I am providence the life.., p.37

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 37

 

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



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  It would be a delight to have this review—the only movie review Lovecraft ever wrote, so far as I can tell—but efforts made by Marc A. Michaud and myself in 1977 to locate the files of Fay’s Theatre (which had been torn down in 1951) proved unavailing. The Image-Maker was directed by Edgar Moore and starred Valda Valkyrien, the Baroness Dewitz. Although today a very obscure film (no copy appears to survive), it was actually well received in its day; but a representative review—from the New York Dramatic Mirror—may give some hint as to why Lovecraft himself found the film not at all to his taste: “‘The Image Maker’ will satisfy that multitude which likes Romance—spelt with a capital R—in motion pictures. . . . There are thrilling adventures frequently enough in both narratives to satisfy even the most blasé and the happily ended love affair will be liked. . . . This is the kind of a picture the crowd likes and an exhibitor will make no mistake in booking it.”[100]

  This episode is of interest only because Lovecraft’s later comments on film are increasingly critical. As we have seen, he by no means lacked an appreciation of the artistic potential of film; but shortly after winning the Fay’s Theatre award he remarked to Dunn:

  Save for a few Triangle, Paramount & Vitagraph pictures, everything I have seen is absolute trash—though some are quite harmless & amusing. Worst of all are the serials—whose authors are probably the same poor creatures that wrote the “dime novels” of yesterday. I have yet to see a serial film worth the time wasted in looking at it—or dozing over it. The technique could be surpassed by most ten year old children.[101]

  In 1921 he remarked to his mother that “In matters of scenery the moving picture can of course leave the stage far behind; though this hardly atones for the lack of sound and colour.”[102] Even with the advent of sound pictures in 1927, Lovecraft’s low opinion of film persisted, and certain early horror films based upon some of his favourite literary works incited his especial ire. With rare exceptions, Lovecraft did not care for the surprising number of films he saw in the course of his life.

  For three years Lovecraft had written reams of essays, poems, and reviews of amateur papers. Would he ever resume the fiction writing that had showed such promise up to 1908? In 1915 Lovecraft wrote to the amateur G. W. Macauley: “I wish that I could write fiction, but it seems almost an impossibility.”[103] Macauley claims that he “violently disagreed”—not because he had actually seen any of Lovecraft’s fiction but because, having sent a story to Lovecraft for comment, he had received such an acute and elaborate analysis that he became convinced that Lovecraft had the short-story writing faculty within him. Criticism of fiction and fiction-writing are, of course, two different things, but in Lovecraft’s case one cannot help feeling that the frequency with which he remarks on the failings of stories published in the amateur press points to a growing urge to prove that he can do better. Fiction was, of course, always the weakest point in the amateur press, not only because it is generally harder to master than standard essay-writing but because the space limitations in amateur papers did not allow the publication of much beyond sketches or vignettes.

  One comment in particular, discussing a story by William T. Harrington, is highly illuminating in showing a key shift of Lovecraft’s preferences:

  In this tale, Mr. Harrington exhibits at least a strong ambition to write, and such energy, if well directed, may eventually make of him one of our leading authors of fiction. Just now, however, we must protest against his taste in subject and technique. His models are obviously not of the classical order, and his ideas of probability are far from unexceptionable. In developing the power of narration, it is generally best . . . to discard the thought of elaborate plots and thrilling climaxes, and to begin instead with the plain and simple description of actual incidents with which the author is familiar. . . . Meanwhile, above all things he should read classic fiction, abstaining entirely from the Wild West Weeklies and the like. (“Department of Public Criticism,” United Amateur, March 1915)

  So the “elaborate plots and thrilling climaxes” of the dime novels are now verboten! Even though Lovecraft was at this time still reading the Argosy, All-Story, and other early pulp magazines, he instead encouraged Harrington to read Scott, Cooper, and Poe. There are, certainly, plenty of thrills in these authors, but they are of a “classic” variety that Lovecraft could approve. About a year later he gave a lengthy criticism of the imaginatively titled “A Story” by David H. Whittier, a teenager whom Lovecraft had lauded in “The Youth of Today” (Conservative, October 1915). In particular, the use of coincidence offends him: “In an artistically constructed tale, the various situations all develop naturally out of that original cause which in the end brings about the climax . . .” Lovecraft could not, however, help adding tartly that “such . . . coincidences in stories are by no means uncommon among even the most prominent and widely advertised professional fiction-blacksmiths of the day” (“Department of Public Criticism,” United Amateur, June 1916).

  Lovecraft finally allowed his credential, “The Alchemist,” to be printed in the United Amateur for November 1916, two and a half years after he had entered amateurdom. It was to be expected that he would himself attack it in the “Department of Public Criticism” (United Amateur, May 1917):

  The United Amateur for November is heavily burdened with a sombre and sinister short story from our own pen, entitled “The Alchemist”. This is our long unpublished credential to the United, and constitutes the first and only piece of fiction we have ever laid before a critical and discerning public; wherefore we must needs beg all the charitable indulgence the Association can extend to an humble though ambitious tyro.

  The single word “ambitious” may suggest Lovecraft’s desire to write more fiction if this one specimen, however much he may deprecate it himself, receives favourable notice. It appears to have done just that, but even so it would still be more than half a year before Lovecraft would break his self-imposed nine-year ban on fiction-writing. That he finally did so, writing “The Tomb” and “Dagon” in quick succession in the summer of 1917, can be attributed in large part to the encouragement of a new associate, W. Paul Cook of Athol, Massachusetts, who would be a significant presence throughout the rest of Lovecraft’s life.

  8. Dreamers and Visionaries

  (1917–1919 [I])

  W. Paul Cook (1881–1948), who also appeared in the amateur press as Willis Tete Crossman, had long been a giant in the amateur world. Cook was unmistakably a New Englander: he had been born in Vermont; he was, as Lovecraft was fond of pointing out, a direct descendant of the colonial governor Benning Wentworth of New Hampshire; and he resided for much of his adult life in Athol, Massachusetts. One of his earliest amateur journals was the Monadnock Monthly, named for the mountain in New Hampshire near his home in Athol. For years he was the head of the printing department of the Athol Transcript, and his access to printing equipment and his devotion to the amateur cause permitted him to be a remarkable philanthropist in printing amateur journals virtually at cost. We have seen that he began printing the Conservative in 1917. During his term as President of the UAPA Lovecraft appointed Cook Official Printer, a position he held for three consecutive years (1917–20) and again for three more years in 1922–25. Curiously, at the same time he served as Official Editor of the NAPA (1918–19) and its President (1919–20).[1]

  After his first meeting with Cook in September 1917 (which I shall discuss in greater detail later) Lovecraft summed him up as follows: “Though not overwhelmingly bookish, he has a keen mind, dry humour, & an infinite & quite encyclopaedic knowledge of the events & personages of amateur journalism past & present.”[2] What he does not say here is that Cook had a strong taste in weird fiction; indeed, Lovecraft would later admit that Cook’s “library was the most remarkable collection of fantastic & other material that I have ever seen assembled in one place,”[3] and he would frequently borrow many rare books to which he himself did not have access. It is scarcely to be doubted that Cook, during his visit with
Lovecraft, discussed this topic of mutual interest. Whether at this time he convinced Lovecraft to let him print his other juvenile tale, “The Beast in the Cave,” is not clear; at any rate, that story appeared in Cook’s Vagrant (a NAPA paper) for June 1918.

  Lovecraft makes it very clear that Cook’s encouragement was instrumental in his resumption of weird writing:

  In 1908, when I was 18, I was disgusted by my lack of technical experience [in fiction-writing]; & burned all my stories (of which the number was infinite) but two; resolving (amusing thought!) to turn to verse in the future. Then, years later, I published these two yarns in an amateur paper; where they were so well received that I began to consider resumption. Finally an amateur editor & critic named W. Paul Cook . . . egged me on to the point of actual resumption, & “The Tomb”—with all its stiffness—was the result. Next came “Dagon” . . .[4]

  The chronology here is a little confused: “The Beast in the Cave” was published well after Lovecraft resumed fiction-writing in the summer of 1917. In any event, Lovecraft—although he apparently did not know it at the time—had found his métier. “The Tomb” was written in June 1917, “Dagon” in July.[5] One instance of the encouragement Cook provided was an effusive article entitled “Howard P. Lovecraft’s Fiction,” prefacing his printing of “Dagon” in the Vagrant for November 1919:

  Howard P. Lovecraft is widely and favorably known throughout the amateur journalistic world as a poet, and in a lesser degree as an editorial and essay writer. As a story-writer he is practically unknown, partly because of the scarcity of publications large enough to accommodate much prose, and partly because he does not consider himself a competent story-teller. His first story to appear in the amateur press was “The Alchemist,” published in the United Amateur. This story was enough to stamp him as a pupil of Poe in its unnatural, mystical and actually morbid outlook, without a hint of the bright outdoors or of real life. His second story, “The Beast in the Cave,” published in the Vagrant, was far inferior in every respect, even in being given a modern setting, which may be counted as against it in Mr. Lovecraft’s case. The outstanding feature of this really slight effort was the skill with which an atmosphere was created.

  In “Dagon,” in this issue of the Vagrant, Mr. Lovecraft steps into his own as a writer of fiction. In reading this story, two or three names of short-story writers are immediately called to mind. First of all, of course, Poe; and Mr. Lovecraft, I believe, would be the first to acknowledge his allegiance to our American master. Second, Maupassant; and I am quite sure that Mr. Lovecraft would deny any kinship with the great Frenchman.

  Mr. Lovecraft with “Dagon” is not through as a contributor of fiction to the amateur press. He will never be as voluminous a fiction writer as a poet, but we may confidently expect to see him advance even beyond the high mark he has set in “Dagon.”

  I cannot fully appreciate Mr. Lovecraft as a poet . . . But I can and do appreciate him as a story-writer. He is at this day the only amateur story-writer worthy of more than a polite passing notice.[6]

  Almost everything in this statement is correct, except perhaps Cook’s suspicion of an influence of Guy de Maupassant, whom Lovecraft had probably not read at this time, although he would later find much of Maupassant’s weird work compelling. This remarkable paean—I know of nothing quite like it in the amateur press, even including Lovecraft’s various “introductions” of his friends and colleagues into amateurdom—could only have heartened Lovecraft, who required the approbation of friends to overcome his ingrained diffidence over the quality of his fictional work. In this case, the approbation was entirely justified.

  It is worth pondering the general influence of Poe on Lovecraft’s early tales, since Poe certainly looms large over the bulk of Lovecraft’s fiction up to at least 1923. We have seen that, for all his enthusiasm for Poe when he first discovered him in 1898, Lovecraft’s juvenile fiction bears relatively few similarities to Poe’s work. This changes abruptly with “The Tomb,” which makes no secret of its borrowings from Poe. And yet, even “The Tomb” and “The Outsider” (1921), Lovecraft’s most obviously Poe-esque tales, are far from being mere pastiches; but that Lovecraft found in Poe a model both in style and in overall short-story construction is evident. Many of Lovecraft’s early tales—and, for that matter, even later ones—open with that ponderous enunciation of a general truth which the story itself purports to instantiate: recall Poe’s memorable opening of “Berenice,” “Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform.”[7] Poe himself may well have derived this pseudo-nonfictional opening from the eighteenth-century essayists, by whom he was influenced scarcely less than Lovecraft was; and we will see that both Poe and Lovecraft utilised it in order to create a sort of “hoax-like” atmosphere whereby the story actually passes for a factual account.

  Late in life Lovecraft actually disputed that his style was directly derived from Poe. In remarking on a story by Richard F. Searight which some thought to be influenced by Lovecraft, he states:

  . . . I can’t see this in any marked degree. Rather would I say that you have simply chosen the same general cast of language which I prefer—but which hundreds of others, long before I was born, have preferred. Many think I have derived this style exclusively from Poe—which (despite the strong influence of Poe on me) is another typical mistake of uninformed modernism. This style is no especial attribute of Poe, but is simply the major traditional way of handling English narrative prose. If I picked it up through any especial influence, that influence is probably the practice of the 18th century rather than Poe . . .[8]

  I think there is a certain amount of posturing here. It is true enough that Lovecraft’s fictional style is a sort of amalgam of the eighteenth-century essayists and Poe; and by the time he wrote the above (1935) he had indeed gotten well away from any direct stylistic imitation of Poe. But the fact is that the idiom Lovecraft evolved in his early tales—dense, a little overheated, laced with archaic and recondite terms, almost wholly lacking in “realistic” character portrayal, and almost entirely given over to exposition and narration, with a near-complete absence of dialogue—is clearly derived from Poe and is not the “major traditional way of handling English narrative prose,” as the very different work of Hawthorne, Thackeray, or Joseph Conrad will amply testify.

  Lovecraft elsewhere is a little more honest in assessing the Poe influence on himself: “Since Poe affected me most of all horror-writers, I can never feel that a tale starts out right unless it has something of his manner. I could never plunge into a thing abruptly, as the popular writers do. To my mind it is necessary to establish a setting & avenue of approach before the main show can adequately begin.”[9] This is exactly a reference to that quasi-nonfictional opening that both Poe and Lovecraft felt was essential to set the stage for the events to follow. So much, indeed, did Lovecraft customarily acknowledge the Poe influence that he would go to the opposite extreme, as in his famous lament of 1929: “There are my ‘Poe’ pieces & my ‘Dunsany’ pieces—but alas—where are any ‘Lovecraft’ pieces?”[10]

  The most obvious stylistic feature common to both Poe and Lovecraft is the use of adjectives. In Lovecraft’s case this has been derisively termed “adjectivitis,” as if there is some canonical number of adjectives per square inch that are permissible and that the slightest excess is cause for frenzied condemnation. But this sort of criticism is merely a holdover from an outmoded and superficial realism that vaunted the barebones style of a Hemingway or a Sherwood Anderson as the sole acceptable model for English prose. We have seen that Lovecraft was predominantly influenced by the “Asianic” style of Johnson and Gibbon as opposed to the “Attic” style of Swift and Addison; and few nowadays—especially now that the Thomas Pynchons and Gore Vidals of the world have restored richness of texture to modern English fiction—will condemn Lovecraft without a hearing for the use of such a style.

  The specific object of this criticism, however, is the use of words that transparently suggest o
r are meant to inspire horror. Edmund Wilson speaks for many when he declares pontifically:

  One of Lovecraft’s worst faults is his incessant effort to work up the expectations of the reader by sprinkling his stories with such adjectives as “horrible,” “terrible,” “frightful,” “awesome,” “eerie,” “weird,” “forbidden,” “unhallowed,” “unholy,” “blasphemous,” “hellish” and “infernal.” Surely one of the primary rules for writing an effective tale of horror is never to use any of these words . . .[11]

  If Wilson’s dictum were followed literally, there would scarcely be any horror stories in existence today. Firstly, Lovecraft clearly derived this stylistic device from Poe. Consider “A Descent into the Maelström”: “To the right and left, as far as the eye could reach, there lay outstretched, like ramparts of the world, lines of horridly black and beetling cliff, whose character of gloom was but the more forcibly illustrated by the surf which reared high up against it its white and ghastly crest, howling and shrieking for ever.”[12] It is only in Lovecraft’s inferior work that this device becomes overused or hackneyed. Secondly, it has incredibly escaped most observers that such a technique, especially in first-person narration, serves as a critical indication of the protagonist’s state of mind, becoming therefore an element in character portrayal.

  Nevertheless, I think a case could be made that Lovecraft spent the better part of his fictional career in attempting to escape—or, at best, master or refine—the stylistic influence of Poe, as his frequent remarks in the last decade of his life on the need for simplicity of expression and his exemplification of this principle in the evolution of his later “scientific” manner suggest.

  If in style and texture Lovecraft owes much to Poe, he owes scarcely less to Poe’s theory and practice of story-construction. I do not at the moment wish to examine Lovecraft’s theory of weird fiction, as it does not seem to have taken shape until about 1921; but, right from the beginning, Lovecraft intuitively adopted many of the principles of short-story technique that (as he himself points out in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”) Poe virtually invented and exemplified in his work—“such things as the maintenance of a single mood and achievement of a single impression in a tale, and the rigorous paring down of incidents to such as have a direct bearing on the plot and will figure prominently in the climax.” This “paring down” applies both to word-choice and to overall structure, and we will find that all Lovecraft’s tales—even those that might be classified as short novels—adhere to this principle.

 

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