I am providence the life.., p.144

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 144


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

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  Moore initiated the story with a rather lacklustre account of a man named George Campbell who, while camping alone in the Canadian wilderness, comes upon a curious quartzlike cube for whose exact nature and purpose he cannot account. Long then wrote what Lovecraft called “a rather clever development”;[19] but this left Merritt in the position of actually developing the story. Merritt balked, saying that Long had somehow deviated from the subject-matter suggested by the title, and refused to participate unless Long’s section were dropped and Merritt allowed to write one of his own. Schwartz, not wanting to lose such a big name (Long, not having such an impressive reputation, was apparently considered expendable), weakly went along with the plan. Merritt’s own version is pretty inane and fails to move the story along in any meaningful way: Campbell is merely impressed with the bizarrerie of the object (“It was alien, he knew it; not of this earth. Not of earth’s life”), and while peering into it finds his mind sucked into the core of the object. Lovecraft, next on the list, realised that he would have to take the story in hand and actually make it go somewhere.

  Notes to Lovecraft’s segment survive and make interesting reading—if only for the amusing drawings of the alien entities he introduces into the tale (giant worm- or centipede-like creatures) and for the clear borrowings he has made from the plot of “The Shadow out of Time.” For this segment of “The Challenge from Beyond” is nothing more than an adaptation of the central conception of that story—mind-exchange. Here the exchange is effected by the cubes, which draw the mind of anyone who looks into it and flings it back to the transgalactic world of the centipede creatures, where it is somehow housed in a machine; by the reverse method one of the centipedes casts his mind into the body of the mind so captured. Campbell manages to figure out what has happened to him because he has, handily enough, read “those debatable and disquieting clay fragments called the Eltdown Shards” which tell the whole story of this centipede race and their explorations of space via the cubes.

  Lovecraft need scarcely be held responsible for pillaging his own recently completed story for the core of the plot of “The Challenge from Beyond”; for the latter was clearly a sporting venture of no conceivable literary consequence. The anomaly, however, is that this mind-exchange idea actually got into print months before its much better utilisation in “The Shadow out of Time” did. Lovecraft’s segment is about three to four times as long as that of any other writer’s, taking up about half the story. Robert E. Howard, who had been talked into taking the fourth instalment, displays Campbell (in the body of a centipede) suddenly reviving from a fainting fit to engage in an orgy of slaughter against his slimy opponents, while Long—whom Lovecraft had talked into coming back on board the project after he had walked away in a huff when Schwartz had dumped his initial instalment—concludes the story by showing the centipede-bodied Campbell becoming a god on the distant planet while the human-bodied alien degenerates into mindless bestiality. It’s all good fun of a sort, although even Lovecraft’s segment—clearly the most substantial of the lot (it has actually been published separately as a self-contained narrative)—cannot claim much aesthetic value. The science fiction version is, if possible, even worse.

  Another story on which Lovecraft worked around this time—Duane W. Rimel’s “The Disinterment”—is, however, a very different proposition. This tale—very similar in atmosphere to some of Lovecraft’s early macabre stories, especially “The Outsider”—is to my mind either wholly written by Lovecraft or a remarkably faithful imitation of Lovecraft’s style and manner. Rimel has emphatically maintained that the story is largely his, Lovecraft acting only as a polisher; and correspondence between the two men—especially Lovecraft’s enthusiastic initial response to the story—seems to support this claim. Consider a passage in Lovecraft’s letter to Rimel of September 28, 1935: “First of all, let me congratulate you on the story. Really, it’s splendid—one of your best so far! The suspense & atmosphere of dread are admirable, & the scenes are very vividly managed. . . . I’ve gone over the MS. very carefully with a view to improving the smoothness of the prose style—& I hope you’ll find the slight verbal changes acceptable.”[20] The critical issue is what to make of that final sentence (the manuscript or typescript, with Lovecraft’s putative corrections, does not survive). The fact that Lovecraft refers to “slight verbal changes” should not lead us to minimise his role in the tale, since this may simply be another instance of his customary modesty. It is, moreover, odd that Rimel subsequently wrote nothing even remotely as fine (or, at any rate, as Lovecraftian) as this tale. Rimel (or Lovecraft) has taken the hackneyed “mad doctor” trope and shorn it of its triteness and absurdity by a very restrained portrayal, one that suggests far more than it states; and although the “surprise” ending—a man whose body is afflicted with leprosy finds that his head has been severed and reattached to the body of some other person (apparently a black man)—is hardly a surprise to the alert reader, it follows the lead of many Lovecraft stories in which the narrator cannot bring himself to state, unequivocally and definitively, the hideous truth until the very last line. The prose seems to me remarkably Lovecraftian:

  It was on the evening following my half-recovery that the dreams began. I was tormented not only at night but during the day as well. I would awaken, screaming horribly, from some frightful nightmare I dared not think about outside the realm of sleep. These dreams consisted mainly of ghoulish things; graveyards at night, stalking corpses, and lost souls amid a chaos of blinding light and shadow. The terrible reality of the visions disturbed me most of all: it seemed that some inside influence was inducing the grisly vistas of moonlit tombstones and endless catacombs of the restless dead. I could not place their source; and at the end of a week I was quite frantic with abominable thoughts which seemed to obtrude themselves upon my unwelcome consciousness.

  “The Disinterment” was initially rejected by Farnsworth Wright but then, in early 1936, accepted; it was not published in Weird Tales, however, until the January 1937 issue. Rimel went on to have one more story, “The Metal Chamber,” in Weird Tales (March 1939), but neither this nor any of Rimel’s other published stories aside from “The Tree on the Hill” appear to bear any significant amount of Lovecraft prose, even though Lovecraft seems to have been looking over and perhaps lightly touching up a number of Rimel’s other stories of the period.

  More travel loomed on Lovecraft’s horizon. He spent September 20–23 in Massachusetts with Edward H. Cole, but this time the trip was not entirely for pleasure: the two men were entrusted with the melancholy duty of scattering the ashes of the old amateur Jennie E. T. Dowe (1841–1919), the mother of Edith Miniter, in the Wilbraham region where she was born. The trip had been in the offing for more than a year, but kept being delayed because of obligations by either Cole or Lovecraft; W. Paul Cook was to have accompanied them but was unable at the last moment to go. Some of the ashes were scattered in the Dell cemetery, the rest in the rose garden of the then-deserted house, Maplehurst, where Lovecraft himself had stayed in 1928 with Miniter. This was, of course, the “Dunwich” region, and Lovecraft was heartened to find that “Nothing had changed—the hills, the roads, the village, the dead houses—all the same.”[21]

  On the 22nd Cole and his family took Lovecraft to Cape Cod, going through Hyannis and Chatham, the latter being the easternmost point of Massachusetts. The next day the party explored Lynn and Swampscott, on the North Shore, and Lovecraft went home that evening.

  One more trip that Lovecraft managed before the cold drove him indoors for the winter was a day’s journey on October 8 to New Haven, where he and Annie were taken by a friend in a car. Lovecraft had passed through the town on a number of occasions but had never stopped there. He was delighted, particularly with the Yale campus and its imitation Gothic quadrangles—

  each an absolutely faithful reproduction of old-time architecture & atmosphere, & forming a self-contained little world in itself. The Gothic courtyards transport one in fancy to media
eval Oxford or Cambridge—spires, oriels, pointed arches, mullioned windows, arcades with groined roofs, climbing ivy, sundials, lawns, gardens, vine-clad walls & flagstoned walks—everything to give the young occupants the massed impression of their accumulated cultural heritage which they might obtain in Old England itself. To stroll through these quadrangles in the golden afternoon sunlight; at dusk, when the lights in the diamond-paned casements flicker up one by one; or in the beams of a mellow Hunter’s Moon; is to walk bodily into an enchanted region of dream. It is the past—& the ancient mother land—brought magically to the present time & place. . . . Lucky is the youth whose formative years are spent amid such scenes! I wandered for hours through this limitless labyrinth of unexpected elder microcosms, & mourned the lack of further time.[22]

  Lovecraft yearned to visit New Haven again, but he never got the chance.

  Even this was not quite the end of his year’s travels, for at 6 A.M. on October 16 Sam Loveman reached Providence from the New York boat, and the two friends spent two days in Boston exploring bookshops, museums, antiquities, and the like. Lovecraft lamented the destruction of two more old houses in the North End (“Pickman’s Model”) area.

  In mid-October 1935 Lovecraft broke his self-imposed rule against collaboration by revising a story by William Lumley entitled “The Diary of Alonzo Typer.” Lumley had produced a hopelessly illiterate draft of the tale and sent it to Lovecraft, who, feeling sorry for the old codger, rewrote the story wholesale while still preserving as much of Lumley’s conceptions and even his prose as possible. Lumley’s version still survives, although it would be a blessing for his reputation if it did not. We are here taken to some spectral house, evidently in upstate New York (Lumley was a resident of Buffalo), where strange forces were called up by the Dutch family that had resided there. The narrator, an occult explorer, attempts to fathom the mysteries of the place, but in Lumley’s version the tale ends quite inconclusively, with the explorer awaiting some mysterious fate while thunder and lighting rage all around. Some parts of his account are unintentionally comical, as when the narrator goes to a hill and recites a chant he finds in a strange book but is disappointed that not much happens; he concludes laconically, “Better luck next time.”[23]

  Lovecraft, while preserving as much as he could of this farrago of nonsense—including such of Lumley’s inventions as the Book of Forbidden Things, “the seven lost signs of terror,” the mysterious city Yian-Ho, and the like—at least made some coherent sense of the plot. The result, however, is still a dismal failure. Lovecraft felt the need to supply a suitably cataclysmic ending, so he depicted the narrator coming upon the locus of horror in the basement of the house, only to be seized by a monster at the end while heroically (or absurdly) writing in his diary: “Too late—cannot help self—black paws materialise—am dragged away toward the cellar. . . .”

  To compound the absurdity, Lovecraft was hoping to foist the typing of the story on to someone else, but noted that his autograph version was so hopelessly interlined that no one but he could type it—something he found singularly ironic given the story’s title. Lovecraft thought that Lumley would dump the thing upon some fan or semi-professional magazine like Marvel Tales, but Lumley enterprisingly sent it to Farnsworth Wright, who accepted it in early December for $70.00.[24] Wright noticed the traces of Lovecraft’s style in the piece, and one wonders whether this had anything to do with the long delay in its publication (it appeared in Weird Tales only in February 1938). Lovecraft magnanimously let Lumley keep the entire $70.00.

  He may have been in a generous mood at this time because of some remarkable financial developments of his own. Probably during Lovecraft’s stay in New York in early September, Julius Schwartz had come to a gathering of the weird fiction gang at Donald Wandrei’s apartment. The exact date of this event is unclear: Schwartz did meet Lovecraft at Frank Long’s on September 4,[25] but this was in connexion with “The Challenge from Beyond”; and Schwartz is clear that he met Lovecraft at Wandrei’s, not Long’s.[26] In any event, Schwartz, who was attempting to establish himself as an agent in the weird and science fiction fields, had been in touch with F. Orlin Tremaine, editor of Astounding, who was wanting to broaden the scope of the magazine to include some weird or weird/science material. Schwartz asked Lovecraft whether he had any tales that might fit into this purview, and Lovecraft replied that At the Mountains of Madness had been rejected by Wright and had not been submitted elsewhere. Schwartz, recalling the incident fifty years after the fact, thinks that Lovecraft must have given him the story on the spot; but this seems highly unlikely, unless the typescript happened to have been lent to Wandrei or some other New York colleague at that time. In any event, Schwartz eventually got the story and took it to Tremaine, probably in late October. Here is his account of what transpired:

  The next time I went up to Tremaine, I said, roughly, “I have in my hands a 35,000 word story by H. P. Lovecraft.” So he smiled and said roughly to the equivalent, “You’ll get a check on Friday.” Or “It’s sold!” . . .

  Now I’m fairly convinced that Tremaine never read the story. Or if he tried to, he gave up.

  What this shows is that Lovecraft was by this time sufficiently well known in the weird/science fiction pulp field that Tremaine did not even need to read the story to accept it; Lovecraft’s name on a major work—whose length would require it to be serialised over several issues—was felt to be a sufficient drawing card. Tremaine was true to his word: Tremaine paid Schwartz $350.00; after keeping his $35.00 agent’s fee, he sent the rest to Lovecraft.

  Lovecraft was of course pleased at this turn of events, but in less than a week he would have reason to be still more pleased. In early November he learned that Donald Wandrei had submitted “The Shadow out of Time”—which presumably had found its way to him on Lovecraft’s circulation list—to Tremaine, and that story was also accepted, for $280.00. In all likelihood Tremaine scarcely read this tale either.

  There has been considerable confusion over the exact details of this remarkable double sale. Schwartz and Wandrei have each maintained that he alone was responsible for selling both stories, but Lovecraft’s letters clearly state that Schwartz sold the one and Wandrei the other. Wandrei’s whole account in his memoir, “Lovecraft in Providence” (1959), is highly suspect, since he reports that after sounding out Tremaine about the prospect of publishing the two stories, he wrote to Lovecraft immediately and asked Lovecraft to send him the typescripts without delay; but no such exchange is found in the extant letters between Lovecraft and Wandrei. All we find is a postcard, on November 3, in which Lovecraft has already received a cheque from Street & Smith:

  What’s this I hear about philanthropic agenting activities behind Grandpa’s back? A couple of days ago certain rumours began to filter in from Sonny & little Meestah Stoiling [Kenneth Sterling]—& this morning a $280 cheque from S & S confirmed the most extreme reports. Yuggoth, what a stroke! Hope you took out a good commission—if you didn’t, Grandpa’ll have to send you one! ¶ No doubt you heard that Leedle Shoolie [Julius Schwartz] managed to sell the “Mts. of Madness” to S & S for a sum which nets me $315. The coincidence of two such stories successfully landing is almost unbelievable, since neither has anything in common with the policy & formulae of Astounding. I thought they had not the slightest shadow of a chance with Tremaine. The combined sum—595—comes as a crisis-postponing life-saver at this juncture . . . & I certainly wish such marketing could keep up![27]

  This surely tells us all we need to know. The financial boon was certainly marked: Lovecraft put it in graphic but perhaps not exaggerated terms when he wrote, “I was never closer to the bread-line than this year.”[28] Elsewhere he bluntly stated: “The recent cheques were indeed life-savers—so much so that I fear they can’t be translated into travel, or anything less prosaic than food & rent!”[29] Aside from $105 for “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” and $32.50 from the London agency Curtis Brown for a proposed reprinting of “The Music of
Erich Zann” that never transpired,[30] Lovecraft had had no sales of original fiction in 1934 or 1935. In late 1935 we even read of Lovecraft having to conserve on ink: he felt unable to make repeated purchases of his usual Skrip ink, at 25¢ a bottle, and was trying to get by on Woolworth’s 5¢ brand.[31] In a short time we shall see that even these two welcome checks from Street & Smith could scarcely save Lovecraft and Annie from severe economies in the coming spring.

  Meanwhile, William L. Crawford, who must have heard from Lovecraft about the Astounding acceptances, contemplated submitting “The Shadow over Innsmouth”—which he had by this time resolved to issue as a booklet—to Astounding.[32] Lovecraft had no objection in principle, although he warned Crawford that this might be a case of going to the well once too often, and he also knew that “The Shadow over Innsmouth” was much less allied to the realm of science fiction than the two tales that had been taken. Nothing more is heard of this matter, and it is not clear that Crawford actually submitted the story to Astounding; if he did, it was of course rejected.

  Lovecraft’s jubilation at the Astounding sales would later turn sour when he saw the actual stories in print; but that was months in the future. It is very evident that, just as a rejection—or even an unfavourable report from an associate—would plunge Lovecraft into depression and self-doubt about his abilities as a writer, so this double acceptance directly stimulated him into renewed composition. On November 5–9 he reeled off a new tale, “The Haunter of the Dark.”

  This last original story by Lovecraft came about almost as a whim. Robert Bloch had written a story, “The Shambler from the Stars,” in the spring of 1935, in which a character—never named, but clearly meant to be Lovecraft—is killed off. Lovecraft was taken with the story, and when it was published in Weird Tales (September 1935), a reader, B. M. Reynolds, praised it and had a suggestion to make: “Contrary to previous criticism, Robert Bloch deserves plenty of praise for The Shambler from the Stars. Now why doesn’t Mr. Lovecraft return the compliment, and dedicate a story to the author?”[33] Lovecraft took up the offer, and his story tells of one Robert Blake who ends up a glassy-eyed corpse staring out his study window.

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