I am providence the life.., p.150

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 150


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

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  There were other fan editors and publishers with whom Lovecraft came in touch at this time. One of them was Wilson Shepherd (1917–1985), Wollheim’s colleague on the Phantagraph. Lovecraft had already learnt something of Shepherd just prior to beginning his brief correspondence with him in the spring of 1936, but it was not at all to Shepherd’s credit. In March R. H. Barlow had presented to Lovecraft a sheaf of letters between himself and Shepherd, dating to 1932, in which Shepherd had apparently tried to bamboozle Barlow out of a part of his magazine collection. Shepherd had claimed that he had a complete file of Weird Tales, among other things, and agreed to part with the issues for 1923–25 (which Barlow lacked) in exchange for eight bound volumes of Amazing Stories. Barlow sent the Amazings but received in return an assortment of very ordinary magazines which he already had, but no issues of Weird Tales. When Barlow protested, Shepherd offered him a complete set of “Science Fiction Magazine and its sister magazine INTERPLANETARY STORYS” [sic], two nonexistent magazines. Barlow at this point came to the conclusion that he was dealing with either a thief or an insane person. It is not clear what the upshot of this whole deal was, but in the spring of 1936 Barlow had asked Lovecraft to prepare a précis of this correspondence to circulate to other colleagues, and the result is a sober but unwittingly hilarious piece entitled “Correspondence between R. H. Barlow and Wilson Shepherd of Oakman, Alabama, Sept.–Nov. 1932.” It is probable, incidentally, that Shepherd never had a complete set of Weird Tales, which even at that time was pretty rare.

  Lovecraft did not know what to make of Shepherd; to Barlow he expressed the belief that he was “a poor white or illiterate hill-billy grades below even [William L.] Crawford—jest an Allybammy cracker with the amorality of a Faulkner peasant.”[27] Although he referred to Shepherd as “Share-Cropper Shep” to other correspondents, Lovecraft dealt with him cordially enough when actually coming into direct touch with him in April 1936. He offered Shepherd advice on improving the typography and design of the Phantagraph; he sent “The Nameless City” for printing in the semi-professional magazine that Wollheim and Shepherd were planning, Fanciful Tales; and he even revised two poems by Shepherd, “Death” and “Irony” (which Lovecraft retitled “The Wanderer’s Return”). Neither of these poems amounts to much, but in Lovecraft’s version they at least scan and rhyme.

  Shepherd (in conjunction with Wollheim) gave Lovecraft a nice forty-sixth birthday present in return for his various kindnesses. He issued a broadside containing the poem “Background” (titled “A Sonnet”) as the sole contribution to Volume XLVII, No. 1 of a magazine called the Lovecrafter. It is a very appropriate tribute, for this poem—sonnet XXX of Fungi from Yuggoth—certainly reflects the essence of Lovecraft’s imaginative life. Lovecraft was delighted at the birthday gift, and was also relieved at the absence of typographical errors.

  He was less happy with the sole issue of the Wollheim-Shepherd Fanciful Tales of Time and Space appeared. Dated Fall 1936, it contained the much-rejected “The Nameless City,” along with pieces by Rimel, David H. Keller, Robert E. Howard, Derleth, and others; but the Lovecraft contribution contained at least fifty-nine misprints. “That is surely something of a record!”[28] Lovecraft bemoaned (later a correspondent caught still more errors). But he himself may have been partly to blame, for he read proofs of several pages of the story as Shepherd sent them to him. Lovecraft was, however, a bad proofreader of his own material (he was much better when proofreading others’ work). To pick one example at random, he failed to notice that the unidentified typist of “The Thing on the Doorstep” had not only made serious misreadings, but severely erred in making section divisions in the story. And yet, this was the typescript that was sent to Weird Tales and ultimately printed in this erroneous condition.

  Still another new correspondent, Nils Helmer Frome (1918–1962), is an interesting case. Born in Sweden but spending most of his life in Fraser Mills, British Columbia (a northern suburb of Vancouver), Frome has the distinction of being Canada’s first active science fiction fan.[29] In the fall of 1936 Frome evidently solicited some contributions from Lovecraft for his fan magazine Supramundane Stories, but the first issue—initially planned for October 1936 but later dated December [1936]–January 1937—did not contain any work by him. The second (and last) issue, dated Spring 1938, contained Lovecraft’s “Nyarlathotep” as well as a version of his essay on weird fiction, which Frome titled “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction—the ‘Why’ and ‘How.’” Lovecraft had also sent Frome the prose-poem “What the Moon Brings” (1922), but upon the folding of Supramundane Stories the piece was passed on to James V. Taurasi, who used it in his fanzine, Cosmic Tales, for April–May–June 1941. Frome also let some of his letters from Lovecraft appear in Phantastique/The Science Fiction Critic for March 1938.

  Lovecraft did not know quite what to make of Frome. He was no doubt pleased to have a correspondent in a country that still retained its loyalty to the British throne, but Frome was a strange, mystical character who believed in numerology, fortune-telling, the immortality of the soul, and other conceptions Lovecraft found preposterous. And yet, Frome seemed to be a man of such keen native intelligence that Lovecraft strove to instruct and aid him as best he could. While nearly on his deathbed, he sent to Frome a list of recent books on the sciences (culled largely from “Suggestions for a Reading Guide”) that would, he hoped, clear up the many misconceptions about the universe Frome had. How successful Lovecraft was in his educational efforts, it is difficult to say. Frome eventually lost touch with fandom and died before his forty-fourth birthday.

  Two final fan editors with whom Lovecraft exchanged a few letters were James Blish (1921–1975) and William Miller, Jr (b. 1921), two youths living in East Orange, New Jersey. They were publishing a fanzine entitled the Planeteer, whose first issue was dated November 1935 (Nils Frome did the artwork for some of its covers); but they do not seem to have come into touch with Lovecraft until the summer of 1936. At that time they inevitably asked Lovecraft for a contribution, and he sent them the poem “The Wood,” which had hitherto appeared only in the Tryout for January 1929. Although the pages containing the poem were set up, this issue—which was dated September 1936, and which had by this time absorbed the fanzine Tesseract and had become retitled Tesseract Combined with The Planeteer—was never completed. (The next year the young Sam Moskowitz bought the uncompleted copies—about fifteen or so—and sold them for five or ten cents each.[30])

  What scraps of correspondence we have to Blish and Miller (Lovecraft wrote to them jointly) is pretty insignificant and deals with Lovecraft disillusioning them as to the reality of the Necronomicon and then, in response to a suggestion by the two boys, suggesting rather half-heartedly that he might write, not the whole Necronomicon (for he had already cited a passage from page 751 of the tome in “The Dunwich Horror”), but perhaps an excerpt or chapter from it (as Clark Ashton Smith had done in “The Coming of the White Worm,” purportedly a chapter from the Book of Eibon) or producing a sort of “abridged and expurgated” version.

  Although Miller vanished into oblivion shortly after this time, Blish did not. He went on to become one of the most important science fiction writers of his generation, and such works as Doctor Mirabilis (1964), Black Easter (1968), and The Day After Judgment (1972) are among the most philosophically challenging of their kind. Lovecraft’s influence on Blish cannot be said to be especially significant, but Blish certainly seems to have remembered his brief association for the whole of his own tragically abbreviated life.

  In addition to writers, editors, and publishers, Lovecraft also heard from weird artists. Chief among these was Virgil Finlay (1914–1971), whose work in Weird Tales Lovecraft had admired for several months prior to coming in touch with him. Finlay is indeed now recognised as perhaps the greatest pictorial artist to emerge from the pulps, and his stunning pen-and-ink work is unmistakable in its precision and imaginative scope. Lovecraft first heard from him in September 1936, and their correspondence
was cordial even though Lovecraft in the end wrote only five letters and one postcard to him. Willis Conover had secretly arranged for Finlay to draw the celebrated portrait of Lovecraft as an eighteenth-century gentleman to head the first instalment of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” in the Science-Fantasy Correspondent,[31] a portrait that, after the demise of that fanzine, appeared on the cover of Amateur Correspondent for April–May 1937.

  Finlay was responsible for what proved to be Lovecraft’s penultimate creative utterance. Hearing Finlay’s lament on the decline of the old custom of writing verses on current works of art and literature, Lovecraft included one in his letter of November 30: “To Mr. Finlay, upon His Drawing for Mr. Bloch’s Tale, ‘The Faceless God’” (Finlay’s illustration for “The Faceless God” in Weird Tales for May 1936 was regarded by many as the best work of art ever to appear in the magazine). Lovecraft prefaced the sonnet by the remark, “I could easily scrawl a sonnet to one of your masterpieces if you weren’t too particular about quality,”[32] leading one to believe that he wrote the poem on the spot while writing the letter. This may well be the case, although the poem also appears in a letter to Barlow of the same date. In any case, it is a fine sonnet, the more remarkable if it really was the work of a few impromptu minutes.

  About a week later Lovecraft wrote what might be definitively his last work—another sonnet, titled on one manuscript as “To Clark Ashton Smith, Esq., upon His Fantastic Tales, Verse, Pictures, and Sculptures” and on another manuscript as “To Klarkash-Ton, Lord of Averoigne.” This too is a fine evocation of Smith’s variegated creative work, although it is excelled by Smith’s own poignant elegy to Lovecraft written a few months later.

  In October 1936 Lovecraft got in touch with Stuart Morton Boland (1909–1973), a young librarian in San Francisco. In his own account of his brief association with Lovecraft, Boland states that he had initially sent to Robert E. Howard a reproduction of an illuminated manuscript that he had seen in Budapest and that Howard had passed this on to Lovecraft, wondering whether this was anything like what the Necronomicon was supposed to be. When Boland came home months later, he found a long letter by Lovecraft awaiting him.[33] There is, however, no mention of Boland in the surviving Lovecraft-Howard correspondence, and in any case Howard’s last letter to Lovecraft appears to have been written on May 13, leading one to wonder why another five months passed before Boland and Lovecraft got into direct communication.

  In any event, Boland was knowledgeable in Mesoamerican lore, and in reply to Lovecraft’s query as to whether there might be any similarity between his invented pantheon and actual gods of the Aztecs or Mayans, Boland sent an annotated list of some of the more peculiar deities (“Chiminig-Agua: A violent deity and keeper of the Cosmic Light. Creator of the colossal Black Avians that distribute light about the Universe during the daytime and who gobbled it up every night”[34]). Lovecraft, although pleased with this exotic folklore, found that it would require “a great deal of interpretation and modification” for fictional use. He had always maintained that synthetic “gods” were much more amenable than actual deities for such a purpose, since their attributes could be moulded to suit the precise requirements of the story.

  Brief as his association was, Boland seized on one aspect of Lovecraft’s work that has eluded many of his self-styled disciples:

  . . . I got the impression that the Lovecraft Theology was a source of considerable amusement and secret mirth to him . . . He seemed to be bubbling over with a deep Jovian inner laughter because supposedly intelligent readers of his tales took his gods for granted as real existing powers. I further sensed that his attitude was that Man “created god in his own image and likeness” to serve his own ends and purposes. I felt a sardonic impulse at play here, but one which with all its burden of tremendous knowledge faced the future with a courage and fortitude unmatched in my experience.[35]

  It was in November 1936 that Lovecraft heard from an individual whom he correctly identified as “a genuine find.”[36] Fritz Leiber, Jr (1910–1992) was the son of the celebrated Shakespearean actor Fritz Leiber, Sr, whom Lovecraft had seen around 1912 playing in Robert Mantell’s company when it came to the Providence Opera House. The son was also interested in drama, but was increasingly turning toward literature. He had been reading the weird and science fiction pulps from an early age, and much later he testified that “The Colour out of Space” in the September 1927 Amazing “gave me the gloomy creeps for weeks.”[37] Then, when At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow out of Time” appeared in Astounding, Leiber’s interest in Lovecraft was renewed and augmented—perhaps because these works probed that borderline between horror and science fiction that Leiber himself would later explore in his own work. And yet, he himself was too diffident to write to Lovecraft, so his wife Jonquil did so care of Weird Tales; for a time Lovecraft was corresponding quasi-separately to both of them.

  In mid-December Leiber sent Lovecraft his poem cycle, Demons of the Upper Air, and a novella or short novel, “Adept’s Gambit.” Both profoundly impressed Lovecraft, especially the latter. This first tale of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser—two swashbuckling characters (modelled upon Leiber himself and his friend Harry O. Fischer [1910–1986], with whom Lovecraft also corresponded briefly) who roamed some nebulous fantastic realm in search of adventure—must have been scintillating, for Lovecraft wrote a long letter commenting in detail about it and praising it effusively:

  My appreciation & enjoyment of “Adept’s Gambit” as a capturer of dark currents from the void form an especially good proof of the story’s essential power, since the style & manner of approach are almost antipodal to my own. With me, the transition to the unreal is accomplished through humourless pseudo-realism, dark suggestion, & a style full of sombre menace & tension. You, on the other hand, adopt the light, witty, & sophisticated manner of Cabell, Stephens, the later Dunsany, & others of their type—with not a few suggestions of “Vathek” & “Ouroboros” [E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros]. Lightness & humour impose a heavy handicap on the fantaisiste, & all too often end in triviality—yet in this case you have turned liabilities to assets & achieved a fine synthesis in which the breezy whimsicality ultimately builds up rather than dilutes or neutralises the tension & sense of impending shadow.[38]

  The published version of “Adept’s Gambit” (in Leiber’s collection, Night’s Black Agents, 1947) apparently differs somewhat from the version Lovecraft saw. The nature of Lovecraft’s remarks leads one to believe that the story was set more firmly in Graeco-Roman antiquity than it now is. Indeed, the fact that Lovecraft pointed out so many anachronisms and actual errors in the historical setting probably led Leiber to make the story less an historical fantasy and more of a pure fantasy. In the draft Lovecraft read there were also references to his myth-cycle; these were also excised in the final draft. The original manuscript of “Adept’s Gambit” has recently surfaced, but it has yet to be published and has not been made available to me.

  Leiber has testified frequently and eloquently to the importance of his brief but intense relationship with Lovecraft. Writing in 1958, he confessed: “Lovecraft is sometimes thought of as having been a lonely man. He made my life far less lonely, not only during the brief half year of our correspondence but during the twenty years after.”[39] Elsewhere he has even stated that Lovecraft was “the chiefest influence on my literary development after Shakespeare”[40]—a statement I shall want to examine more detailedly later. Here it can be said that Leiber is the one colleague of Lovecraft’s who can even remotely be considered his literary equal—more so than August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, C. L. Moore, Henry Kuttner, or even James Blish. Leiber’s subsequent career—with such landmark works of fantasy and science fiction as Gather, Darkness! (1950), Conjure Wife (1953), The Big Time (1958), A Specter Is Haunting Texas (1969), Our Lady of Darkness (1977), and dozens of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories—is as distinguished as that of any writer in these fields during the past half-centur
y; but like Dunsany and Blackwood, the very mass and complexity of his work seems to have deterred critical analysis, so that Leiber remains merely a revered but ill-understood figure. He learned much from Lovecraft, but like the best of Lovecraft’s associates and disciples, he became his own man and his own writer.

  Finally, let us consider the case of Jacques Bergier (pseudonym of Yakov Mikhailovich Berger, 1912–1978). This Russian-born Frenchman, living in Paris in the late 1930s, claimed in later years to have corresponded with Lovecraft; indeed, he presents us with the charming anecdote of having asked Lovecraft how he had so realistically portrayed Paris in “The Music of Erich Zann,” to which Lovecraft is supposed to have replied that he had visited that city—“in a dream, with Poe.”[41] This is all very quaint, but it may be apocryphal. Lovecraft never mentions Bergier in any correspondence I have ever seen. Bergier did write a letter to Weird Tales, published in the March 1936 issue, in which he singles out Lovecraft for praise (“By all means, give us more stories by H. P. Lovecraft. He is the only writer of today who is really haunted”), so it is just conceivable that Bergier had asked Farnsworth Wright to forward a letter to his idol. Bergier also wrote a letter to Weird Tales about Lovecraft after the latter’s death, without mentioning any correspondence with him; but perhaps it would have been out of place to do so. Lovecraft had no foreign-language correspondents to my knowledge. In any event, Bergier certainly did in later years spearhead the effort to disseminate Lovecraft’s work in France.

  Lovecraft both lamented and delighted in his burgeoning correspondence. To Willis Conover he wrote in September 1936:

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