I am providence the life.., p.38

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 38

 

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



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  There is, then, no question of the general influence of Poe upon Lovecraft’s early work, and I shall point to the influence of specific works by Poe in my analysis of Lovecraft’s stories; but a more recent influence on Lovecraft’s actual commencement of fiction-writing in 1917 may be worth examining. In Lovecraft’s library are two volumes on short-story writing: Facts, Thought, and Imagination: A Book on Writing by Henry Seidel Canby, Frederick Erastus Pierce, and W. H. Durham (1917), and Writing the Short-Story by J. Berg Esenwein (1909), of which Lovecraft had the 1918 printing. The fact that he apparently acquired these two volumes at the very outset of his fiction-writing career suggests that he wished some theoretical and practical advice on a literary mode he had not attempted in nearly a decade.

  The book by Canby, Pierce, and Durham is a rather abstract study of the components of the short story and what it seeks to accomplish. Perhaps most interesting for our purposes is the chapter on “Imagination” by W. H. Durham. Maintaining that any story that “does more than merely thrill or amuse the reader” has behind it “the effort to convey effectively some kind of idea,” Durham emphasises that “Any writer of fiction who takes his work at all seriously is attempting to record his impression of life,” and that a story must therefore be true to life.[13] It is important to realise that this volume is not stressing realism in the narrow sense, a point brought home by its inclusion of H. G. Wells’s “The Story of the Last Trump” as one of several examples of the model short story; this book, therefore, may have helped to plant a seed in Lovecraft’s mind that the weird tale could be a serious form of expression and not merely a potboiler—entertaining though that may be—of the sort found in the Munsey magazines.

  Esenwein’s treatise is more of a nuts-and-bolts practical guide to writing and selling the short story, complete with recommendations on how to type the manuscript, how to write a cover letter, what markets are suitable for various types of work, and other mundane details. Its orientation is much less aesthetically refined than the Canby volume, but it nevertheless stresses the fundamental way in which the short story differs from the novel: “A short-story produces a singleness of effect denied to the novel.” [14] This principle is manifestly derived from Poe, and Esenwein makes no secret of the fact, going on to cite the canonical passage in Poe’s essay-review of Hawthorne where it is first enunciated. Esenwein goes on to list seven characteristics of the short story: 1. A Single Predominating Incident. 2. A Single Preeminent Character. 3. Imagination. 4. Plot. 5. Compression. 6. Organization. 7. Unity of Impression.[15] There is nothing remarkable here, and this too is ultimately derived from Poe; Lovecraft adhered to many of these conceptions, but they are so general that he is likely to have derived them independently merely through an analytical study of Poe’s stories.

  One influence that some very recent research has rendered much more problematical is that of the Munsey magazines. It is certainly likely that Lovecraft continued to read some of these magazines after his contretemps in the Argosy in 1913–14; but some of the “evidence” that has hitherto been advanced on this point has now been shown to be invalid. Lovecraft frequently remarks that he preserved the issue of the All-Story containing A. Merritt’s spectacular novelette, “The Moon Pool” (June 22, 1918), so that he probably read this magazine at least up to this date and perhaps up to the time it consolidated with the Argosy (July 24, 1920). But the belief that he read the Argosy itself as late as 1919 or 1920 has long been based upon letters Lovecraft purportedly published in that magazine under the pseudonym “Augustus T. Swift.” Two such letters have been discovered, in the issues for November 15, 1919, and May 22, 1920. But these letters are almost certain to be spurious.

  At this time the Argosy letter column was no longer supplying complete addresses of letter-writers but merely the city of origin; both these letters are, to be sure, written from Providence, but a quick check of the Providence city directory for 1919–20 reveals an actual individual named Augustus T. Swift, a teacher, living at 122 Rochambeau Avenue. These letters have a superficially Lovecraftian tone to them (there is one complaint about too much “hugging and kissing” in some stories), but other features are highly peculiar, both in phraseology and in actual content. The second letter in particular, commenting on a whaling story by a writer named Reynolds, declares: “Being a native of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and having heard whale-ship talk from infancy, I followed the detailed descriptions of polar scenes with unusual interest.” Lovecraft a native of New Bedford, Massachusetts? I don’t think so.

  The question arises as to how these letters were attributed to Lovecraft to begin with. The “culprit” is Larry Farsaci, editor of the fanzine Golden Atom. In the issue for December 1940 Farsaci—who was a well-known collector of early pulp magazines—reprinted these two letters along with a genuine letter by Lovecraft (from the All-Story of August 15, 1914). Elsewhere in the issue he gave a list of Lovecraft’s pseudonyms, derived largely from a list printed earlier by R. H. Barlow, but with Augustus T. Swift added and with the note: “This last is your ed’s belief.”[16] From here, the Augustus T. Swift “pseudonym” was picked up by many subsequent scholars and bibliographers who, if they had actually seen the letters in question, should have known better. Contrived “explanations” for the “pseudonym” have also appeared (“Augustus” standing for the Augustan age; “Swift” standing either for the boy’s writer Tom Swift or for Jonathan Swift). But the existence of a real Augustus T. Swift can, I think, put this entire episode to rest.

  Some consequences follow from the exposure of the spuriousness of these letters. There is now no concrete evidence that Lovecraft read the Argosy subsequent to 1914. Much of A. Merritt’s work, which Lovecraft did indeed enjoy, appeared here, although some of it much later (e.g., The Dwellers in the Mirage was serialised in 1932, Creep, Shadow! in 1934); The Metal Monster, serialised in 1920, was not read by Lovecraft until 1934. The influence of Merritt on Lovecraft, and of Lovecraft on Merritt, is a fascinating subject that needs to be addressed later. Moreover, the two Augustus T. Swift letters effusively praise Francis Stevens (the pseudonym of Gertrude Bennett), although they believe the author to be a man. Stevens’s The Citadel of Fear (serialised 1918) and Claimed (serialised 1920) are indeed quite striking works that Lovecraft might conceivably have enjoyed; but we shall now need other evidence to testify to his fondness for them. (Still more awkwardly, both these novels have been reprinted in paperback with blurbs from the Swift letters attributed to Lovecraft!)

  I am still not certain why Lovecraft chose to resume fiction-writing at this exact time. Is it perhaps because his poetry was being showered with abuse in the amateur press for being antiquated and void of feeling? If Lovecraft expected his fiction to be better received, he was on the whole to be disappointed. His own colleagues certainly sang his praises in brief critical notices of his tales; but many amateurs, stolidly unreceptive to the weird, found his tales even less bearable than his poems. Is there a connexion with his failed attempt to enlist, which occurred only a month or so before he wrote “The Tomb”? One does not wish to engage in armchair psychoanalysis with so little evidence at hand; suffice it to say that literature is fortunate for Lovecraft’s ultimate realisation that fiction, and not poetry or essays, was his chosen medium. His first several tales show remarkable promise, and they are the vanguard for the great work of the last decade of his life.

  In “The Tomb” a first-person narrator tells of his lonely and secluded life: “My name is Jervas Dudley, and from earliest childhood I have been a dreamer and a visionary.” We become immediately suspicious of his account, since he admits to telling it within the confines of an insane asylum; but he believes that his story will vindicate him and his belief that “there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal.” Dudley discovers, in a wooded hollow near his home, a tomb that houses the remains of a family, the Hydes, that dwelt in a mansion nearby. This mansion had been struck by lightning and burned to the ground, although only one mem
ber of the family had perished in the flame. The tomb exercises an unholy fascination upon Dudley, and he haunts it for hours at a time. It is locked, but the door is “fastened ajar in a queerly sinister way by means of heavy iron chains and padlocks, according to a gruesome fashion of half a century ago.” Dudley resolves to enter this tomb at any cost, but he is too young and weak to break open the lock (he is only ten years old at this time).

  Gradually Dudley begins to display various odd traits, in particular a knowledge of very ancient things that he could not possibly have learnt from books. One night, as he is lying on a bower outside the tomb, he seems to hear voices from within: “Every shade of New England dialect, from the uncouth syllables of the Puritan colonists to the precise rhetoric of fifty years ago, seemed represented in that shadowy colloquy . . .” He does not say what the colloquy was about, but upon returning home he goes directly to a rotting chest in the attic and finds a key to unlock the tomb.

  Dudley spends much time in the tomb. But now another peculiar change takes place in him: hitherto a sequestered recluse, he begins to show signs of “ribald revelry” as he returns from the tomb. In one instance he declaims, “in palpably liquorish accents,” a drinking song of Georgian cast, but one “never recorded in a book.” He also develops a fear of thunderstorms.

  Dudley’s parents, worried about his increasingly odd behaviour, now hire a “spy” to follow his actions. On one occasion Dudley thinks that this spy has seen him coming out of the tomb, but the spy tells his parents that Dudley had spent the night on the bower outside the tomb. Dudley, now convinced that he is under some sort of supernatural protection, frequents the tomb without fear or circumspection. One night, as thunder is in the air, he goes to the tomb and sees the mansion as it was in its heyday. A party is under way, and guests in powdered wigs are brought in by carriage. But a peal of thunder interrupts the “swinish revelry” and a fire breaks out. Dudley flees, but finds himself being restrained by two men. They maintain that Dudley had spent the entire night outside the tomb, and point to the rusted and unopened lock as evidence. Dudley is put away in a madhouse. A servant, “for whom I bore a fondness in infancy,” goes to the tomb, breaks it open, and finds a porcelain miniature with the initials “J. H.”; the picture could be of Dudley’s twin. “On a slab in an alcove he found an old but empty coffin whose tarnished plate bears the single word ‘Jervas’. In that coffin and in that vault they have promised me I shall be buried.”

  Lovecraft gives an interesting account of the genesis of the story:

  . . . one June day in 1917 I was walking through Swan Point Cemetery with my aunt and saw a crumbling tombstone with a skull and crossbones dimly traced upon its slaty surface; the date, 1711, still plainly visible. It set me thinking. Here was a link with my favourite aera of periwigs—the body of a man who had worn a full-bottom’d wig and had perhaps read the original sheets of The Spectator. Here lay a man who had lived in Mr. Addison’s day, and who might easily have seen Mr. Dryden had he been in the right part of London at the right time! Why could I not talk with him, and enter more intimately into the life of my chosen age? What had left his body, that it could no longer converse with me? I looked long at that grave, and the night after I returned home I began my first story of the new series—“The Tomb”. . .[17]

  Donovan K. Loucks has identified this tombstone as the grave of one Simon Smith (1662–1711), a distant ancestor of Lillian D. Clark.

  “The Tomb” is, as it turns out, quite anomalous in Lovecraft’s fictional work for a variety of reasons. In the first place, there is some doubt as to whether the horror is external or internal, supernatural or psychological: is Jervas Dudley possessed by the spirit of his ancestor and lookalike, Jervas Hyde, or has he imagined the entire thing? The supernatural explanation must, I think, in the end be accepted, especially because of Dudley’s possession of knowledge about the past (e.g., that Squire Brewster was not dead when he was interred in 1711) and about the mansion that he could not otherwise have known: “On one occasion I startled a villager by leading him confidently to a shallow sub-cellar, of whose existence I seemed to know in spite of the fact that it had been unseen and forgotten for many generations.” The fundamental idea is that the spirit of Jervas Hyde, who was burned to death in the fire that consumed his house, has reached across the centuries to seize a body who will at last fill his empty coffin in the tomb of the Hydes.

  But how to account for the unbroken lock on the tomb and the fact that Dudley’s spy claims to have seen him not in the tomb but on the bower outside it? Was Dudley (as he believes) being protected by a “supernatural agency”? But if he had actually entered the tomb, how did the lock remain unbroken and rusted? The servant at the end really does have to break it open. Perhaps Dudley’s body did in fact spend those nights on the bower but his spirit entered the tomb.

  The other thing that makes “The Tomb” peculiar for Lovecraft is the degree of psychological analysis which Dudley’s character undergoes. The influence of Poe and his “typical protagonist . . . a dark, handsome, proud, melancholy, intellectual, highly sensitive, capricious, introspective, isolated, and sometimes slightly mad gentleman of ancient family and opulent circumstances” (as Lovecraft wrote in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”) is very evident in this regard. Lovecraft echoes “Berenice” (“Our line has been called a race of visionaries”[18]) in his opening sentence. This literary influence should make us cautious in reading autobiographical traits in the narrator of “The Tomb.” When he says that he was “wealthy beyond the necessity of a commercial life,” we may see this as wish-fulfilment on Lovecraft’s part, but the narrator’s need to be independently wealthy is crucial to the development of the tale. Lovecraft, too, may have been “temperamentally unfitted for the formal studies and social recreations of my acquaintances,” but it is important that the narrator have these traits also. Nevertheless, in a broad sense the narrator reflects Lovecraft’s own absorption in the Georgian age, and the sense of dislocation from his own time that this absorption brought about.

  But there is much more probing of the narrator’s psyche than this. Jervas Dudley is much more introspective, and much more concerned with analysing his own emotional state, than most of Lovecraft’s other characters are. But again, the demands of the plot necessitate such self-scrutiny, for it is by the anomalous departures from his normal state of mind that we can gauge the insidious incursion of the soul of Jervas Hyde. Some of his reflexions are very poignant: “I was no longer a young man, though but twenty-one years had chilled my bodily frame.” We care about this character as we do for few others in Lovecraft’s corpus.

  Although Lovecraft makes clear that the setting of the tale is New England, “The Tomb” contains so little topographical description that it could really be set almost anywhere. It is, of course, essential that the tale be situated in a region that has been settled for several centuries, so that the spectral hand of the distant past can reach forward into the present; but one wonders whether a setting in England—where several of Lovecraft’s other early tales take place—might not have served a little better, since the contrast between the narrator’s sober present-day demeanour and his vivacious behaviour when possessed by Hyde might better have been achieved with an English background. The narrator in fact remarks that in his transformed state he “covered the flyleaves of my books with facile impromptu epigrams which brought up suggestions of Gay, Prior, and the sprightliest of the Augustan wits and rimesters.”

  This brings us to what has come to be called “The Drinking Song from ‘The Tomb.’” This four-stanza song, inserted bodily into the story—a technique Lovecraft probably derived not so much from the Gothics (whose poetical interruptions are scarcely integral to the work) as from Poe, who included poems in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Ligeia” that are not only among his most memorable, but which are critical to the logic of the tales—has taken on a life of its own, especially when it was reprinted by itself in Collected Poems (196
3). T. O. Mabbott, who charitably remarked that most of Lovecraft’s poetry was “written ‘with his left hand,’” quotes the magnificent line “Better under the table than under the ground” as an instance of what a fine poet Lovecraft might have been.[19] Indeed, it is difficult to resist something like this:

  Anacreon had a red nose, so they say;

  But what’s a red nose if ye’re happy and gay?

  Gad split me! I’d rather be red whilst I’m here,

  Than white as a lily—and dead half a year!

  So Betty, my miss,

  Come give me a kiss;

  In hell there’s no innkeeper’s daughter like this!

  There is good reason for regarding this poem as a separate entity, for it was written separately and perhaps years before the story itself. Indeed, its inclusion in the story could be considered something of an indulgence. The manuscript of the poem survives in the John Hay Library: it is part of a letter, one perhaps that was never actually sent (the fifth page is incomplete, bearing no closing). We do not know to whom the letter was addressed, as the first two pages are missing. I suspect that Lovecraft kept these pages for himself solely because he liked the drinking song he had written; perhaps he even then conceived some future use for it.

 
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