I am providence the life.., p.41

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 41


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

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  But the real reason, perhaps, that Lovecraft chose this area is that it allowed him to express a snobbishness based simultaneously upon class, region, and intellect. Slater’s wild imaginings are regarded as so anomalous to this backwoodsman that they require a supernatural explanation. Lovecraft paints a harsh picture of the locale and its inhabitants:

  [Slater’s] appearance was one of the typical denizen of the Catskill Mountain region; one of those strange, repellent scions of a primitive colonial peasant stock whose isolation for nearly three centuries in the hilly fastnesses of a little-travelled countryside has caused them to sink to a kind of barbaric degeneracy, rather than advance with their more fortunately placed brethren of the thickly settled districts. Among these odd folk, who correspond exactly to the decadent element of “white trash” in the South, law and morals are non-existent; and their general mental status is probably below that of any other section of the native American people.

  For all Lovecraft’s pretensions to a quasi-rural upbringing, the above is the scorn of a city man for crude and ignorant countryfolk. Slater is, for Lovecraft, scarcely human: when he dies he displays “repulsively rotten fangs” like some wild animal.

  Then there is the problem of the extraterrestrial entity occupying Slater. Lovecraft never provides any rationale for why this entity finds itself trapped in Slater’s body to begin with. The message delivered to the narrator by this entity merely states that “He has been my torment and diurnal prison for forty-two of your terrestrial years” and that it has been prevented from exacting the revenge it seeks “by bodily encumbrances.” But why this should be so is never explained, and Lovecraft does not seem to feel that it requires explanation.

  Lovecraft concludes the story with a sober citation from Garrett P. Serviss: “On February 22, 1901, a marvellous new star was discovered by Dr. Anderson, of Edinburgh, not very far from Algol. No star had been visible at that point before. Within twenty-four hours the stranger had become so bright that it outshone Capella. In a week or two it had visibly faded, and in the course of a few months it was hardly discernible with the naked eye.” This is taken verbatim from Serviss’s Astronomy with the Naked Eye,[49] which Lovecraft owned in his library; and it of course accounts for why the tale is set in 1900–01. This nova really was a remarkable event in modern astronomy, as the most significant previous novas had been sighted as far back as 1054 and 1572.[50] The discovery just predates Lovecraft’s boyhood interest in astronomy, but no doubt it was still being much discussed in the first decade of the twentieth century. But commentators have pointed out that, since Algol is many light-years away from the earth, the light from the nova originated well before 1901.

  The tale does have a few virtues, even if they merely anticipate some features of Lovecraft’s later tales. Still more than “Dagon,” this is Lovecraft’s first authentically “cosmic” story, using the entire universe as a backdrop for what appears to be merely a tale of a sordid crime. The “brother of light” who communicates with the narrator states at the end: “‘We shall meet again—perhaps in the shining mists of Orion’s Sword, perhaps on a bleak plateau in prehistoric Asia. Perhaps in unremembered dreams tonight; perhaps in some other form an aeon hence, when the solar system shall have been swept away.’” That concluding future perfect, already rare in English prose, adds a archaic stateliness strangely in keeping with the cosmicism of the conception.

  The dream motif connects the tale to both “The Tomb” and “Polaris”; for what we have here again are not dreams as such but visions of some other realm of entity. Hence the narrator’s rumination at the outset: “I have frequently wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong.” While most dreams are “no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences,” there are some “whose immundane and ethereal character permits of no ordinary interpretation”; perhaps in these cases we are “sojourning in another and uncorporeal life of far different nature from the life we know.” And the narrator of “Polaris” would agree with the narrator’s conclusion that “Sometimes I believe this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.”

  “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” is Lovecraft’s first quasi-science-fiction tale—“quasi” because the field of science fiction cannot be said to have been in existence at this time, and would not be for another decade or so. But the fact that the extraterrestrial entity in the tale cannot meaningfully be termed supernatural makes this story an important foreshadowing of those later works that abandon the supernatural altogether for what Matthew H. Onderdonk termed the “supernormal.”[51]

  The question of literary influence is worth some attention. Lovecraft notes[52] that Samuel Loveman introduced him to the work of Ambrose Bierce in 1919, and there is indeed a story in Can Such Things Be? (1893) entitled “Beyond the Wall”; but I think this is a coincidental similarity, for Bierce’s tale is a conventional ghost story that bears no resemblance at all to Lovecraft’s. Instead, I posit the influence of Jack London’s Before Adam (1906), although I have no evidence that Lovecraft read this work. (Lovecraft did, however, have London’s Star Rover in his library.) This novel is a fascinating account of hereditary memory, whereby a man from the modern age has dreams of the life of his remote ancestor in primitive times. At the very outset of the novel London’s character remarks: “Nor . . . did any of my human kind ever break through the wall of my sleep.”[53] Here the expression is used with exactly the same connotation as Lovecraft’s. Later London’s narrator declares:

  . . . the first law of dreaming . . . [is that] in one’s dreams one sees only what he has seen in his waking life, or combinations of the things he has seen in his waking life. But all my dreams violated this law. In my dreams I never saw anything of which I had knowledge in my waking life. My dream life and my waking life were lives apart, with not one thing in common save myself.[54]

  In effect, Lovecraft is presenting a mirror-image of Before Adam: whereas London’s narrator is a modern (civilised) man who has visions of a primitive past, Joe Slater is in effect a primitive human being whose visions, as Lovecraft declares, are such as “only a superior or even exceptional brain could conceive.”

  “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” appeared in the amateur journal Pine Cones (edited by John Clinton Pryor) for October 1919. Pine Cones was a mimeographed magazine, and the physical appearance of the story—with its text typed out on a typewriter and its title crudely drawn by hand at the top—is not very aesthetically pleasing, but the story was printed surprisingly accurately. Lovecraft—as he would do for many of his early tales—revised it slightly for later appearances.

  Lovecraft continued his fictional experimentation with “Memory” (United Co-operative, June 1919), a very slight prose-poem that betrays the influence of Poe’s own experiments in prose-poetry. Once again there is uncertainty on the exact date of writing, but it was probably written not long before its first appearance. “Memory” features a Daemon of the Valley who holds a colloquy with “the Genie that haunts the moonbeams” about the previous inhabitants of the valley of Nis, through which the river Than flows. The Genie has forgotten these creatures, but the Daemon declares:

  “I am Memory, and am wise in lore of the past, but I too am old. These beings were like the waters of the river Than, not to be understood. Their deeds I recall not, for they were but of the moment. Their aspect I recall dimly, for it was like to that of the little apes in the trees. Their name I recall clearly, for it rhymed with that of the river. These beings of yesterday were called Man.”

  All this is a trifle obvious, and Lovecraft would later learn to express his cosmicism and his belief in the insignificance of human beings more indirectly. Poe’s influence dominates this very short piece: there is a Demon in Poe’s “Silence—a Fable”; “the valley Nis” is mentioned in Poe’s “The
Valley of Unrest” (whose original title was “The Valley Nis,”[55] although Lovecraft may not have been aware of the fact); and “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion,” which features a dialogue like that of Lovecraft’s tale, speaks of the destruction of all earth life by means of a fire caused by a comet passing near the earth. Nevertheless, as Lance Arney points out, this is Lovecraft’s first tale involving, not merely the insignificance of mankind, but its extinction;[56] and the fact that mankind has left so few traces of itself upon its extinction is as potent an expression of its insignificance as we are likely to find even in Lovecraft’s later tales.

  A tale that was never published in Lovecraft’s lifetime is “The Transition of Juan Romero,” dated on the manuscript September 16, 1919. It is the curious story of an incident occurring in 1894 at the Norton Mine (somewhere in the Southwest, one imagines, although Lovecraft is not specific as to the actual location). The narrator is an Englishman who because of nameless “calamities” has migrated from his native land (after spending many years in India) to work as a common labourer in America. At the Norton Mine he becomes friendly with a Mexican peon named Juan Romero, who exhibits a strange fascination for the Hindu ring he owns. One day it is decided to use dynamite to blast a cavity for further mining; but the result is the opening up of an immeasurable cavern that cannot be sounded. That night a storm gathers, but beyond the roar of the wind and rain there is another sound, which the frightened Romero can only deem “el ritmo de la tierra—THAT THROB DOWN IN THE GROUND!” The narrator also hears it—a huge rhythmical pounding in the newly opened abyss. Possessed by some fatality, they both descend down ladders into the cavern; Romero then dashes off ahead of the narrator, only to plunge into a further abyss, screaming hideously. The narrator cautiously peers over the edge, sees something—“but God! I dare not tell you what I saw!”—and flees back to the camp. That morning he and Romero are both found in their bunks, Romero dead. Other miners swear that neither of them left their cabin that night. The narrator later discovers that his Hindu ring is missing.

  There are the elements of an interesting tale here, but the execution is confused and unsatisfying. Lovecraft would later claim that his later stories were marred by overexplanation; but, like “The Green Meadow” and a few later tales, “The Transition of Juan Romero” suffers from excessive vagueness. The narrator’s coy refusal to tell what he saw in the abyss makes one think that Lovecraft himself is unsure of what the revelation could have been. In a late letter he advises Duane W. Rimel on a critical point in story-conception: “A sort of general clarification in your own mind (not necessarily to be revealed in toto to the reader) of what is supposed to happen, & why each thing happens as it does, would produce a certain added convincingness worth securing.”[57] In “The Transition of Juan Romero” Lovecraft has apparently failed to follow this recommendation.

  There is some suggestion that Romero is not in fact Mexican but is descended from the Aztecs, a suggestion enhanced by his crying out of the name “Huitzilopotchli” as he descends into the abyss. The narrator remarks of this word: “Later I definitely placed that word in the works of a great historian—and shuddered when the association came to me.” Lovecraft explicitly footnotes Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico, which contains the following passage on the Aztec god:

  At the head of all stood the terrible Huitzilopotchli, the Mexican Mars; although it is doing injustice to the heroic war-god of antiquity to identify him with this sanguinary monster. This was the patron deity of the nation. His fantastic image was loaded with costly ornaments. His temples were the most stately and august of the public edifices; and his altars reeked with the blood of human hecatombs in every city of the empire. Disastrous, indeed, must have been the influence of such a superstition on the character of the people.[58]

  But again, the exact connexion is vague: is Lovecraft suggesting that the Aztec civilisation extended up into the American Southwest? And what is the relation of the Hindu ring? “Somehow I doubt if it was stolen by mortal hands,” the narrator reflects, but it is difficult to know what to make of this.

  The portrayal of Romero bears some resemblance to that of Joe Slater, but Lovecraft is thankfully less crudely class-conscious here. Although Romero is referred to as “one of a large herd of unkempt Mexicans” working at the mine, the narrator later remarks: “It was not the Castilian conquistador or the American pioneer, but the ancient and noble Aztec, whom imagination called to view when the silent peon would rise in the early morning and gaze in fascination at the sun as it crept above the eastern hills, meanwhile stretching out his arms to the orb as if in the performance of some rite whose nature he did not himself comprehend.” This sounds like Joe Slater, possessed by some intelligence vastly greater than himself, but later the narrator cites Romero’s “untutored but active mind,” and at the end we feel a sympathy for Romero that Lovecraft emphatically denies us in Slater.

  Lovecraft recognised that “The Transition of Juan Romero” was a false start, and he refused to allow it to be published, even in the amateur press. He disavowed it relatively early in life, and it fails to appear on most lists of his stories; he does not even seem to have shown it to anyone until 1932, when R. H. Barlow badgered him into sending him the manuscript so that he could prepare a typescript of it. The story was finally published in Marginalia (1944).

  Steven J. Mariconda has pointed out[59] that the first five surviving weird tales of Lovecraft’s “mature” period—“The Tomb,” “Dagon,” “Polaris,” “The Green Meadow,” and “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”—are all experiments in variety of tone, mood, and setting. If we include “Memory” and “The Transition of Juan Romero”—as different from these stories as they are from each other—then we have still greater diversity. When the two comic stories, “A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson” and “Old Bugs,” are thrown in, then the first nine tales of Lovecraft’s maturity, written over a two-year period, are about as varied as they possibly can be. It is clear that he was testing his own literary powers to see what type of work he wanted to write and what methods would best convey what he wished to convey. The weird tales break down fairly evenly between supernatural realism (“The Tomb,” “Dagon,” “The Transition of Juan Romero”) and fantasy (“Polaris,” “The Green Meadow,” “Memory”), with “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” initiating Lovecraft’s experiments in proto-science-fiction. The thematic links between many of these stories—dream as providing access to other realms of entity; the overwhelming influence of the past upon the present; the insignificance of humanity in the universe and its eventual obliteration from this planet—adumbrate many of the central concerns of Lovecraft’s later fiction. The dominant influence, at least from the point of view of style, is Poe, although only two tales—“The Tomb” and “Memory”—can be said to echo Poe both stylistically and conceptually. Lovecraft was already emerging slowly as a fiction-writer of originality and power.

  But in the fall of 1919 Lovecraft fell under the influence of the Irish fantaisiste Lord Dunsany, and for at least two years would do little but write imitations of his new mentor. In many ways the Dunsany influence was positive, in that it suggested to Lovecraft new ways of conveying his cosmicism and in demonstrating new modes of expression, particularly delicate prose-poetry; but in some ways it was a retarding influence, temporarily derailing that quest for topographical and historical realism which would ultimately be the hallmark of his work. It would take Lovecraft years to assimilate the Dunsany influence, but when at last he did so—having in the meantime encountered such other writers as Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood—he was ready to initiate the most significant and characteristic phase of his writing.

  In this period Lovecraft also learned to express weird conceptions in verse. Whereas up to 1917 his poetry had been wholly Georgian in character, Lovecraft now began to see that poetry could do more than merely recapture the atmosphere of the eighteenth century. The dominant influence on his early weird verse is, of course, Poe; for al
though Lovecraft owned and read the “Graveyard Poets” of the later eighteenth century—James Hervey’s Meditations and Contemplations (1746–47), Edward Young’s Night-Thoughts (1742–45), among others—they do not appear to have influenced him appreciably.

  One spectacular anticipation of his weird verse is a 302-line poem written sometime in 1916,[60] “The Poe-et’s Nightmare.” As it stands, this work is something of a hodgepodge: it is introduced by 72 lines in heroic couplets; the body of the poem, in pentameter blank verse, bears the added title “Aletheia Phrikodes” (“The Frightful Truth”), with a delightful coined phrase in Latin (Omnia risus et omnis pulvis et omnia nihil = “All is laughter, all is dust, all is nothing”); this is then followed by a 38-line conclusion in heroic couplets. The general thrust of the poem is, in fact, a sort of tongue-in-cheek morality, suggested both by the subtitle of the poem itself (“A Fable”) and its epigraph from Terence, Luxus tumultus semper causa est (“Disturbance is always caused by excess”). We are introduced to Lucullus Languish, who is at once a “student of the skies” and a “connoisseur of rarebits and mince pies”; in other words, he longs to write cosmic poetry, but is repeatedly distracted by his ravenous appetite. His name, as R. Boerem has pointed out,[61] is highly appropriate: Lucullus is a clear echo of the Roman general L. Licinius Lucullus, who gained notoriety as a gourmand; while Languish is a tip of the hat to Lydia Languish, the heroine in Sheridan’s The Rivals, who, as Boerem notes, is like Lucullus Languish in being “a romantic of simple-minded display.”

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