I am providence the life.., p.146

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 146


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

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  On March 20 we learn that Lovecraft had gone back to a bad habit of Clinton Street days—eating canned food cold—for we now hear of his “experiment[ing] with heating” a can of chile con carne. It gets worse. On March 22 some twenty-minute eggs plus half a can of baked beans made “a sumptuous repast.” Around March 24 Lovecraft felt the necessity to use canned goods that had been lying around for at least three years, since they had been brought over from Barnes Street. These included Zocates (a type of canned potato), Protose (a vegetarian substitute for meat made by Kellogg), and even some canned brown bread. On the 26th he made a potato salad with the Zocates and some old mayonnaise and salt; but finding it “a bit lacking in taste,” he added a touch of ketchup—“which made an absolutely perfect & highly appetising blend.” On March 29 he began using up some old Chase & Sanborn coffee that would otherwise go bad, even though he liked Postum better. Dinner on March 30 was cold hot dogs, biscuits, and mayonnaise.

  On April 10 Lovecraft began experimenting with a tin of ten-year-old Rich’s Cocoa and found that it had “acquired an earthy taste”: “However, I shall use it up somehow.” He was true to his word: over the next three days he mixed it with condensed milk and resolutely drank it. Afterward he found a tin of Hershey’s Cocoa, a nearly full container of salt from Barnes Street, and a can of Hatchet diced carrots on the top shelf of a kitchen cabinet and set these down for eventual use, also beginning to eat the canned brown bread, which seemed all right.

  The entire effect of all this economising and eating of old and possibly spoiled food can only be conjectured. Is it any wonder that on April 4 Lovecraft admitted to feeling so tired during the middle of the day that he had to rest instead of going out, and that on April 13 he found, after a nap, that “I was too weak & drowsy to do anything”? It should, of course, be emphasised that the meals prepared during this period did not represent his normal eating habits, although these latter were themselves ascetic enough. I shall have more to say about this later.

  As I have suggested, one of the things Lovecraft had to do during Annie’s illness was to tend to her own correspondence. She had many friends in Providence with whom she stayed in touch either in person or by correspondence, and when they found that she was in the hospital they wrote many cards of condolence. Lovecraft felt obligated to answer every one of them, thanking them for their concern and giving updates on Annie’s condition.

  One such individual who evolved into a rather quaint correspondent of her own—or, at least, inspired in Lovecraft a charmingly piquant series of letters—is Marion F. Bonner, who lived at The Arsdale at 55 Waterman Street. Bonner appears to have known Annie from at least the time they moved into 66 College Street, which was not at all far from her own residence, and in a memoir she states that she visited them often at their home; but if Lovecraft wrote any letters to her prior to Annie’s illness, they do not survive.

  In the course of this correspondence Lovecraft revealed his fondness for cats, and he filled the margins of his letters with the most delightful drawings of cats gambolling with each other or playing with balls of yarn or other activities so heartwarmingly written about in his old essay “Cats and Dogs.” Bonner, discussing the Kappa Alpha Tau fraternity, writes:

  Whenever I told him of any cat in down-town Providence, suggesting election into above fraternity, he almost always knew of it. Possibly these endeavors of mine earned me the election into the “Fraternity” as an honorary member, “with complimentary purrs.” At one time he wrote in a brochure on cats, which he presented to me, that the said brochure was “not yet published.” The latter is now in the possession of the John Hay Library of Brown University.[48]

  I do not know exactly what this brochure is; it may simply be some transcription of “Cats and Dogs.” No such item survives, as far as I know, in the John Hay Library.

  The reference to cats in downtown Providence makes one think of Lovecraft’s celebrated account of Old Man, an incredibly aged cat whom he knew nearly his whole life. The description is too good not to quote:

  So I hadn’t spoken about “Old Man” and my dreams of him! Well—he was a great fellow. He belonged to a market at the foot of Thomas Street—the hill street mentioned in “Cthulhu” as the abode of the young artist—and could usually (in later life) be found asleep on the sill of a low window almost touching the ground. Occasionally he would stroll up the hill as far as the Art Club, seating himself at the entrance to one of those old-fashioned courtyard archways (formerly common everywhere) for which Providence is so noted. At night, when the electric lights make the street bright, the space within the archway would remain pitch-black, so that it looked like the mouth of an illimitable abyss, or the gateway of some nameless dimension. And there, as if stationed as a guardian of the unfathomed mysteries beyond, would crouch the Sphinxlike, jet-black, yellow-eyed, and incredibly ancient form of Old Man. I first knew him as a youngish cat in 1906, when my elder aunt lived in Benefit St. nearby, and Thomas St. lay on my route downtown from her place. I used to pat him and remark what a fine boy he was. I was sixteen then. The years went by, and I continued to see him off and on. He grew mature—then elderly—and finally cryptically ancient. After about ten years—when I was grown up and had a grey hair or two myself—I began calling him “Old Man”. He knew me well, and would always purr and rub around my ankles, and greet me with a kind of friendly conversational “e-ew” which finally became hoarse with age. I came to regard him as an indispensable acquaintance, and would often go considerably out of my way to pass his habitual territory, on the chance that I might find him visible. Good Old Man! In fancy I pictured him as an hierophant of the mysteries behind the black archway, and wondered if he would ever invite me through it some midnight . . . wondered, too, if I could ever could back to earth alive after accepting such an invitation. Well—more years slipped away. My Brooklyn period came and went; and in 1926, a middle-aged relique of thirty-six, with a goodly sprinkling of white in my thatch, I took up my abode in Barnes Street—whence my habitual downtown route led straight down Thomas St. hill. And there by the ancient archway Old Man still lingered![49]

  The cat continued to live until at least 1928, when Lovecraft—seeing him no more and almost dreading to ask the proprietors of the market about the matter—finally learned that he had died. After this Lovecraft dreamed of him even more than before—he would “gaze with aged yellow eyes that spoke secrets older than Aegyptus or Atlantis.” An entry in the commonplace book (#153) is about Old Man, and Lovecraft reported that he had lent it to Bernard Austin Dwyer for use; but Dwyer wrote no story about Old Man and neither, regrettably, did Lovecraft.

  Meanwhile R. H. Barlow was importuning Lovecraft with a variety of publishing projects. One in which Lovecraft was not directly involved but on which he supplied generous encouragement was Barlow’s own NAPA journal, the Dragon-Fly. Two very creditable issues appeared, dated October 15, 1935, and May 15, 1936. They do not contain any material by Lovecraft, although in response to Barlow’s request he had somewhat half-heartedly offered him “The Haunter of the Dark,” rightly believing that Barlow would find it too long to use. The weird is not significantly present in the contents, although the first issue contains Barlow’s striking tale “A Dream”; otherwise it includes poetry by Elizabeth Toldridge, August Derleth, Eugene B. Kuntz, and Ernest A. Edkins, essays by J. Vernon Shea and Edkins, and some epigrams (“The Epigrams of Alastor”) by Clark Ashton Smith. The second issue’s chief feature is a fine story by Barlow, “Pursuit of the Moth,” and a long essay on “What Is Poetry?” by Edkins. The printing is a little uneven at times, but the typesetting is generally accurate and attractive.

  More relevant to Lovecraft was Barlow’s idea of printing the complete Fungi from Yuggoth. Once it became clear that William Frederick Anger and Louis C. Smith would not come through on their mimeographed edition, Lovecraft asked Smith to send to Barlow the typescript he had lent him; Smith took his time doing so, but eventually did. Barlow began setting up type o
n the volume in late 1935. In the summer of 1936, however, he reiterated a suggestion he had already made in the summer of 1935[50]—adding the sonnet “Recapture,” written just before the other thirty-five Fungi sonnets, to the cycle. Barlow had prepared a new typescript of the cycle, placing “Recapture” at the end; but Lovecraft, looking over this sequence, felt that “‘Recapture’ better be #34—with ‘Evening Star’ as 35 & ‘Continuity’ as 36. ‘Recapture’ seems somehow more specific & localised in spirit than either of the others named, hence would go better before them—allowing the Fungi to come to a close with more diffuse ideas.”[51] It is remarkable that Lovecraft himself had not thought of adding “Recapture” to the series, and that the Fungi took six and a half years to reach the form we have come to know. Although Barlow ended up typesetting a good many of the Fungi, this was another project that never came to fruition.

  By this time, however, Barlow had come up with yet another scheme—nothing less than The Collected Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. When Lovecraft first heard of this project, in early June 1936, he laughed off the idea of anything approaching a complete edition of his poetry, since he would pay heavy blackmail to keep his general amateur verse in the oblivion of long-forgotten amateur journals. He did, however, prepare a list of his weird verse which he would not be wholly opposed to seeing reprinted; it is as follows:

  Fungi from Yuggoth and Other Verses

  by H. P. Lovecraft

  Fungi from Yuggoth, I–XXXVI

  Aletheia Phrikodes?

  The Ancient Track



  Mother Earth?

  The Eidolon?

  The Nightmare Lake?

  The Outpost

  The Rutted Road?

  The Wood

  Hallowe’en in a Suburb?

  The City

  The House



  To a Dreamer



  This is a very instructive list. It is, of course, not a complete list of even his weird poetry: such things as “Astrophobos,” the lengthy “Psychopompos,” “Despair” (if its plangent pessimism can be said to have carried it over into the weird), “Bells,” and any number of other published poems, as well as several unpublished ones (including the very striking “The Cats” and the Poe hoax, “To Zara,” which Lovecraft did in fact send to Barlow at this time merely for examination), are omitted. The question-marks, denoting poems about whose merits Lovecraft was uncertain, seem generally to apply to the earlier verse, while most of the poems of the 1929–30 burst of poetry writing are preserved (but, surprisingly, the fine sonnet “The Messenger” is left off the list). Lovecraft explicitly specified “Aletheia Phrikodes,” the central section of “The Poe-et’s Nightmare,” since he now resolved not to have the comic framework (which, as I have remarked, seems to undercut the cosmic central section) reprinted.

  It need hardly be said that this project too never materialised, although perhaps the fault was not entirely Barlow’s: a family breakup was impending, causing him to leave Florida and indefinitely lose touch with much of his weird fiction collection and printing material. Nevertheless, when Lovecraft was faced with these successive waves of book ideas by Barlow, he delivered a stern lecture—a lecture that many individuals in the science fiction and fan community ought to take to heart:

  You get me wrong about that one-thing-at-a-time-&-finish-what-you-start advice. I’m not urging you to do anything more. Indeed, I’m urging you to do less! My main point is that you ought to stop starting new things until you’ve finished up what’s already under way. Not that you ought to hurry with the latter. Go easy, & avoid overstrain. But simply choose the existing jobs to work at when you feel like working at anything at all. That’s the only way they’ll ever get done. It’s better to finish one job than to get a dozen started & have them all stalled at various stages. . . . Simply limit your plans to things you know you can finish. Many things—perhaps this new volume of verse—ought not to be started at all. How about “Incantations”—copy for which Klarkash-Ton says he has sent in? Wasn’t that to follow “The Goblin Tower” on your programme? There’s a volume fifty times more deserving of publication than this crap of mine! Take an old man’s advice & put your energies . . . into the few things that count most![52]

  In fairness to Barlow, however, he really was accomplishing a good deal—writing some fine stories, completing two issues of the Dragon-Fly as well as The Goblin Tower and The Cats of Ulthar, establishing an impressive collection of published work and manuscripts by leading pulp weird writers, pursuing his career as a pictorial artist, and many other things—all with very bad eyesight that needed constant medical attention and a family situation that would cause serious disruptions in his life for years. Some of his projects are so prophetic that they can only inspire amazed head-shaking even today: a Collected Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft, although in the planning stages in the early 1990s, did not appear until 2001.

  At exactly this point, however, Lovecraft was distracted by another débâcle that nearly drove him to give up writing altogether. In mid-February he had seen the first instalment of At the Mountains of Madness in the February 1936 Astounding and professed to like it; in particular, he had words of praise for the interior illustrations by Howard Brown, which clearly indicated that Brown had actually read the story and had based his descriptions of the Old Ones upon the text. Lovecraft went so far as to say: “The illustrator drew the nameless Entities precisely as I had imagined them . . .”[53] He made no mention of the fact that he received the cover design for the issue—or, rather, noting it, never alluded to the fact that Weird Tales never gave him a cover during his entire lifetime. (The Canadian issue of Weird Tales for May 1942 gave Lovecraft the cover for “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”) But the attractiveness of the illustrations soon soured when Lovecraft actually studied the text.

  Although he purchased the third and last instalment (April 1936) as early as March 20,[54] Lovecraft apparently did not consult it in detail until the end of May. It was only then that he discovered the serious tampering that the Astounding editors had performed on the story, particularly the last segment. Lovecraft went into a towering rage:

  But hell & damnation! . . . In brief, that goddamn’d dung of a hyaena Orlin Tremaine has given the “Mts.” the worst hashing-up any piece of mine ever received—in or out of Tryout! I’ll be hanged if I can consider the story as published at all—the last instalment is a joke, with whole passages missing. . . .

  But what I think of that decayed fish Tremaine wouldn’t go in a wholesome family paper! I’ll forgive him real misprints, as well as the lousy spelling used by Street & Smith—but some of the things on his “style sheet” are beyond tolerance! (He changes “Great God!” to “Great Heavens!”)

  Why, for example, are Sun, Moon, & even Moonlight (!!) always capitalised? Why must the damn fool invariably change my ordinary animal name to its capitalised scientific equivalent? (dinosaurs = “Dinosauria” &c) Why does he change subterrene to subterrane, when the latter has no existence as an adjective? Why, in general, an overcapitalising & overpunctuating mania? . . . I pass over certain affected changes in sentence-structure, but see red again when I think of the paragraphing. Venom of Tsathoggua! Have you seen the damn thing? All my paragraphs cut up into little chunks like the juvenile stuff the other pulp hacks write. Rhythm, emotional modulations, & minor climactic effects thereby destroyed. . . . Tremaine has tried to make “snappy action” stuff out of old-fashioned leisurely prose. . . .

  But the supremely intolerable thing is the way the text is cut in the last instalment—to get an old serial out of the way quickly. Whole passages . . . are left out—the result being to decrease vitality & colour, & make the action mechanical. So many important details & impressions & touches of sensation are missing from the concluding parts that the effect is that of a flat ending. After all the adventure & detail bef
ore the encounter with the shoggoth in the abyss, the characters are shot up to the surface without any of the gradual experiences & emotions which make the reader feel their return to the world of man from the nighted aeon-old world of the Others. All sense of the duration & difficulty of the exhausted climb is lost when it is dismissed objectively in only a few words, with no hint of the fugitives’ reactions to the scenes through which they pass. . . .[55]

  There is more, but this is surely enough; and volumes could be written on it.

  In the first place, what this passage does is to show how conscious Lovecraft was of the emotional and psychological effect of prose, right down to the level of punctuation, and the need (in serious literature as opposed to pulp hackwork) to ground a weird or wonder tale in the most careful realism both of scene and of mood in order for it to convince an adult reader. Perhaps Lovecraft is trying to have his cake and eat it too in writing a story containing very advanced philosophical and scientific conceptions in “old-fashioned leisurely prose” and then expecting it to appear intact in a science fiction pulp magazine. Moreover, he later realised that the fault was in some sense his for not insisting (as he had done at the very beginning of his relationship with Weird Tales) on the stories’ being printed without alteration or not being printed at all.

  In the second place, Lovecraft was entirely within his rights to complain about the nature of the changes made, many of which seem needless even for a pulp magazine. The most serious alterations are the paragraphing and the cuts toward the end. The first is perhaps marginally justifiable—on pulp standards—because Astounding was, like most pulps, printed in two rather narrow columns per page, making Lovecraft’s long paragraphs even longer and providing little relief for the eye of the generally juvenile and ill-educated readership of the magazine. Almost every one of his paragraphs has been cut into two, three, or more smaller paragraphs. The cuts at the end seem also quite arbitrary and in parts rather ridiculous. They only amount to about 1000 words, or perhaps one or two printed pages. Some of Lovecraft’s most powerful and poignant utterances here have been rendered almost comical. The sentence “We had passed two more penguins, and heard others immediately ahead” becomes the flat “We had heard two more penguins.” The mere omission of ellipses at one point (the celebrated “. . . poor Lake, poor Gedney . . . and poor Old Ones!” becomes “Poor Lake. Poor Gedney. And poor Old Ones!”) is a significantly weakening effect.

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