I am providence the life.., p.19

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 19


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

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  “The Alchemist” (1908) is still more of an advance in style and technique. Antoine, last of the Comtes de C——, tells the tale of his life and ancestry. This ancient aristocratic line has occupied a lofty castle in France surrounded by a dense forest; but a deadly curse seems to weigh upon it. Antoine finally learns the apparent cause when he comes of age and reads a paper handed down through the generations. In the thirteenth century an ancient man, Michel (“usually designated by the surname of Mauvais, the Evil, on account of his sinister reputation”), dwelt on the estate together with his son Charles, nicknamed Le Sorcier. These two practised the black arts, and it was rumoured that they were seeking the elixir of life. Many disappearances of children were attributed to them. When Godfrey, the young son of Henri the Comte, is missing, Henri accosts Michel and kills him in a rage; just then Godfrey is found, and Charles, who learns of the deed, pronounces a curse:

  May ne’er a noble of thy murd’rous line

  Survive to reach a greater age than thine!

  He thrusts a vial in the face of Henri, who dies instantly. From that time on no comte of the line lives beyond the age of thirty-two, the age of Henri when he died. This curse continues for hundreds of years, and Antoine has no recourse but to believe that he will suffer a similar fate. Wandering alone over his deserted and cobweb-festooned castle, he comes upon a hidden cellar and encounters a hideous-looking man “clad in a skull-cap and long mediaeval tunic of dark colour.” This man tells of how Charles Le Sorcier killed Henri and also Godfrey when the latter reached Henri’s age; but Antoine wonders how the curse could have been continued thereafter, “when Charles Le Sorcier must in the course of Nature have died.” As the man attacks Antoine, the latter hurls a torch at him, setting him afire. Just before he expires, however, he reveals the truth:

  “Fool,” he shrieked, “can you not guess my secret? Have you no brain whereby you may recognise the will which has through six centuries fulfilled the dreadful curse upon your house? Have I not told you of the great elixir of eternal life? Know you not how the secret of Alchemy was solved? I tell you, it is I! I! I! that have lived for six hundred years to maintain my revenge, FOR I AM CHARLES LE SORCIER!”

  This conclusion, too, will not be a surprise to any attentive reader, for again Lovecraft has anticipated it well in advance. The remarkable thing about “The Alchemist,” however, is its atmosphere. If the murder of Michel Mauvais occurred in the thirteenth century and Charles Le Sorcier has lived for six hundred years, then the tale must actually have been set in the nineteenth century; and it is one of Lovecraft’s minor triumphs to have created a convincing aura of mediaeval antiquity in this tale. The narrator at one point even remarks that “Isolated as I was, modern science made no impression upon me, and I laboured as in the Middle Ages.”

  As with “The Beast in the Cave,” the narrator’s emotions are really at the heart of the tale. This tale, much more than its predecessor, betrays the influence of Poe in the narrator’s obsessive interest in his own psychological state; indeed, many details in the story make us think of Lovecraft’s remark that he himself “felt a kinship to Poe’s gloomy heroes with their broken fortunes.” Antoine is of a lofty and ancient line; but “poverty but little above the level of dire want, together with a pride of name that forbids its alleviation by the pursuits of commercial life, have prevented the scions of our line from maintaining their estates in pristine splendour.” As a result, Antoine—an only child—spends his years alone, “poring over the ancient tomes that filled the shadow-haunted library of the chateau, and in roaming without aim or purpose through the perpetual dusk of the spectral wood”; he is kept away from the “peasant children” who dwell nearby. All this can be seen as a deliberately distorted, but still recognisable, reflexion of Lovecraft’s own childhood and upbringing.

  “The Alchemist” is, at last, the first extant tale by Lovecraft to be avowedly supernatural. And yet, even here the supernaturalism is manifested from a somewhat unexpected direction. All along we have been led to believe that the supernatural element of the tale is the curse that causes the Comtes to die around the age of thirty-two; but in fact these deaths are now seen to be mere murders. It is the murderer, Charles Le Sorcier, who is the supernatural component, for it is he who has unnaturally prolonged his life through sorcery and “will” so as to exact revenge for his father’s death. The conclusion of the story reveals that Lovecraft is still overly given to histrionics; he would, in fact, find it one of the hardest faults to correct in his entire career.

  The last page of the autograph manuscript of “The Beast in the Cave” bears the following notation:

  Tales of Terror

  I. The Beast in the Cave

  By H. P. Lovecraft


  It is interesting to note that Lovecraft was already at this time thinking of assembling a collection of his tales; we do not know what other tales, if any, were to make up the volume. The autograph manuscript of “The Alchemist” does not survive, so we do not know whether it formed part of this volume. It may well have, for if “The Beast in the Cave” is a “modern” story, then “The Alchemist” could have formed part of a putative subsection of “ancient” tales, even though, as I have noted, the central action of the story occurs in the nineteenth century.

  It is, however, highly significant that, so far as we can tell, “The Beast in the Cave” is the first work for which Lovecraft did not undertake the elaborate “publishing” procedures which we have seen for all his other juvenilia: there is no price affixed, no invented imprint, and no attached catalogue of works. This story becomes, therefore, the first exemplar of that abstract and disinterested self-expression which was to become the pillar of Lovecraft’s later aesthetic theory.

  We have only hints of what further tales Lovecraft wrote in the next three years, for he declares that in 1908 he destroyed all but two of the stories he had been writing over the past five years.[98] Late in life Lovecraft discovered a composition book bearing the title of one lost story dating to 1905: “Gone—But Whither?” He remarks wryly: “I’ll bet it was a hell-raiser! The title expresses the fate of the tale itself.”[99] Then there was something called “The Picture” (1907), which in his Commonplace Book he describes as concerning a “painting of ultimate horror”. Elsewhere he says of it:

  I had a man in a Paris garret paint a mysterious canvas embodying the quintessential essence of all horror. He is found clawed & mangled one morning before his easel. The picture is destroyed, as in a titanic struggle—but in one corner of the frame a bit of canvas remains . . . & on it the coroner finds to his horror the painted counterpart of the sort of claw which evidently killed the artist.[100]

  Perhaps one can dimly infer the influence of Poe’s “The Oval Portrait,” in which a painter, in painting a portrait of his wife, insidiously sucks the life out of the woman and transfers it into the portrait.

  For one other tale we know its subject but not its title. “The idea of a Roman settlement in America is something which occurred to me years ago—in fact, I began a story with that theme (only it was about Central America & not U.S.) in 1906 or 1907, tho’ I never finish’d it.”[101] This story would have been fascinating, for it combined two of the traits that he claimed to make up the core of his personality—love of the ancient and love of the weird. Actually, it is not likely to have been supernatural, hence would probably not—even if finished—have formed part of the contents of the prospective Tales of Terror volume. It seems instead to have been an historical fantasy about a voyage by a Roman trireme across the Atlantic to South America and encounters between the Romans and the Mayans of the region. No doubt Lovecraft was already fascinated by the mystery-shrouded ancient civilisations of central and south America, as he would be for the rest of his life.

  By 1908, the time of the fourth “near-breakdown” of his young life, Lovecraft had decided that he was not a fiction-writer and resolved instead to devote himself to science and belles-lettres. A
t that time, in spite of the promise shown by “The Beast in the Cave” and “The Alchemist,” his decision would not have been entirely unwarranted. It is not likely that either of his surviving tales—or any others, for that matter—were actually submitted to magazines or book publishers; if they had been, they would probably have been rejected, largely on account of their antiquated style. But Lovecraft had by this time already amassed an impressive record of publications on science, and it would have been a reasonable conjecture that he would have continued to pursue such a course to become a professional writer in this field.

  Lovecraft first broke into true print with a letter (dated May 27, 1906) printed in the Providence Sunday Journal for June 3. This letter, titled (surely by the editor) “No Transit of Mars,” points out an elementary fallacy—there can be no transit of Mars over the sun, since Mars is outside the earth’s orbit—in a letter to the editor published on May 27. The letter in question was by an astrologer, one Thomas Hines, Jr, of Central Falls, R.I., and bears the title “Hard Times Coming”; his remark was: “According to the transit of Mars and Saturn, I judge that Providence and Boston will suffer from great fires this summer.”[102] Hines went on to predict such things as the deaths of Pope Pius X (d. 1914) and the Czar Nicholas II of Russia (d. 1918) and earthquakes in New England. This was too much for Lovecraft to bear, and he prefaces his factual correction with the scornful: “Passing over the fact that astrology is but a pseudo-science, not entitled to intelligent consideration . . .”

  On July 16, 1906, Lovecraft wrote a letter to the Scientific American on the subject of finding planets in the solar system beyond Neptune. Much to his delight, it was published in the issue of August 25, 1906, under the title “Trans-Neptunian Planets.” This letter does not seem to have been written in response to any article in the Scientific American, but merely proposes that the observatories of the world team up to locate planets of the solar system beyond Neptune, as had been suspected by many astronomers; if they “band together and minutely photograph the ecliptic, as is done in asteroid hunting, the bodies might be revealed on their plates.” Curiously, Lovecraft discounts the possibility that mathematical calculations alone could locate such planets, even though it was in fact such calculations that largely impelled the discovery of Pluto in 1930.

  Lovecraft was not finished with his letter campaign in the cause of science. The Providence Sunday Journal for August 12, 1906, published, under the title “The Earth Not Hollow,” a letter he had written six days earlier concerning the hollow-earth theory as advanced in a book, William Reed’s The Phantom of the Poles (1906), that had served as the basis of an article in the Journal for August 5. Lovecraft systematically destroys the arguments for the theory as expressed in the book (or, rather, in the article, as he admits not having read the book itself): the compression of the earth is not due to apertures at the poles but the centrifugal force; the Auroras are not burning volcanoes; there are no “open Polar seas,” as whatever land masses are around both poles appear to be bound by frozen seas; surface gravity of the earth is not greater at the poles but at the equator; and so on.

  This letter, which appears to have been printed complete, is considerably longer than the previous two (which may or may not have been abridged), being nine full paragraphs and totalling about 500 words. There could well be more such letters in the Journal and elsewhere, as I discovered “The Earth Not Hollow” by accident while looking for something else.

  Around this time, however, Lovecraft simultaneously began to write two astronomy columns for local papers, the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner and the Providence Tribune (morning, evening, and Sunday editions). The Gleaner articles begin on July 27, 1906, and after a hiatus of a month progress weekly until the end of the year. The Tribune articles commence on August 1, 1906, and proceed monthly until June 1, 1908.

  The Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner was a weekly based in Phenix, R.I., a community now incorporated into the city of West Warwick, well to the west and south of Providence. The paper had been started in 1876 by John H. Campbell and Reuben Capron; sometime thereafter Campbell became sole proprietor, being both the editor and publisher.[103] Lovecraft described it as a “country paper” and stated that the Phillipses had taken the paper when they were at Greene.[104] Elsewhere he elaborated:

  This rural paper was the oracle of that section of the country from which my mother’s family had originally come, & was taken for old times’ sake in our household. The name “Phillips” is a magic word in Western Rhode Island, & the Gleaner was more than willing to print & feature anything from Whipple V. Phillips’ grandson. Only the failure of the Gleaner put an end to my activity in its columns.[105]

  This raises the question of just how long Lovecraft contributed to the paper. In this letter he maintains that “During 1906, 1907, & 1908 I flooded the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner with my prose articles”; but no issues subsequent to December 28, 1906, seem to survive. There was a competing paper by this time, the Pawtuxet Valley Daily Times, and various notices in that paper suggest that the Gleaner did in fact continue publication through at least 1907. Since Lovecraft wrote the above remark in 1916 and was therefore writing of events that had occurred less than a decade previously, one must accept his statement that the paper continued into 1908 and that he contributed to it until the end.

  Given that Lovecraft was still producing the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy at the time, it was natural that he would draw from that hectographed monthly for the articles in the Gleaner. In one remarkable instance—“Is There Life on the Moon?” (Gleaner, September 14, 1906)—he reached back a year to a series of that title published in the Rhode Island Journal for September 3, 10, and 17, 1905. “Can the Moon Be Reached by Man?” (Gleaner, October 12, 1906) had appeared in the Rhode Island Journal as a series from April to July 1906. “The Moon” (Gleaner, October 19, 1906), the longest of the Gleaner articles, was a serial that started in the Rhode Island Journal in August 1906 and was not finished there until January 1907. A note in the October 1906 issue states that the entire serial “can be had complete in book form, bound in pasteboard for 50¢,” which shows that it was already finished at that time.

  The Gleaner articles do more than merely provide information on the astronomical phenomena for the month; they are among the first of several attempts by Lovecraft over the years to educate the public on the fundamentals of astronomy. In the present instance, Lovecraft chose provocative queries about Mars, the moon, and the solar system which he believed (probably rightly) the public would find stimulating. He tentatively endorsed as “not only possible, but even probable” Percival Lowell’s belief that the Martian canals have been made artificially and are for purposes of irrigation; returning to the question of lunar canals, he now accepted Pickering’s theory that they are deep furrows full of hoar frost; he discounted the theory of Vulcan (a supposed intra-Mercurial planet)[106] but reiterated his Scientific American letter in stating that trans-Neptunian planets ought to be sought by means of celestial photography. On the critical question of “Can the Moon Be Reached by Man?,” Lovecraft maintained that all other difficulties—lack of air, absence of gravity, extreme cold—could all be overcome; the big sticking point was “motive power,” i.e., getting a satellite off the earth. He considered three possibilities:

  (a) To fire an inhabited projectile from an immense cannon.

  (b) To interpose between the earth and the selected vehicle a screen, consisting of some material impervious to gravity.

  (c) To send off a projectile by electrical repulsion.

  Of these, Lovecraft believed the third the most likely; but he doubted whether such a journey would occur “within the lifetime of anyone who now reads these pages.”

  The articles for the Providence Tribune tend to be less interesting only because they rather mechanically deal with the purportedly noteworthy celestial phenomena of each month, becoming somewhat repetitive in the process. They are distinguished, however, for the fact that they constitute one of the few
occasions when illustrations by Lovecraft were published: of the twenty articles, sixteen were accompanied by hand-drawn star charts; in one anomalous instance (the Evening Tribune for March 3, 1908), only the illustration, not the article, was published (the article and the illustration appeared in the Morning Tribune the previous day).

  Lovecraft stated that it was one of these articles that almost caused great awkwardness on one occasion—the occasion in 1907 when he was introduced by Winslow Upton to Percival Lowell when the astronomer was lecturing at Sayles Hall at Brown University. Lovecraft goes on:

  With the egotism of my 17 years, I feared that Lowell had read what I had written! I tried to be as non-committal as possible in speaking, and fortunately discovered that the eminent observer was more disposed to ask me about my telescope, studies, etc., than to discuss Mars. Prof. Upton soon led him away to the platform, and I congratulated myself that a disaster had been averted![107]

  There are several troubling features in this seemingly innocuous account. First, there is no mention of Lowell’s speculations on the canals or possible inhabitants of Mars in the Tribune articles; secondly, although Lovecraft in this letter declares that “I never had, have not, and never will have the slightest belief in Lowell’s speculations,” we have just seen that he had explicitly approved them as “probable” in a Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner article. One wonders, then, about the exact nature of Lovecraft’s meeting with Lowell.

  My feeling is that a purchase Lovecraft made at this time with his own money—a rebuilt 1906 Remington typewriter[108]—was connected with these published astronomy articles. The typewriter was not used not for preparing his hectographed scientific journals (for they remain handwritten to the very end) nor even, apparently, the fiction he was writing (no typescripts from this period survive), so that the preparation of the astronomy columns—the only things he was submitting to a publisher at this time—would be the only logical purpose for securing a typewriter. It was the only typewriter Lovecraft would ever own in his life.

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