. Barlow published nine of his “Annals of the Jinns” sketches throughout the magazine’s run; such fans as Duane W. Rimel, F. Lee Baldwin, and others who would later come into direct contact with Lovecraft had articles or columns in early issues.

  Hornig did, however, make one mistake in judgment by instituting, in the very first issue, a write-in column called “The Boiling Point” in which controversial and polemical opinions were deliberately sought out. The first column featured a gauntlet thrown down by the redoubtable Forrest J Ackerman (1916–2008; the J stands for James, but Ackerman affected the policy of placing no period after it), then already a well-known fan. He criticised the publication of Clark Ashton Smith’s “Dweller in Martian Depths” in Wonder Stories for March 1933: Wonder Stories was a prototypical “scientifiction” pulp, and in Ackerman’s view Smith’s tale was a pure horror story that had no place in the magazine. Had Ackerman restricted his criticism to this point, he would not have left himself so open to attack; but he went on actually to deny merit to the tale (“Frankly, I could not find one redeeming feature about the story”), going on to proclaim: “May the ink dry up in the pen from which [it] flow[s]!”

  This was too much for Lovecraft and other supporters of Smith. Firstly, Smith’s title for the story was “The Dweller in the Gulf”; and secondly, the ending had been wilfully changed, and not for the better, by the Wonder Stories staff. “The Dweller in the Gulf” may not be an immortal masterwork of literature, but purely as a story it was leagues better than much else that appeared in the magazine.

  The next several issues of the Fantasy Fan included hot-tempered letters by Lovecraft, Barlow, and many others heaping abuse on Ackerman, Smith guardedly defending himself, Ackerman fighting back, and on and on. No one comes off very well in the debate, if it can be called that; Robert Nelson perhaps put it best when he said in the November 1933 issue, “The Ackerman-Smith controversy assumes all the aspects of a mad comedy.” By February 1934 Hornig decided that “The Boiling Point” had served its purpose and had in fact aroused too much ill-feeling to be productive. And yet, bitter, vituperative controversies of this sort have remained common in fandom and continue to this day.

  Hornig made a wiser decision when he accepted Lovecraft’s offer of preparing a new edition of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” for serialisation in the magazine.[17] Since writing the essay seven years before, Lovecraft had continued to take notes for additions to it for some future republication. In letters Lovecraft frequently made note of the worthiness—or lack of it—of this or that weird writer for inclusion in his treatise. Finally, the humble Fantasy Fan offered him the chance for revision.

  Lovecraft evidently revised the essay all at once, not piecemeal over the course of the serialisation (October 1933–February 1935); indeed, he seems simply to have sent Hornig an annotated copy of the Recluse, with separate typed (or even handwritten) sheets for the major additions.[18] This is borne out by the nature of the revisions: aside from random revisions in phraseology (“the modern writer D. H. Lawrence” becomes “the late D. H. Lawrence,” since he had died in 1930), there is almost no change in the text save the following additions:

  Chapter VI: the small paragraph on H. H. Ewers and part of the concluding paragraph (on Meyrink’s The Golem);

  Chapter VIII: the section beginning with the discussion of Cram’s “The Dead Valley” up to that discussing the tales of Edward Lucas White; the last paragraph, on Clark Ashton Smith, is augmented;

  Chapter IX: the paragraph on Buchan, much of the long paragraph discussing “the weird short story”, and the long section on Hodgson.

  Of these, the section on Hodgson was added separately in August 1934, while the section on The Golem was revised after April 1935, when Lovecraft (who had based his note on the film version) read the actual novel and disconcertedly observed its enormous difference from the film.

  The serialisation in the Fantasy Fan progressed very slowly, as the magazine could only accommodate a small portion of text in each issue; when the magazine folded in February 1935, it had only published the text up to the middle of Chapter VIII. For the rest of the two years of his life Lovecraft sought in vain to find some fan publisher to continue the serialisation. The complete, revised text of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” did not appear until The Outsider and Others (1939).

  Another individual who established—or attempted to establish—various journals wavering uncertainly between the fan and semi-professional levels was William L. Crawford (1911–1984), with whom Lovecraft came in touch in the fall of 1933. Lovecraft would, with a certain good-natured maliciousness, poke fun at Crawford’s lack of culture by referring to him as Hill-Billy, presumably alluding both to Crawford’s residence in Everett, Pennsylvania (in the Alleghenies), and to his stolid insensitivity to highbrow literature. In a letter to Barlow he presented an annotated version of an actual letter he received from Crawford:

  “I probably will never be able to appreciate literature. I can ‘get it’ [oh, yeah?], but I just can’t appreciate it. When I want to read something deep, I think of a text-book [like Greenleaf’s Primary-School Arithmetic or the First Reader, no doubt!]; when I want to be amused or entertained, I think of ‘pulp’ or light reading. The stories I get in Literature & Life practically put me to sleep—& I don’t think—conceitedly maybe—that it’s because I’m entirely a light-thinker, either, as I spend all my spare time, you might say, speculating on this or that.” [Atta boy, Billy, but be careful not to wear out the ol’ cerebrum!][19]

  Probably Lovecraft didn’t need to add the annotations after all.

  But Crawford meant well. Initially he proposed a non-paying weird magazine titled Unusual Stories but almost immediately ran into difficulties, even though he accepted Lovecraft’s “Celephaïs” and “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” for the magazine.[20] By early 1934 he had proposed a second journal, Marvel Tales, either as a companion to Unusual or a replacement for it. “Celephaïs” appeared in the first issue (May 1934) of Marvel, while “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” finally appeared in the March–April 1935 issue. Two issues of Unusual Stories did emerge in 1935 (prefaced by a queer “advance issue” in the spring of 1934), but contained no work by Lovecraft.

  But Crawford’s bumbling attempts deserve commendation for at least one good result. In the fall of 1933 he asked Lovecraft for a 900-word autobiography for Unusual, evidently the first of a series. Lovecraft had great difficulty condensing his life and opinions into 900 words, so on November 23 he wrote a longer version of about 2300 words and somehow managed to trim this down to the requisite size. The shortened version, now lost, never appeared; but providentially Lovecraft sent the longer version to Barlow for preservation, and this is how we have the piece entitled “Some Notes on a Nonentity.”

  There is not much in this essay that Lovecraft had not said somewhere before, at least in letters; but it is a singularly felicitous and compact account of his life and, toward the end, of his views on the nature and purpose of weird fiction. Some anomalies—such as the omission of any mention of his marriage—have already been noted; but beyond such things, “Some Notes on a Nonentity” is a wonderfully illuminating document—not so much for facts (which we can secure in abundance elsewhere) but for Lovecraft’s own impressions of his character and development. It is, moreover, an elegantly written essay in its own right—perhaps the best single essay Lovecraft ever wrote, with the possible exception of “Cats and Dogs”:

  Nature . . . keenly touched my sense of the fantastic. My home was not far from what was then the edge of the settled residence district, so that I was just as used to the rolling fields, stone walls, giant elms, squat farmhouses, and deep woods of rural New England as to the ancient urban scene. This brooding, primitive
landscape seemed to me to hold some vast but unknown significance, and certain dark wooded hollows near the Seekonk River took on an aura of strangeness not unmixed with vague horror. They figured in my dreams . . .

  But the essay did not appear until 1943, and then in a corrupt text.[21]

  Lovecraft was, inexorably, being drawn back into purely amateur as well as fannish activity. One such venture was the essay “Some Dutch Footprints in New England,” which he wrote sometime in the summer or fall of 1933. The date is difficult to specify because the piece—less than 1500 words long—was the source of months of picayune wrangling between Lovecraft and Wilfred B. Talman, who commissioned it for the Holland Society’s journal, De Halve Maen, which he edited. Talman reports in his memoir that “the quibbling in correspondence over spelling, punctuation, and historical facts before the script suited us both approached book-length proportions,”[22] and was—on Talman’s part—inspired by Lovecraft’s high-handed revision suggestions for “Two Black Bottles” seven years earlier. This is a remarkable admission by Talman, and one that does not redound to his credit: was he waiting nearly a decade to pay Lovecraft back in coin for work that actually launched Talman’s (fleeting and undistinguished) career in the pulps? Let it pass: Lovecraft was tickled at appearing in De Halve Maen, one of the few occasions in which he was published in other than an amateur, fan, or pulp magazine. The article itself—on Dutch colonial traces in various obscure corners of Rhode Island—is no more than competent.

  The revision of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” coincided with an extensive course of rereading and analysing the weird classics in an attempt to revive what Lovecraft believed to be his flagging creative powers. Rejections were still affecting him keenly, and he was beginning to feel written out. Perhaps he needed a break from fiction as he had had in 1908–17; or perhaps a renewed critical reading of the landmarks in the field might rejuvenate him. Whatever the case, Lovecraft produced several interesting documents as a result of this work.

  One can gain an exact knowledge of what Lovecraft read by consulting a notebook of jottings, similar to the commonplace book, titled “Weird Story Plots.” Here we find analytical plot descriptions of works by Poe, Machen, Blackwood, de la Mare, M. R. James, Dunsany, E. F. Benson, Robert W. Chambers, John Buchan, Leonard Cline (The Dark Chamber), and a number of lesser items.[23] Rather more interesting, from an academic perspective, are such things as “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” “Types of Weird Story,” and “A List of Certain Basic Underlying Horrors Effectively Used in Weird Fiction” (this item matching the plot descriptions in “Weird Story Plots” fairly precisely), which represent in their rough and humble way some of the most suggestive theoretical work on the horror tale ever set down. “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” (which exists in several different versions, all slightly different; the soundest text seems to be the one published posthumously in Amateur Correspondent for May–June 1937) is Lovecraft’s canonical statement of his own goals for weird writing, as well as a schematic outline of how he himself wrote his own stories. The centrepiece of this latter section is the idea of preparing two synopses, one giving the scenario of a tale in order of its chronological occurrence, the second in order of its narration in the story. Naturally, the two could be quite different; indeed the degree of their difference is an index to the structural complexity of the tale.

  And yet, this research does not seem to have helped Lovecraft much in the short term, for the first actual story he wrote at this time—“The Thing on the Doorstep,” scribbled frenetically in pencil from August 21 to 24, 1933—is, like “The Dreams in the Witch House,” one of his poorest later efforts.

  The tale, narrated in the first person by Daniel Upton, tells of Upton’s young friend Edward Derby, who since boyhood has displayed a remarkable aesthetic sensitivity toward the weird, in spite of the overprotective coddling he receives from his parents. Derby frequently visits Upton, using a characteristic knock—three raps followed by two more after an interval—to announce himself. Derby attends Miskatonic University and becomes a moderately recognised fantaisiste and poet. When he is thirty-eight he meets Asenath Waite, a young woman at Miskatonic, about whom strange things are whispered: she has anomalous hypnotic powers, creating the momentary impression in her subjects that they are in her body looking across at themselves. Even stranger things are whispered of her father, Ephraim Waite, who died under very peculiar circumstances. Over his father’s opposition, Derby marries Asenath—who is one of the Innsmouth Waites—and settles in a home in Arkham. They seem to undertake very recondite and perhaps dangerous occult experiments. Moreover, people observe curious changes in both of them: whereas Asenath is extremely strong-willed and determined, Edward is flabby and weak-willed; but on occasion he is seen driving Asenath’s car (even though he did not previously know how to drive) with a resolute and almost daemonic expression, and conversely Asenath is seen from a window looking unwontedly meek and defeated. One day Upton receives a call from Maine: Derby is there in a crazed state, and Upton has to fetch him because Derby has suddenly lost the ability to drive. On the trip back Derby tells Upton a wild tale of Asenath forcing him out of his body, and going on to suggest that Asenath is really Ephraim, who forced out the mind of his daughter and placed it in his own dying body. Abruptly Derby’s ramblings come to an end, as if “shut off with an almost mechanical click”: Derby takes the wheel away from Upton and tells him to pay no attention to what he may just have said.

  Some months later Derby visits Upton again. He is in a tremendously excited state, claiming that Asenath has gone away and that he will seek a divorce. Around Christmas of that year Derby breaks down entirely. He cries out: “My brain! My brain! God, Dan—it’s tugging—from beyond—knocking—clawing—that she-devil—even now—Ephraim . . .” He is placed in a mental hospital, and shows no signs of recovery until one day he suddenly seems to be better; but, to Upton’s disappointment and even latent horror, Derby is now in that curiously “energised” state such as he had been during the ride back from Maine. Upton is in an utter turmoil of confusion when one evening he receives a phone call. He cannot make out what the caller is saying—it sounds like “glub . . . glub”—but a little later someone knocks at his door, using Derby’s familiar three-and-two signal. This creature—a “foul, stunted parody” of a human being—is wearing one of Derby’s old coats, which is clearly too big for it. It hands Upton a sheet of paper which explains the whole story: Derby had killed Asenath as a means of escaping her influence and her plans to switch bodies with him altogether; but death did not put an end to Asenath/Ephraim’s mind, for it emerged from the body, thrust itself into the body of Derby, and hurled his mind into the decaying corpse of Asenath, buried in the cellar of their home. Now, with a final burst of determination, Derby (in the body of Asenath) has climbed out of the shallow grave and is now delivering this message to Upton, since he was unable to communicate with him on the phone. Upton promptly goes to the madhouse and shoots the thing that is in Edward Derby’s body; this account is his confession and attempt at exculpation.

  “The Thing on the Doorstep” has many flaws: first, the obviousness of the basic scenario and the utter lack of subtlety in its execution; second, poor writing, laden (as with “The Dreams in the Witch House”) with hyperbole, stale idioms, and dragging verbosity; and third, a complete absence of cosmicism in spite of the frequent dropping of the word “cosmic” throughout the tale (“some damnable, utterly accursed focus of unknown and malign cosmic forces”). The story was clearly influenced by H. B. Drake’s The Shadowy Thing (1928), a poorly written but strangely compelling novel about a man who displays anomalous powers of hypnosis and mind-transference. An entry in the commonplace book (#158) records the plot-germ: “Man has terrible wizard friend who gains influence over him. Kills him in defence of his soul—walls body up in ancient cellar—BUT—the dead wizard (who has said strange things about soul lingering in body) changes bodies with him . . . leaving him a consci
ous corpse in cellar.” This is not exactly a description of the plot of The Shadowy Thing, but rather an imaginative extrapolation based upon it. In Drake’s novel, a man, Avery Booth, does indeed exhibit powers that seem akin to hypnosis, to such a degree that he can oust the mind or personality from another person’s body and occupy it. Booth does so on several occasions throughout the novel, and in the final episode he appears to have come back from the dead (he had been killed in a battle in World War I) and occupied the body of a friend and soldier who had himself been horribly mangled in battle. Lovecraft has amended this plot by introducing the notion of mind-exchange: whereas Drake does not clarify what happens to the ousted mind when it is taken over by the mind of Booth, Lovecraft envisages an exact transference whereby the ousted mind occupies the body of its possessor. Lovecraft then adds a further twist by envisioning what might happen if the occupier’s body were killed and a dispossessed mind was thrust into it. It turns out, then, that in “The Thing on the Doorstep” there are two supernatural phenomena at work: first, the mind-exchange practised by Ephraim/Asenath Waite; and second, the ability of Edward Derby to lend a sort of hideous animation to the dead body of Asenath purely by the strength of his own mind. (It is not at all surprising that the sexually reserved Lovecraft has nothing at all to say about the potentially intriguing gender-switching implied by this mind-exchange.)

  The significant difference between the story and the plot-germ as recorded in the commonplace book is that the “wizard friend” has become the man’s wife. This leads me to suspect the influence of another relatively obscure novel, Barry Pain’s An Exchange of Souls (1911), a book Lovecraft had in his library, which tells the compelling tale of a man who invents a device that will effect the transfer of his “soul” or personality with that of his wife; the man is successful in the enterprise, but in the process his own body dies, leaving him stranded in that alien body of his wife. I have no doubt that Lovecraft picked up hints from this novel for his own tale; but at the same time, this husband-wife interchange allows the story to gain some interest, if only from a biographical perspective. I have earlier noted that some features of Edward Derby’s life supply a masked version of Lovecraft’s own marriage, as well as of certain aspects of his childhood. But there are some anomalies in the portrayal of the youthful Edward Derby that need to be addressed. Derby was “the most phenomenal child scholar I have ever known”: would Lovecraft write something like this about a character who was modelled upon himself? It seems unlikely, given his characteristic modesty; and this makes me think that Derby is an amalgam of several individuals. Consider this remark on Alfred Galpin: “He is intellectually exactly like me save in degree. In degree he is immensely my superior”;[24] elsewhere he refers to Galpin—who was only seventeen when Lovecraft first came in touch with him in 1918—as “the most brilliant, accurate, steel-cold intellect I have ever encountered.”[25] However, Galpin never wrote “verse of a sombre, fantastic, almost morbid cast” as Derby did as a boy; nor did he publish a volume, Azathoth and Other Horrors, when he was eighteen. But did not Clark Ashton Smith create a sensation as a boy prodigy when he published The Star-Treader and Other Poems in 1912, when he was nineteen? And was Smith not a close colleague of George Sterling, who—like Justin Geoffrey in the tale—died in 1926 (Sterling by suicide, Geoffrey of unknown causes)? (Justin Geoffrey was invented by Robert E. Howard in “The Black Stone” [Weird Tales, November 1931], but the date of his death has here been invented by Lovecraft.) On a more whimsical note, Lovecraft’s mention that Derby’s “attempts to grow a moustache were discernible only with difficulty” recalls his frequent censures of the thin moustache Frank Belknap Long attempted for years to cultivate in the 1920s.

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