I am providence the life.., p.131
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 131
But Smith continued to be rejected nearly as often as he was accepted by the weird and science fiction pulps. Six of his Weird Tales rejects—no worse, and in some cases much better, than the stories he published in the magazine—were self-published in the summer of 1933 as The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies. This oddly dimensioned booklet—8½ × 11½", in two columns, and consisting of only 30 pages—sold for 25¢; and at that, it took Smith several years to recoup his printing costs (the book was printed at the office of the Auburn Journal). Lovecraft frequently noted what a bargain Smith was offering: six stories for a quarter as opposed to his own stillborn Shunned House, a single story for which W. Paul Cook had planned to charge a dollar. Smith somehow managed to eke out a living for himself and his parents through the early 1930s. His mother died in September 1935 and his father in December 1937; but by then Smith had virtually ceased to write fiction, turning his attention to sculpture.
Donald Wandrei had published a second collection of poetry, Dark Odyssey, at his own expense in 1931, but he too then turned to the pulps to establish a name for himself as a weird and science fiction author. In the course of the 1930s Wandrei published in Weird Tales, Astounding, Wonder Stories, Argosy, and even the newly founded men’s magazine Esquire; he also wrote a series of potboiler mysteries for Clues Detective Stories. A more serious work was a weird novel initially titled Dead Titans, Waken!, which Lovecraft read in manuscript in early 1932. Lovecraft thought it a powerful work—especially the climactic scene of underground horror—but felt that earlier portions needed revision. Wandrei, however, could not bear the thought of retyping the novel so soon after finishing it; instead, he sent it on the rounds of publishers, who rejected it. Finally it was published, in a slightly different form, as The Web of Easter Island in 1948.
August Derleth had, since the mid-1920s, established himself as a fixture of sorts in Weird Tales with very short macabre tales. In 1929 he turned to what would, in effect, become his trademark: pastiche. A year before the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Derleth invented a Sherlock Holmes imitation named Solar Pons; the first story in which Pons figured, “The Adventure of the Black Narcissus,” appeared in Dragnet for February 1929. Derleth asked Lovecraft to write a letter of commendation to the editor of Dragnet so that more of his stories might be considered; Lovecraft genially complied, writing in a letter to the editor (published in the April 1929 issue) that “‘Solar Pons’ seems eminently qualified to take rank with the standard detectives of fiction.” Derleth published only one more Solar Pons story in Dragnet, but Pons’s career was launched, and his adventures would eventually fill six collections of short stories, one short novel, and assorted addenda. In the early 1930s Derleth created another detective hero, Judge Peck. He wrote three novels in quick succession: The Man on All Fours (1934); Three Who Died (1935); and The Sign of Fear (1935). Lovecraft guessed the solutions to the murders on pp. 32, 145, and 259, respectively.
But Derleth had, Janus-like, been writing these potboilers with his left hand and sensitive regional and personality sketches with his right hand for non-paying little magazines since at least 1929. It was this work—beginning with a novel initially titled The Early Years that was later metamorphosed, after many revisions, into Evening in Spring (1941)—upon which Derleth hoped to build his mainstream reputation; for a time, just before and just after Lovecraft’s death, he was doing exactly that.
Derleth’s first serious work to be published in book form was Place of Hawks (1935), a series of four interconnected novelettes about individuals and families in the Sac Prairie region of Wisconsin, narrated by a young boy, Stephen Grendon (one of Derleth’s pseudonyms), who observes his surroundings in the company of his doctor grandfather. Place of Hawks is a poignant volume and a credit to any writer intent on staking a claim in the mainstream literary world. One passage, placed in the mouth of a character, perhaps describes Derleth’s own motives in writing:
“Every spring to watch the earth grow green, to see the birds come back again, to feel the sky become a softer blue, to breathe new life with every breath; every summer to see the grain green and ripen, to mow and stack sweet-smelling hay, to drowse in the season’s somnolence; every fall to gather fruit from laden branches, to see the leaves turn red and brown and fall, carpeting the earth, to watch the birds take flight; every winter to look out upon the fields and rolling hills, soothed by the soft white snow, to mark the drear, grey days with trivial details of living here—sweet, sweet living. That’s my life. I want nothing more. I write. How could I keep from writing? How the wind crests the hills in April, how the violets purple the earth in May, how the spring night soothes with a thousand kindly hands. These things enrich my life.”
Affecting as this is, it is nevertheless an incomplete account of Derleth’s serious work; for throughout Place of Hawks and other writings of this period Derleth reveals a remarkable skill at character portrayal and at the interplay of emotional tensions in close-knit rural families. As early as 1932 Lovecraft remarked to E. Hoffmann Price:
Look how Derleth does it—he, a husky young egotist of 23, can for a time actually be, in a psychological sense, a wistful, faded old lady of 85, with all the natural thoughts, prejudices, feelings, perspectives, fears, prides, mental mannerisms, and speech-tricks of such a lady. Or he can be an elderly doctor—or a small boy—or a half-demented young mother—in every case understanding and entering into the type so fully that, for the moment, his interests and outlooks and difficulties and idioms are those of the character, with the corresponding qualities of August William Derleth quite forgotten.
No doubt Lovecraft envied Derleth his skill in character portrayal, since this was one of his most significant deficiencies. He had read the novelettes comprising Place of Hawks as early as 1932 and had made comments on small points of language and motivation—points that Derleth resolutely ignored (as he ignored similar suggestions by Lovecraft for his weird and detective fiction), even though Lovecraft was clearly right on some issues.
Lovecraft had been reading The Early Years since 1929, but it is unclear how close is the final published book, Evening in Spring, to the several drafts Derleth successively wrote. Lovecraft’s comments suggest that this work was a reminiscent novel in the manner of Proust, but Evening in Spring is merely a tale of young love with few if any of the extended, pseudo-stream-of-consciousness passages Lovecraft appears to have read. In its final form it is, to my mind, inferior to Place of Hawks. Nevertheless, upon its publication it was hailed as a significant contribution to American literature and Derleth a noteworthy young novelist (he was only thirty-two when it appeared); but, in the eyes of most readers and critics, Derleth failed to deliver on this early promise and after World War II his reputation declined inexorably.
Lovecraft’s colleagues were not merely getting widely published in the pulps; they were writing work clearly influenced by Lovecraft and were laying the groundwork for the proliferation of what came to be called the “Cthulhu Mythos.” After Lovecraft’s death it was August Derleth who would spearhead this movement; but at this juncture the lead was perhaps taken by Smith, Howard, Wandrei, and Bloch.
It would be tedious to record the various name-droppings and other cross-references that Lovecraft and his colleagues made in their tales—a procedure that, as early as 1930, led some readers of Weird Tales to suspect that a real body of myth was being drawn upon. What was really happening was that some of Lovecraft’s associates were evolving their own pseudo-mythological cycles that merged into Lovecraft’s own cycle through mutual citation and allusion. It is, certainly, unlikely that this would have occurred had not Lovecraft’s own work provided the model and impetus; but it is still somewhat problematical to meld his associates’ creations into his own without considering their separate origin. Hence, Clark Ashton Smith invented the sorcerer Eibon (who wrote the Book of Eibon), the city of Commoriom, the god Tsathoggua, and the like; Howard, von Junzt’s Nameless Cults (= Unaussprechlichen Kulten); Bloch,
In terms of actual imitation of Lovecraft’s style and manner, it was Wandrei who at this period led the way, but without appreciably “adding” to the overall mythology. Hence, “The Tree-Men of M’Bwa” (Weird Tales, February 1932) is considered a tale of the “Cthulhu Mythos” but makes no reference to any books, places, or entities of the cycle; it does, however, allude to a “master in the Whirling Flux” who is “of a different universe, a different dimension,” bringing “The Dunwich Horror” to mind. “The Witch-Makers” (Argosy, May 2, 1936) is a story of mind-exchange, perhaps drawing upon “The Thing on the Doorstep” or “The Shadow out of Time.” “The Crystal Bullet” (Weird Tales, March 1941) is clearly influenced by “The Colour out of Space” in its account of a large bulletlike object that falls from the sky upon a farm.
Howard attempted on occasion to imitate Lovecraft’s cosmicism, but was not very successful at it. Consider this bombastic passage from “The Fire of Asshurbanipal” (Weird Tales, December 1936):
“Mankind isn’t the first owner of the earth; there were Beings here before his coming—and now, survivals of hideously ancient epochs. Maybe spheres of alien dimensions press unseen on this material universe today. Sorcerers have called up speeling devils before now and controlled them with magic. It is not unreasonable to suppose an Assyrian magician could invoke an elemental demon out of the earth to avenge him and guard something that must have come out of Hell in the first place.”
This is an unwitting travesty of Lovecraft, very much like what Derleth would write later.
Bloch is perhaps the most interesting case. In many of his tales of the mid-1930s he seems so saturated with the Lovecraftian influence that certain recollections of his mentor may be unconscious; hence, something so slight as one character’s observation in “The Grinning Ghoul” (Weird Tales, June 1936) that there is no dust on the stairs of a crypt may be an echo of the similarly dust-free corridors of the ancient city in At the Mountains of Madness, swept clean by the passing of a shoggoth. “The Creeper in the Crypt” (Weird Tales, July 1937) is set in Arkham and makes clear allusion to Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House”; but it may also betray the influence of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (the narrator, after his experiences, seeks aid from the federal government to suppress the horror), and also perhaps of “The Terrible Old Man,” as the tale involves a Polish and an Italian criminal who kidnap a man only to meet a loathsome fate in the cellar of an old house, just as in Lovecraft’s story a Pole, a Portuguese, and an Italian seek to rob the Terrible Old Man but meet death at his hands instead.
For all Lovecraft’s assistance to Bloch (the former tirelessly read story after story by the latter in the 1933–35 period, making painstaking comments on each one), he seems to have done little actual revision of Bloch’s work. In June 1933 Lovecraft remarked that “I added corrections here & there” to a story entitled “The Madness of Lucian Grey,” which was accepted for publication by Marvel Tales but was never published and does not now survive. A blurb in Marvel Tales described it as “a weird-fantasy story of an artist who was forced to paint a picture . . . and the frightful thing that came from it,” which makes one immediately think of “Pickman’s Model.” Lovecraft seems to have done much more extensive work in November 1933 on a story called “The Merman”:
I have read “The Merman” with the keenest interest & pleasure, & am returning it with a few annotations & emendations. . . . My changes—the congested script of which I hope you can read—are of two sorts; simplifications of diffuse language in the interest of more direct & powerful expression, & attempts to make the emotional modulations more vivid, lifelike, & convincing at certain points where the narrative takes definite turns.
But unfortunately this tale also does not survive.
If any extant work of Bloch’s can be called a Lovecraft revision, it is “Satan’s Servants,” written in February 1935. Bloch has commented that the story came back from Lovecraft “copiously annotated and corrected, together with a lengthy and exhaustive list of suggestions for revision,” and goes on to say that many of Lovecraft’s additions are now undetectable, since they fused so well with his own style:
From the purely personal standpoint, I was often fascinated during the process of revision by the way in which certain interpolated sentences or phrases of Lovecraft’s seemed to dovetail with my own work—for in 1935 I was quite consciously a disciple of what has since come to be known as the “Lovecraft school” of weird fiction. I doubt greatly if even the self-professed “Lovecraft scholar” can pick out his actual verbal contributions to the finished tale; most of the passages which would be identified as “pure Lovecraft” are my work; all of the sentences and bridges he added are of an incidental nature and merely supplement the text.
And yet, it is not surprising that the original version of the story was rejected by Farnsworth Wright of Weird Tales; his comment as noted by Bloch—“that the plot-structure was too flimsy for the extended length of the narrative”—is an entirely accurate assessment of this overly long and unconvincing story.
“Satan’s Servants” had initially been dedicated to Lovecraft, and after its rejection Bloch urged Lovecraft to collaborate on its revision; but, aside from whatever additions and corrections he made, Lovecraft bowed out of full-fledged collaboration. He did, however, have much to say on the need for historical accuracy in this tale of seventeenth-century New England, and he had other suggestions as to the pacing of the story. Bloch apparently did some revisions in 1949 for its publication in Something about Cats, but the story still labours under its excess verbiage and its rather comical ending: a pious Puritan, facing a mob of hundreds of devil-worshippers in a small Maine town, defeats them all by literally pounding them with a Bible! It is just as well that “Satan’s Servants” lay in Bloch’s files until resurrected purely as a literary curiosity.
Lovecraft’s response to the rapid success (if publication in the pulps can be called success) of his colleagues is interesting. In early 1934 he offered a prediction on how his associates would fare in the broader literary world: “Of all the W.T. contributors, only a few are likely to break into real literature. Derleth will—though not through his weird work. Smith may. Wandrei & Long very possibly may. Howard has a chance—though he’d do better with traditional Texas material. Price could, but I don’t think he will because commercial writing is ‘getting’ him.” That last comment is significant, for it was with the prototypical pulp hack Price that Lovecraft had some of his most searching debates about the value (if any) of pulp fiction and its relation to genuine literature. In reading both sides of this correspondence, one rapidly gains the impression that each writer is talking at cross-purposes with the other: each has so much difficulty comprehending the other’s position sympathetically that the same views are repeated over and over again.
It would perhaps be unfair to present only Lovecraft’s side, for Price does manage to argue his position cogently from the premises he has adopted: that writing is a business in which he has engaged in order to feed himself now that the depression has made it very difficult for him to find any other source of income; and that it may still be possible to infuse some actual literary substance—or, at least, some personality and sincerity—into work that is nevertheless basically formulaic. This position—given Lovecraft’s entire philosophical and aesthetic upbringing, from the eighteenth-century ideal of literature as an elegant amusement through his Decadent phase and into his final “cosmic regionalism” period—was anathema to Lovecraft, not on highbrow grounds but because it was deeply and personally offensive and contradictory to his own purpose as a writer: “My attitude . . . is based upon a frank dislike of professional writing as a pursuit for persons anxious to approach actual literary expression. I think that literary aspirants ought to follow paying jobs outside literature and its fake penumbra, and keep their writing free from commercial ob
There is, of course, scarcely a doubt that Lovecraft is right. No one from the weird pulp magazines except Lovecraft himself has emerged as a serious figure in literature. “You don’t call us clumsy W.T. hacks ‘real authors’ do you?” Lovecraft writes acidly to J. Vernon Shea in 1931:
. . . the popular magazine world is essentially an underworld or caricature-imitation-world so far as serious writing is concerned. Absolutely nothing about it is worthy of mature consideration or permanent preservation. That is why I am so absolutely unwilling to make any ‘concessions’ to its standards, & so much disposed to repudiate it entirely in an effort to achieve real aesthetic expression even on the humblest plane.
It is a litany Lovecraft would continue to repeat, with interesting modifications, throughout his career.
Lovecraft did not have much more enthusiasm for the art in the pulps, especially Weird Tales; in fact, to him it was even worse, on the whole, than the fiction, if that were possible. “All the alleged ‘art’ work is indescribably vile, & I feel lucky whenever Wright is merciful enough to leave the beastly stuff off my effusions,” Lovecraft wrote as early as 1926. Lovecraft did have kind words for a few of the earlier Weird Tales artists, such as J. Allen St John and especially Hugh Rankin (even though Rankin gave away the ending of “The Whisperer in Darkness” by depicting the face and hands of Akeley on a chair on the second page of the story). Later, when Margaret Brundage began her celebrated paintings of nude women (their more sensitive parts always concealed by curling smoke or other convenient stratagems), his disgust turned to mere resigned weariness. And yet, he was by no means as prudish as some of his own correspondents, who vehemently objected to such covers on moral grounds:
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