I am providence the life.., p.145

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 145


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

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  But the flippancy of the genesis of “The Haunter of the Dark” should not deceive us; it is one of Lovecraft’s more substantial tales. Robert Blake, a young writer of weird fiction, comes to Providence for a period of writing. Looking through his study window down College Hill and across to the far-away and vaguely sinister Italian district known as Federal Hill, Blake becomes fascinated by one object in particular—an abandoned church “in a state of great decrepitude.” Eventually he gains the courage actually to go to the place and enter it, and he finds all sort of anomalous things within. There are copies of strange and forbidden books; there is, in a large square room, an object resting upon a pillar—a metal box containing a curious gem or mineral—that exercises an unholy fascination upon Blake; and, most hideously, there is the decaying skeleton of an old newspaper reporter whose notes Blake reads. These notes speak of the ill-regarded Starry Wisdom church, whose congregation gained in numbers throughout the nineteenth century and was suspected of satanic practices of a very bizarre sort, until finally the church was shut down by the city in 1877. The notes also mention a “Shining Trapezohedron” and a “Haunter of the Dark” that cannot exist in light. Blake concludes that the object on the pillar is the Shining Trapezohedron, and in an “access of gnawing, indeterminate panic fear” he closes the lid of the object and flees the place.

  Later he hears anomalous stories of some lumbering object creating havoc in the belfry of the church, stuffing pillows in all the windows so that no light can come in. Things come to a head when a tremendous electrical storm on August 8–9 causes a blackout for several hours. A group of superstitious Italians gathers around the church with candles, and they sense some enormous dark object appearing to fly out of the church’s belfry:

  Immediately afterward an utterly unbearable foetor welled forth from the unseen heights, choking and sickening the trembling watchers, and almost prostrating those in the square. At the same time the air trembled with a vibration as of flapping wings, and a sudden east-blowing wind more violent than any previous blast snatched off the hats and wrenched the dripping umbrellas of the crowd. Nothing definite could be seen in the candleless night, though some upward-looking spectators though they glimpsed a great spreading blur of denser blackness against the inky sky—something like a formless cloud of smoke that shot with meteor-like speed toward the east.

  Blake’s diary tells the rest of the tale. He feels that he is somehow losing control of his own sense of self (“My name is Blake—Robert Harrison Blake of 620 East Knapp Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. . . . I am on this planet”; and still later: “I am it and it is I”); his perspective is all confused (“far is near and near is far”); finally he sees some nameless object approaching him (“hell-wind—titan blur—black wings—Yog-Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye. . . .”). The next morning he is found dead—of electrocution, even though his window was closed and fastened.

  What, in fact, has happened to Blake? His poignant but seemingly cryptic diary entry “Roderick Usher” tells the whole story. Just as in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” Lovecraft analysed Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” as a tale which “displays an abnormally linked trinity of entities at the end of a long and isolated family history—a brother, his twin sister, and their incredibly ancient house all sharing a single soul and meeting one common dissolution at the same moment,” so in “The Haunter of the Dark” we are led to believe that the entity in the church—the Haunter of the Dark, described as an avatar of Nyarlathotep—has possessed Blake’s mind but, at the moment of doing so, is struck by lightning and killed, and Blake dies as well. Just as, in “The Call of Cthulhu,” the accidental sinking of R’lyeh saves the world from a monstrous fate, so here a random bolt of electricity is all that prevents a creature of spectacular power from being let loose upon the planet.

  Many of the surface details of the plot were taken directly from Hanns Heinz Ewers’s “The Spider,” which Lovecraft read in Dashiell Hammett’s Creeps by Night (1931). This story involves a man who becomes fascinated with a strange woman he sees through his window in a building across from his own, until finally he seems to lose hold of his own personality. The entire story is told in the form of the man’s diary, and at the end he writes: “My name—Richard Bracquemont, Richard Bracquemont, Richard—oh, I can’t get any farther . . .”[34] It is not entirely clear that Lovecraft has improved on Ewers.

  “The Haunter of the Dark” does not involve any grand philosophical principles—Lovecraft does not even do much with the basic symbolism of light and dark as parallel to good and evil or knowledge and ignorance—but it is simply an extremely well-executed and suspenseful tale of supernatural horror. There are only hints of the cosmic, especially in Blake’s diary (“What am I afraid of? Is it not an avatar of Nyarlathotep, who in antique and shadowy Khem even took the form of man? I remember Yuggoth, and more distant Shaggai, and the ultimate void of the black planets”), but otherwise the tale is notable chiefly for its vivid evocation of Providence.

  Many of the landmarks described in the story are manifestly based upon actual sites. The view from Blake’s study, as is well known, is nothing more than a poignant description of what Lovecraft saw out of his own study at 66 College Street:

  Blake’s study . . . commanded a splendid view of the lower town’s outspread roofs and of the mystical sunsets that flamed behind them. On the far horizon were the open countryside’s purple slopes. Against these, some two miles away, rose the spectral hump of Federal Hill, bristling with huddled roofs and steeples whose remote outlines wavered mysteriously, taking fantastic forms as the smoke of the city swirled up and enmeshed them.

  A passage almost identical to this can be found in Lovecraft’s letters to Bloch and others as he moved into 66 College Street in May 1933. Moreover, this exact view can be seen today from such a vantage point as Prospect Terrace on the brow of College Hill.

  The church that figures so prominently in the tale is—or was—real: it is St John’s Catholic Church on Atwell’s Avenue in Federal Hill (recently condemned and now destroyed). This church was in fact situated on a raised plot of ground, as in the story, although there was (at least prior to its demolition) no metal fence around it. It was, in Lovecraft’s day, very much a going concern, being the principal Catholic church in the area. The description of the interior and belfry of the church is quite accurate. Lovecraft heard that the steeple had been destroyed by lightning in late June of 1935 (he was not there at the time, being in Florida visiting Barlow); and instead of rebuilding the steeple, the church authorities decided merely to put a rather stubby cap on the brick tower.[35] This incident no doubt started his imagination working.

  The end of 1935 saw Lovecraft’s fourth—and last—Christmas visit to Frank Long and the rest of the New York gang. Oddly enough, the letters or postcards he must have written to Annie Gamwell do not survive, so we have to piece together the details of the visit from letters to others. Lovecraft apparently left Providence on Sunday, December 29, and stayed till January 7. Amid the usual round of socialising with old friends (Long, Loveman, the Wandreis, Talman, Leeds, Kleiner, Morton), he met some new figures: his new correspondent Donald A. Wollheim; Arthur J. Burks, the pulp writer whose “Bells of Oceana” (December 1927) he rightly considered one of the best things ever to appear in Weird Tales; and Otto Binder, half of a collaborative team (with his brother Earl) that published weird and science fiction tales under the name Eando (= “E. and O.”) Binder. He met Seabury Quinn for the first time since 1931 and attended a dinner of the American Fiction Guild, an organisation that Hugh B. Cave had for years been trying to get him to join.

  On two occasions Lovecraft went to the new Hayden Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History, where he was quite taken with the sophisticated displays, including a gigantic orrery that depicts the planets revolving around the sun at their actual relative speeds, and a dome capable of depicting the celestial vault as seen at any hour, in any season, from
any latitude, and at any period of history. Lovecraft bought two 25¢ planispheres and charitably gave them to Long and Donald Wandrei, so that they would make fewer mistakes in citing the constellations in their stories.

  Just before his trip Lovecraft heard dim reports of a Christmas surprise that Barlow had prepared for him—a pamphlet reprinting “The Cats of Ulthar.” Lovecraft had suspected nothing when, around October, Barlow had casually asked whether there had been any misprints in the Weird Tales appearance of the story;[36] he had replied in the negative and let it go at that. Given his fastidiousness about the accurate printing of his work, it is therefore no surprise that the first thing he asked Barlow when he heard about the pamphlet was: “Bless my soul, Sir, but what’s this your Grandpa hears about a Yuletide brochure publish’d without permission or proofreading?”[37] But his fears were groundless: when he actually saw the booklet at Frank Long’s, he was not only overwhelmingly delighted at Barlow’s generosity, but relieved to find it a very soundly printed text.

  The Cats of Ulthar is one of the choicest items for the Lovecraft collector. Forty copies of a “regular” edition (bearing the imprint of The Dragon-Fly Press, Cassia, Florida) were printed and bound, and two copies were printed on what Barlow calls Red Lion Text. One of these copies (Lovecraft’s) is in the John Hay Library; the whereabouts of the other is unknown. Lovecraft’s praises of the appearance of this charming item are justified: “Let me repeat my congratulations anent the taste and accuracy of the brochure. The Dragon-Fly Press is surely coming along!”[38]

  Another booklet that seems to have emerged at this time is Charleston. This is a mimeographed pamphlet that exists in two “editions,” if they can be called that. H. C. Koenig was planning a trip to Charleston in early 1936 and asked Lovecraft for a brief description of some of the highlights of the place. Lovecraft, always willing to expatiate on the city he loved second only to Providence, wrote a long letter on January 12 that combined a potted history of Charleston with a specific walking tour. This letter actually does no more than paraphrase and abridge Lovecraft’s superb (and at the time still unpublished) 1930 travelogue, “An Account of Charleston,” leaving out the archaic usages and also some of the more interesting but idiosyncratic personal asides. Koenig was so taken with this letter that he typed it up and mimeographed it, running off probably fewer than 25 copies. When Lovecraft received the item, he found a number of mistranscriptions that he wished to correct; meanwhile Koenig had asked Lovecraft to rewrite the beginning and ending so as to transform the piece from a letter into an essay. After these corrections and changes were made, Koenig ran off about 30–50 copies of the new version, “binding” it (as he had done with the first version) in a cardboard folder with the words “CHARLESTON / By H. P. Lovecraft” typed on it.

  The actual date of these editions is difficult to specify. Lovecraft mentioned receiving the first (letter) version on April 2[39] and the second version in early June.[40] One other anomaly is that a brochure on Charleston, printed by the Electrical Testing Laboratories (where Koenig worked) in the spring of that year, contained Lovecraft’s hand-drawn illustrations of Charleston houses and other architectural details. The president of the laboratories had seen the illustrations (which Lovecraft had included as separate sheets to accompany his letter) just as the brochure was going to press, and he had asked Koenig (but not Lovecraft) permission to print them. Lovecraft was tickled at his first published appearance as an artist in thirty years[41]—the first occasion being the astronomy articles he wrote for the Providence Tribune (1906–08), which contained hand-drawn star charts. This Charleston item has not been located.

  Not long after returning from New York, Lovecraft—although overwhelmed by revision work, a growing feud in the NAPA, and (ominously) a severe case of what he called “grippe,” which involved “headache, nausea, weakness, drowsiness, bad digestion, and what the hell”[42]—still managed to find time to lapse into one more collaborative fiction venture—this time with Kenneth Sterling. The result is the interesting if insubstantial science fiction tale “In the Walls of Eryx.”

  Sterling has stated that the idea of the invisible maze was his, and that this core idea was adapted from Edmond Hamilton’s celebrated story (which Lovecraft liked), “The Monster-God of Mamurth” (Weird Tales, August 1926), which concerns an invisible building in the Sahara Desert. Sterling wrote a draft of 6000–8000 words; Lovecraft entirely rewrote the story (“in very short order,” Sterling declares) on a small pad of lined paper (perhaps similar to the one on which he had written “The Shadow out of Time”), making it about 12,000 words in the process.[43] Sterling’s account suggests that the version as we have it is entirely Lovecraft’s prose, and indeed it reads as such; but one suspects (Sterling’s original draft is not extant) that, as with the collaborated tales with Price and Lumley, Lovecraft tried to preserve as much of Sterling’s own prose, and certainly his ideas, as possible.

  The authors have made the tale amusing by devising nasty in-jokes on certain mutual colleagues (e.g., farnoth-flies = Farnsworth Wright of Weird Tales; effjay weeds and wriggling akmans = Forrest J Ackerman); I suspect these are Lovecraft’s jokes, since they are roughly similar to the punning names he devised for “The Battle That Ended the Century.” The narrative, however, turns into a conte cruel when the hapless protagonist, trapped in the invisible maze whose opening he can no longer locate, reveals his deteriorating mental and physical condition in the diary he writes as he vainly seeks to escape.

  The already hackneyed use of Venus as a setting for the tale is perhaps its one significant drawback. It should be noted that the spectacle of a human being walking without much difficulty (albeit with an oxygen mask and protective suit) on the surface of Venus was not preposterous in its day. There was much speculation as to the surface conditions of the planet, some astronomers believing that the planet was steamy and swampy like our own Palaeozoic age, others believing that it was a barren desert blown by dust storms; still others thought the planet covered with huge oceans of carbonated water or even with hot oil. It was only in 1956 that radio waves showed the surface temperature to be a minimum of 570? F, while in 1968 radar and radio observations at last confirmed the temperature to be 900? F and the surface atmospheric pressure to be at least ninety times that of the earth.[44]

  Lovecraft’s handwritten version of the story was presumably typed by Sterling, since the existing typescript is in an otherwise unrecognisable typewriter face. The byline reads (surely at Lovecraft’s insistence) “By Kenneth Sterling and H. P. Lovecraft.” The story was submitted to Astounding Stories, Blue Book, Argosy, Wonder Stories, and perhaps Amazing Stories (all these names, except the last, are crossed out on a sheet prefacing the typescript). Finally it was published in Weird Tales for October 1939.

  Lovecraft, according to Sterling, had helped his young friend on this story because he wished to give him some practical advice and encouragement in story writing, although both Lovecraft and Sterling sensed even then that the latter’s career lay in science and not literature. Sterling had, however, previously published a story entitled “The Bipeds of Bjhulhu” (Wonder Stories, February 1936), whose title was consciously meant to evoke Cthulhu, although there are no Lovecraftian touches in the tale itself.

  Less than a month after Lovecraft recovered from his bout of “grippe,” he reported to his correspondents that his aunt Annie was stricken with a much severer case, one that ultimately involved hospitalisation (beginning March 17), then a two-week stay at the private convalescent home of one Russell Goff (April 7–21). Here is one more of the relatively few occasions in which Lovecraft is guilty of deceit, but in this case it is entirely understandable. In fact, Annie Gamwell was suffering from breast cancer, and her hospital stay involved the removal of her right breast.[45] It is not a subject someone like Lovecraft would wish to discuss openly even to close associates.

  The result for Lovecraft was a complete disruption of his schedule. Even before Annie’s actual hospita
l stay, her illness (which had become serious by February 17) caused Lovecraft to have “no time to be aught save a combined nurse, butler, & errand boy”;[46] then, with the hospital stay, things went from bad to worse, causing Lovecraft to find an analogy to his troubles only in Milton:

  All my own affairs went absolutely to hell—letters unanswered, borrowed books piled up unread, N.A.P.A. duties shifted to others, revision jobs unperformed, fiction-writing a thing of the past . . .

  With ruin upon ruin, rout on rout—

  Confusion worse confounded.[47]

  Lovecraft added graciously, “But it was a damn sight worse on my aunt than on me!” He went on to note rather harrowingly: “My own programme is totally shot to pieces, & I am about on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I have so little power of concentration that it takes me about an hour to do what I can ordinarily do in five minutes—& my eyesight is acting like the devil.” The weather didn’t help any, remaining anomalously chilly until well into July.

  The one thing Annie’s illness and hospital stay brought out was the severe state of the family finances—something made graphically real by one of the saddest documents ever written by Lovecraft, a diary that he kept while Annie was away and which he would bring to her every few days in order to give an account of his activities. Amidst constant references to “wrestling with correspondence” (both his own and Annie’s) and intermittently attempting to do his own revision work, we receive an unvarnished account of the perilous state of the household finances (made severer by the expenses of the hospital, a private nurse, and the like) and the severe economies—especially in food—which Lovecraft was compelled to practise.

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