I am providence the life.., p.55

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 55


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

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  “The Other Gods” is a little more interesting in that it establishes explicit links with other of Lovecraft’s Dunsanian tales. The mention of the Pnakotic Manuscripts ties the story to the pre-Dunsanian “Polaris”; the mention of Ulthar connects with “The Cats of Ulthar,” as does the character Atal, who had already appeared in that story as an innkeeper’s son. This sort of thing had in fact been happening all along in these tales: “The Quest of Iranon” made passing mention of Lomar (“Polaris”) and to Thraa, Ilarnek, and Kadatheron (cited in “The Doom That Came to Sarnath”). The only tales exempt from this type of interconnexion are “The White Ship” (clearly an allegory), “The Tree” (set in ancient Greece), and “Celephaïs,” where the distinction between the real world of Surrey and the realm of Celephaïs (a product of Kuranes’ imagination) is at the heart of the story.

  What this seems to suggest is that the Dunsanian tales (now including “Polaris”) occupy a single imagined realm; but it should be pointed out that this realm is systematically and consistently presented as being situated not in a “dream-world” (there are no dream-stories among these works except, in a special way, “Polaris” and “Celephaïs”) but in the distant past of the earth. I have already pointed out that the reference in “Polaris” to “Six and twenty thousand years” dates that story to 24,000 B.C. Other Dunsanian tales follow this pattern: Ib (in “The Doom That Came to Sarnath”) stood “when the world was young”; “The Other Gods,” by mentioning Lomar and Ulthar, incorporates the latter (and by extension the entire story “The Cats of Ulthar”) into the earth’s prehistory; and “The Quest of Iranon,” by mentioning Lomar in conjunction with the cities named in “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” does the same (recall also the final sentence of “The Quest of Iranon”: “That night something of youth and beauty died in the elder world” ).

  Some of this interconnectedness may have been inspired by Dunsany’s example, although even in these early tales Lovecraft carries it to far greater lengths than Dunsany ever did. The Gods of Pegana and Time and the Gods are generally set in the realm of Pegana, but no other of Dunsany’s works are. “Idle Days on the Yann” has two sequels, “The Shop in Go-by Street” and “The Avenger of Perdóndaris”; “The Hashish Man” is a lame sequel to “Bethmoora”; but this is all the cross-referencing that exists in Dunsany’s work.

  Lovecraft’s non-Dunsanian stories, from as early as “The Nameless City” (1921), similarly refer to sites and artifacts from the Dunsanian stories, and in such a way as to suggest their existence in the distant past. This whole schema, however, becomes confused and even paradoxical when Lovecraft writes The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, whose very title proclaims it to be a dream-fantasy.

  For now it is of interest to realise the degree to which Lovecraft’s stories are already becoming intertextually related, a phenomenon that would continue with his later stories. It is, to be sure, unusual for an author to be so self-referential, and there is certainly no doubt about the thematic or philosophical unity of all Lovecraft’s work, from fiction to essays to poetry to letters; but it does not strike me as helpful to regard all his tales as interconnected on the level of plot—which they manifestly are not—or even in their glancing and frequently insignificant borrowings of names, entities, and characters. Nevertheless, it is a singular phenomenon that will require further analysis.

  What, then, did Lovecraft learn from Dunsany? The answer may not be immediately evident, since it took several years for the Dunsany influence to be assimilated, and some of the most interesting and important aspects of the influence are manifested in tales that bear no superficial resemblance to Dunsany. For now, however, one lesson can be summed up in Lovecraft’s somewhat simple-minded characterisation in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”: “Beauty rather than terror is the keynote of Dunsany’s work.” Whereas, with the exceptions of “Polaris” and such non-weird ventures as “A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson,” Lovecraft’s experiments in fiction up to 1919 had been entirely within the realm of supernatural horror, he was now able to diversify his fictional palette with tales of languorous beauty, delicacy, and pathos. To be sure, horror is present as well; but the fantastic settings of the tales, even given the assumption that they are occurring in the earth’s prehistory, causes the horror to seem more remote, less immediately threatening.

  In this sense a remark made as early as March 1920 may stand as Lovecraft’s most perceptive account of Dunsany’s influence on him: “The flight of imagination, and the delineation of pastoral or natural beauty, can be accomplished as well in prose as in verse—often better. It is this lesson which the inimitable Dunsany hath taught me.”[40] This comment was made in a discussion of Lovecraft’s verse writing; and it is no accident that his verse output declined dramatically after 1920. There had been a dichotomy between Lovecraft’s fictional and poetic output ever since he had resumed the writing of stories: how could tales of supernatural horror have any relation to the empty but superficially “pretty” Georgianism of his verse? With the decline of verse writing, that dichotomy disappears—or, at least, narrows—as the quest for pure beauty now finds expression in tales. Is it any wonder, then, that as early as January 1920 Lovecraft is noting that, “since all habits must be broken gradually, I am breaking the poesy habit that way”?[41]

  More to the point, Lovecraft learned from Dunsany how to enunciate his philosophical, aesthetic, and moral conceptions by means of fiction, beyond the simple cosmicism of “Dagon” or “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” The relation of dream and reality—dimly probed in “Polaris”—is treated exhaustively and poignantly in “Celephaïs”; the loss of hope is etched pensively in “The White Ship” and “The Quest of Iranon”; the perfidy of false friendship is the focus of “The Tree.” Lovecraft found Time and the Gods “richly philosophical,”[42] and the whole of Dunsany’s early—and later—work offers simple, affecting parables on fundamental human issues. Lovecraft would in later years express his philosophy in increasingly complex ways as his fiction itself gained in breadth, scope, and richness.

  At the outset it was one particular phase of Dunsany’s philosophy—cosmicism—that most attracted Lovecraft. He would maintain hyperbolically in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” that Dunsany’s “point of view is the most truly cosmic of any held in the literature of any period,” although later he would modify this opinion considerably. What is somewhat strange, therefore, is that Lovecraft’s own imitations are—with the sole exception of “The Other Gods”—not at all cosmic in scope, and rarely involve that interplay of “gods and men” which is so striking a characteristic of Dunsany’s early work. Perhaps Lovecraft felt that this Gods of Pegana style or subject-matter was simply not to be duplicated (in this he was probably right); but what we will discover is that this cosmicism becomes exhibited in Lovecraft’s real-world stories, where the metaphysical and aesthetic implications are very different.

  For it will become evident that Dunsany’s influence extends far beyond Lovecraft’s “Dunsanian” fantasies. We will find many instances of influence in small and large particulars in later tales; and Lovecraft’s remarkable claim that it was Dunsany’s imagined pantheon in The Gods of Pegana that led him to create his own pseudomythology will have to be given consideration at the proper time. In a later chapter I shall also wish to consider Dunsany’s role in what proved to be a significant shift in Lovecraft’s aesthetic stance over the next several years.

  In spite of his own assertions to the contrary, Lovecraft’s “Dunsanian” fantasies are far more than mechanical pastiches of a revered master: they reveal considerable originality of conception while being only superficially derived from Dunsany. It is true that Lovecraft might never have written these tales had he not had Dunsany’s example at hand; but he was, at this early stage, an author searching for things of his own to say, and in Dunsany’s style and manner he merely found suggestive ways to say them. Interestingly, Dunsany himself came to this conclusion: when Lovecraft’s wor
k was posthumously published in book form, Dunsany came upon it and confessed that he had “an odd interest in Lovecraft’s work because in the few tales of his I have read I found that he was writing in my style, entirely originally & without in any way borrowing from me, & yet with my style & largely my material.”[43] Lovecraft would have been grateful for the acknowledgement.

  For the time being, however, Dunsany, more than Poe, was Lovecraft’s “God of Fiction.” He would write an interesting, but not notably perceptive, lecture, “Lord Dunsany and His Work,” in late 1922; as early as May 1920, when “Literary Composition” was published in the United Amateur, he would single out Dunsany and Bierce as models of short story technique; and in 1921 he would complain that “Dunsany has met with nothing but coldness or lukewarm praise” (“The Defence Reopens!”). Lovecraft would, in fact, be indirectly responsible for the revival of Dunsany’s work in the 1970s: his paean to Dunsany in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” caused August Derleth to take note of his work and to sign up the Irish writer for an early Arkham House title (The Fourth Book of Jorkens, 1948), which in turn led to efforts by Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Lin Carter to resurrect Dunsany’s early work. Dunsany is still vastly underappreciated, and both the Irish and the fantasy communities appear either uninterested in or intimidated by him; but the richness and substance of his entire work, early and late, would seem to single him out for study and appreciation. A Dunsany renaissance has yet to occur, and one can only hope that it may one day do so, even if on Lovecraft’s coattails.[44]

  12. A Stranger in This Century

  (1919–1921 [III])

  During this period Lovecraft of course did not cease to write tales of supernatural horror, and a number of these display his increasing grasp of short story technique; some of them are also rather good in their own right. One of the most interesting of these, at least in terms of its genesis, is “The Statement of Randolph Carter.” It is well known that this story is—or was claimed by Lovecraft to be—an almost literal transcript of a dream Lovecraft had, probably in early December 1919, in which he and Samuel Loveman make a fateful trip to an ancient cemetery and Loveman suffers some horrible but mysterious fate after he descends alone into a crypt. The story purports to be a kind of affidavit given to the police by Randolph Carter (Lovecraft) concerning the disappearance of Harley Warren (Loveman).

  We have three separate phenomena to deal with here: 1) the dream itself; 2) a letter to the Gallomo (the correspondence cycle, analogous to the Kleicomolo, between Alfred Galpin, Lovecraft, and Maurice W. Moe) of December 11, 1919, in which Lovecraft recounts the dream;[1] and 3) the finished tale, written later in December. Only the last two, of course, are recoverable. This point is important because it is already evident in the letter that Lovecraft has begun to fashion the dream creatively so that it results in an effective and suspenseful narrative, with its powerful climactic last line (“YOU FOOL, LOVEMAN IS DEAD!” in the letter; “YOU FOOL, WARREN IS DEAD!” in the story). To what degree, then, the letter diverges from the dream it is now impossible to say; and all we can do is to study the suggestive similarities and differences between the letter and the story.

  One of the most obvious changes, as noted above, is that of the names of the characters: H. P. Lovecraft and Samuel Loveman become Randolph Carter and Harley Warren. This change, however, must be taken in conjunction with another possible, but not certain, change—a change of setting. Both the letter and the story are remarkably vague in the actual location of the events of the narrative. In the letter Lovecraft suggests, but does not explicitly declare, that the dream occurred in some old New England cemetery: writing to two Midwesterners, Lovecraft states, “I suppose no Wisconsinite can picture such a thing—but we have them in New-England; horrible old places where the slate stones are graven with odd letters and grotesque designs such as a skull and crossbones.” Later in the letter he remarks that “my tale ‘The Tomb’ . . . was inspired by one of these places”; “The Tomb” clearly is set in New England, but nothing in the letter clearly commits the dream to this setting.

  In “The Statement of Randolph Carter” mention is made of the “Gainsville [sic] pike” and “Big Cypress Swamp”; these are the only topographical sites mentioned in the story. It is here that the names of the characters gain some importance, for I have now been convinced by the arguments of James Turner[2] that the tale takes place in Florida: Lovecraft seems to have misspelled the name of the well-known city of Gainesville, and cypress swamps are certainly more common in the South than in New England. If we may draw upon evidence of later stories, we can note that in “The Silver Key” (1926) Harley Warren is referred to as “a man in the South,” while in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (1932–33) he is called a “South Carolina mystic.” Recall that Loveman had for part of the war been stationed at Camp Gordon, Georgia, so perhaps he described certain features of the local terrain to Lovecraft in letters.

  The name Randolph Carter, however, offers ambiguous evidence. There certainly were Carters in New England, and Lovecraft was from an early age familiar with John Carter, founder of Providence’s first newspaper in 1762. Lovecraft at this time probably already knew (as he declares in a letter of 1929) that John Carter himself came from the celebrated Virginia Carters; he goes on to add here that “This transposition of a Virginia line to New England always affected my fancy strongly—hence my frequently recurrent fictional character ‘Randolph Carter.’”[3] This might lead one to believe that “The Statement of Randolph Carter” is set in New England: it is undeniable that all the other Randolph Carter tales (“The Unnamable” [1923], “The Silver Key” [1926], The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath [1926–27], “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”) are set entirely or in part in New England. In these later tales, of course, Carter becomes a resident of Boston. But Lovecraft is ordinarily quite explicit in declaring the New England locality of his tales—even “The Tomb,” the most nebulously situated of these, contains references to “New England dialect,” “Boston gentry,” and the like—and the absence of any such references in “The Statement of Randolph Carter” is telling. Of course, Lovecraft clearly wished to retain some atmosphere of the dream—Carter’s testimony is full of gaps and lapses of memory, as if he himself were in a dream—so that clear topographical specification may have been undesirable.

  There are, of course, many details—and even points of language—common to the letter and the story. The dream itself, Lovecraft declares, had been inspired by a lengthy discussion of weird fiction, as Loveman had been recommending many books and authors (Bierce among them?) not familiar to Lovecraft. The correspondence between Loveman and Lovecraft for this period has, unfortunately, not come to light, so that we have no way of gauging the tenor of this discussion. In any event, Lovecraft in the letter declares complete ignorance of the purpose of the cemetery visit: “We were, for some terrible yet unknown reason, in a very strange and very ancient cemetery . . . He [Loveman] seemed to know exactly what he was about to do, and I also had an idea—though I cannot now remember what it was!” The letter does declare that in the dream Loveman had acquired some secret knowledge from “some rare old books,” adding parenthetically: “Loveman, you may know, has a vast library of rare first editions and other treasures precious to the bibliophile’s heart.” Harley Warren is similarly endowed (Carter speaks of “his vast collection of strange, rare books on forbidden subjects”), but in the story Lovecraft feels it necessary to provide at least some motivation for the graveyard trek: “I remember how I shuddered at his facial expression on the night before the awful happening, when he talked so incessantly of his theory, why certain corpses never decay, but rest firm and fat in their tombs for a thousand years.”

  Carter declares that this knowledge had been gained from a “fiend-inspired book which . . . he carried in his pocket out of the world.” Many have believed this book to be the Necronomicon, Lovecraft’s celebrated mythical book of forbidden lore, but it is very
unlikely that this is the book in question. Carter declares that he had read every book in Warren’s library in the languages known to him; this must mean that Carter is at least versed in the common languages (Latin, Greek, French, German, English), and he even mentions that some books were in Arabic. But of the “fiend-inspired book” Carter declares that it was “written in characters whose like I never saw elsewhere,” which suggests that the book was not in Arabic or any other common language; later Carter states that the book came from India. Since, according to Lovecraft’s later testimony, the Necronomicon exists only in Arabic, Greek, Latin, and English, Warren’s book cannot be that volume.

  The degree to which Lovecraft drew upon the letter (which he probably recalled from memory) for the story is very evident by comparison of a passage in the two documents relating to the first sight of the cemetery:

  Such was the scene of my dream—a hideous hollow whose surface was covered with a coarse, repulsive sort of long grass, above which peeped the shocking stones and markers of decaying slate. In a hillside were several old tombs whose facades were in the last stages of decrepitude. I had an odd idea that no living thing had trodden that ground for many centuries till Loveman and I arrived.

  The place was an ancient cemetery; so ancient that I trembled at the manifold signs of immemorial years. It was in a deep, damp hollow, overgrown with rank grass, moss, and curious creeping weeds, and filled with a vague stench which my idle fancy associated absurdly with rotting stone. On every hand were the signs of neglect and decrepitude, and I seemed haunted by the notion that Warren and I were the first living creatures to invade a lethal silence of centuries.

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