I am providence the life.., p.153

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 153


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

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  This lonely western hill of Averoigne

  Thy flesh had never visited,

  I meet some wise and sentient wraith of thee,

  Some undeparting presence, gracious and august.

  More luminous for thee the vernal grass,

  More magically dark the Druid stone

  And in the mind thou art for ever shown

  As in a wizard glass;

  And from the spirit’s page thy runes can never pass.[5]

  R. H. Barlow, of course, had been the first to hear the news of Lovecraft’s death, and he immediately caught a bus from Kansas City to Providence, arriving a few days after Lovecraft’s interment. He had done this because of a document Lovecraft had written some months before his death: “Instructions in Case of Decease.” Annie had been horrified to catch sight of Lovecraft writing this melancholy if very businesslike set of notes, but felt obligated to follow its strictures.[6] It begins: “All files of weird magazines, scrap books not wanted by A. E. P. G. and all original mss. to R. H. Barlow, my literary executor.”

  “Instructions in Case of Decease” is not, of course, a legal document, and no one has ever claimed that it is: it was not drafted by a lawyer or in the presence of a lawyer, it does not represent a codicil to Lovecraft’s 1912 will, and it was never filed for probate; indeed, the document itself does not survive in its original form but only in a handwritten transcription by Annie Gamwell, who wished to keep the original for sentimental purposes. Nevertheless, Annie sought to follow its particulars as best she could; accordingly, on March 26 she had at least the note about Barlow’s literary executorship made legal by a formal contract, part of which reads:

  WHEREAS, the late Howard P. Lovecraft was the nephew of the said Mrs. Gamwell; and

  WHEREAS, the said Howard P. Lovecraft expressed a wish and desire that the said Mr. Barlow should have his manuscripts (typewritten and long-hand), completed and uncompleted, and note books and should attend to the arrangements with respect to publishing and republishing the said manuscripts, published or unpublished; and

  WHEREAS, the said Mrs. Gamwell desires to carry out the wish of her said late nephew, Howard P. Lovecraft. . . .

  The said Mr. Barlow agrees to arrange for the publication or republication of said manuscripts, either typed or in long-hand, at his own expense and to pay the said Mrs. Gamwell all receipts that he shall receive from said publications or otherwise, less a three per cent (3%) commission of the gross amount received.

  Barlow accordingly took away many books and manuscripts, distributing some of the former to Lovecraft’s colleagues in accordance with the “Instructions.” Some papers—chiefly letters to Lovecraft by his associates—Barlow deposited immediately in the John Hay Library of Brown University, which was initially somewhat grudging in accepting the material (it was not properly catalogued for another thirty years). After a year or two, his personal life still troubled, Barlow felt that he should deposit the remaining manuscripts and effects, and in the course of the next several years did so; this included all story manuscripts except “The Shadow out of Time,” Lovecraft’s complete file of Weird Tales (to which Barlow eventually added portions of his own file to cover the period after Lovecraft’s death), and much other matter. It should be noted that Lovecraft’s “Instructions” give Barlow outright ownership of his manuscripts and some of his other effects; it is not simply that Barlow is to work toward securing the publication of any of this material, as would be customary for a literary executor. So Barlow was within his rights to do with the material what he wished; and it is to his eternal credit that he decided so unhesitatingly to deposit most of this material in a public institution.

  Because of his frequent moves across the country and his consequent tardiness or negligence in answering letters, Barlow inadvertently created considerable ill-will among Lovecraft’s colleagues. He also later admitted that he had erred in not making public the statement regarding himself in Lovecraft’s “Instructions,” since some parties believed that Barlow had pilfered Lovecraft’s property. In the winter of 1938–39 he was jolted to receive this letter from Clark Ashton Smith: “R. H. Barlow: Please do not write me or try to communicate with me in any way. I do not wish to see you or hear from you after your conduct in regard to the estate of a late beloved friend. Clark Ashton Smith.”[7] Donald Wandrei seemed particularly to have a bee in his bonnet about Barlow, and damned his memory to his own dying day.

  And yet, Barlow was in some ways the most significant figure in the posthumous recognition of Lovecraft. His depositing Lovecraft’s papers in the John Hay Library has made much of the Lovecraft scholarship of the past four decades possible, and he continually urged many colleagues to donate their own letters and other materials from Lovecraft to the library. Barlow did not, indeed, manage to get much of Lovecraft’s work into print: his edition of the Notes & Commonplace Book, published in 1938 by The Futile Press (run by Claire and Groo Beck in Lakeport, California), is full of errors, although less so than Derleth’s various editions. Barlow, of course, did not have the means to undertake full-scale publication of Lovecraft’s major stories; and we have already seen that it was another individual who, quite literally at the moment he heard of Lovecraft’s death, conceived of a plan of doing so.

  August Derleth perhaps felt that he himself had been—or should have been—deemed Lovecraft’s literary executor on the strength of two comments Lovecraft had made to him in various letters. In 1932 Lovecraft had remarked rather wistfully (but prophetically): “Yes—come to think of it—I fear there might be some turbulent doings among an indiscriminately named board of literary heirs handling my posthumous junk! Maybe I’ll dump all the work on you by naming you soul heir.”[8] Then, in late 1936, when Derleth was again hounding Lovecraft about the marketing of a book of his tales, Lovecraft had stated rather wearily: “As for trying to float a volume of Grandpa’s weird tales some day—naturally I shall have blessings rather than objections to offer, but I wouldn’t advise the expenditure of too much time & energy on the project.”[9] Derleth used this remark as the ultimate basis for his later work on Lovecraft’s behalf.

  Derleth wasted no time. By the end of March 1937 he had already mapped out the venture in broad details and enlisted the aid of Donald Wandrei. In short order he evolved the following scheme: he would assemble three volumes, the first containing Lovecraft’s most significant tales, the second containing the remaining fiction and perhaps some poetry and essays, and the third containing letters. Derleth maintained that it was Wandrei who suggested that all Lovecraft’s work, especially the letters, be preserved;[10] but this idea would presumably have followed logically in any event.

  Where did Barlow fit into these plans? The thinking on Derleth’s part appears to have been: if Barlow wishes to cooperate, fine; if not, he had better not interfere. As it happens, Barlow lent what aid he could in the assembling of what became The Outsider and Others. By late March Derleth was asking Barlow to send him Lovecraft’s annotated copies of Astounding containing At the Mountains of Madness,[11] since he knew that the printed text was corrupt. Since all the contents of the volume consisted of previously published material, Derleth assembled copy himself by preparing tearsheets of the stories (in many cases, however, taking them from the poorest published sources—e.g., the Fanciful Tales text of “The Nameless City” with its fifty-nine bad misprints—since these were the easiest to hand) and having his personal secretary, Alice Conger, prepare a mammoth typescript, which ultimately came to 1500 pages. It contained thirty-six stories plus “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”

  It was at this point that Derleth made a critical decision. He had first submitted the volume to Charles Scribner’s Sons:

  Scribner’s were at that time my own publishers, and, while sympathetic to the project and cognizant of the literary value of Lovecraft’s fiction, rejected the manuscript because the cost of producing so bulky a book, combined with the public’s then sturdy resistance to buying short story collectio
ns and the comparative obscurity of H. P. Lovecraft as a writer, made the project financially prohibitive. Simon & Schuster, to whom the manuscript was next submitted, likewise rejected, for similar reasons.[12]

  This process, Derleth says elsewhere,[13] took several months, and he was unwilling to waste more time submitting to other publishers. But did it never occur to Derleth to offer a smaller volume, with perhaps a dozen of Lovecraft’s best stories? Might not Scribner’s or Simon & Schuster have accepted such an offer? But Derleth seemed fixated on his three-volume conception, so he did the inevitable: he formed, with Wandrei, his own small press, Arkham House, and issued the volume himself.

  In the short term The Outsider and Others, which emerged in December 1939, certainly attracted the attention of the publishing world. Many regarded as a noble curiosity—a kind of monument to friendship regardless of the actual contents of the book. Derleth complained that, in spite of ads taken out in Weird Tales and the fan publications, the volume took a full four years to sell out its 1268 copies; but what can he have expected from generally impecunious weird fiction enthusiasts who were loath to spend $5.00 (the average price for a volume being then $2.00) for 550 pages of 9-point type? The Outsider and Others is unreadable today, and is nothing but a collector’s item. It is, to be sure, a landmark in publishing, but of a decidedly mixed sort: at the very time that it launched what was for many years the most prestigious small press in the weird fiction community, it effected the ghettoisation of Lovecraft and his type of weird tale. Had Lovecraft been issued by Scribner’s or some other mainstream house, then the entire history of his critical recognition, and the entire subsequent history of weird fiction, would have been very different. It is not clear how many other writers would have escaped the genre ghetto: whether Clark Ashton Smith or Robert E. Howard or Henry S. Whitehead would have followed Lovecraft into the mainstream is very much in doubt. But certainly Lovecraft would not have been quite the literary curiosity he became over the next several decades. One develops the strong suspicion, however, that Derleth simply did not want to give up his control of Lovecraft, as he would in part have done if a mainstream house had published his work. For the next thirty years Derleth effectively owned Lovecraft, even though he had little right to do so.

  And yet, The Outsider and Others received very cordial reviews. It is no surprise that, in the Providence Journal, B. K. Hart sang its praises, nor that Will Cuppy enthusiastically if uncritically lauded the book in the New York Herald Tribune. What is indeed surprising is that Thomas Ollive Mabbott, then the world’s leading Poe scholar, wrote a glowing review in American Literature (March 1940)—the first review, or mention, of Lovecraft in an academic journal. “Time will tell if his place be very high in our literary history; that he has a place seems certain.”[14] Four years later, writing in a fan magazine, Mabbott was still more enthusiastic: “I have never quite been sure how great he was; though I do feel he was a great writer.”[15] One other notice possibly inspired by The Outsider was an article by William Rose Benét in which he mentioned in passing that his brother Stephen Vincent “was entirely familiar with the work of H. P. Lovecraft long before that little-known master of horror was brought to the attention of the critics.”[16]

  Meanwhile Derleth, in spite of the slow sales of The Outsider, was pushing on with the next Lovecraft omnibus. He also published a volume of his own stories and one by Clark Ashton Smith to keep the Arkham House imprint in the public eye. At the same time he was vigorously marketing to Weird Tales those of Lovecraft’s stories that had not appeared there, including many that Farnsworth Wright had rejected. This pace of magazine publication picked up when Wright died in 1940. His place was taken over by Dorothy McIlwraith, who edited the magazine until it folded in 1954. McIlwraith seemed a trifle less finical than Wright, accepting Lovecraft’s longer stories but publishing them in appallingly butchered abridgements: “Medusa’s Coil” (January 1939), “The Mound” (November 1940), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (May and July 1941), “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (January 1942). Derleth turned all the proceeds of these fiction sales to Annie Gamwell; they amounted to nearly $1000.[17]

  Annie died of cancer on January 29, 1941. She was, really speaking, the last direct familial link to Lovecraft, for among Annie’s own heirs Ethel Phillips Morrish was only a second cousin (albeit one who recalled Lovecraft from the age of four) and Edna Lewis was only a friend. She was pleased with Derleth’s devotion and also had considerable fondness for Barlow, although toward the end she seemed to become a little frazzled and wished that all the various individuals interested in her nephew could work harmoniously together.

  Beyond the Wall of Sleep came out from Arkham House in 1943; the print run, because of war restrictions, was only 1217. It was nearly the same size as its predecessor and sold for the same price; it too took years to go out of print. Its chief features were the two unpublished novels, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which Derleth or his secretary transcribed (inaccurately) from the autograph manuscripts supplied by Barlow. This volume also received relatively cordial reviews in the mainstream press: a laudatory but comically error-riddled one in the New York Times Book Review by William Poster, another enthusiastic one by Will Cuppy in the New York Herald Tribune, and a rather lukewarm one by the comic novelist Peter de Vries, of all people, in the Chicago Sun Book Week.

  By this time, however, Derleth realised that the volume of letters would have to be postponed: he had received thousands upon thousands of pages of correspondence from Lovecraft’s associates, and Donald Wandrei’s entry into the army in 1942 severely limited the amount of time he had to work on the editing of the letters. In 1944 Derleth issued a “stop-gap” volume, Marginalia. In one way it was prophetic: aside from containing a few revisions, essays, juvenilia, and fragments, it featured a large number of memoirs and other writings commissioned by Derleth from Lovecraft’s colleagues. In this way there began a flood of Lovecraft memorabilia that has proceeded almost to the present day. This is certainly one of Derleth’s most significant contributions to Lovecraft studies: valuable insights have been provided by these memoirs, the authors of many of which died not long after their writing. One of the best pieces in Marginalia was not a memoir but a formal essay, “His Own Most Fantastic Creation,” by Winfield Townley Scott. Scott had taken over B. K. Hart’s role as literary editor of the Providence Journal, and he had already written several keen articles on Lovecraft and discussed Lovecraft regularly in his column, “Bookman’s Gallery.” In “His Own Most Fantastic Creation” Scott, using many primary documents, wrote the first important biographical study of Lovecraft, one that still retains considerable value today.

  The title of Scott’s essay was derived from a review by Vincent Starrett, who around this time began paying attention to his old correspondent in brief articles and reviews. His review of Beyond the Wall of Sleep contains some celebrated remarks:

  But to me Lovecraft himself is even more interesting than his stories; he was his own most fantastic creation—a Roderick Usher or C. Auguste Dupin born a century too late. . . He was an eccentric, a dilettante, and a poseur par excellence; but he was also a born writer, equipped with a delicate feeling for the beauty and mystery of words. The best of his stories are among the best of their time, in the field he chose to make his own.[18]

  Although this is meant in affectionate flattery, I think it has caused considerable mischief and has fostered the illusion that Lovecraft was a freak who should be more regarded for his “eccentricities” than for his literary work.

  In the meantime the fan world had not been idle. At the beginning this community paid tribute to Lovecraft not so much with memoirs or criticism as with publications: hence, Corwin F. Stickney issued a small brochure of Lovecraft’s poetry, HPL (1937); Wilson Shepherd issued a “Limited Memorial Edition” of A History of the Necronomicon (1937); Barlow compiled the Notes & Commonplace Book (1938); William H. Evans mimeographed the first thirty-three so
nnets of Fungi from Yuggoth for the Fantasy Amateur Press Association (FAPA) in 1943 (there is no explanation as to why he left off the final three sonnets; presumably he was working from an incomplete typescript).

  But in 1942 a significant event occurred: Francis T. Laney founded the Acolyte, the most noteworthy fan magazine since the Fantasy Fan and one that during its four-year run published a number of valuable rare works by Lovecraft and astute memoirs and studies of him. Laney had been drawn into the fan world by Duane W. Rimel,[19] and he, Rimel, and F. Lee Baldwin (whose interest had been rekindled) were the guiding forces behind the quarterly magazine. Crude in appearance as it is (the first issue was run off on ditto and is now virtually illegible; the other issues were mimeographed), it generated much worthwhile material. Laney later had a violent reaction against the fan world, recorded in his piquant autobiography, Ah, Sweet Idiocy! (1948). Another magazine, A. Langley Searles’s Fantasy Commentator, also generated much valuable critical material about Lovecraft.

  Other fan publishers issued Lovecraft’s obscurer stories, poems, essays, and even letters, as well as quaint tributes to him. One of the strangest and most affecting was J. B. Michel’s “The Last of H. P. Lovecraft,” in the Science Fiction Fan for November 1939. Michel had never known Lovecraft but had gone with Donald A. Wollheim to 66 College Street. Annie Gamwell had allowed the two young men to examine Lovecraft’s study, which remained unaltered since his death. Michel concludes with a poignant and half-hostile peroration that shows how Lovecraft was already becoming a myth:

  Lovecraft, for all his giant knowledge and piercing, calculating intellect, was the deadly enemy of all that to me is everything, an inflexible Jehovah-man, a gaunt, prophet-like high priest of dark rites and darker times, clad in funereal robes and funereal visage, gazing with suppressed hate upon a great new world which placed more value upon the sanitary condition of a bathroom fixture than all the greasy gold and jewels, the bones and dirt-crushed half knowledge of a thousand and a thousand-thousand kingdoms of the hoary past, whose faithful chronicler he was and in which he lived.[20]

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