I am providence the life.., p.132

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 132

 

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



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  About WT covers—they are really too trivial to get angry about. If they weren’t totally irrelevant and unrepresentative nudes, they’d probably be something equally awkward and trivial, even though less irrelevant. . . . I have no objection to the nude in art—in fact, the human figure is as worthy a type of subject-matter as any other object of beauty in the visible world. But I don’t see what the hell Mrs. Brundage’s undressed ladies have to do with weird fiction![53]

  A quotation like this should help to dispel the silly rumour that Lovecraft habitually tore off the covers of Weird Tales because he was either outraged or embarrassed by the nude covers; although the real proof of the falsity of this rumour comes from a consultation of his own complete file of the magazine, sitting perfectly intact at the John Hay Library of Brown University.

  The curious thing, in light of his scorn of pulp fiction, is that Lovecraft’s view of “real” weird writing—what in this letter to Shea he termed “the Blackwood-Dunsany-Machen-James type”—was not as high as one might imagine. Throughout the 1930s he found each of these once-revered figures wanting in various ways. On Machen: “People whose minds are—like Machen’s—steeped in the orthodox myths of religion, naturally find a poignant fascination in the conception of things which religion brands with outlawry and horror. Such people take the artificial and obsolete conception of ‘sin’ seriously, and find it full of dark allurement.”[54] On M. R. James: “I’ll concede he isn’t really in the Machen, Blackwood, & Dunsany class. He is the earthiest member of the ‘big four.’”[55] Lovecraft’s estimation of Blackwood remained generally high, but even this writer was not immune from criticism: “It’s safe to say that Blackwood is the greatest living weirdist despite vast unevenness and a poor prose style.”[56]

  All his former mentors came in for qualified censure at one point: “What I miss in Machen, James, Dunsany, de la Mare, Shiel, and even Blackwood and Poe, is a sense of the cosmic. Dunsany—though he seldom adopts the darker and more serious approach—is the most cosmic of them all, but he gets only a little way.”[57] This remark is significant because it was exactly cosmicism that Lovecraft himself elsewhere vaunted as the distinguishing feature of his own work. Is this whole procedure an attempt to escape, in part, from the influence of these titans? Without in any way raising himself to their level (“Some of my stuff . . . may be as good as the poorer work of Blackwood and the other big-timers”[58]), Lovecraft was perhaps unconsciously carving out a small corner of the field in which he could stand preeminent.

  But Lovecraft never stopped seeking new works of weird fiction to relish. He continued reading the stories in Weird Tales with a kind of grim determination to find some worthy specimens, although he commented with increasing impatience about their shortcomings. “Someone ought to go over the cheap magazines and pick out story-germs which have been ruined by popular treatment; then getting the authors’ permission and actually writing the stories.”[59] But it was thanks to a new colleague—H. C. Koenig—that he received one of the greatest surprises of his later years: the discovery, in the summer of 1934, of the forgotten work of William Hope Hodgson.

  Hodgson (1877–1918) had published four novels and many short stories before dying in Belgium in a battle of the Great War. Lovecraft had previously been familiar with a collection of linked short stories, Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder (1913), a tepid imitation of Algernon Blackwood’s “psychic detective” John Silence, so he was entirely unprepared for the radically superior if also flawed excellence of The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” (1907), The House on the Borderland (1908), The Ghost Pirates (1909), and The Night Land (1912). The first and third of these novels are powerful tales of sea horror; the second is probably Hodgson’s most finished work, an almost unendurably potent compendium of regional and cosmic horror; and the last is a stupendous epic fantasy of the far future after the sun has died. Lovecraft immediately prepared a note on Hodgson to be inserted into the ninth chapter of the Fantasy Fan serialisation of “Supernatural Horror in Literature”; but the insert first appeared only as a separate article, “The Weird Work of William Hope Hodgson” (Phantagraph, February 1937), then in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” in The Outsider and Others (1939). Lovecraft and Koenig seem jointly responsible for the subsequent resurrection of Hodgson’s work, perhaps a little more of the credit going to Koenig, who later teamed with August Derleth to republish the novels and tales.

  Koenig later passed on to Lovecraft the novels of Charles Williams, the English colleague of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis; but Lovecraft’s evaluation of these mystical, heavily religious works is very much on target:

  Essentially, they are not horror literature at all, but philosophic allegory in fictional form. Direct reproduction of the texture of life & the substance of moods is not the author’s object. He is trying to illustrate human nature through symbols & turns of idea which possess significance for those taking a traditional or orthodox view of man’s cosmic bearings. There is no true attempt to express the indefinable feelings experienced by man in confronting the unknown. . . . To get a full-sized kick from this stuff one must take seriously the orthodox view of cosmic organisation—which is rather impossible today.[60]

  In other words, one must be a Christian, which Lovecraft emphatically was not.

  The post-Christmas season of 1933–34 again found Lovecraft in New York, and this time he ended up meeting an unusual number of colleagues old and new. Leaving Providence Christmas night, he arrived at the Longs’ residence (230 West 97th Street, Manhattan) at 9.30 A.M. on the 26th. That afternoon Samuel Loveman overwhelmed Lovecraft with a gift of an authentic Egyptian ushabti (a funerary ornament) nearly a foot long. Loveman had given Lovecraft two museum pieces the previous year.

  From this point on the socialising began. On the 27th Lovecraft met Desmond Hall, the associate editor of Astounding Stories as revived by Street & Smith. (When Lovecraft first heard of the revival of Astounding, in August 1933, he was somehow led to believe that it would be a primarily weird magazine, or at least very receptive to weird fiction; but the early issues disillusioned him by being fairly conventional “scientifiction,” so that he did not submit any of his stories to it.) Later in the day he went to Donald Wandrei’s flat on Horatio Street, where he met both Donald and his younger brother Howard (1909–1956), whose magnificent weird drawings took his breath away. Lovecraft may or may not have noticed Howard Wandrei’s illustrations in Donald’s Dark Odyssey (1931); but seeing his work in the original was, understandably, an overwhelming experience. Lovecraft was bold enough to say of Howard: “he certainly has a vastly greater talent than anyone else in the gang. I was astonished at [the paintings’] sheer genius & maturity. When the name Wandrei first becomes known, it will probably be through this brother instead of Donald.”[61] Frank Long declared hyperbolically that Howard Wandrei was a greater artist than Dürer. He may not have been that good, but he really is one of the premier fantastic artists of the century, and his work deserves to be much better known. He also went on to write a small number of weird, science fiction, and detective tales—some of which is as good as, or perhaps even a bit better than, the work of his brother.

  On the 31st Lovecraft saw the old year out at Samuel Loveman’s flat in Brooklyn Heights, where he renewed his acquaintance with Hart Crane’s mother, whom he had met in Cleveland in 1922.[62] Crane, of course, had committed suicide in 1932. It was on this occasion, evidently—if Loveman’s word can be trusted—that Loveman’s roommate Patrick McGrath spiked Lovecraft’s drink, causing him to talk even more animatedly than he usually did.[63] Lovecraft gave no indication of any such thing, and one would imagine that someone so sensitive to alcohol (its mere smell was nearly an emetic) would have detected the ruse. I am half inclined to doubt this anecdote, engaging as it is. On January 3 Lovecraft had dinner with the anthologist T. Everett Harré, who was somewhat of a lush but who had a delightful cat named William. Returning to Long’s apartment, Lovecraft met his new correspondent H. C. Ko
enig, “a blond, boyish looking German of absolutely delightful qualities.”[64]

  But the culmination occurred on the 8th, when Lovecraft had dinner with A. Merritt at the Players Club near Gramercy Park. Merritt surely picked up the tab. Lovecraft reports: “He is genial & delightful—a fat, sandy, middle-aged chap, & a real genius in the weird. He knows all about my work, & praises it encouragingly.”[65] Lovecraft, of course, had revered Merritt ever since he read “The Moon Pool” in the All-Story for June 22, 1918; and his correspondence shows that he was abundantly familiar with the whole of Merritt’s published work up to that time. His final assessment of Merritt was mixed but fundamentally sound:

  Abe Merritt—who could have been a Machen or Blackwood or Dunsany or de la Mare or M. R. James . . . if he had but chosen—is so badly sunk that he’s lost the critical faculty to realise it. . . . Every magazine trick & mannerism must be rigidly unlearned & banished even from one’s subconsciousness before one can write seriously for educated mental adults. That’s why Merritt lost—he learned the trained-dog tricks too well, & now he can’t think & feel fictionally except in terms of the meaningless & artificial clichés of 2¢-a-word romance. Machen & Dunsany & James would not learn the tricks—& they have a record of genuine creative achievement beside which a whole library-full of cheap Ships of Ishtar & Creep, Shadows remains essentially negligible.[66]

  The remark about Merritt’s admiration for Lovecraft’s own work is interesting in that Merritt had just paid homage to Lovecraft in what is clearly a pastiche of sorts—the novel Dwellers in the Mirage, serialised in the Argosy from January 23 to February 25, 1932, and published as a book later in 1932. The use of Khalk’ru the Kraken, an octopuslike creature dwelling in the Gobi desert, is a clear nod to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, although otherwise the novel is full of conventional romance of the kind that Lovecraft would not have cared for. R. H. Barlow had lent Lovecraft at least some instalments of the Dwellers in the Mirage serial as early as March 1932,[67] but Lovecraft does not appear to have noticed the borrowing from himself.

  Nor did he do so in the case of another, much more obscure author named Mearle Prout, who published a story in Weird Tales for October 1933 entitled “The House of the Worm.” In the first place, it is a little odd that the title duplicates Lovecraft’s unwritten novel idea of 1924; but the story is more interesting in being, in part, a clear plagiarism of “The Call of Cthulhu.” Consider the following from “The House of the Worm”:

  I think that the limitation of the human mind, far from being a curse, is the most merciful thing in the world. We live on a quiet, sheltered island of ignorance, and from the single current flowing by our shores we visualize the vastness of the black seas around us, and see—simplicity and safety. And yet, if only a portion of the cross-currents and whirling vortexes of mystery and chaos could be revealed to our consciousness, we should immediately go insane.

  This is nothing but a watered-down version of the first paragraph of Lovecraft’s story. Lovecraft actually took note of the author, remarking charitably: “This latter is a newcomer, but to me his story seems to have a singularly authentic quality despite certain touches of naiveté. It has a certain atmosphere and sense of brooding evil—things which most pulp contributors lack.”[68] Lovecraft is quite right about the story: it gains a sense of cumulative power and sense of the cosmic that make it a notable early pastiche. Prout went on to publish three more stories in Weird Tales before vanishing into oblivion.

  Lovecraft returned home to Providence to experience one of the bitterest winters of his life: in February the temperature descended to -17?, the lowest figure ever recorded up to that time by the weather bureau. Sometime in the beginning of the year he heard from a woman named Dorothy C. Walter (1889–1967), a Vermont native who was spending the winter in Providence. Her friend W. Paul Cook urged her to look up Lovecraft, but she felt diffident about marching up to his doorstep at 66 College Street and announcing herself, so she wrote a rather teasing letter to him asking him to visit her; she concluded the letter, “I think I shall take the princess’s prerogative of anger if you do not wish to come.”[69]

  The gentlemanly Lovecraft could scarcely refuse an invitation of this sort, especially by a woman. But when the day for the visit came, he was compelled to beg off because of the bitter cold. On the phone he apologised profusely to Walter and begged to be allowed to come another day: “Do be kind and say I still may come—please don’t be angry—but it’s just too cold for me to come out!” Walter magnanimously agreed, and Lovecraft came a few days later. Their meeting—in the company of Walter’s aunt and a rather pert housekeeper, Marguerite—was pretty innocuous: the topics were Vermont, the colonial antiquities of Providence, and the weather. Lovecraft tried in vain to interest the ladies in the weird. Walter does not appear to have had even the remotest romantic interest in Lovecraft and never met him in person again, but she found the three hours spent in his company sufficiently piquant to write a memoir of the occasion twenty-five years later. She also went on to write a fine essay, “Lovecraft and Benefit Street,” shortly after Lovecraft’s death.

  Another woman with whom Lovecraft came in touch was Margaret Sylvester. Actually, Sylvester (b. 1918) was not quite sixteen years old at this time; she had written to Lovecraft care of Weird Tales, asking him to explain the origin and meaning of the term Walpurgisnacht (which she may have encountered in “The Dreams in the Witch House”). Only a few of his letters to her have turned up, but the correspondence continued right up to his death. Sylvester, for her part, remembered her association with Lovecraft; after marrying and becoming Margaret Ronan, she wrote the introduction to a school edition of Lovecraft’s stories (The Shadow over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror [1971]).

  The rest of the winter and early spring of 1934 passed uneventfully, until in mid-March R. H. Barlow made a momentous announcement: he invited Lovecraft for an indefinite visit to his family’s home in DeLand, Florida. Lovecraft, whose last trip to Florida and its energising heat was in 1931, was exceptionally eager to accept the invitation, and the only obstacle was money. He remarked pointedly: “It all depends on whether I can collect certain amounts due me before starting-time—for I wouldn’t dare dig into any sums reserved for household expenses. If I did that my aunt would—quite deservedly—give me hell!”[70] The “collect certain amounts” remark seems to refer to revision-checks, but it is not clear what these are. In March 1933 he had spoken of having to revise an 80,000-word novel,[71] and one would certainly like to know what this was and whether it was ever published.

  In any case, the money does indeed seem to have come in, for by mid-April Lovecraft was making definite plans to head south. Still, he remarked ominously that “I never before planned so long a trip on so little cash”:[72] the round trip bus fare from Providence to DeLand was $36.00, and Lovecraft would have only $30.00 or so for all other expenses along the way. Of course, he would have to come to New York for at least a week (where he would stay with Frank Long), and he could not bear to go to Florida without first spending a little time in Charleston.

  The trip began around April 17, when Lovecraft boarded the bus to New York. It is unclear what exactly he did in the five days he was there, but no doubt it was the usual round of looking up old friends. Lovecraft again met Howard Wandrei and was impressed afresh with the magnificence of his artwork. By the early morning of the 24th, after a day and a half on the bus, he was in Charleston, and he spent almost a week there, finally boarding a bus to DeLand via Savannah and Jacksonville. He stepped off the bus at DeLand just after noon on May 2.

  Although Barlow’s mailing address was DeLand, he and his family actually lived a good thirteen miles southwest of that city along what Barlow calls the “Eustis-DeLand highway”[73] (state road 44); the residence was probably closer to the small town of Cassia than to DeLand. There was a lake on the property, and the nearest neighbour was three miles away. Recently, Stephen J. Jordan, following clues in Lovecraft’s letters and other s
ources, has located the residence, which is still standing. He writes:

  The imposing two-story log house and the adjoining lake, just visible through a thick growth of pines, appeared with startling suddenness on my left. The house next to the lake matched Lovecraft’s description perfectly, which possibly accounted for my having the strange feeling I was viewing a time capsule of sorts. . . . The home, a sizeable two-story log house buttressed by two chimneys, is surrounded by woods.[74]

  Barlow reports picking up some furniture for the guest room in his pickup truck on the morning before Lovecraft arrived, and then going to meet Lovecraft at the bus station. His first impression of Lovecraft is interesting: “He spoke interminably in a pleasant but somewhat harsh voice, and proved to be a smooth-skinned man of face not unlike Dante. His hair was short and thinningly grey.”[75]

  We do not know a great deal about what Lovecraft actually did in the more than six weeks he spent with Barlow. Barlow had by this time himself become perhaps his closest, and certainly one of his most voluminous and intimate, correspondents, far more so than Derleth or Wandrei or Howard (to whom Lovecraft’s letters were lengthy but infrequent and not full of personal details); in the sudden absence of letters to Barlow we are left to reconstruct the particulars of the visit from correspondence to a wide variety of other associates, from Barlow’s later memoir, “The Wind That Is in the Grass” (1944), and also from a unique document—Barlow’s contemporaneous notes of the visit, first published in an adulterated form in 1959 as “The Barlow Journal” and in complete form in 1992.

 

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