I am providence the life.., p.15

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 15


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

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  How engaging it is to see Lovecraft, for perhaps the first (and last) time in his life, behaving like a “normal” boy!

  These accounts are full of interest. First let us consider the Sherlock Holmes connexion. If Lovecraft is correct in saying that he read every Holmes story published up to that time (circa 1903), then this would include the novels A Study in Scarlet (1888), The Sign of Four (1890), and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), and the collections The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892) and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894); the tales that would make up The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905) had begun appearing in the United States in Collier’s Weekly beginning with the issue of September 26, 1903, so Lovecraft probably read at least some of these. Indeed, the resurrection of Holmes in these tales (he had, let us recall, been killed off in the last story in Memoirs, “The Final Problem”) perhaps gave Lovecraft and his pals the impetus to imitate him. Lovecraft later states that he read no more Holmes stories aside from the works mentioned above and “an odd (& rather mediocre) pair or series of tales appearing about ’08”;[32] which leads one to suspect that his interest in Holmes—and detective fiction—died at the end of his high school years. Indeed, he declares that “I had a vilely narrow taste at 16 or 17—phantasy or nothing!”[33] Probably it is just as well for literature that this was the case.

  The Conan Doyle stories were, clearly, not the only detective stories he read at this time; no doubt he continued to read the dime and nickel novels, which were light on abstract detection but heavy on the sort of “bloodstains on the floor” and other sensational imagery Lovecraft seemed at this time to delight in. Some of the early Munsey magazines, which he may already have been reading in 1903, carried detective, mystery, and suspense fiction as well.

  Lovecraft did some actual detective writing at this time. He writes in 1916 that “I used to write detective stories very often, the works of A. Conan Doyle being my model so far as plot was concerned,” and then goes on to describe one such work:

  One long-destroyed tale was of twin brothers—one murders the other, but conceals the body, and tries to live the life of both—appearing in one place as himself, and elsewhere as his victim. (Resemblance had been remarkable.) He meets sudden death (lightning) when posing as the dead man—is identified by a scar, and the secret is finally revealed in his diary. This, I think, antedates my 11th year.[34]

  This tale does not seem to me especially influenced by Doyle. If Lovecraft is accurate in the dating of this tale, it would predate “The Mysterious Ship,” and sounds rather more entertaining than that specimen.

  The mention of The Detective is of interest. This is clearly a reference to the magazine published from 1885 to 1922; its subtitle is: “Official Journal of the Police Authorities and Sheriffs of the United States,” and it no doubt carried the images of any number of redoubtable suspected criminals who needed to be brought to justice. It is difficult to imagine that Lovecraft’s family, or that of any of his friends, actually subscribed to the monthly magazine; possibly the boys consulted copies at the Providence Public Library.

  Among the enthusiasms which Lovecraft and his boyhood friends shared was railroads. I have noted that the coachman at 454 Angell Street built a summer-house for Lovecraft when the latter was about five. Lovecraft named this building “The Engine House” and himself built “a splendid engine . . . by mounting a sort of queer boiler on a tiny express-waggon.” Then, when the coachmen left (probably around 1900) and the stable vacated of its horses and carriage, the stable itself became his playground, with “its immense carriage room, its neat-looking ‘office’, and its vast upstairs, with the colossal (almost scareful) expanse of the grain loft, and the little three-room apartment where the coachmen and his wife had lived.”[35]

  Some odd literary works were produced as a result of this interest in railroads. First there is a single issue of a magazine called the Railroad Review (December 1901), a three-page item full of Lovecraft’s usual profusion of illustrations. Much more interesting is a 106-line poem dated to 1901 whose title on the cover reads: An Account in Verse of the Marvellous Adventures of H. Lovecraft, Esq. Whilst Travelling on the W. & B. Branch of the N.Y.N.H. & H.R.R. in Jany. 1901 in One of Those Most Modern of Devices, to Wit: An Electric Train. Like “The Poem of Ulysses,” this work bears an alternate title in its interior: “H. Lovecraft’s Attempted Journey betwixt Providence & Fall River on the N.Y.N.H. & H.R.R.”

  This poem is notable for being the first—and, as it happens, one of the best—instances of Lovecraft’s humorous verse. A little historical background for this piece is useful. The New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad (N.Y.N.H. & H.R.R.) had by 1893 become the principal operator of all railroads in the state of Rhode Island.[36] The first electric street cars in Providence had begun running in 1892,[37] and the extension of this service to the outlying localities of Warren, Bristol (the W. & B. Branch), and Fall River appears to have occurred in 1900.[38] With his fascination for railroads, Lovecraft not surprisingly became one of the first patrons of the new service; and the result is a delightfully witty poem on a very modern theme.

  The poem begins:

  Long, long ago, in prehistoric times

  Began the subject of these ill-form’d rhymes,

  When some craz’d mind, which engines did disdain,

  Conceiv’d a plan for an electric train.

  Lovecraft mentions that the trains were “by Osgood Bradley built,” and that “One winter’s morn, when all man kind did shiver, / I took a train, directed toward Fall-River.” As the train labours up steep College Hill, it leaps off its track and crashes into “the front of Leonard’s Groc’ry store!” Order is eventually restored, and the train is set on its course again. But at a junction one part of the train seeks to go toward Wickenden Street, while another yearns to go to South Main (at right angles to Wickenden); “The motor-car in dizzy fashion tips.” Once again things are put to right, and the conductor comes around to collect the fares. “Quoth one old man, ‘Take what ye will from me’, / ‘But in my damage suit I’ll take from thee!’” This is one of the best poetic jokes Lovecraft ever made in his undistinguished career as a versifier. The train groans up Brook Street, but cannot quite make it up the hill; as it starts to slide back, “We’re tow’d to safety by a one-horse hack.” Soon it crosses a bridge “(This bridge was in the middle ages made),” and the car seeks to make a bold turn: “The monstrous car our bodies threats to mangle, / For this strange curve resembles a right angle.” Finally the train begins to pick up speed, passing through various rural communities where “the rustics in confusion gape.” Coming to Barrington, the passengers learn that “Warren’s ceased to give us pow’r” and the car must be pulled by a locomotive. After yet another delay, “With crippled motors, and the wires dead,” Lovecraft leaves the car and finds

  A willing yokel with an ox-drawn cart

  Who when with most of my spare change I part,

  Consents to take me where I wish to go,

  If I demur not at his progress slow.

  In this way Lovecraft finally reaches Fall River, where he spends the night in a hotel. “Next day by boat safe homeward I return’d,” only to learn that the trolley, though bound for Fall River, had ended up in Bristol.

  All this is great fun, and I don’t know that we need draw any overwhelmingly serious messages from it: the fact that Lovecraft had to take an ox-cart to Fall River may connect with his belief in the supremacy of the past over the present, but it certainly seems as if he had developed a great fondness for railroads, trolleys, and other forms of modernity in transport. How autobiographical the poem is cannot, of course, now be ascertained; no doubt Lovecraft really did take a ride on the trolley, and probably it did encounter tedious delays, breakdowns, and perhaps even some minor accidents or mishaps; but the comic exaggeration of the poem is clearly evident.

  Lovecraft’s and his friends’ railroad enthusiasms gradually expanded or metamorphosed in a more military direction,
and the railroad station in his backyard became “a little village”:

  Many new roads and garden spots were made, and the whole was protected from the Indians (who dwelt somewhere to the north) by a large and impregnable fort with massive earthworks. The boy who suggested that fort and supervised its construction was deeply interested in military things . . . My new village was called “New Anvik”, after the Alaskan village of “Anvik”, which about that time became known to me through the boys’ book Snow-Shoes and Sledges, by Kirk Munroe.[39]

  Elsewhere Lovecraft admits to reading Munroe’s Rick Dale: A Story of the Northwest Coast (1896) and The Fur-Seal’s Tooth: A Story of Alaskan Adventure (1894).[40] Snow-Shoes and Sledges (1895) is in fact a sequel to The Fur-Seal’s Tooth. Kirk Munroe (1850–1930) was a prolific author of boys’ adventure novels: he published at least thirty-seven books, mostly between the years 1887 and 1905. Many of them have as their locales various exciting places in the United States (especially the Florida Everglades, Alaska, California, and Texas) or, in a few instances, overseas (China, Japan, the West Indies). I do not imagine he was related to Chester and Harold Munroe.

  In discussing Lovecraft’s boyhood pastimes it is impossible to pass over the Blackstone Military Band. Lovecraft’s violin lessons may have been a disaster, but this was something altogether different. Here’s how he tells it:

  When, at the age of 11, I was a member of the Blackstone Military Band, (whose youthful members were all virtuosi on what was called the “zobo”—a brass horn with a membrane at one end, which would transform humming to a delightfully brassy impressiveness!) my almost unique ability to keep time was rewarded by my promotion to the post of drummer. That was a difficult thing, insomuch as I was also a star zobo soloist; but the obstacle was surmounted by the discovery of a small papier-mache zobo at the toy store, which I could grip with my teeth without using my hands. Thus my hands were free for drumming—whilst one foot worked a mechanical triangle-beater and the other worked the cymbals—or rather, a wire (adapted from a second triangle-beater) which crashed down on a single horizontal cymbal and made exactly the right cacophony . . . Had jazz-bands been known at that remote aera, I would certainly have qualified as an ideal general-utility-man—capable of working rattles, cow-bells, and everything that two hands, two feet, and one mouth could handle.[41]

  I don’t think I can add much to this. The zobo appears to have been a sort of combined harmonica and kazoo. Lovecraft himself elsewhere describes it as “a brass horn with a membrane at the mouthpieces, which would make the human voice sound like the tones of a band instrument,” although he goes on to say that it could also be made out of cardboard.[42] Recall the delightful passage in “Waste Paper” (1923), Lovecraft’s parody of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

  I used to sit on the stairs of the house where I was born

  After we left it but before it was sold

  And play on a zobo with two other boys.

  We called ourselves the Blackstone Military Band

  Lovecraft always regretted his insensitivity to classical music, but he also found tremendous nostalgic relish in recalling the popular songs of his boyhood—and recall them he did. It was, let us remember, because he was “forever whistling & humming in defiance of convention & good breeding”[43] that led to his abortive violin lessons. It becomes clear that what he was whistling were the barbershop tunes of the day. In a 1934 letter he writes down the lyrics of “Bedelia,” the big hit of 1903—“a veritable knockout—a stampede—lasting well into 1904.”[44] He continues: “But by the fall of ’04 it was played out as a serious offering. After that—like ‘On the Banks of the Wabash’—it became a typical back number, for humorous or parodic use. ‘You’re the Flower of My Heart, Sweet Adeline’ (Spring ’04) was its principal immediate successor in popular favour—& then in ’05 the new riot—‘In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree’ appeared.” We shall presently see where this led.

  All this may seem to give the impression that Lovecraft, in spite of his precociousness, his early health problems, his solitude as a very young boy, and his unsettled nervous condition, was evolving into a relatively “normal” youth with vigorous teenage enthusiasms (except sports and girls, in which he never took any interest). He also seems to have been the leader of his “gang” of boys. But how normal, really, was he? The later testimony of Stuart Coleman is striking: “. . . from the age of 8 to 18, I saw quite a bit of him as we went to schools together and I was many times at his home. I won’t say I knew him ‘well’ as I doubt if any of his contemporaries at that time did. He was definitely not a normal child and his companions were few.”[45]

  Winfield Townley Scott, who was in touch with some of Lovecraft’s boyhood friends in the 1940s, adds another anecdote that he learned from Clarence Horace Philbrick, who graduated from Hope Street High School in 1909 and therefore must have been in school with Lovecraft for at least a few years:

  Clarence H. Philbrick told me that he and others in high school with Lovecraft made attempts at friendliness but always were rebuffed by a chill disinterest or a shyness that seemed like it; they finally quit the attempts. Lovecraft later did have a few local friends, and loyal ones; the sort who failed to understand him and yet were impressed by his extraordinary range of interests, by his phenomenally exact memory, and by the brilliance of his talk; who found, when they gave him affection, the depth of goodwill and charm to which his later literary friends have testified.[46]

  Lovecraft was slow to make friends, but once he made them he remained firm and devoted. This is a pattern that persisted throughout his life, and in fact he became still more forthcoming with his time, knowledge, and friendship by means of correspondence, writing enormous treatises to perfect strangers when they had asked him a few simple questions or made some simple requests.

  Clara Hess, the same age as Lovecraft, supplies a telling and poignant memory of Lovecraft’s devotion to astronomy around this time:

  Howard used to go out into the fields in back of my home to study the stars. One early fall evening several of the children in the vicinity assembled to watch him from a distance. Feeling sorry for his loneliness I went up to him and asked him about his telescope and was permitted to look through it. But his language was so technical that I could not understand it and I returned to my group and left him to his lonely study of the heavens.[47]

  This is certainly touching, but one should not conclude that Lovecraft’s “loneliness” was inveterate or even that he necessarily found in it anything to regret: intellectual interests were always dominant in his temperament, and he was willing to sacrifice conventional gregariousness for its sake.

  One does not wish to belabour this point, nor to deny Lovecraft’s own frequent admissions that his youth was an idyllic time of carefree play and pleasurable intellectual stimulation. I also do not know what overwhelming virtues there are in being “normal,” whatever criteria one cares to apply to that word.

  But Lovecraft’s days of innocence came to an abrupt end. Whipple Phillips’s Owyhee Land and Irrigation Company had suffered another serious setback when a drainage ditch was washed out by floods in the spring of 1904; Whipple, now an old man of seventy, cracked under the strain, suffering a stroke and dying on March 28, 1904. This blow was bad enough, but there was still worse to come:

  His death brought financial disaster besides its more serious grief. . . . [W]ith his passing, the rest of the board [of the Owyhee Land and Irrigation Company] lost their initiative & courage. The corporation was unwisely dissolved at a time when my grandfather would have persevered—with the result that others reaped the wealth which should have gone to its stockholders. My mother & I were forced to vacate the beautiful estate at 454 Angell Street, & to enter the less spacious abode at 598, three squares eastward.[48]

  This was probably the most traumatic event Lovecraft experienced prior to the death of his mother in 1921. By 1904 he and his mother were living alone with his widowed grandfather at 454 Angell Street,
as both of his aunts and his uncle had married. With Whipple gone, it would have been both financially and practically absurd to have maintained the huge house at Angell and Elmgrove just for the two of them, and the residence at 598 Angell Street was no doubt chosen because of its propinquity. It was, however, a duplex (the address is 598–600 Angell Street), and Lovecraft and his mother occupied only the western side of the smallish house. One would imagine that these quarters—which Lovecraft describes as five rooms and an attic[49]—would, in literal terms, still be adequate for a boy and his mother; but psychologically the loss of his birthplace, to one so endowed with a sense of place, was shattering.

  I am not sure who was occupying the eastern side of the house in 1904; in 1911 the Providence house directory lists three members of the Metcalf family: Jennie T., a widow, and two boarders (perhaps her sons), Houghton and Henry K., the latter a clerk. Lovecraft never mentions these people to my knowledge, and I suspect he avoided them where possible.

  The death of Whipple Phillips was, of course, the most severe financial blow to the family up to that time, but even the young boy Lovecraft had been noticing the gradual cutbacks in amenities since at least 1900. At the time of his birth the Phillips household had four servants, three horses,[50] and a coachman to tend them. One by one Lovecraft saw all these go. The coachman probably left around 1900, when the horses and carriage were dispensed with. Lovecraft supplies an amusing but poignant recollection of him and of another servant:

  I sadly missed Kelly, the coachman, who was an indisputable authority on all matters pertaining to Hibernian dialect, and who had the forbearance to listen placidly to my laudation of Mother England. By the time of his departure I had acquired a beautiful brogue, which I occasionally aired for the amusement of myself and those about me—particularly Miss Norah ______ (last name forgotten!) who presided over the culinary department.[51]

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