I am providence the life.., p.151

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 151


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

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  As for the curtailment of my correspondence . . . this will not mean any abrupt policy of arrogant and neglectful silence. It will mean rather a cutting down of the length and promptness of such letters as do not absolutely demand space and speed. I immensely enjoy the new points of view, varied ideas, and diverse reactions offered by a wide correspondence, and would be infinitely reluctant to have any drastic or large-scale elimination.[42]

  About three months later he was telling Barlow: “I find my list has grown to 97 now—which surely calls for some pruning. . . . but how the hell can one get out of epistolary obligations without becoming snobbish & uncivil?”[43] No greater testimonial to Lovecraft’s flexibility of mind, openness to new information and new impressions, and gentlemanliness of behaviour is required than these two quotations. He was dying, but he was still seeking to learn and still adhering to the standards of civilised discourse.

  Late in 1936 Lovecraft finally saw something he never thought he would see—a published book bearing his name. But predictably, the entire venture was, from first to last, an error-riddled débâcle. It is certainly little consolation that The Shadow over Innsmouth has, by virtue of its being the only actual book published and released in Lovecraft’s lifetime, become a valued collectors’ item.

  William L. Crawford’s first book publication was a peculiar little booklet in which Clark Ashton Smith’s “The White Sybil” (yes, Smith misspelled “Sibyl”) was issued jointly with David H. Keller’s “Men of Avalon”; this item emerged under the imprint of Fantasy Publications in 1934. I have already mentioned that Crawford had a variety of plans for issuing either At the Mountains of Madness or “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or both as a booklet. In a later article Crawford maintains that he had wanted to do Mountains but found it too long, whereupon Lovecraft had suggested “Innsmouth”;[44] but Lovecraft’s correspondence belies this simple scenario and suggests that Crawford was proposing all manner of schemes for the two stories—including prior serialisation in either Marvel Tales or Unusual Stories before their book appearance. Finally—presumably after learning of the acceptance of Mountains by Astounding—Crawford focused on “Innsmouth.” The process began in early 1936, and the book was typeset by the Saxton Herald, the local paper in Everett, Pennsylvania. Lovecraft began reading proofs later that spring, finding them full of mistakes but laboriously correcting them as best he could; some pages were apparently so bad that they had to be reset virtually from scratch.

  It was Lovecraft who, in late January or early February, urged Crawford to use Frank Utpatel as an artist for the book.[45] He had remembered that Utpatel (1905–1980), a Midwesterner of Dutch origin, had been encouraged by his friend August Derleth to do some pen-and-ink drawings for the story as early as 1932, when Derleth was trying to market the tale on his own. The two drawings Utpatel had made at that time no longer existed, and in any event Crawford and Utpatel decided that the illustrations for the book would be in the form of woodcuts. Utpatel executed four woodcuts, one of which—a spectacularly hallucinatory depiction of Innsmouth’s decaying roofs and spires, rather suggestive of El Greco—was also used for the jacket illustration. Lovecraft had initially sent Utpatel a set of pictures of some unspecified New England seaport (it may indeed have been Newburyport, the town that had partly inspired the setting), but in mid-February providentially found in the newspaper—as an advertisement by a bank urging depositors to be thrifty and keep their property in good condition[46]—a picture that came very close to capturing his idea of the crumbling town. Lovecraft was delighted with the resultant illustrations by Utpatel, as well he should be, even though the bearded Zadok Allen was portrayed as clean-shaven.

  The illustrations, in the end, proved to be perhaps the only worthy item in the book, for certainly the text itself was seriously mangled. The fact that Lovecraft read proofs did not seem to make much difference, for new errors were evidently introduced in making the corrections he indicated, as frequently occurs in a linotype process where an entire line has to be reset even if a single error occurs in it. Lovecraft did not receive a copy of the book until November[47]—a point worth noting, since the copyright page of the book itself gives the date of April 1936 (the title page supplies Crawford’s new imprint, Visionary Publishing Co.). Lovecraft claimed to have found 33 misprints in the book, but other readers found still more. He managed to persuade Crawford to print an errata sheet—whose first version was itself so misprinted as to be virtually worthless[48]—and also found the time and effort to correct many copies of the book manually. He did so by a method somewhat analogous to that used to correct the Astounding serialisation of At the Mountains of Madness: erroneous or supernumerary words, letters, or punctuation marks would be removed with a knife, and corrections written in with a sharp pencil. It seems as if copies bearing such corrections are more numerous than those that do not.

  This may have to do with the fact that, although 400 copies of the sheets were printed, Crawford had the money to bind only about 200. Lovecraft declared that Crawford had actually borrowed money from his father for the entire enterprise;[49] indeed, at about the time The Shadow over Innsmouth came out, Crawford incredibly asked Lovecraft for a $150 loan to continue Marvel Tales.[50] The book—although advertised in both Weird Tales and some of the fan journals—sold slowly (it was priced at $1.00), and shortly after its publication Crawford was forced to give up printing and publishing for seven years; at some point during this time the remaining unbound sheets were destroyed. So much for Lovecraft’s “first book.”

  Lovecraft’s own career as a practising fiction writer was certainly not going very well. In late June Julius Schwartz, evidently intent on following up the success of placing At the Mountains of Madness with Astounding, had proposed what Lovecraft considered a wild and impractical idea of placing some of his stories in England. Lovecraft sent him “a lot of manuscripts”[51] (leading one to think that Schwartz may have had a mind to approach book publishers), and in order to exhaust the American market for as-yet unpublished stories, he finally submitted “The Thing on the Doorstep” and “The Haunter of the Dark” to Weird Tales—the first stories he had personally submitted since the rejection of At the Mountains of Madness in 1931, with the exception of “In the Vault” in 1932. Lovecraft claimed to be surprised that Farnsworth Wright accepted these stories immediately, but he should not have been. Readers of the magazine had been clamouring for his work for years and had to be satisfied with reprints. In 1933 Weird Tales had published one original story (“The Dreams in the Witch House”) and two reprints; in 1934, one original story (if the collaboration “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” can count as such) and one reprint; in 1935, no original stories and one reprint; in 1936, one original story (“The Haunter of the Dark” in December) and three reprints. (These figures exclude the several revisions that appeared at this time.)

  The exact tone of Lovecraft’s letter to Wright when submitting these stories is of interest. It is as if he is almost asking for rejection:

  Young Schwartz has persuaded me to send him a lot of manuscripts for possible placement in Great Britain, and it occurs to me that I’d better exhaust their cisatlantic possibilities before turning them over to him. Accordingly I am going through the formality of obtaining your official rejection of the enclosed—so that I won’t feel I’ve overlooked any theoretical source of badly-needed revenue.[52]

  I doubt that Wright took any great pity on Lovecraft for that last note about much-needed revenue; he simply wanted new Lovecraft stories that he could successfully publish (At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” apparently did not fall into that category), and perhaps he was even concerned—after seeing the two Astounding appearances—that Lovecraft was finally preparing to abandon Weird Tales altogether. Wright could not possibly have known that Lovecraft would write no more original fiction. Lovecraft, for his part, was simply shielding himself psychologically from rejection by paradoxically assuming—or claiming to assume—th
at the stories were certain to be rejected.

  In fact, Lovecraft had reached a psychological state that made the writing of any new stories nearly impossible. As early as February 1936—three months after the writing of his last original tale, “The Haunter of the Dark,” and several months before the contretemps over his stories in Astounding—he was already admitting:

  [At the Mountains of Madness] was written in 1931—and its hostile reception by Wright and others to whom it was shewn probably did more than anything else to end my effective fictional career. The feeling that I had failed to crystallise the mood I was trying to crystallise robbed me in some subtle fashion of the ability to approach this kind of problem in the same way—or with the same degree of confidence and fertility.[53]

  Lovecraft was already speaking of his fictional career in the past tense. In late September 1935 he had announced to Duane W. Rimel, “I may be experimenting in the wrong medium altogether. It may be that poetry instead of fiction is the only effective vehicle to put such expression across”[54]—a remark modified about a half-year later when he hypothesised that “fiction is not the medium for what I really want to do. (Just what the right medium would be, I don’t know—perhaps the cheapened and hackneyed term ‘prose-poem’ would hint in the general direction.)”[55]

  We have some dim hints of new stories being written—or at least contemplated—around this time, but clearly nothing came of them. Ernest A. Edkins writes:

  Just before his death Lovecraft spoke to me of an ambitious project reserved for some period of greater leisure, a sort of dynastic chronicle in fictional form, dealing with the hereditary mysteries and destinies of an ancient New England family, tainted and accursed down the diminishing generations with some grewsome variant of lycanthropy. It was to be his magnum opus, embodying the results of his profound researches in the occult legends of that grim and secret country which he knew so well, but apparently the outline was just beginning to crystallize in his mind, and I doubt if he left even a rough draft of his plan.[56]

  We have to take Edkins’s word on this matter, for his correspondence with Lovecraft has not surfaced and this plot-germ is never mentioned anywhere else. It sounds rather like a horrific version of The House of the Seven Gables, and—if genuine—suggests that Lovecraft was contemplating a move away from the science fiction/horror compound that he had evolved in much of his later work.

  An actual story that Lovecraft is supposed to have written late in life is mentioned by one Lew Shaw:

  Lovecraft had written a story about a true incident. At one time there was a young woman, a chambermaid in the hotel on Benefit Street, who left and married into wealth. Sometime afterward, she returned to visit the hotel as a guest. When she found herself discourteously treated and snubbed, she departed but put a “curse”on the hotel, on all those who had humiliated her, and on everything concerned with the hotel. In short order, ill luck apparently befell all and the hotel itself burned down. Furthermore, it had never been possible, somehow, for anyone to rebuild on the site.[57]

  Shaw claims that Lovecraft wrote the story but failed to prepare a carbon of it. He sent it to a magazine but was apparently lost in the mails.

  There is much reason to suspect this entire account. In the first place, the story sounds like nothing Lovecraft would have written—the idea is hackneyed, and the protagonist would uncharacteristically have been a woman. Secondly, it is inconceivable that Lovecraft would have prepared a story without his usual two carbons. In the case of his essay on Roman architecture in late 1934, he wrote the piece by hand and sent it to Moe without typing it at all. Lew Shaw claims to have actually met Lovecraft on the street, in the company of a friend “who was interested in science-fiction” and knew Lovecraft; this might conceivably have been Kenneth Sterling, but Sterling never mentions this matter in either of his two memoirs. Shaw also claims to be of the Brown Class of 1941; but there is no one of that name in that class listed in the Brown University alumni directory. There is a Lewis A. Shaw in the Class of 1948, and a Lew Shaw who received a Ph.D. in 1975, but that is all. My feeling is that Lew Shaw (probably a pseudonym) is perpetrating a hoax.

  This brings us to the final, and perhaps the saddest, episode in Lovecraft’s career as a “professional” writer. In the fall of 1936 Wilfred B. Talman proposed acting as agent to market either a collection of tales or a new novel to William Morrow & Co., where Talman evidently had some connexions. Lovecraft casually gave Talman a free hand in the matter, declaring first that “I am done with all direct contact with publishers,” and then (about the novel idea), “A full-length novel to order (acceptance not being guaranteed) would be quite a gamble—although I’d enjoy attempting such a thing if I could get the time.”[58] Talman apparently interpreted that last remark rather more forcefully than Lovecraft intended; for Morrow, although declining a short-story collection, expressed some interest in a novel. The firm wished Lovecraft to submit the first 15,000 words, acceptance being predicated upon this portion.

  At this point Lovecraft got alarmed and backed off. Of course, he had nothing to submit, and could not have written the first 15,000 words of a novel without having a clear idea of where the rest of it was going. Also, he did not want Morrow to dictate an ending, as it seemed inclined to do. In effect, it appears—in spite of Lovecraft’s urging Talman in early November that “it would perhaps be best to avoid the making of any promises”[59]—that Talman had already half committed Lovecraft to such a work. Lovecraft knew that he was “all out of the fictional mood now—having written nothing original in a year,” and that he would have to start by writing some short stories before he could work up to a novel.

  Talman must have written a somewhat irritated reply, perhaps because he had been forced to renege on whatever commitment he had made with Morrow. Lovecraft was effusively contrite: “I genuflect. I grovel. And my regret is of the most acute & genuine, as distinguished from the formal & perfunctory, sort. Damn it all! But you can at least justify yourself with the firm by telling them—with my cordial permission—that your client is a muddled old fool who doesn’t know enough to say what he means the first time!”[60] Lovecraft gave approval for Talman “to give [Morrow] a reasonably strong promise of a synopsis sooner or later, & much less definite suggestions regarding a complete or fractional novel-manuscript in the remote future.” The matter was still being discussed as late as mid-February 1937, but by then Lovecraft was in no shape to do anything about it. Talman seems much more to blame in this whole fiasco than Lovecraft, for the latter’s offhand remarks in his letters could not possibly have been plausibly interpreted as committing Lovecraft to the composition of a substantial work of fiction.

  It is difficult to know exactly when Lovecraft realised that he was dying. The summer of 1936 finally brought the temperature up to a level where he could actually enjoy being outdoors and have the energy to accomplish his work. Barlow’s visit was certainly delightful, even though it entailed a sixty-hour session with Well Bred Speech after his departure. The fall saw Lovecraft still taking long walks, and resulted in his seeing several sections of terrain he had never before seen in his life. One expedition—on October 20 and 21—took him to the east shore of Narragansett Bay, in an area called the Squantum Woods. Here, during his walk on the 20th, he met two small kittens, one of whom became very playful and allowed Lovecraft to carry him on his journey; the other was hostile and aloof, but tagged along reluctantly because it did not wish to lose its mate. On October 28 Lovecraft went to an area of the Neutaconkanut woods three miles northwest of College Hill:

  From some of its hidden interior meadows—remote from every sign of nearby human life—I obtained truly marvellous glimpses of the remote urban skyline—a dream of enchanted pinnacles & domes half-floating in air, & with an obscure aurea of mystery around them. . . . Then I saw the great yellow disc of the Hunter’s Moon (2 days before full) floating above the belfries & minarets, while in the orange-glowing west Venus & Jupiter commenced to twinkle.[6

  The presidential election in November cheered him; he had seen a glimpse of Roosevelt on the morning of October 20 during a campaign rally in downtown Providence.

  Christmas was a festive occasion. Lovecraft and Annie again had a tree, and the two of them had dinner at the boarding-house next door. Naturally they gave each other gifts, and Lovecraft received one outside gift which he certainly did not expect but which he professed to find quite delightful: a long-interred human skull, found in an Indian graveyard and sent to him by Willis Conover. Conover has received much criticism for sending this item at this time, but of course he could not have known of the state of Lovecraft’s health; and Lovecraft’s pleasure at receiving this mortuary relic seems entirely sincere.

  The entire winter was unusually warm, allowing Lovecraft to continue neighbourhood walks into December and even January. Various letters of this time certainly bespeak no intimations of mortality. With the Leibers he had been discussing the feasibility of editing a high-grade weird magazine sometime in the future, and he wrote to Jonquil in mid-December: “I shall probably be available—if still living at so advanced an age—for that good-weird-magazine editorship which Mr. Leiber has in mind!”[62] Ruminating on politics with Henry George Weiss, the communist with whom Lovecraft now found he shared many views in common, he wrote as late as early February: “The next few years in America will be intensely interesting to watch”[63]—as if he were confident that he would be around to watch them.

  In early January, however, Lovecraft admitted to feeling poorly—“grippe” and bum digestion, as he put it. By the end of the month he was typing his letters—always a bad sign. Then, in mid-February, he told Derleth that he had an offer (of which nothing is known) for a revised version of some old astronomical articles (presumably the Asheville Gazette-News series), which caused him to unearth his old astronomy books and explore new ones. (In mid-October 1936 he had been delighted to attend a meeting of the Skyscrapers, a newly formed amateur astronomy group in Providence.) He added at the end of this letter: “Funny how early interests crop up again toward the end of one’s life.”[64]

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