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I am providence the life.., p.40

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 40


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

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  It would be nearly a year before Lovecraft would write another tale—a fact that suggests that fiction-writing was still very far from the forefront of his mind. The result was “Polaris,” a very short tale whose mere existence has given rise to some interesting speculation. In this story an unnamed narrator appears to have a dream in which he is initially a disembodied spirit contemplating some seemingly mythical realm, the land of Lomar, whose principal city Olathoë is threatened with attack from the Inutos, “squat, hellish, yellow fiends.” In a subsequent “dream” the narrator learns that he has a body, and is one of the Lomarians. He is “feeble and given to strange faintings when subjected to stress and hardships,” so is denied a place in the actual army of defenders; but he is given the important task of manning the watch-tower of Thapnen, since “my eyes were the keenest of the city.” Unfortunately, at the critical moment Polaris, the Pole Star, winks down at him and casts a spell so that he falls asleep; he strives to wake up, and finds that when he does so he is in a room through whose window he sees “the horrible swaying trees of a dream-swamp” (i.e., his “waking” life). He convinces himself that “I am still dreaming,” and vainly tries to wake up, but is unable to do so.

  There is much poignancy in this tale, which appears to describe a man who has confused the “real” and the dream worlds; but in fact the story is not a dream-fantasy at all but rather—like “The Tomb”—a case of psychic possession by a distant ancestor. This is the meaning of the poem inserted in the tale, which the narrator fancies the Pole Star speaks to him:

  Slumber, watcher, till the spheres

  Six and twenty thousand years

  Have revolv’d, and I return

  To the spot where now I burn.

  This appears to be what the ancients called the “great year”—the period it would take for the constellations to resume their positions after an entire circuit of the heavens—although in antiquity the figure was thought to be about 15,000 years. In other words, the man’s spirit has gone back twenty-six thousand years and identified with the spirit of his ancestor. This means that Lomar is postulated not as a dream-realm but as a truly existing land in the prehistory of the earth; moreover, it is situated somewhere in the Arctic, since the narrative suggests that modern-day Eskimos are the descendants of the Inutos. (The coined term “Inutos” is clearly meant to allude to Inuit, the native term for what Westerners call Eskimos. That term is the plural of Inuk.) This point is of significance only because many of Lovecraft’s fantasies have been taken as dream-stories, when in fact only “Celephaïs” (1920) and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1926–27) can be so regarded—and even these with significant qualifications.

  What makes “Polaris” remarkable, however, is its apparently uncanny echo of the work of Lord Dunsany, whom Lovecraft would not read for more than a year. Lovecraft himself commented on the resemblance in 1927:

  “Polaris” is rather interesting in that I wrote it in 1918, before I had ever read a word of Lord Dunsany’s. Some find it hard to believe this, but I can give not only assurance but absolute proof that it is so. It is simply a case of similar types of vision facing the unknown, and harbouring similar stores of mythic and historical lore. Hence the parallelism in atmosphere, artificial nomenclature, treatment of the dream theme, etc.[34]

  I do not wish entirely to downplay this parallelism—which really is remarkable—but it may be possible to adduce other factors that led to the apparent anomaly. In the first place, purely from the point of view of style, both Dunsany and Lovecraft were clearly influenced by Poe, although Lovecraft the more obviously; but Dunsany admits in his autobiography that he too came under Poe’s spell at an early age: “One day at Cheam I was introduced to Poe’s Tales, from the school library, and I read them all; and the haunted desolation and weird gloom of the misty mid-region of Weir remained for many years something that seemed to me more eerie than anything earth had . . .”[35] Whereas Lovecraft was influenced principally by Poe’s tales of pure horror—“Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Black Cat”—Dunsany may have found more inspiration in Poe’s fantasies and prose-poems (“Silence—a Fable”; “Shadow—a Parable”; “The Masque of the Red Death”), which may have worked in tandem with his reading of the King James Bible to produce that sonorous, bejewelled manner associated with his early work. Lovecraft himself remarks in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” that these latter stories by Poe “employ[ed] that archaic and Orientalised style with jewelled phrase, quasi-Biblical repetition, and recurrent burthen” and that they had left their mark upon such “later writers [as] Oscar Wilde and Lord Dunsany.” But clearly Lovecraft also found Poe’s prose-poems affecting, and traces of their influence can be found in his own work.

  What has gone relatively unnoticed is the fact that the immediate inspiration for “Polaris” is not a literary work by Poe or anyone else but a philosophical discussion in which Lovecraft was engaged with Maurice W. Moe. In a letter to Moe of May 1918 Lovecraft describes at length a dream he had just had, a dream that is manifestly the nucleus for “Polaris”:

  Several nights ago I had a strange dream of a strange city—a city of many palaces and gilded domes, lying in a hollow betwixt ranges of grey, horrible hills. . . . I was, as I said, aware of this city visually. I was in it and around it. But certainly I had no corporeal existence. . . . I recall a lively curiosity at the scene, and a tormenting struggle to recall its identity; for I felt that I had once known it well, and that if I could remember, I should be carried back to a very remote period—many thousand years, when something vaguely horrible had happened. Once I was almost on the verge of realisation, and was frantic with fear at the prospect, though I did not know what it was that I should recall. But here I awaked . . . I have related this in detail because it impressed me very vividly.[36]

  It is likely that the actual story was written shortly afterwards. Many features of the story match the account of the dream: the unbodied state of the narrator (“At first content to view the scene as an all-observant uncorporeal presence . . .”), the connexion with the distant past, the fear of some nameless realisation (“Vainly did I struggle with my drowsiness, seeking to connect these strange words with some lore of the skies which I had learnt from the Pnakotic manuscripts”).

  Much of the letter to Moe is a polemic on religion. What Lovecraft is keen on establishing is the “distinction between dream life and real life, between appearances and actualities.” Moe was maintaining that belief in religion is useful for social and moral order regardless of the question of its truth or falsity. Lovecraft, after relating his dream, replies: “. . . according to your pragmatism that dream was as real as my presence at this table, pen in hand! If the truth or falsity of our beliefs and impressions be immaterial, then I am, or was, actually and indisputably an unbodied spirit hovering over a very singular, very silent, and very ancient city somewhere between grey, dead hills.” This reductio ad absurdum is reflected a little impishly in the story:

  . . . I now desired to define my relation to [the scene], and to speak my mind amongst the grave men who conversed each day in the public squares. I said to myself, “This is no dream, for by what means can I prove the greater reality of that other life in the house of stone and brick south of the sinister swamp and the cemetery and the low hillock, where the Pole Star peers into my north window each night?”

  The fact that the narrator at the end seems permanently confused between the real and the waking world (actually his present life and his past incarnation) may be a final tweaking of Moe’s nose on the need to maintain such distinctions in real life.

  “Polaris” is a quiet little triumph of prose-poetry, its incantatory rhythm and delicate pathos sustaining it in spite of its brevity. Critics have carped on a possible plot defect—why would the narrator, given to spells of fainting, be appointed the sole sentry in the watch-tower in spite of his keen eyes?—but only hard-headed literalists would see this as a significant flaw. The tale was
first published in the one and only issue of Alfred Galpin’s amateur journal, the Philosopher (December 1920).

  The one other work of fiction that can definitively—or perhaps not so definitively—be dated to 1918 is one that we do not have. In a letter to Rheinhart Kleiner of June 27, 1918, Lovecraft speaks of his manuscript magazine, Hesperia:

  My Hesperia will be critical & educational in object, though I am “sugar-coating” the first number by “printing” a conclusion of the serial The Mystery of Murdon Grange. . . . It is outwardly done on the patchwork plan as before—each chapter bears one of my different aliases—Ward Phillips—Ames Dorrance Rowley—L. Theobald, &c. It was rather a good diversion to write it. Really, I think I could have been a passable dime novelist if I had been trained in that noble calling![37]

  A mention of what appears to be a second issue of Hesperia occurs in a letter to Long in 1921: “I will send . . . two papers containing collaborated work which you have not seen before. Hesperia is a manuscript magazine which I circulate in Great Britain.”[38] This second remark in some ways clarifies, and in other ways confuses, the first. All we know is that Hesperia was, in the parlance of amateur journalism, a “manuscript magazine”—a magazine typed on the typewriter[39] and sent on a definite round of circulation—distributed among amateur journalists in the United Kingdom. Arthur Harris, the Welshman who printed Lovecraft’s The Crime of Crimes, was clearly on the circulation list, for an issue of Interesting Items contains the only known mention of Hesperia by someone other than Lovecraft: “MS. magazines have appeared again. . . . The second received was ‘Hesperia’ edited by H. P. Lovecraft of America, a noteworthy production, well-typewritten. ‘The Green Meadow’ is a fascinating story and the poems and editorial make up an excellent issue.”[40] This at least tells us that “The Green Meadow” (a collaborative tale written by Lovecraft and Winifred Virginia Jackson) was among the contents of what was probably a second issue, distributed in 1921. Of the first issue, distributed in 1918, Lovecraft remarks to Harris: “Its leading feature will be an able reply by Mr [Ernest Lionel] McKeag to the sociological article by Mr. Temple.”[41] This shows that Hesperia included material by writers other than Lovecraft.

  Matters have been confused still further by the recent discovery of one segment of “The Mystery of Murdon Grange”—but it is not by Lovecraft. The Christmas 1917 issue of Spindrift, edited by Ernest Lionel McKeag of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, contains a segment of what appears to be a round-robin story entitled “The Mystery of Murdon Grange,” signed “B[enjamin] Winskill,” a British amateur of the period. Moreover, Lovecraft himself, in the unsigned “Department of Public Criticism” columns of January, March, and May 1918, discusses the work, noting that the first instalment (in an unspecified issue) was written by Joseph Parks, the second (published in the December 1917 issue) by Beryl Mappin, the third by Winskill (the one in the Christmas 1917 issue), and the fourth (in the January 1918) issue by McKeag. All this leads one to think that Lovecraft did in fact write only the “conclusion” to the story, probably published in the summer or fall of 1918. But if this conclusion appeared in Spindrift, why does Lovecraft say it will appear in Hesperia, along with other segments written under his own pseudonym? Is it possible that he did not like the way the story was evolving under its actual authors, and that he tried to do better? The matter still remains a considerable mystery.

  Another item that may date to 1918 is a genuine collaboration, “The Green Meadow.” This story, written with Winifred Virginia Jackson, was not published until it appeared in the long-delayed final issue (Spring 1927) of the Vagrant; but Lovecraft, in speaking of this story and another collaboration with Jackson, “The Crawling Chaos,” says in a letter that the dream by Jackson that inspired the latter tale “occurred in the early part of 1919” and that the “Green Meadow” dream was “of earlier date,”[42] so that the dream itself may date to 1918, even if the actual writing of the story took place a little later. Indeed, Lovecraft’s confession that he did not complete the story until a few months after his mother “broke down”[43] (i.e., her hospitalisation in March 1919) suggests that the full narrative was not finished until May or June 1919. Lovecraft goes on to note that Jackson’s dream “was exceptionally singular in that I had one exactly like it myself—save that mine did not extend so far. It was only when I had related my dream that Miss J. related the similar and more fully developed one. The opening paragraph of ‘The Green Meadow’ was written for my own dream, but after hearing the other, I incorporated it into the tale which I developed therefrom.”[44] Elsewhere Lovecraft says that Jackson supplied “a map” of the scene of “The Green Meadow,” and that he added the “quasi-realistic . . . introduction from my own imagination.” [45]

  “The Green Meadow” is, quite frankly, a pretty sorry excuse for a story, its meandering vagueness robbing it of any cumulative power. The story was published as “Translated by Elizabeth Neville Berkeley and Lewis Theobald, Jun.,” the respective pseudonyms of the collaborators. The ponderous introduction added by Lovecraft states that the document presented in the body of the text was found in a notebook embedded in a meteorite that landed in the sea near the coast of Maine. This notebook was made of some unearthly substance and the text was “Greek of the purest classical quality.” The idea, evidently (as Lovecraft explains in a letter), is that this is the “narrative of an ancient Greek philosopher who had escaped from the earth and landed on some other planet”,[46] although there are simply not enough clues in the text to arrive at such a conclusion.

  The narrative itself tells of a person who finds himself (or, conceivably, herself) on a peninsula near a rushing stream, not knowing who he is and how he got there. The peninsula breaks off its land mass and floats down the river, which is gradually wearing away the soil of the newly created island. The narrator sees in the distance a green meadow, “which affected me oddly,” whatever that means. His island is approaching the green meadow, and gradually he hears a weird singing on it; but as he approaches close enough to see “the source of the chanting,” he suddenly experiences a cataclysmic revelation: “therein was revealed the hideous solution of all which had puzzled me.” But after a few coy hints the text becomes illegible, since it was conveniently announced at the beginning that during the examination of the notebook “several pages, mostly at the conclusion of the narrative, were blurred to the point of utter effacement before being read . . .”

  I am not at all clear what Lovecraft and Jackson were intending with this story. It seems as if they were merely trying to capture the impressions engendered by their curiously similar dreams, but they could not be bothered to make an actual story out of them, so that all we have here is a nebulous sketch or a study in mood. The prose (all Lovecraft’s, surely, since he announces that “in prose technique she fails, hence can utilise story ideas only in collaboration with some technician”[47]) is actually rather good—smooth, hypnotic, and just on this side of being purple—but the story goes nowhere, and fails to be clear at exactly the moments it needs to be. To choose only one example, the narrator at one point looks behind him and sees “weird and terrible things”: “in the sky dark vaporous forms hovered fantastically . . .” This won’t do; no reader can visualise what those forms could be from such a description.

  Lovecraft did learn better in early 1919, when he wrote “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” This is the story of Joe Slater, a denizen of the Catskill Mountains who in the year 1900 has been interred in a mental institution because of the horrible murder of another man. Slater seems clearly mad, filled with strange cosmic visions which his “debased patois” is unable to articulate coherently. The narrator, an interne at the asylum, takes a special interest in Slater because he feels that there is something “beyond my comprehension” in Slater’s wild dreams and fancies. He contrives a “cosmic ‘radio’” by which he hopes to be able to establish mental communication with Slater. After many fruitless attempts the sought-for communication finally occurs, prefaced b
y weird music and visions of spectacular beauty: Slater’s body has in fact been occupied all his life by an extraterrestrial entity which for some reason has a burning desire for revenge against the star Algol (the Daemon-Star). With the impending death of Slater, the entity will now be free to exact the vengeance it has always desired. Sure enough, on February 22, 1901, come reports of a celebrated nova near Algol.

  There are some powerful conceptions in this story, but on the whole it is marred by stilted prose, confusion in critical points of plot and conception, and a vicious class-consciousness. The first puzzle we have to examine is why Lovecraft chose the setting he did. He at this time had no first-hand knowledge of the Catskill Mountains; indeed, he never would do so, although in later years he would explore the colonial areas of New Paltz and Hurley considerably south of the Catskills. He probably first heard about the area from the aged amateur poet Jonathan E. Hoag (1831–1927), who had come to Lovecraft’s notice around 1916 and for whom, beginning in 1918, Lovecraft wrote annual birthday tributes. Hoag lived in Troy, New York, and Lovecraft’s birthday poems appeared simultaneously in various amateur papers and in Hoag’s hometown newspaper, the Troy Times. But Lovecraft himself supplies the source of the story when he notes that it was “written spontaneously after reading an account of some Catskill Mountain degenerates in a N.Y. Tribune article on the New York State Constabulary.”[48] The article in question is “How Our State Police Have Spurred Their Way to Fame” by F. F. Van de Water, published in the New York Tribune for April 27, 1919. This extensive feature article actually mentions a backwoods family named Slater or Slahter (Lovecraft reflects the variant spelling by noting: “His name, as given on the records, was Joe Slater, or Slaader”).

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