I am providence the life.., p.130

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 130


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

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  But if Derby’s youth and young manhood are an amalgam of Lovecraft and some of his closest associates, his marriage to Asenath Waite brings certain aspects of Lovecraft’s marriage to Sonia manifestly to mind. In the first place there is the fact that Sonia was clearly the more strong-willed member of the couple; it was certainly from her initiative that the marriage took place at all and that Lovecraft uprooted himself from Providence to come to live in New York. The objections of Derby’s father to Asenath—and specifically to Derby’s wish to marry her—may dimly echo the apparently unspoken objections of Lovecraft’s aunts to his marriage to Sonia.

  Aside from these points of biographical interest, however, “The Thing on the Doorstep” is crude, obvious, lacking in subtlety of execution or depth of conception, and histrionically written. One of its few memorable features is the hideous and grisly conclusion, where Edward—who, trapped in Asenath’s decaying body, displays more will and determination than he ever had in his own body—resolutely attempts to call Upton over the phone and, finding that his decomposing body is incapable of enunciating words, writes a note to Upton and brings it to him before dissolving on his doorstep in “mostly liquescent horror.” In a sense this story is a reprise of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, although actual mind-exchange does not occur there as it does here; but the attempt by Asenath (in Derby’s body) to pass herself off as Edward in the madhouse is precisely analogous to Joseph Curwen’s attempts to maintain that he is Charles Dexter Ward. In this case, however, it cannot be said that Lovecraft has improved on the original.

  One glancing note in the story that has caused considerable misunderstanding is Upton’s remark about Asenath: “Her crowning rage . . . was that she was not a man; since she believed a male brain had certain unique and far-reaching cosmic powers.” This sentiment is clearly expressed as Asenath’s (who, let us recall, is only Ephraim in another body), and need not be attributed to Lovecraft. A decade earlier he had indeed uttered some silly remarks on women’s intelligence: “Females are in Truth much given to affected Baby Lisping . . . They are by Nature literal, prosaic, and commonplace, given to dull realistick Details and practical Things, and incapable alike of vigorous artistick Creation and genuine, first-hand appreciation.”[26] One wonders on what evidence this could have been based, since Lovecraft had known almost no women except members of his own family up to this time. But by the 1930s he had come to a more sensible position: “I do not regard the rise of woman as a bad sign. Rather do I fancy that her traditional subordination was itself an artificial and undesirable condition based on Oriental influences. . . . The feminine mind does not cover the same territory as the masculine, but is probably little if any inferior in total quality.”[27] I am not sure what the exact import of that remark is, but at least his attitude is a little more rational than before—indeed, more rational than that of many of his generation.

  The year 1933 seems to have been an especially difficult one for Lovecraft as a writer. He was clearly attempting to capture on paper various ideas clamouring for expression, but seemed unable to do so. At least two other works of fiction may have been written at this time; one of them is the fragment entitled (by R. H. Barlow) “The Book.” The exact date of this item is not known, but in a letter of October 1933 Lovecraft wrote as follows: “I am at a sort of standstill in writing—disgusted at much of my older work, & uncertain as to avenues of improvement. In recent weeks I have done a tremendous amount of experimenting in different styles & perspectives, but have destroyed most [my italics] of the results.”[28] If “The Book” was one of the things Lovecraft was writing at this time, it could well qualify as a piece of experimentation; for it appears to be nothing more than an attempt to write out Fungi from Yuggoth in prose. The first three sonnets of the cycle do indeed form a connected narrative; and the fact that the story fragment peters out into inconclusive vagueness after this point may further suggest that there is no “continuity”—certainly not on the level of plot—in the sonnet sequence. And the very fact that he undertook such a task suggests that Lovecraft, despairing of finding new ideas for fiction (in spite of the dozens of unused entries in his commonplace book), was desperately seeking to cannibalise from his own work in a vain attempt to revive his flagging inspiration.

  The other item that was probably written in 1933 is “The Evil Clergyman.” This is nothing more than an account of a dream written up in a letter to Bernard Austin Dwyer. The excerpt was made and a title (“The Wicked Clergyman”) supplied by Dwyer; it was first published in Weird Tales (April 1939) and retitled “The Evil Clergyman” by Derleth. Lovecraft remarked in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith on October 22, 1933, that “Some months ago I had a dream of an evil clergyman in a garret full of forbidden books,”[29] and it is likely that the account of the dream was written up in a letter to Dwyer at this time or earlier; Derleth’s dating of the item to 1937 is entirely unfounded.

  It is hardly worth discussing “The Evil Clergyman” as a story, since it was never meant to stand as a discrete and self-contained narrative. Some of the imagery and atmosphere are reminiscent of “The Festival,” although the dream takes place in England. Unlike “The Thing on the Doorstep” and other tales, this dream-fragment does not involve mind-transference but transference of a very physical sort: because the protagonist has unwisely handled a small box that he was specifically told not to touch, he has summoned the “evil clergyman” and somehow effected an exchange of external features with him, while yet retaining his mind and personality. It is difficult to say how Lovecraft would have developed this curiously conventional supernatural scenario in light of his later quasi-science fictional work.

  Lovecraft was becoming the hub of an increasingly complex network of fans and writers in the field of weird and science fiction; and in the last four years of his life he attracted a substantial number of young people (mostly boys) who looked upon him as a living legend. I have already noted that R. H. Barlow first came in touch with Lovecraft at the age of thirteen in 1931; now other teenagers came to the fore.

  The most promising of them—or, rather, the one who in the end amounted to the most—was Robert Bloch (1917–1994), who first wrote to Lovecraft in the spring of 1933. Bloch, born in Chicago but at this time a resident of Milwaukee, had just turned sixteen and had been reading Weird Tales since 1927. To the end of his life Bloch remained grateful to Lovecraft for his lengthy reply to his fan letter and for continuing to write to him over the next four years.

  In that very first letter, Lovecraft asked his young correspondent whether he had written any weird work and, if so, whether he might see samples of it. Bloch took up Lovecraft’s offer in late April, sending him two short items. Lovecraft’s response to these pieces of juvenilia (which, along with a good many others Bloch sent to Lovecraft, do not survive) is typical: while praising them, he also gave helpful advice derived from his many years as both a critic and a practitioner of the weird tale:

  It was with the keenest interest & pleasure that I read your two brief horror-sketches; whose rhythm & atmospheric colouring convey a very genuine air of unholy immanence & nameless menace, & which strike me as promising in the very highest degree. I think you have managed to create a dark tension & apprehension of a sort all too seldom encountered in weird fiction, & believe that your gift for this atmosphere-weaving will serve you in good stead when you attempt longer & more intricately plotted pieces. . . . Of course, these productions are not free from the earmarks of youth. A critic might complain that the colouring is laid on too thickly—too much overt inculcation of horror as opposed to the subtle, gradual suggestion of concealed horror which actually raises fear to its highest pitch. In later work you will probably be less disposed to pile on great numbers of horrific words (an early & scarcely-conquered habit of my own), but will seek rather to select a few words—whose precise position in the text, & whose deep associative power, will make them in effect more terrible than any barrage of monstrous adjectives, malign nouns, & unhallowed verb

  This is a litany that Lovecraft would repeat for at least another year. The advice paid off more expeditiously than either correspondent could have imagined, for in just over a year, in July 1934, Bloch landed his first story in Weird Tales. The tale—“The Secret in the Tomb” (Weird Tales, May 1935)—appeared after his second accepted story, “The Feast in the Abbey” (Weird Tales, January 1935); but from this point on Bloch rapidly became a regular in the magazine, and—although this occurred chiefly after Lovecraft’s death—branched out into the mystery and science fiction fields as well.

  F. Lee Baldwin (1913–1987) came in touch with Lovecraft in the fall of 1933, as he wished to reissue “The Colour out of Space” as a booklet, in an edition of 200 copies that would sell for 25¢.[31] Although Lovecraft prepared a slightly revised text of the story for Baldwin, this venture was yet another of the many book prospects for Lovecraft’s work that never came off. The correspondence continued, however, for another two years, until Baldwin lost interest in the field of weird fiction. Lovecraft found Baldwin interesting because he was a native of Lewiston, Idaho, and was familiar with the Snake River area where Lovecraft’s grandfather Whipple Phillips had worked in the 1890s. In 1933 Baldwin was in Asotin, in the western part of Washington State.[32]

  Strangely enough, Lovecraft independently came into contact with another individual in Asotin, Duane W. Rimel, in early 1934; he put Baldwin in touch with Rimel shortly thereafter. Rimel (1915–1996) continued his correspondence with Lovecraft until the latter’s death and would become as close a colleague and informal revision client as their situation on opposite sides of the country allowed. Rimel was, like Bloch, a budding writer of weird fiction, but even under Lovecraft’s tutelage he did not develop into a full-fledged professional; he did manage to have a few stories published in professional magazines (two in Weird Tales) and several more in fan and semi-pro magazines, but that was all. After Lovecraft’s death he wrote Westerns and other hackwork (including soft-core pornography) under a variety of pseudonyms.[33]

  Richard F. Searight (1902–1975) was not exactly a teenage fan when he began corresponding with Lovecraft in late summer of 1933; indeed, he had had one collaborative story in an early issue of Weird Tales (“The Brain in the Jar” in November 1924). A native of Michigan, Searight worked as a telegraph operator for many years. By the early 1930s he decided to return to literature, writing a series of tales and poems that he wished Lovecraft to revise and help him to place professionally. Lovecraft felt that he could not help Searight in a revisory capacity (his stories’ “occasional shortcomings are matters of subject-matter rather than of technique”[34]) but encouraged him to reconceive his work along less conventional lines. Searight attempted to follow Lovecraft’s advice and did manage to land some tales in Wonder Stories and other science fiction pulps, although many remained unpublished.

  One story that landed in Weird Tales for March 1935, “The Sealed Casket,” is worth some consideration—not intrinsically, for it is at best a mediocre item, but for Lovecraft’s tangential involvement in it. Lovecraft read the tale in January 1934, remarking of it: “I . . . believe it is unqualifiedly the best thing you have done so far.”[35] There is no evidence that Lovecraft revised any portion of the text proper. Some have believed that the epigraph—not published in Weird Tales—is Lovecraft’s, but there is no evidence for this assertion, either. The epigraph and its purported source (the Eltdown Shards) are clearly the work of Searight: Lovecraft admitted only to altering a single word in the epigraph’s text.[36] Lovecraft, of course, later cited the Eltdown Shards as another of the many cryptic documents of occult lore in his mythos, but the Shards themselves are clearly the invention of Searight.

  Herman C. Koenig (1893–1959) was, like Searight, well beyond his teen years when he wrote to Lovecraft in the fall of 1933. An employee of the Electrical Testing Laboratories in New York City, Koenig had an impressive private collection of rare books, and he had asked Lovecraft about the Necronomicon and how it could be procured. Lovecraft, disillusioning Koenig about the reality of the volume, nevertheless continued to stay in touch with him, and Koenig would lend him a significant number of weird books that would affect Lovecraft strongly over the next several years.

  Helen V. Sully (1905–1997) met Lovecraft in person before corresponding with him. The daughter of Genevieve K. Sully, a married woman in Auburn, California, with whom Clark Ashton Smith apparently carried on a longtime affair, Sully decided to explore the eastern seaboard in the summer of 1933, and Smith urged her to look up Lovecraft in Providence. She did so, arriving in the city in early July and being shown all the sites in Providence as well as Newport, Newburyport, and elsewhere. Lovecraft paid for all Sully’s expenses—meals, trips, lodging at the boarding house across the street from 66 College—while he was her host; she could not have known what a severe burden this must have placed upon his own perilous financial condition. One evening Lovecraft took her to one of his favourite haunts, the hidden churchyard of St John’s Episcopal Church:

  It was dark, and he began to tell me strange, weird stories in a sepulchral tone and, despite the fact that I am a very matter-of-fact person, something about his manner, the darkness, and a sort of eerie light that seemed to hover over the gravestones got me so wrought up that I began to run out of the cemetery with him close at my heels, with the one thought that I must get up to the street before he, or whatever it was, grabbed me. I reached a street lamp, trembling, panting, and almost in tears, and he had the strangest look on his face, almost of triumph. Nothing was said.[37]

  What a ladies’ man. It should be noted that Sully was indeed an exceptionally attractive woman. When she went to New York after visiting Lovecraft, she bowled over the entire weird fiction crowd there: Lovecraft dryly reports having to keep Frank Long and Donald Wandrei from fighting a duel over her.[38]

  Lovecraft, for his part, regarded Sully with avuncular benignance, writing her long letters about his travels and about the morality of the younger generation; but he so irritated her with his formality of address that she demanded that he refer to her as Helen and not as Miss Sully, to which he replied sheepishly: “Certainly, I am no surname-addict!”[39] I shall have more to say about the content of these letters presently.

  Meanwhile some of Lovecraft’s older colleagues were achieving literary or commercial success in the pulp field at the very time that his own work was faring poorly because of its failure to conform to pulp conventions. Frank Belknap Long had made the transition from weird fiction to science fiction with ease, and by the early 1930s was grinding out hackwork for Astounding and other pulps. Earlier he had incorporated Lovecraft’s “Roman dream” of 1927 into the novel The Horror from the Hills, serialised in Weird Tales in 1931 (it did not achieve separate book publication until 1963). Long continued to publish short stories in Weird Tales, but he realised that he needed to expand his markets, so turned to “scientifiction.” Lovecraft was amused to note that Long, although flirting with communism, was enough of a businessman to make a suitable amount of spending money in pulp fiction.

  Clark Ashton Smith—who, as I have mentioned earlier, voluminously took to fiction writing in early 1930—also came to realise that the field of science fiction or science fantasy offered more, and more lucrative, markets than the very narrow realm of weird fiction, where Weird Tales was basically alone aside from fleeting and sporadic competitors. Accordingly, Smith—whose work in some senses fitted naturally into the science fantasy mode in any event—managed to break into many markets that Lovecraft was unable or unwilling to attempt: Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories, the revived Street & Smith Astounding Stories, even now-obscure pulps such as Amazing Detective Tales (also edited by Gernsback). Wonder Stories proved to be Smith’s most regular market, and its editors frequently asked him for series of interplanetary tales written more or less according to formula; Smith complied, attempting as best he could to infuse some of his own personality in them. The only problem with Wonder
Stories was a mundane but highly irritating one: in true Gernsbackian fashion, it paid very poorly and very late. In the mid-1930s Smith actually had to hire a lawyer to collect on a debt of nearly $1000 owed him for many stories and novelettes.

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