I am providence the life.., p.134

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 134


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

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  Rimel was also attempting to write poetry. In the summer of 1934 he sent Lovecraft the first sonnet in what would prove to be a cycle titled “Dreams of Yid”; evidently, Rimel was unaware that “Yid” was an opprobrious term for a Jew, so Lovecraft altered the title to “Dreams of Yith.” There is manuscript evidence that Lovecraft and perhaps also Clark Ashton Smith[91] revised this cycle, the ten sonnets of which appeared in two parts in the Fantasy Fan (July and September 1934). Around this time Lovecraft confidently declared that “Rimel is gradually learning for himself”;[92] but, with one remarkable exception, his later fictional work does not amount to much.

  Rimel falls into one of two classes of revision clients for whom Lovecraft was willing to work for no charge:

  First—I help all genuine beginners who need a start. I tell them at the outset that I shan’t keep it up for long, but that I’m willing to help them get an idea of some of the methods needed. If they have real stuff in them, they soon outgrow the need for such help. In either event, no one of them has my assistance for more than a year or so. Second—I help certain old or handicapped people who are pathetically in need of some cheering influence—these, even when I recognise them as incapable of improvement. In my opinion, the good accomplished by giving these poor souls a little more to live for, vastly overbalances any harm which could be wrought through their popular overestimation. Old Bill Lumley & old Doc Kuntz are typical cases of this sort. The good old fellows need a few rays of light in their last years, & anybody would be a damned prig not to let ’em have such if possible—irrespective of hyper-ethical minutiae.[93]

  Even in his professional revision work, Lovecraft adopted a weird sort of altruism:

  When I revised the kindergarten pap and idiot-asylum slop of other fishes, I was, in a microscopic way, putting just the faintest bit of order, coherence, direction, and comprehensible language into something whose Neanderthaloid ineptitude was already mapped out. My work, ignominious as it was, was at least in the right direction—making that which was utterly amorphous and drooling just the minutest trifle less close to the protozoan stage.[94]

  More free work was being dumped on Lovecraft’s shoulders at this time. The Bureau of the Critics of the NAPA was chronically understaffed, and by the mid-1930s Lovecraft was gradually allowing himself to be dragged back into his long-abandoned but never-forgotten role as public critic of amateurdom. For the 1933–34 term he had the chairmanship of the bureau shoved on him and immediately asked old-time amateur Edward H. Cole for assistance: Lovecraft would write the criticism of poetry contributions, Cole of prose. This pattern was repeated for the 1934–35 term, although Lovecraft eventually got the ancient amateur Truman J. Spencer (whose Cyclopaedia of the Literature of Amateur Journalism appeared so long ago as 1891) to relieve him as chairman.

  Lovecraft ended up writing at least part of the Bureau of Critics columns in the National Amateur for the following issues: December 1931; December 1932; March, June, and December 1933; June, September, and December 1934; March, June, and December 1935. These articles are in essence similar to the old “Department of Public Criticism” columns for the United Amateur of 1914–19, but much briefer and incorporating the radical shifts in Lovecraft’s aesthetic sensibility that had clearly occurred in the interval. The column for December 1931 enunciates his new conception of poetry:

  A real poem is always a mood or picture about which the writer feels very strongly, and is always couched in illustrative hints, concrete bits of appropriate pictorial imagery, or indirect symbolic allusions—never in the bald declarative language of prose. It may or may not have metre or rhyme or both. These are generally desirable, but they are not essential and in themselves most certainly do not make poetry.

  Nevertheless, Lovecraft knew that few amateurs could ever exemplify these tenets. He was aware that most of the poetry coming under his review was (as he declared in the column for June 1934) “on the level of hit-or-miss doggerel” and that “The chief complaint against this type of writing is not that it is not poetry, but that it is not forcible or effective expression of any kind.”

  One other amateur task unexpectedly falling on Lovecraft’s lap was caused by the death on June 8, 1934, of the amateur Edith Miniter. Although Lovecraft had not met Miniter since 1928, he always retained respect for her and did not wish her role as amateur, novelist, and folklore authority to be forgotten. On September 10 he wrote an uninspired poetic elegy, “Edith Miniter” (published in Tryout in an issue—seriously delayed, clearly—dated August 1934), then, on October 16, wrote the much more significant prose memoir, “Edith Miniter—Estimates and Recollections.” Like “Some Notes on a Nonentity,” it is one of his finest later essays and includes as much valuable information on himself as it does on its purported subject. It is here that we learn of Miniter’s early parody of Lovecraft, “Falco Ossifracus, by Mr. Goodguile”; here, too, of her accounts of whippoorwills and other legends in the Wilbraham area, which Lovecraft worked into “The Dunwich Horror.” It is a warm, heartfelt memoir, revealing the full breadth of the humanity that flowered in his later years:

  It is difficult to realise that Mrs. Miniter is no longer a living presence; for the sharp insight, subtle wit, rich scholarship, and vivid literary force so fresh in one’s memory are things savouring of the eternal and the indestructible. Of her charm and kindliness many will write reminiscently and at length. Of her genius, skill, courage, and determination, her work and career eloquently speak.

  The essay, however, appeared only posthumously in Hyman Bradofsky’s amateur journal, the Californian, in Spring 1938.

  Not long after Miniter’s death, Lovecraft became embroiled in a dispute over the disposition of her papers. The townspeople of Wilbraham may have destroyed some of her fictional work because it showed them in what they took to be a bad light. It is not clear what happened to her effects, although Lovecraft had previously obtained—from Miniter herself, I imagine—several manuscripts of her work, including some lengthy pieces of fiction. These are now in the John Hay Library. Lovecraft was also designated the editor of a proposed memorial volume devoted to Miniter, to be issued by W. Paul Cook (who was apparently making an attempt—vain, as it happened—to return to publishing). Although Lovecraft gathered memoirs and other pieces desultorily for the next year or so and also accompanied Cook to see many Miniter associates in Boston in November 1934,[95] the volume was never published.

  Around July Lovecraft wrote an essay, “Homes and Shrines of Poe,” for Hyman Bradofsky’s Californian. Bradofsky (1906–2002) quickly became one of the significant figures in the NAPA during the mid-1930s; for although he was himself an undistinguished writer, his Californian offered unprecedented space for writers of articles and prose fiction. During the next several years he repeatedly asked Lovecraft for pieces of substantial length; in this case Bradofsky wanted a 2000-word article for the Winter 1934 issue. Lovecraft decided to write an account of all known Poe residences in America, but the resulting article is a little too mechanical and condensed to be effective.

  A somewhat more significant amateur piece—perhaps an offshoot of his renewed work as public critic—is “What Belongs in Verse,” published in the Spring 1935 issue of the Perspective Review. Here again Lovecraft, reflecting his new views on the function of poetry, admonishes budding poets to ascertain what exactly is the domain of poetry before writing anything:

  It would be well if every metrical aspirant would pause and reflect on the question of just what, out of the various things he wants to utter, ought indeed to be expressed in verse. The experiences of the ages have pretty well taught us that the heightened rhythms and unified patterns of verse are primarily adapted to poetry—which consists of strong feelings sharply, simply, and non-intellectually presented through indirect, figurative, and pictorial images. Therefore it is scarcely wise to choose these rhythms and patterns when we wish merely to tell something or claim something or preach something.

  Another essay that appeared in
Bradofsky’s Californian (in the Winter 1935 issue) is “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction”; but this piece had been composed around July 1934 for one of William L. Crawford’s magazines[96] although, like “Some Notes on a Nonentity,” it never appeared there. In this essay Lovecraft copied whole passages from “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” and in the end he did not see a very promising future for science fiction unless certain significant changes in outlook were made by its writers: “Insincerity, conventionality, triteness, artificiality, false emotion, and puerile extravagance reign triumphant throughout this overcrowded genre, so that none but its rarest products can possibly claim a truly adult status. And the spectacle of such persistent hollowness has led many to ask whether, indeed, any fabric of real literature can ever grow out of the given subject-matter.” Although his low opinion of the field was clearly derived from a sporadic reading of the science fiction pulps, Lovecraft did not think that “the idea of space-travel and other worlds is inherently unsuited to literary use”; such ideas must, however, be presented with much more seriousness and emotional preparation than had been done heretofore. What was cryingly essential, to Lovecraft’s mind, is “an adequate sense of wonder, adequate emotions in the characters, realism in the setting and supplementary incidents, care in the choice of significant detail, and a studious avoidance of . . . hackneyed artificial characters and stupid conventional events and situations”—a mighty tall order for pulp writers, and one that most of them could not fill. Lovecraft of course singled out H. G. Wells as one of the few shining lights in the field (he did not place Verne in the rank of serious science fiction authors, his early fondness for him notwithstanding), and toward the end he cited some other random works that meet his approval: Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, G. MacLeod Winsor’s Station X (1919; reprinted in Amazing Stories in July, August, and September 1926, where Lovecraft undoubtedly read it), Donald Wandrei’s “The Red Brain,” and “Clark Ashton Smith’s best work.” Lovecraft had not read the Stapledon novel by this time, as we shall see shortly, but must have heard reports of its literary substance.

  It is difficult to gauge the influence of Lovecraft’s essay on the subsequent development of the field, especially since it did not originally appear in a science fiction or even weird magazine and hence did not immediately reach the market for which it was written. Science fiction certainly did become a more aesthetically serious genre beginning around 1939, when John W. Campbell took over the editorship of Astounding; but whether Lovecraft had any direct influence on the leading writers of that period—Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, A. E. Van Vogt, and others—is highly questionable. Nevertheless, it will become evident that he himself utilised the principles he had spelled out in this essay in his own later interplanetary work.

  Late in the year Lovecraft wrote another essay for amateur publication, but it too did not appear in any amateur journal; indeed, until recently it was believed to be lost. Maurice W. Moe had asked Lovecraft to contribute an article of his choice for an amateur magazine being produced by his students. Lovecraft felt tempted to write on the subject of Roman architecture—or, more specifically, the influence of Roman architecture in the United States. The essay was finished on December 11,[97] and Lovecraft sent the autograph manuscript off to Moe without bothering to type it—a task he could not contemplate without horror and loathing. He later believed that Moe lost the essay, for it was indeed never published; but the text of it survives in a transcript made by Arkham House. It is not an especially distinguished piece of work, being a somewhat schematic account of Roman architecture and its influence on Romanesque, Renaissance, and classic revival architecture in Europe, England, and America. Lovecraft did, apparently, manage to preserve the introductory section of it, in which he vigorously attacked modernistic (and particularly functionalist) architecture; this was published in 1935 under the title “Heritage or Modernism: Common Sense in Art Forms.”

  The Christmas season of 1934 was an unusually festive one at 66 College Street. Lovecraft and Annie had a tree for the first time in a quarter-century, and Lovecraft took naive delight in describing its decoration: “All my old-time ornaments were of course long dispersed, but I laid in a new & inexpensive stock at my old friend Frank Winfield Woolworth’s. The finished product—with tinsel star, baubles, & tinsel draped from the boughs like Spanish moss—is certainly something to take the eye!”[98]

  The New Year’s season of 1934–35 once more found Lovecraft in the New York area. He left Providence very late in the evening of December 30–31, barely getting to the station alive because of the cold: “Kept my handkerchief to my nose & mouth all the time, so avoided acute lung pain & stomach sickness. But the cold got at my heart action rather badly, so that I was forced to pant for some time.”[99] Reaching Pennsylvania Station at 7 A.M. on the 31st, he cooled his heels for a bit before reaching the Longs’ residence at 8 A.M. R. H. Barlow was in town, and he came over in the afternoon. On January 2 occurred an unprecedentedly large gang meeting, with fifteen present—Barlow, Kleiner, Leeds, Talman, Morton, Kirk, Loveman (with a friend named Gordon), Koenig, Donald and Howard Wandrei, Long, and someone named Phillips (probably not a relative) and his friend Harry, along with Lovecraft. Talman took pictures of the various guests, catching them in odd expressions: Lovecraft felt that his picture made him look as if he were about to whistle a tune or expectorate. On the 3rd Lovecraft, Barlow, and Long visited Koenig’s Electrical Testing Laboratories, a rather bizarre, futuristic place where electrical appliances of various sorts were tested for durability. Lovecraft came home early in the morning of January 8.

  On New Year’s night Lovecraft had stayed up till 3 A.M. with Barlow revising a story of his—“‘Till A’ the Seas’” (Californian, Summer 1935). This fairly conventional “last man” story is of interest only because Barlow’s typescript, with Lovecraft’s revisions in pen, survives, so that the exact degree of the latter’s authorship can be ascertained. Lovecraft has made no significant structural changes, merely making a number of cosmetic changes in style and diction; but he has written the bulk of the concluding section, especially the purportedly cosmic reflexions when the last man on earth finally meets his ironic death:

  And now at last the Earth was dead. The final, pitiful survivor had perished. All the teeming billions; the slow aeons; the empires and civilisations of mankind were summed up in this poor twisted form—and how titanically meaningless it all had been! Now indeed had come an end and climax to all the efforts of humanity—how monstrous and incredible a climax in the eyes of those poor complacent fools of the prosperous days! Not ever again would the planet know the thunderous tramping of human millions—or even the crawling of lizards and the buzz of insects, for they, too, had gone. Now was come the reign of sapless branches and endless fields of tough grasses. Earth, like its cold, imperturbable moon, was given over to silence and blackness forever.

  Pretty routine stuff—but Lovecraft was at this very time in the midst of writing something on somewhat the same theme but in a much more compelling way.

  By the fall of 1934 Lovecraft had not written a work of original fiction for more than a year. His confidence in his own powers as a fiction writer was clearly at a low ebb. In December 1933 he wrote to Clark Ashton Smith:

  In everything I do there is a certain concreteness, extravagance, or general crudeness which defeats the vague but insistent object I have in mind. I start out trying to find symbols expressive of a certain mood induced by a certain visual conception . . . , but when I come to put anything on paper the chosen symbols seem forced, awkward, childish, exaggerated, & essentially inexpressive. I have staged a cheap, melodramatic puppet-show without saying what I wanted to say in the first place.[100]

  In March 1934 he fleetingly mentioned a plot idea:

  I’m not working on the actual text of any story just now, but am planning a novelette of the Arkham cycle—about what happened when somebody inherited a queer old house on the top of Frenchman’s Hill & obey
ed an irresistible urge to dig in a certain queer, abandoned graveyard on Hangman’s Hill at the other edge of the town. This story will probably not involve the actual supernatural—being more of the “Colour Out of Space” type . . . greatly-stretched “scientifiction”.[101]

  Nothing more is heard of this story, which was clearly not completed and perhaps not even begun. As a preliminary for the writing of this tale, however, Lovecraft did prepare a map of Arkham—one of perhaps three he prepared in his life. As the months dragged on, Lovecraft’s colleagues began to wonder whether any new story would ever emerge from his pen. In October E. Hoffmann Price urged Lovecraft to write another story about Randolph Carter, but Lovecraft declined.

  Given all the difficulties Lovecraft was experiencing in capturing his ideas in fiction, it is not surprising that the writing of his next tale, “The Shadow out of Time,” took more than three months (November 10, 1934, to February 22, 1935, as dated on the autograph manuscript) and went through two or perhaps three entire drafts. Moreover, the genesis of the story can be traced back at least four years before its actual composition. Before examining the painful birth of the story, let us gain some idea of its basic plot.

  Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, a professor of political economy at Miskatonic University, suddenly experiences some sort of nervous breakdown on May 14, 1908, while teaching a class. Awaking in the hospital after a collapse, he appears to have suffered an amnesia so severe that it has affected even his vocal and motor faculties. Gradually he relearns the use of his body, and indeed develops tremendous mental capacity, seemingly far beyond that of a normal human being. His wife, sensing that something is gravely wrong, obtains a divorce, and only one of his three children, Wingate, continues to have anything to do with him. Peaslee spends the next five years conducting prodigious but anomalous research at various libraries around the world, and also undertakes expeditions to various mysterious realms. Finally, on September 27, 1913, he suddenly snaps back into his old life: when he awakes after a spell of unconsciousness, he believes he is still teaching the economics course in 1908.

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