I am providence the life.., p.133

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 133


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

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  It should be borne in mind that Barlow was at this time scarcely sixteen years old. Lovecraft does not seem to have been aware of the fact until he actually met Barlow in the flesh, at which time he realised that he had begun correspondence with Barlow when the latter was thirteen. “The little imp!”[76] Barlow’s notes, accordingly, are somewhat haphazard and not always insightful. There are, of course, all sorts of amusingly disparaging comments that Lovecraft made on his own tales (“I’m afraid ‘The Hound’ is a dead dog”; “‘The White Ship’ is sunk”), along with some more pertinent remarks on the genesis of some of his stories. There are some unusually catty criticisms of his colleagues (“He remarked also [that] Long is a Bolshevist, poseur, and has been even so mercenary as to sell letters of famous men to him; and his grandfather’s cane”; “Adolphe de Castro Danziger . . . he pronounced a charlatan, though clever”), things Lovecraft would presumably allow himself to say in person but never in correspondence. Then, of course, there is Barlow’s priceless account of going with Lovecraft and the hired hand Charles B. Johnston to pick berries beyond a shallow creek. As they were returning, Lovecraft lagged behind but claimed to know where Barlow had positioned a makeshift bridge over the creek. But clearly something went amiss, and Lovecraft returned to the Barlow home soaking wet, and with most of the berries gone. He then apologised to Barlow’s mother for losing the berries!

  In his later memoir Barlow gives an impressionistic account of the visit:

  We rowed on the lake, and played with the cats, or walked on the highway with these cats as the unbelievable sun went down among pines and cypresses . . . Above all, we talked, chiefly of the fantastic tales which he wrote and which I was trying to write. At breakfast he told us his dreams . . .

  . . . Our talk was full of off-hand references to ghouls and vaults of terror on the surfaces of strange stars, and Lovecraft wove an atmosphere of ominous illusion about any chance sound by the roadside as we walked with my three cats, one of whom he had named Alfred A. Knopf. At other times he could be prevailed upon to read his own stories aloud, always with sinister tones and silences in the proper spots. Especially he liked to read with an eighteenth century pronunciation, sarvant for “servant” and mi for “my.”[77]

  Antiquity was not in very great supply in this region of Florida, but Lovecraft and Barlow did manage to get to a Spanish sugar-mill at De Leon Springs constructed before 1763, and other sites at nearby New Smyrna, including a Franciscan mission built in 1696. In early June Lovecraft was taken to Silver Springs, about 45 miles northwest of DeLand: “There is a placid pool at the head of the Silver River whose floor is pitted with huge abysses—visible clearly through a glass-bottomed boat—while the Silver River itself is a tropical jungle stream like the Congo or Amazon. The cinema of Tarzan was taken on it. I rode 5 miles down stream & back in a launch, & saw alligators &c in their native habitat.”[78] Lovecraft desperately hoped to get to Havana, but simply did not have the cash. Of course, the Barlows fed and housed him at their expense, and were so abundantly hospitable that they continually vetoed any suggestion that he move on. No doubt Barlow’s parents perceived that their son and Lovecraft, in spite of the almost thirty-year difference in their ages, had become fast friends. Perhaps Barlow had a lonely existence, with his much older brother Wayne (born in 1908) in the army and not around to aid in his maturation. Barlow, of course, kept himself busy with all manner of literary, artistic, and publishing projects. One of the things he conceived at this time was to issue large 11 × 14" reproductions of Howard Wandrei’s artwork, but Donald peremptorily rejected the plan, perhaps because he had his own notions (never realised, as it happened) of issuing his brother’s work. Another photographic project that did succeed was the taking of a formal studio photograph of Lovecraft by Lucius B. Truesdell—an image that has helped to make Lovecraft’s face an icon. For the rest of his life, Lovecraft continued to order duplicate prints of the Truesdell shot to circulate to friends and colleagues.

  Another project by Barlow, more directly pertinent to Lovecraft, also ended in frustration. Since 1928 the sheets of W. Paul Cook’s edition of The Shunned House had been knocking about from pillar to post in the wake of Cook’s nervous and financial breakdown. Barlow first learnt of this stillborn enterprise in early 1933, and in February he proposed taking the unbound sheets and distributing them. Lovecraft was initially receptive to the idea and broached it to Cook, who agreed to it in principle; but then, in April, Cook was sheepishly obliged to back out because he had forgotten that he had promised to let Walter J. Coates (the editor of Driftwind) handle the distribution of the sheets. There the matter stood for nearly a year. When it became evident that Coates was going to do nothing on the matter, Lovecraft approached Barlow again to see if he was still interested in the idea. Barlow was.

  Sometime in the late winter of 1933 or early spring of 1934 Barlow received 115 out of the 300 copies Cook had printed. For a time it was thought that these were all that survived, but in May 1935 Cook discovered another 150 more sheets and sent these to Barlow. (This leaves only 35 sheets unaccounted for, and these may have been distributed in 1928, lost, or damaged.) But Barlow himself—in the whirlwind of activities in which he was involved at this time—did little in terms of actual distribution. Although having by then become a skilled amateur binder, he bound only about eight copies in 1934–35: one in natural leather for Lovecraft, the other seven in boards. Some copies actually bear a printed label on the copyright page, “Copyright 1935 by R. H. Barlow”! Barlow may have distributed perhaps 40 more copies as unbound sheets, mostly to Lovecraft’s colleagues. In late 1935 Samuel Loveman proposed assisting Barlow distribute the sheets through his bookstore, but Barlow for some reason failed to communicate with Loveman on the matter. Lovecraft expressed considerable irritation at Barlow’s dilatoriness in the whole affair, finally resigning himself to the prospect that his first “book” was a total loss.[79]

  Barlow has remarked in his memoir that he and Lovecraft were busy with various writing projects; but relatively little survives of this material. There are two poems bearing the respective titles “Beyond Zimbabwe” and “The White Elephant” and collectively titled “Bouts Rimés,” in which Barlow has invented the rhymes and Lovecraft written the verses to match them. Barlow also reports Lovecraft correcting Barlow’s partial typescripts of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which he had been badgering Lovecraft for years to send down to him for transcription; but Lovecraft’s letters indicate that he sent these to Barlow only in October 1934,[80] so that this typing and correcting must have occurred during Lovecraft’s 1935 visit.

  One literary project actually did materialise—the spoof known as “The Battle That Ended the Century.” Barlow was clearly the originator of this squib, as typescripts prepared by him survive, one with extensive revisions in pen by Lovecraft. The idea was to make joking mention of as many of the authors’ mutual colleagues as possible in the course of the document, which purported to report the heavyweight fight between Two-Gun Bob, the Terror of the Plains (Robert E. Howard) and Knockout Bernie, the Wild Wolf of West Shokan (Bernard Austin Dwyer). More than thirty individuals are mentioned. Barlow had initially cited them by their actual names, but Lovecraft felt that this was not very interesting, so he devised parodic or punning names for them: instead of Frank Belknap Long, one reads of Frank Chimesleep Short. Lovecraft himself becomes Horse-Power Hateart. Some of the parodic names have only recently been correctly identified. All this is good if harmless fun, the only real maliciousness being the note about the pestiferous Forrest J Ackerman: “Meanwhile a potentate from a neighbouring kingdom, the Effjay of Akkamin (also known to himself as an amateur critic), expressed his frenzied disgust at the technique of the combatants, at the same time peddling photographs of the fighters (with himself in the foreground) at five cents each.” (Ackerman really was offering photographs of himself at this time.)

  Naturally, the thing to do was to circulate the w
himsy, but in such a way that its authorship would not be immediately evident. The plan, so far as I can reconstruct it, was this: Barlow would mimeograph the item (copies exist in two long 8½ × 14" sheets, each with text on one side only) and then have the copies mailed from some other location, so that they could not be traced to either Lovecraft or Barlow. It appears that the 50 duplicated copies were prepared toward the middle of June and were sent to Washington, D.C., where they would be mailed (possibly by Elizabeth Toldridge, a colleague of both Lovecraft’s and Barlow’s but not associated with the weird fiction circle). This seems to have been done just before Lovecraft himself left DeLand and began heading north, so that the items would already be in the hands of associates by the time Lovecraft reached Washington.

  But there is of course no question of Lovecraft’s and Barlow’s involvement in “The Battle That Ended the Century,” even though both of them—especially Lovecraft—never admitted authorship. The two of them talk in amusingly conspiratorial tones about its reception by colleagues: “Note the signature—Chimesleep Short—which indicates that our spoof has gone out & that he [Long] at least thinks I’ve seen the thing. Remember that if you didn’t know anything about it, you’d consider it merely a whimsical trick of his own—& that if you’d merely seen the circular, you wouldn’t think it worth commenting on. I’m ignoring the matter in my reply.”[81] Long was clearly tickled, but others were less so. Lovecraft noted: “Wandrei wasn’t exactly in a rage, but (according to Belknap) sent the folder on to Desmond Hall with the languid comment, ‘Here’s something that may interest you—it doesn’t interest me.’”[82] Wandrei doesn’t seem to have been a very good sport about the thing, and one wonders whether this incident (along with the earlier minor contretemps about the reproduction of Howard Wandrei’s artwork) had anything to do with the bad blood between Wandrei and Barlow in later years.

  Lovecraft pushed on to St Augustine on June 21, remaining there till the 28th. He then spent two days in Charleston, one in Richmond, one in Fredericksburg, two in Washington (where he looked up Elizabeth Toldridge), and one in Philadelphia. When he reached New York he found that the Longs were about to leave for the beach resorts of Asbury Park and Ocean Grove, in New Jersey, and he tagged along for the weekend. He finally returned home on July 10, nearly three months after he had set out.

  But travel was by no means over for the year. August 4 found Lovecraft and James F. Morton at Buttonwoods, Rhode Island (a locality in the town of Warwick), as part of a three-day visit by the latter in quest of genealogical research. On August 23 Lovecraft met Cook and Cole in Boston; the next day he and Cook went to Salem and later met up with Tryout Smith in Lawrence; the next day Edward H. Cole took Lovecraft to Marblehead.

  But all this proved merely the preliminary for a trip of relatively short distance but powerful imaginative stimulus. The island of Nantucket lay only 90 miles from Lovecraft’s doorstep (six hours by combined bus and ferry), but he never visited it until the very end of August 1934. What a world of antiquity he stumbled upon:

  Whole networks of cobblestoned streets with nothing but colonial houses on either side—narrow, garden-bordered lanes—ancient belfries—picturesque waterfront—everything that the antiquarian could ask! . . . I’ve explored old houses, the 1746 windmill, the Hist. Soc. Museum, the whaling museum, etc.—and am doing every inch of the quaint streets and alleys on foot.[83]

  But during Lovecraft’s week-long stay (August 31–September 6) he did more than explore on foot: for the first time since boyhood he mounted a bicycle to cover the districts outside the actual town of Nantucket. “It was highly exhilarating after all these years—the whole thing brought back my youth so vividly that I felt as if I ought to hurry home for the opening of Hope St. High School!”[84] Lovecraft ruefully regretted the social convention that frowned upon adults riding bicycles in respectable cities like Providence.

  Lovecraft’s brief description of Nantucket, “The Unknown City in the Ocean,” must have been written around this time, it appeared in Chester P. Bradley’s amateur journal Perspective Review for Winter 1934. It is not one of his distinguished travelogues, and several letters of the period speak of his journey far more piquantly.

  Returning home, Lovecraft found the legion of cats called the Kappa Alpha Tau flourishing in customary state. In August he had even devised a kind of anthem or fight song for the band, the first stanza of which (all I can endure to quote) goes like this:

  Here we are,

  The Kappa Alpha Tau boys;

  We’ll give a great meow, boys,

  For Bast, & Sekhmet too.

  Near and far,

  We gather here as fellows,

  And none may e’er excel

  The Kappa Alpha Tau![85]

  But tragedy was in the offing. A cat Lovecraft had named Sam Perkins, born only in June of 1934, was found dead in the shrubbery on September 10. Lovecraft immediately wrote the following elegy, now titled “Little Sam Perkins”:

  The ancient garden seems tonight

  A deeper gloom to bear,

  As if some silent shadow’s blight

  Were hov’ring in the air.

  With hidden griefs the grasses sway,

  Unable quite to word them—

  Remembering from yesterday

  The little paws that stirr’d them.

  There were, of course, other cats still surviving: Peter Randall, president of the fraternity; Vice-President Osterberg; Little Johnny Perkins, Sam’s brother; and others. And, of course, Lovecraft was always happy to be regaled by the antics of his various colleagues’ cats: Clark Ashton Smith’s ancient matriarch Simaetha; R. H. Barlow’s legions of cats, including Doodlebug, High, Low, Cyrus and Darius (two Persians, of course), Alfred A. Knopf, etc.; Duane W. Rimel’s snow-white Crom; and, most engagingly, Nimrod, the ferocious cat who one day in early 1935 showed up on E. Hoffmann Price’s doorstep and took up residence, wolfing down beans and raw meat, fighting with the dogs of the area, hunting out and devouring gophers, and disappearing on at least two occasions before finally vanishing for good sometime in 1936. Ailurophily ran high in the Lovecraft circle.

  R. H. Barlow and Robert Bloch were not the only young boys who showered Lovecraft with their halting if promising works of fiction; another one who did so, almost from the beginning of his association with Lovecraft, was Duane W. Rimel. Rimel first needed to bone up on the classics of weird fiction, and to that end Lovecraft lent him key volumes from his library that Rimel could not get in his small and remote Washington town. From the first Lovecraft warned Rimel not to take the fiction in the pulp magazines as models:

  You can easily see that fully ¾ of the yarns in these pulp rags are “formula stories”—that is, mechanical concoctions designed to tickle simple & uncritical readers, & having cut-&-dried stock characters (brave young hero, beauteous heroine, mad scientist, &c. &c.) & absurdly artificial “action” plots. Only a very small minority of the tales have any serious merit or literary intent.[86]

  Rimel attempted to follow Lovecraft’s lofty advice as best he could. As early as February 1934, a month after he had begun correspondence with Lovecraft, Rimel sent him a story entitled “The Spell of the Blue Stone” (later, evidently, simply “The Blue Stone”), which Lovecraft praised as “very remarkable for a beginner’s work.”[87] This story does not seem to survive. By March there was mention of a story entitled “The Tree on the Hill,” and Lovecraft saw it in May while in Florida with Barlow. He wrote: “I read your ‘Tree on the Hill’ with great interest, & believe it truly captures the essence of the weird. I like it exceedingly despite a certain cumbrousness & tendency toward anticlimax in the later parts. I’ve made a few emendations which you may find helpful, & have tried a bit of strengthening toward the end. Hope you’ll like what I’ve done.”[88] Whether Rimel liked what Lovecraft had done or not is not recorded, nor whether Rimel prepared a text of the story including Lovecraft’s revisions to send to a publisher. For some reason the story did not see pri
nt until it appeared in the fan magazine Polaris for September 1940.

  “The Tree on the Hill”—a rather confused tale in which a character stumbles upon a strange landscape (possibly from another planet), is unable to find it again, but then finally manages to photograph it—is clearly a Lovecraft revision, even if a minor one; of the three sections of the story, the final one—as well as the citation from a mythical volume, the Chronicle of Nath by Rudolf Yergler—is certainly by Lovecraft. Some have believed that much of the actual prose of the second section is also Lovecraft’s, but this is an open question that must be decided merely from internal evidence, since no manuscript survives. Rimel has made it clear that both the title Chronicle of Nath and the extract from it are Lovecraft’s invention.[89]

  In July Lovecraft read a story which Rimel had entitled “The Sorcery of Alfred.” Finding the use of a common English given name in what purported to be a Dunsanian fantasy unconvincing, Lovecraft changed the title to “The Sorcery of Aphlar” and also made a “few changes”[90] in the text itself. The tale appeared in the Fantasy Fan for December 1934 and then in the Tri-State Times (a small local newspaper published in upstate New York) for Spring 1937; in one copy of the latter publication someone (R. H. Barlow?) has written next to the story: “revised by HPL.” On the basis of this note I reprinted the work as a Lovecraft revision, but I now do not believe that Lovecraft’s changes (which again must be inferred only by internal evidence) are significant enough to warrant such a designation.

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