I am providence the life.., p.147
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 147
Lovecraft was, of course, wrong in attributing the changes directly to F. Orlin Tremaine. It is not even clear that Tremaine even saw or approved of them; rather, they were probably done by various subeditors or copyeditors—among them Carl Happel and Jack DuBarry—who were evidently expected to make as many copyediting changes as they could in order to justify their positions. This may account for some of the changes, although no doubt someone in the Astounding offices really did think that the ending of the story was dragging on and needed abridging.
What Lovecraft therefore did—aside from considering the story to be essentially unpublished—was to purchase three copies of each instalment and laboriously correct the text either by writing in the missing portions and connecting the paragraphs together by pencil or by eliminating the excess punctuation by scratching it out with a penknife. This whole procedure took the better part of four days in early June. All this may seem somewhat anal retentive, but Lovecraft wished to lend these three copies to colleagues who had not seen the typescript when it was circulated and would otherwise be reading only the adulterated Astounding text. Unfortunately, Lovecraft did not in fact correct many of the errors, some (e.g., the Americanisation of his British spellings) perhaps because he considered them insignificant, others because he did not notice them (such as two small omissions in the first instalment, which he does not seem to have gone over carefully), and some because he was basing his corrections not upon the typescript—his one carbon was apparently lent to someone—but the autograph manuscript. He had made a number of changes in the autograph when preparing his typescript, but in the five-year interval between writing and publication he had forgotten some of these changes, so that in some cases he restored the original autograph reading instead of the revised reading of the typescript. The result is that a good many of the approximately 1500 errors in the Astounding text were not corrected by Lovecraft or were corrected erroneously. The only means to prepare a text that is even partially accurate is to go by the typescript, following Lovecraft’s corrected copies in those instances (e.g., the erroneous hypothesis about the Antarctic continent being two land masses separated by a frozen sea) where demonstrable revisions were made on the now non-extant typescript sent to Astounding.
On top of this, the story itself was received relatively poorly by the readers of the magazine. This negative response has perhaps been exaggerated by later critics, but certainly there were a sufficient number of readers who failed to understand the point of the tale or felt it inappropriate for Astounding. The letters start appearing in the April 1936 issue, and they were generally praiseworthy rather than otherwise: only Carl Bennett’s philistine “At the Mountains of Madness would be good if you leave about half the description out of it” qualifies as a genuine knock. Lovecraft’s new colleague Lloyd Arthur Eshbach contributed general praise of Lovecraft but did not seem to have read the actual story.
In May the letters were uniformly praiseworthy, and there were at least a half-dozen of them. August Derleth was the only associate of Lovecraft’s who wrote in, but others who were mere fans wrote letters of commendation. Some of these may not have been very astute (“At the Mountains of Madness is one keen yarn,” opines Lyle Dahibrun), but in this issue there is not a word of criticism.
In the June issue the letters that comment on Lovecraft divide into four praiseworthy and three critical, with one neutral. Here, however, are some of the most piquant attacks. Although James L. Russell declared that the story “will make history” and that Lovecraft “is excelled only by Edgar Allen [sic] Poe in creating a desired mood in his readers” and Lew Torrance refers to Lovecraft’s “superb style,” Robert Thompson observed with pungent sarcasm: “I am glad to see the conclusion to At the Mountains of Madness for reasons that would not be pleasant to Mr. Lovecraft.” But Cleveland C. Soper, Jr, was the most devastating:
. . . why in the name of science-fiction did you ever print such a story as At the Mountains of Madness by Lovecraft? Are you in such dire straits that you must print this kind of drivel? In the first place, this story does not belong in Astounding Stories, for there is no science in it at all. You even recommend it with the expression that it was a fine word picture, and for that I will never forgive you.
If such stories as this—of two people scaring themselves half to death by looking at the carvings in some ancient ruins, and being chased by something that even the author can’t describe, and full of mutterings about nameless horrors, such as the windowless solids with five dimensions, Yog-Sothoth, etc.—are what is to constitute the future yarns of Astounding Stories, then heaven help the cause of science-fiction!
Much of this is reminiscent of Forrest J Ackerman’s attack on Clark Ashton Smith in the Fantasy Fan. Although it is scarcely worth going into Soper’s misconceptions (as Lovecraft once said many years earlier of an amateur journalist’s attack on him, “It refuted itself ”), such myopic criticisms would frequently be aimed at Lovecraft by subsequent generations of science fiction readers, writers, and critics.
Of the relatively few (and on the whole negative) comments on Lovecraft in the July issue, one must by all accounts be quoted: “At the Mountains of Madness was rather dry, although a pretty girl and the appearance of the Elders [sic] would have made it an excellent story for a weird magazine.” I do not know if Mr Harold Z. Taylor is being subtly sarcastic here, but I doubt it.
“The Shadow out of Time” appeared in the June 1936 issue of Astounding. Lovecraft incredibly said that “It doesn’t seem even nearly as badly mangled as the Mts.,” and the one surviving annotated copy of the issue bears relatively few corrections; but the recently unearthed autograph manuscript makes it abundantly clear that this story suffered the same reparagraphing that At the Mountains of Madness received, and yet Lovecraft has failed to make the necessary restorations. Other errors are apparently due to Barlow’s inability to read Lovecraft’s handwriting when he prepared the typescript. It is a mystery why Lovecraft did not complain more vociferously about the corruption of this text, even though no actual passages of significance were dropped. My feeling is that he may have felt so indebted to both Barlow (for typing the story) and Wandrei (for submitting it) that any complaints might have struck him as a sign of ingratitude. In any event, in a short time other matters would distract him from such a relatively harmless matter.
“The Shadow out of Time” was received much more unfavourably than At the Mountains of Madness by readers. The August 1936 issue (the only one that contains any significant comment on the story) contains a barrage of criticism: “At the Mountains of Madness . . . was bad enough: but when I began to read The Shadow out of Time I was so darned mad that I was tempted to leave the story unfinished” (Peter Ruzella, Jr); “I’m fed up with Lovecraft and this is the worst yet. I think The Shadow out of Time is the height of the ridiculous” (James Ladd); “Lovecraft’s The Shadow out of Time was very disappointing” (Charles Pizzano). Other comments were less hostile, and meanwhile some individuals either came to Lovecraft’s defence in regard to the attacks received by At the Mountains of Madness or had generous praise for the new story. Corwin Stickney, then perhaps already in touch with Lovecraft through Willis Conover, declared hotly: “Say, what’s the matter with your readers’ literary tastes, anyhow? Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness is perhaps the best-written story ever to find its way into Astounding’s pages . . .” Calvin Fine disputed Cleveland C. Soper’s view of that novel, while John V. Baltadonis flatly declared: “The Shadow out of Time is the best story in the issue.” But the most perspicacious comment—and the lengthiest comment on Lovecraft in all the issues of Astounding—came from one W. B. Hoskins, who started by claiming that Lovecraft is one of “only three or four authors who could qualify as authors only, not merely as authors of science-fiction,” and went on rather poetically to say:
Lovecraft does much the same thing in his stories that Tschaikowsky does in his music—his climaxes are obvious, yet you always get a kick ou
This may not place Mr Hoskins in the company of F. R. Leavis or Harold Bloom, but it certainly negates the claim that Lovecraft’s work was universally panned in Astounding.
Lovecraft, however, had little time to bother with the reaction of his work in the magazine: he knew that he was not likely to write very much more that would find favour with Astounding. In any case, other events closer to home were occupying his attention.
The only viable amateur organisation, the NAPA, was reaching levels of spite and vindictiveness rarely seen even in the teens, when the UAPA and NAPA were violently hostile to each other, when the two separate factions of the UAPA were bickering over which was the legitimate association, and when Lovecraft himself was embroiled in extraordinarily bitter controversies with James F. Morton, Anthony F. Moitoret, Ida C. Haughton, and others. The locus of this new feuding was Hyman Bradofsky, whose Californian offered unprecedented space for lengthy prose contributions and whom Lovecraft had supported in his successful bid for the presidency of the NAPA for the 1935–36 term. Lovecraft had presumably got in touch with Bradofsky at least by 1934, since this is when his first contributions to the magazine appear; he wrote some fifty letters to Bradofsky, but only one has been published.
I am not entirely clear why Bradofsky created so much hostility among other members. He was evidently accused of being high-handed in various procedural matters relating to the NAPA constitution, and he himself apparently responded to criticism in a somewhat testy manner. Whether Bradofsky’s being a Jew had anything to do with it is similarly unclear; I suspect that this was a factor, although Lovecraft never acknowledges it. In any case, it is certainly to Lovecraft’s credit that he came to Bradofsky’s defence, since by all accounts many of the attacks upon him were highly unjust, capricious, and snide. As examples of these attacks Lovecraft mentioned a magazine containing harsh criticism of Bradofsky which was mailed to every NAPA member except Bradofsky himself, and another magazine that contained a rather lame story by Bradofsky with sneering annotations added.
Lovecraft responded to all this, on June 4, with “Some Current Motives and Practices.” It is, in its way, a noble document, as Lovecraft censured Bradofsky’s opponents—or, rather, the thoroughly despicable tactics they are using against him—refuted the attacks by vindicating Bradofsky’s conduct, and in general pleaded for a return to civilised standards in amateurdom:
It is again appropriate, as on many past occasions, to ask whether the primary function of amateur journalism is to develop its members in the art of expression or to provide an outlet for crude egotism and quasi-juvenile spite. Genuine criticism of literary and editorial work, or of official policies and performances, is one thing. It is a legitimate and valuable feature of associational life, and can be recognised by its impersonal approach and tone. Its object is not the injury or denigration of any person, but the improvement of work considered faulty or the correction of policies considered bad. The zeal and emphasis of the real critic are directed solely toward the rectification of certain definite conditions, irrespective of the individuals connected with them. But it takes no very acute observer to perceive that the current floods of vitriol and billingsgate in the National Amateur Press Association have no conceivable relationship to such constructive processes.
Lovecraft did not mention the names of any of the attackers, but he knew that one of Bradofsky’s chief opponents was Ralph W. Babcock, an otherwise distinguished amateur who had somehow developed a furious hostility toward the NAPA president. In a letter to Barlow, Lovecraft noted wryly that his salvo might well “arouse some squawking & feather-ruffling in the roosts of Great Neck, L.I.,” a direct reference to Babcock.
Lovecraft, of course, felt at liberty to speak out on the matter because he was, with Vincent B. Haggerty and Jennie K. Plaisier, one of the Executive Judges of the NAPA for this 1935–36 term. And yet, he evidently regarded it as impolitic to have “Some Current Motives and Practices” actually published in an amateur paper, so he arranged with Barlow to mimeograph enough copies to send to all NAPA members. Lovecraft wrote out the essay in a relatively neat hand, but at that he still complained that Barlow had made mistranscriptions when he typed out the text. The result was, like “The Battle That Ended the Century,” two long (8½ × 14") sheets, each with type on only one side of the page. Barlow must have distributed the item by the end of June. I cannot sense that it had any particular effect. The next election was, in any event, held in early July, and Bradofsky was elected Official Editor, although he shortly afterward resigned on what he claimed were physician’s orders. Lovecraft felt that “the convention gave young Babcock rather a trouncing.”
25. The End of One’s Life
In early June Robert E. Howard wrote to his friend Thurston Tolbert: “My mother is very low. I fear she has not many days to live.” He was correct: on the morning of June 11, Hester Jane Ervin Howard, who had failed to recover from an operation performed the previous year, fell into a coma from which her doctors said she would never emerge. Howard got into his car and shot himself in the head. He died eight hours later; his mother died the next day, leaving Howard’s aged father, Dr I. M. Howard, doubly bereaved. Robert E. Howard was thirty years old.
At a time when telephones were not as common as now, the news spread relatively slowly. Lovecraft only heard of it around June 19, when he received a postcard written three days earlier by C. L. Moore. This postcard does not survive, and I do not know how Moore heard the news before any of Lovecraft’s other colleagues. Whatever the case, Lovecraft—who hoped against hope that the news was some sort of joke or error—got the full story a few days later from Dr Howard.
Lovecraft was overwhelmed with shock and grief:
Damnation, what a loss! That bird had gifts of an order even higher than the readers of his published work could suspect, and in time would have made his mark in real literature with some folk-epic of his beloved southwest. He was a perennial fount of erudition and eloquence on this theme—and had the creative imagination to make old days live again. Mitra, what a man! . . . I can’t understand the tragedy—for although R E H had a moody side expressed in his resentment against civilisation (the basis of our perennial and voluminous epistolary controversy), I always thought that this was a more or less impersonal sentiment . . . He himself seemed to me pretty well adjusted—in an environment he loved, with plenty of congenial souls . . . to talk and travel with, and with parents whom he obviously idolised. His mother’s pleural illness imposed a great strain upon both him and his father, yet I cannot think that this would be sufficient to drive his tough-fibred nervous system to self-destructive extremes.
Lovecraft was not the only one who could not understand the tragedy—other friends and later scholars and biographers have also been mightily puzzled. This is scarcely the place for a posthumous psychoanalysis of Robert E. Howard, even if such a thing could be done with any sort of accuracy. Suffice it to say that the facile attribution of an Oedipus complex to Howard is highly problematical, not least because it begs the question by assuming the actual existence of the Oedipus complex, which many psychologists have now come to doubt. Lovecraft later came to feel that Howard’s extreme emotional sensitivity caused him somehow to refuse to accept the loss of a parent “as part of the inevitable order of things.” There is something to this, and some Howard scholars have also seen an obsession with death in much of his work. Whatever the cause, Lovecraft had lost a colleague of six years’ standing who—although the two never met—meant a great deal to him.
In the short term Lovecraft assisted Dr Howard as best he could, by sending various items—including his letters from Howard—to a memorial collecti
Howard left such a staggering number of unpublished manuscripts that not only are all his book publications posthumous, but—in spite of his voluminous appearances in pulps of all sorts—far more of his work has been issued since his death than before. One of the first such items was The Hyborian Age (Los Angeles: LANY Coöperative Publications, 1938), Howard’s clever “history” of the world before, during, and after the lifetime of Conan. This publication featured, as an introduction, a letter Lovecraft had sent to Donald A. Wollheim, probably in September 1935, accompanying Howard’s piece.
Almost immediately Lovecraft wrote a poignant memoir and brief critical appraisal, “In Memoriam: Robert Ervin Howard,” that appeared in Fantasy Magazine for September 1936. It contains, in somewhat more formalised diction, much of the substance of his letter to E. Hoffmann Price of June 20, embodying his initial reactions to Howard’s death. A shorter version of this article, “Robert Ervin Howard: 1906–1936,” appeared in the Phantagraph for August 1936. R. H. Barlow wrote a touching sonnet, “R. E. H.,” that formed his first and last appearance in Weird Tales (October 1936). That issue contained a wealth of tributes to Howard in the letters column, one of which was of course from Lovecraft.
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