I am providence the life.., p.53

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 53


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

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  The fundamental message of “The White Ship” is the folly of abandoning the Epicurean goal of ataraxia, tranquillity (interpreted as the absence of pain). Sona-Nyl is such a state, and by forsaking it Basil Elton brings upon his head a justified doom—not death, but sadness and discontent. The non-existence of Cathuria is anticipated by the land of Thalarion: this realm embodies all those “mysteries that man has striven in vain to fathom,” and therein “walk only daemons and mad things that are no longer men”; such mysteries are not meant to be penetrated, and the hope of penetrating them (Cathuria is the Land of Hope) is both vain and foolish. Elton compounds his folly by egotism: as he approaches the basalt pillars of the West, he fancies that “there came the notes of singer and lutanist; sweeter than the sweetest songs of Sona-Nyl, and sounding mine own praises.”

  It is worth pointing out that “The White Ship” is not a dream-fantasy. Both Dunsany’s early tales and Lovecraft’s Dunsanian imitations are carelessly referred to as dream-stories, but only a few by either author can be so designated. “Idle Days on the Yann” is one of them: the narrator tells his ship-captain that he comes “from Ireland, which is of Europe,” feeling that this laborious circumlocution is necessary on the chance that the crew have not heard of such a place; but it is of no use: “the captain and all the sailors laughed, for they said, ‘There is no such place in all the land of dreams.’”[20] But in most of Dunsany’s stories, there is no clear distinction between dream and reality: the fantasy realm of Pegana is the “real” world, for there is no other. We will also find that this is the case in most of Lovecraft’s tales; if anything, Lovecraft follows up dim suggestions in Dunsany that these fantastic realms have a temporal priority to the “real” world—i.e., that they existed in the distant past of the known world. “Polaris” already makes this clear. In “The White Ship” we do not know where the North Point lighthouse is, but the implication is that it exists in the real world; and yet, the realms visited by the White Ship are so patently symbolic that no suggestion of their actual existence is made, or is even required by the logic of the tale.

  “The White Ship” was first published in the United Amateur for November 1919. Alfred Galpin, chairman of the Department of Public Criticism, gave a warm reception to the story, commending Lovecraft’s turn to fiction-writing in general (“his natural trend is leading him toward more and more appropriate paths”) and the story in particular (“The lover of dream literature will find all he might long for in the carefully sustained poetry of language, the simple narration, and the profound inner harmonies of ‘The White Ship’”). Galpin concludes: “If this fickle devotion to other gods will subserve ultimately to the finding of Mr. Lovecaft’s own original voice, it will sustain a purpose which will mean something to wider fields than amateur journalism.”[21]

  I wish to study “The Street” (Wolverine, December 1920) here for two reasons, even though it is probably the single worst tale Lovecraft ever wrote. Firstly, it was written late in 1919, sometime after “The White Ship”;[22] and secondly, it is just possible that the tale was inspired at least indirectly by some of Dunsany’s own war parables, particularly those in Tales of War. The story is only marginally weird, and it in fact proves to be is a transparent and crude story of racism. It opens laboriously and ponderously: “There be those who say that things and places have souls, and there be those who say they have not; I dare not say, myself, but I will tell of The Street.”

  It is clear that this Street is in New England; for the “men of strength and honour” who built it were “good, valiant men of our blood who had come from the Blessed Isles across the sea.” These were “grave men in conical hats” who had “bonneted wives and sober children” and enough “courage and goodness” to “subdue the forest and till the fields.” Two wars came; after the first, there were no more Indians, and after the second “they furled the Old Flag and put up a new Banner of Stripes and Stars.” After this, however, things become ominous; for there are “strange puffings and shrieks” from the river, and “the air was not quite so pure as before”; but, reassuringly, “the spirit of the place had not changed.” But now come “days of evil,” a time when “many who had known The Street of old knew it no more; and many knew it, who had not known it before.” The houses fall into decay, the trees are all gone, and “cheap, ugly new buildings” go up. Another war comes, but by this time “only fear and hatred and ignorance” brood over the Street because of all the “swarthy and sinister” people who now dwell in it. There are now such unheard-of places as Petrovitch’s Bakery, the Rifkin School of Modern Economics, and the Liberty Café.

  There develops a rumour that the houses “contained the leaders of a vast band of terrorists,” who on a designated day are to initiate an “orgy of slaughter for the extermination of America and of all the fine old traditions which The Street had loved”; this revolution is to occur, picturesquely, on the fourth of July. But a miracle occurs: “For without warning, in one of the small hours beyond midnight, all the ravages of the years and the storms and the worms came to a tremendous climax; and after the crash there was nothing left standing in The Street save two ancient chimneys and part of a stout brick wall. Nor did anything that had been alive come alive from the ruins.” I guess this proves that streets have souls after all.

  Lovecraft supplies the genesis of the story in a letter:

  The Boston police mutiny of last year is what prompted that attempt—the magnitude and significance of such an act appalled me. Last fall it was grimly impressive to see Boston without bluecoats, and to watch the musket-bearing State Guardsmen patrolling the streets as though military occupation were in force. They went in pairs, determined-looking and khaki-clad, as if symbols of the strife that lies ahead in civilisation’s struggle with the monster of unrest and bolshevism.[23]

  The Boston police had gone on strike on September 8, 1919, and remained on strike well into October. No doubt it was a very disturbing event, but at this time unionisation and strikes were almost the only option available to the working class for better wages and better working conditions.

  I have gone into this wild, paranoid, racist fantasy in such excruciating detail to show how spectacularly awful Lovecraft can be when riding one of his hobby-horses, in particular his stereotyped lament on the decline of New England at the hands of foreigners. “The Street” is nothing more than a prose version of such early poems as “New-England Fallen” and “On a New-England Village Seen by Moonlight”: there is the same naive glorification of the past, the same attribution of all evils to “strangers” (who seem to have ousted those hardy Anglo-Saxons with surprising ease), and, remarkably, even a gliding over of the devastating economic and social effects of the industrial revolution. Although in late 1920 he expressed a wish to see the tale published professionally,[24] he apparently did not make any such attempt, and eventually he included it among his disavowed tales; but the fact that he allowed it to be published twice in the amateur press (first in the Wolverine and then, just over a year later, in the National Amateur for January 1922), under his own name, suggests that, at least at the time of its writing (however much before its first publication that may have been), Lovecraft was fully prepared to acknowledge this tale and its sentiments as his own.

  Things are very different with “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” the next of Lovecraft’s Dunsanian imitations, written on December 3, 1919. This tale is less philosophically interesting than “The White Ship,” but it too is rather more than a mere pastiche. The narrator tells the story of the land of Mnar, where “ten thousand years ago” stood the stone city of Ib near a vast still lake. Ib was inhabited by “beings not pleasing to behold”: they were “in hue as green as the lake and the mists that rise above it . . . they had bulging eyes, pouting, flabby lips, and curious ears, and were without voice.” Many aeons later new folk came to Mnar and founded the city of Sarnath; these were the first human beings of the region, “dark shepherd folk with their fleecy flocks.” They l
oathed the creatures of Ib and destroyed both the town and the inhabitants, preserving only the “sea-green stone idol chiselled in the likeness of Bokrug, the water-lizard.” After this Sarnath flourished greatly, becoming the “wonder of the world and the pride of all mankind.” Every year was a festival commemorating the destruction of Ib, and the thousandth year of this festival was to be of exceptional lavishness. But during the feasting and celebrating Sarnath is overrun by “a horde of indescribable green voiceless things with bulging eyes, pouting, flabby lips, and curious ears.” Sarnath is destroyed.

  In this rather elementary tale of vengeance the borrowings from Dunsany are all in externals. Lovecraft thought he had come by the name Sarnath independently, but maintained that he later found it in a story by Dunsany; this is not, however, the case. He may have been thinking of Sardathrion, the city mentioned repeatedly in the title story of Dunsany’s Time and the Gods. Sarnath is also a real city in India, but Lovecraft was probably not aware of the fact. The green idol Bokrug is reminiscent of the green jade gods of Dunsany’s magnificent play The Gods of the Mountain (in Five Plays). Mention of a throne “wrought of one piece of ivory, though no man lives who knows whence so vast a piece could have come” is an echo of a celebrated passage in “Idle Days on the Yann” (noted by Lovecraft in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”) of an ivory gate “carved out of one solid piece!”[25] The style of “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” is also only superficially Dunsanian, and in fact reveals the degree to which Lovecraft (like many others) failed to understand the true sources of Dunsany’s effectiveness as a prose-poet. The descriptions of Sarnath allow Lovecraft to unleash a lush, bejewelled style that is actually not Dunsanian in essence: “Many were the pillars of the palaces, all of tinted marble, and carven into designs of surpassing beauty. And in most of the palaces the floors were mosaics of beryl and lapis-lazuli and sardonyx and carbuncle and other choice materials, so disposed that the beholder might fancy himself walking over beds of the rarest flowers.” It never seems to have occurred to Lovecraft that Dunsany achieved his most striking effects not through dense passages like this—which are more reminiscent of Wilde’s fairy tales—but through a staggeringly bold use of metaphor. Consider that quixotic quest by King Karnith Zo and his army to lay siege to Time:

  But as the feet of the foremost touched the edge of the hill Time hurled five years against them, and the years passed over their heads and the army still came on, an army of older men. But the slope seemed steeper to the King and to every man in his army, and they breathed more heavily. And Time summoned up more years, and one by one he hurled them at Karnith Zo and at all his men. And the knees of the army stiffened, and the beards grew and turned grey . . .[26]

  This is the sort of thing Lovecraft almost never managed in his Dunsanian imitations.

  But “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” has other virtues. Simple as the moral here is, it can readily be seen that Lovecraft is portraying the doom of Sarnath as well deserved on account of its citizens’ race prejudice against the inhabitants of Ib (“with their marvelling was mixed hate, for they thought it not meet that beings of such aspect should walk about the world of men at dusk”) and their greed (Sarnath was founded “at a spot where precious metals were found in the earth”). Sarnath furthermore becomes increasingly artificial in its design, aping the natural world but in fact repudiating it. Each house in Sarnath has a “crystal lakelet,” parodying the actual “vast still lake” where Sarnath had consigned the ruins of Ib. The gardens of Sarnath defy the seasons: “In summer the gardens were cooled with fresh odorous breezes skilfully wafted by fans, and in winter they were heated with concealed fires, so that in those gardens it was always spring.” All this is presented in superficial terms of praise (or, at least, wonder), but in truth it is Sarnath’s excessive wealth, its irrational hatred of Ib, and its corrupt religion, founded upon hate (for the priests of Sarnath “often performed the very ancient and very secret rite in detestation of Bokrug”), that bring about its doom.

  Lovecraft also makes it abundantly clear that the setting of the tale is the primitive real world, not an imaginary realm or dream-world. Ib was founded “when the world was young,” but we know little of its inhabitants because man “knows but little of the very ancient living things.” At the very end we learn that “adventurous young men of yellow hair and blue eyes, who are no kin to the men of Mnar” enter the region, suggesting a racial succession of some kind. Most of Lovecraft’s Dunsanian tales will follow this pattern.

  “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” first appeared in the Scottish amateur journal the Scot (edited by Gavin T. McColl) for June 1920. McColl, living in Dundee, was the only Scottish member of the UAPA at this time. Several years earlier Lovecraft had written to McColl praising his journal (a portion of his letter had been published in the Scot for March 1916), and no doubt he wished to do all he could to foster transatlantic amateur activity.

  “The Terrible Old Man” (written on January 28, 1920) is not generally considered a Dunsanian story, and indeed it is not in the sense of being a tale set in an imaginary or ancient realm. We are here very clearly situated in contemporary New England, but the tale nevertheless is likely derived from some of Dunsany’s work. It opens ponderously:

  It was the design of Angelo Ricci and Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva to call on the Terrible Old Man. This old man dwells all alone in a very ancient house on Water Street near the sea, and is reputed to be both exceedingly rich and exceedingly feeble; which forms a situation very attractive to men of the profession of Messrs. Ricci, Czanek, and Silva, for that profession was nothing less dignified than robbery.

  The Terrible Old Man dwells in Kingsport, a city somewhere in New England. In the “far-off days of his unremembered youth” he was a sea-captain, and seems to have a vast collection of ancient Spanish gold and silver pieces. He has now become very eccentric, appearing to spend hours speaking to an array of bottles from which a small piece of lead is suspended from a string. On the night of the planned robbery Ricci and Silva enter the Terrible Old Man’s house while Czanek waits outside. Screams are heard from the house, but there is no sign of the two robbers; and Czanek wonders whether his colleagues were forced to kill the old man and make a laborious search through his house for the treasure. But then the Terrible Old Man appears at the doorway, “leaning quietly on his knotted cane and smiling hideously.” Later three unidentifiable bodies are found washed in by the tide.

  The heavy-handed sarcasm with which “The Terrible Old Man” is told recalls many of the tales in The Book of Wonder, which similarly deal with owlish gravity of attempted robberies which usually end badly for the perpetrators. Consider the opening of “The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men”: “When the nomads came to El Lola they had no more songs, and the question of stealing the golden box arose in all its magnitude. On the one hand, many had sought the golden box, the receptacle (as the Aethiopians know) of poems of fabulous value; and their doom is still the common talk of Arabia.”[27] Although this tale is still set in an imaginary realm, Dunsany had already allowed the real world to enter into his work as early as “The Highwayman” and “The Kith of the Elf-Folk” (in The Sword of Welleran). In “The Terrible Old Man” it is not clear where exactly the imaginary city of Kingsport is; it was only later, in “The Festival” (1923), that it was situated in Massachusetts and identified with the town of Marblehead. Here it is stated only that the three robbers in question “were not of Kingsport blood; they were of that new and heterogeneous alien stock which lies outside the charmed circle of New-England life and traditions.”

  This comment itself brings to the fore the issue of racism in this story. The remark is certainly double-edged—it can be considered as much a satire on New England Yankee social exclusiveness as an attack on foreigners—but the racist overtones cannot be ignored. Ricci, Czanek, and Silva each represent one of the three leading ethnic minorities in Providence—Italian, Polish, and Portuguese. It can scarcely be dou
bted that Lovecraft derived some measure of satisfaction from the dispatching of these three criminals.

  Is the tale actually supernatural? There is certainly reason to think so. The Terrible Old Man may appear feeble, but he is clearly endowed with vast strength to be able to subdue two presumably young and vigorous thieves. Whence did he derive it? This is never made clear, but the suggestion is that the Terrible Old Man is not merely superhuman in strength but also preternaturally aged: the fact that he possesses only very old Spanish money implies that he may actually be hundreds of years old—especially since “no one can remember when he was young.” And then there are those bottles with the pendulums: the Terrible Old Man has given them names such as Jack, Scar-Face, and Long Tom; and when he talks to them, “the little lead pendulum within makes certain definite vibrations as if in answer.” What else can these things be but the souls of his old shipmates, whom he (or some other force) has trapped in the bottles?

  “The Terrible Old Man” is the shortest of Lovecraft’s horror tales (exclusive of his prose-poems), and—in spite of one critic’s attempt to read it in mythic and psychoanalytical terms[28]—really does not amount to much. It first appeared in C. W. Smith’s Tryout for July 1921.

  The next of Lovecraft’s “Dunsanian” tales is “The Tree,” written sometime in the first half of 1920: in chronologies of Lovecraft’s stories it is customarily listed after “The Terrible Old Man” (January 28) and before “The Cats of Ulthar” (June 14). The story concerns a contest proposed by the “Tyrant of Syracuse” between the two great sculptors, Kalos and Musides, to carve a statue of Tyché for the Tyrant’s city. The two artists are the closest of friends, but their lives are very different: whereas Musides “revelled by night amidst the urban gaieties of Tegea,” Kalos remains home in quiet contemplation. The two begin working on their respective statues; but Kalos gradually takes ill, and in spite of Musides’ constant nursing eventually dies. Musides wins the contest by default, but both he and his lovely statue are weirdly destroyed when a strange olive tree growing out of Kalos’ tomb suddenly falls upon Musides’ residence.

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