I am providence the life.., p.56

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 56


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

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  The letter is already a little overheated; the story is more so. This sort of parallelism can be found throughout the two works, right down to the incessant repetition of “waning crescent moon.” In both letter and story Loveman/Warren and Lovecraft/Carter pause at one particularly ancient sepulchre, lying flat on the ground; Loveman/Warren is unable to pry open the top of the sepulchre by his own spade, so Lovecraft/Carter lends him assistance with his own. An aperture is uncovered, revealing a long flight of steps descending downward, and a miasmal stench wafting from the cavity causes the two momentarily to pause (Lovecraft’s dreams clearly brought every sense organ into play). At this point Loveman/Warren compels Lovecraft/Carter to remain on the surface while the former descends the crypt alone; in both letter and story the justification given is the fragile state of Lovecraft/Carter’s nerves. Although the latter protests, Loveman/Warren is adamant, threatening to cancel the entire enterprise if Lovecraft/Carter proves obdurate. The letter notes that Loveman threatened to bring in one “Dr. Burke” to replace Lovecraft; this detail is omitted from the story. The letter also adds one telling remark made by Loveman that Lovecraft quietly omitted from the story: “‘At any rate, this is no place for anybody who can’t pass an army physical examination.’” Two and a half years after the fact, Lovecraft’s humiliating experience with the R.I.N.G. and the U.S. Army still rankled in his subconscious. But the two protagonists will stay in touch by means of a sort of telephone cable device; as letter and story identically have Loveman/Warren declare, “you see I’ve enough wire here to reach to the centre of the earth and back!” This is, admittedly, a trifle implausible, but by this time the atmosphere of the story has eliminated such concerns.

  As Loveman/Warren descends into the crypt, he begins speaking to Lovecraft/Carter in tones of amazement at what he is seeing. In the story Warren’s exclamations are much elaborated, going on for several italicised paragraphs; but in both letter and story Loveman/Warren soon finds his wonder turning to horror as he encounters some nameless entity which causes him to plead frantically to his companion on the ground above, with chilling colloquialism, “Beat it!” This single expression—repeated frequently in both letter and story—is one of the first instances of Lovecraft’s sloughing off his customarily stately diction for the purpose of augmenting the horror of the situation; it is far more telling than Joe Slater’s crude descriptions of his extraterrestrial possession in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” since these are still expressed generally in the language of the sober narrator. In a very short time Lovecraft would evolve his use of a backwoods New England patois that could evoke the loathsomeness of a scenario far more powerfully than the most adjective-choked purple prose; and this—along with his concomitant adaptation of the prose-poetry of Dunsany—went far in replacing the stiff Johnsonianism of his early work with a much more fluid and wide-ranging prose style.

  The rest of “The Statement of Randolph Carter” is very similar in diction to the letter. Of course, the actual entity that makes the final utterance—in English—is left unexplained: throughout the story Carter merely refers to it melodramatically as “the thing.” The repeated use of this term is itself moderately interesting, in that it suggests a clearly material entity—as opposed to a ghost or spirit—and thereby indirectly confirms Lovecraft’s materialism. There will be those who find the complete silence as to the actual nature of the entity disappointing and even a sort of cop-out; but in the dream Lovecraft clearly had no idea what the entity was, and his similar inconclusiveness in the story is another attempt to preserve for himself the nightmarish qualities of his dream.

  “The Statement of Randolph Carter” remained a favourite of Lovecraft’s throughout his life, perhaps more because it captured a singularly distinctive and memorable dream than because it was a wholly successful weird tale. It first appeared in W. Paul Cook’s Vagrant for May 1920.

  Very shortly after writing “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” Lovecraft initiated a project that would again signal a clear shift in his aesthetic focus from poetry and essays to fiction. It must have been around the very beginning of 1920 that he began his commonplace book; he describes its content and purpose in a brief preface to it written in 1934: “This book consists of ideas, images, & quotations hastily jotted down for possible future use in weird fiction. Very few are actually developed plots—for the most part they are merely suggestions or random impressions designed to set the memory or imagination working. Their sources are various—dreams, things read, casual incidents, idle conceptions, & so on.” To this assessment there is little to add except masses of detail. David E. Schultz, whose annotated edition of the commonplace book is one of the landmarks of Lovecraft scholarship, has shown how virtually every one of the 222 entries in this book played a role in the shaping of Lovecraft’s subsequent fictional output, and even some of his weird poetry. While the sources for some entries are still obscure, enough of them have been elucidated to confirm Lovecraft’s statement as to their variegated nature: very few books, dreams, and personal events failed to leave their mark on Lovecraft’s imagination.

  There has been some debate as to when Lovecraft began keeping his commonplace book. The first reference to it appears to occur in a letter to the Gallomo written some months after the letter in which Lovecraft recorded the dream that inspired “The Statement of Randolph Carter.” August Derleth printed this letter (apparently dating to April 1920) in Dreams and Fancies (1962), but not all of it; in an editorial note he remarks: “In this very long rambling letter . . . Lovecraft makes an intriguing reference to ‘mere dreams’ which he says, he has ‘recorded for future fictional development in my commonplace book.’”[4] There are other references to the commonplace book in letters to Kleiner dated January 23 and February 10, 1920. The first letter declares: “I have lately . . . been collecting ideas and images for subsequent use in fiction. For the first time in my life, I am keeping a ‘commonplace-book’—if that term can be applied to a repository of gruesome and fantastick thoughts.”[5] Since Lovecraft’s previous letter to Kleiner is dated December 27, 1919, one presumes that the commonplace book was begun somewhere between this date and January 23, 1920. The February 10 letter quotes several actual entries from the commonplace book, none of them later than entry 21.

  I have emphasised the likelihood of a very late 1919 or very early 1920 date for the commencement of the commonplace book because Lovecraft himself suggests a date of 1919. This is the date he has written between entries 24 and 25 in the commonplace book itself; but this and other dates were written around 1934 at the urging of R. H. Barlow, who was preparing a transcript of the item. In spite of some remarkable instances of memory of remote events (especially from his childhood), Lovecraft’s memory was by no means infallible, and all the dates he has supplied in the commonplace book must be regarded as tentative and in some cases plainly erroneous. Entries 150 and 151 unquestionably date to 1928, but Lovecraft has dated them to 1926. Entry 6 explicitly derives from Dunsany’s “Idle Days on the Yann”; but it is my belief that this entry was jotted down not when Lovecraft first read that story in A Dreamer’s Tales in September 1919, but when he reread the story in its appearance in Tales of Three Hemispheres, probably in early 1920. That volume was published in November 1919 by John W. Luce & Co.,[6] and Lovecraft does not seem to have read it any earlier than the beginning of the next year. Entry 24 derives from Dunsany’s “A Shop in Go-by Street,” one of the sequels to “Idle Days on the Yann” in Tales of Three Hemispheres. The likelihood is that Lovecraft, having come up with the idea of a commonplace book, wrote many entries in a rush in the first few weeks, then wrote only a handful of entries a year for the remainder of his life.

  In any event, the commonplace book would prove to be a mine of images and impressions upon which Lovecraft would draw for his subsequent fictional work. More significantly, it clearly calls attention to the fact that fiction is now to be his dominant mode of creative expression: we have no commonplace book entries fo
r essays and very few for poetry, and the rapid waning of these two later bodies of his work becomes evident from this point onward.

  Lovecraft certainly seemed to be flexing his fictional muscles in 1920. By March he reported that “I am at present full of various ideas, including a hideous novel to be entitled ‘The Club of the Seven Dreamers.’”[7] There is no other mention of this work in any other letters I have ever seen, and I suspect that the novel was never even begun. Lovecraft was simply not at the stage where he could undertake a novel-length work. Even though we know absolutely nothing about the work, it is possible to make some conjectures regarding it. Perhaps, indeed, it was not intended to be a genuine novel but rather a series of short stories with different narrators—these being the “seven dreamers” of the title. If so, then the conception would be somewhat similar to Poe’s plans for a volume entitled Tales of the Folio Club; in his preface to this volume (first printed in James A. Harrison’s collected edition of Poe [1902]) Poe declares that “The number of the club is limited to eleven.”[8] One may perhaps also suspect the influence of John Osborne Austin’s More Seven Club Tales (1900), a volume about strange happenings in Rhode Island which Lovecraft had in his library. This slim book contains seven stories, each narrated by a different individual, mostly figures from seventeenth-century Rhode Island. Only a few of the tales are genuinely weird, and even these are rather innocuous ghost stories; but Lovecraft may have found the format suggestive.

  At this moment, however, Dunsany was still in the ascendant. Even if we include “The Terrible Old Man,” it would be a half year or more before Lovecraft would write a non-Dunsanian tale of supernatural horror. “The Temple” was written sometime after “The Cats of Ulthar” (June 15, 1920) but before “Celephaïs” (early November), since it is so situated in Lovecraft’s chronologies of his fiction. My guess is that it was written sometime in late summer. At nearly 6000 words it is the longest story Lovecraft had written up to this point, and amidst some painful flaws it reveals several points of interest.

  A German submarine commanded by a Prussian nobleman, Karl Heinrich, Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein, sinks a British freighter; later a dead seaman from the freighter is found clinging to the railing of the submarine, and in his pocket is found a “very odd bit of ivory carved to represent a youth’s head crowned with laurel.” The German crew sleep poorly, have bad dreams, and some think that dead bodies are drifting past the portholes. Some crewmen actually go mad, claiming that a curse has fallen upon them; Altberg-Ehrenstein executes them to restore discipline.

  Some days later an explosion in the engine room cripples the submarine, and still later a general mutiny breaks out, with some sailors further damaging the ship; the commander again executes the culprits. Finally only two men, Altberg-Ehreinstein and Lieutenant Klenze, are left alive. The ship sinks lower and lower toward the bottom of the ocean. Klenze then goes mad, shouting: “He is calling! He is calling! I hear him! We must go!” He voluntarily leaves the ship and plunges into the ocean. As the ship finally reaches the ocean floor, the commander sees a remarkable sight:

  What I saw was an extended and elaborate array of ruined edifices; all of magnificent though unclassified architecture, and in various stages of preservation. Most appeared to be of marble, gleaming whitely in the rays of the searchlight, and the general plan was of a large city at the bottom of a narrow valley, with numerous isolated temples and villas on the steep slopes above.

  “Confronted at last with the Atlantis I had formerly deemed largely a myth,” Altberg-Ehrenstein notices one especially large temple carved out of the solid rock; later he sees that a head sculpted on it is exactly like the figurine taken from the dead British sailor. The commander, finishing his written account of his adventure on August 20, 1917 (Lovecraft’s twenty-seventh birthday), prepares to explore the temple after he sees an anomalous phosphorescence emerging from far within the temple. “So I will carefully don my diving suit and walk boldly up the steps into that primal shrine; that silent secret of unfathomed waters and uncounted years.”

  Like “Dagon,” “The Temple” is aggressively contemporary in its World War I setting; this might have been considered a virtue were it not for the extraordinarily crude and clumsy satire directed against the German commander, who in his first-person account makes himself ridiculous by referring constantly to “our victorious German exploits,” “our great German nation,” “my own German will,” and the like. Why Lovecraft, nearly two years after the war was over, felt the need to carry out this sort of vicious satire is difficult to imagine, especially since the commander actually proves to be quite admirable for his courage and his undaunted facing of the unknown: “Though I knew that death was near, my curiosity was consuming . . .”—a sentiment we will find in many later tales.

  Another serious flaw in the story is that it contains too much supernaturalism. There are too many anomalous phenomena, and they cannot be unified into a coherent pattern: why does the dead British sailor appear to swim away after his hands are pried off the railing? why do a school of dolphins follow the ship to the bottom of the sea and not come up for air? and what do these matters have to do with the undersea city and the temple? Lovecraft seems to have thrown these elements in to increase the general weirdness of the scenario, but their unaccountability dilutes the force of the central weird phenomenon.

  But that central phenomenon—not so much the supposed existence of Atlantis (in which Lovecraft did not believe) as the existence of an entire human civilisation unknown to history—is what redeems “The Temple”: it will become a dominant motif in many of Lovecraft’s later tales, in which both human and extraterrestrial civilisations are found to have existed long before the emergence of known human civilisations, rendering our own physical and cultural supremacy tentative and perhaps transitory. One detail is of consuming interest: the commander notes that the pictorial and architectural art of the undersea city is “of the most phenomenal perfection, largely Hellenic in idea, yet strangely individual. It imparts an impression of terrible antiquity, as though it were the remotest rather than the immediate ancestor of Greek art.” The suggestion is that this civilisation was in fact the ancestor of all Western art, and that our own culture represents a sad decline from the “phenomenal perfection” of this race. That phosphorescence at the end seems to suggest that that race is perhaps not as extinct as the ruined state of the city implies, but Lovecraft in a letter remarks curiously that “the flame that the Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein beheld was a witch-fire lit by spirits many millennia old”;[9] how any reader could ever make this deduction in the utter absence of any textual evidence escapes me.

  Lovecraft seemed to retain a fondness for “The Temple,” but it never appeared in an amateur journal and was first published only in Weird Tales for September 1925. Perhaps its length made amateur publication difficult, since space was always at a premium.

  Another tale of which Lovecraft was justifiably proud is “Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” written some time after “The Temple,” probably no later than autumn. This compact story—notable for its taut, restrained language in contrast to the flamboyance of some of his other early tales—tells of why Sir Arthur Jermyn doused himself in oil and set himself aflame one night. He had come from a venerable but eccentric family. In the eighteenth century Sir Wade Jermyn “was one of the earliest explorers of the Congo region,” but was placed in a madhouse after speaking wildly of “a prehistoric white Congolese civilisation.” He had brought back from the Congo a wife—reportedly the daughter of a Portuguese trader—who was never seen. The offspring of the union were very peculiar both in physiognomy and mentality. In the middle of the nineteenth century a Sir Robert Jermyn killed off nearly his entire family as well as a fellow African explorer who had brought back strange tales (and perhaps other things) from the area of Sir Wade’s explorations.

  Arthur Jermyn seeks to redeem the family name by continuing Sir Wade’s researches and perhaps vindicating
him. Pursuing reports of a white ape who became a goddess in the prehistoric African civilisation, he comes upon the remains of the site in 1912 but finds little confirmation of the story of the white ape. This confirmation is supplied by a Belgian explorer who ships the object to Jermyn House. The hideous rotting thing is found to be wearing a locket containing the Jermyn coat of arms; and what remains of its face bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Arthur Jermyn. When he sees this object, Jermyn douses himself in oil and sets himself aflame.

  This seemingly straightforward story—Sir Wade had married the ape-goddess, whose offspring bore the physical and mental stigmata of the unnatural union—is actually rather more complicated than it seems. Consider the resounding opening utterance, one of the most celebrated passages in Lovecraft’s fiction:

  Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous. Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species—if separate species we be—for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world.

  The critical phrase here is the clause “if separate species we be”: this generalised statement concerning the possibility that human beings may not be entirely “human” is not logically deducible from a single case of miscegenation. But let us return to that “prehistoric white Congolese civilisation” and a later description of it: “the living things that might haunt such a place [were] creatures half of the jungle and half of the impiously aged city—fabulous creatures which even a Pliny might describe with scepticism; things that might have sprung up after the great apes had overrun the dying city with the walls and the pillars, the vaults and the weird carvings.” This, really, is the crux of the story, for what Lovecraft is suggesting is that the inhabitants of this city are not only the “missing link” between ape and human but also the ultimate source for all white civilisation. For someone of Lovecraft’s well-known racialist bent, such a thing would be a horror surpassing any isolated case of miscegenation. Of course, the “white ape” whom Sir Wade marries is not a member of the original white civilisation (which is long extinct), but a product of the mingling of apes with the descendants of this civilisation. How else could the ape be “white”?

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