I am providence the life.., p.39

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 39


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

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  The relevant part of the letter begins: “As for ‘Gaudeamus’, the best I can say is, that its rather too Epicurean subject is as ancient as literature itself, and its treatment mediocre. I believe, without any egotism, that I could do better myself—witness the following: . . .” There follows the drinking song, entitled “Gaudeamus.” The reference in the letter is evidently to a poem entitled “Gaudeamus” written by a Miss Renning or Ronning (the handwriting is difficult to read), presumably in the amateur press. I cannot date this letter from any internal references, but the handwriting is very youthful; it could date to as early as 1914.

  Will Murray makes an interesting case that the song may have been inspired by a similar song contained in Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan or New Canaan (1637);[20] but this is only one of many such songs Lovecraft may have been familiar with, and his letter suggests that he was attempting to imitate a Georgian (not a Jacobean) drinking song. Accordingly, a perhaps more likelier source (if one is to be sought) may be a song included in Sheridan’s School for Scandal (1777), which we know Lovecraft to have read (he owned an 1874 edition of Sheridan’s Works):

  Here’s to the maiden of bashful fifteen;

  Here’s to the widow of fifty;

  Here’s to the flaunting extravagant quean,

  And here’s to the housewife that’s thrifty.

  Chorus. Let the toast pass,—

  Drink to the lass,

  I’ll warrant she’ll prove an excuse for a glass.[21]

  William Fulwiler is, however, undoubtedly correct in pointing out some other literary influences on “The Tomb.”[22] The use of the name Hyde is a clear tip of the hat to Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, suggesting that both works involve a double. The theme of psychic possession—used again and again by Lovecraft—is in this instance very likely derived from Poe’s “Ligeia,” in which a man’s dead wife insidiously possesses the spirit of his new wife to such a degree that the latter actually takes on the physical appearance of the former.

  In spite of any borrowings, “The Tomb” is an admirable piece of work for a twenty-seven-year-old who had not written a line of fiction in nine years. Lovecraft himself retained a fondness for it, a significant fact in itself given his later repudiations of much his early work. Its brooding atmosphere, its mingling of horror and pathos, the subtlety of its supernatural manifestations, the psychological probing of the narrator, and the hilarious drinking song that does not quite shatter the atmosphere of the story make “The Tomb” a surprising success.

  “Dagon” is also a commendable tale, although it is different in almost every way from its predecessor. Here we are also dealing with an individual whose hold on sanity does not appear firm: he is about to kill himself after writing his account because he has no more money for the morphine that prevents him from thinking of what he has experienced. A supercargo on a vessel during the Great War, this unnamed first-person narrator is captured by a German sea-raider but manages to escape five days later in a boat. As he drifts in the sea, encountering no land or other ship, he lapses into despair as to whether he will ever be rescued. One night he falls asleep, and awakes to find himself half-sucked in “a slimy expanse of hellish black mire which extended about me in monotonous undulations as far as I could see”; evidently there had been an upheaval of some subterranean land mass while he slept. In a few days the mud dries, permitting the narrator to walk along its vast expanse. He aims for a hummock far in the distance, and when finally attaining it finds himself looking down into “an immeasurable pit or canyon.” Climbing down the side of the canyon, he notices a “vast and singular object” in the distance: it is a gigantic monolith “whose massive bulk had known the workmanship and perhaps the worship of living and thinking creatures.”

  Stunned by the awareness that such a civilisation existed unknown to human science, the narrator explores the monolith, finding repellent marine bas-reliefs and inscriptions on it. The figures depicted on it are highly anomalous: “Grotesque beyond the imagination of a Poe or a Bulwer, they were damnably human in general outline despite webbed hands and feet, shockingly wide and flabby lips, glassy, bulging eyes, and other features less pleasant to recall.” But a still greater shock is coming to the narrator, for now a living creature emerges from the waves: “Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds.” The narrator concludes: “I think I went mad then.”

  Fleeing, he somehow finds himself in a San Francisco hospital, having been rescued by an American ship. But his life is shattered; he cannot forget what he has seen, and morphine is only a temporary palliative. He is concluding his narrative when he suddenly cries out: “God, that hand! The window! The window!”

  In spite of the rough similarity of the opening—a clearly deranged (or, at the very least, disturbed) individual telling his story after the fact—there is much less psychological analysis of the narrator of “Dagon” than there is of Jervas Dudley of “The Tomb.” This is because it is essential to establish the fundamental rationality of the narrator prior to his encounter with the monster, for it not only inspires our confidence in the veracity of his account but also suggests that some genuinely horrific event (not merely a dream or hallucination) has led him to drugs and contemplated suicide. “Dagon” is the first of many tales in which knowledge in itself can cause mental disturbance. As the narrator remarks poignantly at the end:

  I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may at this very moment be crawling and floundering on its slimy bed, worshipping their ancient stone idols and carving their own detestable likenesses on submarine obelisks of water-soaked granite. I dream of a day when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind—of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium.

  True, there is potential danger from attacks by this alien race, but it is the simple knowledge of the race’s existence that has unhinged the narrator. One should not, of course, hastily conclude that Lovecraft was somehow hostile to knowledge itself—a ridiculous assumption for one who so ardently pursued the life of the mind himself. Instead, it is the weakness of our psychological state that is at issue: “All rationalism tends to minimise the value and importance of life, and to decrease the sum total of human happiness. In many cases the truth may cause suicidal or nearly suicidal depression.”[23] Lest one think that Lovecraft is placing too much value on the power of truth to affect the emotions, it should be noted that the above remark was made in the context of a discussion on religion, and he went on to maintain that the truth, as he saw it (i.e., the absence of a God governing the cosmos), could well cause irreparable harm to those who could not accept such a fact. Evidence suggests that he is correct on this point.

  In “Dagon” the truth that so affects the narrator is the suddenly revealed existence, not merely of a single hideous monstrosity, but of an entire alien civilisation that had once dwelt literally on the underside of the world. As Matthew H. Onderdonk long ago remarked, the true horror of the tale is “the terrible and acknowledged antiquity of the earth and man’s tenuous sinecure thereon.”[24] Onderdonk is right to see this is the central theme in all Lovecraft’s work, and it would achieve deeper and more exhaustive expression in a dozen or more of his later tales.

  Some features of the plot are worth examining. Our credulity is strained at the outset by two implausible occurrences: first, the ease with which the narrator escapes from the Germans (he tries to explain it by remarking that at that time “the ocean forces of the Hun had not completely sunk to their later degradation; so that . . . we . . . were treated with all the fairness and consideration due us as naval prisoners”); and secondly, the fact that the oceanic upheaval occurs while the narrator is asleep and fails to awaken hi
m. But these are minor points. One critical issue is the very end of the tale: what, if anything, does the narrator see? Has the monster who made obeisances at the monolith come to pursue him? The idea that such a monster could walk down the streets of San Francisco and somehow know where the narrator is must surely be regarded as utterly preposterous; and yet, some readers evidently believe that the narrator’s vision is genuine. But we are surely to understand that the narrator is hallucinating here. Passages from two letters may lend support to this view. In August 1917, a month after writing the story, he wrote: “Both [‘The Tomb’ and ‘Dagon’] are analyses of strange monomania, involving hallucinations of the most hideous sort.”[25] The only hallucination in “Dagon” is the concluding vision of the monster outside the window. (The “hallucinations” in “The Tomb” presumably refer to the narrator’s seeming participation in events in the eighteenth century while possessed by his ancestor.) In 1930 Lovecraft wrote: “In ‘Dagon’ I shewed a horror that may appear, but that has not yet made any effort to do so.”[26] Surely he would not have made this remark if he wished us to understand that the monster actually emerged from his slimy bed.

  I am not wholly clear what the connexion with the Philistine fish-god Dagon is meant to be. Lovecraft cites the god by name toward the end of the story, but we are left to draw our own conclusions. Later Dagon appears as a figure in Lovecraft’s pseudomythology, but whether he is to be literally identified with the Philistine god is certainly open to doubt.

  “Dagon” is remarkable merely for its contrast in tone, theme, and setting from “The Tomb.” Lovecraft, the eighteenth-century fossil, has found inspiration in the great cataclysm—World War I—going on across the sea, and it is perhaps no accident that the story was written only a month or two after American forces actually entered the conflict. If the general stylistic influence of Poe is still evident, then we are nevertheless facing a substantially updated Poe, in a story whose density of idiom is by no means to be equated with archaism of idiom. Indeed, the mention of the Piltdown man—“discovered” as recently as 1912—foreshadows what would become a hallmark of Lovecraft’s fiction: its scientific contemporaneousness. We will find that he would on occasion revise a story at the last moment in order to be as up to date on the scientific veracity of his tale as he could be. Ultimately, this sort of realism became a central component in Lovecraft’s theory of the weird, and also led to his effecting a union between the supernatural tale and the nascent field of science fiction. “Dagon” itself could be considered proto-science-fiction in that the phenomena of the tale do not so much defy as expand our conceptions of reality.

  On the whole, “Dagon” is a substantial bit of work. It broaches a number of themes that Lovecraft would develop in later tales, and its tense, forward-driving narration glosses over implausibilities and leads to a hypnotic and cataclysmic conclusion. A poignant moment occurs when the narrator flees after seeing the monster: “I believe I sang a great deal, and laughed oddly when I was unable to sing.” Rarely has Lovecraft so concisely captured the unnerving effects of a cataclysmic revelation. “Dagon” was also a tale for which Lovecraft long retained a fondness; in this case, too, his approval was justified.

  Lovecraft notes that “Dagon” was at least in part inspired by a dream. John Ravenor Bullen, writing in the Transatlantic Circulator about the story, noted: “We are told that [the narrator] crawled into the stranded boat (which lay grounded some distance away). Could he, half-sucked into mire, crawl to his boat?” Lovecraft responded: “. . . the hero-victim is half-sucked into the mire, yet he does crawl! He pulls himself along in the detestable ooze, tenaciously though it cling to him. I know, for I dreamed that whole hideous crawl, and can yet feel the ooze sucking me down!” (“The Defence Reopens!,” 1921). Lovecraft does not make clear how much of the plot of “Dagon” was already in the dream.

  As is, however, fitting for a tale set in the contemporary world, there may also be contemporary literary influences on the story. William Fulwiler[27] is probably correct in sensing the general influence of Irvin S. Cobb’s “Fishhead”—a tale of a loathsome fishlike human being who haunts an isolated lake, and a tale that Lovecraft praised in a letter to the editor when it appeared in the Argosy on January 11, 1913—although that story’s influence on a later work by Lovecraft is still more evident. Fulwiler also points to some other works appearing in the All-Story—Edgar Rice Burroughs’s At the Earth’s Core and Pellucidar; Victor Rousseau’s The Sea Demons—that involve underground realms or anthropomorphic amphibians; but I am less certain of the direct influence of these tales on Lovecraft’s.

  “The Tomb” was accepted by W. Paul Cook for the Vagrant as early as the middle of June 1917; Lovecraft thought it would appear around December, but it did not.[28] He then thought it might appear in Cook’s Monadnock Monthly[29] around 1919 or 1920, but it did not appear there either. The story was only published in the Vagrant for March 1922. “Dagon” had been accepted by the amateur journal, the Phoenician (edited by James Mather Mosely),[30] but did not appear there. It was published, as we have seen, in the Vagrant for November 1919.

  Around 1923 Lovecraft showed “Dagon” to Clark Ashton Smith, who in turn passed it on to his friend and mentor George Sterling. Sterling, while liking the tale, thought the ending needed pepping up a bit, so recommended that the monolith topple over and kill the monster. This piece of advice, Lovecraft wrote in a letter, “makes me feel that poets should stick to their sonneteering . . .”[31]

  Both “The Tomb” and “Dagon” are, as we shall see, the nuclei of other and still better tales by Lovecraft: the former is the ultimate origin of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927), and the latter was writ large in “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931). This is a phenomenon we shall find repeatedly in his fictional work. A case could be made that Lovecraft conceived—or, more precisely, executed—only a relatively small number of different plots or scenarios and spent much of his career reworking and refining them. Even if this is the case, we ought to be grateful that in the end he did refine the plots so that many of them achieved transcendent levels of expression.

  A third work of fiction presumably written in 1917 has frequently been overlooked. “A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson” appeared in the United Amateur for September 1917 under the pseudonym “Humphry Littlewit, Esq.”—one of the few instances in which Lovecraft published a story under a pseudonym. Even if, as is likely, it was written not long before publication, it could still conceivably have been written even before “The Tomb” and “Dagon”; the United Amateur was, however, often late, appearing a month or two after its cover date. In any event, this work has no doubt been ignored simply because it is so singular; and yet, it ranks as one of Lovecraft’s finest comic stories.

  “A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson” is not, of course, a weird tale, unless one interprets its premise—that the narrator is entering his 228th year, having been born on August 20, 1690—very literally. Lovecraft/Littlewit goes on to provide some familiar and not-so-familiar “reminiscences” of the Great Cham of Letters and of his literary circle—Boswell, Goldsmith, Gibbon, and others—all written in the most flawless re-creation of eighteenth-century English that I have ever read. Most of the information is clearly derived from Boswell’s Life and from Johnson’s own works. Lovecraft owned an impressive array of the latter, including the Idler and Rambler, the Lives of the Poets, Rasselas, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, and a 12th (1802) edition of the Dictionary.

  The piece is a delight from beginning to end. Clearly Lovecraft was having fun with what had by now become an endless refrain amongst amateurs that he was two centuries out of date. Lovecraft boldly plays upon this notion:

  Tho’ many of my readers have at times observ’d and remark’d a Sort of antique Flow in my Stile of Writing, it hath pleased me to pass amongst the Members of this Generation as a young Man, giving out the Fiction that I was born in 1890, in America. I am now,
however, resolv’d to unburthen myself of a secret which I have hitherto kept thro’ Dread of Incredulity; and to impart to the Publick a true Knowledge of my long years, in order to gratifie their taste for authentick Information of an Age with whose famous Personages I was on familiar Terms.

  Littlewit is the author of a periodical paper, the Londoner, like Johnson’s Rambler, Idler, and Adventurer, and—like Lovecraft—he has a reputation for revising the poetry of others. When Boswell, “a little the worse for Wine,” attempts to lampoon Littlewit with a squib, the latter chides Boswell that “he shou’d not try to pasquinade the Source of his Poesy.” This leads to one of the most delightful touches in the whole piece, one that only those familiar with the Life of Johnson would understand. Johnson shows Littlewit a wretched little poem written by a servant on the marriage of the Duke of Leeds:

  When the Duke of Leeds shall marry’d be

  To a fine young Lady of high Quality

  How happy will that Gentlewoman be

  In his Grace of Leeds’ good Company.

  This poem actually appears in the Life of Johnson as an instance of how Johnson “retained in his memory very slight and trivial, as well as important things.”[32] What does not appear is Littlewit’s revision of the poem:

  When Gallant LEEDS auspiciously shall wed

  The virtuous Fair, of antient Lineage bred,

  How must the Maid rejoice with conscious Pride

  To win so great an Husband to her Side!

  This, of course, is Lovecraft’s own emendation of the eighteenth-century doggerel. It is competent, but Johnson is right to note: “Sir, you have straightened out the Feet, but you have put neither Wit nor Poetry into the Lines.”

  “A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson” is endlessly refreshing, and only the later stories “Sweet Ermengarde” and “Ibid” can match it for deft comic touches. It certainly dynamites the myth that Lovecraft had no sense of humour or took himself too seriously, and its perfect Georgianism makes one wonder whether he wasn’t correct after all in stating that “I am probably the only living person to whom the ancient 18th century idiom is actually a prose and poetic mother-tongue.”[33] And it may not be so clearly separable from Lovecraft’s other fiction as one might imagine: does it not play, as “The Tomb” does, on Lovecraft’s quite sincere longing to drift insensibly back into the eighteenth century? And does it not too embody what Lovecraft, in “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” held to be the dominant theme in all his weird work—“conflict with time”?

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